Holy Father Andrii VLASENKO: The ones that want to reach the depths of knowledge, will definitely become believers

Nowadays, as the poetess wrote once, “Insane pace. Time is not our property,” both psy­cho­lo­gists and priests advise to stay alone every once in a while. That is when a person can be themselves and find inner balance. This is better to be done somewhere outside or in the church. Thus, it will be easy for Kyivites to get to the Museum of National Architecture and Life in Ukraine located in Pyrohiv village. This place combines both – churches are “lost” in the pic­turesque scenery. In particular, two of them – Saint Archistratigus Michael Church and Martyr Saint Paraskeva Church. Both belong to Ukrainian Orthodox Chuch of the Kyiv Pat­ri­archa­te. The first one was built in 1600. (Though according to the latest radiocarbon dating research, which was carried out by the experts of National Aca­de­my of Sciences of Ukraine Geo­chemistry Institute, its birthday goes back to 1528!) Anyway, this is the most ancient wooden church of central and eas­tern Ukraine. The second church was built in baroque and is an examp­le of development and fall of Ukrai­nian culture of the 18th cen­tury (the exact date is 1742). Andrii VASYLENKO serves in both of them. By the way, he was a scien­tist at The Paton Electric Welding In­sti­tu­te, and then a secretary and a close friend of His Holiness Pat­riarch of Kyiv and All Rus’-Ukraine Vo­lo­dymyr. Life of Holy Father Andrii is another proof of how unsearchable God’s jud­ge­ments are.

By the way, the priest is very nice to talk to, see for yourselves.

Everyone knows that it is harder for an intellectual to find God – mind always is in conflict with faith...

“Since my mind is not purely of the analytical kind (it is more of synthe­tical), this pro­cess was easy for me to go through. Unlike for some of my parishioners. By the way, I have battled one of them, a Ph.D. in Physics and Mathematics, for quite a long period of time. I gave him certain books to read, quoted Pascal, Niels Bohr, and other outstanding believing scientists.

“There are deeply religious people as well as persistent atheists among mathe-maticians. The thing is that ones study the problems of world order in depth, while others are satisfied with the basic knowledge. But those, who want to reach the depths, so to say, will become believers.”

Father Andrii, is it hard to be a Christian in the 21st century, in the age of information technologies, secularization of many developed countries?

“It has never been an easy job to be a true Christian. It means to choose a different path from the rest of the world, that clings to creature comforts more and more. I have been to different countries: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish... I can say that the hard times have arrived for everyone (exept for Buddists – there is no god in their religion). Even Muslims lose ground. And so do Jews. Jehovists, Wahhabites, Hasidim – are not all of those just paradoxical deviations from God? Neither in the Bible, neither in the Koran, nor in Talmud such horrible intolerance of other religions is cultivated, as it is in those ones. Recompence for sins is God’s prerogative, not human.

“Of course, we are in a better situation. That is why Russia holds on to Ukraine so tightly. We have more parishes than the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan all together. For example, almost 15 million Ukrainians go to church during Easter, while in Russia only 8 million believers do so.

“However, the echo of worldwide processes is tangible here as well, and even in purely church environment. Not so long ago I met an old lady. She walked proudly across the streets of Kyiv carrying the portraits of the last tsar and empress. Let them be saints for her, because they were canonized by Russian Orthodox Church. But is there any place in that old woman’s heart for Christ and the Mother of God? And if you talk about the state of the society in general, such examples are nothing but secularization.

“Each Christian has to always keep in mind Savior’s sad words, that if He comes to our world again, will He find faith here... After Christ, many pro­phets spoke of temples with golden domes that will be empty spi­ri­tually and impossible to attend...”

Apocalypse became one of the themes that is often referred to in art, in cinematography, for example. What is your attitude to such “prophecies”?

“Personally I share the thought that we live in the end times. But they can be stretch­ed. One day for the Almighty is a thousand years for us, as it says in Apostle Peter’s epistle. That is why everyone should be gui­ded by Jesus Christ’s words that nobody knows the day or hour of The End, but our Heavenly Father. Another, a more clear for the majority, prophecy can be used: while the Holy Fire ascends on the Holy Sepulchre, antichrist will not be born. All other prophecies should be treated with caution.”

Father Andrii, please name the questions that worry people the most, using your congregation as an example.

“These are the eternal questions, they do not change with time. Like, for example, the condemnation of one’s neighbour or unforgiveness. I often hear something like “I forgave but did not forget.” It sounds like a joke, but it is often transformed into a guiding motto. Of course, there are cases when forgiving is not easy, some things are hard to erase from memory. Then an intellectual forgiveness is needed first. You just need to say to yourself: “I am a Chris­tian. I will pray for this person.” And put candles for the enemies, give notes about them during the service. And so gradualy intellectual for­giveness will be spread to the heart. Some grandmothers catch me by surprise: ‘She call­ed me not in the nicest way in 1947 at some wedding and I have not talked to her ever since because of that.’ And they literally do not talk, over 60 years. And this is not fiction.

“And greed for money, or so to say, lust for worldly goods is widely spread, while the spiritual side of life is neglected.

“Thanks God, many couples get married in church these days. But unfortunately, almost half of young people do not know that abortion is a murder. Well, we remind them about that before the beginning of married life.

“But I am the most worried about weak spiritual practice of Christians today. So many people do not even understand the meaning of prayer at all! And even among those who do go to church regularly, very few know how to pray, and have a desire to truly, informally pray. Because it is so much better to speak one sincere word to God than to read a half of the prayer book automatically, while thoughts are wandering somewhere else. But at the same time, I strongly re­com­mend that daily, or beginning, as the Church calls them, prayers (ones like Otche Nash and Viruiu) should be learned by heart. And they should be offered up from the very depths of the heart along with one’s own words and feelings.”

Perhaps, believers are interested in the problem of death and loss.

“Of course.”

You as a priest have to serve at burials. It is more na­tu­ral when old people pass away. But what is your reaction when young ones die?

“An 18-year-old girl passed away and was buried recently. She had acute leukemia.

“I should have gotten used to treat death ‘professionally’ in my 20 years of experience. But I have not. It is very hard for me to bury young people, and especially children. I hope that comes not from the lack of faith, I am just quite vulnerable. There are fathers who serve normally at crematoria and cemeteries. I think I am just not the ‘burial’ kind of priest.”

Father, how should one prepare themselves for the time of loss, when relatives or friends can fall ill seriously and then pass away?

“‘Keep your memory mortal,’ the holy fathers teach us. In other words, one should always keep in mind that earthly life is temporary. As it says in one of the psalms in the Bible, ‘The days of our years with them are 70 years, or being stronger, 80 years.’

“Of couse, there are theological interpretations of an ‘untimely’ death. As the church explains it, first of all, it is a sacrifice of ones for the others (God knows when it is the time for each of us to depart). And second thing is that God stops people before the destruction of their spiritual lives. If a human remained immortal after the Fall, evil would become eternal and boundless. In this sense some theologists speak of death as of the good. Though, in New Testament, in our Easter psalms it says that death is the last enemy that has to be defeated. So we end up with this kind of dualism, which is quite natural for such a complicated matter.

“So, on one hand, it is impossible to prepare for death of the loved ones. But on the other, the birth itself means the beginning of such preparation. It can be compared to principles in Ancient Sparta: warriors were getting ready for personal death in battle for common victory. Therefore, Christians should not be scared of defeat in earth battle, because it will happen for the final victory in spiritual, invisible battle.”

How should we keep spiritual contact with the deceased ones?

“It is one of the purposes of church, to help people feel unity with those who left this world for the better one, where deceased pray for us while we pray for them here. (They cannot pray for themselves.) Christ teaches us in the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus that the chasm between terrible reality and blissful eternity is uncrossable, but it can be filled with prayers and love. There is a wonderful holy father meta­phor: prayer is made of souls that bond Heaven and earth. By the way, one of meanings of the word ‘religion’ in Latin is ‘connection.’ If there is no such connection, there is no love between people and God, even no love simply among people. That is why I say that people should not be scared when they see their deceased relatives in dreams or visions. If they are asking for something, they need more of our prayers and good deeds. When you are given a hint, you need to be thankful for it. But I do not recommend to come to cemeteries often. It is established by the Church, that graves of relatives should be attended at their birth and death days, and commemoration days. And that is enough. The house should not be filled with pictures of those who passed away either, otherwise an unnecessary atmosphere of constant mourning will be created. Worshipping the deceased is typical of Pagan religions. Chistianity is an eternally higher level, that accepted the notion ‘spirit of the deceased’ in an absolutely ‘legal’ and organic way.”

Let us talk about pleasant things at the end. We have become such realists that stopped believing in miracles. Though all of us witnessed small and great wonders in our lives. Because God has remained the same for the last two, and even four thousand years. What do you think about that?

“If some miracles that happen in our parishion, happened a hundred years ago, the whole Ukraine would know about them. For instance, the frame of the centennial Gospels that is kept in one of our museum chur­ches where we rarely have cermons, renewed in 2006. Museum workers, who were making the inventory at that time, were the ones to notice it first. ‘Father, how can you let yourself clean the exhibits by yourself?’ they asked. ‘Good gracious!’ I said. I looked at it: the me­tal framework that turned black over a hundred years, looked as if it were new!

“And the Ascending of Holy Fire! My acquaintances told me that a godless person came to this event once. But he did not believe in the miracle, he said that people lit the candles by themselves. So there he was, sitting at the restaurant with other palmers on the same night, waving his unburnt bunch of candles from the Curch of the Holy Sepulchre. And he was going on and on ‘I do not believe you, that is it!’ And all of a sudden there was a flash behind his back, and the candles caught fire!

“God is merciful and He teaches His children patiently...

“We have a lack of faith. Simple, childish faith. And it says in the New Testament that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we shall be able to move mountains.”