Archpriest Serafim Gan and Professor Nicholas Ganson
Grains of Wisdom and Piety: A Spiritual Treasury of the Russian Church Abroad (on the 100th Anniversary of Its Founding)
This year, the Russian Church Abroad is celebrating its 100th anniversary under the harsh conditions of the pandemic. Many of the celebrations had to be canceled or limited in scale. One of the global projects, which the current situation should not impede, will be the publication of a book, Grains and Wisdom and Piety from the Reposed Archpastors of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (on the 100th Anniversary of Its Founding). The compilers of the volume – Archpriest Serafim Gan, Chancellor of the Synod of Bishops and rector of St Seraphim Memorial Church (in honor of the reestablishment of unity in the Russian Orthodox Church) in the American town of Sea Cliff, NY, and subdeacon Nicholas Ganson, director of the choir at Holy Epiphany Church in Boston, who is also the grandson of one of the pillars of the Church Abroad Bishop Mitrophan (Znosko-Borovsky) – shared with the readers of pravoslavie.ru the spiritual advice they might find in the upcoming volume.
The books can be ordered at this link: https://www.stinnocentpress.com/collections/rocor-centenary-publications/products/grains-of-wisdom-and-piety
Why did the Russian Church Abroad take on the publication of this book, and how is the book unique?
Nicholas Ganson: With the blessing of Archbishop Peter of Chicago and Mid-America, who chairs the Centenary Committee, charged with organizing the organization of celebrations on the occasion of the 100-year jubilee of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Fr Serafim and I joined this committee and became the compilers of the given volume, which consists of one hundred excerpts from the articles, books, and sermons of our reposed bishops. Of course, first and foremost, in this way we mark the 100th anniversary of our Church; however, this book – which, God willing, will come out in May – gives us an opportunity to devote attention to the spiritual legacy of the Church Abroad.
The compilation will be released simultaneously in Russian and English. With its help, we are trying to share the spiritual wealth of the Church with new generations of Orthodox Christians, who may not be familiar with these pastors. We knew many of them personally; you could say that we grew up in their midst – those who lived in the 1970s to the 1990s. This is a sort of living connection between successive generations and we would very much like for this chain to remain unbroken and that the spiritual treasury of our Church be made available to young people.
Which of the archpastors are quoted in the book, and what role did they play in the life of the Russian Church Abroad?
NG: Fr Serafim and I counted more than 60 reposed bishops of the Russian Church Abroad. Quotations from approximately 40 of them were included in this volume. As for the content, the book is a sort of guidebook in the spiritual life. It answers questions on how an Orthodox Christian should live: how to persist in times of sorrow and difficulty, how to react to off-putting phenomena in society and even church life, how to live alongside our close ones as well as those who might be hostile to us, how to be merciful, how to pray, repent, forgive, and love. In the end, we get an answer to the question of the meaning of fulfillment and how to achieve it.
Fr Serafim Gan: I would say that these are 100 pieces of practical spiritual advice on how to lead a Christian way of life. To me it seems that they reflect the rich spiritual experience possessed by our bishops. Many people who visit us and spend time in our parishes and witness our parish life, note that they find among us a certain cohesion – both among the clergy and laity. I think this became possible thanks to our spiritual leaders who managed to bring everyone together under very challenging circumstances in the emigration. They inspired us to continue carrying the banner of Holy Russia under these circumstances. In my view, the practical spiritual advice found in this book will show not only clergy and laity but also other people the rich experience and spirit of our Church Abroad.
How did these quotations help you personally? During your work on the book, did you find answers to your own spiritual questions?
NG: Contemporary Christians, alas, can become easily distracted from the primary goal of our lives, which is Christ. We are surrounded by a world that, in some ways, is entirely foreign to us; we are surrounded by non-Christian ideologies and an abundance of information from a multitude of sources. It is really easy to accept it all and give in to the ideologies of this world, which are not consonant with Christianity. In this way, these spiritual instructions give us an opportunity to reflect on what is most important – to enliven our spirit, to reflect on whether we are living as Christians. As stated in the preface, the Christian will find in this book a means to contemplation and self-understanding, a source of comfort and inspiration, and instruction on the spiritual life from people who lived not too long ago, encountered the challenges and horrors of modernity without tearing their gaze from Christ, and sowed the seeds of the word of God. This book is a reminder not to tear one’s gaze from Christ.
FSG:As I collected these materials and familiarized myself with the sermons, epistles, and interviews of the hierarchs, who lived through the revolution, civil war, the world wars, wanderings abroad, battling for the preservation of the faith in foreign societies, I saw many quotes which touched me deeply. There were words that I already knew that opened up to me in a new way. I was awed by the words of one of our hierarchs about the mercy of God – how none of us can stand up in the face of God’s truth and justice. For this reason, our only hope is God’s mercy. With the mercy of God, we are able to do things, and through it we are saved, and it knows no boundaries. Many of the excerpts reminded me of human helplessness and the need to humble oneself beneath the powerful Hand of God and to trust in Him: not in oneself or one’s own strength, but to hope on the Lord and entrust oneself to His guidance. This sentiment is very strong in the words of our archpastors, since they themselves lived through exceedingly difficult circumstances and I think that thanks to their trust in the Lord, they were able not only to preserve their flock but also set up the foundations for church life.
NG: In my view, you can find among these quotations deep thoughts for almost anything you could encounter in life. You take offense at someone? Open the book and your will find advice on how you should react. You are lazy in prayer? You will find instructions on how to go about praying. You judge your neighbor? Open the book and you will find how to treat others with understanding.
I was touched to tears by the words of Archbishop Benedict (Bobkovsky, † 1951) of Berlin and Germany, who wrote in his Paschal epistle during the Second World War:
“Amidst the tempest of war, beneath the thunder of powerful weapons and the explosion of all-destructive bombs, to the sound of the moans of the dying on the field of battle, amdist the despair of those abandoning their homes and native lands and journeying into the distant unknown, amidst a sea of tears and sorrow, amidst this worldly chaos, destruction, and horror, resound the joy-filled words ‘Christ is Risen!’ across the whole Christian world and, in response, the no-less-joyful, ‘He is Truly Risen!’”
I am sure, Nicholas, that there was room in this book for your grandfather, Bishop Mitrophan (Znosko-Borovsky). How easy was it, or maybe difficult, to pick out quotations from one so close to you?
NG: Indeed, it was not easy, partly because I am more familiar with the works of Bishop Mitrophan than the writings of other bishops. At first, I had many quotations in mind that might be included in the book; but being a historian, I took an objective view and sought to choose quotes that would resonate not only with his grandson but with all readers. You could say that I took a step back and reread the sermons of Bishops Mitrophan through the same eyes as the writings of other archpastors.
FSG: Bishop Mitrophan has a great many sermons, recollections, articles, including the book In Defense of Truth and works on comparative theology. I think that those fragments that were included in the volume will be of benefit to the contemporary reader.
You had the opportunity to live alongside and interact many of these bishops. How would you characterize them? After all, they encountered a great many challenges – emigration, flights, war – and they managed to carry their Orthodox faith through it all.
FSG: On this point, I can relate the story of my first confession which I can remember, in childhood. I went to confession to Bishop Nektary of Seattle (Kontsevich, †1983). Fear was completely absent in me. It was as if I was going to confession to Santa Claus. First, he looked very much like Santa Claus. Aside from that, he was the embodiment of kindness. It felt good to simply stand next to him. I don’t remember exactly what he said, what instructions he related to me, but I know that it was good to be in his presence, that I felt comfort and warmth. I remember how he visited our youth camp, how he taught, how he swam with us, how he played with us. It was easy to interact with him and one always felt reverence toward him, even when he wasn’t fully vested and standing in church. This feeling of reverence before such an illumined archpastor never left me.
NG: A little episode from my childhood comes to mind, about Bishop Constantine (Essensky, †1996), who was bishop of Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I recall how I served as altar boy with him for the first time during Vigil. I was maybe 7 or 8. At one point, I was left with him in the middle of the church, holding the staff by the cathedra. All the clergy left. One priest went to hear confession on the left kliros and the other, on the right, and I was left with Vladyka, who was anointing believers using cotton with either oil or myrrh from the Iveron Montreal Icon of the Mother of God. At the end, he sent me into the altar to get the small vessel for the cotton. No one was nearby. I saw the vessel on the Holy Table, which as an altar server I was not allowed to touch. I stood to the side, looked at the vessel, and was at a loss for what to do. I couldn’t interrupt confession by calling one of the priests. Making Vladyka wait too long was also not good. All of the sudden, my eyes caught the gaze of the bishop, who showed me to stand in place. Of course, I was rather embarrassed and blushing, but Bishop Constantine returned to the altar, hugged me with a smile and kissed me on the forehead.
Bishop Constantine was a very thin man and struck me as a strict ascetic, but this story confirms that, as a rule, our bishops are capable of humor and smiling. Even those who follow an ascetical lifestyle emanate love and warmth.
FSG: I think that this is the “school” of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the first of our First-Hierarchs of the Russian Church Abroad, who would say that during ordination a priest receives the gift of co-suffering love, and that this gift needs to be cultivated. Vladyka Anthony’s disciples, and those of his successor Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky), managed to combine both personal monastic labor with the labor of pastorship, with this co-suffering love. They all had embracing archpastoral hearts.
What do you think? To what extent have the current priests and parishioners of the Russian Church Abroad managed to fulfill those commandments that were given to them by their pastors, who themselves succeeded in preserving the faith in a foreign land, under conditions much more complicated that those of today?
FSG: Of course, they lived through very difficult conditions and did a great deal. In large part, it is thanks to them that we have an opportunity to continue to build the Church. Maybe the challenges are different today – the problems and the temptations, but we have the opportunity to turn to their spirit. When a person immerses himself in the writing of Holy Fathers, in Holy Scripture, he communes of the spirit of the apostles, the saints, and he thus obtains the mind of Christ and finds paths to solving the problems of the current time in the spirit of the Holy Fathers. I think that if we try to immerse ourselves in the spirit of our hierarchs, then we will be able to continue their service. We pray that the Lord might erect new pillars of His Church, and we know that He will erect them and will always take care of His Church, to give guidance to those who worthily continue His mission. If we make the effort to turn to our past, then we will be able to move forward in the spirit of the hierarchs of the past. As Father George Florovsky said, we need to go forward to the fathers. This book, the first in a series of books that will be devoted to the one-hundredth anniversary of the Church Abroad, has this very goal: that we walk forward in the spirit of our fathers.
I fully support everything Father Serafim said. Each of us needs to work on oneself, and that is the main thing. We are all members of the Church and if every parishioner, every believer, works on oneself and with one’s modest efforts strives for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, it will have an influence on those around us. I am a far cry from that, but each of us should strive. Perhaps this is the greatest thing we can accomplish. We are frequently distracted by things that are of relatively little or no importance, and it’s necessary to focus on what is most important.
Interview conducted by Dmitry Zlodorev