By Antonio Gaspari
ROME, 5 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
Having survived Soviet Communism,
Russian Orthodox monasticism now faces the new threat of
secularization as it passes through a period of testing that
only time can heal.
Father Petr Mescerinov expressed these ideas as he discussed
with ZENIT the new and enduring challenges of Russian
monasticism. The hegumen (a title similar to abbot) of the St.
Daniil Monastery of Moscow was in Italy for a conference on
Eastern and Western monasticism.
Father Mescerinov is vice-director of the Center for the
Spiritual Formation of Children and Adolescents of the Moscow
ZENIT: How important is contemplation and action in Eastern
Father Mescerinov: I can speak of Russian monasticism. Already
from ancient times, by tradition, we have two different monastic
ways connected to two Russian saints: St. Nil of Sora and St.
Joseph of Volokolamsk. They were contemporaries and argued
vehemently, even among themselves.
Those were very profound diatribes, rather complex disputes, and
I could summarize thus, briefly, the currents that the two
saints advocated: Nil of Sora defended the contemplative
dimension, whereas Joseph of Volokolamsk defended the active
It cannot be said that these two aspects are in contradiction to
one another, because in regard to the contemplative dimension,
we see its influence also in Russian cultural life, in
literature, in the rediscovery of the Church Fathers. On the
other hand, if we take St. Joseph Volokolamsk's more active
current, more involved with the social [realm], we can observe
that with his action he did not intend to replace the state, but
remained firm in his adherence to his own contemplative roots.
To conclude, we can say that there is no real contradiction
between the two dimensions.
Already St. Macarius the Great said that each monk has his
specific vocation, his specific activity; therefore, those who
contemplate should not judge those who serve and vice versa,
those who serve should not judge those given to the
contemplative life, because they are profoundly linked with one
another and together constitute the true Christian monastic
ZENIT: Who are the martyrs of Russian monasticism? How many are
Father Mescerinov: In regard to Russian monasticism, we can
speak above all of the new martyrs of the 20th century. Many
have been canonized and many others are yet to be canonized, but
the massive closure of monasteries in the Soviet age attests
that the monks gave their life to defend the monastic ideal.
ZENIT: In face of the rapid and uncontrolled race of modernity,
how are Russian monastic communities reacting?
Father Mescerinov: The monastic communities are reacting in two
different ways. To answer this question it is necessary to keep
in mind that the Russian monastic tradition was violently
interrupted during the Soviet period, and because of this,
Russian monasticism today is in fact looking for an answer to
For the time being, no answer has been found, so there are two
variants: either a radical separation and self-exclusion from
the world, which is not the healthy "leaving the world," which
was understood in the past when thinking of monasticism, but a
maniacal way to protect oneself from the aggression of the
world. [And] the second variant is linked to secularization,
declaring oneself exteriorly to be a monk, but in reality one is
inserted in the course of the secular life of everyone.
This moment of testing has not yet found an answer in the life
of the Church. In my personal opinion, I think the community
must certainly protect itself from certain phenomena of the
modern world, but this protection must happen in a sober,
appropriate, healthy and ecclesial way, and not in an asocial
ZENIT: What is the reality of these communities today?
Father Mescerinov: The principal tragedy of our ecclesial life
today is the absolute lack of community. There are communities
that are born in contrast to the position of the Church in a
general sense; however, there are no communities as such as a
norm of community life.
This is linked no doubt to the Soviet legacy, because in that
period every aggregation was regarded with suspicion and in
danger of being repressed; in fact, an anti-solidary instinct
has been created in the very conscience of many generations of
When people enter the Church today, educated according to this
mentality, it is very difficult [for them] to feel and even to
understand that it is a Christian community, because any form of
aggregation suffers the influence of Soviet collectivism,
whereas the Christian community and Soviet collectivism are two
things that have nothing to do with one another.
Because of this, Russians today do not have a predisposition to
community life, and this is also reflected in monastic life. We
do not have true communities and our own monastic communities;
we have formally organized monasteries, there are some monks,
some individuals alone with a straight and sincere vocation, but
they are not able to insert themselves well in the community.
This is no doubt a task for the future, or perhaps our ecclesial
and social life has arrived at a point of no return in which it
is practically impossible to return to genuine solidarity. But
the future will show this.
[Translation by ZENIT]