A wreath to Vladyka metropolitan Laurus from Reader Alexey Axyonov, a cleric in Bishop Evtikhii of Domodedovo parish in Moscow.
I wasn’t closely acquainted with Metropolitan Laurus, having had just a few encounters with him over a period of fifteen years. Many have much more of a right to speak about him. But the duties of love and memory prompt me to write what I recall and think about this unusual person.
My first encounter with Metropolitan Laurus was in Jordanville, on the monastery’s Feast Day of the Holy Trinity. At that time my zeal as a neophyte caused me to entertain the idea of dropping my university studies and enrolling in Holy Trinity Seminary. On the way back from church I discussed this with Vladyka Laurus. He told me that I should complete my studies at the university. “But that is a godless institution,” I commented, and Vladyka advised me not to listen to what is “godless” but to listen only to what is beneficial. That was the end of our conversation.
I must say that at our first encounter Vladyka Laurus didn’t make much of an impression upon me. And the same can be said of our second encounter, this time in Moscow, in 1996, when he served on St. Michael’s Day at our house church of the New Martyrs of Russia in Kitai Gorod. There was nothing particularly inspiring, neither in his appearance, nor in the way he carried himself, nor in his speech. Next to such striking hierarchs as Metropolitan Vitaly or Archbishop Anthony of Geneva, who were up and about at the time (not to mention those who had reposed), Vladyka Laurus seemed somehow expressionless. But I do remember what the elderly owner of the apartment which housed our church said about him: “This is a man with a heart.”
There were also comments by members of our semi-underground ROCOR community. Following one of Vladyko Laurus’ regular visits and services (by then the church was housed in a private school) a certain very ideological parishioner complained about ROCOR’s spiritual impoverishment, whose hierarchs preach on the level of “village priests.” I didn’t start arguing with such a judgment, but neither did it seem to me that it was an undeniable sign of impoverishment. (Later, when I started reading the epistles of Metropolitan Laurus as First Hierarch, they revealed a special quality of his words, which can be figuratively called “light-bearing.” This quality links Metropolitan Laurus’ sermons with the words of the Holy Archbishop John of Shanghai, which, in spite of all their simplicity, pour out an unchanging spiritual light).
However, my, so to speak, “discovery” of Metropolitan Laurus took place during another of his visits, in the early fall of 1998 or 1999. Following the Liturgy at the Church of the Martyr Czar Nicholas near Podolsk Vladyko and I exchanged a few comments. He asked me if I missed America. I told him that I didn’t miss America itself, but that I did miss certain people in America. In response to this he gave me a slight hug. In fact, it seemed that he wished to hug and caress each and every one, for he radiated benevolence. I also noticed that while conversing he would sometimes place his hand trustingly upon the hand of his interlocutor, expressing his favor with this gesture.
Later there was a meal in the home of the property owner (the church was situated at a private country estate). The conversation was disjointed, and Vladyko had little to say. But suddenly, at some point, I felt that “it was good for me to be here” — some kind of joy and peace came to my heart, and it simultaneously became clear to me that that the reason and source of this joy was in the taciturn elderly man sitting at the other end of the table. This spiritual joy remained with me for the rest of that day. I had been at various church meals many times, but had never experienced anything of the kind, either before or after this. It was on that day that it became clear to me that Vladyko Laurus, in spite of all his simplicity, was not at all a simple man, but was one who bore the grace of the Holy Spirit.
After this the great love for Vladyka Laurus that I would notice in certain people who knew him became understandable. Prior to that it seemed to me as an exaggerated bias of people toward a venerable hierarch, and, perhaps, toward one who was like-minded in questions of church politics. But it was the opposite. Metropolitan Laurus’ attraction was not on the level of ideas, but on the level of the heart, and it was precisely because of this that his “politics” turned out to be, in the final analysis, acceptable to many who rejected it on a purely ideological level. That was true with me as well, for I felt that Metropolitan Laurus was genuinely Orthodox, and my personal trust in him allowed me to remain with him, to remain in the Church, in spite of my non-acceptance of the terms under which the unification took place. And if a generalization is possible here, it could be said that without Metropolitan Laurus the unification between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate would still not have taken place.
There is no doubt that Metropolitan Laurus had done in this regard a huge amount of internal work, which in turn would have been impossible without his external feat of yearly visits to Russia, familiarizing himself with her church life. The primary impetus of this feat was, I think, his love for Russia, but its consequences turned out to be decisive for the fate of the entire Russian Church. One can find, in church publications outside Russia appearing in the early nineties, Metropolitan Laurus’ comments regarding the Moscow Patriarchate which were characteristic specifically of ROCOR’s right wing. But after Vladyko Laurus, one could say, went all over the Russian land “in the likeness of a servant,” he could see for himself that those whom he had previously labeled “KGB collaborators” are leading many Russians to salvation, and that God’s works are performed under their guidance. And so Vladyko Laurus started acting according to this spiritual reality rather than according to the views he had held twenty years before.
In general, it seems that realism and practical common sense were characteristic of Vladyko Laurus. He was not a thinker or an ideologist, but a monk and a man of prayer. His life tended to flow not in the sphere of ideas, but in direct spiritual struggle. It must be for this reason that such concepts as a “White” or “Red” Church remained foreign to him. He knew only one Church – Christ’s Church, so that the unification with the Moscow Patriarchate also turned out to be totally natural for him, as soon as he saw Christ in her.
And yet, this unification was probably not easy for him. He was not only a monk, but a pastor as well, and his ministry contained many people who regarded their provincial prejudices as having ideological content leading to salvation, and the voice of passions as zeal for faith. Could it have been for them that he tearfully prayed in the altar of the Sretensky Monastery Cathedral on the eve of the unification? The start of his path as First Hierarch was marked by the great sorrow of schism, and he could not have failed to foresee the new divisiveness. Undoubtedly, however, he was guided by a deep conviction of the unification’s spiritual benefit and of the harm of further delays in this matter, in spite of the inevitable numbers of those who would yield to temptation. Herein lies the tragedy of the pastorate, which is probably the only tragic situation possible in Christianity – the departure of those who had been near and dear to “a distant land.”
At this time those for whom he had wept are uttering, now that he has reposed, abusive and mindless words about him. This is only a witness to the fact that he fulfilled God’s will and in this way greatly upset the enemy. Otherwise, there is no explanation why this person, who is so meek and good-natured arouses such hostility. But back in 1976 Father Seraphim Rose wrote this about him: “He is so simple-hearted, and he had so many fierce enemies.” This means that spiritual struggle has been accompanying Vladyko Laurus for a long time.
At the same time he had no pretense of an aura of any special spirituality. And those who would start looking for external signs in him of spiritual gifts would possibly be disappointed. Consider his final diary entry, written a few hours before his repose. One would think that this was the most appropriate moment for a spiritual person and a First Hierarch to say something prophetic, bestowable, or significant. But Vladyka Laurus wrote, “O Lord, bless this day, that I may recover so that I can again work on my monastery matters.” This man is simply concerned about his everyday matters, and it seems that he doesn’t even sense the immediate nearness of eternity. And it appears that God did not answer his prayer, since it turned out that he was not able to return to his monastery matters. But for some reason this simple and somehow very “human” entry is touching. This is true especially if we assume that God still blessed that day of Vladyka Laurus bountifully, making it a day without evening, and that Vladyka still returned to his chief monastery matter – praying for the whole world.
In fact, during his earthly life Vladyka Laurus would frequently ask others to pray for him. And it was obvious that these requests were not made as a matter of form, but that they were very sincere, came from his heart, and that, as a monk and a hierarch, he actually felt the need for our prayers. In general, Vladyka did nothing in a formal way. He did no role playing, no posing, and no fussing about. Looking at his photos you would think that he had always remained his own self and that he overcame in himself the split state of human sinfulness, attaining integrity and spiritual simplicity. It is instructive to observe such a person.
My last encounter with Metropolitan Laurus took place on May 19, 2004 during his first official visit to Russia. After having been in the morning at Liturgy in Butovo he came to Podolsk in the evening to meet with ROCOR clergy. His first act was to go into the church and look over its renovated furnishings. When I came up in the line to get his blessing Metropolitan Laurus addressed me by name. This somewhat surprised me, since we last saw each other and interacted about six years before that, and my modest church position gave no cause to count upon room in the First Hierarch’s memory. Later he went over to the house and, sitting on a leather sofa in the foyer, said a few words to those who had gathered there, who included reporters and others whom we didn’t know, while the members of our reduced ROCOR community were in the minority.
His first statement upset me. He said something like “Back in 1994 it was decided at the Bishops’ Council in Lesna to start our reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate. Archbishop Mark had conducted several encounters. But Metropolitan Vitaly put a stop to this. Later, our property in the Holy Land was taken, and we understood that we had to somehow come to an agreement.” It appeared that ROCOR was pursuing unification with the Moscow Patriarchate under duress, under the threat of losing its property and putting aside its lofty principles. This was what we didn’t want to believe, but after what the Metropolitan said it was impossible not to believe this. The Metropolitan made this statement into several microphones, so that multiple recordings were made.
I was astounded by Metropolitan Laurus’ openness. He really was not a diplomat or a politician. He didn’t conceal anything, he didn’t play any “double game,” trying to flatter or please anyone. This is why he sometimes said things which would shock certain people. (This wasn’t the only such instance – there was his declaration in Kursk that he “does not belong” to the old emigration). But there was something disarming in this openness. If a person such as Vladyka Laurus openly acknowledges his weakness and yet pursues that path, it means that there is no other path to take.
By now it is clear that the urbi et orbi, the forced necessity of unification, is just a portion of the general picture. Realistic and truthful, it is just a portion of what made up a complex process. But the metropolitan acted based on the total picture, in which each portion takes its appropriate place. In this way his Orthodox vision differed from the sectarian spiritual vision, in which some single aspect “sticks out” and is regarded as the most important thing. Metropolitan Laurus clearly understood the interrelationship of the earthly and the heavenly, and thus, in the time God appointed to him, he brought ROCOR to a spiritual victory, to a “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
This triumph is marked by the words “love” and “humility.” Throughout its entire history ROCOR was accused of insufficient love for Russia, of pharisaic pride. These accusations were always unjust. And then a person appeared in the ecclesiastical and media spheres who personified both ROCOR (as its First Hierarch) and the virtues of humility and love, since he was a genuine Christian and monk. Metropolitan Laurus fully belonged to ROCOR throughout his entire life, he was its own child, its “beautiful fruit” of its “salvific planting.” And he presented to Russia ROCOR’s true face, its spiritual strength, and its truth. This strength and truth was reflected not in what we, ideological zarubezhniki, saw and valued in it. It was not in maintaining unbending principles, in preserving the purity of our raiment, or in the loud denunciation of impiety. No, it was in something else – in the breadth of mind and heart, in love, in leniency, in humility, in silence and prayer. All of this radiated from Metropolitan Laurus, and that was how he won over Russia. He won her over not for ROCOR, but for true Orthodoxy.