A priest, an iconographer, and a father of a large family... Our Convent's parishioners will recognise Father Sergius Nezbort by these attributes, and he is the star of our interview today. We interviewed Father Sergius some years ago about the icon painting studio he is directing. We mostly spoke about art and creativity. Today, Father Sergius has time for a lengthier conversation, so we ask him about a much broader variety of topics.
Last time, Father Sergius came across as restrained, serious, and businesslike. This time, he looks extremely different: carefree, and easygoing, but still deep and thoughtful. He also appears younger, even though the talk begins almost philosophically. "Life is becoming ever more complex," he sighs, and goes on:
"With experience, as well as with age, one gets the impression that each new step is more difficult than the previous one. And I do not only mean service, charitable work, or personal life. Everything is interrelated and nothing is independent from the other. I frequently travel down memory lane to relive my youth. I'm not saying the world was perfect back then, but it was a good period in many ways, especially during my school years."
But isn't it natural for all youths, at least ideally, to perceive the world in a positive light? Isn't it true that a happy childhood is essential for a successful start in life? That it builds the groundwork for future life?
Without a doubt. My parents never fought when I was a child, so I never imagined it might happen. I lived in a state of joyfulness, almost like something out of a fairy tale. Today, I am a father and the head of my family, but I have yet to organise my family life in the same way that my parents did. Despite some minor problems, my life was mostly trouble-free. I was unaffected by certain things and was unaware of others. I recall a sense of comfort and brightness that filled my youth. However, learning to live independently later in life moving to Minsk and living in a home was a challenging transition. I could not wait to return home the next weekend. You can imagine how attached I was to my paternal home. Even one day there gave me enough energy to last another week. As I grew more at ease living away from home, my visits became less frequent. The urge to start a family of my own grew inside me over time.
Perhaps you thought it was your turn to help someone else have the same blessing of growing up in a warm and caring family.
I believe that unity is one of the most crucial things for a family. There is always stress when there is no togetherness. We have four adopted children in my household. They are still mysteries to me in some ways, and I believe I still have a lot to learn about them.
Father Sergius and his family
What have you learnt about parenting from your experience?
Every day I discover something new. Each day presents new questions and inspires me to seek answers. There's always something about them that I do not understand. When I am at home, I sometimes feel like I'm still at work (smiles).
Father Sergius and his adopted daughter
Have you thus far been able to call the Church your home?
So I believe - or at least I would want to believe. My achievements to date - my priestly ministry, a magnificent gift from God, and my God-given talent for painting icons - all give me great joy. If you had told me thirty years ago that I would have all of that, I would not have believed you! Even now, I find it difficult to believe. It is both a delight and a huge responsibility.
Have you ever regretted your life choices? Have you ever had the sense of failing to meet the expectations of others? When it comes to expectations... Parishioners, particularly novices to the Church, sometimes expect a lot, and many regard their priest as an idealised character rather than a genuine person. They often feel let down.
As for regrets, I have never regretted choosing the life I have now. How many parishioners have been disappointed? You should ask them (smiles).
But, in all seriousness, I regard myself as sensitive and insecure. Just one word can cause me to reflect and rethink my actions. But my years of service have also taught me to be tenacious and to always do the right thing. When things are bad, I trust that the Lord will act to change my condition, often without my knowledge or even my request. This trust has helped me persevere in many challenging situations.
Сould you give an example?
As part of my ministry among disabled patients in long-term care, I assisted them in preparing for liturgy and accompanied them throughout the service. To be honest, it was a difficult effort for me. Nonetheless, I did it for over 10 years. I felt like I could not do it anymore at times, but I was on an obedience, and I could not refuse. I was going through a difficult internal conflict. But the Lord altered everything. I eventually received another obedience. The shift was gradual, and it happened without my intervention. Fortunately, I never considered leaving the Church.
But how did you come to Church? You said that your family had not been going to church.
We were going along a street one day. It was in my hometown Brest. I was thirteen at the time, and I was with my twin brother and grandmother. My grandmother offered to visit a church as we passed by. I was not sure what to say because I was so far removed from religion, belief, and Orthodoxy at the time. We entered. The church was being restored, so there was no service. In the foyer, I observed an icon. It was of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, as I later discovered. I noticed the saint's face. The impact left me stunned. It struck a deep chord in my heart. For a brief time, I believed I had seen God.
I was speechless when I exited the church. It had been years before baptism. After that visit, I returned and began to visit more frequently. Soon after, I enrolled in an art school, which happened to be near a church. I felt a fire within me as I stared at the church building and its majestic appearance if you know what I mean.
How long had it been before your baptism?
Approximately three years. The more I went to Church, the more I saw that I could not truly participate without baptism. I wanted to immerse myself fully into the mystery.
I did not have any religious friends. As an introvert by nature, I was not inclined to share my emotional experiences. I lived my life intuitively. I would sense an overflow of grace after two or three missions at the church, which would keep me energised for many hours and days. During services, I positioned myself to observe the entire scene and keep track of all the movements. I felt a strong connection to what was happening and desired I could be a part of it.
Later, as I was already in Minsk, I assisted with the preparations for liturgy among the rehabilitation centre's patients. I was requested to move various objects, and I was delighted to help as a parishioner. I was afterwards requested to help on the church floor and at the altar. Participating in services as an altar server was an honour in and of itself. Our main altar server was first ordained as a deacon, then as a priest. I was offered the job of deacon, which had recently become available. I agreed and served for twelve years before becoming a priest.
Do you recall your first communion?
(Smiles:) I had my first communion when I was sixteen. I was in my first year of art school at the time. I broke every rule there was to break. I had not fasted, I had had breakfast, and had arrived late for the service. I approached the Cup without a confession.
However, a miracle occurred. I felt the joy of inner calm for a long time following that Communion. It was amazing. This feeling is still vivid in my mind, and its aspects return to me from time to time. Every time, I am reminded of how much God loves everyone. And when it happens, I go through an inner transformation and feel whole. The emotions can be quite overwhelming at times. It is not common, but it does occur.
Baptism of a baby girl
Faith is neither a theorem nor a blueprint, and it is not based on logical proof or tangible evidence. A touch of God's grace reveals an abundance of kindness in a person. That is because God touches the heart. I believe that without this touch of grace, we could be in peril. If our faith is just based on logic, we are all in danger.
What nourishment do you find to be most beneficial for your spirit right now?
I'm still not sure. I am trying to figure out what God's will is for me. I want to live in spirit. I find icon painting to be quite nourishing to my spirit. In my school years, I took my first bleak efforts at icon painting. I recall sketching an image of the Mother of God in my notebook while sitting in class. I had never considered becoming an icon painter. It was the early 1990s, and there were few teachers, books, or schools. But the dream remained alive within me, and one day it became a reality. I'm an icon painter now (smiles).
Do you consider icon painting to be your work?
It is more like a cross (smiles). It's my life, a dream realised. It is a challenging job, but I always like doing it. It is my discovery of an incredible beauty that I strive to convey and share with the world. Of course, I have my times of disappointment. However, it is a treasure trove of events and feelings. Many people have a romanticised idea of an iconographer's work as a serene and quiet process of creation that takes place in front of a lampad, in a silent chamber, and in an atmosphere of tranquillity and serenity. Some icons may be born in this manner, but in my case, the situation is significantly more difficult. Even so, the birth of any icon is a miracle.
An iconographer at work
How did you create your very first icon?
It took some time. I went to an art school and subsequently to an art college. Then I finished the Arts Academy, where I first tried my hand at painting icons. When the Convent created an icon painting workshop, I began by duplicating and performing support work before becoming an apprentice. I eventually began collaborating on projects with other iconographers. Every step of the road was critical to my advancement, and every experience has been beneficial in my current role as studio director. I have learnt how to collaborate with clients, respond to their criticisms, maintain discussion, and reach good compromises.
What are your current learning priorities?
They are the same as they have always been. I have two selves living in me: one a hopeless pessimist and one an unwavering believer who never loses hope and loves no matter what. It motivates me to live. They are battling each other, and one of them wins at different times.
I have hope because I believe in miracles and Divine intervention. I have no illusions about life or the state of the world as a whole, but I am confident that the Lord will keep me from succumbing to despair. This optimism gives me the courage to continue, sometimes against logic and common sense.
A confession in a church
Interviewer: Irina Kruglokova