March 30, 2015
"A Pilgrimage along the Dniepr Banks" – An Interview with Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan on his Visit to Ukraine

His Grace, Eastern American Diocesan vicar Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, spoke about his pilgrimage to Ukraine when he met with a correspondent of the diocesan Media Office.

Last summer, after my consecration in California, Bishop Theodosius of Seattle invited me to join him on a trip to Ukraine. I shared our travel plans with Bishop George of Mayfield, who had yet to visit Ukraine, and he decided to join us. This February, after celebrating the sixth anniversary of His Holiness, Patriarch Kyrill’s, enthronement, and participating in the Assembly of Bishops, we departed by train from Moscow to Kiev.

February in the Russian winter is a cold one. Two customs checkpoints awaited us that night: at midnight, the Russian exit checkpoint, which we cleared without any trouble. At three in the morning, we arrived at the Ukrainian entry checkpoint. We said that we were traveling with the intent to pray at the Kiev Caves Lavra. And then, the woman checking our documents saw my passport with its additional pages and said, "You’re quite the traveler, father." I replied that I had traveled under obedience several times to Canada and around Europe. The border guards were preparing to check one of our bags, when a customs officer, checking in at their request, told them to leave us monks alone. And so we continued on our way to the holy sites of Kiev.

This was not your first visit. When did you first travel to Ukraine?

I first visited Ukraine in 2007 as a deacon, traveling with Metropolitan Laurus after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion. It was a very short trip: we arrived in Kiev on May 23rd and three days later, on the eve of Holy Pentecost, departed for Pochaev.

The second time I was in Kiev was with the Kursk Icon in 2010. That year, the Icon traveled for a week to All Saints Church outside of the city, and I spent all of that time in obedience, guarding the Icon in the church. This time, I was traveling to Ukraine in my new capacity as a bishop, and I had a deep desire to interact with other hierarchs, and peacefully pray at the holy sites of Kiev, for myself, for the clergy, and for the parishioners of our Diocese.

We arrived in Kiev at around 9 o’clock in the morning. Bishop Theodosius was ready to put together a itinerary with us to map out our six-day visit, but it occurred to me, if possible, that we should immediately visit His Beatitude Onufry, Metropolitan of Kiev, and receive his blessing. Several days before, we met with him in Moscow and let him know that we would like to meet and serve with him in Kiev.

How did your pilgrimage begin?

We were informed that His Beatitude received guests during lunch in his office in the Lavra, and Bishop George and I decided to go there. Hardly a day goes by that Metropolitan Onufry does not receive guests from among the clergy, people, even children – he turns no one away. We waited for a little while, and when Metropolitan Onufry arrived and saw us, he was overjoyed and said in English, "What a nice surprise!" Turning to Bishop George, he said, "Vladyka George, I am happy to see you!" Metropolitan Onufry simply beamed. We were also glad to see him, and told him that we would like to serve with him. His Beatitude showed us into his office and listened intently as we spoke about our travels. Metropolitan Onufry gifted us memorial panagias, and we thought that our interaction was drawing to a close. But His Beatitude invited us to have lunch with him. Joining us in the refectory was Metropolitan Mitrophan of Lugansk & Alchevsk, chairman of the UOC’s Department for External Church Relations, as well as some other priests. The Metropolitan announced that guests had arrived from America, and blessed Priest George Georgitsa to show us around Chernigov, Pochaev, and the Kievan monasteries. Thus we obtained a tour guide to the holy sites of Ukraine.

After lunch, Bishop George and I walked to the Near and Far Caves to pray. This was not my first visit to the Lavra Caves, but I have to say that the fear and trepidation of being there does not go away. Bishop George, meanwhile, prayed there for the first time, and also felt the same powerful grace. That evening, we informed Bishop Theodosius about that pilgrimage plans that Metropolitan Onufry had organized for us.

The following day, Fr. George came for us and we drove to Chernigov. There, we visited Holy Trinity Cathedral, a monument to 17th century architecture, where lay the relics of the saints of Chernigov: Holy Hierarch Theodosius, Venerable Laurentius, and Archbishop Philaret (Gumilevsky), who was glorified by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2009. Our day was a busy one: Archbishop Ambrose of Chernigov & Novgorod-Seversky showed us his diocesan cathedral, and later we traveled to Holy Dormition Yeletsky Convent. This is one of the oldest monasteries in Ukraine, and the oldest in Chernigov. The convent was originally a men’s monastery, and was founded in the middle of the 11th century by Prince Svyatoslav Yaroslavich in a spruce forest, hence the name Yeletsky (which stems from the root ель (yel’), or spruce – trans.). According to monastery lore, the father of Russian monasticism – Venerable Anthony of the Caves – was said to have spent several years there. But most of the monastery’s buildings were constructed in the 18th century. Among its abbots were the renowned Church writer and distinguished figure in Church history – the future Hierarch Demetrius of Rostov.

The monastery’s history has seen the invasion of the Mongol Tatars, who sacked it in 1239; in the middle of the 17th century, it was overtaken and run by Jesuits; at the end of 1921, it was closed, and the current convent began its work in the early 1990s.

We also visited another of the remaining architectural monuments of Kievan Rus’ – Chernigov’s Holy Transfiguration Cathedral (11th c.). Its former glory is attested to by the remains of the frescoes, the carved choir plates, and columns. Buried in Holy Transfiguration Cathedral is Prince Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave, whose praises are sung in the epic "Tale of Igor’s Campaign."

That evening, we dined with the sisters of Holy Dormition Convent, and later returned to Kiev with wonderful impressions.

What did you think of the situation in Kiev?

It was calm in Kiev, but it was clear that the people were praying especially fervently. When we served the All-Night Vigil in the Refectory Church of the Kiev Caves Lavra, all of the hierarchs came out for the Polyeleos, while Metropolitan Onufry remained to anoint the faithful with oil, with Bishop George and me anointing on the left and right sides of the church. There were many people, and we anointed the faithful until the 9th Ode of the Canon – "More Honourable than the Cherubim…"

As people came up, we would congratulate them on the feast and the Sunday, and it was clear that they were troubled, suffering, yearning for peace and love, that the Lord reigned in the people’s hearts, and that we were all brothers in Christ. We shared their worries, but the fact that they came to church to pray for peace – for communion with God – comforted, encouraged, and gave us hope.

Your Grace, you mentioned that Metropolitan Mitrophan of Lugansk was at dinner with you. Lugansk is currently one of the dangerous hotspots…

We did not have time to speak in detail. Metropolitan Mitrophan mentioned that life in his diocese is currently very difficult, asked our prayers, and added that, when he has to travel to and from Lugansk, he has to take the long way around.

What holy sites in Kiev did you visit?

On Saturday, first we made our way to Holy Ascension-St. Florus and Holy Protection Convents – medieval monasteries that were the only ones to avoid closure by the godless authorities in the 1960s. In the middle of the 18th century, Venerable Alexandra of Diveevo (Mulgunov) – founder of St. Seraphim-Diveevo Convent – began her monastic path in St. Florus (Florovsky) Convent. The monastery’s primarily sacred object is a piece of the relics of the Holy Martyr Laurus.

In Holy Protection Convent, we spoke at length with Abbess Callisthene and the sisters. They were very interested to hear about church life in America and Australia, about the lives of Orthodox parishes there. It turned out that the monastery had been visited by pilgrims from Nyack, as well as Archpriest Victor Potapov from Washington. It was comforting for us to hear that the nuns have not ceased their monastic work, and zealously pray in the hope that the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Prince Vladimir will hear their prayers and send their help to the suffering Ukrainian people. The nuns know of our saints and holy icons as well: the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai, the Kursk Icon of the Mother of God, and more; and they asked our prayers.

On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the feast of the Holy New Martyrs & Confessors of Russia, Bishops George and Theodosius and I served in the Refectory Church of Venerable Anthony & Theodosius of the Caves. Two choirs sang: the hierarchal choir and the monastic-seminary choir. Metropolitan Onufry served, along with Metropolitan Paul (the monastery’s deputy abbot), seminary rector Metropolitan Anthony, Bishop Clement of Irpen (vicar of the Kievan Diocese), and us.

Before the service began, Metropolitan Paul approached us (he is a longtime acquaintance of Bishop Theodosius’, who was tonsured in the Lavra). He asked us to come more often and not to forget about Ukraine, and promised to receive us joyfully and pray with us at the Ukrainian holy sites.

The following day, at the appointed time during the Divine Liturgy, Metropolitan Onufry asked Bishop George to perform that day’s diaconal ordination, in order to confirm our brotherly unity. "Bishop George, you will do the ordination," he said in English. Metropolitan Onufry would take advantage of the slightest opportunity to speak with us in English.

Upon completion of the service, Metropolitan Onufry invited us to a luncheon at St. Panteleimon Convent, better known as "Theophania" (the name of the historic garden to which it is adjacent – trans.). His Beatitude told us how dear it was to him that we were here, that we had come to prayerfully support the clergy and faithful of Ukraine. And we thought, "It is good for us to be here!"

Returning home, we immediately called Metropolitan Hilarion and told him about the ordination. Metropolitan Hilarion blessed this good work, and expressed his gratitude to Metropolitan Onufry.

Your Grace, what were your impressions of your visit to Pochaev?

We traveled to Pochaev that same Sunday evening. On the way, we visited Holy Trinity Convent in Korets. The abbess, Mother Raphaela, showed us the convent’s holy icons and relics. I remember our last visit there in 2007, and in one of the rooms I saw photographs on the wall documenting our visit to the convent with Metropolitan Laurus.

By the way, the convent has a chapel, wherein the "Unsleeping Psalter" is read continuously.

We arrived in Pochaev after midnight. It was dark, frosty, snowy, and quiet. We were greeted by the dean, Hieromonk Bessarion, and Hierodeacon Theodore. Metropolitan Vladimir of Pochaev, deputy abbot of the Lavra, was absent, but we did not lose hope that we would meet with him.

Holy Dormition Pochaev Monastery is a special place for us. Here, the future Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) labored before coming to Jordanville. Our print shop, our singing, and our monastic traditions all hail from here. This is the home of our sacred Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God. As Metropolitan Laurus explained to me, it was a gift to Archbishop Vitaly and Orthodox America from Pochaev. The Icon was first kept at the Bronx cathedral. When the Icon made its traditional annual visit to Jordanville for the Labor Day Pilgrimage after Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky’s) repose in 1976, then-Archbishop Laurus left the Pochaev Icon at Holy Trinity Monastery.

The following morning, Bishop George and I stepped outside, and the cold was unbelievable. We even felt our bones freezing. But the silence was so grace-filled. All around us lay snow, and the tree with decorations still standing since Christmas. Holy Trinity Cathedral stood before us, which Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) had consecrated. On weekdays, Midnight Office is served at 5 o’clock in the morning in Holy Dormition Church, followed by the early Liturgy in the Caves Church of Venerable Job. I noticed the surprisingly kind faces of the monastics and pilgrims. It was the dead of winter, and yet buses were pulling up full of tourists, and the later Liturgy at 9 o’clock was packed to capacity.

Listening to the singing, I was reminded of Jordanville – our choir sings the same way. I commemorated Metropolitan Laurus, Archimandrite Cyprian, and other monastery brethren, and was comforted by memories of my days in seminary and the time I had spent in the monastery. I especially prayed for Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko); although I did not know him personally, I heard much about him from Metropolitan Laurus. Hierodeacon Theodore told us about the monastery’s history, about the frescoes in the church, and about monastery life. Later we descended into the caves, where the relics of Venerable Job and Amphilocius of the Caves rest. The monastery also has a cave where Venerable Job labored when he was still alive. The monastery currently has over 100 brethren, and the Lavra even hosts a theological seminary.

Upon our return from a trip to the parishes, Metropolitan Vladimir greeted us. He was very interested in church life in America. Later, we visited Holy Spirit Skete together, and there interacted with the brethren.

We were fortunate enough to remain at Holy Dormition Pochaev Lavra for several days, able to pray at the daily services. Metropolitan Vladimir told us that, on feast days and Saturdays at the All-Night Vigil, so many people will come that the crowds are anointed until the end of the service.

On the day of our return to Kiev, we went to Holy Dormition Cathedral for Midnight Office at 5 o’clock in the morning. Metropolitan Vladimir invited us to pray in the altar. It was dark in the altar, with only one candle burning on the altar table. Through the darkness, we could hear the beautiful singing of the monastery’s brotherhood choir.

I have heard that the monastery keeps a tradition relating to the Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God. Is this so?

Yes. At the end of Midnight Office, the marvelous Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God is lowered on sashes in front of the altar, while the monks and pilgrims intone a special hymn to the Pochaev Mother of God, the sticheron "Gate through which none may pass."

Metropolitan Vladimir, Bishop George, and I stood before the Royal Doors on our knees. Venerating the Icon, we proceeded to the relics of the venerable saints in the cave church. The brethren remaining in the church began to sing the akathist to the Pochaev Icon. In the lower church, we venerated the relics of Sts. Job and Amphilocius. During the Liturgy, I stood next to a window in the cave church and gazed out at the gorgeous view of Pochaev from the mountain – sunrise, winter, prayer…

There we also met Bishop Job of Kashira, who serves in Canada, and together with the clergy we served an akathist to the Venerable Fathers.

Have any new traditions cropped up in the monastery – for instance, special moleben hymns relating to the difficult challenges facing the country?

Since last year, they have begun holy processions with the cross and icons after evening services on Monday nights in the Lavra. The brethren and pilgrims walk around the monastery – inside its walls – in procession and pray that the Lord protect the monastery. I decided to join them in procession. When the evening service concluded, the senior priest came out with a cross, and eight monks followed him out of the cathedral and around the monastery, followed by about 300 pilgrims. As I was told later, there are far more people in attendance in the summer. The faithful in the procession walked quickly. Metropolitan Vladimir walked with us, while the monks and pilgrims sang; at each of the stops, the clergy blessed the monastery with the cross and icons. Our souls were overjoyed.

How are the Pochaev monks dealing with the atmosphere of division and instability outside the monastery walls?

Metropolitan Vladimir explained to us that times are troubled, and that the people are turning away from God, but many pilgrims still come. One can see people paying more attention to themselves, to entertainment, and very few of them think about their salvation. He also noted that everything going on in Ukraine is a war against Orthodoxy, against God. We noted in reply that the Orthodox in America are also a small flock, and that it is not easy for us to keep the youth within the Church. And we, as monks, must be an example for them of men of prayer to God.

What other holy places did you visit before returning to Kiev?

Before returning to Kiev, we traveled through Kremenets. In St. Nicholas Church at the Choirmaster School, we were met by our co-brother, Metropolitan Sergius of Ternopol. During our meeting with the students, we spoke about the scout camps in America, about our youth conferences, about life in our parishes, about New York City, where the Kursk Icon is kept and from whence it visits all around the world. We spoke about the relics of St. John in San Francisco. The students paid close attention, and some even had trouble believing that there were Orthodox churches in America, too. Bishop George spoke to the youth about Australia, where he will be moving after Pascha, and explained that there are Orthodox Christians there, as well. It was Cheesefare Week, and after the meeting I gave the rector a humble contribution, and asked him to treat the students to ice cream.

We also visited Holy Theophany Convent, where Metropolitan Sergius showed us the church, while the abbess prepared us lunch. We returned to Kiev spiritually overjoyed and contented.

On Wednesday, February 11, on the eve of our departure, we went once more to pray at the Kievan Lavra. Our guide, Fr. George, showed us the Lavra’s Holy Dormition Cathedral. At lunch, we met with Bishop Jonah of Obukhov, who was present at my consecration in San Francisco last summer. Bishop Jonah showed us around the Monastery of the Mother of God "Joy and Comfort," metochion of Holy Trinity-St. Jonah Monastery.

Bishop George was left with wonderful impressions, and expressed his thanks for all of the brotherly love and support. Indeed, hierarchs also experience moments of loneliness, but when you know that your brother in Kiev, or in Australia or Seattle, is praying for you, and you for him, then that unity in Christ is a great support.

We pray for our brothers in Ukraine; at every Liturgy we lift up special petitions at the Augmented Litany and a prayer, in which we ask God that lawlessness might cease and true love come to reign.

America is home to many Ukrainians. What can you tell them after returning from Ukraine?

For us, this pilgrimage was a grace-filled encounter with Kievan Rus’, although using that phrase nowadays is not without some risk. Standing on the high bank of the Dnieper River, St. Vladimir holds aloft the cross, blessing not only Ukraine and Russia, but the entire Orthodox world. We are all brothers in Christ, we share one Orthodox Church, and we ought not spread disunity, but strengthen our common prayer for the salvation of the Orthodox in America, Russia, Ukraine, and in all the world.

We experience difficulties, unhappiness – this is natural. We worry, we pray, we make prostrations, but do we think about our salvation? And if we – Ukrainians, Russians, Americans – all thought about our salvation, this would immediately push us to united prayer for the salvation of our souls. If we follow after Christ, then our differences will fade into the background. Let us think about the future: what do we want to leave to our children – a Church in collapse, a divided Orthodox people who are constantly bickering, or a united Church and peoples living in brotherly friendship and prosperity? This is what the post-Christian world wants: to disrupt, to divide, to destroy our Faith, our Church, our families, and our holy places. Let us unite around Christ the Savior and show one another and the whole world the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Lord will see our endeavor, our labors, and our unity – and will have mercy on us.

Media Office of the Eastern American Diocese