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"I greet the readers of this book in the English-speaking world with all my heart" A review by Antonio Mennini, Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain.

Over the years of my ministry in Russia I have been very touched by what I have many times encountered, and what is described in this book—the simple, almost child-like religiosity that is not necessarily impeccable, but by virtue of its very inconsistency and imperfection is even more disarming. It is rather a seeking and contemplation of Jesus in everyday life. The gift of sanctity borne in Russian people often expresses that “everyday holiness”, reflected particularly in fools-for-Christ and startsy or “elders” (monks with a special religious experience, who possess the gift of spiritual guidance and prophecy).

While fools-for-Christ have always been isolated cases, the monastic tradition in Russia has deep and extensive roots—it could be said that the Russian people were born (spiritually) in the eleventh century in Kiev, around the Kiev-Caves Lavra. In the fourteenth century Russia flourished once more, after the dramatic period of the Mongol Yoke and internal wars, finding socio-political unity thanks to St. Sergius of Radonezh and the monastery he founded. The vast spread of monastic practice across the country began there. This practice echoes Benedictine monasticism and the practice of monastic mendicancy the West. In the coming centuries, despite the fact that Peter the Great “beheaded” the Russian Church by depriving it of its Patriarch and instituting what was essentially a “Ministry of Religious Affairs”, the monasteries and startsy remained the highest spiritual guidance for the common people and intelligentsia alike. All the major figures of nineteenth century Russian culture, from Gogol to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (to mention only the greatest) knocked upon the gates of Optina Monastery. One monastic practice, the “prayer of the heart” (Jesus Prayer), soon became the heritage of Russian spiritual life, later spreading widely across the Western world.

This marvelous book by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov) addresses this tradition once again after the painful period of Soviet rule, and gives us a unique picture of Russian society, especially Russian youth, from the perestroika period to the present time. The publication of this book last year became a great event in the cultural life of Russia. In just a few months after its release the book was at the top of the bestseller lists in the largest bookstores of secular Moscow. The author, who is the Abbot of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, holds the position of executive secretary of Patriarchal council for culture and is known in Russia as a spiritual father of President Putin. Undoubtedly the author’s high-profile determined the popularity of the book—more than 1000 people attended the presentation of the book in the State Library—and its enormous success: four print runs and over than 500,000 copies sold within the first few months.

Nevertheless, the author’s calm, removed, and positive views more probably determined the book’s phenomenal popularity. Father Tikhon has successfully fulfilled an extremely important task, combining the ability to formulate the problems of life with true faith using modern language, beginning a dialogue with modern man on his own territory, yet avoiding all banality and primitive cliché…

Although language is still a sufficiently serious obstacle in the dialogue between Church and society in Russia, the author addresses the reader without making any condescension to his or her supposed spiritual immaturity. He refuses to fit faith into the framework of piety in order to make it more appetizing, or even presenting it at the cost of diluting or changing it. He does not stand on a pedestal or try to convince anyone; he only recounts his own experience, sharing it, but never playing upon his listener.

This approach begins with the very title of the book chosen by the author. Introducing the book, the author says that, “this book is about all of us, called to holiness despite our infirmities.” Everyday Saints tells us the story of the monastic calling of young Georgiy Shevkunov in the Pskov Caves Monastery: “It was 1984 at the time, and there were five of us. Four had grown up in nonreligious families, and even for the fifth in our group, the son of a clergyman, our preconceptions of the sort of people who go off to join a monastery were utterly Soviet. Just a year earlier, each of us had firmly believed that the only people who ever entered a monastery nowadays were fanatics or complete failures in life. Losers, in short—or else victims of unrequited love.” Why were these healthy young people, full of life’s energy, doing this? “We knew very well. It was because, for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty. And that world had turned out to be boundlessly more attractive than the one in which we had previously lived our young and so-far very happy lives.

“In this book I want to tell you about this beautiful new world of mine, where we live by laws completely different from those in ‘normal’ worldly life—a world of light and love, full of wondrous discoveries, hope, happiness, trials and triumphs, where even our defeats acquire profound significance: a world in which, above all, we can always sense powerful manifestations of divine strength and comfort (p. 1–2).”

After the period of spiritual seeking (not without dangerous adventures, such as spiritualist séances) in 1982, young Georgiy is baptized and heads off to the Pskov Caves Monastery for a short time (as he thought then) for obedience and reflection. In fact, his acquaintance with this new world changed him radically; he became a “different man”, and thus was his future path determined.

This preface is followed by a series of stories that happen at the intersection of two worlds—inside and outside the church fence—which highlight the paradox and humanity of church life, an ability to look at life events from a new, unusual angle, and discern the intricate weave of a mysterious pattern that recognizes the signs of God’s presence in our real life.

One of the book’s characters is Father Raphael (Boris Ogorodnikov), the one with whom the author practiced his first obedience—“an idler” in the eyes of the world and even perhaps in the eyes of many religious people, because he spends all his time talking with people over a cup of tea, doing almost nothing for his parish. “But it seems that Fr. Raphael had his own particular agreement with the Lord God. Therefore everyone with whom he drank tea sooner or later became Orthodox Christians, all without exception!” Father Raphael’s secret was in his open heart: “But Fr. Raphael endured everything and everyone. Actually, he didn’t even endure them—that’s not really the right word, because he never even felt slightly burdened by it. In fact, he enjoyed this time that he spent drinking tea with absolutely anyone, always telling stories, always remembering something interesting from his life in the Pskov Caves Monastery, or talking about his old spiritual mentors, the elders of Pechory. Anyone sitting down to drink tea with Father Raphael found that once he had gotten going, it was impossible to tear oneself away.” But even the most exciting stories, as the author notes, are not enough to transform “people who have gotten themselves hopelessly lost in this cold world, and what’s worse, in their own selves… For transformation, you need to show them hope, show them the opening to a new life, a new world, in which meaninglessness, suffering, and cruel injustice does not triumph, but where, reigning omnipotent over everything, are faith, hope, and love. And then you need to not only show them this new world from afar, pointing towards it, but you need to bring them to this world by yourself. You need to take them by the hand to the physical presence of the Lord God Himself. Only then will they recognize Him, the One Whom they have long truly loved deep inside their hearts, their one and only Creator, Savior, and Father (p. 462).”

The same Father Raphael, in the final story that gave the whole book its title, meets an inglorious death according to the traditional canons. In addition to tea drinking he was passionate about cars and died in a car accident, driving an old bright red Mercedes that was given to him by one of his parishioners. Archimandrite Tikhon underscores the presence of paradoxical holiness beyond the customary patterns: “My friends were all ordinary people. There are many like them in our Church. And of course they are very far indeed from canonization. It’s quite out of the question.” “Why did we all love Rather Raphael so much? He was an awful prankster, he couldn’t say a sermon to save his life, and very often it seemed he busied himself a lot more about his car than he did about us.” But nevertheless, the author concludes as he recalls his friend, “We could see in him an absolutely remarkable example of living faith. One cannot confuse such spiritual strength with anything else, no matter what other eccentricities or frailties a person may otherwise be weighed down with.” “Yet still, though we are frail and feeble sinners, we remain His disciples, and there is truly nothing more beautiful in this world than the contemplation of the remarkable unfolding of the Providence of our Savior in His divine will for the salvation of this world (p. 489–490).

I greet the readers of this book in the English-speaking world with all my heart.

+ Antonio Mennini

Apostolic Nuncio in Great Britain

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