Saint Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, but few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is the patron of prisoners, seafarers and orphans.
Born in Asia Minor about 280, he was the only child of wealthy parents who arranged for their son to receive a Christian education from his uncle, the bishop of Patara. Taking literally the words of the Gospel, when his parents died, he distributed their property to the poor, keeping nothing for himself. Though drawn to monastic life, he felt led by God’s will to serve as a priest in the world. After his ordination, he was chosen as archbishop of Myra. During the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured.
Over the centuries, Nicholas’s life was embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 where, according to legend, he was so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he struck him on the face. For his violent act, he was briefly excluded from the Council.
Tireless in his care of people in trouble or need, he was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. At times, it is said, his face shone like the sun.
He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra’s cathedral. In the eleventh century, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, where they remain.
An interview with Jim Forest made in mid-October 2007 by Elena Nazarova for Nikolaas in de Jordaan, the quarterly journal of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. For more about the parish, see its web site: www.orthodox.nl.
EN: Dear Jim, we know you for a long time as a member of our parish, so I suppose it is time to get acquainted once again. What I mean is that fifteen years ago, when our family first appeared in a little chapel in Utrechtsedwaarsstraat, our parish consisted of no more than 30 people. You and Nancy were one of the first to greet us, and let us feel at home in church, and to offer your help and assistance in difficult times. We are very grateful for this, and very happy to know you both. But since then our parish has grown very much, and it is difficult for church members to know everyone even though we are praying side by side every week. So that’s why this interview.
Please tell about yourself. What are you — an American — doing here, in a Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam? Let’s begin from the beginning. Where were you born and who were your parents? Were they believers? Tell us please about your childhood.
JF: I was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah, which is in the western part of the USA. It’s a city best known as the main center for the Mormons, a strange variety of Protestant Christianity that is based on what its founders regarded as a lost book of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. But it wasn’t because of the Mormons or their beliefs that we were there. My parents were people on the political left. My father had been sent to Utah to be the regional organizer of the Communist Party. I know I’m not the only member of our parish who grew up in such a home. Father Sergei is another, and I’m sure there are others.
EN: As the son of Communists growing during the Cold War, did you ever feel an outcast in America?
JF: Not exactly an outcast but certainly someone living under a shadow. While the interest of the FBI was focused in my parents, especially my father, there was one occasion when FBI agents finger-printed my brother and me. I think they did it just to alarm the family. Of course I never mentioned to friends anything about my parents ideological convictions, but the FBI had visited our neighbors and probably also spoke to teachers at the school my brother and I attended. I never felt I had lost a friend due to my parents’ activities and views, but it was a scary time. I recall the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted of passing on information about nuclear weapons to the USSR, and my having the feeling that they might not have done anything except belong to the Communist Party — though as an adult I began to wonder if they might not have been guilty of the charges that were made against them. There certainly were Americans in the Communist Party who felt a greater loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the US — people for whom the USSR was a kind of paradise in the making and Stalin a saintly leader.
EN: Did your parents have strong anti-religious views?
JF: Luckily, no. Though in principle both parents regarded themselves as atheists, neither was in fact personally hostile to religion. I was fortunate. My father had a Roman Catholic past — he had once thought seriously of becoming a priest — and my mother had grown up in a devout Protestant home. At least twice a year, Christmas and Easter, my mother took my brother and me to church.
EN: How did you get involved in Christianity?
When I was about eleven, thanks to the invitation of a friend, I visited a local Anglican church and found myself amazingly at home there. What attracted me was the Eucharistic service, in its main elements similar to our Orthodox Divine Liturgy, only not so long. This made me ask to be baptized — I wanted to be able to receive communion. It was as a catechumen being prepared for baptism that I began to understand such Greek words as Eucharist, meaning an act of thanksgiving, and liturgy, a public work. On the day of my baptism, the priest gave me what I now think of as a prophetic gift, an ancient Byzantine coin with the image of Christ Pantocrator on one side. This period of my life was the beginning of my complicated journey that finally led me, many years later, to the Orthodox Church.
As for other aspects of my childhood — well, it was in many ways amazingly normal, except that for about half of 1953 my father was in prison, as were many Communists in those days, while our family was being closely watched by the FBI. Even so, it is remarkable how normal one can be in such an abnormal situation. I was a Boy Scout, I delivered newspapers, I read a great deal, I enjoyed school, I was active in the church where I had been baptized, serving at the altar.
EN: What happened then? Have you met special people and was there some special experience in your youth? Tell please about your participation in anti-war struggle.
JF: For the latter part of my teen-age years I fell away from the church and described myself as an agnostic. I had acquired the idea that churches were for the simple-minded and that nature provided better places to worship. My religious life rekindled when I was in the Navy. I had quite a strong religious experience. As a result I returned to the Anglican Church.
Several of the big events of my life happened while I was in the military. I had been trained in meteorology and was part of a Navy meteorological unit working at the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau, just outside Washington, DC. It was fascinating work — it was the time when we had use of the first weather satellite. I did well in my work and was glad to be stationed in Washington.
While in Washington, my religious life was in a state of transition. The more aware I became of how deep the theological and liturgical divisions were among Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US), the more troubled I was. This led me finally to become Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church one met the same Liturgy in every parish church, and the same beliefs. Also I was impressed by how Catholics were responding to social issues — homelessness, hunger, violence. It seemed to me a church touching people’s lives more deeply — and also that it was not an elitist church. Perhaps, had I known about Orthodox Christianity at the time, I would have become Orthodox much earlier than I did, but my single Orthodox encounter at the time was with a Greek parish that was not welcoming to people who weren’t Greek. If you didn’t speak Greek, why were you there?
About the same time the peace aspect of my life began to come into focus. It was really the consequence of reading the Gospel. Despite my family background, I wasn’t politically minded, in fact someone who kept his distance from anything political, but I could see that there were certain qualities any Christian has to try to bring into his daily life. One of the major themes of the Gospel is forgiveness. Another is love, including love of enemies. I could see both these qualities not only in the words of Jesus but in the way he related to people around him. It struck me that he killed no one and that he gave no one a blessing to kill. Instead again and again he reached out to people who opposed him. Even when he was dying on the cross, he appealed to his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion.
About this time the US, through the CIA, arranged an invasion of Cuba — the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was in the early spring of 1961. I was shocked and ashamed both about the event itself and also the fact that, in the days following, it was claimed by President Kennedy that the US had nothing to do with the invasion. Then, when the press was ready to publish evidence that it was in fact a CIA operation, Kennedy admitted the truth. A few days later, when I read in The Washington Post about a small group of people who were praying in silence in front of a CIA building in Washington to protest to invasion, it seemed to me what they were doing was an appropriate response. After work and wearing civilian clothes, I went down to the place they were standing and joined them. I thought, as a US citizen, that anyone could engage in peaceful protest. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be getting into trouble, but in fact I got into a great deal of trouble. Photos had been taken. I was recognized. My commanding officer was outraged. I was threatened with prison. Luckily, thanks to help from others including several supportive people in the Navy, instead I received an early discharge as a conscientious objector. It was only later in life that I had some times in jail.
EN: What happened when you left the Navy?
JF: The next stop was to join a small Christian community in New York, the Catholic Worker, which was helping people who were living rough in the streets in what was an especially poor part of Manhattan. We ran a free kitchen and gave out clothing. It was led by a remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. She is likely in the coming years to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. One of my books is a biography of her.
EN: Maybe, it is very personal, but how did you find your way to God? I don’t mean joining the church yet, but just when was it possible for you to give a “yes” answer to a question of God’s existence? Was there a turning point?
JF: Even in those earlier times in my life when I was embarrassed to speak about belief in God, even then I had a sense of God’s existence and the fact that God was not distant. This may be partly due to my parents, especially my mother. I vividly remember, in my mother’s case, the sorrow in her voice when, answering my question about God, she said she didn’t think God existed. The answer was less important to me than the deep sorrow in her voice when she said it. Why was she so sad? Not many years later, while I was in the Navy, she managed to find her way back to her Christian roots. She had left the Communist Party some years earlier, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary. My father also eventually left the Communist Party, in his case late in his life.
EN: And the Orthodox Church? I suppose it was a long way before you found your way to the church. And as far as I know by this time you were looking for this way together with Nancy…
JF: Both Nancy and I were Catholics but not quite at home in any parish. By this time the Catholic Church, quite notably in Holland but in many other countries as well, was deeply divided. In its attempts to modernize, it had much too quickly changed its approach to worship. Practically everything that the Church had once taught was being challenged if not rejected. I envied what seemed to me the deeper roots and stability of Orthodox Christianity, but I still had the idea who had to be born in an Orthodox culture to be accepted as a fellow Orthodox.
EN: How did you make your living?
JF: After I left the Catholic Worker community, most of my jobs were in journalism. I worked for a time for a business magazine in New York, later for a daily newspaper, then for a news service, and later still edited a monthly magazine. I also did a lot of freelance writing. I also had what I joke about being my “sabbatical” — a year in prison in 1969-1970 for protest against the war in Vietnam. My life has been a mixture of writing, journalism, and also involvement in peace activities.
EN: Is the chaining-yourself-to-the-rails story true? I’ve heard you did something like this during the Vietnam war?
JF: I have never been chained to any rails! I was briefly in jail several times for acts of civil disobedience — for example in 1961 I was one of the people blocking the entrance to an office of the government agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. It was a protest against atmospheric tests of the H-bomb. I was jailed for about a month. It was quite an interesting experience.
Later on, in 1969, when I was about 27, I had a much longer time in prison, about thirteen months. It was during the Vietnam War. I was one of a group of fourteen people who removed files from a the military conscription center for the city of Milwaukee and then burned the files in a nearby park.
EN: Looking back on that experience, can you say it gave you some special inner experience?
JF: Definitely! It became part of my daily discipline to read at least a chapter of the New Testament. I spent more time praying. I was fortunate to be in a prison that not only had a library but a library that was part of the state university library system. If they didn’t have a book I wanted, they could always get it for me. I had always wanted to read Russian literature but hadn’t had time. Now I had both the time and the opportunity. I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then Anne Karenina, and went on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” were particularly important. I also owe a debt to Gorky, especially the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood, with its astonishing description of his very devout grandmother. All this reading eventually played a part in my finding mt way to the Orthodox Church.
EN: What brought you to Holland?
JF: I came here in 1977 to head the staff of a peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also edit its journal. It was a job I had for twelve years.
It was in connection with that work that I went to Russia the first time in 1983 to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I had intentionally come a few days early. During those days, with the help of an English-speaking member of the staff of the External Affairs Department, I visited most of the active parishes in Moscow as well as Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. What I saw surprised and impressed me. For all the obstacles church life was confronted with, it was clear to me that there was a strength and vitality in the Russian Church that was not only quite different than what I had been led to expect by western press reports, in fact a vitality unlike anything I had ever personally experienced before in any church in any country. I proposed to the Moscow Patriarchate that I write a book about the Church in Russia. In 1983, because of the political restraints imposed on the Church, it wasn’t possible, but by 1985, after the election of Gorbachev, things changed rapidly. I was given the permission that I had been seeking and began to travel widely in Russia, assisted by an English-speaking priest from Kiev, Fr. Boris Udovenko. In 1988 the book was published: Pilgrim to the Russian Church. That was followed a year later by a second book, Religion in the New Russia, which included a detailed description of the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Russia.
EN: Did you have contact at the time with the Orthodox parish in Amsterdam?
JF: It must have been about 1983 that I first met Fr Alexis Voogd and his wife Tatiana. Both of them were teaching at the University of Amsterdam. They loaned me books and gave me advice about people and places I should visit in Russia. But it wasn’t until the December 1987 that Fr. Alexis pointed out to me that, having visited so many Orthodox churches in Russia, wasn’t it time to visit the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam?
That did it! Nancy and I came to the parish for the first time in January 1988. It was a small community in those days but very strong. Once we started coming, it became impossible to be anywhere else on Sunday. A few months alter, on Palm Sunday, I was chrismated and the same happened to Nancy on Pentecost. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary as Orthodox Christians.
EN: Tell please about the people who influenced you most to make your choice, to become Orthodox, and about your spiritual teachers.
JF: Fr. Alexis [Voogd], of course. Thank God for all his advice and encouragement. Also Tatiana [Voogd]. Then there was Margot Muntz, another of the founders of the parish. She had come to Amsterdam from the USA just after the Second World War and never left. Her husband, Pierre, was Russian. Margot had an amazing gift for noticing strangers and making them feel at home. And then there was Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Nancy and I went year after year to the Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, partly just to hear him speak. I felt as if I had met one of the apostles — one of the people who had witnessed Christ’s miracles, someone who had seen the risen Christ.
EN: We know you as an editor of a magazine “In Communion”. Can you tell more about it and about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship? Also about your lectures in America and elsewhere.
JF: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an international association of Orthodox Christians who seek to practice the peace of Christ in everyday life. The group has its roots in the Amsterdam parish. Its existence has a lot to do both with Fr. Alexis Voogd and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. Both thought that to be Orthodox shaped the way you live your life, how you relate to other people, what kind of work you do, how you respond to conflict and enemies. It was especially Fr. Sergei who gave me the blessing to do this work. Another member of the parish, Michael Bakker, is the OPF president, and the treasurer is parish member Silouan Duetekom.
It was from Fr. Sergei — in those days he was still a theological student in St. Petersburg — I learned the Russian word miloserdia — the works of mercy. Miloserdia is what we do to translate of the Liturgy into daily life. There is a great deal on this topic in the writings of the Church Fathers, such saints as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, but also many others. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship journal, “In Communion”, is simply a means to explore these topics via the written word. “In Communion” also exists as a web site — www.incommunion.org — where all the articles in past issues are available as well as many other texts and resources. The lectures I sometimes give are just another means of doing the same thing, except in a way that permits dialogue. Also I’ve written a number of books. Books tend to generate invitations to speak.
EN: Books are in some way like children. You bear them, give them birth and care of them. Please tell us about your books for adults and books for children.
JF: Probably the most translated of the books is Praying with Icons — just this week we received the first copies of the Romanian edition. Ladder of the Beatitudes has also been widely read. There is a book on confession — Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. There are two biographies, one of Thomas Merton, the other of Dorothy Day. The most recent book is The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life — a book that looks at pilgrimage both as a physical journey to sacred places but also as a way of being even if you living the most ordinary life and never crossing a border. Also just published is a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, which is about a recently canonized Russian saint, Maria Skobtsova, who rescued many people who were in danger when the Nazis occupied France. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. One of her main collaborators was Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, who also perished in a concentration camp. Fr. Dimitri’s granddaughter, Tania Bos, is a member of our parish, so we have a special tie.
EN: We all know that you and Nancy have to undergo a serious operation soon. You have already written about your experience of illness — there is a chapter about it in your pilgrimage book. Can you tell us something in this respect?
JF: I’ve had kidney illness the last few years. Since January 2006 this has meant I have to have sessions of dialysis three times a week. At the end of October I’m due to receive a new kidney — Nancy is the donor. If the operation is successful, it will make it a lot easier to work and travel. Say a prayer!
EN: We all wish you and Nancy a lot of courage for the forthcoming events, we love you both and wish you God’s help for every moment of your life.
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published in the December 2007 issue of Nikolaas in de Jordaan
* * *
Interview made by Jim Forest at the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on the fifth of April, 1990.
[starting the tape recorder]
This looks serious! But will my English make sense?
I admire your gift for languages.
Oh, Jim! There are blank spots in my English and they are getting more and more.
Can you tell us something about where and when you were born?
I was born on the 3rd of April 1927 in a house in newly-built part of The Hague, behind the dunes west of Scheveningen. The North Sea was nearby. With the windows open and the wind from the west, you could hear the unbroken roar of the beakers and, in fog, the melancholy sound of the foghorn. The first years of my life were closely bound up with the elements: the sea, gales, the smell of the sea and — not to forget — the little fishing port of Scheveningen, much less mechanized in those days. There were many things for a growing boy to be happy about in that little world behind the dunes — an endless source of discoveries!
Have you brothers or sisters?
A sister, Helena, two years older than me.
A very Orthodox name!
Yes. I can’t say that about mine — Alewijn — a name of Celtic origin.
Can you say something about your family?
My father and mother had very different backgrounds. My grandfather on my father’s side came from the shipping world. My father was a naval officer with years of service behind him in the Dutch East Indies — Indonesia as it is now. He had already retired when I was born. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a university lecturer in Spanish — he compiled the first Spanish-Dutch dictionary. Before that he was for years a civil servant in the East Indies.
Were they people with a religious faith?
Neither were positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.
Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?
I can’t say that my parents had a harmonious marriage. Perhaps that’s a rather strange reply to your question. What I mean is that, where there is tension, it can be difficult to have intimate talks about, for example, religious belief. But I say this without any bitterness. My parents certainly did their best to give us a settled home life. There were a lot of creative activities going on in our home. My mother was a talented pianist and among her friends there were many professional musicians with whom she often played. There was much music in our house. It left a strong impression on us. My memories are tied up with music. In the evening we would ask her to play our favorite pieces. I was very fond of Grieg. Probably I felt in him a strong bond with nature.
When I look back on those years, I see myself always roaming around somewhere, in the dunes or by the sea. Here I had my first “religious” feelings, the feeling of the mystery behind things, as I see it now. Nature had a very strong influence on me. I often got up very early — very, very early! My parents were amazed and wondered: “Where on earth is the boy going at such an hour? The day hasn’t even begun and he’s already gone!”
I think of those blessed moments when the sun rises, the glow over everything, as if the world were being created anew, and I’m sitting on top of a tree, being gently rocked by the wind. I sit and sit, just looking, breathing and listening. Since then I have read about people who, in moments of intense concentration, experience the unity of all things. The unity of everything! In a flash the experience of the words, “And God saw that it was good.”
How old were you then?
Nine or ten.
These copses at the edge of the dunes — amazing what a child can make of them in his imagination! For me they were vast woods with pleasant and unpleasant places, trees with friendly and unfriendly faces. At that age I started reading about the North American Indians, the “Redskins.” Fascinating! I read everything I could find about their way of life and their beliefs. Through this reading I had the experience of how it’s possible to be completely carried away, to become one with, to identity with, persons and events. As far as the “Redskins” were concerned, this meant that I could so identify with their situation that sometimes, after an argument with other boys, I could hardly stop myself from threatening them with spear and arrow. Yes, really! Imagine it!
For a longtime I felt a sort of hate for those who destroyed the Indians.
Did you feel lonely as a boy?
I couldn’t share those nature-centered feelings with friends.
Now I realize that all these feelings had to do with my religious development. In those years I was inclined to have the same gods as the Indians had. I even prayed to those gods.
You asked about the feeling of loneliness. I think that this ability to identify — to be one with — makes it possible not to feel lonely. I had such a strong feeling of being part of everything, birds, the wind, leaves. All this filled me.
But it was all something that you experienced alone.
Yes, certainly. But I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood.
What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?
I am sure that had to do with the war. In May 1940 our country was occupied by the Germans. I was 13. I had just finished primary school.
How did you experience the invasion?
In a childish way. It was something unusual, in a certain sense even fascinating. I longed for extreme situations, and here I had an extreme situation!
In terms of study, had you already decided what subject to concentrate on?
Not yet. I must say that school was a painful experience for me.
Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?
Yes, most certainly. Especially in the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary. At the Lyceum I had no real friendships with other children. In general they were further on than I was. I hadn’t yet got “out of the woods.” Sitting at a school desk was torment. I promised myself that later I would never idealize my school years. Above all I had difficulty with the sciences. I found mathematics very difficult. My father secretly hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and become a naval officer, but for that I needed to do well in mathematics.
Was it difficult for him to accept that you were not going in the direction he wanted?
He didn’t complain and wasn’t angry. He was somewhat stoical in accepting disappointments. No, he never let me be aware of it. Nevertheless he did his best to give me some understanding of mathematics.
Meanwhile time was passing. The occupation meant that life became more and more difficult. Then in 1943 my father fell ill with cancer. At that a Jewish man was hidden in our house. One day the Germans discovered this. Someone had betrayed us. My sister and I came home from school to find the doors and windows wide open with mother gone, the Jew gone, and the house in chaos. After six weeks my mother was released from prison, and that only because of my father’s death — he died in March — and because there was no one else to look after my sister and me. Otherwise we would have been sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration in Germany. But our Jewish guest was less fortunate. He never returned from Auschwitz. This event signaled a definite break between “before”and “after.”
Soon after followed the period when we had to make trips to find food. The summer of that year was the first that I spent in the countryside. It was somewhere in the Betuwe, the area between the two great rivers, the Rhine and the Waal. I watched farmers — how they worked their land. In those days they were still working with horses, loading their hay into splendidly-made carts, digging the ground, standing bent over for hours as they cut the corn, and milking their cows by hand. It was an overwhelming experience. That was life! From that time, every holiday I went to the country and worked on a farm. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I wanted to go to an agricultural college so that I could become a farmer.
My mother was soon resigned to the decision. My father could no longer oppose it, but he would not have been happy about it.
The trouble was that, as a boy from the town, I couldn’t be accepted just like that into the agricultural college. First I had to work for a year on a farm. In October 1943 I managed to find a place on a farm in the northeast of our country. For the first time I had the feeling of being “abroad” — far from home, in a foreign land, among foreign people who spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect. At first I did all the dirty work, as would any apprentice, but quite soon I learned to milk cows and look after horses. Then came the day when I was allowed for the first time to take the cart to the field alone with “my own team of horses.” How proud I was!
If you include the years at the agricultural college, this part of my life lasted until 1951. After that I went to do something I had dreamed of in the dark time of the war.
What kind of dream was that?
I had a friend with whom I often spoke of what we were going to do after the war. One of our favorite past-times was looking at maps and imagining journeys to all sorts of countries. The strongest dream of was to go to Scandinavia. After I had finished college, this dream was fulfilled. I worked for a year as a lumberjack in the Swedish forest.
Did you learn Swedish?
Yes, I managed that fairly quickly. Swedish is in the same group of languages as Dutch.
Did you already have an interest in Russian at that time?
Actually that began during the war. In 1944, the year before the Liberation, I was taken away by the Germans and forced to work in the neighborhood of Assen, in the province of Drente. We had to dig trenches and build bunkers. Not far from the place where we worked was a camp of Russian prisoners of war who were being used as slave laborers. Every morning as we went to our place of work, we met them on the way to their work. They were going in the opposite direction under guard of German soldiers. They looked dreadful — dirty, emaciated, clothed in rags. But they sang! This made a deep impression on me.
I remember one of their songs. It was a song about a Cossack who, far from home, thinks about his country. These impressions meant a great deal to me. Something was born in me. Also the fact that Russia was our ally in the war against Germany played a role in this.
Another factor in my interest was Dostoevsky. In Sweden I read his short stories — not yet his novels — in Swedish. On the radio I found a station that often broadcast Russian music. A new world opened up for me — my interest in Russian language and the people. Back in Holland I began learning Russian on my own.
Why did you do that?
At first it was just a question of feeling. The Russians attracted me as a people. Also their literature and music. Russian became a passion for me. All my free time was given over to it. I was working then at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wageningen. The burning question was: Was I to stay there or start studying Russian? Finally I chose Russian.
That took me to the University of Amsterdam in the autumn of 1952. I had an appointment with Professor Becker, a Russian, the founder of the Department of Slavic Studies in the Philological Faculty. I had written him a letter from Wageningen telling him what had led to this decision. He asked me why wanted to do this study. It was hard to give him a clear and rational answer. And still I cannot do so. There are motives that are so deep-seated that it is difficult to say why you do something, but you have to do it! I felt that I had to study Russian. Intuitively I felt that this language could bring me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. I had the impression that Russians had a strong grasp of its essence — sometimes given positive expression, sometimes negative.
Professor Becker took me in. He was a teacher of the old school, very strict. You had to prepare carefully for his lectures. You had to be on time. But he gave himself fully to his students, lending them books from his own library. At that time it was often impossible to get the books you needed from the university library.
Was he Orthodox?
He wasn’t a believer. He was a real humanist. He respected anyone who has a genuine religious belief.
Was your interest in the Russian language connected with other aspects of Russian culture?
My interest in the language meant in the first place a feeling for the Russian people, for the country of Russia. I couldn’t at that time separate the Russians from their political system. Obviously it was necessary to make this distinction but I couldn’t — how it had all started, how it had developed, Stalin and so forth. I must admit that at first I thought that in Russia a new world, a new society was being built up and that they had solved the problem of capitalism.
Then in 1958 I went with Tatiana to Russia and came into real contact with actual life and the system there.
Did you think of yourself as a Marxist in those years?
No, not at all! But I wanted to know about everything out of a sort of curiosity: how was it possible for such a system to become established in Russia and how could part of the intelligentsia have accepted such an ideology?
Had you then thought at all about the Russian Orthodox Church, or was that still distant?
Actually I must turn back in time because I missed a most important moment. My coming to Amsterdam, to the university, meant that I met Tatiana. She came to the Netherlands from Odessa in 1944, had then studied and was appointed to a post in the university as assistant to Professor Becker. When I appeared there, she was already giving lectures. At that time there were only a few students studying Russian. Professor Becker was struck by my burning interest in Russian and spoke to his students about it. They decided to invite me to join the Slavic debating society. Tatiana was given the job of asking me. She found me and introduced herself. In this way we met each other in December 1952. The following June we married.
In order to become a member of the society, I had to give a talk. I decided to speak about a book I had read shortly before, Walter Schubart’s European Man of the Future. It was a book that was fairly popular in the years after the war.
In those years I did little else but study, continually study. I had started my studies fairly late ands felt that I had to make up for much lost time. I was very hungry for knowledge — about the Russian language and history and culture.
I worked for two years cataloging books in the Russian section of the library of the Institute of Social History. In this way many books about Russia passed through my hands. They were good years. I learned a great deal.
Getting to know Tatiana meant that I was also introduced to the Orthodox Church. She was a practicing Orthodox. She took me to an Orthodox church here in Amsterdam, a parish of the Russian Church in Exile, which still exists. There were services once a month and choir practice every week. It was a surprise for me to discover that the services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was an important part of Slavic studies at the university. Although I was not a believer I was allowed to sing in the choir. I had a good voice and could read music, though it was an unusual experience to sing in a language that I thought to be dead. I liked singing and was fond of the music even though having no idea what it really meant. My involvement in the service was restricted to the choir. It was impossible then for me to go deeper into the meaning of the Liturgy, to its essence.
Besides I was still in a state of admiration for life in Russia, not criticizing the system. I was, as it were, pulled in opposite directions. Morever I couldn’t close my eyes to the negative role the Church had played in the social history of Russia. The problem continued to bother me.
The attitude of the Church in Exile was a typical example of reactionary response to social problems, an attitude which, it seemed to me, was an important cause of the Russian revolution.
Only much later I came to understand that this “revolution” almost destroyed the Church, doing everything it could to annihilate it. But then it wasn’t important for me to understand why there was so strong a bond between Church and State and why the Church reacted so strongly against socialism and socialism against the Church.
In this frame of mind we went to Russia in 1958. For me it was the first time while Tatiana was returning after a thirteen-year absence. It was difficult to get a visa. It was the Khrushchev period. Stalin had been dead five years. While he was still alive Tatiana would never have dared to enter the Russian Embassy — she would have been counted among the traitors, those who weren’t willing to return to the fatherland. But in 1958 Khrushchev’s campaign against the Church hadn’t yet begun.
To go to Russia was a wish I had fostered for a long time — to be there, to see the people, to hear the language. I came to Russia not as a tourist through the official Soviet travel agency “Intourist” but as Tatiana’s husband. That was an impressive difference!
I found myself in an old-fashioned Russian family where I was welcomed unreservedly. All of them were believers and closely connected to the Church. To my brother-in-law, Nikolai Poltorazki, husband of Tatiana’s sister, I am deeply grateful. He had a profound knowledge of Russian religious philosophy — Berdyaev, Bulgakov, S. Frank, Florensky. Some of them he had known personally. His fervent interpretation of their writings has been of great importance to me on the way to the faith.
When I got back to Holland, I began in earnest to study Berdyaev. As I look back on that period now, I realize how much Berdyaev has meant for me, what a role he played in my life in those years. He inspired me, gave me a vision. As a young man Berdyaev, though not a Marxist, was not that distant from Marxists. I felt myself involved with the problems he was trying to solve — the truth of Russian Orthodoxy but also the untruth of Orthodoxy linked to the state — an unholy alliance. Berdyaev spoke about general social problems, about Eros, about the place of art in society. His style of searching appealed to me: “follow the way back.” He was a Russian who had thought deeply about the source of Russian culture, and this finally brought him to Orthodoxy. Gradually he came to a new understanding of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy freed from ties with the state and from the reactionary attitudes to progress.
This thinking was very enriching for me, though not that all aspects of his teaching are authentically Orthodox.
I have spoken already about my near-mystic experiences as a child. It was intuition without a clear idea about God. But after the trip to Russia, after the discovery of Berdyaev, I became convinced that I had to come to terms with the fundamental questions of life. I had a feeling of now or never! I realized that if I didn’t come to an understanding now, I should never do so. I would continue to read interesting books, piles of them, without making any real progress in my spiritual life.
There followed a time of intense search that brought me to a crisis.
In 1962 and ’63 a new system of language learning was introduced at the University of Amsterdam — the language laboratory. This meant a great deal of extra work designing and writing a new Russian course. The professor of Slavic languages, Carl Ebeling was — indeed still is — a brilliant man of tremendous energy. He was very enthusiastic about these innovations. He was also very patient about my way of teaching. I found it hard to concentrate only on language, because it was difficult for me at that time to separate out language from the spiritual problems in which I was immersed. Luckily Ebeling understood all this.
We worked together literally day and night on the new course, but this turned out to be more than I could stand. It led me unavoidably and suddenly to the point of a complete breakdown.
And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…
How did that happen?
At the beginning of the ’60s, while in Moscow, Tatiana met the great Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Yudina was a deeply religious woman, a convinced Orthodox Christian. She heard from Tatiana about the desperate situation I was in and said, “Why doesn’t he go to Metropolitan Anthony?” Tatiana asked, “Who is that?” Yudina’s answer was, “What! You live in the West and you don’t know who Metropolitan Anthony is? He has just been visiting Moscow and has helped many people with their problems! He is an exceptional preacher and moreover a physician. Let Alexei Jacovletisch go to him!”
Tatiana wrote a letter to him and shortly after I received an invitation to visit him in London.
My situation was this. I had read a great deal about the faith. Much had become clear to me. Intellectually I was convinced of the truth of the faith. But how to go further? It is amazing how you can be intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and yet not be in a state to embrace it, not able to give this rational conviction a place in your heart and soul. You can, for instance, be a great specialist in church music, but still that doesn’t make you a Christian.
I spent a few days in London with Metropolitan Anthony and told him my story. He listened very carefully, understood my problem and gave me a simple piece of advice. He asked if I knew the Gospel? Had I read it thoroughly and systematically? I said, “No.” He urged me to do this and gave me advice as to how to do this. It forced me to interiorize the Gospel, to find myself in the Gospel. It is the principle of identification. This had happened to me once before in my life, when I was a boy and read about Indians! Now I had to identify with all the people I met in the New Testament. It took me a year to go through the Gospel, word by word, story by story.
After this first visit Metropolitan Anthony sent me to Father Barnabas, a monk who had a small hermitage in Hastings, not far from London. This was my first experience of a monastery. There I met a young monk, Brother Vincent, a man with whom I could talk fully and at length. Father Barnabas had no objection to this, but now and then did want reassurance that we were talking about spiritual matters.
When I returned to Amsterdam I was already over the worst of my crisis, but I can’t say it was the end of my troubles. I was still dependant on tranquilizers. Metropolitan Anthony had warned me not to stop taking these drugs abruptly. He compared them to a stick that helps you walk — “Eventually you will be strong enough to walk without a stick.”
I did not follow his advice. While in Odessa a month later, I decided to stop taking the pills and threw them away. Thus put me into a wretched state. Suddenly I had to manage without medicine. Traveling alone, the journey I had to make back Holland via Romania, Austria and Germany was a nightmare. But then I spent ten days I spent in the countryside, immersed in the Gospel and in prayer, and this brought me back to health.
Can you tell me more about the way of reading the Gospel that Metropolitan Anthony recommended?
He gave me a booklet made by members of a Christian student organization in Petrograd on the twenties. This little book, written in Russian, I later translated into Dutch. The principle was — to transfer yourself into the given situation of the Gospel. When Christ heals a blind man, you are that blind man. When a man is robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, you are that man. And you are also those who pass by without helping…
How long was it between your first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony and your entry into the Orthodox Church?
I was baptized in 1967 on the 22nd of July — Metropolitan Anthony’s name day. We were in Italy and heard about a French monastery in Provence given to the Orthodox Church and that Metropolitan Anthony would be there in July. Tatiana had not yet met him. So we traveled from Italy to see him in France. I still had doubts about being baptized. Was I actually ready for it? But Vladika Anthony said, “Here am I, here are you, here is Tanya, here’s the Gospel, there’s the river. Why shouldn’t we baptize you now?” And he baptized me in the river under the walls of the monastery.
How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?
After my baptism we went more and more to the parish in The Hague. There was much to do there. For example there was hardly a choir. That had to be established. Father Benjamin gave me every opportunity to enlarge it and soon a reasonable choir was formed. I had to learn the services and arrange for the choir to practice during the week. That required yet another weekly journey to The Hague. To be able to prepare everything properly I used to stay over Saturday night. In the spring of 1973 I was ordained deacon and Anton du Pau — now Father Anton — was ordained reader.
Is that when you took the name Alexis?
No, earlier, at baptism.
Alexis, Man of God, a saint of the undivided early Church. He was born in Rome. The life of the Holy Alexis was very popular in the Middle Ages, also in the western Church. But now he is almost entirely forgotten in the West, along with Saint Mary of Egypt, though her name is connected with the tiny Synodal church in Amsterdam.
You sang in the Synodal church, but when you became Orthodox you changed to the Moscow Patriarchate. What was behind this change?
When we were in Russia and told the family that we sang in the choir of an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, they asked at once, “In what church?” Tatiana answered, “In the Russian Orthodox Church.” “Yes, but which church? From which jurisdiction?” We had no idea what that meant. We knew nothing about all the divisions and jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church. That meant that we and our family in Russia were in different jurisdictions and were joined through the sacraments. So on our return to the Netherlands, we went to the parish in The Hague, St. Mary Magdalene, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We wanted to belong to the Mother Church and not to a church that had broken away from it. That was our decision.
Of course by now I understood the reasons why the Synodal Church existed and why it regarded the Moscow Patriarchate with so much enmity. But I wanted to belong to the Mother Church, the suffering Church in Russia. There were people in the Synodal parish who maintained that we had been “brain-washed” in Russia and that for these reasons had gone to the Patriarchal parish in The Hague. Nonetheless, I have much to thank that little parish for!
Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…
Yes, that happened in Moscow at the end of our first trip in 1958 when Tatiana and I were taking part in the International Congress of Slavists. We had prepared everything for the birth of our child in Amsterdam. But Aliona decided to be born in Moscow where she was baptized shortly after.
When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?
In 1973 a small group had formed, five or six people — myself, Tatiana, our daughter Aliona and Stefan Royé, who was then not Orthodox but interested. There was also Anton du Pau, who had recently become Orthodox. We talked together about how good it would be to have an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.
Through God’s providence we got to know a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Janko Stanic, who had been given by his bishop the task of setting up a Serbian parish in Amsterdam. Thanks to the help of Pastor Boiten and influential friends from the Roman Catholic Church we obtained the use of a space in an annex of the big Saint Nicholas Church opposite Central Station. Father Janko was financially supported by the Diaconal Council of the Dutch Reformed Church. Father Anton had his own income, as did I from the university. Father Anton painted icons, was a good organizer and could turn his hand to everything. In a few months, a nice little parish was created! At the end of 1973 we started our choir practices. In 1974 on the 4th of May the first Vigil service was celebrated by Metropolitan Anthony. On the 5th — the Dutch Liberation Day as it happens — Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Laventrie consecrated our church and celebrated the Divine Liturgy.
Was it a Serbian parish?
No, both Serbian and Russian. Originally we hoped to found a pan-Orthodox parish for Serbians, Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but it wasn’t possible. So a parish was formed under the joint direction of the Moscow and Serbian Patriarchates. Father Janko served with us twice a month. The other Sundays he was with Serbs in other parts of the country.
The problem for us in Amsterdam was that the Russian part of the parish had no priest. We solved this by inviting priests from other parishes for those Sundays when Father Janko was absent — — for example, Father Adrian from the monastery in The Hague or Father Stefan Bakker from Amersfoort or Father Jozef Lamien from Brussels. Once Father Vladimir, the former priest at the Russian parish in The Hague, came to celebrate. When no priest was available, I served as deacon at Vespers on Saturday and again at Matins on Sunday. In that way the continuity of the services was ensured. Unfortunately I could never serve as deacon at the Liturgy — I had to lead the choir.
How did the independent Russian parish come into being?
At the end of 1978, following a series of events. With a group of parishioners we went to London where I was ordained priest and Father Anton deacon by Metropolitan Anthony. My first Liturgy was in London the next day — the 19th of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
It was a severe winter. In the Saint Nicholas Church in Amsterdam where we had our chapel the water pipes had burst. The chapel and the steps leading to it were all under water and then frozen. We couldn’t use it. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil on the 6th of January in the main part of the church and then the next day had the Nativity Liturgy in Pastor Boiten’s tiny Saint Joris Chapel at Ouderzijds 100.
What had led to your ordination as priest?
The Russian part of the parish had by then grown considerably. Though often on Sundays we had no priest, my serving as a deacon on Saturdays and Sundays was good experience.
Despite being without a priest, we were coming together, and that had a positive influence, spiritually speaking, on the formation of a parish. We worked also on the translation of liturgical texts into Dutch, since during the first five years of our existence the services were all in Old Church Slavonic.
I often return to the same point — the Russians have retained their rich traditions in a distinctive manner. They have the most complete services, rich services with a clear rhythm and incomparably beautiful vocal music. All this we must wanted to bring as much as possible it into the Dutch services. It’s not a question of imitation. Imitation in the spiritual life is not what we need — rather inspiration: illumination through the Spirit. I haven’t found better forms than the Russian ones. And I believe that, to a certain degree, we have managed to carry over the spirit of the Russian services into the Dutch ones.
Was it difficult to be both a university lecturer and priest at the same time?
Yes, that was difficult. But gradually I realized that my place was in the Church. I found it more and more difficult to be in academic circles. It is strange to have two identities. When we started the parish, I had already worked in the field of Slavic studies for thirteen years. I had studied and lived with academics — students and professors — for years, but in doing so I had missed a whole important aspect of life. Yet I know I owe an infinite debt of gratitude to many people with whom I came into contact via the university. It is a gift of fortune, the many years with them.
But — there’s always a “but” — it was all on the level of reason. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult for me to make the jump from the theoretical to the living faith, the faith of heart and soul. Knowledge in itself is not enough to make a real believer — just as knowing what sickness you have doesn’t mean that you are cured of it.
When you spent that year reading the Gospel, was there a certain moment, a certain text, that gave you a feeling of a door opening?
I understand your question and it would have been natural for there to have been such a moment, but I cannot say there was. So many parts of the Gospel were a revelation to me. Yet I will cite one text: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man’s will is to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking by My own authority.”
Metropolitan Anthony had taught me a most important principle: “Be attentive, be watchful. Every time you are touched by certain words you read, you must know that God has touched you, even if such a touch is not always pleasant.”
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