Personal Stories: “I submitted myself to God, and now I am happy..."

Interview with Hieromonk Eustathius

A young man at the turning point of generations

Father, could you please tell us about your life?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Okay. I was born in Dokshitsy - a small town in Vitebsk region, to a family of regular white collar workers. My father was a history teacher (he died in 1994), and my mother is an accountant. I led an absolutely ordinary life before I entered a university. I entered Minsk Teachers University in 1992. It was called Maxim Gorky Minsk State Pedagogical Institute at that time. Now it is called the Maxim Tank University. I was 17 then: an enthusiastic youngster at the turning point of generations... I entered quite a good and prestigious school and my majors were history and English. My father was very glad because I continued the teachers' dynasty he represented. I was to become the third generation of teachers in our family. I studied hard at first but then I... got to know hippies in Minsk. This was the end of the hippie movement. They were hippies of late 1980s and early 1990s. The movement ceased to exist in the mid-1990s, so to say. Well, and I witnessed this movement. I was certain to have problems with my studies. It was a demanding university and I was expected to work hard. So I managed to stay there for just two years. Then I saw I could not cope with my studies so I transferred my papers to the University of Culture. There were many guys like me. Beside that, in 1994, when I entered this university, a new experimental major course "Literary work (script writing)" was launched there. Alaxei Dudarev, our famous playwright, was the head of this major course. However, I did not stay there for long as well. In two years, a drastic change of my world outlook began. So I started feeling disappointed with hippie movement and rock music even though our rock band was gaining popularity.

Did you play in a rock band?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Yes, I did... Our band was called "The Road Buddies".

What was your favourite musical style?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Well, you know there were rock groups in the 1960s like The Kinks, The Searchers, The Who... Well, and Rolling Stones or The Doors, of course... Generally, it was R&B of the 1960s. Well, I cannot avoid this part of my life - and I thought it was the meaning of my life at that time.
However, it turned out that our manager who was actively promoting us was deceived and had to pay a lot of money to his lenders. He had arranged concerts of pop stars and he failed to return a lump sum of money for one concert, and they would simply murder him. So he had to disappear. Anticipating your next question, I can tell you that he is fine now. This was how we finished our career in music. My spiritual crisis grew worse after that...
What was the reason for your spiritual crisis?

Hieromonk Eustathius: As I have told you already, I was disappointed with hippie movement and rock music, and the world in general...

How old were you at that time?

Hieromonk Eustathius: I was 19 or 20, something like that. You see, a year of my life at that time was worth the whole life. Several tragic lives... Perhaps, many young people experience the same feelings...

What were these lives like? What were you looking for?

Hieromonk Eustathius: I was looking for something serious and real... I was searching for the truth, to put it short. And I was always thinking I had found it at last. I thought I would find the truth in music, for instance. Then I was bitterly disappointed and sore. I saw that everything I was involved in had no continuation and led to a sort of a dead-end. It led to a kind of Sartre's wall (Jean Paul Sartre was one of founders of philosophical movement of existentialism - editor's note) So you come to this wall and feel you can simply disappear in it; it will simply devour you, which in fact happened to many friends and acquaintances of mine. Several of them died physically.

Did you figure it out for yourself when you were 18 or 20? Or, maybe, you met someone or read some books?

Hieromonk Eustathius: It all went hand in hand, so to say... I think all these trials were indispensable for me. Now I am grateful to God for having had all this in my life. It may seem weird and even blunt but nevertheless, I am sure that all I had to encounter at that time was providential. I did not want to use this hackneyed word but it perfectly describes my thoughts.

 What did your parents say?

Hieromonk Eustathius: They were hundreds of miles away and they did not know anything at all. Well, they could guess something sometimes but it was easier for me to conceal the life I was leading than for my friends from Minsk.
Therefore, when I skipped my second university, I went to my grandmother's village where I was mulling over my spiritual search. I wrote a novel as a result of this contemplation. I had plenty of time: a year and a half, I took care of the fields, gardens and domestic animals during the day and wrote at night...
Did you write on paper?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Yes, computers were rare at that time for guys like me. I wrote it with my pen and then typed on a typewriter. "Back Water Blues" was the title of my novel referring to a song by the blues queen of 1920s Bessie Smith. You know, I wish I hadn't burned it together with all my short stories when I was a beginner in the Church. I burned everything I had written. Only published stuff remained. Now I think I was a fool because there were good pieces... I would be interested in skimming through the pages of that novel now, in any case. This novel reflected the whole epoch... I remember the last two short stories I wrote when I started attending church. A spiritual change, a beam of light in a dark tunnel is depicted there. I wish I didn't burn it all... paradoxically, two volumes of my poetry I am ashamed of now both morally and professionally still remain in manuscripts I presented to my friends... Later, I asked those people to give the manuscripts back to me but they may have understood what I needed the manuscripts for and did not return them. Alas... (When we were preparing to publish this interview, Father Eustathius informed us about a miracle. An old friend of Father Eustathius, an artist, came to Zhirovichi monastery literally the following day after our interview. He brought one copy of that very novel "Back Water Blues". It turned out that Father Eustathius gave that typed copy to him as a birthday present. There were three copies of the novel. Father Eustathius burned two of them but the remaining third copy remained intact - editor's note).
Finally, I chose not to stay in the village for the rest of my life and decided to get back to the big world. First, I wanted to enter School of Philology of St Petersburg University. But then I thought it would be more appropriate for me to graduate from my native Institute of Culture. I returned to my studies. It was not too difficult for me because I was experienced enough, I knew what I was to write and what exams I was to take. So I took the same majors but with a different teacher Prof. Sobolevsky (he is a renowned theatre critic). I had to re-enter the university, not to restore my enrolment because students could take that major only once in several years. That year was one of such years. My first time in the university with Prof. Dudarev and Prof. Rakitsky (also a famous theatre critic) was more interesting. One of my fellow students came to our monastery once. He told me that when Prof. Rakitsky learned that I had become a monk, he paused for a moment and then said, "He has been my only student to have achieved something." Can you imagine that?
What is your profession? Are you a theatre critic as well?
Hieromonk Eustathius: No, I am not...My profession is a playwright. My diploma reads: 'Literary work (script writing)'.
Finally, I graduated from my university. I began attending church during my last years at the university. You know, I grew disappointed in art as well. Rock gatherings were replaced by theatre and artistic circles: literary retreats, first nights at theatres, art house movies... Stronger discontent and total disappointment came as a result of all that. This was where the Lord reached for me...

I began attending church services at Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral. This was where I met Father Andrew Lemeshonok. My life has changed drastically thanks to him. Archimandrite Sophronios (Sakharov) once said about St Silouane that "when I met that man he became a stronghold for me throughout my life." Father Andrew became a stronghold for me, and I would have fallen without this stronghold long ago.

How I chose monastic life...

Do you remember how it all happened, what words did you hear and how did you start to change? What was it like?

Hieromonk Eustathius: I attended Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral for about a year and confessed to several priests. I also visited the meetings of his Orthodox youth fraternity. I was nurtured by these meetings. I think it was the Lord who wanted me to choose this easier path to becoming Orthodox.
Apart from that, I always saw crowds of people gather around Father Andrew, and I was a little taken aback because of that. I thought those people really needed his advice so I should not interfere because I had no real problems and I lived with God, which was the most important. However, I turned up for the confession held by Fr Andrew one day. I was attracted to his personality and, honestly, I was interested to see what this priest was like... You know, Fr Andrew told me a couple of simple words after the confession but they so strongly resonated with my soul that I saw he was the man I was going to confess to. Another striking revelation was that my life began to change after I confessed with Fr Andrew for the first time. I thought it was a miracle... What happened? Well, I just confessed my sins to God in his presence. Then I confessed again, and again... and I understood that this man had probably started to pray for me.
A year passed, and I asked for his permission for me to become an acolyte in the St Elisabeth Convent. It turned out that the Convent needed an acolyte at that time. So I became the head acolyte in St Elisabeth Convent and was one for two years beginning in 2001. I practically lived in the Convent during these two years. The services in the Convent normally started at 4 am so naturally there were no buses going to Novinki from the city so early in the morning. I had a bed in a cabin near the walls of the Convent. I went to bed at midnight and woke up at 3.30 in the morning. Now I recall this period of my life with tenderness and fear at the same time. That was real asceticism!

It sounds very difficult physically. How did you manage to pull through?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Actually, it was not that dreadful. I had my classes in the afternoon so I would go to the dormitory and relax for a couple of hours (although sometimes I could not afford it - a dorm is a dorm, you know). Sometimes I managed to sleep during the lectures. Then I came back in the evening and read a long prayer rule, using prayer rope, etc... This was essential for me, of course. It was at that time that I began to appreciate monasticism. Basically, I lived in the monastery and inhaled its atmosphere... The first time I thought about monasticism was even before I became an acolyte in the Convent. I can remember it very clearly. I walked out of the subway station after the early Liturgy on Sunday morning.

At the same time, I had a remarkable girlfriend whom I had got to know even before I started attending church. Then we began to go to church together. I thought I would graduate from my university, marry that girl, stay close to the St Elisabeth Convent and would be made a priest one day. Father Andrew did not mind that. However, later I was being torn apart by my wish to lead the life of a monastic and my feelings towards that wonderful girlfriend. So I thought, “What can I do? Lord, it is so hard to live without clearly set goals!" Now I understand some seminary students who come to me for confession and complain of the similar feeling. They cannot make their minds. It is really difficult to remain in such a state. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh says that ideally, a man has to grow up, to ripen for marriage or for monastic life. However, I found it impossible to live in such a state and decided to figure out what I was to prepare for. Therefore, I had to search for God’s will. I focused on it and prayed for a long time, then I asked Fr Andrew’s blessing to read a certain prayer rule, which would help me to find out what the Lord’s plan for my life was. I was sure that the Lord would reveal it to me because this was my spiritual father’s blessing. Finally, the Lord really revealed to me that my path was the monastic path. Since then, I started to prepare myself for monastic life. All of a sudden, I was grasped by the thought of Apostle Paul, “they also who have wives, be as if they had none” and “they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away.” I came to a logical conclusion, if they who have wives ought to be as if they had none, why marry? “For the fashion of this world passeth away.” I know, our theologians from the seminary would have called me a heretic for thinking like that but it appeared self-evident to me at that time.
I must admit I had certain doubts even after that. I am ashamed of recalling how I did not trust God. I even had doubts when I became a postulant in a monastery. The enemy fought a hard fight on my heart. I remember standing and praying the Psalter during the night, and my heart would suddenly anguish, “Hey you, what are you doing here? You are so young, what monasticism nowadays - there are neither elders, nor true monasteries, everything is just an illusion. But you could make someone happy...” Make someone happy to be with me, imagine that?. Sometimes I was carried away by these thoughts. Sometimes I seemed not to have the guts to fight them. And I would say to myself, “Whatever the enemy tells me, I know God’s will, period. Even if his logics is impeccable, I don’t care. Credo quia absurdum est!” Now I tell my students who cannot find a girl to marry, “Guys, do you know the best way to find the best bride in the world? Become a novice in a monastery!” “All of a sudden, you’ll run into such a beauty! There is no such girl in the whole world except the one who visits the monastery where you are a novice! She will find you, and she will be the girl of your lifetime dreams! Well, sure, she’ll turn into a witch after the wedding but this will only be tomorrow and now...”
Was this girl offended by your decision?

Hieromonk Eustathius: No, we remained friends. You know, we were just friends, and if people keep chastity before marriage, there will never be passions and tragedies. She is now happily married and has children, everything is all right.
In fact, I just cannot imagine what I would do if I had married. For me, this would have been a tragic mistake. I submitted myself to God’s will, and now I am happy. You know, this is especially evident in women: when a girl is married happily, she becomes even more beautiful. A person blossoms in a happy family. Same with monasticism. Monastic life is tantamount to family life. It is not equivalent to being alone, contrary to popular belief. Monasticism is the life of a soul in unity with God. If monastic life is the real vocation of the person, he blossoms and becomes more beautiful, just as another person would in marriage.
Needless is to say that every monastic has to go through a million of temptations. Ideally, this should not be visible. This is your life with God, your secret inner life. It is similar to a family. Generally speaking, if a person makes the right choice, joy and happiness must dominate in his life. He must have this joy in the Lord and this feeling of fullness, even though different periods in one’s life happen sometimes…

I remember the time when I was a novice… This was truly my honeymoon, you know. I felt I was in paradise for the first couple of months. But then…
 Some people have to tackle lots of temptations from the very beginning of their monastic lives…

Hieromonk Eustathius: Yes, it does happen sometimes… However, as a rule, the Lord comforts one from the start. Each person has a different period of time when he enjoys this grace and comfort. Some more courageous souls have to endure temptations in the very beginning. Yet we have to understand that in a monastery each person starts his life, absolutely everything, from the very beginning. By the way, this is why people who come to the monastery in advanced age have more difficulties adapting to the monastic life. They are accustomed to the fact that they already have rich life experience, education, etc., but all these things are more often an impediment in a monastery. In spite of all your achievements in the world, you start everything anew in a monastery. First you are a baby, then you become an adolescent, etc. One has to spend years or even decades in a monastery in order to become an adolescent spiritually.
The first thing that struck me as strange when I started to live in the monastery as a novice was the feeling of the return of the first grace, like it happens only when you first come to the Church. Now I can tell you for sure that if a person does not become a novice, he will never understand anything about monasticism, and the same holds true with regard to family life.
How did you find yourself in Zhirovichi?

Hieromonk Eustathius: First I entered the seminary and spent two years there. Then I went on to the monastery. Frankly speaking, I had not planned to become a monastic in Zhirovichi monastery.

Zhirovichi monastery

Where did you plan to go?

Hieromonk Eustathius: I wanted to go back to St Elisabeth Convent. I had imagined that the brothers would be tonsured and sent to the metochion to establish a male monastery. I even talked with Father Andrew about that. He nodded, “Yes, yes, we plan to do so.” I say, “Father, I am going to graduate from the seminary and ask for the tonsure, and then I plan to go to the metochion.” He answered, “Well, we’ll see how it goes…” I dreamt of becoming a hieromonk at the metochion, or even a hegumen. Well, why not? I even chose the name for the future monastery – St Silouane Pustyn. Because I had been a writer (or maybe I continue to be one?), my imagination was far too vivid…
However, the dean of the Zhirovichi monastery Father Benjamen (now he is Bishop Benjamen of Borisov, auxiliary bishop of Minsk diocese) made a serious offer to me. I confessed to him as I usually did, and he said, “Brother George, would you like to become a monastic in our monastery?” I did not treat his words seriously. He offered me the same thing one more time in a couple of months. It was very hard for me to study at the seminary at that time, I even wanted to quit for fear that I would not possibly bear all that… The reason of such problems was that I was abandoned by the first grace, and I was empty inside. I could not do anything about this emptiness. Plus this army-like seminary system. Today it is more flexible but at that time it was very rigid, yet the primary reason was my spiritual loneliness. No one could support me. God seemed to be so far away and unable to hear me.
Here I was offered a monastery to grow as a monastic. It was not the marvellous St Silouane Pustyn but here it was. So I was beginning to think about becoming a monastic in the Zhirovichi monastery. Well, I had to seek my spiritual father’s advice first. I described all that situation to him in my diary. Naturally, I had - and I still have – a diary. Now I use it less frequently, I send it to Fr Andrew twice a year. So I wrote that, so and so, this is what I was offered. I was surprised when I got an answer from Fr Andrew very quickly. He wrote to me, “It seems to me that this offer – to become a monastic in the Zhirovichi monastery – is God’s will.” Father Andrew never ordered me to do this or that. Being a true spiritual father, he tactfully suggested that I do this or that… But I knew I should do precisely what he told me to do. So as soon as I read his words, I went to Father Theodosius, the spiritual father of Zhirovichi monastery and said, “Your blessing, Father! I would like to enter Zhirovichi monastery…” I was accepted as a novice the same year.
The thought that I would stay in the Zhirovichi monastery temporarily did not leave me for a couple of years but it started to fade with time. Now I am so closely involved in the life of the Zhirovichi monastery, and not only the Zhirovichi monastery but also the convent in Slonim, that I can hardly imagine how I could break all those ties... Yet, anything is possible in the life of a monk. Now you are here, and tomorrow you are in a different part of the globe. (laughs)
Can you please tell us about your present creative work? How has your world outlook changed thanks to the fact that you graduated from such a university? Do you write anything now?

Hieromonk Eustathius: You see, my coming to the monastery and essentially my choice of the monastic life is absolutely natural for an artist because each creative person a priopi strives for the maximum and he cannot halve his creative efforts. If you choose art seriously, you sink into it, you have to sacrifice all your time and strength to it. Otherwise, it cannot be called art, it is a sort of a handicraft, amateur work. A real artist is devoured by art. When I began attending church I saw that art is a world of illusions and you should not waste your entire life on it. Those games appeared to be so ridiculous and miserable in the light of the truth of Christ that I soon left them behind. However, it was painful because my soul had long been drawn to art. When it became clear that I would have to stop writing, and it became clear very soon, I was confused because I did not know how I could live further. I got used to being observant and looking at things differently every day. A writer or an artist always watches everything going on around him with avid interest. I remember always carrying a notebook and jotting down notes all the time. I filled this notebook with vivid images, words or phrases, interesting situations... Finally, a short story was born out of it. Like many authors, I began with poetry, and then started writing short stories.
Yes, when I finally realized I had to quit the literary work, I was overwhelmed. Later I came to realize that prayer and spiritual life in general is also an art. More than that, it is the authentic alternative to the illusion I lived all my life with. I mean, monasticism is the ideal way for a person to realize his creative potential as a Christian. Prayer is the highest ideal art given to man by God Himself. Indeed, what could be higher than getting to know God and talking to Him?
When this understanding dawned on me, I finally found the long-awaited satisfaction, happiness and fullness of life. The puzzle was solved at last! Everything I was looking for so long in music, in the hippie movement, in theatre, in literature, in art in general, everything I could not find because it slipped through my fingers... It seems that you have achieved something at last, then oops - and you see this is not something you were dreaming about... Here you finally understand that this is what you have been looking for. You feel it, you see it, you touch it... Do you remember what Apostle John the Theologian says in his first epistle, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life...” This Life and this Truth could dwell in me because it is Christ Himself who we partake of when we take communion. Amazing! Is there anything higher, more beautiful and ideal than that?! This was the fact that impressed me as an artist. Figuratively speaking, I gathered all my rubbish into one big pile, sold it and bought a field where that precious diamond I had been looking for all my life was. One simply has to leave all his rubbish behind in order to purchase this jewel. The Lord offers us a marvelous deal, isn’t He? When this revelation dawned on me my soul had a rest at last. The main purpose now is to preserve what the Lord has given to me, and to dig deeper, to continue in this path, to hold on to it. This is important because, you know, like with any kind of art, in the art of spiritual living there is a temptation to boil the creativity down to routine, to a certain template, which is called pharisaic in the Church.

What do you mean by that?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Say, I have a certain prayer rule. For instance, I have to do 500 prayers, a kathisma, a chapter of the Gospel, two chapters of the Epistle, attend the compline, the liturgy and the vespers... Whoops, I have done everything! A problem arises? Okay, here we take a book by St Ignatius Bryanchaninov or St Theophan the Recluse, full of bookmarks. Are you downcast? No problem! Page 57, book 3 of the concise collection of St Ignatius Bryanchaninov works, and here we go, “A novice asked his abba: what should I do if I am depressed and gloomy? - O my child, when you are depressed..." Here we have ready-to-use recipes for all situations: just read them and you will be fine. One brother told me, “How can one have problems in his spiritual life? Just be guided by the works of St Ignatius, and you’ll be fine. There are all answers to all questions." Yes, there is such a temptation... However, the Lord often ruins all that technology, He burns down your schemes and plans, He infects your self-made programme called “Spiritual Life” with his divine virus.
When your so called spiritual life is covered with a layer of hypocrisy and becomes a travesty of itself (and you cannot see it!), the Lord suddenly infects it with this virus, and all of a sudden your imagined spiritual life freezes. And you find yourself in a vacuum: Lord have mercy! Nothing helps: neither the St Ignatius Bryanchaninov’s book, nor the 500-prayers rule nor bows at proper times nor humble eyes and sighs... Nothing at all! Sometimes confession does not help and communion does not help, and you just cannot see what went wrong... Why do I find myself in this dead-end? Everything seemed to be going so smooth. Why, what for? Suddenly, you begin to realize that you do not know anything about spiritual life - the authentic spiritual life, I mean. Things you had imagined to be the spiritual life in reality were its counterfeit version. This is how you humble yourself and start everything from scratch.
And this is not the kind of work that Sisyphus had to do because every time you fall you acquire, you begin to realize the most basic truths, the ABC-like facts (signs), and they form a part of your character. These are the truths you had read in the patristic texts and had agreed with them but they were nothing more than logically proven pious thoughts. Now these truths are organically, naturally endorsed by your soul. First of all, I mean seeing your sins. What does knowing yourself mean? Knowing yourself means knowing your sins. Unfortunately, one cannot see beauty in other people without seeing his own sins first. This is paradoxical but true. You cannot help seeing sins in other people if you do not see how sinful you are yourself. There are many other miraculous revelations you will have to face in your spiritual life.
Father Eustathius, it sometimes happens that one is unable to attend the compline and to pray...

Hieromonk Eustathius: Yes, such condition can arise sometimes... Thing is, you have to force yourself into doing something. There is a certain bottom level you must not hit. Normally, one should seek advice of his spiritual father with regard to that bottom level. It means that however bad you feel, whatever your thoughts tell you, you must rise and go. If the compline or 500-prayer rule or something else is this minimum set by your spiritual father, you have to do that. If you cannot walk, crawl. Well, if you cannot crawl, this is a different question... It is only in this case that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” You have to force yourself into doing this because otherwise this lax attitude will become the norm and you will be unable to do anything with it. This is especially important for the monastics! We are to be the vanguard, the warriors of God... If we are lazy and relaxed, the lay brothers and sisters will have an excuse.

This is why you have to go on until you cannot go on any further even if you are weary and dried up inside because if you sit down and relax and pity yourself and turn around to see how others live your monastic life will come to an end! There is hardly a bigger mistake than when a person looks around and starts to compare himself not with the Holy Fathers but with Sister N. or Sister M... Such person begins to notice others’ mistakes and condemn them while at the same time justify himself, and that is the end of any sign of a true spiritual life. I think that when St Ambrose of Optina said, “Knowing yourself is enough for you!” he did not intend it to call for indifference towards the monastery life, towards your monastery but this perpetual comparison of yourself with someone else. Self-justification and reproach are the most terrible phenomena in the spiritual life. If a person does not learn to fight this urge to judge everyone around him, he will not learn anything as a monastic. He will always return to one and the same point.