On 24 May, we celebrate the birthday of Elder Nikolai Guryanov, who gave his blessing to his spiritual child Father Andrey Lemeshonok to begin work on establishing the Convent of Saint Elisabeth in Minsk. Nikolai Guryanov grew up in a pious family. He went to a post-secondary college to become a teacher but he was expelled when he raised his voice against the closure of a church. He was prosecuted and exiled to the Russian North for three years. In 1942, he was ordained as a deacon, and several days later as a priest. From 1958, he served in the parish on Talabsk (Zalit Island) in the Pskov Lake. For forty years, he was parson on the Church in honour of Saint Nicholas in the Episcopate of Pskov, Russia. His life and teachings continue to inspire us in our ministries and works.
Father Andrey Lemeshonok:
The person to whom I owe my first meeting with Father Nikolai is no longer with us. She has already departed to another world. Her name was Galina Estrina, she was a seamstress who was making undergarments. At some point, staying at church began to feel like an ordeal to me. An initial gift of God's grace, filled me with burning and enthusiasm, but then the first wave of gloom and despair and hit me. Galina told me that she knew someone who could help me and offered to join her on a visit. "I would rather not," I said. She tried again and again, and by some miracle, she managed to convince me. When I saw him celebrating worship services and giving communion to children, and it was as if a divine light was coming from him. I had never seen anything like it before; he shined with the light of the resurrection that lifted everybody's hearts. It was not just me. My companion also saw it.
"Look! His face is gleaming!" we said as we turned towards one another. I felt at peace, and there was nothing else for me to ask for or discuss. After some time, Elder Nikolai came up to me to ask me about my life. I still remember some details of that talk, and others that I forgot came back to me after many years. He passed his light on to me, and it kept me going for several weeks ahead.
That day we also visited another priest, who has also departed. He was performing exorcisms. The difference between them was stark, and I said, "No, thank you. I am not staying. Let us go." The contrast was just too visible.
I took a break from visiting Elder Nikolai for maybe six months or more. Eventually, I got myself to make another visit. I was already busy at Church doing multiple obediences, and I went on my own.
From that point onwards, I went to him frequently. Because of my inexperience, my first questions were not original. I asked about freemasons, the end of the world, foresightedness and other 'childish' questions. "Father, is the end of the world coming any time soon?" I asked Elder Nikolai. - He had been in poor health for most of the year, but he replied, cheerfully, "We have a great life to look forward to, many sun-filled and fortunate years ahead of us!" Here I was, a strong and healthy young man, whining about the gloom and doom, while he, who had spent much of his time bed-ridden was telling me about the joy of living. That was a very sobering moment. With time, all of the distractions vanished. I saw pure love and experienced it through him. I recognised God's beauty in a man. That was enough to nurture my spirit and keep it at work.
I saw Elder Nikolai in different states and circumstances. At times, he would say to me, "I wish that people knew how exhausted I am right now." He gave everyone love, he listened to all and he gave his blessing to many, yet he acknowledged exhaustion. I heard him say that several times.
It is most invaluable to have a vision of the Lord that gives one the capability to put aside one's selfish self and recognise things of greatest value from those of secondary importance that could potentially become a distraction and a source of harm.
He expressed himself with great originality and lucidity; his words were full of life. He brought many to their senses and back to life. Sometimes, he could say something as simple as "May God help you", and bring life into a person.
If you asked me to remember any quotes from the elder, I would have a hard time recalling any. Many collections of quotes from the elders are being published these days, but most were said to a concrete person at a specific moment in their lives, and trying to apply them to other situations is senseless.
But he certainly bore the spirit of Pascha. He had a great sense of humour, and some of his advice was far outside the box if you know what I mean. But this ability of his was very useful.
On my every visit, I heard many words of wisdom that gave me a lot of food for thought. That was his way of giving love. He had weak legs, yet he would run to me to give me some tinned fish at the last moment, "Take it, have some while you are travelling."
At some stage, I came to imagine myself as a righteous monk. However, elder Nikolai was quick to bring me back to my senses.
Once I criticised the Metropolitan in front of him, and he said to me, "Who are you? A guard? If I were you, I would do your job first."
Here is my view of life. Any singer has a comfortable pitch range. Some sing tenor, others sing base. If you go beyond your range, you may lose your voice. It is very much like that in spiritual life.
I knew him for two decades, a great part of my life. He had relatively few visitors before the film "The Church" came out, dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of the Christianisation of Rus. After the film, the number of visitors increased substantially.
Many visitors just came to hear what they wanted to hear. They needed to exercise humility and understanding. Yet many were proud and all-knowing. They wanted to hear from him prophesies and insights that they would find practical. He was ill and frail, yet he was still coming out to meet them to show them how to be strong, how not to despair, and how to give life.
Living by the flesh in this world, people look for bread and entertainment even in their spiritual lives. They want miracles, healings or myrrh-streaming. Yet Christ is near, and so is His love for us. His love is present at every church. But if we are only after visible miracles, we will be destined to ramble.
To the monastics of the Convent of Saint Elisabeth, the New Year is an occasion to reflect on the value of the Lord's generous gift of time and making the best use of it so we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven