Interview with priest Georgiy Chistyakov
A conversation about spiritual mentorship with Father Georgi Chistyakov (August 4, 1953 – June 22, 2007) — priest, philologist, historian, human rights defender. He is considered a follower of Prot. Alexander Men. Like him, he is a highly erudite priest, pastor, historian, philologist, connoisseur of classical and several European languages. He is engaged in charity work, takes active public positions, in 2003 he opposed the Russian Federation’s war in Chechnya.
The interview was taken in 2003, but is still completely relevant today because of the observations and conclusions of Fr. George.
– Father George, from your point of view as an Orthodox priest, how sick is Russian society?
“It’s sick.” And it’s seriously sick. After all, after the fall of the Soviet regime, we found ourselves free, but in sufficiently harsh conditions of penury and unemployment, it was impossible for us to avoid the disadvantages. The problems associated with making independent decisions on many of the most important life issues faced people in all their fullness. We were used to the state solving all problems for us. That is why society is sick with asthenia – weakness. And the new Russian state simply abandoned us.
Although… I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It might be for the better. Because a person must be able to decide too many things independently, without relying on the state. However, as of now, this is still not happening. How then can we help society, you will ask. Civil society structures will help you answer this question. I have been involved in the activities of non-governmental organizations for many years. Fortunately, now they are already working not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, or let’s say, in Nizhny Novgorod, but also in many other cities of the country. The only problem is that often these organizations are still weak and need financial support from the side. Otherwise, they – so necessary to people – cannot work.
I am talking about the cases when people come together and with joint efforts solve a common problem; for such associations as, for example, associations of parents of children suffering from Down syndrome or diabetes, organizations of relatives of alcoholics, associations of pensioners and people with disabilities… There are many!
And the Church is also one of the elements of civil society. Sobriety groups, groups to help the poor, the homeless can be created at the temples. There they feed and clothe the wanderers. The people who are engaged in this work without any reward. It is a public work requiring a high degree of personal feeling. A feeling that you are doing important work, a sense of responsibility towards that work. A significant element of the church’s charitable activity is the work with disadvantaged elderly people living at the border or below the poverty line. For them, it is necessary to look for clothes, medicines, glasses, to collect money to buy the necessary things.
However, people turn to the temple not only for material, but of course also for spiritual help. And it is very important that the priest and the layman, who meet the person with his problems at the threshold of the church, should really be able to give him this spiritual help. When someone starts believing in God, he becomes stronger. Helping him to grow spiritually to confront the trouble he has fallen into is the most important task.
– What, in your opinion, is the most serious handicap destroying Russian society?
“I don’t even know where to start.” Everything is very serious: poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism… Facing people living below the poverty line, you can’t help but say that the main Russian problem is poverty. But when you meet relatives of alcoholics and parents of drug addicts, who sold everything to save their children, and what they couldn’t sell, their children stole to buy a dose, it becomes clear: the main problems for Russia it is drug addiction and alcoholism.
But there are quite a few other cruel handicaps. One of them – the high prices of good medical care. People don’t have enough money for her. Therefore, often, instead of turning to doctors, they go to magicians and psychics. Instead of taking medicines, they use folk remedies, nutritional supplements, etc.
I cannot help talking about such a dangerous disease as the terrible bitterness of the population… To the rich, to migrants, to refugees, to representatives of other nationalities, religions and confessions. For example, to Catholics. All that we call xenophobia. This disease also absolutely needs to be treated. It’s scary when a person is bitter against everyone and everything.
– Can this bitterness be eradicated somehow?
– First, you need to talk to people. All too often resentment stems from ignorance. From the fact that a person lives, operating not with facts, but with ancient mythologies of hatred for everything foreign. He fishes them in his unconscious and they begin to develop and bear very terrible fruit. In fact, it turns out that people are very poorly informed about the given problem. They simply hate, for example, Caucasians without knowing them. When you start talking to a person who feels hatred, it already gives a positive result.
Secondly, as a priest, I cannot help but say that prayer heals a person, that depth that is discovered in him heals him. When our self lacks depth, when we are superficial, when we turn to mythology, we are all very aggressive. When the person begins to approach the problem at least a little deeper, this aggressiveness drops quickly enough. And then she just disappears.
Finally, true faith in God heals a person. Superficial religiosity, in which a person makes a cross, buys an icon or, on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, takes holy water from the temple, does not change him. But when a person experiences something great related to God, he becomes another, the aggressiveness leaves his heart. This is a very difficult process. We don’t get rid of anything else with as much effort as aggressiveness. Moreover, it is constantly fueled by material difficulties and the conditions in which we live.
– How do we acquire this true faith? Through suffering?
– Of course, it is easy to say, as Dostoevsky did, that suffering purifies the soul. In practice, this does not always happen. Today, we see the opposite result: suffering embitters a person, makes him more aggressive.
I think that the meeting plays a very big role. When someone on his life path meets a person who sincerely believes in God, who carries this pure, joyful, bright faith, then he can really change very quickly. That is, the meeting with the true believer is something very significant. Another issue is that many newly converted Christians do not believe brightly and joyfully, but carry some dark aggressive faith within themselves. For many of them, putting a cross around their neck, boots on their feet, growing a longer beard and starting to profess aggressive views and hatred towards Catholics, Protestants, Jews – this is precisely what it means to convert to Orthodoxy. In fact, all this horror has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, and even less with faith in God.
We are in dire need of bright teachers who lead us to the Truth and to God. Such was, for example, the recently deceased Metropolitan Antony Surozhki. He was 89 years old. He was an old, very sick man, he lived in London. He has not returned to Russia for many years, but his books are published here. Numerous recordings of his talks, videotapes, and audiotapes exist.
Once the TV presenter Vladimir Pozner asked me not without irony: “What would you do to improve the situation with faith in God, so that it would start helping people in Russia?” I answered that I would show Metropolitan Anthony on TV more often . “Another metropolitan,” Posner, who does not particularly like the clergy, retorts me with some irritation. “Not another one, but Antony. He is like that – the only one.”
A representative of the first emigration, Metropolitan Anthony during the years of the war in France was a participant in the Resistance. As a doctor surgeon. He did not receive any theological education, he became a saint during his lifetime, one might say, because he was extremely simple, ascetic in life and absolutely accessible to everyone and everyone; he didn’t even like to be addressed as ‘you’, he preferred the friendly ‘you’, including by people who were 30 or more years his junior.
It was a true bearer of Christ’s light, which truly enlightens all. For Bishop Anthony, each person was, to use the evangelical expression, a “pearl of great price” for which everything in the world could be sacrificed. He knew how to comfort and strengthen a person, but most importantly, to show what you need to do with yourself to become better. In his presence, not only the desire to change themselves for the better, but also the practical vision of what is needed for this appeared in people. And everything described happened because he knew how to love. He knew how to press to his heart, he knew how, if we may say so, to take everyone somewhere in the depths of his own “I” and keep him there. Like a child. At the same time, there was no pampering and no sentimentality in his attitude towards people.
“… Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. If we try to understand what the word “merciful” (in Greek “oiktirmon”) means, it will turn out that it comes from the Greek word “oiktos”, that is, “pain”; thus, he who accepts another’s pain as his own is merciful. It is in the indicated sense of the word that Metropolitan Antony was merciful. Communicating with such bright people gives a lot. But the trouble is that they are always infinitesimal. Dmitri Sergeevich Likhachev was also like that, and in India – Mother Teresa. Who else? I do not know. Our task as believers is to develop in people a sense of God, to teach them with the help of books, personal conversations and moments of trust in life. Sometimes this happens at confession in the church, sometimes – on the train on the way to the villa. In these moments, you can convey something to the person face to face, sow the seed that God, who is invisibly present in our lives, heals our hearts.
I wish people in Russia would read the Gospel more. Today, Orthodoxy begins with the fact that, for some unknown reason, people are given crosses. I would distribute the Gospel. This is an amazing book. When you start reading it, you really become someone else. During the August coup in 1991, we, together with my friend Father Alexander Borisov, distributed Gospels in front of the White House. The young people who were then standing around the building were infinitely grateful. At some point I took my Bible out of my pocket and we read aloud. For the people this was a huge discovery as they had never heard anything like it. They were literally transforming before our eyes.
The word of Jesus changes the person. Therefore, if we talk about spiritual help for the country, then this is evangelization. I know how much she gives from her experience in meetings with drug addicts and alcoholics, with young people and with sick children.
For more than 11 years now, my friends from the parish of St. Kozma and Damyan” in Shubino and I work at the Republican Children’s Clinical Hospital. We have to look for money for medicine, for clothes, for children’s books and, alas, for funerals. Let’s organize their free time, set up a small theater, musical meetings, draw… They love to draw. During these years we managed to hold several wonderful exhibitions of children’s drawings. Their authors are seriously ill children for whom spiritual help is needed no less than medical help. We read the Gospel, and we see how much it gives them. When you start reading it aloud, in some mystical way a real encounter with the living Jesus takes place. Jesus himself from the pages of the Gospel comes down to us. And invisibly he finds himself among us. Such is the effect produced by this one-of-a-kind book. Of course, children feel the presence of Christ in their lives thanks to the fact that together with them we pray and read the Gospel. It is a family prayer meeting like no other. Children with disabilities feel like full-fledged people, precisely because God is with them, precisely because they live with the joyful feeling of God’s presence in their lives.
Of course, there is another problem – that is the adoption of sick children. Children with vision problems, hearing problems, with severe diseases that need to be treated over the course of years through numerous operations. Initially, such children were adopted mostly in the USA, Italy and other countries. Now many Muscovites have adopted such children. To adopt a child with health problems, which you will have to “carry in your arms” for the rest of your life – this is a feat. That such children began to be taken in Russia, and not only abroad, is a very important sign! A sign that society is coming out of the dead end, from the state of crisis. A sign that we will not perish.