By Jim Forest
On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.
He was born in Leningrad 65 years ago, on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.
Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.
Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam (www.orthodox.nl) and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.
He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org) and played a major role in guiding its work.
In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.
“One of the biggest gifts Father Sergei had was giving attention, attention that consisted of love and admiration,” said Fr Sergei’s son, Aleksey, at the funeral January 11. “He was able to give full attention to that very moment he was living in whether he was reading, speaking or praying, giving his attention to every word and letter. Maybe even more importantly, he was able to let the silence sound in between the words.
“I’m an actor myself. Being an actor or being a priest is of course a totally different thing, but during these last few days it struck me how many similarities there are in our calling. As an audience member I notice immediately when an actor on stage is just summing up some words or making a movement because that is his assignment – just empty words and movements. But when an actor is able to re-live a monologue, to connect him or herself with a text or a movement, to exclude everything else that is going on in his head – his worries, his personal life, etcetera. Then you’re able to fully engage, to be fully alive in that very moment. When that happens, it’s a blessing. As an audience member you sense and feel it.
“Amazingly it’s something that I found in the church. When a priest is able to say a prayer not only with his mouth and tongue, but with his heart, when a priest gives a blessing not only with his hand but with the divine love within him, it touches us deeply. Father Sergei was someone who was able to do this. Connecting mind, body and soul with that specific prayer and with that very blessing, he was giving himself into that very moment.
“Father Sergei was a father for all of us, to some a father in the flesh, to others a father in spirit. I can tell you honestly that it is a strange sensation to share a father with so many people. Our phone used to ring almost all day long – people asking for help, for advice, for a last communion, or to baptize their newborn child.
“It’s just now, in these recent days, that I realized why he dedicated so much time of his life to the priesthood. Just look around you. His impact is huge.
“On the last day of his life, Father Sergei said, ‘Children, what do you want me to tell you?'” And I asked him, ‘Tell us your wish’. His answer was, ‘That you will love each other unconditionally’. I wanted you all to know this because he dedicated his life to his family and we are standing here today as that one family.”
In July 2017 my wife Nancy and I recorded a conversation with Fr Sergei, the main themes of which were fear and freedom. Here is the transcript:
Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…
Fr Sergei: I was jailed twice while I was in the army. The first time I was accused of doing propaganda for the American style of life. In fact it wasn’t true – I knew almost nothing about the American style of life! What could I say about it? They also accused me of disobedience, and that was true. I was disobedient to the authorities. So I was sent to prison, originally just for a few weeks. That was nice. I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.
JF: And it’s all based on fear…
Yes. In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep – the floor is wet. You cannot read – there are no books. You cannot write – no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it.
JF: No window?
Yes. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words “freedom is in God.” But – a big but – I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God! (laughter) This was a problem – freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.
So I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was the most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given – you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.
Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel – it was difficult even to find a Bible in those days. But it was the real beginning of my life.
Finding my way into the Church was much more complicated. It was the beginning of the 70s. Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.
Nancy Forest: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you anymore?
Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.
JF: What happened then, once you were out of solitary?
Their first plan was to send me to a labor camp, but then they realized there was no basis for convicting me of a crime. So they decided on a completely different course and instead sent me to school for officer training! Six months. Instead of being a good soldier they made me into a bad officer! School was wonderful. I spent many hours in the library and found a book by Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – and books by other forbidden writers. Lucky for me the librarians had failed to remove such books.
JF: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svoboda” – freedom.
Yes. Sometimes people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” And Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.” This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.
NF: As Christians we can say that without Christ there is no true freedom, yet there is the paradox that Christ only accepts free people. What comes first?
First comes the icon. Each person is an icon of God. In Genesis we read, “Let us create man according to our image.” The Greek word for image is icon. This was a favorite topic of Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Everyone has this icon but the icon is damaged. Life is given to man in order to repair – restore – the icon. With the help of Christ to return to freedom.
JF: Peacemaking is the removal of the smoke-darkened varnish that masks the icon…
This is why Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open your eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you – on you and your spiritual condition.
[A Russian translation of this interview is posted at: http://www.pravmir.ru/protoierey-sergiy-ovsyannikov-ya-perestal-boyatsya-eto-byilo-samyim-vazhnyim/ ]
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A lecture given by Fr Sergei “Peace and Conflict in Scripture and History” is posted at:
Here is an album of photos of Fr Sergei:
To download high-resolution photos from Flickr:
– When viewing an album, double click on any image to see enlarged
– click on the downward-pointing arrow below the photo and to the right
– choose resolution (“original” is the highest)
– save to your computer
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