MISSIONARY WORK IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD
Archimandrite Gabriel (Vuckovic), Abbot of the monastery Lepavina, is known as “the Internet cleric”, who understood the importance of modern technology in spreading the word of God, in missionary work. In his interview for radio “Slovo Ljubve”, while speaking about missionary work over the Internet, he explains that at the beginning it was difficult, especially because he, as the Athonite monk, felt hostility toward computers. However, it is easier to overcome all obstacles when things are done with blessing and love. At the beginning, let’s say that father Gabriel became monk as a young boy. He recently celebrated fifty years of his monastic life. He has spent thirteen years on the Mount Athos. He lived in monasteries in Serbia and Montenegro. Today, he is the Abbot of the Serbian Orthodox monastery Lepavina in Croatia. With the blessing of Metropolitan John, he started the Internet missionary work, and he is one of the most popular virtual spiritual fathers of our church today.
“Spiritual pamphlet” – monastery Lepavina
“It all started with the blessing of His Eminence, Metropolitan John, who saw how the computers were used for preaching the word of God in the West. It was the Metropolitan’s request to start to use computers in the monastery Lepavina, for spiritual preaching and spreading the word of God. Two years passed, but I could not overcome such barrier within myself, because technology was the barrier, the obstacle for me. And it was until a phone conversation with Academic and Professor Dimitri Stefanovic, who helped me to understand the importance of using computers in interpersonal communication. When I finally accepted the technological progress, I advised father Basil (brother Vojislav at the time) to acquire the computer knowledge and he had learned and mastered computer technology on his own. We started publishing Spiritual pamphlet, which we distributed to parishioners when we went to bless parishioners’ houses for Epiphany,” Archimandrite Gabriel recalls the beginning of the successful Internet career.
THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE
In the year of 1997, the idea of publishing monastery journal was born. It modeled the journal “Monastic path,” for which publication I got blessing in monastery Chilandariou. First issue of monastery journals was published, but at that time there were not technological recources to continue publications as the printer broke. It was a small hand-operated printer. So after the first issue “Monastic path” went to oblivion. In 1997, we got opportunity to publish monastery journal “”The Way, the Truth and the Life” here, in Lepavina. We bought a copy machine and we made fifty copies of the first journal’s issue. That journal was well received; there were many interested people and the number of following issues increased to three hundred. Then, the journal was filed in the Central Bureau for cataloging. The journal was published six times in a year and its circulation was about two thousand copies. The last journal was released as a double issue, before appearance of my illness, in 2006. It had 4000 copies. We managed to cover printing and postage costs. During journal’s publications, I started to get interested in computer technology. I was taught by Nenad Badovinac, who at that time was studying IT,” said Archimandrite Gabriel. Everyone who got opportunity to read “The Way, the Truth and the Life” remembers this journal by good and meaningful texts, great illustrations; it reflected freshness, joy and love.
MISSIONARY WORK AND CONTEMPORARY WORLD
Journal is not published any more, but Archimandrite Gabriel designed monastery website. He says that everyone who decides to open that site must consider with which aim and for what purpose he or she is opening it.
“Since that is monastery website, its purpose is to spread and to proclaim the word of God. We took in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who commanded to His disciples, the Holy Apostles and their followers: “Go into the entire world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” The beginning of the monasticism is related to the monasteries in deserts, but monks were always witnesses of God’s word in the world. The following words, uttered by the Savior, are important for all times: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Our web site has missionary and universal character, which means articles are published in various languages. In addition to our Serbian language, which in itself implies, there are Orthodox texts written in Russian, English, German, French, and Greek languages. All those languages are represented on our website. Even more, the monastery website is ranked as a missionary, because it is included in Orthodox Church blog “Orthodox Mission”, which is intended for Greeks all over the world, on which a special link for the Radio Blagovesti exists. On that blog, Radio Blagovesti stays on the eleventh place on the rang list among all other Orthodox radio programs, because we are less active lately, but before, it was in the fifth place. On this same blog, monastery Lepavina is on the thenth place among sixteen links. And the blog about Mount Athos has a link to our site, where, in the category of non Athonite monasteries, it is in the first place.
Of course, our site belongs to Diocese of Zagreb and Ljubljana, to Serbian Orthodox Church, and exists with the blessing of His Eminence, Metropolitan John, but at the same time, it is universal, since the Creed in the ninth expose confesses (I believe) “in the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, on the earth, as well as on the Heaven. On earth our Patriarchs are heads of local Orthodox Churches, with their bishops, priests, monks and all faithful, who were baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” said Archimandrite Gabriel.
AMOL FROM INDIA
Archimandrite Gabriel explains the way monastery website was born, his missionary character and in a practical way shows that words with no deeds are dead.
“Our site does not have local boundaries. Our internet Radio Blagovesti can be heard in all parts of the world. Here is one interesting example. Everything which is broadcasted on the radio is saved in archive, and can be listened again at any time. We were contacted by a Hindu, from India. He wrote in English and said that one morning he went to his work and in his pocket he had some electronic device. I do not know what kind of device it was, but he found internet radio Blagovesti on it. At the beginning of the program, I read the Akathist to the Holy Theotokos. He listened and it had a beneficial effect on him. In that letter he said: “I did not understand a word, but within my heart and soul I felt something beautiful, something that brought some indescribable peace.” He wrote that when he came to the workplace, colleagues noticed a change in him. They felt calmness; he was not nervous because of the morning rush; during which everyone becomes tense because no one knows if they will arrive to work at time. He did not understand anything but he received a peace from the words of prayer he heard. Well, that’s an example of spiritual benefit through these modern technologies, primarily Internet,” testifies in his story Archimandrite Gabriel, about the importance of modern technology, which helps in spreading the word of God.
GOD IS LOVE
“Technology can be used for good, to spread the word of God, for missionary work. The word of God should be preached with love, because God is love. The truth can never be testified if we hate those who are not like us; we need to witness those things we preach. We need to testify the truth of faith with love, to testify Orthodoxy, because we are Orthodox. We need to keep the dogmas of Holy Fathers, which they have left us. Many of them were killed for the faith, as St. Maxim the Confessor, St Mark of Ephesus, and many other confessors of faith, martyrs and Great martyrs. Holy, righteous Alexei Matchev, the Russian Saint, once said that time has come when anchorites and great shimonks need to come out from their peshteras (hidden cells) and go to the people. He thought that the imperative for Christian is to meet all the commandments that the church has prescribed. But, he thought like that because of love, which overcomes a multitude of sins, something can be violated, if it is not harmful for the soul. It is a serious crime when somebody, with his formal attitude provokes a scandal, or drives away someone from the Holy Church,” said father Alexei.
In words of this spiritual Sheppard, we found the guide, who advised monks to leave their hermitages and caves, to come out, to help and to guide people - those who are weak in faith not to give up, and those who are strong to be even stronger,” said Archimandrite Gabriel. On question how people accepted him in the virtual space, he responds:” Our people say. “Every miracle in three days.” Same can be said for my appearance on the Internet, so they called me a virtual cleric or cyber cleric. Some have accepted me with approval and good wishes, some with astonishment, but some with ridicule. Serious people mostly showed surprise, and I think those who ridiculed were little envious. I would like to quote a support that I received from the Bishop Porphyrius, who pointed out my activity, even in the public, as a commentator during the live-cast of the Holy Liturgy in the Cathedral church, in which is enthroned Patriarch Irineus. That public support for my work and effort gave me even more will, and I think that it may be stimulus to other fathers to embrace technological advances and to use them in spreading the Orthodox faith,” says archimandrite Gabriel.
Speaking of father Gabriel, Bishop Porphyrius said: “Archimandrite Gabriel has been a Chilandariou monk for a long time, he was monk in Montenegro, and now he lives in monastery Lepavina in Croatia. This monastery is actually one prayerful gathering and many people from all over the world come for spiritual strengthening to the monastery Lepavina and seek spiritual advices from father Gabriel. It is interesting that he uses the Internet since it emerged and in that way he communicates with thousands of people from all over the world, and responds to spiritual matters and spiritual problems of many people,” said bishop Porphyrius concluding that church is willing to use new technologies, because it is always in the “actual time.”
NOW AND THEN
“Sometimes I think how technical possibility of communication between people progressed in the last 50 years. When I was a boy, we, children from the village, played phone. We took the box of the shoe polish, pierced the bottom of the box in the middle and through that hole we inserted one end of the ten feet long wire; the other part of the wire we inserted in the other part of the box and we standed apart from one another as much as the cord was long. So as we talked over the phone and we were able to hear each other even though it was a rope.
When I came to the monastery Chilandariou in 1971, I got obedience to work in the monastery administration office, to help elders with administration and guests, to receive calls on the phone. But that was a phone with which you can talk only between monasteries, monastery guest house in Karyes, it needed to be manually rotated and had a line only with one phone in Karyes. There was no phone network, it happened later. Today, the most modern technology came to the Mount Athos too. I came across a text in the daily newspaper with the following headline: “The monks with the WiMax on the Holy Mountain.” It is written that the Greek telecommunication company OTE has built six base stations on Mount Athos, which will allow you to connect with the center of the monastic republic, Karyes, with all twenty monasteries as well as important monastic villages (those villages refer to monastic skits and kellies). WiMax is wireless network that works on the solar energy.
WiMax on mount Athos
Stations were built in inaccessible places, and they have been resistant to strong winds of Mount Athos, which are not rare. They completely covered the entire Athonite peninsula, according to Religious Intelligence Agency. Several monasteries already connected to the network and have internet connection. They are also part of the project, which is supposed to archive electronically the most important manuscripts, frescoes and icons of the Athonite monasteries. Part of this material, ten percent, will be available electronically to the general public and experts as well as participating monasteries. Currently, according to this Agency, a small number of 1400 Athonite monks know how to use internet. In the future, it will be requirement that every monastery has at least few monks who are trained to use Internet. Patriarchate of Constantinople, under whose ecclesiastical jurisdictions is Athos, wants to have better electronic communication with monasteries. Messages usually were sent through letters.
Monk with WiMAX on the Mount Athos
Therefore, it is clear that the most modern technology arrived even to the Mount Athos. Entire Mount Athos has a network; six towers are set in the hidden places, which are not visible. This is not completely functional, because it runs on solar energy and not on electricity. Monasteries have computers now, and that is not something unusual and strange. On one blog, on the Holy Mount, I saw the picture; taken on the boat to Daphne that one monk is holding a laptop on his lap and looking at something. Maybe that monk was not from Athos, it seemed to me that he was going on the pilgrimage to the Mount Athos, but anyway, it is characteristic of contemporary world,” father Gabriel supports his story of prevalence of the Internet and its importance in the modern world.
FACEBOOK FRIENDS AND SPIRITUAL CHILDREN
A numerous people with whom Archimandrite Gabriel communicates daily often ask him if they are his Facebook friends or his spiritual children and is there a difference between them.
“When we talk about relationship between spiritual children and spiritual father, I can say that there are more relationships. The first relationship is with spiritual children who are the brotherhood of the monastery, about whom the Abbot of the monastery cares; the second relationship is with spiritual children who live in world, but they often confess and obey their elder and third relationship is with my Facebook friends, who follow my spiritual and missionary work on the Internet. Therefore, research and practice are different things, and it depends in which place you are and in which role. For example, I as a cleric have a Facebook profile as a public figure and as such, I have no limits, all existing people on my profile are my friends, which is terminology used to describe one relationship on the Facebook. On Facebook, I give them spiritual topics on which they need to write their comments. I choose interesting topics, current events from the world, what comes to us as a warning to turn toward God and save our souls. All bad things that are happening to us are because of our sins, because of our failure to fulfill Ten Commandments. I accept all who ask my friendship because they were sent to me by God’s will, as Holy righteous Alexei Mechev said. All people that we encounter in life are sent by Lord, according to his will.
I feel obligation to profess. By using new technologies I can preach on all continents, to individuals, entering into every house regardless where we are on the planet. I do not care whether I profess to one or ten people, or a hundred. Of course, if there is more people, it would be a greater success of the sermon. With the blessing of the Metropolitan John, we broadcast radio Blagovesti over the Interenet every night from 9PM to 10PM. Then, I read Akathist to Holy Theotokos; I choose spiritual music, and read spiritual texts. Daily statistics show that it is followed by 130 to 150 computers; according to the calculations used in the media, three people are near the computer at the moment of broadcasting. So, according to this calculation, about five hundred people listen to our radio Blagovesti every night. I have 1,308 contacts on the Skype. Realizing the advantage of the internet missionary work, I opened my Facebook profile where I have 5001 people and 1344 people I cannot accept because of limitation. That is why I later opened Facebook profile as a public figure, with 6324 contacts. This number is increasing daily because there is no restriction. Contact with those people is their first step toward church and we sincerely hope that those same people will approach liturgical gathering,” say Archimandrite Gabriel.
Statistics show that father Gabriel’s profile are visited by young people between 25 and 34 year of age, they made 34 percent of visitors of whom twenty percent are women and fourteen percent are men. And it is statistics that helps father Gabriel to select the topics for discussion, because he sees which topics are mostly visited and most interesting.
So for the research topic you mentioned that it was 25.000 visitors, which is the highest recently.During the past few days there were many who were interested in spiritual topics, as well as for those which are about mental and bodily diseases. Some of these upcoming titles, which I published, are: “Mentally sick more than 300,000 people,” this is the text from daily newspaper “Glas Javnosti”. On this text 67 of my Facebook friends left their comments, then “Even though doctors are skeptical, there are many healed by faith,” said the doctor and the priest Alexsandar Avdeichev. Text “About the differences between mental and spiritual disease” also was highly attended. There are also spiritual topics, and recently there has been interesting topic about movement of St Nikolai Velimirovich which is called “Christian prayer movement”, and this text was associated with the previous post referring to the elder Thaddeus. It was at the gathering in Krnjevo that elder Thaddeus first began to preach to faithful people on various spiritual topics and to give answers to their numerous questions. One text was taken from the site of Orthodox parish in Switzerland, about this movement in Zurich, which formed in 2001, with my blessing. At that time, I as a spiritual father, with the blessing of His Eminence Bishop Constantine, was going to Zurich to confess clergy of the diocese of central Europe, so I gave spiritual support to the faithful of that community. They still exist and act and have their feast day in the fifth week of the Great Lent, dedicated to St Mary of Egypt,” says Archimandrite Gabriel.
CHRISTIAN PRAYER MOVEMENT AND VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
To our question if we can compare the Christian prayer movement with today’s virtual community, our interviewee replied:
In one sense, we can, but then we should say something about differences between Christian prayer movement and virtual communities on the Orthodox websites. Pious who belong to this movement were used to meet in person, at various places, usually in monasteries and parish churches. Then with faith and prayer, they would sing spiritual songs and with spiritual sermons they celebrated the name of God. Such meetings occurred after vespers and dinner and lengthened through entire night. In the morning they would continue to the Holy Liturgy and with the communion of all present and after the trapeze they would go to their homes. Many people who belonged to this movement ended up in the monasteries as monks or nuns. Today, virtual communities and spiritual gatherings over the internet do not have that liturgical character and prayer, but solely missionary character. There is familiarization with the truth of faith or determination in religious knowledge, exchange of experiences and opinions on certain spiritual topics. However, such virtual gathering can lead to real meetings, in church or some holy place. Example of this is our monastery Lepavina, in which many Facebook friends came to personally venerate the miraculous working icon of the Holy Theotokos of Lepavina, they were here, on the Holy Liturgy and communed with the Holy Mysteries. Some of them have been here, they met each other and became real friends,” says Archimandrite Gabriel.
People who follow work of Archimandrite Gabriel on the Internet, participate in discussions on various topics, those who are seeking advices and spiritual consolation sometimes feel that archimandrite Gabriel is their spiritual father. But it is not so. Archimandrite Gabriel explains why:
“Spiritual father is a priest or a monk who helps a person and guides him in his spiritual life, but also in his Christian life in general. Spiritual leadership has always held an important role in Orthodox Christianity as indicated Lives of Saints and the Holy Scripture. This is necessary to all of us because we are all called to virtue and union with Christ.
This is good question that you asked, on this subject I could tell a lot from my own spiritual practice. I had obedience to confess priests in some parishes of our diocese, with the invitation of Bishops from those Dioceses. I will tell in which dioceses I was invited to confess clergy. It is a practice that once a year clergy gathers and confess to the spiritual father confessor whom Bishop called in accordance with clergy. So I confessed the following dioceses: Diocese of Zagreb and Ljubljana, it has been twenty years now, than Diocese of Dalmatia for four years before this war, the diocese of central Europe with the Bishop Constantine also four years in a row, the diocese of the Slavonia while there was Bishop Lucian for two years. In addition, I confess believers who wanted to confess in this occasion. It was my obedience, and it is still actual in our diocese of Zagreb and Ljubljana. Why do I say this? From my own experience I can say the clergy of each eparchy has their spiritual father for one day in a year. After that, he stops to be spiritual father, until next year. For me, it looks like one-year “spiritual examination”, as it is practice in the West that all employees in companies or government agencies annually have medical checkup, in order to see if their employees are healthy. The employee rceives report from the doctor to show to their employer, but things confessor hears on the confession stay as a secret, it is not revealed to anyone. Even father confessor alone, especially if he confesses often, does not keep in his mind what somebody told him on the confession.
I will tell a little about spiritual practice in the Greek Orthodox Church regarding spiritual service and obedience. Every episcopate has one clergy, who is designed by Bishop, competent and not younger than 40, who for the entire year visits clergy and people, and confess those who need confession. He has only this obedience – to confess clergy and people. According to the monastic practice spiritual father of monastic brotherhood is Abbot of the monastery or Abbot himself sets an assistant, a monk who is full of virtues, at age not younger than 40, who is hieromonk and he confesses entire brotherhood. I was at the monastery Chilandariou for 13 years and at that time elder Nicanor was spiritual father of brotherhood. He was formally appointed by the Protate to be spiritual father of the brotherhood and pilgrims who came to the monastery and expressed desire to confess.
Patriarch Kirill with his Spiritual father, elder Elijah
Here is example from the Russian church. Present Russian Patriarch Kirill has spiritual father, elder Elijah, who lived in the Optina desert, and before that he lived for many years in the monastery of St. Panteleimon, on the Holy Mount. After he was elected as a Patriarch of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill brought him to the patriarchate as his spiritual father from whom he obtains advices in relation only to spiritual matters of the church. Patriarch Kirill considers his spiritual experience and reasoning, and he still confesses to his spiritual father.
Finally, concerning myself and those who turn to me for spiritual advice, I can give them spiritual advice, but I do not become strictly their spiritual father. I can give them advice, appropriate and for their spiritual benefit, but it’s up to them if they will accept my advice or not. Here is how St. Alexei Mechev advised those who approached him for spiritual advice, according to the testimony of his spiritual child: “If we asked bachushka for advice, he directly answered on our questions. But most often, he would tell a story from his own experience that would answer our questions. He did not impose his will to his spiritual children. And when we asked him for blessing, he would generally tell his opinion. And if that one would stay to his own opinion, citing evidence that allegedly contradicted bachushka’s advice, he agreed and blessed, but an opinion, which was only once properly expressed, he would say only once.”
I never try to impose my own advice, that things must be just like that, but let everyone act according to his own conscience. Today, there are so many spiritual books written by holy fathers and pious ascetics. If someone wants to hear advice from me and think that it would be to his spiritual benefit, I recommend purchasing my two books of “Spiritual conversations.” They assembled lot of spiritual conversations which I conducted over the Skype and Facebook and everyone can find an example, a situation in which he can find himself and which can be of spiritual benefit to him,” explained in detail Archimandrite Gabriel (Vuckovic), Abbot of the monastery Lepavina in the interview with the radio “Slovo Ljubve.”
Written by: Ljiljana Sinđelić Nikolić
Translated from Serbian by prof Bojana Popović