“In the courts of the Lord’s house,
in the midst of thee, o Jerusalem”
Interview with Archimandrite Joasaph (MacLellan),
Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem (ROCOR)
– Reverend Father, at the beginning of this year, you were appointed Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. When did you first visit the Holy Land?
– I visited the Holy Land for the first time as a pilgrim together with Vladyka Laurus of blessed memory in the year 2000. We traveled through Jordan, visited the Monastery of St Catherine, ascended Mt Sinai late at night, where we met the dawn and communed of the Holy Gifts. We spent two weeks in the Holy Land. At the time I could not imagine that I would return to the Holy Land as a priest, let alone the head of the Mission.
– Does your family have Russian roots?
– No, I am American. After years of searching for the truth, our father accepted Orthodox Christianity. I was 12 years old when I was baptized, my brother and sister and I having been Catholics. From then on, I always wished to serve the Church, if possible as a priest.
Before enrolling in the seminary in Jordanville, I would be one of the “summer boys.” We would be given obediences there, we would get to know monks from different countries, we worked with tractors, at the barn, we sang on the kliros and served as altar boys. So the monastery became a home for me since my childhood.
– Did you learn to speak Russian so well in the Seminary?
– I had fairly good linguistic preparation in school, having studied Latin and French. This became a foundation for learning Russian. Our first year in seminary we studied Russian, and from the second year on our classes and exams were held exclusively in Russian. I remember Evgenii Iosifovich Klar fondly, who expended a great deal of energy in teaching us Russian. At that time, too, the majority of the residents and students spoke Russian, and I had the opportunity to learn in class and solidify my knowledge through practice. One could always talk to Fr Prokopy, the monastery chef, about the weather. He spoke slowly, clearly and simply. Other monks had no problem speaking Russian, even if it they didn’t do so fluently. Both the training and environment helped me.
I graduated seminary in 1985. The Seminary Rector then was Archbishop Laurus, who later became Metropolitan and First Hierarch of ROCOR. After seminary, I enrolled in university and defended my doctoral dissertation. I went on to teach in three universities in the US, having taught Russian at Princeton the last few years.
So Vladyka Laurus asked me to abandon my teaching career to serve the Church. Vladyka rarely asked… as a teacher for over twenty years, I had a long time to think.
– Had you over that entire time thought of serving the Church?
– Of course, I would come back to that idea from time to time. I was the choir director in Boston, at my Epiphany Church under the ever-memorable Protopriest Roman Lukianov. I served as a choir director and psalm-reader in St Louis, MO, and Trenton, NJ. For a few years I was a member of the Diocesan Council of Chicago and Mid-America.
And since I left the university, Metropolitan Laurus passed away. My first reaction was shock. But the newly-elected Primate, Vladyka Hilarion, blessed me to become a novice at Holy Trinity Monastery, and on the eve of the Apotheosis of the Saints of the Near Kievan Caves, he tonsured me to the monkhood, and the following day ordained by as a hierodeacon. I served the customary forty Liturgies in my home monastery. Last December, the new Bishop George of Mayfield, on the day of his consecration, ordained me as a hieromonk.
– What made the greatest impression upon you during your first pilgrimage to the Holy Land?
– Most of all it was the opportunity to visit and pray at the site of the Life-bearing Tomb of the Lord, the wellspring of our salvation, the chance to stand before the Crucifix of our Lord Jesus Christ on Golgotha. I noticed that there were members of our pilgrimage who could not hold back tears.
Secondly, it was the life of the nuns. I rarely visited convents before then, and I was struck by the piety with which the nuns do everything: they fulfill their obedience, how they pray. How natural it was for them! We were all endeared by their life according to their monastic rule. They were very attentive to us, and to all pilgrims: they helped every way they could.
I was very impressed by the fatherly attitude of Vladyka Laurus to the monastics. In Gethsemane, we participated in the feast day celebrations of St Mary Magdalene: Vladyka Laurus officiated, and I served as subdeacon. At the end of the service, Vladyka offered the cross for veneration. I thought to go back into the altar with the other subdeacons, but one of the nuns had me hold the plate with the antidoros.
As the nuns approached the cross, I was surprised to see that Vladyka Laurus knew each of them by name, he had a good word for each resident of the Convent. Some he would congratulate on the feast day, others he inquired as to their health, or their personal matters. He did not talk a lot, but he let each know that he was their father and archpastor, that he loves and cares for them.
– What problems have you faced in your first few months as Chief of the Mission?
– No matter how we would wish to perfect the spiritual life of the monasteries, one must tend to more earthly matters, in particular property ownership issues. At one time, by the efforts of Protopriest Antonin (Kapustin, +1891), Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, a great many holy sites were acquired, so the Russian presence in the Holy Land was at one time very significant. Now, everything that was on the territory of Israel in 1948 is under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, while other properties belong to ROCOR. There were efforts to seize those properties, both on the part of the Israeli government, and by the caretakers of the properties, who would refuse to leave. So I am compelled to deal with lawyers and litigation, which Metropolitan Laurus had warned me about. This is an unpleasant but unavoidable part of my work in the Holy Land.
I am worried about our personnel. Each monastery has two priests, so we have a total of four, and I am the fifth. I would like to reestablish monastic life in the Skete of St Chariton in Ein Fara, where until recently only one monk lived, Fr Chariton.
Some consider the multi-national background of our monastics problematic. Personally I disagree. There are Arab women, Rumanians, other nationalities in the convents, but Russian is the common tongue for them all. Everyone who lives in the convents speaks it to some degree.
Our Mission has two full-fledged monasteries in the Holy Land, both convents: Ascension of Our Lord Convent on the Mount of Olives and St Mary Magdalene Convent in Gethsemane.
We have over forty nuns on the Mt of Olives, and over thirty in Gethsemane. In both convents they sew, paint icons, and carry out other monastic duties. The nuns of Gethsemane tend to pilgrims. Because the visa requirements between Russian and Israel have been relaxed, there are now even more pilgrims and tourists, who had always come in great numbers. A great many of them wish to visit all the famous points of interest in Gethsemane. Those who live a churchly life wish to venerate the relics of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Nun Barbara. Many wish to remain in the convent as laborers.
– Can pilgrims stay at the convents?
– There is no rule against it, but it all depends on available space. The monastery hostels are not big enough to accommodate everyone who wishes to stay. That is why most pilgrims must stay in hotels in town and travel to work at the convents by bus. The nuns prepare refectory meals for them by advance arrangement.
If vacancies in the Bethany Boarding School open up, since not all girls live at the school, pilgrims can get a blessing to stay there.
– So if someone wishes to help at the convents, they must first get the blessing of the abbess?
– Of course. Coming without advance notice is risky. One must first contact Abbess Elizabeth in Gethsemane or Abbess Moisseia on the Mt of Olives, or send them an e-mail. They will let you know if the convent hostels have vacancies and for how long.
– Fr Joasaph, what spiritual joys have you come to experience in the Holy Land?
– One of the happiest moments was on the day of my arrival on the Mt of Olives, when Archbishop Mark gave his blessing to hoist a new cross atop the bell tower known as “the Russian Candle.” Vladyka blessed the cross, we all ascended the scaffolding and prayed right on the roof. The view of Jerusalem, I must tell you, was simply stunning.
During Passion Week, I served in Gethsemane. After services on Great Friday, the clergy, nuns and pilgrims emerged from the church, and under the singing of “When the glorious disciples,” we began a procession of the cross along the same road the Savior went. At first we stopped at the cave on the territory of the Gethsemane Convent where the Savior and Apostles stayed, then at the Pretoria, reading the Gospel and venerating the prison where Christ was held, then proceeding to St Alexander Podvorie, venerating the Judgment Gates, and returned home.
– Have you been able to serve at the Sepulcher of the Lord?
– I have not yet served there, but during the Paschal period, the Vicar of Archbishop Mark, Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart, served there. He concelebrated with the Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, Metropolitan Aristarchos.
– What are relations like now between the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission and the Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate and the nuns of Gorny Convent?
– This spring, Archimandrite Isidor was appointed the head of the Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate. We met in the altar of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ on Holy Pascha. He was serving, and he invited me and the hegumens to dinner at his Mission headquarters, and to serve at Gorny Convent the following day. As it turned out, I became the first Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to serve in the new Cathedral of All Russian Saints since 1948.
– Have you found places in Jerusalem where you particularly like to pray, where you heart finds peace?
– I know that not all the nuns of the Mt of Olives are happy that we are conducting services in the Church of St Philaret the Merciful because of the renovation of the Cathedral, but I have come to love the altar of this church. It is big enough, and one truly senses Tsarist Russia there: ancient icons, the altar-table cross… The building itself is reminiscent of that period, when Russian emperors tended to the Holy Land, sending their finest architects, when common Russians would donate to support the monasteries. You feel that right in that altar.
– Fr Joasaph, what would like to obtain for your own soul in the Holy Land? What would you like to share with the sisters?
– The Holy Land is the place where our Lord Jesus Christ walked. He sanctified it with His presence, His healings, His sermons. And for us Christians, and especially Orthodox Christians, we must always bear in mind that we must devote our lives to serving the Lord Jesus Christ, that without Him we are nothing. I wish for myself and for all who come to the Holy Land to always preserve in our hearts, in our souls and in our minds the memory of the Savior, to live with Him and for Him.
What can I offer the nuns? Vladyka Laurus both through the years of his service and by his age was their father, and I can only dream of becoming that. I have been fortunate that I was able to see how Metropolitan Laurus did this. I cannot emulate him in fully, but the image of his fatherly love remains in my heart, and, I hope, will manifest itself in my pastoral service.
Maybe through the years I can become, if not a full-fledged father, then at least a loving older brother. Let us have faith that with God’s help we will all obtain the grace and mercy of the Lord and salvation.
Interviewed by Tatiana Veselkina
June 19, 2009