Yandex Metrika
The Interview with Hieromonk Maxim and Hierodeacon Tarasius

Channels of God’s Grace in the Heart of the War Zone (Part 1)

monks from the Vvedensky Monastery of Optina Pustin

At the base camp of a Russian army unit near Donetsk, a Paschal night liturgy is underway to occasional rumblings of a distant battle. The celebrants are the monks from the Vvedensky Monastery of Optina Pustin. Throughout their ministry in the warzone lasting almost a year, they have been sharing cramped quarters with the soldiers — temporary accommodation points, basements, warehouses, sleeping on mattresses or bunks, sharing meals from the same cup, offering confession and communion in buildings or under shelters. Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky) and Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich) recently spoke to our website correspondent about their ministry among the men fighting in the Special Military Operation of Russia amid the steppes of the Donbas region.

Question: Please tell us about the team engaged in this ministry in the Special Military Operation zone

Hieromonk Maxim: We have quite a large team — typically six to eight people strong. It is not just made up of brothers from the monastery but also includes a layman who assists us. He is our organiser, taking care of the logistical matters. He arranges transportation and accommodation directly with the commanders over the phone. Then, of course, there is a Hieromonk and a Hierodeacon. Occasionally, lay priests from St Petersburg and Moscow join us on our missions.

Ministry is our main activity. Once we arrive in Donetsk, we regroup and split into smaller groups of two or three before we head out in different directions — Donetsk, Volnovakha, the Zaporozhye direction, Lugansk, and Soledar. That way, we maximise the number of soldiers covered.

Nuh Glikeriya (Khmyzova)

Nun Glikeriya (Khmyzova)

Question: How did the decision to go to the frontline come about?

Hieromonk Maxim: We began by supporting volunteers in the region. Then, unit commanders started reaching out, requesting our presence amongst their troops. We responded to these calls. We visited one unit, and word of our mission spread quickly. Over the course of seven trips during the past year, we have connected with a significant number of units. We prioritise visits to specific locations with the same team, as this fosters a sense of familiarity. Many soldiers now eagerly await our arrival, greeting us with genuine warmth.

One day, as we were visiting a unit, we were invited to share a meal. As we sat together, officers approached the commander and began discussing military plans — even in our presence. Their trust in us was truly humbling.

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

Hierodeacon Tarasius: The people who knew us had vouched for us beforehand. But there is a real sense of mutual understanding, a feeling of brotherhood. They welcome us like family, open up to us, and you can truly feel the warmth of that connection.

Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich)

Hierodeacon Tarasius (Chich)

Question: How would you describe your tasks on the spiritual front?

Hierodeacon Tarasius: We begin with the most fundamental acts of faith — offering communion, hearing confessions, and performing baptisms. But beyond these spiritual offerings, simple human connection and a listening ear prove invaluable. These men spend months at a time on the front line, often yearning for conversation with someone outside their immediate circle. In these situations, we sit and talk — not about lofty religious matters or politics, but about everyday life: family, children. Often, they say things like, “Fathers, talking to you somehow eases the burden on our souls.” They get the sense that they have not been forgotten — that priests are willing to venture into these troubled areas.

While we do not travel directly to the front lines ourselves, we primarily visit established units. Nevertheless, the soldiers can still feel our presence and their spirits find new strength.

Hieromonk Maxim: We were visiting the village of Nikolskoye, located roughly a kilometre and a half from the active battle zone and packed with forward bases. We travelled there with two escorts, one of whom held no interest in Orthodoxy. Yet by some miracle, this same man requested baptism towards the end of our visit. Sadly, when we returned, we could not see him as he was in hospital. After his baptism, the man frequented the nearby Saint Nicholas Monastery, taking significant risks. The monks have not left the monastery, and still pray in the basement church. One day as he was returning to his unit, he came under attack from a drone and suffered injuries. God grant him a full recovery.

Question: Have you had to comfort soldiers and officers?

Hieromonk Maxim: Yes, on several occasions. The human psyche is a complex instrument, and it is impossible to predict when the weight of experience will become overwhelming. During confessions, people often reveal deeply personal struggles, problems that seem insurmountable. A soldier who has not seen combat firsthand carries certain beliefs, even stereotypes that may shatter in the realities of war. Without a strong internal compass, they may not know how to respond. So we strive to offer them counselling and help them regain their sense of direction. For those with faith, this inner support system already exists. We also seek to find common ground with non-practising believers and help them find a sense of purpose. After all, a soldier burdened by emotional turmoil is hardly fit for combat. Clarity of purpose is vital — understanding what they’re fighting for, and who their opponent is. Without these answers, a soldier risks breaking down or abandoning their post. In such situations, comfort becomes a necessity.

As a priest, I believe we serve as conduits of the Holy Spirit’s grace. Through us, the Lord offers solace even to those who may not consider themselves believers. Many soldiers, even if they do not partake in confession or communion, leave our encounters feeling better. A sense of calm washes over them, and their eyes regain a spark. This is the power of a simple desire to help another soul in need.

Question: Can you recall any dramatic incident to illustrate your point?

Hieromonk Maxim: A battalion commander shared this story of his platoon commander, who fell into a deep depression. He was a respected leader, a retired serviceman, and a veteran of many operations. He had volunteered for duty in Donbas. One night, during a mission call, he suggested to a young soldier whom he had befriended, to accompany him. “I’m bored alone,” he said, “Fancy coming along?” The young man readily agreed.

They set out in their car, navigating the poor visibility of night. Headlights were a risk in certain areas, and minefields were a constant threat. Tragically, they struck an anti-tank mine with the right wheel, causing a violent explosion. The young soldier, on the right side, perished instantly. The commander, miraculously, survived and received medical treatment. However, he was consumed by guilt, haunted by the thought, “I killed my friend. If I hadn’t suggested he join me…” It seemed illogical — death was a constant companion in this war, friends fell, and enemies were killed. Yet, this incident broke him.

A hieromonk from our team spent hours talking with the commander, offering a space for him to unburden his heart. Confession and communion followed. Later, we asked the priest, “What did you say to him?” His reply was simple, “Nothing special. We just had a heartfelt conversation.” Despite our attempts to comfort and reassure him beforehand, nothing had truly brought him solace. But through the priest’s presence, his prayers, and the power of the sacraments, the man was transformed. Today, he leads his unit with renewed strength. He fights on, and he has found healing for his soul.

Question: What other examples of transformation come to your mind?

Hieromonk Maxim: Here is the story of a family from Kozelsk. A mother journeyed to Optina Pustyn to pray for her drug-addicted son. Rehabilitation centres had failed him, and he almost died from an overdose. In a moment of clarity, the young man decided to enlist in the Special Military Operation. He was placed in an infantry unit surrounded by the enemy. This same former addict covered his comrades’ retreat, earning him the Order of Courage. War, in its brutality, seems to strip away the superficial, revealing the potential for heroism in even the most unexpected souls. Many people fighting there have served time in prison. It is truly humbling to witness the unfathomable twists of human fate.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Remarkably, the change we see in some of the mobilised men from Moscow. Yesterday they were engrossed in computer games, and today they are mastering complex combat tasks.

Question: Which themes arising during confessions seem to trouble the soldiers the most?

Hieromonk Maxim: The act of taking a life weighs heavily on many soldiers beyond a doubt. It is a central concern that often surfaces during confession. We strive to explain the difference between killing for malicious intent, perhaps for personal gain, and defending one’s nation, loved ones, and innocent civilians. In Christianity, the core motivation behind an action is crucial. Take sexual relations, for instance. Within the sanctity of marriage, it is a blessed act, while outside of it, it is a sin.

That said, killing, even in defence, leaves an undeniable mark on the soldier’s soul. It burdens the spirit and psyche, especially for those new to the realities of war. They grapple with profound questions: “How do I relate to this? Why is God allowing this? What is my purpose here?” They often raise these existential questions, and confession becomes our way to share Christian truths, expressed in a manner that resonates with their experiences. War forces individuals to confront these questions they may have never considered before. Amid this crucible, clarity becomes paramount for their well-being.

Question: In restoring clarity in people’s minds, what are the ultimate considerations?

Hieromonk Maxim: That relies entirely on prayer. Of course, discussing such weighty matters is no easy feat for a priest. Empathy is essential. The key, however, lies not in our knowledge. God offers countless solutions, and sometimes the right words flow effortlessly, even surprising ourselves. Complete trust in the Lord is essential. We confess our limitations to him, pleading, “Lord, I worry for this soul. Guide me with your wisdom, enlighten this heart.” With sincere prayer, the Lord grants the necessary words. Simple, heartfelt language often resonates far deeper than elaborate sermons. In those moments, God bestows the perfect words of comfort.

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

Hieromonk Maxim (Zhilinsky)

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Building rapport takes time. Some soldiers connect readily, while others require more patience to open up for a frank conversation. Our first Easter visit was at Pascha. We arrived to find around fifteen soldiers gathered in a hall. We stood on a makeshift stage, hoping to spark a dialogue. We spoke, but their faces remained impassive, unblinking stares fixed upon us. We tried various approaches — abstract topics, and Easter greetings. We offered confession and communion and asked if anyone had not received a baptism. It seemed they were not truly listening, perhaps still mentally entrenched on the battlefield. Establishing any kind of communication took a good two hours. Finally, we shared some Easter treats, and the conversation gradually began to flow. Thankfully, the commanders who brought us already knew our mission. One stepped forward for confession. Witnessing this act, others followed suit, slowly overcoming any apprehension. Confession was not a frightening ordeal, but a doorway to something positive. They received communion, and a transformation unfolded before our eyes. These men, who had arrived cloaked in darkness and gloom, left radiating a newfound lightness. They spoke of an inexplicable joy, a sense of well-being. Though they could not articulate it themselves, we recognized the action of the Holy Spirit’s grace.

One soldier, after confessing and receiving communion for the first time, uttered: “Father, I am not sure what it was, but I know it is something important.” Now, whenever we return, he greets us with unbridled joy. The pace of transformation varies greatly from person to person.

Another encounter stands out in my memory. We were brought to a location and were promised to be picked up three hours later. There were three soldiers there, diligently digging trenches. We offered confession, but they declined. Respecting their choice, we blessed their dugouts with holy water and offered a prayer. Settling down at a nearby table, we started a simple conversation, exchanging stories about our backgrounds, children and families. Darkness fell, our ride remained elusive, and so the conversation continued. Feeling an intuitive nudge, I gently steered the topic towards spiritual matters, mentioning confession. One soldier revealed an experience with confession, while another admitted he had never participated. Then, a turning point came — one soldier expressed a desire to confess. Witnessing this, another followed suit. These grown men, well into their forties, offered each other quiet encouragement before receiving communion. As if on cue, the moment we finished, our long-awaited ride arrived. It’s a constant reminder of the Lord’s providential hand in everything we do. We needn’t force the pace — our plans may differ, but the divine will unfolds perfectly, guiding us exactly as it should be.

Monastery guests and parishioners

Monastery guests and parishioners meeting with monks from Optina Pustyn

Question: One might wonder if some soldiers harbour scepticism towards you. Have you ever heard something like this: “Here we are, knee-deep in mud and blood, and you offer confession? What do you truly know about war?”

Hieromonk Maxim: While such thoughts may have crossed their minds, they were never openly expressed. There remains, by and large, a general respect for priests, even amongst hardened warriors of various backgrounds. Perhaps, deep within our shared heritage, there is an ingrained reverence for the clergy.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Their reception is typically one of indifference or genuine warmth. Even those who consider themselves ‘pagans,’ as they jokingly refer to themselves, have treated us cordially. They only ran away when we sprinkled them with holy water. “I have my own God,” they joked.

Question: What causes soldiers to seek communion? Is it the sense that death might be somewhere around the corner?

Hieromonk Maxim: The reasons are many, and they are as incomprehensible as the human heart itself. Often, God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps a soldier initially approaches us for some practical reason like the fear of death. But through confession, many begin to consciously acknowledge God, experiencing a stirring within their soul, a touch of divine grace. For a soldier who isn’t driven by self-deception or burdened by suppressed desires, this encounter can be akin to rediscovering a lost treasure, a surge of pure joy.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: In my experience, fear of death ranks amongst the last reasons. It is more about God’s providence, a force beyond our comprehension. I recall one soldier who approached the priest for communion. Tragically, he was killed that very same day. This exemplifies God’s providence. He perceives hearts that are ready to transition. He offers the opportunity, a knock at the door. If the soldier responds, the Lord bestows His grace.

Question: Divine help is always there, but maybe during your trips, there were situations where you particularly felt the Lord’s support. Perhaps the soldiers told you about it?

Hieromonk Maxim: Our very presence and safety amid the conflict feels like a constant miracle of God. Soldiers often share remarkable stories that reinforce this belief. One particularly vivid account involved a 152 mm shell, one of the most devastating weapons. It struck a dugout with such force that only a crater remained. Miraculously, the central support beam survived — and upon it hung a small plastic icon. The image itself was completely unscathed. Logically, the soldiers within the dugout should have perished instantly, yet they escaped unharmed, thrown back a mere five metres from the impact. This defied all odds. They placed the icon in a corner, and read morning and evening prayers before it. Their spirits soared, and many felt a renewed connection to the Church.

A Girl at the Meeting with Optina Fathers

A Girl at the Meeting with Optina Fathers

Many accounts testify to the Lord’s grace extending to those who fall in combat, granting them entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. These stories come from many different people and a variety of sources. For example, the girlfriend of a fallen soldier recounted that their plans for marriage were tragically cut short by his deployment to the frontline and subsequent death. Wracked with grief, she prayed tearfully for him. Remarkably, for two nights in a row, he appeared to her in dreams saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here in Easter joy.” The profound emotions that remained after these dreams convinced her of a divine revelation. She described waking to a profound sense of peace, a quiet calm, and an overwhelming love for the world — a powerful testament to God’s enduring presence. Similar accounts surface during soldiers’ confessions. These experiences serve as a potent reminder that beyond the tangible world lies another, a spiritual realm. Our material reality is only a reflection of this unseen dimension. War itself becomes a manifestation of a fractured spirit.

Question: Warriors in the warzone often adopt call signs inspired by saints — Saint Nicholas being a common example. Have you ever heard stories about how these call signs protect?

Hierodeacon Tarasius: The call sign itself does not hold any inherent protective power, it is the sentiment behind it that truly matters. These designations are often bestowed by comrades, a reflection of the soldier’s character and actions. “What’s your name, soldier?” they might ask. “Alexander,” comes the reply. “Then you shall be ‘Nevsky’,” Or, perhaps a soldier’s background shapes their call sign. “Were you a monastery worker before the conflict?” they inquire. “Monk” it is then. There seems to be an abundance of “Monks” serving on the front lines — at least, we’ve encountered three ourselves. These men, with their monastic past and their willingness to volunteer for this vital mission, truly embody the spirit of their call sign. It becomes a standard to uphold, a reminder to live with prayer and set a positive example for others.

Question: Another interesting detail — soldiers report that when insignia are removed from the deceased in morgues, those bearing the image of the Saviour are missing. Do you have an explanation?

Hieromonk Maxim: Indeed, one of our priests witnessed a remarkable sight in a morgue. Hundreds of insignia lay piled high, yet no matter how diligently he searched, he couldn’t find a single one depicting the Saviour, even though such icons are commonly worn by soldiers on the front line Perhaps those who choose to wear the Saviour image on their sleeve receive a special form of divine protection.

Hierodeacon Tarasius: Before each trip, we make a point of ordering insignia specifically for the soldiers. These typically feature the image of the Saviour Not Made by Hands on an orange or camouflage background. At Easter, we bring insignia emblazoned with ‘Christ is Risen’ and the Crucifix. For Christmas, it is the Nativity icon. Without a doubt, the most popular choices remain the Saviour and the Cross, accompanied by the inscription “By this, you will conquer!” or the simple declaration, “Christ is Risen!”

Hieromonk Maxim: We had a fascinating experience. A layman in our team who takes care of the logistics designed a unique “Christ is Risen!” insignia. His talented sixteen-year-old daughter drew his design on paper. In April of last year, we distributed these insignia amongst the soldiers. The following month, we visited a familiar group of volunteers at a Moscow church. They wove camouflage nets, collected vital humanitarian aid, and their driver transported these supplies to the frontline. While enjoying a cup of tea and discussing the ongoing conflict, the conversation turned to insignia. Then, the driver excitedly announced, “I have a cool insignia!” He retrieved and presented his prized possession — it was our very own, original “Christ is Risen!” design!

Hierodeacon Tarasius: We laughed, and he could not understand why …

To be continued

Interviewed by Olga Kosyakova

Photos by Maxim Chernogolov

CHANNELS OF GOD’S GRACE IN THE HEART OF THE WAR ZONE (PART 2)

April 27, 2024
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