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13. Archpriest Valentin
Russia's Catacomb Saints
A PREACHER OF HESYCHASM IN THE WORLD
Commemorated January 26 (†1936?)
The spiritual life is such a
realm into which the wisdom
of this world does not penetrate.
Saint Theophan the Recluse
Unfortunately very little is known to us about this zealous Church teacher of unadulterated, mystical Orthodoxy in our modern times. Whatever little we do know about him comes from his liberal contemporaries, who as a rule did not deign to recognize the uniqueness and uniformity of patristic philosophy, which to him constituted the very essence of life. In this respect he was their enemy, one whom they could not understand - evidently because of his genuine conversion experience. The divinely-revealed teaching of God and man, preserved throughout the centuries and enriched within the saving enclosure of the Orthodox Church, is a limitless ocean of wisdom and should be approached with fear and trembling so as not to soil any aspect of it through our sinfulness and pride. It can in no way be improved upon by the daring hand of our intellectual worldliness. Fr. Valentin's inquisitive mind was in awe and wonder before the accessible reality of deification. In this respect he was not of this world, but remained in the world as a pastor who guided people to the realm of sobriety, hesychasm, and other worldliness. And when a crucial test came, in the form of Sergianism, he immediately discerned the falseness of it and at once publicly rejected it by issuing his own "Separation from Metropolitan Sergius," thereby defending the patristic world-view. His two available short works, Monasticism in the World (1921) and Against General Confession (1926), give us enough evidence of his importance as a modern apostle of unadulterated Orthodoxy in a time of rising apostasy.
From the few details of Archpriest Valentin's biography one can surmise that he came from an aristocratic Polish family, received a good education, and was an extremely talented and impressive young man. His large eyes looked upon the world with seriousness. At the age of 15 he could already debate Kant with professional philosophers, and soon he started a crusade against the vices of society, in which he advocated a ruthless mortification of the flesh. His talks produced a striking impression. He published at least two magazines ("Problems of Religion" and "Living Life") dealing with Christian problems in a society whose intellectual leaders were luring Orthodox Christians through foreign tastes and fashions away from Christ. In 1905 he left Moscow for St. Petersburg in order to find supporters for a "Christian Brotherhood of Struggle." He published a book called Antichrist, which had a considerable success. He ardently defended monasticism against the decadent free-thinkers of his time who were thinly clothed in conservative Orthodoxy. This led him to visit the monk-ascetics of the Caucasus, and he later incorporated his impressions of these desert-dwellers in his book, The Heavenly Citizens or My Travels Among the Anchorites of the Caucasus Mountains (Moscow, 1915).
After the Revolution he married and was ordained a priest; he was the head priest in a Moscow church known as "St. Nicholas the Big Cross" on St. Elias St. There in the 1920's he attracted a large congregation by his eloquent sermons, which were eagerly received as rich food in the midst of the general scarcity of genuine Orthodox spirituality in Russia at this time. He went to the Optina Monastery and became the spiritual son of Elder Anatole, to whom he dedicated his masterpiece, Six Readings on the Mystery of Confession and its History in which he dealt a blow to the practice of general confession which had become fashionable among the liberal clergy of his day.
Father Valentin was an ardent proponent of the frequent usage of the Jesus Prayer. He held that monastic discipline in our day of universal lukewarmness among Christians was not only possible but imperative in order to preserve the "salt of the earth," i.e. the Orthodox truths, in the hearts of men who are being cunningly attacked by the spirit of secularization. With this in mind, he conducted a series of talks (from 1921-1926) using the strictly monastic teaching of the Ladder of St. John Climacus, where he strove to apply it to ordinary daily life in the contemporary modern world which had become actually hostile to Christianity.
One of Archpriest Valentin's friends, S.I. Fudel, gives us a brief insight into the spiritual world of this otherworldy pastor:
"Father Valentin Sventitsky on one hand seemed to be a regular priest with a family, and on the other an experienced teacher of continuous prayer. It is a remarkable fact that even in 1925 in the city of Moscow, this man managed to arouse people in his parish to a life of intense prayer. He did much for the general defense of the faith. But his main significance was that he called all people to conduct ceaseless prayer, an uninterrupted burning of the spirit.
" 'Prayer,' he would say, 'erects walls around our monastery in the world.' It was also he who resolved the complex problem of inward evil in the Church. 'Any sin in the Church,' he said, 'is a sin not of the Church but against the Church.' He also taught that one should not interrupt one's ceaseless mental prayer while attending church services.
"Once after I returned from exile to Moscow in 1925, I chanced to be at Liturgy when Father Valentin was serving. I came in at the end of the service and when he came out with the ambo prayer, I was shocked to see his face. I cannot express my impression other than to say that it was the face of a man having just sacrificed himself as a burnt offering - in truth and pain - and now deeply shaken, was coming out to us, oblivious to his earthly surroundings. But even then I made a stupid mistake. Instead of waiting until he would be free to talk with me, I went straight into the altar. Immediately he raised his hand as one with authority, stopping me, and said: 'Only those who believe in God may enter here! Do you believe in God?' We hadn't seen each other for three years, and he, having received false information about me, was questioning me when I dared to come into his holy of holies.
"Another time I recall how, while in a crowded Butyrka prison-ward in 1922, I was endlessly pacing amidst the prisoners when I bumped into Father Valentin. In embarrassment I asked for some stupid reason, 'Where are you going?' All of a sudden his face became remarkably light with some inward warmth, and he said, 'I was coming to you.' Usually he was so estranged, closed up, stern and impatient, like his distant relative - a Polish cardinal. But now he had the radiant and quiet beam of light of true Russian sanctity - the kind and all-seeing sanctity of a holy elder. He was coming straight toward me, toward my very soul which he was then probably protecting against some evil. Thus, even a prison can enlighten and illuminate a soul and bring out something which at other times is impossible to attain."
In 1927 his free spirit could not be silent, and he openly reacted against Metropolitan Sergius who was so opposite to him in spirit. We know full well what consequences were suffered by all those who openly disagreed with the "Declaratiion." Lev Regelson, in his Tragedy of the Russian Church, states that Metropolitan Sergius in 1929 pronounced all those who opposed his Declaration to be counter-revolutionaries subject to arrest; fifteen bishops were arrested right away. The arrests were conducted very simply: a GPU agent would come to the bishop and pose one question: "How do you regard the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius?" If the bishop answered that he did not accept it, then the agent would conclude: "That means that you are a counter-revolutionary." And the bishop would automatically be arrested. So perished all those who raised their voices in protest. And the fate of Father Valentin could be no different.
In Orthodox history Father Valentin acquired a crown of victory from God, for he preserved the flame of genuine Christian inspiration and pinpointed the essence of subtle temptation of the enemy of our salvation, thereby leading straight into Paradise the flock entrusted to him by God, to Whom be glory and honor for ever. Amen.
THE SEPARATION OF ARCHPRIEST VALENTIN SVENTITSKY
Document of December, 1927
To Metropolitan Sergius:
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Realizing all my responsibility before the Lord for my own soul and for the salvation of the souls of the flock entrusted to me, and with the blessing of Dimitry, Bishop of Gdov, I am breaking off canonical and prayerful communion with You, which has illegally appropriated to itself the title of "Patriarchal Synod," as well as with everyone who is in canonical communion with You; and I no longer consider You the Substitute of the Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne, for the following reasons:
Your Declaration of July 16/29, as well as everything that is generally known of Your governance of the Church from the time of the publication of the Declaration, without any doubt establishes that You are placing the Church in that same dependence on the government in which the first two "Renovations" wished to place it, in defiance of the holy canons of the Church and the decrees of the civil authority itself.
Both the "Living Church," which seized the authority of the Patriarch, and "Gregorianism," which seized the authority of the Locum Tenens, and now You, who have abused the latter's trust - are all doing the same general anti-ecclesiastical, renovationist work; but You are the founder of the most dangerous of its forms, because while renouncing ecclesiastical freedom, at the same time You preserve the fiction of canonicity and Orthodoxy. This is worse than the violation of separate canons.
I am not creating a new schism, and I do not break the unity of the Church; I go away from and I lead my flock out of a subtle renovationist trap - lest imperceptibly and little by little we lose the freedom which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Liberator of all men, has given us as a free gift by His Own blood (8th Canon of the Third Ecumenical Council).
Remaining a faithful and obedient son of the One Holy Orthodox Church, I recognize as Locum Tenens of the Patriarch Throne Metropolitan Peter; I recognize also those bishops who, not arbitrarily appropriating to themselves general ecclesiastical authority, have already broken canonical ties with You, following their testimony: "until the judgement of a complete Local council," i.e., a council with the participation of all Orthodox bishops, or until the open and full repentance before the Holy Church of the Metropolitan himself.
Archpriest Valentin Sventitsky
Sources: Polsky's Russia's New Martyrs, Vol. II; Regelson, The Tragedy of the Russian Church; Zernov, The Russian Religious Renaissance, pp. 105-6; Nadezhda (periodical), No. 2, 1979 and No. 5, 1981.