"VLADYKA LAURUS AND THE SEMINARY HELPED ME TO SENSE THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE HOLY FATHERS"
Archpriest Victor Potapov on the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Metropolitan Laurus and his studies in Jordanville.
This year, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia celebrates two anniversaries – joyful and sad: 75 years since the founding of the only Russian Holy Trinity Theological Seminary outside of Russia and 15 years since the death of the First Hierarch Metropolitan Laurus (Shkurla), who departed to the Lord in 2008 on the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
It so happened that in the life of the Rector of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington, DC, Archpriest Victor Potapov, the seminary and contact with then-Bishop Laurus intertwined into a single whole. Father Victor remembers how it happened today.
-My acquaintance with Bishop Laurus began more than half a century ago, in 1963. I was 15 years old at the time. I remember that Bishop Laurus (at that time still Abbot Laurus) came to our St Sergius Parish in Cleveland to deliver a report on his recent trip to the Holy Mount Athos and the Holy Land.
About 40 years ago, a large new temple was built in Cleveland. My father, Sergey Potapov, who was a builder, took the most active part in its establishment. And the architect was the father of one of my current parishioners, Mikhail Nazarets.
Vladyka came to us in the old church, and my father took me, a teenager, to this event.
At the time, Abbot Laurus was relatively young, he had a soot-black beard and similar hair. I remember that he spoke a little unusual Russian. He had such a Ukrainian-Carpatho-Russian accent, because he came from the Carpathians, where in the 1940s he entered the monastery of St Job of Pochaev. During the war, all monks and novices were evacuated to Geneva, as the Red Army was advancing on Czechoslovakia. Everyone was afraid of the Soviet troops, because the official ideology of the Soviet Union was militantly atheistic.
After Geneva, the brethren moved to the United States, where they settled in the already existing Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY.
I was not a very “churched” person then, I was known as a bit of a "wild American" and did not really respect everything that was Russian. The Cold War was in full swing, and for a young Russian American it was a traumatic experience in the sense that everything Russian was considered bad.
At that time, in the United States, everyone confused Russia with the USSR. I was tired of arguing with Americans, I was not particularly knowledgeable and I was very sorry that I was Russian at all. It may seem strange now, but it is the real truth. I spoke very bad Russian, even though my parents spoke only this language at home.
True, my mother is from Ukraine, so half of the words were Ukrainian. For example, she always said "tsybulya", and when I found out that in Russian it is "luk", I could not believe my ears: how so, because in English the word means "look". My knowledge of the Russian language was, one might say, “kitchen-table” – "potatoes", "bread," "fork," "knife" etc. And I wanted to assimilate as soon as possible.
But the lecture by Abbot Laurus somehow hooked me. It was very interesting for me to watch the transparencies that he showed and listen to him: it turns out that there is some kind of monastic republic on Mount Athos, there is a Holy Land, holy places where monks and nuns live. And although I had not used all this new information for the time being, it was imprinted in my mind and in my heart.
A couple of years later, my “churching” began: I began to regularly go to church and serve. Suddenly, I realized that all this makes a lot of sense, I began to catechize with our rector, Father Mikhail Smirnov, visited his house, and he taught me a lot. I picked up a book of a pre-revolutionary edition "The Temple of God and Church Services" by the Priest Nikolai Antonov. It was written in the old Russian orthography, and I admit I only read a half, but I learned a lot.
I can say that all these moments slowly prepared me for a new meeting with Father Laurus. It happened around 1966, when I began to go to the Holy Trinity Monastery as a so-called "summer boy." The monastery then hosted a summer camp for boys - like a scout camp. But it wasn't exactly a camp: we lived as novices, got up early in the morning, went to divine services. Seminarians taught us the Law of God, together with the monks we collected hay, mailed the magazine "Orthodox Russia" throughout the globe – it was then very popular in the Russian emigration, it was a titanic effort, and we, the "summer boys," were fascinated by it.
Father Laurus was then an archimandrite. Soon he was elected bishop, and I remember how I took the holy bishop’s blessing from him.
Then he was in New York, because he worked as Secretary of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR. He came to Jordanville once a week to teach Patrology (the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church) at the seminary.
At that time, I was a very shy boy and looked with great reverence at the senior clergy, and even more so at the monks. Therefore, my communication with Bishop Laurus was, as they say, "at a distance" – I was such an insecure teenager, although the eldest of the bunch, and was afraid to talk to the "authorities,” so to speak.
But all my communication with Father Laurus was very pleasant. He was very affectionate, endearing to himself. In fact, he remained a very simple man, without any pretention.
At one time, Father Laurus, together with Archimandrite Vladimir (Sukhobok), was in charge of the monastery Chancellery, and I helped them pack and send books, because our Holy Trinity Monastery was the largest Russian church publisher outside of Russia. Many liturgical books were published there, a wonderful multi-volume "Great Collection", which contained all the main services of the church year. And we shipped them to customers all over the world.
In addition, Vladyka made a very close friendship with the Athonite monks, and they sent us duplicates of old Russian books in Jordanville. They had a large collection of materials published in Russia. Before the revolution, they simply did not have time to spread, and Bishop Laurus arranged for them to come to us in Jordanville. I remember buying some of them with my meager pennies, and they are still kept in my library at home.
In addition to the book business, Father Laurus had other obediences. For example, he wasn't averse to working in the kitchen. At the time everyone – not only seminarians, but also monks, and even hieromonks and archimandrites – was obliged to periodically prepare food for everyone on Sundays. On weekdays there was a regular cook, but he was given a rest on the weekends. I remember Father Laurus cooking borshch and other food in the kitchen, and we, the seminarians, helped.
We also collected potatoes in the monastery field, and Father Laurus, even after becoming a bishop, gathered them with us. Sometimes this happened in very inclement weather – when it was raining, when it was already cold. But no matter what, he rolled up his sleeves and worked alongside everyone.
The humility and accessibility of Bishop Laurus, of course, was incredible. After all, a bishop is like a "prince" of the Church, but this bishop did not hesitate to humble himself and work along with others. Of course, this made a lasting impression on all of us.
Vladyka Laurus served very beautifully, he had a beautiful voice. I remember when he was an hegumen (abbot), a hieromonk, he sang on the choir in the monastery with a very high voice.
And he was a very good teacher. His lessons revealed to me a whole world of Patristic theology. Of course, I couldn't remember everything we had to learn – just like the others. But Bishop Laurus, just like the entire seminary, helped me to find a system, to sense the psychology of the holy fathers. I began to understand where, as a pastor, one needed to turn to compose a sermon or to get an answer to a question of interest.
Before, when I had a small parish and was less busy than I am now, I prepared all my sermons in advance. And thanks to seminary education, I knew where to find the right quote, what to read for a better understanding of any topic.
Over the years, I've mostly delivered impromptu sermons– maybe because I'm too arrogant and I think I've memorized something in my 50 years of priesthood. But I still need something to refresh my memory, and I read the sermons of other clergymen and then develop some of the ideas that came across.
True, I cannot say that I specifically read the sermons of Bishop Laurus. For all his virtues, he was not a strong preacher and did not particularly like to speak in public. But when he spoke, he did it well. He kept the attention of the audience, particularly us seminarians, with his own personality and example. After all, this bishop accepted monasticism for a true vocation at a very early age. And you could feel it. To show you, I can tell this story.
Vladyka Laurus was the first to come to the earliest service in the monastery – the midnight office, which began at 5 o'clock in the morning. It always amazed me.
Usually, seminarians gathered for morning prayer at 7 o'clock. In my third year, I decided to take on such a "feat": I got up with the monks at 4:30, went to the midnight office, and then stayed for Liturgy.
But I did it a bit for selfish purposes: midnight office ended at about 5:30 am, and I had time to go back to the cell, prepare for school with a fresh head, or sleep another hour before class, if necessary. Vladyka Laurus would come first at the behest of his soul and even filled the lamps with oil. And he did it even as a bishop, can you imagine? With all his duties, he was very fond of worship, very fond of prayer. And everybody felt it.
However, despite this, we, seminarians, sometimes teased the bishop, as well as other teachers. Of course, in a kind way.
I remember one funny incident. A group of pilgrims and seminarians was returning from Mount Athos. Some of them were found to have some small antiques, and the Greek authorities detained them--in prison, no less--to clarify the circumstances. One of the detainees, who later became a choir director, recorded audio from nothing to do. He was a very talented impressionist and imitated Metropolitan Filaret (Voznesensky), Bishop Laurus and other prominent of our clergymen with incredible accuracy. I do not remember how this tape ended up with the seminarians, but we got just great pleasure from how this man was able to imitate Bishop Laurus, convey his intonations, voice, etc.
When I was a seminarian, I served in the altar and sometimes skipped out of the service to read a letter from my fiancée from Paris. But under Bishop Lavra, I didn’t dare, it was only when the sermons were delivered by Archbishop Averky (Taushev), a very famous theologian, long-term rector of the seminary and abbot of the monastery. He was very eloquent and would preach for 45 minutes. So taking such hiatuses from the altar, I knew that I had enough time to reach the monastery office, find my mail, return to the altar, sit in the sexton’s room, have time to read all the letters of my fiancée and then return to the end of service.
However, I would not advise today's seminarians to do the same. Now we do not have such preachers as Bishop Averky was. For most priests, it usually takes 9-10 minutes to preach, no more, and I would not advise them to risk stepping out – they simply will not have time. Better not escape the altar, otherwise you will catch it from the authorities.
As for Bishop Laurus, he did not catch me doing anything illicit. The fact is that from the second year I became, if I may say so, at least outwardly a decent person: I behaved correctly, tried to study diligently and work, to fulfill my obediences. Not to brag, but I got good grades and my behavior was pretty good.
Anyway, I don't recall the bishop ever scolding anyone. He set an example with his exemplary monastic behavior – he had the image of a strict monk, and everyone respected him very much.
For me, Bishop Laurus was a mentor – not only in seminary, but also in life. He was a loving father who took great care of me, of my arrival.
I remember the last time he came to visit us in Washington, we would sit in our kitchen and drink tea. Vladyka then said to me: "If you look for helpers, priests, take from your own parishioners, so that they are of the same spirit as you."
I try to follow this advice: now we have several priests and deacons, and almost all of them used to be our parishioners.
Archpriest Victor Potapov
Recorded by Dmitry Zlodorev
March 3, 2023