Question: How can it be that apostle Paul had persecuted Christians and nevertheless converted while there are people who do nothing wrong, but they are unable to come to believing?
MA[i]: I don’t think I can explain to you why Paul was chosen but I am sure that one comes to believing in a variety of ways. It’s not only just one way. There are people who, I have met such in numbers in Russia, who feel that with all they possess of culture, of wealth, of possibilities there is a hunger within them, there is an emptiness, there is space always for more, more but when they drop into their inner self as it were more things, they fall into an abyss, they don’t even hear how it hits the bottom. And then they begin to ask themselves, “But isn’t there something else? Isn’t my soul too vast even to contain the whole world?” That is one way. Another way consists in having an inkling about something and meeting other people who share with you your experience and know even more than you. And then you can say, yes, we have that in common, he knows a little more about it, let me listen to what he says and widen my perception and my vision.
There are people who in a way which I can’t account for of course discover God in several ways. I remember a man who later founded the SCM in Russia before the revolution, he was a noble man from Finland, and he was the friend of a priest whom I have known very well later in France. He couldn’t believe but he felt that he was missing something, that there was something others like this friend his had, and he hadn’t it. And I have got the story in his own words. He said that he went on holiday to Finland. He was walking in the woods hungry for what he did not know what and he stopped and said, “God, if You exist, give me peace!” And he said, a peace came upon him he had never known before.
There are people who discover God in a quite unexpected way. I will tell you the story of someone here. Soon after I had become a priest and knew even more than I know now, a girl of 20 something came to see me. I was then working in the fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius and said to me, “I have a problem, could you help me? I belong to a family of believers. I am expected to receive communion every year at Easter. I believe neither in God, nor in Christ, nor in communion and I feel I can’t do it because I cherish my integrity. I can not do something which is a lie against myself. What shall I do?” And I said, “Don’t worry anymore because even if you came to communion, I wouldn’t give you a communion. So that is simple. Now, if you want to discover more, let us talk.” And then we met every Friday for a talk and I made no headway. Anything I said was empty and totally unproductive and I felt completely defeated. Then we arrived on Good Friday and I was determined not to have discussion because I knew I couldn’t help her at all. But I what I believed is that God can. And when she came I said, “Look, I have proved totally useless to you. My only hope is that God can do what I can not do and you can not do for yourself. Let us go into the chapel, I will kneel before the Plaschanitsa, before the Epitaphius and pray and you stand and we will see what happens.” So we came and I knelt down, she stood above me like this, then she knelt down also and sat on her knees because, you know, on her heels because it wasn’t comfortable to stand a yard above me. And I stayed there saying, “What can I do?” And then a thought came to me, you know, a naked thought without beginning and end, a naked thought that said, that I repeated to the girl. I said, “Does it matter absolutely for you to find out whether God exists or not?” And she said, “Yes, it matters absolutely because if God doesn’t exist life has no meaning and I don’t know what I will do.” And then I turned to God and said, “Alright, but what next?” (I was more polite.) And I went on saying, “What? What? What?” And then a thought came which really frightened me but also it was a naked bit of a thought. I turned to her and said, “If you promise to do anything I will tell you I promise you that within a year you will find God.” She said, “Yes! What?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And then I went back to standing on my knees and saying, “What God? What? What next?” And then another naked thought came which really gave me a good fright because I thought, if it is not of God, it’s a blasphemy. I turned to her and said, “This is what you will do: I am celebrating the liturgy tomorrow morning, it was Saturday in Holy Week, you will come to communion but before you receive communion, you stand before the Holy Cup and say, ‘Lord, my parents and family have betrayed me and You, your Church has betrayed You and me, this priest here has betrayed both also, and now I challenge You either to reveal Yourself to me or I’ll go and it will be on You.’” She said, “I can’t do that. If God exists, it is sacrilege, blasphemy.” I said, “Well, I will be answering for that.” And then we parted both very-very puzzled. The next day I celebrated the liturgy here, she came to communion, she made her declaration and I gave her communion and the same afternoon I went to France and I got within two days a short note from her in which she said, “I don’t yet know whether God exists but I know for sure that what I received in communion was neither bread nor wine.” And that was the beginning. So this is another example.
I can’t give you all possible examples but there are so many ways. And I think when we speak of faith we usually speak of a little grain of certainty which is within us, which is born one way or another. It may be a memory from our childhood, it may be anything. Then it’s our sharing this memory with people who have a little bit more than we have and by sharing with them we outgrow our experience and our knowledge. We can then when we have discovered how it works begin to absorb what the Church have known in the last 1,000 years in the saints, in the liturgy, in prayer, in so many ways,and then we come to a point where neither the Church, nor your neighbours, nor your priests can do anything which corresponds to what the Gospel says, “No-one has ever seen God. The Son of God who is in the bosom of the Father He has revealed Him.” There is a point beyond which no-one but God knows Himself, no-one but Christ can reveal Him to us. And that we must be prepared to wait but not wait, sort of, sitting comfortably in an armchair but wait as one waits for the coming of an event which really matters to us.
Question: How to pray sincerely for God to hear us? When I use a prayer book sometimes I feel that I pray mechanically…
MA[ii]: There can be no response when there is no call, and so a prayer does not become a prayer when it becomes a mystical experience of the saint but it becomes a prayer at the moment when I long to speak for God, I long for God, I am prepared for Him to meet me or not, because He must be as free as I am, I cannot say to God, “O, I have half a hour free, I want to talk to You. Come and stand here.” He is not obliged to do this. But unless we open ourselves and say, “Lord, I open myself to You, I want to be with You, I want to be quiet with You. I will say words, yes, but I will pour into these words all my soul or as much of my soul as I can.” Or, “I will be quiet and silent in Your presence and I will pour into this silence all my longing for You, all my affection, all my faith,” whatever you call that. I don’t know whether I quoted that to you once two years ago, but one of the Western saints from France from the region of Lyon was a parish priest in a minute little village and he had an old parishioner who sat in the chapel for hours and hours, and he said to him one day, “Granddad, what are you doing in church hour after hour? You don’t move your lips in prayer, you don’t run your fingers along your rosary, what are you doing here?” And the man said, “I look at Him, He looks at me and we are so happy together.” Well, that I would call a sacrament in the deepest sense of the word. It is a moment of mysterion, of communion at a depth which is beyond words, beyond fluttering of thoughts, beyond emotion also. It is communion of being with being, of essence with essence.
Question: How to lead the discussion with an atheist to make the person interested?
MA[iii]: I remember a man who in the 20s did a lot of missionary work in Russia at a moment when atheism was not, I mean, blossoming, bursting out, a man called Vladimir Martsinkovsky, who played a great role in my life later. He was an Orthodox who became a Baptist and in one of his writings he says, “Never argue against a man, speak above him.” Not ‘above him’ in the sense that words incomprehensible to him but speak on a level that will make him look up and expound instead of hitting at him because, well, anyone who is being hit will defend himself.
Once during a visit to Moscow I came out of the hotel Ukraina and I was dressed as I am even more because I had white hat, and a Soviet officer came up to me and said, “You are a believer?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, I am an atheist.” I said, “Well, that’s your loss.” He said, “Well, show me your faith on the palm of your hand and I will believe.” And when he did that, I saw that he had a wedding ring. So I said, “You are married?” “Yes.” “You have a wife?” “Yes.” “And children?” “Yes.” “And you love them?” “Yes.” “Show me your love on the palm of your hand because otherwise I can’t believe it.” He said, “But I can give evidence of it — I work for them, I bring flowers to my wife, I bring presents to my children.” I said, “That’s no proof. That’s can be explained perfectly well by your fear of social pressures and you may simply be afraid of your wife.” I said, “No, show me your love on the palm of your hand.”
And I think that kind of argument is not an argument but it makes a person see that it’s not only God and our faith that is to be shown. You can not prove love. Manifestations of love are not proves of love. I mean the fact of embracing someone or bringing flows or presents may be explained away with good or ill will. You can not look at a sunset or a painting, or a face and say, “How beautiful,” and then explain why it is beautiful. After the event you can give sort of arguments but you cannot say that the combination of this amount of gold and of pink, of blue and this makes its beauty.
So that there are a variety of fields in which the most atheistic person accepts a testimony from within himself. It’s only after the event that you can comment. You know, if you are, say, a specialist in music, you can afterwards study a score and explain things. But none of these explanations will give a sense of the beauty of it. You know, I did physics at university and I passed exams on, I remember, I wrote a paper on counterpoint, but less even than now I had appreciation of music. I knew it as waves, mathematical combinations but sound did not interest me in the least. And yet it was music but it could be analysed with gadgets into lines and curves and so on. And there is a point at which you can tell a person: no, you can not speak of your love, of beauty, of the sense of truth, of the authority which a person has naturally, I mean not because he has power over you but because there is sound of truth in what he says otherwise than through an inner perception.
[i] From a talk to youth group leaders, 21 February 1990
[ii] From a meeting with leaders, 21 February 1989
[iii] From a talk to youth group leaders, 15 July 1987