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Monday, January 30, 2023

“God created you out of love!”

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Guest Author
Guest Author

Author: Metropolitan Antoniy Surozhki

The future Metropolitan Antony Surozhki (Andrei Blum in the world) was born in Switzerland, but after the revolution of 1917, his family wandered around different countries in Europe for several years. When he was 11 years old, he settled in France with his parents. It is there that the event that determines his future fate takes place.

“Will the boy become a Catholic?”

In 1927 (only because the group I was a member of broke up) I fell into another organization called “Vityazi” and which was formed by the Russian Student Christian Movement, where I put down roots and remained – although I was never started from there – until now. Everything seemed to be the same there, but there were two differences: the cultural level was much higher, we were expected to show much more in the field of reading, as well as to know more about Russia. The other feature was religiosity, there was a priest attached to the organization and there was a church in the camps.

I made a number of discoveries in this organization. First of all, in the area of ​​culture – it seems that all my talk about culture is to my shame and condemnation, but I can’t change that. I remember that once in the circle I was given the first task – I must have been 14 years old – to read an essay on the topic “Fathers and children”. My cultural horizons were not enough then to know that Turgenev had written a book with the same title. So I sat and pondered what could be said on the subject. So a week passed, I thought and thought, and of course, I didn’t come up with anything. I remember going to the circle meeting, cowering in the corner hoping that they would forget me, maybe I would get away with it. Of course they called me, made me sit on a stool and said: “Well?…” I sat, cringed and said: “I’ve been thinking about the given topic for a whole week…” And I was silent. In the profound silence that followed, I added, “But I didn’t come up with anything…” That was the end of the first lecture I ever gave in my life.

As for the Church, I was very anti-Church because I watched my fellow Catholics and Protestants, so God didn’t exist for me and the Church was a purely negative phenomenon.

My main experience in this regard was perhaps the following. When I found myself in emigration in 1923, the Catholic Church offered scholarships for Russian boys and girls in schools. I remember that my mother took me for an “examination”, someone spoke to me, and also to my mother, and everything was arranged; we thought the job was baked. And we were about to leave, when the one who had been talking to us detained us a minute, and said, “Of course, that supposes the boy will become a Catholic.” I remember getting up and saying to mom: “Let’s go, I don’t want you to sell me.” After this incident, I finished with the Church, because a feeling arose in me that if this is the Church, then there is really nothing for me to go there for and to be interested in it at all; I just didn’t see anything in this work…

Why can a stranger love me?

I must say I wasn’t the only one. During the summer, when there were camps, there was an all-night vigil on Saturday and mass on Sunday. We regularly did not get up for the liturgy, but we swept away the canvases of the tents so that the authorities could see that we were lying in bed and not going anywhere. So you see how dubious the premises of my religiousness were. In addition, there were several attempts at my awakening in this direction – they took me to church once a year, on Good Friday. The very first time I made a remarkable discovery, which always worked without fail (that is, during that period): I noticed that if I took three steps into the church, took a deep breath and inhaled incense, I instantly fainted. For this reason I never went more than three steps inside the temple. I passed out and was taken home, ending my yearly religious experience.

In this organization I noticed something that at first puzzled me greatly. In 1927 there was a priest in the children’s camp who looked very old to us – probably thirty years old, but he had a big beard, long hair, sharp features and one quality that none of us could explain: that , that he had enough love for everyone. He loved us not because we returned love or caress, he loved us not as a reward for being “good” and obedient or anything like that. Love just flowed from his heart. Everyone could have it in its entirety, not a particle or a drop, and that love never waned. This love for a boy or girl was for him a joy or a great sorrow. But these were, as it were, the two sides of the same love: it never waned, never wavered.

And indeed, if we read in the apostle Paul about love, about the fact that love believes all things, hopes all things, never fails and so on – all this could be seen in him, but I could not understand it at the time. I knew that my mother loved me, that my father loved me, that my grandmother loved me, that was the whole circle of flattering relationships in my life. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood where this came from. But at the time it was a question mark that stood in my mind, an unsolvable question.

But why a stranger to me could love me and love others who are also strangers to him, I could not understand at all.

And it so happened that during Lent some year, I think it was the thirtieth, our leaders started taking us to the volleyball court. Once we got together and it turned out that they had invited a priest to hold a spiritual talk with us savages.

Naturally, all looked to get away as best they could—those who could escape, escaped; those who had the courage to resist resisted, but the leader overcame me. He was not persuading me that I should go because it would be good for my soul or anything like that, because if he had reasoned with the soul or with God I would not have believed him. Instead, he said: “Listen, we have invited Father Sergius Bulgakov. Can you imagine what it will spread around town for us if no one comes to the talk?”. I thought to myself – yes, loyalty to my group demands it. And the leader added the remarkable phrase: “I’m not asking you to listen!” You sit and think about something of your own, just be there.” I thought: why not go, and I left.

The Shortest Gospel

And everything was really good, except that Father Sergius Bulgakov spoke very loudly and prevented me from thinking about my own things. I listened, and what he said drove me into such a state of fury that I could no longer tear myself away from his words. I remember that he spoke about Christ, about the Gospel, about Christianity. He was a remarkable theologian, a remarkable man for grown-ups, but he had no experience with children, and he talked to us like little animals, presented us with all the sweetness that could be found in the Gospel, all that we would recoil from, so I too I drew back: meekness, humility, unobtrusive demeanor—all slavish qualities we are reproached with, beginning with Nietzsche and continuing.

He brought me to such a state that I decided not to return to the volleyball court, even though it was the passion of my life, but to go home, look for a gospel at home, check and be done with it. It didn’t even cross my mind that I wouldn’t finish, because it was perfectly obvious that the priest knew his job…

It turned out that mom has a Gospel, I turned to my corner, looked at the book and noticed that there are four Gospels, and if there are four, then one of them must be the shortest. And since I didn’t expect anything good from any of the four, I decided to read the shortest one. And here I lost the battle. Many times since then it has struck me how cunning God is when He casts His nets to catch fish. Because if I had read another gospel, I would have had difficulties – every gospel is conditioned by some cultural basis. Mark wrote specifically for such young people as me – for the Roman youth. I didn’t know that, but God did. And Mark may have known it when he wrote a shorter gospel than the others…

So, I sat down to read. You’ll have to take my word for it here because it’s not something that can be proven. What happened to me is what happens sometimes on the street, you know – as you walk, you suddenly turn around because you feel someone walking behind you. I was sitting, reading and between the beginning of the first and the beginning of the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which I was reading slowly because the language was unfamiliar, I suddenly felt that on the other side of the table stood Christ… And it was such an overwhelming feeling that I felt made me stop, stop reading and look up.

I watched for a long time. I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing.

But as I looked straight ahead at the place where there was apparently no one, I had the overwhelming feeling that Christ was undoubtedly standing there.

I remember leaning back and thinking – if Christ is standing here alive, then this is the resurrected Christ. So I know without any doubt, within my own personal experience, that Christ is risen, and therefore everything they say about Him is true. This is roughly the same logic as the early Christians who saw Christ and accepted the faith not through an account of what was in the beginning, but through an encounter with the living Christ, from which it follows that the crucified Christ was the One, for Who is being talked about, and that all the preceding narrative makes sense.

For every passerby, I thought: “God made you out of love!”

I continued reading, but it was already completely different. I now remember my first discoveries very vividly. As a fifteen-year-old boy, I probably would have expressed it differently, but anyway my first thought was: what if this is true, then everything in the Gospel is true, then life has meaning, then you can only live to share this with others a miracle that I discovered, for nothing else. There must be thousands of people who don’t know this and they need to be told as soon as possible.

Second – if this is true, then everything I’ve thought about people is not true. So God created everyone, He loved everyone to death, and for that reason, even if they think they are my enemies, I know they are not.

I remember how the next morning I came out and walked as in a changed world; I looked at every person I met and thought: God made you out of love! He loves you! You are my brother, you are my sister; you can destroy me because you don’t know it, but I know it and that’s enough… This was my most startling discovery.

Further, as I continued to read, I was struck by God’s respect and consideration for man; if men are ready to trample each other in the mud, God never does. For example, in the story of the prodigal son – the prodigal son admits that he has sinned before Heaven, before his father, that he is not worthy to be his son; he is even ready to say: “Accept me at least as rathai…” But if you have noticed, in the Gospel the father does not allow him to say this last phrase, he only lets him speak until “I am not worthy to be called your son”, and at that moment he interrupts him, welcomes him back into the family: bring shoes, bring a ring, bring clothes… Because you can be an unworthy son, but a worthy servant and slave – never. The right to be a son is not revoked. This is the third.

And the last thing that struck me, and which then I would probably have expressed quite differently, is that God – and such is the nature of love – knows how to love us so much that he is ready to share everything with us to the end: not only the existence through the Incarnation , not only the limitation of all life through the consequences of sin, not only physical suffering and death, but also the most terrible – the condition of mortality, the condition of hell: the deprivation of God, the loss of God, from which a person dies. This is the cry of Christ on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” – this is the inclusion not only of God-forsakenness, but also of godlessness, which kills man, this is God’s willingness to share our godlessness, as if to go with us to hell, because the descent of Christ into hell – this is precisely the descent into the ancient Old Testament Sheol, i.e. that place where there is no God… I was struck by the fact that God’s willingness to share man’s destiny, to restore man, is boundless.

This coincided – when very soon after that I entered the Church – with the experience of a whole generation of people who, before the revolution, knew God from the great temples, from the solemn services; people who had lost everything – the Motherland, their loved ones, and, often times, their self-respect and some position in the world that would give them the right to live; people who were wounded very deeply and therefore were so vulnerable… They suddenly discovered that because of his love for man, God had willed him to become just that: defenseless, vulnerable to the end, powerless, powerless, despised by those who believe only in the victory of strength. And then a side of life that means a lot to me was revealed to me. Namely, that we can not only love our Christian God, but also respect Him – not only worship Him for being God, but worship Him with a sense of deep respect, I can’t find another word.

Two and a half hours of prayers a day

Basically, it was the end of a whole period in my life. I tried to live out my renewed faith in a different way. To begin with, I was overcome with rapture and gratitude for what had happened to me, and I did not miss anyone. I was a student, traveling to school and directly addressing the adults on the train: “Have you read the Gospel? Do you know what it says?” Not to mention my friends at school who suffered a lot from me.

Second, I began to pray. No one had taught me this and I started experimenting, just falling on my knees and praying as best I could. Then I came across a school timetable, I learned to read in Church Slavonic and I read the service – it took me about eight hours a day, but it didn’t last very long because life didn’t allow it. In the meantime, I was accepted to the university, so there was no way to both study at full speed and deal with it. But I learned the services by heart, and as I walked to the university and to the hospital in practice, I managed to say matins on the way there, to read the hours on the way back; I didn’t force myself to read, it was a real bliss for me, that’s why I read. Then Father Mikhail Belsky gave me a key to our little church on rue Montant-Saint-Genevieve, so I could stop by on my way or on my way home, but it was complicated. And in the evening I prayed for a long time, because I am very slow, the technique of my prayers was very slow.

I read the evening rule, one might say, three times – I read each phrase, I was silent, I read it a second time with prostration, I was silent and I read it for final perception – and so the whole rule…

All this together took about two and a half hours, which was not always easy and comfortable, but it was very useful and I enjoyed it, because the light reaches you when you have to respond with your whole body. “Lord, have mercy!” – you will say with a clear consciousness, then you will say it with a bow, then you will stand up and already say it to strengthen it, and so one after another. The feeling arose in me that this is life – while I pray, I live; beyond that there is something twisted, something missing. And I read the lives of the saints by Cheti-Minei simply page after page until I read all the lives of the hermits. In the early years, I was very fascinated by the lives and words of the desert fathers, which even now mean much more to me than the words of many theologians.

From hermit to doctor

When I graduated high school, I thought: what should I do? I was about to become a hermit – it turned out that there were very few deserts left, and with such a passport as mine they would not let me into any desert, besides, I had a mother and grandmother to somehow take care of, and it was not from the desert possible. Then I wanted to become a priest, then I decided to go to the Valaam monastery. In the end, it all came together in one thought, I don’t know how it was born, but it was probably a combination of different ideas – that I could secretly become a monk, become a doctor, go to some part of France where there are Russians, too poor and few in number, to have a temple and a priest, to become their priest, to support myself as a doctor, and perhaps to help the poor; on the other hand as a doctor I can be a Christian all my life, in this context it is easy: care, charity…

I enrolled in the Faculty of Natural Sciences (Sorbonne), then in Medicine. It was a very difficult period – I had to choose either a book or food. During that year I became quite exhausted, I could only walk about fifty paces down the street (I was nineteen at the time), then I would sit for a while at the end of the pavement, get up and go on to the next corner. But I survived…

At the same time I found a clergyman, and indeed I did, I was looking for him no more than I was looking for Christ. I went to our only patriarchal church in all of Europe – then, in 1931, we were only fifty people – I went towards the end of the service (I looked for the church for a long time, it was in an old cellar), I met a monk, a priest, and something in him struck me As you know, there is a saying on Athos that you should not throw away everything in this world, if you do not see in the face of at least one person the radiance of eternal life… And lo, he was climbing up the steps of the church, and I saw the radiance of the eternal life. I approached him and said: “I don’t know who you are, but will you accept to become my confessor?”.

We remained connected until his very death, and he was truly a great man—he is the only man I ever met in my life who possessed such a measure of freedom—not of arbitrariness, but of that evangelical freedom, the kingly freedom of the gospel. And he began to teach me. After I decided to become a monk, I started preparing for it.

Note: Vladyka Anthony’s autobiographical story was recorded in 1973. The first publication was the Novy Mir magazine. 1991. No. 1.

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