Book review: "Everyday Saints" by Archimandrite Shevkunov

I picked up Everyday Saints from the references in The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware. Orthodoxy, perhaps, is unfamiliar to the average American, even if they have an Orthodox Church in their neighborhood. I remember seeing a new Russian Orthodox Church going up near my home in Taylorsville, Utah, and being mystified. It seemed so foreign. Most are familiar with the American brand of Christianity, so it may come as a surprise that there are other forms of Christianity just as old as Catholicism with their our forms of traditions. I highly recommend reading The Orthodox Church to get a taste of some of this history.

As opposed to giving a historic account of Orthodoxy, Everyday Saints by Archimandrite (a title given to the head of a monastery) Tikhon Shevkunov is a memoir from the perspective of a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a series of anecdotes, with no real order to them– in fact, they have kind of a meandering feel to them. Many of them take place in the Pskov Monastery near the border with Estonia. The book, true to its title, covers commonplace, everyday occurrences and people– but perhaps in a very different setting than suburban America. Most of the events covered take place in the 1980s and 1990s, a turbulent time in Russia, as it covers the regime change from the Soviet era to a democratic state. And being a monk in the Orthodox Church in the USSR was difficult. The Soviet state made much of church activity go underground. Our narrator recounts the goings-on of monks living in the Caucasus mountains, outside the range of the Soviet authorities. There is a constant thread throughout the narrative of a tension between resistance against the Soviet regime and collaborating with it. Patriarch Tikhon, for whom the author is named after, was the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church when the Bolsheviks took power, and is still a symbol of the independence of the Church. One of my favorite stories of resistance from the memoir reflects the humor these saints could find in these difficult times:

All citizens of the Soviet Union were required to take part in “elections.” They brought a ballot box into the refectory of the monastery, where after dinner the brotherhood, under the discontented grumbling supervision of the abbot, rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s.

But it turned out that the First Secretary of the Regional communist Party Secretary for Pskov Province had found out that unheard of privileges were being give to these “savage” monks: they were being allowed to vote (unanimously, of course) for the one and only slot on the ballot, the Communist Party, over there, not at the local polling place like everyone else, but there in their obsolete historical ruin of a monastery! The First Secretary of the Communist Party was quite indignant about this and threw a fit, ragging at his underlings and mercilessly rebuking them for allowing such unacceptable lenience to atavistic deviant non-working-class elements of society. He immediately demanded that from now on and forever those “black beetles” must come and “vote” for the members of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR like all good Soviet citizens, at their polls in their electoral districts strictly according to their place of residence!

It was then, so people say, that Father Nathaniel whispered into the ear of the monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Alipius, a piece of advice that was both innocent and extremely subtle in its defiance.

On election day (and, as always, it was a Sunday), after the festal Liturgy was served in the monastery, from the monastery gates came streaming forth a magnificent procession of the cross, with priests bearing crosses and icons. Paired into two columns, in a long line singing hymns and in full ceremonial dress, the troops of monks paraded through the entire town towards the polling place. Their ancient banners fluttered in the wind as they marched, carrying their traditional crosses and ancient icons. But this was not all. As is the required custom before any important action, right in the middle of the polling place the entire clergy began to pray out loud. The bureaucrats were frightened to death and tried to protest against this, but Father Alipius firmly interrupted them, lecturing that they were interfering with citizens’ rights to express themselves and carry out their constitutional duties as they were required to do! Having “voted”, the monks marched back with similar ostentatious ceremony into their holy monastery.

Needless to say, when the next elections came around, the ballot box was once again waiting for the monks on the table for the monastery refectory.

While the book’s main cast of characters are monks, abbots, priests, and metropolitans, it is made very clear that these are very ordinary human beings. My favorite individual in the book is Father Raphael, a soldier-turned monk. Father Raphael would sometimes talk in prison-slang, a bad habit he picked up from a fellow monk who had served a long prison sentence before taking his vows. Father Raphael has so many small idiosyncrasies, like insisting that he jump on the ladder of the last train car when boarding the train– just like the movies. He was considered by some to be absolutely lazy, but many considered him their spiritual father. He could most often be found chatting over tea. But our narrator assures us that many would find themselves converted to the church after having a chat over tea with Father Raphael. Father Raphael’s biggest weakness was his car. He loved to drive fast. And he died that way too, driving 140 km/h in his black Mercedes in a horrible accident. That really sounds like a lively monk, right? These monks are quite the colorful characters, but they are saint too. They carried the Church through dark days, and they seem a light on a hill.

One thing I found very different from my own religious experience was the encounter with the evil in the spiritual world. This begins very early in the book, when recounting his conversion story. In his previous life, Archimandrite Shevkunov participated in seances. In one climactic event, they had summoned the spirit of Nikolai Gogol:

This spirit that spoke to us was certainly extremely eloquent, and indeed his vocabulary was in the style of the beginning of the nineteenth century. But today he no longer answered any of our questions. Instead, he complained, groaned, whimpered, and expressed to us that his heart was broken and that his pain was unbearable.

“What’s wrong with you?” my friends asked.

“Help me! Help me! Oh! I’m in agony! Help!” said this mysterious entity. “It’s unendurable! I beg you! Help me!”

“But what can we do for you?” we asked, truly wishing to help our beloved writer with all our hearts.

“Help me, help me, I beg you! Please don’t abandon me! The flame is frightful– the flame, and the sulfur, the agony! Oh! It’s unbearable! Help me! Help!”

“We’re ready to help,” we said passionately, “in any way we can! But what can we do for you if you’re in another world?”

The spirit slowed down and then said cautiously: “Oh, my dear youngsters, if you are truly ready to take pity on a sufferer…”

“Of course we are! Just tell us what to do!”

“Well, if you’re really ready to help, then… then I’d give you some poison.”

When the full meaning of these words hit us, we were petrified. And looking at each other, even by the dim candlelight of our seance, we could see that our faces had all gone as pale as chalk. Knocking over our chairs, we raced out of the room.

And that isn’t the only encounter he gives. He tells how he witnessed one monk lifted off the ground being attacked by evil spirits. And how a disgruntled wife and mother-in-law cursed her husband and nearly had him killed, until a monk administered him Communion. It feels like a different world.

Now, Latter-Day Saints don’t deny that encounters with evil spirits exist. In fact, we have apocryphal tales of devils being cast out. The one that comes to my mind is F. Enzio Busche’s tale in his memoir Yearning for the Living God:

He said that in the evening, a missionary had been possessed by an evil spirit. His companion had called the assistants to help cast it out. The assistants had gone and done that, but as they got back to their apartment, the evil spirit had entered one of the assistants. The other was so shocked that he did not know what to do, so he went straight to the mission home.

The mission president was appalled, of course, because this was not just an ordinary missionary. This was one of the stalwart, experienced missionaries who was speaking gibberish and not in control of his physical movements. The mission president had tried to cast out the evil spirit but had failed. He began to panic, but then realized that he had a General Authority in the basement. That was when he came down to try to wake me up…

As I Went up, I heard noises and unintelligible sounds, and fear began to creep into my heart. I felt that fear come from the ground, from below, trying to sneak into my system. I could understand why, when people are afraid, their knees begin to shake. When I got to the living room, I saw the elder sitting in a chair, shaking all over, making uncontrollable movements, speaking with foam on his lips. His companion and the mission president and his family were all staring at the spectacle with shock and fear.

As I entered the room, it was like a voice said to me, “Brother Busche, you must make a decision now.” I knew immediately what decision it was. I had to decide whether to join the fear and amazement and helplessness or to let faith act and let courage come in. I knew, of course, that I wanted to have faith. I wanted to have power, the priesthood power, and I wanted to know what to do to save the situation.

In that moment, two scriptures came to my mind. One scripture was very simple: Moroni 8:16 “Perfect love casteth out all fear.” And the other was the same: 1 John 4:18. But I did not have love. I had fear. What do we do when we have fear but not love? My mind was drawn to Moroni 7:48: “Wherefore,… pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love.”

I prayed with all the energy of my heart, “Father, fill my soul with love.” I cried from the depths of my being, without wasting any time. It all happened in a split second. After that, it was as if my skull was opened and a warm feeling poured down into my soul– down my head, my neck, my chest. As it was pouring down, it drove out all the fear. My shivering knees stopped shaking. I stood there, a big smile came to my face– a smile of deep, satisfying joy and confidence…

As I stood there, it was as if though someone came and put his arm around me and said, “Let me do this for you. I can take it from here.” I was very happy with that idea. Then I watched myself do something very strange and surprising because I did not know what I was doing. I went to the young man who was sitting on a chair shaking uncontrollably. I knelt in front of him and put my arms around him, pulling him gently to my chest. I told him, with all the strength of my soul, “I love you, my brother.”

In the very moment I did that, the evil spirit left. The missionary came to his senses, looked at me and said, “I love you, too.”

But these tales feel more like ghost stories to be told around a campfire, nothing to be used for devotional purposes, and things that are hardly a part of everyday religious. I wish I could remember the quote, but I believe a general authority once said something along the lines: yes, the forces of darkness are real, but if you dwell too long on that fact, you will end up in dark places. Stay focused on Christ, and the darkness will be driven away. This is by no means meant as a critique. It’s clear from my quote above that we have a long tradition of similar experience in our own faith.

This has been another wonderful exercise in holy envy. A beautiful portrait of faith in truly dark circumstances.

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