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"The Orthodox Spiritual Life is About a Relationship with the God-Man Jesus Christ" – An interview with Abbot Seraphim (Voepel)

Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia has become one of the most rapidly growing monastic communities in the Russian Church Abroad. Media Office correspondents spent a week living at the monastery in order to gain a better understanding of the daily life of monks. Reader Peter Lukianov met with the deputy abbot of the monastery, Abbot Seraphim (Voepel), for an interview on the process of joining the monastery and the spiritual impact the monastery has on its pilgrims. [Editor’s note: Today Fr. Seraphim is an archimandrite and abbot of the monastery; Peter Lukianov a subdeacon.]

– Having spent a week living with the monastics of this sacred community, I cannot help but notice the overwhelming presence of young novices and monks. It is hard to believe that so many young men choose to join the monastery in a country such as ours, where everything is in abundance and life is very comfortable. Why are so many young men abandoning the secular world and fleeing to the monastery?

– On one hand, what you are saying is true, there are lots of young men joining the monastery, but on the other hand, look at the size of the United States. If this were really a Christian country, we would have hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks.

When I look around at our contemporary society, at the abundance and luxury we live in, I am amazed that anyone can find their way out of all this to the monastic life. Our young people have been raised in a society that has developed the pursuit of pleasure to a degree unheard of in any previous society. I don’t think even pagan Rome can hold a candle to some of the things going on in our society today.

Just look at the corruption that can freely enter a home through the Internet. Look at the use of drugs in our elementary schools and the alarming degree of promiscuity found among high school and college students. Look at the high percentage of broken marriages and the sad effects this has on the children.

Most of our young people really are seeking something higher, something more spiritual, but there is no one to guide them, so they simply follow the crowd.

After a while, some of these young men grow tired and weary of all this pursuit of pleasure, and in their hunger for something more deeply satisfying, they turn to God with all their hearts, their broken and darkened hearts. And God, Who has placed this desire in their hearts, comes to them like the father with his prodigal son. He runs to them with His arms outstretched, He embraces them and binds up their wounds and consoles them with His grace. Then through repentance He leads them on the path He has chosen for them and this path is often the path of monasticism.

– As the spiritual father of the community, what do you look for in a monastery applicant? What can get one turned away?

– Most of all, we look for a spirit of sincerity, humility, and repentance. Men enter monastic life because they want to seek God above everything else, but how they have arrived at this place in their spiritual journey varies greatly with each man. Some come from pious homes where they were taught to pray as little children and to attend church services at an early age. Choosing a monastic life for these men almost seems natural. Others come from homes where they were taught nothing about God. They never attended church services and followed a very secular lifestyle. These men sometimes reach a stage where they realize something is wrong, something is missing, and they begin to sincerely search for a truer and deeper meaning and purpose for their life. It is this sincerity and repentance that we look for in a candidate.

– Can you explain the process that a man must go through to enter Holy Cross Monastery?

– First, he would write an introductory letter telling us about himself, his education, work experience, and especially his spiritual development. Then we would encourage him to come for a visit and live in the monastery for a few days and discuss his possible vocation. If this initial contact goes well, then we would ask his pastor or spiritual father for a letter of recommendation. This would then be followed by a longer visit, perhaps a few weeks or a month. If all this goes well, then we would allow him to come to the monastery as a candidate. After a few months as a candidate, he would be blessed to wear the black cassock for church services and meals. After a few more months, if all goes well, he may write a petition to Bishop George [Editor’s note: At that time, the monastery abbot.] and ask to be made a novice. If the bishop blesses, then he would be clothed as a novice with the cassock, belt, and skufia. After this point, he would then wear his monastic clothing at all times.

After three years of novitiate, he could then petition to be made a rassophore monk. If his petition is accepted, then the bishop would tonsure him and cloth him in the riassa and klobuk (cowl). After a period of time (this can vary from a few months to a lifetime), the rassophore monk can petition to make vows as a full monk and be tonsured to the Lesser Schema. If his petition is accepted, then in a beautiful ceremony where he enters the church clothed in a white baptismal robe, he makes his vows before the bishop, is tonsured, given a new name, and clothed in the full garments of a monk, cassock, riassa, paramon, mantia (mantle) and klobuk.

– What are some of the challenges that newcomers face upon entering the monastery?

– Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a newcomer is the kind of self-sacrificing that comes from living in community. If a man is really seeking God, then the words of our Savior will challenge him: "If you want to be My disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me." Without this dying to self, this humility, he will not be able to persevere in the monastery.

– What are some of the major misconceptions people have about Holy Cross Monastery and the monastic life in general?

– Many people think that monks are living saints, angels in the flesh, but this is simply not true. Monks are men who are called by God to be like the angels, in that they seek God and worship Him above all else. The monk must struggle with the help of God to be a man of prayer and a man of faith. The monk is only a man; even though he is called by God to be like the angels, he nevertheless falls down and then he gets back up again. This process of falling down and getting up is the spiritual struggle through which each monk goes in his journey towards union with Christ.

– One would have to be spiritually blind not to notice that the world around us is rapidly spiraling out of control. Secularism, modernism, and liberalism are eating away at the Christian roots of this great nation and many of us find ourselves feeling hopeless. Turn on any news channel and you will see that there is a sort of hidden persecution of Christians. The evil one is clever in his attacks on those who confess Christ, and although we rarely see outright violence, a battle is most certainly raging. We find it increasingly difficult to pray because the troubles of this world weigh greatly on the souls of Orthodox Christians. After spending several days in this holy place, one does not wish to return to the world, because the soul yearns to be with God and it is difficult to maintain a relationship with Christ in the secular world. What advice do you give departing pilgrims upon their return to the world? Is it possible to maintain a monastic spirit while living in the secular world?

– What you are saying appears to be sadly true; the contemporary world has become hostile to true Christian living. We feel this even within the monastery. Sincere modern Christians must seek refuge in prayer, both liturgical and private. There is no substitute for this. If we are not praying every day from our heart, then we will be defeated. Sometimes modern Christians think that the spiritual life is just another self-help program they can try out; this is absolutely untrue. The Orthodox spiritual life is about a relationship with the God-man Jesus Christ, the Creator of all things. The spiritual life is about entering into His presence and with humility and repentance asking His mercy and guidance. Without this, we cannot have the strength or wisdom to resist the powerfully seductive secular world around us.

– Sometimes as Orthodox Christians, we feel that we are not of this world and that we are not relevant to it. How should we react to the changes that are happening around us, specifically the various and increasingly successful liberal and progressive movements, without losing ourselves and our inner spiritual peace?

– I understand and share in your concern, but the only answer is the one St. Seraphim of Sarov gave: "Acquire the peace of God in your heart and a thousand souls around you will be saved." You as an individual Orthodox Christian cannot change the course of the world, but you can change yourself. It is, in fact, easier to think about changing the world than to try to change ourselves. If we find the world around us increasingly filled with hatred, then we must try to love; if we find the world running after material goods and pleasure, then we must try to live a simpler life; if we find the world has become preoccupied with carnal things, then we must try to be pure and chaste.

The inner peace that Christ gives us is not the peace of the world. It is not dependent upon proper social conditions or environmental factors. The early Christians would walk into the arena peacefully singing hymns as the lions attacked them. In the lives of the early martyrs, we read over and over again how bystanders and even Roman soldiers were converted by witnessing the firm faith and peaceful resolve of these early martyrs.

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