We welcome to the monastic community a new member of our clergy - Priest Sergius Chernyak. Father Sergius recently turned 30. He was born in Minsk, his wife also comes from the Belarusian capital. We interviewed Father Sergius about his experience of coming to Christ, and his service of God, the neighbour and his family.
You come from a secular background and did not convert to Orthodoxy until you reached adulthood. What influenced your return into the fold of the Christian church?
Why did I come to Church? Why does any person come to Church? God sends a person some spiritual talent, and the person responds.
As I read recently in the Book of Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Search, I was impressed by the verse that spoke about a spark sent to a person by the Lord, which that person can blow into a fire, or let it die. Why did I decide to turn the spark into a flame? Perhaps I was answering God's calling and stewardship.
There were no believers within my close circle, so coming to Church was a fully autonomous decision for me. When I became enrolled in the seminary, my father told me that my great grandfather was a priest. My father met him as a child a couple of times and almost did not know him. Eventually, I did my own research.
I found that my great grandfather was a priest, and he served in the eparchy of Bobruisk. At age 21, when he was still a deacon, he was tried and convicted. The Bolshevik government of the time had instigated a campaign to confiscate church valuables, so the priests were hiding some of the churchware in their homes. My great grandfather was one of them. They found the churchware, and he was convicted and given a probationary sentence.
Today, my great grandfather is ranked among those who had been persecuted for their Christian faith. Although he is not likely to be canonised, the thought that he may be praying for me is very inspiring.
For me, my army service became a real turning point. These eighteen months was a difficult time for me, as they were in sharp contrast to the comfortable and loving environment of my home; obeying orders all the time, and giving little time for myself were perhaps the most difficult things to get used to. One positive outcome of these hardships was that they relieved me of my excessive inhibitions, and I came to the Church of the Icon of the Holy Theotokos "Joy of All Who Sorrow", which is next to where I live. I learned about the lay brotherhood at the church, bearing the name of the New Holy Martyr Vladimir Khirasko.
Ever since attending my first meeting, I never stopped admiring the welcoming environment there; they are ready to embrace anyone, sick or healthy, rich or poor. There was not much happening there - people were just getting together to be in company with God and one another. Peace and calm were reigning there; coming to the meeting was like coming home. I grew up in the lay brotherhood of the young parishioners at the Church.
Your first visit to Saint Elisabeth Convent occurred soon after your conversion. As you have said, you were not contemplating at that moment the career of a priest. How did you decide to become enrolled in a seminary and to seek ordination?
Going to university was a popular career choice when I returned from the army, as it still is at present. I was not sure if I should follow the popular trend. I was asking myself, "Why do I need the education, what difference would it make to my life?" Despite my doubts, I ended up going and graduating with a diploma in economics and enrolling in a seminary, where I am still a full-time masters student. Altogether, I have been at school for over eight years. I found that learnedness can be a source of temptation - emphasis on intellectual development can lead to overconfidence and self-aggrandisement, and consequently, to numbness of one's heart and spirit. It is important to recognise and be alert to such risks, and not let them become a reality.
After my military service, I worked in a secular job for seven years. All of that time, I was struggling with the thought of enrolling in a seminary and becoming a priest. It took me a long time to make up my mind. I was overwhelmed with awe and anticipation. Ultimately, I came to realise that the salvation of my immortal soul is not a priority of life in a secular world, which is governed by its own set of plans.
I was also influenced by the scriptural parable about a man and the talents given to him by God. It touched the strings of my heart, and it was keeping me awake at night. What is God had called upon me to realise a talent that He had sent, and I am hiding it in the sand instead? How will I answer for that? These were the kinds of thoughts that motivated me to apply and become enrolled in the seminary at age 27. It was not easy to be a full-time student among yesterday's secondary school leavers, whose life experience and attitudes to faith and the Church were very different. My marriage to my wife after two years of my study at the seminary was highly providential, and I continued as a part-time student.
I was working in a secular job to support the family. I spent two months working as a driver at a monastery. I would get up at 4.40, drive for three hours, and help the monastic sisters. I liked it very much, but it was a very tight schedule.
Tell us about the time when you were ordained and assigned to your first parish in a village
I came to the decision to seek ordination and start my service to God as a priest. I was welcomed and ordained by the Bishop Veniamin of Borisov and Maryina Gorka. I was assigned to a newly opened village church halfway between Minsk and Mogilev. We spent some time to put things in order and to organise the worship services.
As I said to my wife in the beginning, "There will be a church and a parish, we are going to have Christian community and family. These were the intentions with which we approached the people who knew almost nothing about the Church. The Church had existed for a long time, but it was closed down before the war and burned down during it. Some were going to church in Minsk on church holidays, many did not know what a church father did and what his blessing meant. Some were finding it strange to ask for a blessing from a priest who was twice as young as them.
We were setting up the church, doing the paperwork and getting the necessary church ware (it was donated to the church by a monastic). We were looking forward to starting the worship services. The long-awaited first liturgy started, but very few people took part in the sacraments. Coming from a large parish in Minsk city, I found this very unusual. The only way forward was to explain to people the meaning of the sacraments with great patience, warmth and love. This is the surest way to reach out to their hearts and minds.
How did you become a priest at the Convent of Saint Elisabeth?
In 2002, I asked Father Andrey to be my spiritual father. I had listened to all of his talks, and they contributed a lot to my growth in faith and in the spirit. As we were having difficulty finding a place to live, I approached Father Andrey and asked him for his prayers. He offered me, unexpectedly, to join the clergy of Saint Elisabeth Convent, and one of its clergymen had left to peach in Bulgaria. I accepted the offer immediately. - Serving at a convent was a very welcome change.
My wife likes it here too. She graduated from a religious school as a precentor. We made a point of celebrating all the occasional offices together. Eventually, God sent us a child, and then another, so my wife os staying at home. Staying at home and praying it is not simple, and one needs strength and perseverance to persist on one's service to God.
From the times when I was a member of the lay brotherhood of the Holy Martyr Vladimir, I remember many people who stopped going to church when they married and had children. One gets to hear many excuses for this: looking after the children, spending time with the husband, or too much work. It is sad to see how easily we may lose our concentration when we encounter some obstacle in our lives. Staying on track when our circumstances change is one of the many arts that we have to learn.
How do you see the mission of your service to God and people as a priest?
I always wanted to help people, and my experience of going to church but not having enough guardianship strengthened me in my desire. It was not always easy to have a private talk with father Andrey, even when I wanted to get some guidance. I realised very well then that the priests were very busy doing their obedience, and they were working very hard. My own experience of spiritual rambling and searching for answers inspired in me the desire to help others, to the best of my knowledge and abilities, to overcome doubts and uncertainty.
When I was ordained at the Lyady Monastery, I was filled with a lot of zeal to preach. However, one is unlikely to leave an imprint in this world unless one learns to live on prayer. One may continue to preach and write texts on the Internet, but there is very one can do without the spirit at heard. Acquiring the Holy Spirit is a worthy goal.
I remember having a chat with a very capable, intelligent and sceptically minded person. He told me that monastics were weak people. I responded: "The Convent is aiding the brothers at the farmstead. Nobody else cares for many of them. How could it be possible for a weak person to give guidance for the frail? He could not give a plausible answer to this argument. I then spoke to him about God and about the church. He did not say anything. I thought I had convinced him. When I came to work on the next day (we were working together with that person then), I thought I had convinced him enough to bring him to church. - I was wrong. The message reached his mind, but not his heart. I did not succeed in helping him open up to the grace of God.
I would wish myself to have great courage. At times, it may seem to us that we have hit a brick wall - after having worked so hard to become a priest or a monastic one finds that one no longer has the zeal and the love for God that one used to have in earlier years. Burnout is also an experience sent to us by the Lord, and we should approach it as another life challenge. It is sent to us so we learn not to fear or think that it is the end of our lives. When the old vegetation is destroyed by a fire, it makes room for new plants to grow. We should learn to overcome our fears in our lives and live in the hope and anticipation of our glory in heaven.
The clergy of St Elisabeth Convent share their views on what it means to have a relationship with God, how it changes our lives and leads us to our salvation. These insights were taken from the sermons given by them at different times.