The patron saint’s day in the St. Elijah’s Vodlozero hermitage is just right this time. No festivals, no people who do not belong there. In spring the water inspectorate prohibited to use pontoon on the unquiet lake, and there are very few boats here nowadays. Not like in the past when so many boats used to come to the small island that those late for the service had to leave their boats a little way away, in the second or third row.
The monastery was established a little over a year ago. It was not until the last February that the Holy Synod approved the Hermitage. Before the Bolsheviks closed Ilyinsky it used to be the religious and administrative centre of Vodlozero area. In a small island there lived the priest, the deacon and junior deacons. Other people would settle there, too – the poor and crippled, disabled people and those without families: lonely widows and retired soldiers. The churchyard lived a peculiar life of a “parochial monastery” supported by local peasants. People from the entire neighbourhood would be buried here, except for those who died an unnatural death. There were no other cemeteries in the villages. If one died during the season of bad roads, he would be covered with some dirt or snow. However, they would still take them to Ilyinsky to bury when a waterway or sleigh-road was available.
At the moment there are four monks and a novice in the St.Elijah’s hermitage. In spite of its seclusion, the island is always open towards both curious tourists and religious people. But it is unlikely that an odd person will stay here – peace of Vodlozero coenobites is guarded by tough life conditions and a long way from the continent.
We came in time for the evening service. We had tea in a room lighted with an oil lamp, listened to unhurried stories of the Father Superior and then settled for night on benches in a monastic cell. In the morning there was a liturgy, religious procession, Karelian chimes and a meal where all participants simply talked about water, fish and unceasing rain. Everything was without ceremony – thoroughly and with care. The only unusual thing about it was the boundaries they set for their home. They considered the whole Vodlozero and Ileksa River with its tributaries to be their home. This is a huge area, even in Russian standards.
Then, just like we agreed, Father Superior of the St.Elijah’s Vodlozero hermitage, father Kiprian, invited us to his cell to talk about their life:
“We have been in the island for a year. Last June we were blessed, built three cells and laid the foundation of a small winter church. And last December the Holy Synod established the St.Elijah’s Vodlozero hermitage. Our principle is pretty simple: we neither call anyone nor kick anyone out. May the Lord decide what the monastery should be like, and our task is to pray. This place is a blessed one, it is a strong place.
Earlier there was a pagan temple in the place of the churchyard. Over there, on the bank you can see a stone where human sacrifices used to be offered. The battle is very serious here, not so many people can endure it: there is too much resistance. Our life is hard – this alone is a trial. But, praise the Lord, few people come. People come and say they came for life, and three days later they are nowhere to be seen. Holiday is totally different – we get together, worship, rejoice, have communion, have a meal – it is great. But we also have dull working days, when all we do is work, hard work.
From fall on a spirit of despondency tortures us. When sky and water get together and become a leaden shroud, it is very important to undeviatingly stick to cell and church rules.
Unanimity is what matters, not the number. And where many follow, unanimity may be a problem. The enemy divides people: some support this, others support that, just like in society. The results are not good. Parties divide people, and the Lord unites them. We do not think that there will be more than seven people here. Being alone in a hermitage is very dangerous – it is difficult not to fall into temptation. When there are many people there it is not easy either. This is a great work and it is difficult to compare it with secular jobs where people are rarely motivated by spiritual search. There the net result of their work serves as balance of relations, and this result is something everyone understands. Here people do not serve to get salary; this work ends with their death. How and by what standards can it be evaluated?
Sometimes you feel you cannot bear it, tension is getting too great, and suddenly the Lord gives you comfort. At the same time comes understanding of the fact that all burdens come from the enemy, and behind him there are your own temptations that keep you from seeing joy. Remember, what Antony the Great wrote:
– Where were you, Lord, when the enemy was tempting me?
– I was near and waited till you call Me.
This is what we do in our sorrow and severity – we do not see anything and anyone around, just our own thoughts. Everything would be taken care of, but people do not let the Lord act, they just cram their space with vanity.
We rarely go out to the world. Sometimes I stay here for two months in a row; some brethren do not leave for six months. After a while (the exact time is different for everyone) you revert to stable state, and your soul finds comfort. The longer you stay in one place the more reluctantly you think about the mainland. Here I saw what the holy elders told us: most of all, the Adversary is afraid of human self-knowledge. The one who saw angels is not as high as the one who saw himself. For four years I had been reading the burial services at the cemetery and realized that very few people prepare for death. Very few. Here you get pierced with a clear and distinct thought: “Well, you are not what you know about yourself and not what people say about you”.
Disappointment and sadness surround you but then only quiet grief over God remains. The Lord reveals a little at a time so we can understand. If He showed more, humans would not be able to bear it.
There has to be room for solitude and silence in your life so you can understand what is going on with you and who you are. Why do people try to escape from silence? Silence makes you look into yourself, and you start examining yourself.
In order to gain you have to give something up. You start with the little, and this little seems to be a feat beyond your strength. As time goes by, you come to understanding what the real sacrifice is in the eyes of the Lord.
Here is a down to earth, simple situation. One day I saw a local man fishing. He pointed to my snowmobile and asked me: “Father Kiprian, why do you always ride the new one?” He has an old ‘Buran’ snowmobile, which is around twenty years old.
I said to him: “Nikolay, do you see the island? Come, leave your wife, your home, your TV-set, alcohol, cigarettes and meat – come to our island. Nikolay, you are going to have all new things!”
He did not think even a second. “Oh, no, no, no!”
“Well, my dear, you want to neither limit yourself nor deprive yourself of anything but you still want to have something! But this is not the way it happens!”
Monastery is different. One, who lived there, in such carefree state – on condition that you cut off your own will – will never desire a different life. Even though, according to an Athonian elder, monkhood is abnormal state. Monkhood came into existence when Christianity grew weaker.
In the first few centuries, persecution merely strengthened faith. But when it started growing weaker, there was a need to preserve true Christianity. As a matter of fact, we all should live like monks, if by this we understand keeping commandments, fast and church statute. In a church marriage there can also be true Christianity if our faith is a way of life. When such natural state is lost, one gets a desire to purify their soul. So monasteries get founded.
If we fight the good fight here, if we wisely follow God, even as an average Christian – neither with laziness nor with excess of asceticism, fast and praying – then our stay here will be lawful and righteous, and the Lord will help us through people and won’t forsake us”.