Father Eugene Pavelchuk
First Memories of God
— My grandmother was a believer, — Father Eugene recalls. — She inspired my first memories of God. I was born in 1966. I grew under the Soviet regime with all that it meant. Still, I remember very well that my grandmother would pray all the time. She would even get up in the night to talk to God. She would mention all her relatives by names in prayer. I remember how I lay on my bed pretending that I was sleeping but instead, I was listening intently to her words. We slept in the same room.
I recall her stories about Jesus Christ, “There was Jesus Christ who was the Son of God. He healed many people and performed many miracles but then He was killed. They crucified him and buried him in a tomb. She would tell me this story, and it was almost as if a documentary chronicle unfolded in front of my eyes. “They lay him in the Tomb and blocked the entrance with a stone. When they returned the following morning to check the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty.” My soul was terrified. Is it real? The tomb was empty, the stone was rolled away!
That was my first impression of God and Jesus Christ. My grandmother led a genuinely Christian life. She was very kind. Whenever any of my friends came to me, she would invariably give them something to eat, saying, for instance, “This boy doesn’t have a father.” She never held grudge against anyone. She would leave us every spring. I was curious, “Where does she go?” It turned out that, due to the fact that there was not a single church in our town, my grandmother would travel to her native village every Lent to go to church, confess, and take communion.
Never a Young Pioneer. Never a Little Octobrist. Never a Komsomolist
I went to a regular Soviet school. By the way, my life was so special that I did not enrol neither in the Little Octobrists’ Organisation nor in the Young Pioneers and not even in the Komsomol, like everyone else. I went to school when I was too young. I was younger than everyone else in my class. When everyone was accepted into these Soviet children’s organisations, my age didn’t match the requirements. It was as if they forgot about me. Later, they asked me: “Where’s your red necktie?” I replied, “I don’t have one.” “Impossible! Quick, go home and bring your necktie.” I left and spent some time walking around. “So, where’s your necktie?” “I don’t have a necktie.” The Pioneer leader took her necktie off her neck, “Here you are, wear it.” Well, I put the necktie on. I did not study the official charters and did not swear the official oath. That was how God rescued me!
The same story happened with the Komsomol. I had spent four years in college when the military commissar asked me during an attestation:
— Where is your Komsomol membership card?
— What do you mean?
— I mean, your membership card. Are you making a fool of me?
— I don’t have a membership card.
— Aren’t you a Komsomolist? How dare you?!
He called to the college: “There is a guy who is not a Komsomolist. Do you know that? What’s wrong with you? I’m sending him back to you. He must come here with a Komsomol membership card tomorrow!” When I got back to my college, I found out that they had issued a Komsomol card for me already. When I was in the army, I was hailed as “The Best Komsomolist”. It’s funny because I hadn’t actually become a member of the Komsomol. That was how it all happened.
What Do I Live For?
It was in the army that I started thinking about God for the first time. It wasn’t because I had to endure hardships there. I was stationed near Moscow in a missile defence unit and spent two years never leaving the forest. It was a secret unit. However, during my second year in the army, I was appointed a clerk of the Secret Department. It was a high-responsibility job but at the same time I had enough free time. I read a lot of books and spent even more time thinking. When I was re-reading Dostoyevsky, whom I really rediscovered as I grew older, I started thinking, “Life can’t be pointless… What do I live for? What is my life’s purpose? Just living? Eating, sleeping, drinking… What for? Having a family is great but what’s next? Where’s the meaning in all that?” It was during my service in the military that the thought about the existence of God took roots in my heart.
Seeking For The Truth And The First Easter
I returned home from the army in 1987 and was admitted to the Institute of Culture in Minsk. There were many books around, except the Bible and the Gospel. Bhagavad Gita (an ancient Indian sacred text written in Sanskrit, the foundational document of the Hindu philosophy) was everywhere, in all shops, on all corners.
Blavatskaya’s books were everywhere, too… I almost got into trouble: I started reading Bhagavad Gita but, praise the Lord, I didn’t go deep into that doctrine. I was confounded and learned that some doctrines can be dicey.
There is a story when Arjuna goes to battle with his uncles. Krishna tells Arjuna, “You must kill your uncles.” “Why?” “You must.” “Why? What for? I will simply defeat them. They are my uncles, why should I kill them?” “I, Krishna, tell you so.” That is, he does not provide any explanation. It’s just because he “wants it.”
I was bewildered: of course, war is war but why kill the uncles? I felt tense after reading the Gita: its spirituality sounded weird… Blavatskaya was even worse, absolute darkness. I couldn’t read her books for more than 5-10 minutes. After that, I was repulsed. Finally, I reached the simple conclusion: all that glitters is not gold. Spirituality can be positive or negative.
Accidentally, I got an old Gospel book in the late 1980s. I read it overnight. Sure enough, I didn’t understand much of it at first but the Good News was a gust of fresh air for me. When my room-mate got up the next morning, I set out talking emphatically, “Here is the Truth! Here is the Truth!” He had been used to my reading various crazy books. He challenged me, “Why do you think that
you’re right this time? You have already told me about other books that they were clever or intriguing…” I fell silent. Instantly, my heart sent me the answer — it wasn’t a thought, it was just a spiritual feeling — “It is true because it is full of love.”
Christianity became the long-anticipated lighthouse for me. At first, I couldn’t tell the difference between various brands of Christianity. The Church was not allowed to preach openly yet, and I wasn’t ready to go to church. I saw an advertisement on the street: wow, that’s what I have been waiting for — I’m going to a Christian worship service. I came to a large hall. There were guitars, a Yamaha keyboard, and the people were singing about God. A preacher stepped forward. “Finally, there’s going to be a sermon.” I was surprised to see a theatrical performance instead. The preacher started speaking quietly, in a low voice, gradually raising it and eventually burst out screaming, “Get up everybody!” All people took to their feet, raised their hands and started mumbling something loudly… Now I know that they were Pentecostals but at that time, I didn’t know who they were, I was simply terrified: Where am I? I stood up and made my way to the exit… When I got out of that hall, it made me realise that the saying “All that glitters is not gold” is true for Christianity, too…
I was still very eager to discover the truth. I was visited by the following thought one day: “I’m Orthodox, baptised when I was a child. Sure, it’s been a while since I last visited an Orthodox church but it may be time to go to church again.” There were only two functioning churches in Minsk at that time: St Alexander Nevsky Church and Holy Spirit Cathedral. I came to Holy Spirit Cathedral, stood at the door, and that was when I felt that I was at home: it was so warm and good. “What have you been looking for so long? Here it is!”
First, I dropped in for a couple of minutes. Then I started coming more often and staying longer. I turned to God when I was about 22. I remember my first Easter. It was in 1988, the 100th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’. The church was encircled by the police. They did not let young people in. Old ladies could go through the police lines freely but we young people were kept off. I was furious, “Why they can go to church and I can’t?” “They are believers.” “I’m a believer, too.” “Are you really?” “Yes, I am. I’m a believer.” “Okay, come in.” They let me go into the church. That was how I went to church on Easter. I was jubilant and happy. Easter is a very special day, indeed.
Little by little, I started going to church. I couldn’t live without it. I would get up at 5 AM on my only day-off, when I could have made up for lack of sleep, and go to church.
Gradually, I became a practising Christian. I read many books and found out many new facts. However, the decisive moment for me was my mother's death. She died in 1990 just a couple of days before the New Year. She was 50. Praise the Lord, I had already had faith at that time. Otherwise, I don't know how I would survive her death. It was thanks to my faith that I did not protest against my mother's death. Instead, I started going to church more often to pray for my mum. My faith went through a qualitative transformation. Until then, I was trying to approach the faith from a rational standpoint but at that point my heart turned on to embrace the faith. Holy Fathers call it, "the mind that dwells in the heart."
My father died three years later. I had to pull through somehow and determine my subsequent steps. I followed my would-be wife to Hrodna. She was assigned to Hrodna as a young specialist, and I followed her. I worked as the director of a House of Culture. We settled down and made this place our new home. Needless to say, our life in the 1990s was very difficult. Anyway, I attended church regularly. We celebrated our wedding ceremony in the Hrodna Cathedral.
I attended services in the Cathedral on a regular basis. I was driving across a bridge over the river one day and saw a small church on the shore under the bridge. I decided to go and confess there. This ostensibly insignificant step determined my future life in many ways. I grew fond of this parish as soon as I walked into the church.
First, I got actively involved with the Fraternity of St Vladimir Church. Although Sundays were business days for the House of Culture, I would come up with more and more new reasons to go to church on Sunday morning. I felt very uncomfortable, especially during disco parties.
Meanwhile, I began to sing in the choir and then reading aloud. There were few priests at that time. Even fewer priests had theological education. My parish priest suggested that I become a deacon. I replied, "Are you serious, Father? I used to lead a bad life in the past. No-no-no. I go to church, sure, but serving God..." — "Take your time and think about it. Your past doesn't matter." Later, he suggested the same thing again, and the thought took roots in my heart.
Two priests came to visit us at home in the residence hall. They wanted to talk about it with my wife Irina. They started talking her into allowing me to become a deacon. "You see, there are few priests right now. Your husband is very lively. Would you mind if..." "Yes! Yes, I would mind it!"
She was adamant. Six months later, Irina looked at me and said, "I see that you are already there. Make up your mind at last!" She was acutely aware of the fact that priesthood is not an easy road for the entire family.
I became a deacon in 1995 and spent nine years as a deacon. I don't think I would ever become a priest but then they transferred me to a district centre — a town named Ščučyn 37 miles from Hrodna, and commissioned me to build a new church there. It was there that I was made a priest. I served in a rural parish, in a district centre, and in Hrodna. God's Providence has led me to Minsk. St Vladimir Church was the basis of my ministry. I served in Holy Protection Cathedral in Hrodna for nine years before I finally came to Minsk.
Each parish is different. The atmosphere in a rural parish is very special. Singing is very simple but at the same time a rural parish is marked with incredible love because people know each other and live close to each other. It is very cosy.
I believe that my life journey is an ordinary one. Anyway, the amazing God's Providence can be seen even in this triviality.
Saint Elisabeth Convent
You know, I am very glad that I serve in St Elisabeth Convent now. When Father Andrew told me, "Father Eugene, you know, our Convent is special: we have many ministries and demand absolute obedience." I replied, "I have always lived like that. Not to the same extent, perhaps, but the
principle has been the same." Two months later, Father Andrew asked me in the sanctuary, "Well, Father Eugene, how are you going? Is it difficult or exhausting to serve in the Convent?" I responded, “Father, I feel like I’m in the paradise!”
I did not try to flatter him or to make a false impression. Sure, there are many duties that you have to carry out, and you often feel tired. In spite of that, the spiritual environment makes you stronger. This is especially true of relationships among priests. Father Andrew, of course, sets an example for all of us. He is so full of love that he is even afraid to offend someone with his words. Even if I deserve to be punished, he talks with me in a soft voice, with love and patience... You've got to appreciate it, don't you?
I see what people feel when they come to the Convent and how they enjoy services, in spite of the fact that not everyone is able to stand during the four-hour long All-Night Vigil. People who have serious health issues come to the Convent, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (Cf. 2 Cor. 12: 9). It's a unique place. It is hard but at the same time very graceful to be here. Praise the Lord. I am grateful to God for being here.
What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century?
Carrying one's cross, just like in the 1st century. There is no Christianity without carrying one's cross, i.e., without accepting God's will and cutting off one's own: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34). One must accept God's will wholeheartedly and without doubts. Of course, there is no Christianity without love. Love is the core.
Name three virtues that you value most of all.
Faith, hope, and love: these are the three main virtues. Faith means being faithful, hope means relying on God and trusting him, and love means sacrifice. Love always means sacrifice.
Name three things that can easily make you angry.
I’m triggered very easily. It's my personal flaw. I know it and keep trying to do something about it. I am very emotional, indeed. I struggle with bad thoughts like “How could he do it?” I always recall Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, who was always trying to find excuses for everyone, “Yes, sure, he is such-and-such, but he did it because of his hard life.” I drive such angry thoughts away so as not to condemn anyone. I know that the Lord will instruct everyone including me first of all, since I'm even worse.
What vices are you most inclined to forgive?
A vice is a term of ethics defined as being rooted in sin and unworthy behaviour. A vice is a defect of the soul. There is an eponymous medical term that is used to refer to heart diseases or malfunctions. All sins are defects of the soul. This is how the Holy Fathers understood it, and this is how I see it. If a doctor does not pity his patient, if he starts criticising the patient for being sick – can he be called a doctor? You shouldn't criticise people. You should treat them.
What do you think about happiness? What can make a person happy?
It's "who", not "what." God is the source of all happiness. There can be no happiness without God. Yes, fake happiness is possible without God. An individual can create an idol in his own soul – a passion for the sake of which he lives. Happiness can come only from God. It is God who is the true happiness.
What do you consider to be the worst nightmare?
It is when one loses God. If someone loses God, he is captured by total non-being and disappointment. Losing God means losing the meaning of one's life completely.
Interview by Maria Kotova
January 26, 2018
excerpt from the Liturgy at St Elizabeth's
St Elizabeth's Convent through a sky cam
The Path of Love
Post Scriptum: In case you have forgotten or have not stumbled upon other posts I have written on St Elizabeth's Convent, I was there for two weeks a few years ago and the people and the place have left an indelible mark on me. Their love was of the profound sort, the kind that manifests the presence of the Holy Spirit. I hope to return there one day and see my friends who have kept in touch. In my monastic cell (bedroom) there are two icons, one of the Holy Founders of the Caves Monastery and the other of St Seraphim of Sarov, both gifts of sisters who belong to the monastery: they help to bridge the distance between me and St Elizabeth's.