“Bow your head. It won’t fall off.”
Archimandrite Kyrill (Pavlov), 1919-2017
I subscribe to The Orthodox Word, which is a small publication that comes out four times a year through St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in California. Each issue features a different figure in the Church, and my most recent issue was about Archimandrite Kyrill (Pavlov), who reposed in February 2017 at the age of 98.
Fr. Kyrill was a very beloved priest in Russia, having served as a confessor to not only countless Orthodox, but also to three Russian patriarchs. Born in 1919, he grew up in the early years of the Soviet Union, eventually serving as a soldier during the Second World War (in Russian, the Great Patriotic War), where he was not only wounded twice on the western fronts, but also endured the conditions of the six-month battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd).
During his service, then Sgt. Ivan Pavlov found tatters of a book in the rubble of a building. After dusting it off, he realized that it was the Gospel, and started reading it with great passion:
I had many perplexities about the war. Why did it happen, why were we having to suffer so terribly? […] But after reading the Gospel, everything became clear, the scales fell from my eyes, and I understood all that was going on around me. It was like a healing balm for the soul.
Promptly applying for seminary after the war, Ivan Pavlov eventually graduated from Moscow Theological Seminary, and became a novice monk on his last day of seminary in 1954. Quickly rising to the position of abbot of the St. Sergius Lavra monastery in 1959, Fr. Kyrill was known for his spiritual guidance and charity throughout the year, serving over six decades as a monastic.
His work, however, was not easy, not only because of the difficulties of monastic life, but also because of Soviet efforts to repress religious belief- especially those of monastics. Fr. Kyrill endured accusations of immoral relations with some of his spiritual flock- accusations which were fabricated by the state- yet, according to his close connections,
…he never lost his meek demeanor and forgiving attitude throughout this time. It was as if none of the slander were about him; or rather, he accepted it all as part of the inescapable path of a monk laboring for his salvation and the salvation of others.
What I found compelling about Fr. Kyrill’s story is his directness and simplicity in advising his spiritual flock. Often asked a barrage of questions by seminarians, such as who to marry, or whether or not to serve parishes, he responded simply, but also profoundly,
The young men would bring these questions to Fr. Kyrill fully confident in his guidance, for it was clear that although Fr. Kyrill was unusually modest and unassuming, his answers showed God’s will for them in their lives. Everyone know that he saw things in people that they themselves were unable to see.
Fr. Kyrill’s spiritual son, Igumen Kyprian, also pointed out that Fr. Kyrill had a way of guiding his flock by allowing them to learn from their choices:
“When we asked him for his blessing on one or another decision, he would always ask, ‘And what do you yourself think?’ When the person stated his wishes, Batiushka as a rule would bless it: ‘Do just that.’ Like St. Ambrose of Optina, who told his spiritual children, ‘I’m a weak man, if you start to persuade me, I’ll agree with you,’ Fr. Kyrill likewise never broke anyone’s free will.”
Igumen Nektary and Nun Natalia’s account of this humility focused on Fr. Kyrill’s desire to never wound another person:
With him you always had the right to make a mistake. More than that—you had the right to your own opinion. Disagreement did not cause Fr. Kirill any perplexity or distress (at least he never displayed any distress). He would listen with interest and respect to another point of view and, if he became convinced of its validity, might change his own. Fr. Kirill never domineered over anyone and never forced on anyone his way of thinking about life. After listening to a request, unhurriedly asking about the details of the matter, he would tactfully offer his option for resolving the problem, and the rest was our right to choose. Life itself would reveal the consequences and that his advice was the only sure advice. I never cease to be amazed at how blithely some spiritual advisors might separate a married couple, send to a monastery someone who is still wavering in his decision, or in some way completely and crudely change a human fate. Fr. Kirill treated people with the utmost care, weighed every word, so that he would never wound another’s self-love or injure an infirm soul. But as for mistakes he not only did not coarsely point them out, but in general gave the appearance that nothing had happened. He gave people the opportunity to figure out their errors by themselves.
I found myself intrigued by Fr. Kyrill’s simplicity in his counsel. Whether allowing the person to learn from their choices, or suggesting praying more before making a decision, Fr. Kyrill did with his spiritual children what I wish I did more with my own family: approach things with love, prayer and a willingness to listen. Fr. Kyrill, in his own humility, did not wish to break the spirits of his followers, even if he might not have agreed with what they were doing, or might have suggested doing something else.
St. Porphyrios gave similar advice in his book Wounded by Love, focusing on maintaining a love for others through a constant state of humility and prayer:
Pray for others more than yourself. Say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, and you will always have others in your mind. […] You get upset when others are unwell, whereas what you should do is devote yourself to prayer so that what is desired comes about through the grace of God.
By being diligent and praying for one’s own mercy, a person can, by example, help others find that hope. For the last twelve years of his life, Fr. Kyrill was greatly affected by the effects of a stroke, which according to his close followers, he knew was coming. Igumen Nektary and Nun Natalia’s account of being there with Fr. Kyrill at the time of the stroke shows how Fr. Kyrill accepted life’s circumstances with prayer and gratitude:
…suddenly he began to lean towards the pillow. With his right hand he removed his glasses and managed to place them on the bed stand before falling whole body onto the bed, landing on the left side. While the nurses were running to get the doctor I remained in the room with him one-on-one. I cried helplessly and tapped Batiushka on his sleeve. It seemed he was unconscious… But he never left anyone without attention in their troubles, and even then he opened his eyes again, slightly raised his head, turned toward me and quietly but calmly and firmly pronounced, “Don’t be afraid of anything… Glory to God for everything…” And his head again fell lifelessly back onto the pillow.
The three questions that I find myself wondering after reading these texts are as follows:
- Are there places in our lives where we can work to better answer my own questions, and create spaces to let others make their own choices?
- What we can do to be the example that St. Porphyrios called his followers to be?
- How can we remain diligent in our intentions, especially during times of struggle?