Interview with our Father in Christ Ciprian, published by “The Orthodox Family Magazine”, no. 53 (June 2013).
“Christ is in our Midst!”
Father, many people know that the first Romanian Monastery in the Benelux area (where several Romanian sisters have lived for more than a year now) has been founded through the sacrifice and the spiritual and material support of many God-loving people from around the world, but especially from a group of Christians that have gathered around you in a true community. Isn’t it a bit strange for such a lively parish to function around a “monastery church”? How did this start?
This is a longer story, and, up to a point, a personal one. From my perspective, it started a long time ago. Ever since I can remember, I was given a gift: the conscience of the fact that invisible ties connect me with all people. I felt that something beyond appearances, relationships and words links me to them. Having lived my childhood in the countryside has probably played an important role in this regard, since the ties that link people there are stronger, more profound. Furthermore, I had a passion for chess and I loved the motto of the International Chess Federation, “gens una sumus” (”We are one people”). In the same spirit, years afterwards, I had found joy in John Donne’s words, who was quoted by Hemmingway in the title of his book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls?”, as saying the same thing: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.
However, I was feeling all of this on a superficial level, since at that time I was not a believer, and I could not imagine that living with “strangers” as with your own family could be ever achieved.
When God brought me in the Church, I started to read the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers in a different light. Among the many things that filled me with joy as I was reading them, I found the idea I mentioned before. This idea “floats” throughout the New Testament, but is very clearly expressed in our Saviour’s prayer from the Gospel of Saint John, “that all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” (John 17:21), or in the Acts of the Apostles: “the heart and soul of those who believed were one” (Acts, 4:32). And I said to myself: the Church is the place where I can fulfill my longing for many to live together as one single family, as one single man!
I then started to search for how to live this. However, at the beginning, I do not know why, God kept away from me the places where Christians were striving to live this way. Although I visited many churches and monasteries throughout the country, I could not find, almost anywhere, not only such a state of being as I was looking for, but not even the effort of conveying or seeking one. And I did not mean that as a normality of church life, but as an ideal, at the very least. Maybe I was not looking in the right place, although I was travelling thousands of kilometers searching for that way of community living or feeling. Everywhere I went, I heard sermons and teachings about how to go to Church, how to fast, how to do good deeds, how to pray, etc; in other words, only personal, or individual, undertakings, of Christian life. I was full of sorrow and disappointment, and I felt that we were missing what was essential. What a difference in the spiritual state of the Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles and of those I was visiting. I recall that at some point, I even confessed my sadness to my spiritual father at the time. We were in a “serious monastery”, with good, ascetic rules and I felt that not even there could I find such a state, nor even a search for it among the brothers. My spiritual father’s answer to my inquiry was mind-blowing to me, something like, “don’t you have anything else to do?
And so, for a while, I was very distressed. I was home, but I was surrounded by strangers. I was assured of the holiness of the Church, of the fact that salvation is only in Christ, but I could not understand how external forms of devotion (observing the formal rules of attending church, as well keeping all the fasts, etc), can save man. I could not see how the struggle to fulfill Christ’s commandments and acquire Christian virtues has become an end in itself rather than the Way towards the real goal – that of receiving the Holy Spirit and the fruits He yields: fraternal love, kindness, etc. I could not envision Heaven, which I saw from the start as Love and communion: after focusing, my whole life, on the relationship with my God, with my spiritual father, on my prayer, my Liturgy and, maybe, on my ties with a few brothers (a few brothers, carefully chosen, based on all “quality standards of spiritual life”), how could I begin, once passing into eternity, to begin loving my fellow brothers?
But the good God tended to my wandering and sent me good spiritual fathers, and then gifted me with Father Sophrony of Essex, a man of God, whose writings changed my life to the greatest possible extent. What a great light, what a great joy! I read all his books, I nurtured myself from them and I regained hope that those things I was dreaming about were possible on Earth. He speaks a lot about the Adamic conscience (we are all brothers in Adam, our father), the importance of the principle of personhood in the spiritual life, and in his “Spiritual Sermons”, he offers the community he was shepherding a lot of practical guidance on how a Christian community should live, based on the evangelic principles. And I dare to say that he has enriched the “lines” of living together in Christ which Apostle Paul suggests in his letters through his own experience of a sanctified life. A life that was crucified between burning in love for God and serving his brothers.
Not long after that, God gave me a good spiritual father around whom a monastic community was forming, and that made me joyful once again. I was glad that such an experience was possible in reality, not just in books. Then I found out – and I keep finding out! – that there are many more such parishes and communities in the country and in the world, and I was even happier.
After some more years, I arrived in Belgium, where I was ordained a priest. I prayed with increasing boldness for God to grant me to meet people who could receive and understand my thoughts, so that we could start to live a small part of those things which Christ wishes so much to sweeten us with, even now in our current life – as a “holy hook” to make us willing to work even more for the unshakable Kingdom. And God did not idle in giving me such brothers and sisters, one by one. People who desired more, who quickly understood the words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, that the aim of life is acquiring the Holy Spirit. That every form of life and expression in Church (prayers, fasting, iconography, etc) must be circumscribed to this aim and not become an end in itself. That nothing is relative in the Church. That you do not come to Church to find a certain degree of comfort, but to find the truth about yourself and about God – premises one cannot do without – in order to start your spiritual life in “spirit and in Truth”. That a spiritual father is not necessarily the priest you confess to several times, but the one you assume and that assumes you in return; that is, you feel he suffers the pain of your birth in Christ, according to Saint Paul’s words. That without a life of unceasing vigilance, struggle, frequent confession and communion, there is little chance for us to grow spiritually and even less to be saved. That Sunday Christianity is not possible, in the sense that we meet some people which in time, perhaps we get to know by name, next to whom we pray church, and then “God bless” - “God bless” at the end of the service, “see you next Sunday” and it’s over.
Forgive me my long storytelling. What I essentially wanted to say is that I am fully convinced that God gives man what he wants, if it is useful for him and if the man is sincere and constant in his search.
May I interrupt you for a second: how did we get to the point of living only “Sunday Christianity” ?
If the lives of many Christians are spiritually exhausted, if so many people who go to Church are lonely and sad (and not by their own choice), I believe the responsibility lies equally with the shepherd, who should convey to his brothers a true image of life in Christ - in union and in the struggle of love - as with his own parishioners, who often do not want and do not strive for more (I remember the popular saying: "each parish receives the priest it deserves"). I dare to compare such impersonal parishes, made of "small churches" (small groups of people inter-connected as a result of their social environment or interests of any kind), to “idiorrhythmic” monasteries, where the only common interests are administrative ones. I do not cease to draw the attention of my brothers and sisters in Christ to the fact that, if we lose the spirit of brotherhood, we will also become yet another "idiorrhythmic parish", where everyone looks for his/her own problems and where, although we nicely say, before the Creed, that "Christ is in our midst", oftentimes we lie. If Christ were indeed in our midst, the ties between us would be different.
How can we acquire this spirit of brotherhood you are talking about?
I can tell you how we are fighting to cultivate it, to earn it.
As I was saying before, based on Church Fathers' words that he who prays only when he is saying his prayers, is not actually praying, we would understand that our prayer must not be limited to our mornings and our evenings, but we must fight so that our prayer becomes a permanent state of being, even our own breathing. Similarly, I think that a simple "Sunday" relationship with the other members of the parish is not a true, spiritual relationship. And for this, even since the moment our community was founded (when there were only a few people around me who I was confessing), my preoccupation was to encourage my brothers to get to know each other, to become closer to one another. At that time, I was a priest serving at the largest parish in Belgium, where a lot of people were coming from throughout the country. A community as I envisioned it was hard to form in such conditions. Little by little, some of us started to meet in our homes - for a house blessing, for a service of the Paraklesis, for a cup of tea, but especially in order to come together and bond as a family. From there, things evolved in a natural, beautiful way. The brothers started to become closer and to become fond of each other. As their number was growing rapidly, it was more and more difficult to gather in one single house, and we decided to look for a church and set up a parish in order to live out what we wished for. We quickly found a former Catholic church for sale, but we could not buy it. We were sad in the moment, but then we understood that, as He always does, God had prepared something better for us.
In Romania, almost every weekend I would go to "recharge" myself at a monastery. There was no such place in Belgium, where I had been living for several years, and I was craving one. And so, as soon as I was ordained a priest, I asked for the blessing of our Metropolitan to start looking for such a place, so that we could buy it in the hope that, at some point, we could have a monastic community as well. I found several such places, but every time we encountered obstacles and could not finalize anything. However, in January 2011, as soon as I received a negative answer for the church we were trying to buy, I got a call from a Belgian Orthodox friend, who was aware of my search for a monastery, to see if I was still interested in finding a space for a church. The property of a former community of Catholic nuns of Byzantine rite was for sale. The Mother of God granted us a miracle then, because the person in charge of the sale had already contacted the representatives of all the Orthodox communities in Belgium and none was interested. Then the monastery was almost sold to a real estate promoter, but an (apparent) administrative impediment did not allow him to close the sale. "By chance", that person called our family friend, who called me, and we went to see the monastery.
A surreal discussion took place at that moment. I was negotiating on behalf of the Romanian community in Belgium, although I was convinced of the support of only some dozens of people, those close to me. It was a sort of madness, one that continued afterwards. For when I presented the project - and especially the price - to my Metropolitan and to several of my fellow priests from Romanian parishes in Belgium, I was told it was too much, that we could not receive financial support from the Church structures, given the financial constraints we face in the West. We fully understood this fact, but we could hardly accept it, given our feverish enthusiasm. We then had to resist the temptation that a few friends from our midst associate and buy the former monastery as individuals, in order to donate it afterwards to a parish and set up lodgings in the part of the building that was housing the former nuns' rooms. We all felt that this place had a potential for much more and I kept asking my Metropolitan only to come and see the place and give me the blessing to launch a fundraising campaign in all Belgian parishes. When he came, His Eminence became so enthusiastic about what he saw that he decided to support us, asking the other parishes to help, since we could not provide the whole amount just by ourselves. We had to pay quite a substantial advance. It was difficult, given the short period of time we had to gather that amount, but finally - through the prayers of our Metropolitan and many of our brothers – as well as through the sacrificial generosity of many brothers from Belgium and throughout the world, we raised the funds we needed. We received great help from the Mother of God and Saint John the Russian, one of the “friends” of our Community, to whom we prayed, promising to dedicate the monastery to him if he would help us buy it. And, yet another miracle! The first vigil in the monastery’s church took place on the very feast day of Saint John, on 27 May 2011!
Afterwards, once the community began serving in the monastery (right after it was bought, in May 2011 – the nuns only started to come half a year later), we tried to lay down in this place as well, the foundation which I find essential for any community: the spirit of brotherhood in Christ.
Among the first important decisions we took to this end, in addition to praying, was to share meals together on Sundays, after the Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is the Mystical Supper, and the community “agape” is the spiritual meal. Communion with and in Christ. In concrete terms, several groups of families have organized themselves, each preparing the luncheon every few weeks for about 100 to 150 people - the average number of those attending the Sunday Liturgy. There is such an atmosphere of joy, which I trust will remain. People no longer dash home to eat, they take their time to talk to each other, to get to know each other, to enrich themselves, to be joyful.
After the agape meal, while a group of volunteers takes care of the children and tries to convey to them certain teachings from the Christian faith (in a playful way, as I excluded from the start the notion of "Sunday school" or "catechism", which, in principle, make everyone shiver, both the little ones and the adults), I proposed to those able and willing to stay for a "course for spiritual survival", following Fr. Seraphim Rose's idea. We freely discuss different spiritual topics, and I present books that are important for every Christian, since sermons and confession are not enough to form a Christian mindset for those attending church. Moreover, we thus lower the risks - inherent in the diaspora - of turning church going into a pious habit aimed, first and foremost, at socializing or at getting patriotic thrills (what I mean to say is that I have noticed in the West a tendency of going to Church in order to meet people with whom one does not have time to meet during the week, or to encounter fellow countrymen).
Do you think the Divine Liturgy and the agape meal are enough as expressions of spiritual communion?
Of course not. There are other important things.
Many members of our parish resemble each other also through their love for the Saints of the communist prisons. I think they can be extraordinary models for us. Radu Gyr, the great poet in shackles, said a terrible thing: "It was in prisons that we learnt “live” what being Christian truly means." The drama of the life and death of many of those imprisoned has been consumed between these two words: "live" and "truly". And the stake of our salvation, the passing from the moral to the spiritual stage of Christian life, lies in these two nuances.
What I find impressive, among other things, in those who gave witness “behind bars”, is their spirit of sacrifice. And I am glad at the general understanding that reigns in our community that only through sacrifice can we make a good start, and that nothing is possible without sacrifice. There are many things I could say I have seen and lived with my brothers, and these things have brought me joy and humbled me, but I will not mention them here so as not to disturb anyone's spiritual state.
Secondly, as I told you from the outset, I wanted us to start coming closer together spiritually. I proposed to my brothers a common prayer for unity, the so-called "11 o'clock prayer". About ten years ago, I had proposed to several friends in Christ, spread in various parts of the world, to meet in prayer at 23:00, Romanian time. "Meeting in prayer" is a perhaps a lofty expression, but in essence, I had in mind our Saviour's words: "where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). Since in the meantime, many of us have married and it has become more difficult to observe a certain time, I have suggested "11 o'clock" as a generic time, only to enable us to come together every evening before God, wherever one finds himself. Let's say the Jesus prayer a few times ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!"), as well as the prayer for unity around the spiritual father, written by Father Sophrony of Essex, where every member of our community is mentioned. This prayer contains the essence of the concept of unity: "make us to be truly a brotherhood, living in one heart, one will, one love, as one man, after Your advice from before ages to Adam, the first born."
Whenever one of us, or a member of one of our families, encounters a difficulty, I have asked the others to let me know so that we can all undertake a canon of prayer (in general, we each sign up for a few hours of prayer for several nights in a row, and as a community, we end up ceaselessly praying the Psalms during those nights). God has already brought us joy several times through many miracles, in order to strengthen our faith.
Following the idea of the community prayer, and inspired by what I have read from the Saints of the prisons about their struggle to pray even in conditions of incarceration, I proposed to my community to launch, at the start of each month, a "vigil lamp of prayer". Concretely, for as many nights as we can cover, those of us who are able to choose one hour to pray on certain nights – we pray for ourselves and our families, for the community, for the world – thus trying to keep prayer alive continuously for several consecutive nights. When someone finishes his/her prayer and goes back to sleep, another one wakes up and lights up the "lamp", thus trying not to extinguish the chain of prayer for even a single minute. This has brought us a lot of joy and closeness in Christ, since those nights are full of grace and one feels responsible for his community and for all Christian brothers sleeping at that hour of the night, since perhaps he is the only one standing before the Lord at that time, in the name of all.
And last but not least: in order to guard ourselves against the danger of individual and community selfishness (since, if we only think about ourselves, no matter how many “we” would be, we would still remain caught into a certain form of selfishness), and in order to “enlarge our hearts” (after Saint Paul’s expression), I have started to send to my brothers in Christ, the messages I receive from many friends from around the world, with requests for prayers for people in great need to be remembered at a certain moment, so that they can all pray for them. I find the chance we are given to be extraordinary – the chance to become labourers with God in fulfilling His will in someone’s life – thus starting to cultivate in us that “Adamic conscience” I was talking about in the beginning. Moreover, we also realize how capricious our own complaining usually is, compared to the suffering of other people.
Father, to summarize: what does it mean to be a parish?
Personally, I fully share the vision of His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos. Any man distanced from God is a sick man spiritually speaking. The parish is a “spiritual hospital”, whose creation has one purpose – the spiritual healing of its members, the blessing and the deification (“theosis”) of those who form the parish. Any other purpose – national, political, church-related or social in nature – would degrade the notion of “parish”. And unfortunately, there are many such counter-examples in the West as well. Although we have become used to the image of parishes as “gatherings of people going to the same church” (“idiorrhythmic”, as I call them), this issue is more serious than it looks. For any priest, any parish with such a vision deprives its members of the chance for a right understanding of what Church can offer them. They are thus confined to a grave illusion that keeps the Christian far away from God.
The parish is a big family gathered around a spiritual father, centered on Christ and living a life in the Church. The faithful strive to engage more profoundly in the life of the parish by getting closer to one another through Christ, by fighting to heal their passions through the fulfillment of commandments and obedience to their spiritual father. And the Father-priest should be the ”physician” of this hospital.
It is the duty of the spiritual father to imprint the thinking of the Church to the willing members of the parish, “to offer” God to them in a right, Orthodox understanding. To help them see that there is no such thing as a non-dogmatic, non-ecclesiological and non-ascetic Christianity, as Father Sophrony is quoted to have expressed. To help them shape a Christian conscience, a universal conscience, through which everyone becomes aware of the fact that both the good deeds he performs, as well as the sins he commits, have repercussions for his spiritual family, his family after the flesh, and, finally, for the entire world.
How do you see the future of your community?
I do not project one. What is important is that we have a present. I am profoundly grateful to my Metropolitan and to my brothers and sisters amongst which God has placed me and through which He has granted me all of this. I am fully aware that it is not for our merits, but for our many weaknesses, that God bestows so many gifts on us.
My concern is to live today without sin. And if everything ended tomorrow, for one reason or another, I would be left with great joy: that it is possible to live, in this life, this closeness, this communion with my brothers in Christ. That what I have dreamt about so ardently years ago, can be achieved. That everything can be done in Christ our Lord, He who strengthens us. Everything - in Christ!