Contemporary Monasticism, God's Will, and Everyday Life: A Conversation with Archimandrite Tikhon
Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov),
abbot of Sretensky Monastery in
central Moscow and author of the best-selling
Saints and Other Stories, spoke with Anna
Danilova, editor-in-chief of pravmir.ru. Many of the
questions concerning the state of contemporary
monasticism are raised in the context of the ongoing
discussion of the revised “Regulations on the
Monasteries and Monastics,” submitted to the
dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church for review by a
commission of the Inter-Council Presence, of which Fr.
Tikhon is a member.
Monastery vs. World
Fr. Tikhon, what is the primary purpose of a
monastery? Should a monastery serve the world?
The primary purpose of a monastery is to help a monk leave
the world and everything that is in the word in order to
serve God and people for the salvation of his soul.
If, by Divine providence, a monastery is
located in the center of a large city, and if the Lord
has led a monk thereto, then he should not turn his
back on pastoral and educational service, if the Church
calls him to such.
Is there some way to set the balance between a
monastery’s outward and inward life?
I don’t know. Sretensky Monastery’s given
obedience is the training of future pastors. Is this an
inward or an outward activity of the monastery? Amazing
fellows come to our seminary; I truly admire them. We
publish books, which is an outward activity –
it’s how we support the monastery and seminary. But,
most importantly, this is also the spiritual obedience
bequeathed to us by Fr. John (Krestiankin).
Or, speaking of inward service: does this just mean
only private prayer and divine services? I
don’t think that’s right.
We started building a skete in the Ryazan Oblast
[southeast of Moscow] so we could get away from the hustle
and bustle now and then. But there we found new
parishioners, ruined churches, and even a collective farm
[kolkhoz] in need of care. We had to restore the
whole village, so there’d be a church with people
living around it. Our new parishioners need the new church
we are building. They can’t fit into the old church
on great feast days, being forced to stand outside. But
the brothers don’t need a large church. Is this then
an outward activity?
The Holy Fathers said that a monk should do everything as
service to God, even if it’s sweeping the courtyard
or standing at the stove. If one goes about it like this,
then such questions would probably just not come up.
And you have an orphanage in the Ryazan
Yes, we saw a boarding school nearby and gradually began
helping it. Raising children is not a job for monks
– that’s ridiculous even to speak of. We do
visit them as Father Frost to bring presents and we also
help support them financially. The kids come to services
in our church. Graduates of our seminary, married priests
and their families, take care of the most important part.
They have experience raising children, so they go there to
guide and to educate.
All the same, is there some way to
draw a line between outward and inward service, to
come up with a reasonable measure?
I don’t see any insoluble dilemma here. For us this
is all somehow normal, and it’s even strange for
anyone to see a problem here.
But what if there is no charity work at a
monastery – no orphanage or almshouse? Is that
No charity work? That doesn’t happen. Every
monastery prays for the world. That’s its main work.
If for some reason a monastery doesn’t engage in
what is now commonly called “charity work,” I
can’t quite imagine how it would be possible to
impose this from above. How would this work? A monastery
is leading its life and then an order comes along:
“Open an orphanage!” That’s absurd.
Everything should naturally flow from the circumstances in
which the Lord has placed us.
Can you compare whether it’s easier for a
monastery to engage in charity work in the middle of a
city or in the countryside?
The view exists that the further away one gets from the
capital, the more difficult it becomes to organize aid. I
completely disagree. For instance, not far from the
Pskov-Caves Monastery, on an isolated farmstead, lives the
handmaiden of God Eugenia. She moved there from Moscow and
is raising four adopted children with Down syndrome and
other serious conditions. She earns a living by painting
icons. Her farmstead is exactly the same as a convent with
one nun. It doesn’t matter whether she wears a skirt
or a robe, a scarf or a veil. The most important thing is
that she lives like a true nun – and there are
plenty of people like her. We know priests who have raised
fifty, seventy children. We know extremely small
monasteries that help dozens of people survive.
On the hermitic life.
Can a monk go into solitude, reclusion, or even
into the woods? There are sad examples, for example, of
monasteries fleeing to the forests to escape the VAT
Only the Lord Himself can select the
people whom He will lead, in due course, to the
solitary life. Here it’s impossible to regulate
and schedule. In our monastery we have monks who know
only cell, church, and obedience. They are already
living in solitude and prayer in the very center of
Moscow. But there are also monks in remote monasteries
who, in spirit, are actually loafers. In Russia there
is no lack of genuinely secluded monasteries that serve
God and people spiritually and prayerfully.
Which path is preferable: the contemplative or the
One’s path might be active or it might be
contemplative, but the main thing is to understand
God’s will for oneself. If one goes into the desert
against God’s will, then one’s ascetic
struggle will be for sin and perdition. And vice versa.
On God’s will
Fr. Tikhon, how does one in fact hear
and understand God’s will for oneself? It
sounds wonderful… but how?
To hear, understand, and feel God’s will for
oneself, and then to find the strength to fulfill this it
– I think that this is the most important thing in a
person’s life. I always say in our pastoral theology
courses that priests and spiritual fathers have one task:
to seek and find God’s will together with the person
who comes to them. Don’t rush to say: “See,
God’s will is such-and-such.” Rather, one
needs to seek it out gradually in the various
circumstances of one’s life. It is presumptuous and
silly for someone to claim: “God’s will has
been revealed to me!” Fr. John (Krestiankin), an
Elder to whom – I am sincerely convinced – the
Lord did indeed reveal His will for people, only once said
to me: “This is God’s will for you.” In
certain circumstances of life, finding God’s will is
quite easy, because it is stated in the Gospel in the most
straightforward manner. But sometimes circumstances get so
tangled up that it can be very difficult to understand
what one ought to do.
A difficult task…
Yes, it can sometimes be very difficult for a spiritual
father to guide someone to an understanding of God’s
will. It is no wonder that the Holy Fathers wrote that
pastoral service is the “art of arts and science of
Is this, generally speaking, a feasible task
– given that even Fr. John (Krestiankin) spoke to
you directly about God’s will only once?
He spoke about it only once, but he many times led many
people to an understanding of God’s will.
You’re right; it’s a difficult task. But, on
the other hand, this certainly doesn’t mean that
someone, along with his spiritual father, cannot
understand God’s will. The Lord puts priests in a
position to help lead people to salvation by God’s
will. Pastors gradually, step by step, uncover the will of
God alongside their spiritual children – through
life itself, through Holy Scripture, through questioning
more experienced people. This is a great gift of God in
our Orthodox Church.
On monks and private property
Can monks own property?
You know, Greek monks don’t own any property at all.
I brought a Greek translation of my book to an Athonite
monastery because I wanted to give them two copies, one to
the abbot and one to the monastery translator. They
wouldn’t even leave them in their cells! They said
that once they had read them, they would give them to the
monastery library. But we should remember that Greek monks
enter monasteries that have been in existence for a
thousand years before them, which already have everything
necessary for the monastic and liturgical life.
Russia, however, everything has worked out differently.
I recall our Elders: Fr. John, Fr. Adrian, Fr.
Theophan… They had their own books and
liturgical vessels, just in case, and their own
clothing and icons. Judge for yourself: Fr. John
(Krestiankin) served six parishes in succession in the
Ryazan Oblast after his prison stints – he was
transferred from one to another. As soon as one had
been restored, he would be transferred to another
ruined church. Where, during the Soviet era, could one
find the Holy Scriptures? It was the same thing with
the works of the Holy Fathers and prayer books –
he had his own. It was the same, too, with icons and
liturgical vessels. Where could these be found in
|Archimandrite Innocent (Prosvirnin) (+1994).
I remember what Archimandrite Innocent (Prosvirnin) in the
Publishing Department taught me: “When you become a
priest, buy yourself a nice cup and saucer and draw a
little cross on the bottom of both. Then you’ll have
a chalice and a paten. When persecution begins,
you’ll travel from city to city and serve in secret.
If the KGB catches you and finds liturgical vessels,
they’ll immediately seize everything. But here you
just have a cup and saucer – they won’t take
them away, they won’t guess!” That’s
very wise, wouldn’t you say? During a search,
who’ll notice a cup and saucer? But in reality
it’s a chalice and paten, and the teaspoon is a
How is the issue of private property addressed in
Monks have their own books and icons. No televisions or
tapes. If someone owned a car when entering the monastery,
it is used for monastery purposes. Monks go by car to
bring Communion to the sick and get supplies; they are
manned by roster on Saturdays and Sundays. Many have
computers. But in our rule we have special guidelines
defining how they can be used. Generally speaking, half of
our brothers work in book production: writing, editing,
and correcting. I need to have a computer in my cell, but
one of our monks who is a genius, a virtuoso in computers,
doesn’t have one in his cell. There’s nothing
at all in his cell, not even a bed – he sleeps on
On luxury among monks
Today the question of luxury among monastics, of
expensive cars, is particularly acute…
Luxury is impermissible for monks.
Sometimes it seems that someone falls greedily upon
everything he couldn’t acquire earlier, using
such opportunities to the detriment of his soul –
and not only his.
Can anything be done about this?
I think this is a topic for a future Council. Of course,
there can be complexities and even misunderstandings. For
example, I take photographs for our site and our books. We
have a very good professional-grade camera. It’s not
mine, but if someone seems me taking photographs, they
might think: “That’s quite some camera that
On monks going on leave
Should monks be able to go on leave?
As with the election of abbots, this question cannot be
answered unequivocally – that either they should or
should not be able to take leaves. We have monks who never
go on leave. One monk goes on leave for exactly two days,
travels to his patron saint, receives Communion there, and
then returns. Then there are also monks with physical
ailments for whom it’s simply essential that they go
somewhere to restore their health, spend time in a
different climate, and breathe different air. I myself
have just returned from such a trip, to treat my lungs.
On the monastic typikon
Fr. Tikhon, should there be a single typikon
[ustav, meaning “charter” or
“rule”] for monasteries?
In the documents of the Inter-Council Presence we wrote,
in principle, an approximate general typikon for
monasteries – in principle, and approximate. Every
monastery should adopt its own typikon at a brotherhood
council, correcting whatever it considers necessary and
only then submitting it to the bishop for approval. Still,
there are certain basics. There is the civil statute of
the Russian Orthodox Church outside of which we
can’t exist. There are historically formed typika,
such as those of the Yuriev Monastery in Novgorod or the
Trinity-Sergius Lavra. The latter was developed in the
twentieth century and is followed by essentially all
monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church. One
can’t simply cast aside these typika. One can use
many of them as bases, and then develop, discuss, and
adopt them with the brethren for approval by the bishop.
On abbatial elections
Should an abbot be elected or
I will immediately outline my position.
Ideally, the abbot should be elected by the brethren and
confirmed by the bishop. This is how it’s done today
in many [local] Orthodox Churches. This is the
centuries-tested, perfectly proper way for those
monasteries that have deep-rooted monastic traditions and
a continuity of monastic piety and living ascetic
experience that has been passed down through the
generations. The classic example, cited by practically all
supporters of abbatial elections, is Mount Athos, where
monastic continuity hasn’t been interrupted for
I’m in complete agreement with this, but I’d
like to draw attention to two not insignificant points.
First, such a tradition has never been widespread in the
Russian Church. Whether you like it or not, this cannot be
ignored. Second, and more importantly: today’s
Russian monastic communities aren’t just young
– they’re in very early infancy. This can
hardly be disputed. Even fifteen years ago it was
fashionable to say ironically: “This isn’t a
monastery, it’s a Komsomol [Young Atheist]
campaign!” There was some truth contained in these
poisonous, essentially unfair words: a significant
percentage of the monastic brethren had been literally
called by God from among yesterday’s atheists and
These monks are now forty, fifty, sixty years old. But at
issue here, it goes without saying, is not human age, but
rather the spiritual maturity of monastic communities.
It’s an obvious and perfectly natural fact that not
all these monasteries have reached voting age. Hence the
well-founded fear that abbatial elections could result in
the sorts of power struggles we’ve already
discussed, that is, in confrontations between different
groups, factions, and parties. And it’s hard to
think of anything worse for monastery life. By the way,
this even happens from time to time in Greece, in spite of
all their centuries of continuity.
The latter, of course, certainly doesn’t mean that
we should give up the aspiration to achieve the proper
ordering of monastic life. On the contrary, we should
aspire to just that. After all, the advantages of a
reasonable and legitimate election are perfectly obvious:
if the monastery brethren ask permission from the bishop
to elect their own abbot, they thereby indicate that their
candidate is not only the best and worthiest of their
brethren, but that they themselves want to honor him as a
father to whom they will submit not fearfully, but
conscientiously. Finally, an election implies that all the
brethren are prepared to share with the abbot the
responsibility for the monastery before God and the
Church. Aspiring towards this is indeed essential, but we
also need to remember the words of St. Ambrose of Optina:
“So as not to be mistaken, you should not
Of this I am deeply convinced: before long the time will
come when one monastery after another, both women’s
and men’s, will receive from their bishops the right
to elect their own abbots. Even the current
“Regulations on the Monasteries” should
certainly not exclude this.
Monks don’t need ecclesiastical awards
[nagrady], but this is something that is truly
desirable: that the right to participate in the election
of an abbot or abbess be received from the hierarchy like
a higher ecclesiastical award or recognition, since it is
for the good ordering of a monastery’s spiritual
On the revelation of thoughts
What do you think of the practice of revelation of
Fr. John (Krestiankin) had a very cautious attitude
towards the constant revelation of thoughts in our days.
He felt that not all spiritual fathers had matured to the
point that they could constantly receive the revelation of
thoughts. Although I know of a convent in which the abbess
receives the revelation of thoughts, and their experience
has been wholly positive.
In our monastery we have weekly Confession. Priests
confess before every service. I am both the spiritual
father of the brotherhood and the abbot. I think that this
is the right thing for Srentensky Monastery today. A
different approach is possible when the abbot and
spiritual father are different people. That, too, can be
right if it bears fruit. But we have instituted it this
way with the blessing of Fr. John (Krestiankin).
Communion is very important. Many of my more conservative
friends don’t support me in this, but I have seen
from experience that receiving Communion four times a week
– as the Holy Fathers, and Basil the Great in
particular, commanded us – is a vital and very
necessary practice for monks. We strive to keep to this
rule, and some receive Communion less often, but basically
we do so four times a week. On Thursdays we have a common
service for the brotherhood, when all of us – both
monks and novices – receive Communion.
But how should we deal with frequent
Confession, given that from one time to the next we
approach with one and the same list of sins?
Indeed, for people who have long ago been churched, their
list of sins, as a rule, remains one and the same from one
Confession to the next. A certain sense of formality can
arise in the spiritual life. But at home we often sweep
the floor and, glory be to God, we don’t have to
rake the Augean stables each time. This isn’t the
problem. The problem is when you begin to notice that the
life of certain Christians becomes more and more boring
every year. It should be just the opposite: it should
become all the more full and joyful. This is what amazes
me. That means that the most important thing isn’t
Should there be miracles, as in Everyday
There aren’t any miracles in that book: that’s
just everyday Christian life.