Serbian Conversations, Part 1

The following is the first part of a translation I’ve slowly been working on in my web-log absence. It is one of the last interviews that Fr. Daniel Sysoyev gave.

Serbian Conversations
Father Daniel Sysoyev and Yuri Maximov

“Shining as a star”
A few words about Father Daniel Sysoyev from Yuri Maximov

Late on the night of November 19, 2009, Fr. Daniel Sysoyev was killed in the Church of the Apostle Thomas on Kantemirovskaya in Moscow. An unidentified person in a mask entered the church and shot him point-blank.

I knew Fr. Daniel for ten years-since October 1999, when we met each other at a conference where we both spoke. He called me the night before, and on the day of the conference I saw a man walking in front of me in a riassa and immediately understood that it was the very same Deacon Daniel Sysoyev with whom I had spoken on the phone.

There was something similar in his voice as well as walk which expressed his uniqueness and allowed one to unmistakably recognize him in a crowd, even from behind and even to an unfamiliar person.

In one of his interviews shortly before his death, Fr. Daniel said that “we need to walk before God as He said of Enoch, ‘he walked before God and God took him.’ That walking before God is the root of missions.”

To shortly describe Fr. Daniel, he walked before God. And although that, in the first place, is the state of a soul completely directed to God, it even found its expression literally in his walk, not even mentioning his actions and words.

He walked with a light step, like a person who knows where he is going and why, one who is calm in the present and that does not worry about the future because he has entrusted all his cares to the Lord, Who is as close to him as a Loving Father.

During the ten years that I knew him, many times Fr. Daniel said that he wanted to die as a martyr. I am afraid that now those words will sound completely different than when he said them. When he talked about martyrdom there was neither gloomy solemnity nor unhealthy ecstasy. He would say it simply and with joy, and I, hearing this, would feel the same awkwardness and perplexity that I felt when I read in the epistles of St. Ignatius the Godbearer of his fervent desire to suffer for Christ. One and the same spirit was in the one and the other, and I understood neither of them.

I recall how a few years ago when we were in Macedonia I brought Fr. Daniel to the amphitheater in the ancient city of Bitol. Here, during the time of the Roman Empire, they fed people to wild animals for the delight of the crowds of pagans. On the sides, there remained two small rooms, in which the animals were kept before being let into the arena, and, in the center, there was a box the size of a man, from which the condemned would come out to his torment. It is certainly true that several martyrs of the early Church accepted death for Christ in such a way in that amphitheater. I said to Fr. Daniel, “Look, Father, you can stand there where the martyrs stood before going to their podvig.” And he went into that dark box. I remember how he stood there and gazed into sky.

Probably with the same concentrated peacefulness he was looking at his own murderer. I confess that I have thought about whether or not batushka was afraid at the final moment because I would be afraid. Therefore, I asked the one eyewitness that saw the murder with his own eyes what Fr. Daniel was doing when, leaving the altar, he saw a man in a mask with a pistol in his hand. I was told, “He was walking towards him. Right towards him.”

Father Daniel Sysoyev was born January 12, 1974, and was baptized when he was three years old. He was raised in a religious family. I remember how he told me of his cherished memories from childhood: how his mother would read him the lives of saints before bed.

Batushka treated the faith with consciousness and seriousness from a young age. According to him, from the time he was twelve, if his parents demanded something of him out of principle he asked for a Biblical foundation for it and if he received it then he would carry out the demand unquestioningly. In this is already reflected his principle desire: to know the will of God always and for everything and to follow it. He preferred God to anything else and preferred the will of God to any other will.

I know many good priests in Russia, but here I have never met a person who would love God as intensely, fervently, and selflessly as did Fr. Daniel. Not long before his death, I found myself at one of batushka’s catechetical talks, and I thought that only a deeply loving person can, without stopping, talk for two and a half hours about God and only about God and to speak in such a way that the people listen the whole time without stirring.

During Soviet times he already sang on the kliros, and, after finishing school, in 1991 he entered Moscow Theological Seminary. He would say to me that he had always wanted to be a priest and imagined himself as nothing else. That desire was born in him in childhood, when he underwent a clinical death and saw an angel, who returned his soul back into his body.

In 1995, Fr. Daniel got married, finished seminary, and was ordained into the diaconate. From that moment his extensive preaching and missionary activity began and he taught the Law of God to the upper classes at the Yasenevo Orthodox Gymnasium. One incident sticks out in my mind from his accounts about that time. One day he gave the topic “What will remain after I am gone? What will I take with me when I die?” to his students for an essay. Several parents came to him in indignation, “How can you give such topics to kids? You shouldn’t remind them about death.” To this he answered, “So your children are immortal?” Fr. Daniel was convinced that as none of us can avoid death, we need to properly prepare for it, for which a Christian has everything that is necessary, and the earlier we start preparing, the better.

Starting in 1996, Fr. Daniel led missionary discussions at the Krutitsk representation church working with Fr. Anatoly (Berestov) in the St. John of Kronstadt Pastoral Center. He met and spoke with members of various cults, preaching to them and converting them to Orthodoxy.

Besides Fr. Daniel, I have known no one who could boldly confront any audience and begin a conversation with a person of any religious view and always have something to say of substance. He was a true missionary, loved to tell people about Christ, and loved when, from the lamp of his soul, others would light up with the flame of evangelical joy.

Batushka highly revered his heavenly protector, the Prophet Daniel, and namely from him received his missionary aspirations, as he told me himself. At one time, reading the book of Daniel, batushka was struck by the words, And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3). “And I thought,” he said, “how wonderful that is, to shine as the stars.”

I know that he prayed the Jesus Prayer, considered it very important to commune often, having prepared as is necessary, and constantly read the Bible, which, it seems, he knew a considerable portion by heart. Prayer, the Eucharist, and the Word of God were for him the three most important foundations for missions.

In his life he baptized more than 80 Muslims and turned to Orthodoxy around 500 Protestants. Father Daniel went to Protestant gatherings and preached about Orthodoxy on the foundation of the Bible and participated in public disputes with Old Ritualists and neo-pagans, but above all he became well-known as a missionary among Muslims and a polemicist with Islam.

He received letters and calls with threats from Muslims. A year and a half before the murder, Muslim journalist Halida Hamidullina requested the public prosecutor to open a suit against Fr. Daniel for inciting inter-religious and inter-ethnic hatred. The prosecutor refused the suit, but in Islamic mass media a full campaign of libel was undertaken; Orthodox people do not know about that as, understandably, they are unfamiliar with Islamic mass media.

Not long ago, just three days before the murder, Fr. Daniel was driving me home and we laughingly remembered life ten years ago. Fr. Daniel said that, of all religions, Islam had always been the one least interesting to him, and he did not plan at all to study it. I also reminded him of an old conversation we had when we were returning from Krutitsky representation church and he became glad when he found out that I was writing apologetic articles in answer to Islamic criticism. He said, “Well, this is good, that means that I won’t have to deal with it.” But the Lord, first, through one confluence of circumstances, then through something else arranged it so that he happened to come into contact with Muslims or the subject of Islam, and Fr. Daniel went forward where the Lord was indicating. This was the most important for him.

Fr. Daniel graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy in 2000 having successfully defended his dissertation, “The Anthropology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.” Later this was published as a book. He also wrote a number of other books. A Walk with a Protestant in an Orthodox Church is a unique work in which, on the basis of the Bible, is explained the arrangement and furnishings of and Orthodox church as well as Orthodox worship. Chronicle of the Beginning and Who is Like God or How Long was a Day of Creation are devoted to, as he himself said, the defense of the Patristic teaching on the creation of the world. In these books, Fr. Daniel explains why an Orthodox Christian cannot adhere to the theory of evolution.

Marriage with a Muslim is dedicated to one of the most painful issues in the co-existence of Christians and Muslims in our country. The impetus for this book began when, on the website Orthodoxy and Islam a section was opened for questions to a priest, where one could ask Fr. Daniel questions. I was amazed with the abundance of letters we received from baptized women who either planned on marrying a Muslim and were asking if that is permissible according to the Church or had already entered into marriage with a Muslim and who were having various problems and were looking for advice. In addition, in Fr. Daniel’s pastoral ministry he had happened to meet such Russian women who, under the influence of such a marriage, had renounced Christ and converted to Islam, and then, having had lots of difficulties in a Muslim marriage and having realized their error, with batushka’s help, repented and returned to the Church. All of this induced Fr. Daniel to write a book in which he exhaustively looked at this issue, reminded people that, in accordance with the rules of the Church, it is inadmissible for an Orthodox Christian to marry a person of another faith, and also gave concrete advice on problems that arise if such a marriage, nevertheless, has taken place. He also wrote a booklet similar in content called Married to an Unbeliever?

In addition, Fr. Daniel published a book called Why are you still not baptized? in which he examined the typical objections against baptism that one hears from everyday people. For those who are baptized but unchurched, he wrote a booklet called Why One Should Go to Church Every Sunday. For churched people, Fr. Daniel, together with me, wrote On Frequent Communion. Not long before his death, he said to me that his most cherished book was Homilies on the Song of Songs, which is compiled of his Biblical homilies that he gave for many years, explaining the Scriptures on the foundation of the Holy Fathers’ commentary.

Finally, his last book was Instructions for the Immortal or What to do if You Have, Nevertheless, Died. In it he wrote the following words, “The very best death for a Christian, of course, is that of martyrdom for Christ the Savior. It is the greatest death that, in principle, is possible for a person. Some people sent condolences to Optina Monastery after the murder of three monks but, for a Christian, martyrdom, actually, is supreme joy. In the Ancient Church, no condolences were sent when someone was killed somewhere. All the churches immediately sent congratulations. Can you imagine congratulating someone with the fact that they have a new intercessor in Heaven! A martyric death washes away all sins apart from heresy and schism…”

Very many, even among those who were not in agreement with him about some issues, were surprised at and admired his courage. Not long ago, after the funeral, an acquaintance priest called me and said that he saw a video in which Fr. Daniel stands in an auditorium full of Muslims and from the podium he joyfully tells them about Christ and about how Islam, rejecting the God-Man Christ, cannot be true religion. “I just can’t comprehend,” he said to me, “What a heart one must have to simply go and stand among them and speak.”

The video about which he spoke was filmed at the first debate with Muslims. Some Orthodox were not happy with the fact that Fr. Daniel took part in those debates; however, the initiative was not his. Muslims had publicly invited him, and how could a witness of Christ refuse to give an answer for his hope? [1 Peter 3:15] His refusal would have been for them an argument in their propaganda for Islam.

Father Daniel later told me that he was sure that after that first debate he would be killed, and the evening before he felt great fear and worry. During the night he had a vision: He saw himself standing before a labyrinth made up of pebbles, the kind that there are in the north. Walking through the labyrinth in a circle he came to the center where there was an altar, on which laid a sacrifice which had just been killed. He understood that is was an altar of Satan and a sacrifice to him. Father Daniel was gripped with anger and knocked over the altar with his foot. Immediately appeared Satan himself in the form of a joker in a fool’s cap such as is on playing cards. His eyes were filled with wild hatred and he jumped on Fr. Daniel. Batushka started to pray, “Most Holy Mother of God, protect me!,” “Saint Nicholas, help me!,” as well as to other saints, and then something like an invisible wall appeared so that Satan jumped at him but was not able to reach him and bounced back time after time. Seeing this, batushka allowed in a vain thought and at that very moment Satan broke through the invisible wall and grabbed him by the throat. Father Daniel cried out, “Most Holy Mother of God, forgive me, I’ve sinned, save me from him!” Satan then disapearred and Fr. Daniel heard, “You will not lose but neither will you win,” concerning the upcoming debate.

“And that’s how it happened,” Fr. Daniel said to me. He added that after this vision he completely stopped fearing Muslims and their threats, as, after seeing Satan himself and his powerlessness before God, it is impossible to be impacted by any human evil which is always inferior to Satan’s evil.

During the second debate I, together with Fr. Oleg Stenyaev, was an aide to Fr. Daniel. It seemed to me that the debate went well (although, of course, it could have gone better). It is noteworthy that after this debate several Muslims who had helped organize the debates converted to Orthodoxy.

Being himself half Tatar (on his mother’s side), Fr. Daniel paid particular attention to spreading and strengthening Orthodoxy among the Tatar people. He was the first and, it seems, only priest who, with the blessing of his bishop, began to regularly serve molebens partially in the Tatar language for Orthodox Tatars. He also, with his own money, published a prayerbook in Tatar. Together with his aides, he preached at Sabantuy (a Tatar national festival) and at the Tatar cultural center. In Egypt, he preached for hours to his Muslim guide and on television he argued with mufftis about faith.

He acquired a scandalous fame among Muslims, which alarmed and discomforted some Orthodox but not Fr. Daniel. He said that his fame helped in his mission and that was the truth. For, those Muslims who had even a small interest in Christianity learned just who to go to, and they did not err as they were always met by Fr. Daniel with love and had all their questions answered. There were a few Muslims who, having come to him in order to convert him to Islam, as a result were baptized by him.

Among those who call themselves Orthodox, I have met such strange people who say that Fr. Daniel should not preach to Muslims, that one must respect their religion, and that there is no benefit from his preaching. But Fr. Daniel thought, as did the Lord, the Apostles, and all the saints, that one must respect mistaken people but not their mistakes. Truth is one, that which contradicts and negates truth is a lie, and respect for a lie is contempt for the truth. Those who are indifferent to truth cannot understand this simple fact, and, therefore, they did not understand Fr. Daniel, although they might have been obliged to him for their life. Batushka managed to turn to Christ a number of Wahhabi’s, including one Pakistani, who planned on becoming a suicide-bomber, and one woman who had the same plan. Would it really have been better if Fr. Daniel had not preached to those people and they, continuing their previous plans, had blown up an airplane, building, or subway car, maybe even one in which one of Fr. Daniel’s critics had been in?

With even more success, Fr. Daniel preached to Protestants. When he, with the blessing of Metropolitan Vladimir [Ikim, Metropolitan of Tashkent and Central Asia], came to Kyrgizstan together with his missionaries and began to visit Protestant meetings and convert them (even their pastors were among those who were united to Orthodoxy) so that the local leaders of the sects, not being able to oppose his words, made the decision to not allow meetings until Fr. Daniel had left the country. Thus, they tried to prevent him from preaching at their meetings by canceling the meeting itself.

Father Daniel also concerned himself with missions throughout the whole world. He and I traveled two times to Macedonia to preach there among the local schismatics. He also looked into the question of how to preach to Catholics in Western Europe and South America. In December 2009, he had hoped to travel to Thailand to preach in the northern regions. Being a missionary, he loved other missionaries very much and tried to become acquainted with all those who preached Christ, and he helped very many. He donated money for building a church in Indonesia and for educating Orthodox children from poor families in Zimbabwe and was a host to Chinese, Thai, and even Native American Orthodox. With the blessing of Patriarch Alexey II, Fr. Daniel established a school for Orthodox missionaries. In addition, he taught missiology at Nikolo-Perervinsk Theological Seminary.

What is striking is that is active missionary activity did not at all inhibit his parish work and responsibilities. In 2001, he was ordained a priest and in 2006 he built a small wooden church in the south of Moscow in the name of the Apostle Thomas (of which he was the dean). He eventually wanted to build a large basilica in honor of his patron saint, St. Daniel, at the same place. As he told me, the idea to build a basilica came up when he was visiting the Church of St. Demetrius in Thessaloniki.

Every Thursday Fr. Daniel led Bible studies, explaining one chapter from both the Old and New Testaments in the light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers. Every Friday he led catechetical classes, which every adult wanting to be baptized had to attend, and every Sunday he taught Sunday school for children. Wishing that people would better understand the church services, he published texts of the All-Night Vigil and Liturgy, established a rotation of people to hand them out before every service, and also introduced congregational singing. As a result, the parishioners were grateful to be able to finally understand the meaning of what was being sung in church. Batushka served very concentratedly, especially in his final year, and loved to preach. At the service he would preach two or three homilies.

One of my friends, an altar server in Fr. Daniel’s church, told me not long before batushka’s death that he was amazed how, without holding anything back nor with mercy for himself, Fr. Daniel gave himself to other people, especially his parishioners.

He truly did not spare himself. I remember how one day he broke his leg and he was not given a replacement priest. Fr. Daniel, then, with his leg in a cast, went himself and served in spite of the pain. All his parishioners and acquaintances remember Fr. Daniel as cheerful, but few know how often he endured pain and sickness, especially severe headaches and heart pain. Batushka, however, did not show his suffering and was always attentive to the multitude of parishioners, listening to them and giving them advice.

It must be said that batushka never imposed, as a dictator, his views on those around him. He always listened to objections if they were actual and often corrected his views if he saw that they did not coincide with the truth. He often invited me and other people who he trusted to discuss one or another of his thoughts and find out if he was mistaken. If he understood that he was not right then it was not a problem for him to admit it and repudiate his mistake because he valued truth more than his own thought and respected every person around him.

Another particularity, which many thought was one of his faults and which actually originated from his ardent love for the truth, was the categorical manner in which he expressed his ideas. With every issue, batushka strove to reach the truth and if he was able to get to it, he expressed that truth directly and with certainty. In our politically-correct world, such straightforwardness was similar to an acute ray of light piercing through the dark. That honest abruptness appealed to some but for some, on the contrary, it repelled them.

Fr. Daniel was an upright and honest person. He was one of those people that in need one would only need to ask and he would definitely not be refused. For me he was an icon of a priest. All that he did he dedicated to Christ and did in His name.

I also have many personal memories. I remember him visiting me when I was in the hospital, how he brought his daughter, Dorothea, to show me when she was just two or three days old, and how he taught me how to drive a car.

I recall our travels and especially the one to Serbia, from which we returned just a week before his martyric death. During that trip he confessed to me that when it is particularly hard for him or when life’s circumstances seem unbearable, he always felt like he was in an enormous hand, which was leading him through all the troubles.

The final day of Fr. Daniel’s life began with the liturgy which he served and during which, naturally, he communed. Then he baptized a child and united to the Orthodox Church a man who had converted from occultism. A few hours later, as usual, he lead a Bible study, after which he spoke with everyone who desired until late. Finally, when hardly anyone was left in the church, he went into the altar to hear the confession of a spiritual child. At that time the murderer burst into the church and began to shoot and yell, “Where’s Sysoyev?” Without fear, Fr. Daniel came out of the altar to meet him and accepted a martyric end for Christ.

I remember that batushka many times talked about how the Gospel readings read at the church services are not accidental and that they always turn out to be, to our amazement, timely and appropriate.

On the day of his death, the Gospel reading contained the following words of the Lord, “And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. … Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. [Luke 12:4, 8]

As His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill said in his condolences on the death of Fr. Daniel, “The Lord called to Himself His faithful servant, having given him the possibility to be a confessor of faith and martyr for the work of spreading the Gospel.”

Introduction to the conversations
About a week before the tragedy in the Church of the Apostle Thomas, Fr. Daniel and I travelled around Serbia. It was his first trip to that Orthodox country and it quite impressed and fascinated him. I remember how happy he was when we, just having landed, visited Krushedol Monastery, where lie the relics of St. Angelina, the patron saint of his youngest daughter. I remember how he insisted that we visit Sremski Karlovci, a beautiful little European city, which, is seems, has hardly changed in the last hundred years. I remember how at night we wandered around Kalemegdan, the Belgrade fortress, and, under a drizzling rain, went down to the church, leaving behind the towers and walls glowing against the dark sky.

During that trip, Fr. Daniel and I gave two interviews. The first was by the invitation of Ms. Jana Todorovic for the “Church” program of November 11, 2009, on Radio Belgrade 2. We were interviewed by Dushanka Zekovich. Afterwards she gave Fr. Daniel a disk with a recording of the interview. Father Daniel offered it to me and said, “If you want it, take it. I used to keep such things but then stopped.”

I took the disk and when I got home I put it together with my other presents from Serbia. And a week later shots were heard in the Church of the Apostle Thomas and Fr. Daniel was no longer among us: he accepted a martyric death for Christ and went to that Celestial Fatherland to which he strove his whole life.

After the burial of my cherished spiritual friend, with whom I was acquainted more than ten years, I found that disk and typed out our interview, which is one of his last, given eight days before his murder. And I myself was surprised at how closely it relates to that which happened. There were two main topics in the interview: Orthodox missions and the death of a Christian. It is striking how Fr. Daniel talked about this with joy and confidence as though he was speaking of it already from the other world, as an eyewitness.

We gave the second interview on the same day in the evening to Stanoje Stankovich of Svetosavlje.org. We were interviewed in a room in the parish house of the majestic Church of St. Savva, where we had been graciously invited to stay, with the blessing of Bishop Atanasije of Hvostanski.

That which Fr. Daniel said in the interview could probably be called a type of summation. He set forth the system of missions and catechism which developed from his wide-ranging practical experience and familiarized the Serbian readers with a look at the modern condition of Orthodox missions, formed upon the foundation of interaction with other missionaries of our Church. He also gave spiritual advice to missionaries, analyzed mistakes and problems, spoke of the Biblical foundation of missions, and responded to the opponents of missions. In addition, there was, naturally, a look at other contemporary challenges which the Orthodox Church is confronting.

And, of course, as in the other interview given on the same day, like a premonition was talk of death, which is “not over the mountains but over the shoulder,” and for which we must always be prepared.

For which he was fully prepared.

“And angels carry us on their wings to Heaven…”

Dusanka Zekovic: Today our guests are Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, writer, missionary, and dean of the Church of the Apostle Thomas in Moscow, and Yuri Maximov, a professor at Moscow Theological Academy, which is in the Monastery of St. Sergius of Radonezh. The first question is for Mr. Maximov: What is the current situation of inter-religious dialogue in the space of Great Russia, especially between Orthodox Christianity and Islam?

Yuri Maximov: In Russia, Muslims make up 9% of the population and they are of very different types of people. In history and in the present, relations between them and Orthodox people were both good and bad. You are aware that in recent years there were two major conflicts in the Caucuses: the first and second Chechen wars. At first, the situation was very similar to that in Kosovo, and it is not necessary to tell in detail to Serbs what that means and what suffering it brings. And although we won the second Chechen War and Chechnya remained a part of Russia, the relationship between Orthodox and Muslims sometimes becomes strained. Of course there are different types of Muslims and here, in my opinion, is a type of rule: If a Muslim is not that educated in his faith, then he is more likely a good person, but if a Muslim relates seriously to the source of his faith and studies its instructions and tries to put them into practice, then often it is particularly from such people that extremists come. That is a question and a challenge: how should we live in a world with such people? And how can the Church respond to that challenge? The Lord made it such that they live in those lands and we live together with them. It is impossible (and unnecessary) to relocate them or remove them in some other way. The Lord opens us up another way: to preach the Gospel to them and make them Orthodox Christians. For example, Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, who is here with us, at one time converted a woman to Orthodoxy who was being prepared to become a suicide bomber. But she was baptized and became a good Christian, who does not feel anger to anyone and does not plan to blow up anyone. Such an amazing miracle does the Lord perform: a way thanks to which our enemies can become our brothers. We try to preach to Muslims and many of them respond and become Orthodox.

Dusanka Zekovic: The next question is for Fr. Daniel. When we in Serbia speak about Russia, we speak of it before perestroika and after perestroika. Tell us, please, what presently, after those changes, is the spiritual reality in Russia?

Father Daniel: I think that currently a stratification of society is taking place in Russia. Some people choose Orthodoxy while others, knowing of Orthodoxy, reject faith and reject Christ. This is the type of division taking place, such as there was not before, during the time of perestroika. One of the main positive changes in the life of the Church is that it began to actively be involved in missionary activity.

Dusanka Zekovic: What is implied by missionary activity? Here in Serbia, people of other faiths say that the Orthodox Church is static, that it is insufficiently missionary, and that it participates too little in people’s social problems.

Father Daniel: When we talk about the fact that the Church must be missionary, we remember that the Savior Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, commanded all Christians to preach the Gospel to all people without exception. And, therefore, the Church is obligated to take the Word of God to all people. The Church must be active and not static, and that which is happening in the Russian Church is evidence that it is returning to its apostolic roots. Hundreds of priests and lay persons of our Church preach on the streets, go to the meetings of sectarians, and go to mosques and many then turn to Christ. I think that all of the Orthodox Churches must go and proclaim the Gospel to people. We should not be content with what we already have. Christ has very many sheep which we still have not found. Right now I have studying at my parish a family of Muslims from the Caucuses who wants to be baptized and they said to me, “Why did not you, Orthodox priests, come to our ancestors? Why did they not know about this truth? Why did we never hear about it in Dagestan?”

It often seems to us that we cannot do anything, but this is not so. The Orthodox Church can and does do very much for conversions. Some say that the Lord Himself leads people into the Orthodox Church. Yes, the Lord Himself leads people but through us, and if we lead a person to baptism then we cover a multitude of sins as the Apostle James said. We receive an enormous award in the Heavenly Kingdom if we turn people to repentance. Furthermore, when the Church preaches the Gospel to those outside itself, even to those of other nations, then the Church itself is rejuvenated, strengthened, and flourishes because the Holy Spirit then gives it strength in order to carry out missions also among its own people.

Some say, “First convert your own people then go to others,” but the Lord did not say that. If we have a neighbor who is a Muslim, Catholic, or Protestant why are they still not Orthodox? For we know that outside the Church there is no salvation, and those people, if they do not come into the Orthodox Church will perish forever, they will go into the eternal fire. We had an issue with Chechnya and some ask, “How can we preach to Chechens?” But I say that a Chechen who finds Christ becomes a better Christian than a normal person from a traditional Orthodox family. I had an acquaintance who was a Chechen Wahhabite and he came to me to convert me to Islam. We decided to examine where the truth is. Over the course of two months I told him about Christianity and afterwards he asked me, “And why haven’t you offered to baptize me?” I said, “If you believe you can be baptized,” and he was baptized. His name is now Alexander.

Dusanka Zekovic: What is the Church’s solution for the social problems in Russia, which, I think, it has in common with those in Serbia? For we know that many have become very rich, unjustly rich, and, on the other hand, there are many poor people. A person is not just a soul but also a body, so how do we help poor people? Is it missionary activity to turn to some rich person and convince him to help the poor?

Father Daniel: Of course, every priest comes in contact with both very rich people and very poor people. And, truly, missions in the Church also includes social help. In Moscow there is a hospital which the Church maintains with the help of, among others, the wealthy. There are several dozen Orthodox orphanages in Russia. The Church looks after hospitals; every hospital in Moscow has Orthodox volunteers. And in many ways, thanks to the Moscow priest Fr. Arkady Shatov, very man rich people help the poor. There is a complete system for such help. In addition, all the nursing homes are looked after by the Church. Many of our volunteers visit the poor. And, of course, the Church opposes injustices which take place in society. Both Patriarch Alexey and Patriarch Kirill have many times asked the rich to support the poor, and their request was heard. As a result, thanks to the Church, many people receive help, necessary for the body.

Dusanka Zekovic: Before me is a book of Fr. Daniel Sysoyev which is named Instructions for the Immortal, or What to do if You Have, Nevertheless, Died. Tell us, father, what are those instructions?

Father Daniel: The Orthodox Church not only knows that the soul of man is immortal but also knows how death happens, how to correctly prepare for death, and what happens after death. I think it is best to start with how to prepare for death. We, all of us, know that we will die, maybe tomorrow. And it is important to have a place to which to go, that we have a house beyond the grave. That house we build with our good deeds. With the help of acts of mercy we transfer treasure to that house. When we are a friend to people, when we ask them for prayers, and, more so, when we turn them to Orthodoxy, then we have people who will be our defenders on that road. Of course, we must perform every deed in the name of Christ or else it will not have any value. But, at the same time, we must strive so that those close to us help us when we die. It is especially important that our relatives invite a priest to visit us before our death. It often happens that someone is dying and their relatives do not even invite a priest to confess and commune them and people leave for eternity without preparation. Therefore, I advise all to include the following clause in their will: “If the heirs did not invite a priest to visit me before death then they do not receive any inheritance.”

When a person dies he is met by angels. The angels of God help a person while demons attack him and intimidate him. Two weeks ago I was with a person as they were dying and I saw how demons were attacking him. This is not a joke, it is truly so. Only the Orthodox faith, the power of the cross, and, especially, Holy Communion can protect such a person. Therefore, if after death demons attack you, cross yourself and say “Lord Jesus, help!” and particularly ask the Most Holy Mother of God. She quickly protects from the demons. And then, after death, rise up to heaven, not concerning yourself with the earth, and run quickly to God, then the demons cannot attack you. The demons detain those at the toll houses who are attached to the earth, those who think too much about the earthly. If a person has striven for God his whole life then he will not even notice their attack. But remember that the demons will trick you with the help of the sin of vanity. To Macarius the Great, when he was rising up, the demons said, “you have conquered us! you have conquered us!” But he answered, “Not quite yet,” and only when he had entered the gates of paradise did he say, “now I have conquered you with the power of Jesus Christ.” Just the same do we need to prepare early and get in the disposition not to boast and be captured there. When you get into paradise, and I want all our listeners to end up in paradise, go to your beloved saints. Therefore, while still on the earth make friends with them, with St. Savva, St. Paraskeva, St. Nicholas, and, in this case, they may even approach you after death. And then, when you bow down to God, He sends you to look at hell, because often we think that sin is sweet and pleasant, but the Lord says, “Look at how it ends.” Therefore, the Church fervently prays for people during the 40 days following their death, because at that time is the final trial for the soul. Close ones can help during this time with both the giving of alms and reading of the Psalter-I think that all our listeners know this but to repeat it is never superfluous. Some of our close ones act incorrectly: they spend too much money on funeral feasts when it would be better to give that money to the poor who would then pray for the reposed. Those whom we have brought to Orthodoxy will, of course, especially pray for us. For example, those former Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Protestants who became Orthodox thanks to us. And angels will carry us to heaven on their wings. Remember that life is a school and paradise is a university. And true life begins after the Final Judgment. Therefore, I hope that we will prepare well to be able to live eternally in joy.

Dusanka Zekovic: And how can one earn paradise?

Father Daniel: Jesus Christ has earned paradise for us. Without the death on the Cross of the Savior, we would all end up in hell. And so all those who are currently unbaptized will end up in hell because they did not receive help from the Cross of the Lord. We receive salvation as a gift through baptism but assimilate it for ourselves, that is, make it our own through good deeds. And we receive strength for good deeds through the Eucharist, which we need to partake of as often as we can-not more than once a day but not less that once a month.

Dusanka Zekovic: Thank you for these instructions for immortality; and now I would like to ask Mr. Maximov about the meaning and necessity of missionary activity in the modern world.

Yuri Maximov: I would like to start with a short story from the ancient life of the Holy Apostle Thomas. It says that when the apostles chose lots for which lands they should go to, the Apostle Thomas picked the lot for India and he was very upset and said, “Lord, anywhere at all, just not India.” He did not at all want to go to such a far away, unfamiliar land in order to preach the Word of God. The Lord Jesus Christ then appeared to the captain of a ship, which was going to India, and said, “I am selling you My servant whose name is Thomas.” The captain found the apostle and asked, “Are you a servant of Jesus Christ?” “Yes,” answered the apostle. And then the captain said, “Your master sold you to me so follow me.” So he had to go and, as a servant of the captain, set off for India. In this way, having ended up in India against his will, the apostle began to preach, fell in love with the people, and turned many souls to Christ. This story has something in common with the newest history of the Orthodox Church. In the first thousand years it had many missions, but in the latest hundred years Orthodox Christians preached very little or hardly at all. In the 19th century there were even theologians who wrote as if the Orthodox should not preach to anyone. And look what the Lord did in the 20th century: for absolutely every Orthodox Church, He created such conditions that we were forced to go to other countries. Russians, Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Georgians, and Orthodox Arabs were all forced, as a result of one or another misfortune or trouble in their homeland, to spread out over the planet. In such a way the Lord acted with us just as He did with the Apostle Thomas.

You have probably heard how in our times Serbian priests in South Africa preached to the local population. There it was such that white people lived separate from black people and even Orthodox white people were afraid to go to black peoples’ areas. But the Serbian priests were not afraid and went to a school where black children studied, told them about Orthodoxy, and after a year and a half the whole school became Orthodox. Officially the director made such a decision, supported by the children and their parents. This is a great work which shows that missions are possible.

It is well known that many people right now are experiencing depression, weariness, and disillusionment with life and its senselessness. This results from the fact that we do not fulfill the commandments of God. Therefore, the power of God and joy of God does not enter into us. But when we begin to carry out the commandments of God, one of which is to preach the Gospel, then enormous spiritual joy and inspiration comes to us. Everyone can verify this with their own experience-If you preach not for your own sake, not for your own vanity, but for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ then you will be given such a joy.

Dusanka Zekovic: With that wonderful call we conclude our conversation with our dear guests, the first of which is the writer and missionary Fr. Daniel Sysoyev, and the second of which is Yuri Maximov, professor at Moscow Theological Academy.

One thought on “Serbian Conversations, Part 1

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