Personal Stories: Making Christ the center of our life.

A talk with Father Sergei Baranov, the secretary of the Orsk Diocese, the rector of the Cathedral in honor of St. George the Great Martyr and Victory-Bearer and  the spiritual father of the women’s convent in honor of the Mother of God of Iverson. The talk took place during the sisterhood meetings at St. Elisabeth Convent.

Father Andrew Lemeshonok: Tell us, how did you come to God?

Father Sergei Baranov: I was born to a family that did not believe in God during the Soveit era, which was common at that time. I was an active participant in the soviet community and served in the navy. Once when I was on a train and we started talking about religion. Back then, I was a firm believer that all priests were schizophrenics and liars.

Later, I began to warm up towards the church, it became possible to think, to get some knowledge about God. When I was working as an artistic-designer, I was asked to make frescos and Icons in the first church that was being restored in our city. That is how I started going to church, first as an artist. After living in church (since back then I lived in a different city and would have to camp out near the church where I would also paint the icons) I became absorbed in church life and saw everything for what it really is and not the way I was taught. I know that I could never leave the church now.

My first act of madness was made in 1993. I had a salary of about 459 rubles. I had a family, children but I quit my job and went to work in church for 25 Rubles. Of course looking back, I understand that it was pure madness, but madness with good intentions. The Apostles were fools for Christ in the same way. They were not rich folk and all they had to their name was their fishing boat and nets. However, as Christ passes by and says: “Leave everything and follow me”, and they leave their current life behind and follow him.

Back then we had a certain zeal, we were spiritually uplifted and we were able to do what we did. My spiritual father told me: “You were not afraid to leave everything behind in the name of Christ. Someday you will have a house and a car and a parish, you’ll remember my words.” And that is exactly what happened. God gave everything threefold: now I have a convent and the sisters, I have everything.

Another “madness” occurred with my ordination. I was asked to search for archived documents in the synod archives in Saint Petersburg in regards to our destroyed church (we hoped to find old architectural plans to help with reconstruction). I was quite poor when I arrived to Saint Petersburg in the fall. In fact, I was so short on money that I did not have enough to rent a hotel room and would travel to the airport every night and sleep on a bench there. Then I would spend the whole day wondering about the city, which I found to be very interesting. Then I realized that I could visit all the sacred places in the city, and then see everything else. I asked the locals how to get to the relics of Saint Xenia, Saint John of Kronstadt…I tried to visit the relics of Saint John but could not make it because the subway was closed. I tried to go to Saint Xenia but had difficulties there as well: first, I missed my stop, returned, and got out of the subway. Tried to get on the tram but hesitated…

It took me a very long time to get to where the relics of Saint Xenia were located. When I finally arrived it was already getting dark outside and the chapel was closed. As I am walking past the cemetery (it was very abandoned at the time with very few pilgrims) I can recall the snow, large snow piles and besides the chapel there was one man yelling in my direction: “It’s unfortunate that you did not make it. The chapel was closed only 15 minutes ago. You must have come from afar!” I begin to wonder how he knows me and that I came from afar, I did not even have my briefcase with me. Meanwhile the man continues to talk to me: “You came all the way from the Ural, and did not make it in time.” As I came closer, he told me: “Don’t be upset, over here next to Saint Xenia everyone approached from the side of the altar, bow their forehead to the wall and talk to her as if she was alive. She will hear you the same – inside or outside of the church.” Moreover, when I approached I was so inspired, I pressed my forehead unto the wall of the altar wall and said: “Xenia, God willing, if it is not my earthly wandering, if it is not my pride, I want to be a priest. Pray for me so I could become a priest. If that is God’s will.” Then I spoke to the man for a bit and as we began to part ways he started to cry and told me: “Come here more often. I am handicapped from childhood. I have cerebral palsy. I came here three years ago in a wheelchair and now I come here every day with my own two feet and go home in the evening.”

Three months later when I returned to Orenburg was ordained a deacon. The night before I had to read the six psalms during matins. I have to admit that I was always anxious to read in front of a large group of people. Only know I can stand in front of you and speak freely… So as I am walking out to read the six psalms I begin to shake. This may have happened because I was nervous before my ordination. So I think to myself “I need to pray to someone”. But to whom? And so I began to pray to Saint Xenia: “Saint Xenia, help me, give me your blessing to that I would calm down and everything would be fine.” Five minutes later, I read everything as if I have been doing it all my life. I went into the altar, the canon began, and I hear from the choir “Xenia, Xenia…” I come up to the serving priest and he tells me that today is the day Saint Xenia is commemorated. Three months ago without even knowing her day I asked for Saint Xenia to help me and three months later on her day, she made me a priest!

It was quite interesting that the saint that helped me was a fool for Christ, because of some of the other events that led up to my ordination. My spiritual father was a schema-archimandrite and about six months before my ordination, I come to him as young artist dressed in jeans, a sports hat and a sheepskin coat. And he tells me “Sergei, why are you wearing a hat for children? Let me give you a serious hat.” He comes back with a very proud look on his face and says: “This is my father’s hat” He himself was already  - 80 years old! Could you imagine his father’s hat! The hat turned out to be an ear flapped hat. Once it was black but over the years wore out to a sand like color. So, he took away my old hat and said: “Here Sergei take this hat as my blessing”. Even before I started wearing the hat, my friends thought that I was crazy because I started going to church. Imagine, what they thought of me now…

I wore that hat on the day of my ordination. My spiritual father looks at me and said: “The hat that you have on looks nice, but your coat is no good. I have my father’s coat for you.” The coat he had for me was something you could only find in old soviet movies. It had large buttons and four holes in two rows. It had many small holes as it was clearly eaten by moths; the collar was also worn out and had the same sand like color as the hat. Therefore, I put on a summer cassock, which waved around in the cold February wind and on top of it the head and my “new” coat. In addition, I was told that now I was ready for ordination. As I was walking dress like that through the city, I was hoping that I would not run into my old friends.  I wore the same thing for the next forty days after my ordination. During this whole time I did not meet any of my old classmates but as I boarded the train to go to Orsk (my hometown) I ran into one of my classmates who had a shocked expression on his face. All I could do was smile and have a half crazed laugh. By the way, I also visit the home for children with mental health disabilities. That is my ordination story.

It probably sounds like madness but madness intertwined with faith. You cannot be mad without faith, without Christ you will just be a fool and not a fool for Christ. Sometimes people who take upon this difficult task of being a fool for Christ without asking for a blessing first can become engulfed in pride. They do not do this to glorify Christ and bring Him sorrow instead of joy. Everything need to be for Christ, everything need to be in Christ, we need to understand Christ, we need to allow Christ to act through us we need to live through Christ and love as Christ. We cannot truly love without Christ, as our love would be earthly, limited and incomplete. Only with Christ can we truly love, only with Christ can we truly pray and through Christ can we truly repent. When someone tells me they cannot repent I tell them that repentance by yourself will always fail. A person needs the Holy Spirit to act in him.

I know that Father Andrew loves Father Sophrony (Saharov). In December, I was in England in a monastery in Essex, because I love him very much. I really liked the advice that he gave to his spiritual children: “I would like very much for all of you to become poets but not in the sense of literature, but poets of Spirit. So that you would not be confused, cold hearted, so you would constantly crave to sacrifice yourself for Christ, dream about Christ.”

Once when I was serving on the day of Saint Silouan of Athos I took the book “To see God the way He is” into the altar with me, so I could look it over once more during the kathismas. I sat down, opened the book and began to read. I must say that the books of Father Sophrony are not easy to read, you can not read them with your mind as they are understood through prayer through a charismatic state rather than one of logic. Much of the terminology in the author’s language cannot be understood, if the reader did not have a similar experience. And suddenly on the day of his favorite teacher, Saint Silouan, this book touched my heart. I was filled with so much love and was in such a joyous state that I took a pen and wrote, “Father Sophrony, I love you.” on the first page of the book. A week later, I got a call. I was being invited to Essex to Sophrony Saharov with all the travel expenses paid for. If after asking Saint Xenia for help, I waited three months for my plea to come true, it took Father Sophrony a week to invite me. Of course, I could not refuse such an invitation.

Why did I bring up Father Sophrony Sakharov? For salvation, in order to be a real Christian. A Christian who smiles because Christ is inside of him and because he sees Christ in everyone. How can a person not smile when he sees Christ in everyone? One should always smile. For this, your madness needs to be in Christ. For the logical, wise world, it is impossible to understand these conditions, because of how distant it is. And so, Father Sophrony has this state of a spiritual poet and he was those around him to have the same.

Not long ago while in Moscow I said: “Look how these terms and world views do not correspond. The Christian church often warns people to be careful, not to be deceived not to make a mistake. The Holy Fathers often speak about spiritual deception. At the same time, that same Church admires that which is not of this world, something out of the ordinary, the feats of the saints. The church glorifies these feats daily through canons, troparions, akathists and lives of saints. Moreover, you get a certain contradiction – a blend of two entirely different notions.

Father Andrew Lemeshonok: Tell us about your monastery.

Father Sergei Baranov:  Oftentimes, historical monastery building were returned, restorations were made and only then would people think about starting how to live as monastics. However, monastic life should be the priority. The walls need to be secondary. If there is no community and there is no monastic spirit and mutual understanding, the walls and buildings will not help. Glory to God that we started the community, had our first tonsures and only afterwards we build the monastery itself.

Our monastery is quite young, only four years old. We had a small community before that. There were women around me who wanted to try living a monastic life, so we got together and decided to try monasticism. Every night we would get up at 2 or 3 at night to read the Jesus prayer. We would do so for about an hour and then go back to bed. That is how our monastic community came to be. Gradually it began to grow, and people wanted to be tonsured and become monastics, and that is how our monastery was started. In our monastery we serve a night liturgy every Sunday and we also have a petting zoo and a stable.

Father Andrew Lemeshonok: Why do you think that monasteries should be founded in this manner?

Father Sergei Baranov:  I often travel to Mount Athos and I was a witness of a sad situation when one Russian monk was restoring his cell: he was very passionate; he asked for donations, carried stones wooden boards, but five years after he finished the construction he got bored. What to do next? It is a sad question for a monk. What to do next? Prayer is the top priority for a monk. You know, I often say that even a person who is not religious can do good deeds. Just remember the soviet era. People were not just atheists but they also fought against the church. But at the same time people knew about charity, proper behavior and know love towards their neighbors to some extent. All of it was there. And how are we monks different from laypeople? Not only with ministry work. The world doesn’t know prayer and does not know how to become one with Christ through prayer. Theosis is still unknown to the world. The ministry of the church has many deeds: visiting prisons, comforting the sick, feeding the hungry… no matter what we do in the church, everything needs to have Christ is the center, everything needs to occur through prayer. Prayer should not be left for last. We cannot say that we will work and if we have time we will pray, if not then we will pray last. Even the world can do good deeds, but we need to everything in Christ. But in order to do so we need to be with Christ in prayer. Christ needs to be our mind, our heart, our will – when everything goes through Christ. So, monk and nuns should never neglect prayer.

February 2, 2017

St. Elisabeth Convent