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At the Call of the Heart (interview with Samuel Milko)

«Печерський Благовісник»

002Leave everything and come to the Lavra, overcoming doubts and misunderstandings of nthe loved ones, but how one can explain to them that here and now something important is happening not only for the Lavra but, in general, for the whole Orthodoxy, that, wherever you are, whatever you do, your thoughts are still at the Lavra gates unable to resist this impulse of the soul and heart. Thousand-kilometer distances, moving to another country, which is already dangerous due to martial law, is not an obstacle at all.

This is the path of Dominik (Samuel) Milko, a man with a surprisingly broad map of his path in Orthodoxy: he was born in Czechoslovakia, baptized in Georgia, started churching in Switzerland, and now he defends and advocates his faith here in Kyiv.

Samuel, please tell me how you learned about what is happening here because you can hardly find out about religious oppression in our country from the Swiss mass media?

As an Orthodox Christian, I try to stay aware of everything that happens in the nOrthodox world. Moreover, we have many refugees in our parish in Basel, including those from Ukraine.

Tell us about your parish and Orthodoxy in Basel in general.

This is an outstanding parish. It is already 87 years old: a tiny, cozy temple in honor of St. Nicholas. Once it was visited by St. John of Shanghai. In the 1990s, many Serbs from the ncountries of the former Yugoslavia moved to Switzerland. The Serbian community in Basel is therefore one of the strongest. At the same time, the Romanian and Greek churches are nearby, so Orthodoxy in Basel is gradually strengthening. In general, in Switzerland, our faith is increasingly arousing a keen interest so that not only refugees but also the nationals accept Orthodoxy: not in large quantities, but accept.

What brought you end to this community?

It happened six years ago. One hermit monk, with whom I pursued an occupation in Georgia in summer 2017, blessed me not to return to my homeland and start a new life in another country. That’s how the circumstances came about. I love my homeland and I was very worried, but the monk reassured me, saying, “Go, live with God, find the Church, stick to it, and everything will be fine because with Christ, even in hell, it’s good.” So I did. I can say that in this parish in Basel, I got churched, and deeply imbued with Orthodoxy. I remember the first time I read from the Apostle Jacob that “faith without deeds is dead” (Jacob 2:26), and with a smile, I thought to myself: how does this Apostle know my thoughts? Now I have been in the Orthodoxy long enough to feel the Resurrection of Christ and that without Him, I would not have been able to continue on my path in life. I can’t imagine a Sunday without attending Church and receiving the Holy Sacraments of Christ.

How do you explain such a change for yourself, and who of the saints helps you the most?

Christ gave me new life. Christ resurrected me, at least spiritually and maybe even not once physically. He gave meaning to my life, and I asked God to empower me, at least to a little extent, to reciprocate this. I want nothing more for myself than to serve Him and the holy Orthodoxy.

When it comes to help of the saints, Apostle Paul said these words: “You are to imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 4:16), and our teachers say to imitate the saints. One of the patrons of my path of resurrection is venerable Moses Murin. I got acquainted with his life path about three years ago in Georgia.

After all, I was baptized in Georgia in 2013; in Baptism, I received the name Samuel. And at least once a year, I try to visit the Georgian monks I know.

Once they told me: “Calm down,” he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13), read the life of St. Moses Murin. So when I read about his life, then I realized this is my patron. And even now, I re-read about his life, especially when faced with difficulties. It inspires and gives strength.

How did your parents react to your choice and such a significant change in life?

I was born into an atheistic family. My mom and dad are wonderful people. And my mother was very worried about me. Last year, in summer, she converted to Orthodoxy. And it helps me a lot along the way. Dad is however more pragmatic, although I have closer contact with him. We love each other very much; we stay always in touch and sometimes talk about faith and God. That said, I don’t want to force anyone to impose my beliefs – I love him as he is.

It’s great. Let’s move on to today’s events. Many people know what is happening here, sympathize, worry, and support, but this is not enough for some, so they want to be here. In your case, what is it, the call of the heart?

Yes, but I have no doubt this is also the call of the Lord Himself.

Were there any doubts? After all, a feeling comes but then you wake up, as it is said, with a bright head, and everything planned is postponed. Many stay because of such a fluctuation: from evening desire to morning cooling.

I have been thinking for a long time about moving to an Orthodox country and living with the Orthodox people. I did not know about Lavra then. I want to get closer to theology, to enter
the seminary. And I even told myself that I would finish only the second academic year in
Switzerland, where I studied as a nurse, and then I would go. However it was best to be here earlier, not six months later, not after the end of the semester. I learned there was a danger of
capture on March 29th, and on 28th, I have already been here.

How long did it take from the moment the thought came to arrive the Lavra to the purchase of a ticket? Buying a ticket is some point of no return.

I remember the sermon of our ruling bishop, Bishop Irenaeus of London and Western Europe like it happens now. He came to us on Thursday, we all had an unction, and after that, he asked us to support the brethren of the Kyiv-Caves Lavra according to our strength and capabilities. His appeal defined my choice.

The only thing left to do was get the job done. After all, at the time of my studying, I was also caring for those suffering from addiction: drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill. It was necessary to explain everything to the mentor at work. We talked for more than an hour, and she supported me. On Saturday morning, I still worked my shift. After that, I got on the train.

I passed through Munich, where there is a monastery in honor of St. Job of Pochaiv. I wanted to take a blessing from His Eminence Mark, but unfortunately, he was in Jerusalem back then. I spoke to Hieromonk Cornelius and Monk George, and they admonished me with the words: “Whatever happens, be with Christ .”

On the way from Munich, I passed by my native Bratislava. It was essential for me to receive the blessing of my parents. Mom understands everything and, in the good sense is proud of my choice. She said: “Son, it’s your choice, be with God.” My grandmother also approved of my decision, although she remains an unbeliever. I stayed with my parents for another night, and as early as 5 in the morning, I was on the train from Mukachevo to Kyiv.

What impression did the Lavra make on you?

My idea of monasticism has been formed in the mountain hermitages of Georgia. There I got used to simple and even harsh circumstances. And when I got here, I was shocked by such majestic temples and monastic buildings. What splendor, beauty, and space! As if it were not a monastery but a whole city. Nevertheless, the soul felt where I was …

I approached the gates of the Lavra. And the first person I met was a beggar. I asked him,
“Please tell me, I would like to find a dean .” He says: “Let me take you.” And he took me straight to the Vicegerent”s house.

Before that, I knew about His Eminence Pavel only from the Internet and in a terrible light, so I was a little afraid of meeting him. I thought he could take a staff and… but what happened was surprising. I went up to him and took a blessing. He greeted me and sat next to me. I looked into his eyes and felt safe. I felt it is good here, and we started a conversation.

I was afraid of this man, about whom I only heard the bad words … in his eyes was Christ.
I felt it strongly then. We continued the conversation, and he communicated with me very carefully. I received gratitude for coming and was assured of the respect of such a step. And I wanted to show my church documents to prove who I am, but at that moment, I realized that all my church documents remained in Switzerland (in the apartment on the table), and only the “civil” ones were with me. Father accepted me as a stranger; he very sensitively asked for forgiveness so that I would forgive him that he did not know me so that I would understand now is a difficult time, and asked me to contact the rector of our parish to confirm my identity. And so it happened.

“God bless you,” he said at the end. This was my first conversation at the Lavra.

Still the most exciting thing is that he ordered me to settle in the 58th building. Later, I found out that this was a hierarchs’ hotel. I suffered greatly from the excess amenities because I got ready for an austere and even ascetic environment and desired to be closer to the brethren. Thank God, now I am in the fraternal building and have a very simple and even a little cold cell, but I am glad.

The reality of Orthodoxy is sometimes just the opposite of our ideas often being romantic. What do you think about the divine services in the Lavra?

I remember the first service here. I came to the Exaltation of the Cross Church on Wednesday morning, March 29th. It was midnight, but at that moment, I had a lot of emotions. So I paid little attention to what was happening, although everything was solemn: two choirs, a chanted akathistus, Metropolitan Pavel performed the service. I focused on something other than the beauty of the temple or the singing. I was still filled with emotions and memories of what I had left behind.

After all, many do not know, thinking that I came for some time and will return home soon. But I’ll tell the truth, I have already finished everything there. I terminated the contract with my employer. At school, I keep in touch with everyone, the doors are open there for me, but there is a need for a sacrifice to God here – and all my thoughts were about it. The enemy embarrassed with his reproaches: „”What have you done, come back, there you have everything, and here – nothing …”. It was hard emotionally. So I came to the temple, first of all, to calm down, and the fact that I sacrificed everything I had calmed me down. Although I have my life, it does not mean that I have offered everything I can do. All material resources remained there. Here with me now, there is only love for Switzerland and for people … It would be hard for me to explain everything to them then.

I had to work in secret there, and here, after the service, I immediately contacted them and made a record in German for everyone who knew me there. I tried to explain what was going on here. The European people do not believe such horror can happen, that the authorities persecute the Church of Christ. I asked them for forgiveness, and everyone there, who surrounded me in the last years of my life, reacted to this with understanding and, as if it were “with divine understanding”. At school, at work, classmates, teachers, and people with whom I worked – everyone has a great understanding, which is surprising because most of them are those far from religiosity, but within them, Christ acts in some other way.

If we continue the words of Clement of Alexandria: “To the Jews, the one God gave prophets, and to the Greeks gave philosophers,” we can say that God endowed the Swiss with a caring and attentive attitude toward their neighbors.

Yes, the Swiss are amazing people. They are listening. Although they may not show it emotionally, they listen to you, and now, they understand, even far from being told everything about what is happening here.

What are your impressions of the brethren?

I have already met many monks. I talked to many people and… Yes, we are in a fantastic place. Christ speaks through the eyes of these monks. This is what I felt from the very beginning. Christ is everywhere here. This is true. No extra words are needed here.

Have you already met with our father confessor, Fr. Anthony?

Probably yes, but not in such a way that we could have some long or deep conversation – no. God grants His will, and we’ll get to know each other better.

In fact, even merely being close to our confessor means already a lot. One doesn’t want anything more. This is when everything becomes clear without words, so the conversation may even be superfluous. It is not noticeable, almost always out of sight … His life is like a bird’s song, which cannot be expressed in words, but which you are fascinated by. For me, to find a moment to be close is perhaps the best thing in a relationship with a person, such a silent penetration understanding. These are the people with whom there is something to be quiet about.

My acquaintance with father Gabriel Bunge comes to mind – the Vicegerent of the Exaltation of the Cross Monastery near Lugano. I experienced something similar when I was with him.

photo_2023-05-25_17-21-12Tell me about him.

I met Elder Gabriel more than once. In Switzerland, he is the most experienced monk and confessor, and when there were difficult issues or difficulties arose, I came to him.

Father Gabriel is one of the few I obey and am ready to obey. Him and Bishop Alexander of Vevey from Switzerland, who consecrated me as a reader. And exactly, as you just said about your confessor, when you are nearby, it is precisely this, I do not know your feelings, but my experiences come to my mind; it is when I am near these people that my soul somehow calms down, seems to find a blessed world. It’s hard to convey, but the soul at this time probably feels the fathers’ love for all of us, something indescribable.

Yes, Elder Gabriel has this. He is very spiritual, although so pragmatic. He doesn’t talk much, either, but he’s not afraid to speak up. For us in Switzerland, he is like a picture of perfection. He is already a saint for us.

How many times have you been to him, and how do you get to him?

I usually met with him on Saturday afternoons. He agrees on his term (an agreement to meet at an appointed time. In Germany, terms are assigned everywhere, whether it’s a visit to the doctor or just a meeting with friends – Ed. note). We need to agree in advance and this is very strictly, in German (smiles). He’s a German himself. But the first time I went to him, everything was the same as with Lavra – I did not call anyone but came with a prayer, trusting in the mercy of God. So the first time I got to him, he accepted me, but his first words were: “Next time, you will have to call and agree on a term; I won’t accept you like that again. But I feel like you’re in trouble; let’s talk.” And we talked for three hours.

In personal conversations, some refer to their experience, to the Tradition, others remind of the examples from the classical literature. What does he add to his talks? Is there anything else he recommends to read?

Each meeting at Fr. Gabriel is unique. It always goes differently. He listens very carefully. Sometimes the answer is there right away. Sometimes, after a conversation, he recommends his books, where he explains that, or gives and tells what to read. He likes to talk about saints, likes to talk about icons.

Which of his books is your favorite?

There was such a story. One day I contacted him by phone. He rarely picks up the phone right away. And this time, he raised it as if he were waiting for my call, and in three or four minutes, he explained everything about how to act. I looked up to the heaven and said, “Praise be to Thee, Lord.”

Just a week after our conversation, his book “Spiritual Fatherhood” came to me by mail. And this book has become my favorite. It’s just that in my life, Elder Gabriel appeared like the lightning in a clear sky precisely when it was needed.

We are told that there is no need to regret anything in life. But if there is one thing I regret, I can’t see the Elder more often. Because there is such a possibility. I am very grateful to him for his prayers and everything he has done for me. It feels always nice when I remember the Elder. Christ is Risen, Elder!

Have you met His Beatitude Onuphrius?

Yes and no. I didn’t talk to him personally but I touched him twice and received a blessing. Once, this was when he served a prayer service at the exit from the Lavra on the front lines. The second time at a greeting after the Easter service, he congratulated the brethren and seminary students. Then I presented him with a rosary, which I have made at the relics of the venerables of the Caves.

Do you make prayer ropes? Where did you learn it?

I don’t like praying with prayer ropes as much as I like making them. And the monks in Georgia taught me this and blessed me so that I could do this things.

However, here’s what else I wanted to say about His Beatitude Onuphrius. What I said about Elder Gabriel, about father Alexander, and the soul feels incredible calmness and peace.

That said, in the Lavra, I felt this twice: at the relics of the saints, where I lost contact with the reality, and the second time, when I stood at the prayer service for His Beatitude Onuphrius when I touched his hand and received a blessing. Of course, I would very much like to meet him again, but still, these moments are enough for me to know that he is a saint, and these are not just words.

What surprised you the most during the time you’ve been here?

It was a meeting with Metropolitan Pavel.

And what, perhaps, disappointed?

Nothing at all.

Does the pressure on the Orthodoxy remind you now of what happened to the Church in Soviet times?

We are not yet crucified, nor physically destroyed. I am not a historian or a theologian, but a simple believer, striving for the Lord. However I think the line was more straightforward: faith – disbelief. Faith was destroyed, and unbelief was encouraged. The Bolsheviks showed you vivid and clear what would happen if you chose faith.

Now semitones have been added. It got more and more confusing; it got much worse. Instead of disbelief, a caricature of faith appeared, and the choice is not between belief and disbelief but between faith and fake faith. Everything happens as it should. People don’t die, but the human soul does. These may be harsh words now, but it is like a gun is pointed at you, and a pit is behind you – choose whether you will serve the OCU or find yourself in a pit.

Last I also wanted to ask you about the incident when a provocateur with a Ukrainian flag approached you. Of course, he does not understand that the Church of Christ is above all nationalities, that the Christians have their own “flag”, the gonfalons, and what to look for in the Church other than Christ, repeating the words of Fr. Alexander Schmeman, this means – to look for yourself and your own (language, traditions) again, and inevitably “fall into madness,” into perversion and, in the end, into self-destruction. However, tell me how it was.

I met him at the corner of the hotel building 54. I didn’t know what kind of person he was. How aggressive is he? And for the first time, I looked at the ground. But after two or three phrases, I felt it was not so scary; I smiled a little at that moment, raised my eyes, and looked into his face, and there I saw something familiar.

For the last three years, as I said, I have been working with drug addicts. His voice calmed me down. I realized that not everything is so scary. I then looked into his eyes, and everything became not so frightening; he had a chance; he was not hopeless. He may change. I feel that way, honestly. So it will be. He is not hopeless. He currently has other things in front overshadowing his eyes. I have seen this more than once. I am familiar with this. Then I had no problem communicating with him. There is a chance that his soul will still be resurrected.

What else did you take from your experience of working with addicts in Switzerland?

All those dependent people with whom I worked have a beautiful souls. Theirs is cleaner and more childlike. When you see an addict who became clear, who’s starting to see the light that he have not seen before, you see his soul coming to life. Seems such a terrible path leads to the Lord’s commandment, “Be like children” (Matt. 18:3). There are many psychotherapeutic steps that can be added to this, but they are not needed now. But he has a chance. This process is lengthy,and maybe venerable Moses Murin will help him.

Let’s hope so and try sincerely to pray for such people. Thank you.

Interviewed by hierodeacon Longin (Zadorozhny)

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