The Athos of Munich
Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart
Last week,the Monastery of St Job of Pochaev in Munich, Germany (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) celebrated its feast day. His Grace Bishop Agapit (Gorachek) of Stuttgart told us why it is known as the Mt Athos of Munich.
Vladyka Agapit, how did you decide to be tonsured a monk?
I was born to a family of Russian émigrés in Frankfurt-am-Main. As a child I attended the “barrack-style” Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Fr Leonid served there, he was Count Ignatiev, also an immigrant. When I was seven he had me serve in the altar. This turned out to be a turning point in my life.
Later, due in large part to the initiative of my father, a church dedicated to St Nicholas was built in Frankfurt. My father was the warden, and so I grew up in the parish.
When I was a college student, in 1978, I went to the All-Diaspora Youth Conference in Toronto, Canada. I visited my maternal grandparents in Utica, NY, and stopped by Holy Trinity Monastery in nearby Jordanville to make confession and take communion. It was Dormition lent. I remember entering the church, and stood before the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" on the right, and on the left, a small printed “Passion” Icon of the Mother of God which streamed tears. This was an icon belonging to a Greek family. Suddenly I saw tears streaming down the icon… I was astounded!
Many of the monks who hailed from the “Prague emigration” knew my father and gave me a warm welcome at the monastery. After spending some time with them, going back to university, where I was studying political science, was boring. In politics, you have to keep setting goals for yourself which have nothing to do with coming closer to God. Thanks to the Lord, I chose a different path. Later I joked that I went to America to find a bride, but it turned out to be the opposite.
When I returned to Germany, there was no monasticism as such, anywhere in Europe, in fact. There were only individual survivors of the Pochaev émigré monks.
Once, a young man approached Fr Leonid, asking him to connect him to Russian youth—he needed to practice his Russian language. He was studying Slavistics at Heidelberg University. His name was Misha Arndt [now Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany—Ed.]. He went on to be a linguistics teacher. As a college professor, he had a long, three-month vacation every year, which he spent on Mt Athos. He was not allowed to live on the Holy Mountain by the monks they used to call the “black colonels.”
Vladyka Mark inherited the traditions of the pre-Revolutionary, Tsarist Russian monks of Mt Athos. I would visit Athos in the early 1980’s over the course of several years, and was still able to meet some of them. They even spoke a different way. There was an indescribably gentility one sensed in speaking with them. Today in Russia you can find this only in the rare deeply-religious old grandmothers. But when you come face-to-face with a hieromonk, a schema-monk, who talks to you in this meek and humble manner, it makes quite an impression!
Our ruling bishop, Bishop Paul (Pavlov), tonsured and ordained the future Vladyka Mark, and later he also blessed my monastic path.
Fr Mark was first sent to Wiesbaden, where he began to conduct services in the Athonite order. A group of brethren quickly assembled around him. They were all my friends. I also came to visit, and I liked it a great deal. We arose at 4 am to perform midnight office, the cathisma, canons and Liturgy every day. So when Fr Mark was consecrated a bishop in 1980, he had to move to St Job of Pochaev Monastery in Munich, and I went with him. The retired Vladyka Nafanail (Lvov) lived there then, and he only had a reader to help him.
So the monastery began its rebirth around the bishop, who was its spiritual father?
Yes. But our brethren were suddenly at the “doorway” of the diocesan headquarters. Anyone who wanted would call us on the phone. You pick up the phone, and someone tells you that their wife ran off, what is he to do now? But what kind of advice could a monk offer?! Monks need solitude. The diocesan headquarters is a focal point. All sorts of parish-level problems accumulate here… But monasticism is a different sort of service.
In your opinion, how should one decide which monastic community to join?
It’s like choosing your husband or your bride. A person finds a soul-mate and they matures together, that’s how you become parents in a family. Monasticism is in this regard like a marriage. Human nature assumes growth. The monastery is not an army where people are assigned to specific external challenges. As far as I can see, in Russia, too, the stronger communities gather around a spiritual leader, an abbot or abbess, who rears a spiritually-healthy family.
How long does the trial period for a novice last in your monastery?
It depends, some three years, some five. Internal maturity is not measured by years. A person needs to test himself. The spiritual father and brethren also watch and see what your capabilities are. Vladyka Mark is now more cautious about tonsures—he is held responsible.
How does Vladyka Mark offer guidance to the brotherhood?
Vladyka is very busy. We don’t organize formal discussions. But no matter how busy he is, his door is always open: if you need something, he will always listen. The most important thing is confession. Vladyka has been hearing confessions weekly for over 35 years. It’s a really significant thing when your spiritual father is a bishop.
In monastic life, as a bishop, I have come to understand that sometimes when you demand a specific task of obedience of some novice, you don’t achieve the desired results. I have made a rule of sorts for myself: You must live your life and wait for the Lord to reveal your neighbor’s heart to you.
Once a novice came to us from Russia. We lived side-by-side for two years. We prayed, we had some level of communication… The monastic life is laid out in this way: for eight hours we pray in church, fulfill our monastic chores, we pray in our own cell. The only thing we have in common is kitchen duty. But once we had to accompany the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" to its home in Kursk, and one evening I had to take a photograph of the icon. I asked this brother to help me, since he had been a painting restorer. Since then we developed a friendship. This moment with the icon brought us together as friends.
Sometimes five years are needed… Sometimes when you begin teaching someone, you get the opposite of what you expect.
That is, one cannot humble another for the common good?
No, this idea of the Roman Catholic “satisfaction,” or expiation, according to which a person needs to made to suffer. This is characteristic of the legalistic Catholic world-view, but in some way it found its way to Orthodoxy, too.
Who can look into the Spirit of God? God the Father sacrifices His Son for His love for mankind. Christ, out of love for God the Father and for mankind willingly accepts the sufferings on the Cross. It is monstrous to impose suffering upon another as Christian duty. Of course, we all to this very day crucify Christ. This is why the Cup of Gethsemane is so horrifying, about which the Lord prayed that it pass (Matthew 26:39). When a priest places pieces of the prosphora removed for us into the Chalice, God the Son is then justifies us, the commemorated, before the Holy Trinity with His Blood.
If we honestly recognized our condition when we approach the Altar of God, approach the Chalice, we would be shocked. And the Lord?... “Wash away, O Lord, the sins of all those remembered here, by Thy precious Blood.” How much filth is washed away by His Blood?! That is why Jesus asks that the Cup passeth by. It was not the terror of death, it was the momentousness that yesterday, today, tomorrow, unto the ages of ages, all generations which drink from this Chalice, the Son of God, suffering on the Cross, are justified and received in communion with the Holy Trinity.
How is communion with the Holy Trinity revealed to us?
Through sobornost’ [church conciliarity or collegiality—transl.] We can know the Holy Trinity only through experiences known to us. You are first an infant, then a child, then married, then a father. Only to a father can it be revealed what it means when God the Father sacrifices His Son. This means growth. Through various experiences we are given in life, you mature into the conciliar unity of mankind. Having experienced something yourself, you can understand the experiences of another.
But we all experience different situations. When we are children, our relationship with our parents is of one kind, when we are adolescents, it changes, when we become grooms or brides, there is a third type of relationship, when we become parents ourselves, we achieve a new sort of unity. We must preserve all of these experiences within us. Otherwise, what will we take with us into eternity, the grumbling of an old person? Who are we if we lost our childhood, our parenthood?
The saints are powerful just because they were able to preserve the entire palette of experiences God grants mankind. St Seraphim of Sarov was himself childlike and meek when he was with children, yet he could instruct a military general as a strict elder. This is the mutual penetration of various experiences, especially when you talk to others—this is very important.
We Orthodox monks call ourselves fathers because we have a fatherly attitude towards our spiritual children.
Does Grace pass through the hierarchy, or can one hold the opinion that “the wind bloweth wherever it pleases” (John 3:8)?
Both are true. The hierarchy is important first of all so that the priesthood is cultivated within it for the celebration of divine services. This is a very narrow path along which the Church walks. Here everything is concrete: the Mysteries, the worship of the Lord and the veneration of the Mother of God, the memory of the saints. The very language of divine services has been fine-tuned over the centuries. The preservation of this precise instrument of the New-Testament era is exceptionally important. But fulfilling this most important of all challenges is unthinkable without a lawful hierarchy. When a bishop gives a priest an antimension, myrrh, etc, he gives it to his flock. An actual flock! This is the parish itself. Preserve and cultivate. The breath of God is very vividly sensed in the Orthodox Church. Aside from any hierarchy, whether you are a simple layperson, a monastic or a bishop, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Orthodoxy does not depend on ecclesiastical rank. The conciliar wisdom of the Church senses the bearing of the Spirit among its flock. Bishops value the bearing of the Spirit among their monks. It is in the Orthodox Church that the coexistence of the Divine Spirit with the entire fullness of the Church is particularly palpable. We see this in the saints.
Is the memory of the saints an expression of the Orthodox Christian experience of sobornost’ of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant?
Of course. The memory of the saints is a great inheritance that we Orthodox Christians have and cherish. Take heed, examine our divine services. A third is devoted to our Lord Jesus Christ and our repentance before Him, a third is dedicated to our Intercessor, the Mother of God, and a third to the saints being commemorated.
One hears from the abbots of monasteries that it is the ponderous divine services of monasteries that reveals to them the canon, and through it familiarity with the saints. The late Archbishop Alexei (Frolov), previous President of the Synodal Department of Monasteries and Monastics, began reading the lives of saints the very day he entered monastic life in the Lavra.
Yes! For us Orthodox Christians, the Church is unthinkable without the saints. We approach Christ through His saints. If we read the Gospel carefully, of course, Christ will be inscrutable for you. The Savior commands: “love thine enemies” (Matthew 5:44). But do we fulfill this? Who will give another his last shirt off his back? Yet we see the saints doing just this, that flowing from these great words is real life. The fool-for-Christ walked naked in the streets, for instance, and the New Martyrs were savaged only a century ago. Another saint made prostrations without ceasing. What is behind this? It is the actual experience of living people that is especially close to us, through them we have living communion with Christ.
That is why the concept of the Orthodox monastery is so important, when in the person of the abbot or abbess, the image of Christ Himself is present for their monastics.
The Orthodox Church, thank God, preserved the understanding that in the spiritual life, everything is on the personal level. Each person is an individual. Christ is also an Individual, suffering, empathetic. Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) wrote about this well: “The sufferings of Christ was the empathy to mankind.” “Suffering and co-suffering with mankind, glory to Thee, o Lord,” from the 4th antiphon of Great Friday.
How does Christ heal us? Through empathy. What is empathy? We don’t even understand. We simply presume that this person over here is suffering, and we sympathize. But co-suffering love, is a real form of energy, which comes forth from a co-suffering person and warms us. He looks us in the eye and passes on power which we alone lacked. He saves us with his love. This sort of love is revealed, of course, in the lives of the saints. Only when you encounter spirit-bearing elders and eldresses, one finally begins to guess at what Love is.