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An Interview with Father Vladimir Zabyshnyi

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Orthodox formation.

Father Vladimir: As I understand it in Catholicism term “formation” has a specific “priest training” meaning. It is not so in Orthodoxy: there is no specific, formalized “formation” program as in developing your priesthood through “four aspects: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral”. It is so simply because, with the exception of, may be, pastoral training, formation that is needed for priesthood skills is perceived by Orthodox Church as something inseparable from mainstream development of human being as Christ’s disciple. It is communicated to a person within framework of Orthodox teaching and by the means of practicing Narrow Orthodox way, and, what is more important, perceiving this Narrow way as life-long, till “death parts the soul from the body” process. So, in this respect I can only tell you about how my soul was shaped by God in my early years and how I came to be an Orthodox.

I come from the family of science people – my mother was a popular medical doctor, an oculist, and my father was space electronics engineer and they gave me a very particular analytical wiring for my brain which helped me throughout the years of studying “the science of God” greatly. But they, as most of Russians, right until after the collapse of Soviet Union were not religious at all. Nevertheless, I was baptized secretly by my grandma as an infant, at the age of 1 or so. After that and until I became a young adult there was no God in my life.

Only at the age of 18 or so, when my identity formation and thus the existential search for the purpose of life and its ultimate meaning was at their highest, the firm conviction that there is God – the ultimate reason of everything that is - came about reasonably quickly in my heart and mind seemingly out of nowhere. I consider it to be the merit of my grandmother, the seed planted by her in my baby heart by baptism spouted in my young adulthood.

Later on, when I immigrated to Finland in 1984, severe culture shock (Russian and Finnish mentalities are confrontational in many respects and I had to undergo the process of building identity all anew) and need to research my cultural roots inevitably made me gravitate towards the religion of my ancestors. After that, especially once I studied the “diamond grid” of Orthodox theology and realized the inexpressible beauty of it, I fell in love and have been in love ever since with Orthodox perception of life and way of living.

Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.

Father Vladimir: I went to a typical soviet school, so there was no direct religious influence. But the school managed to reveal to me (primarily through scientific disciplines) the deep mystery and inexplicable inner beauty of the “great scripture of nature”, i.e. of this universe which God created out of nothingness in all of its forms. Coupled with my realization of God’s existence this my inner attraction to mystery of Creation had drawn me to sееk the Ultimate Reason of everything in my later years and the in-depth research in multiple scientific disciplines had later laid a foundation for the kataphatic reasoning in my faith and belief system.

Dr. Knight: You joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?

Father Vladimir: The decision to become a priest and even, maybe, a monk was made pretty early, at the age of 22, when I served as a novice in local orthodox monastery. But, obeying the guidance of igumen (Father superior), I postponed it and went back to the world, built the family and raised two kids.

About 20 years ago I finally found myself in situation when I could fulfill the lifelong dream of mine and begun my road to priesthood. First I served a few years as altar helper, then entered Saint-Petersburg Seminary and Academy, became a deacon and after three years was ordained as a priest after finishing the seminary and entering the Academy in 2014.

Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a priest. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?

Father Vladimir: Significance for who or what? Me? Others? World in general?

For me? Today I know it was a call, before, I just followed in faith to find out if it really was. But I do not think anyone, while still living, is able to comprehend the full depth of such significance ever. If one follows the real (as opposed to contrived) call, the change is unspeakable and enormous. But it will be shown to you only gradually and rather rarely, shown by God to boost your hope when it is about to fail you and even these little messages is best to disregard to keep your stealthy and venomous pride in check. And in its entirety we will experience this significance only after we leave this body, pass the border of two worlds and meet our initial Creator and ultimate Judge. What concerns me, I know only one thing - without this call I would have vanished long ago, died destroyed by my sins, first in my soul then in my body.

For others? I realize the significance when I see the light of faith, happiness and hope in the eyes of my parishioners after confession, liturgy or relief that God brings through my help in some cases.

For the world? I would by extremely happy if by my life I managed to bring even a smallest drop of God’s love, light and knowledge into this world.

Dr. Knight: You spent your earliest years finding out your abilities and gifts through MEDITATING ON GOD'S PLACE IN YOUR LIFE. How were your thoughts and prayers helpful to you personally?

Father Vladimir: I am not sure whether “thoughts” should be included at all. Only pure thoughts can truly help. Anything else is deceiving and can cause damage to soul if followed by inexperienced. And yet, for restoring purity of thought mere human will or doing is not enough, more than that – it is dangerous to rely purely on one’s will and therefore on doing too since the totality of out nature is saturated with sin and will is known to be the most common source of destruction in fallen nature. Prayer, on the other hands, when done in correct way and coupled with Eucharist, is proven to be the most reliable and shortest way to God and the only firm foundation for personal salvation.

About what is “helpful to you personally”, once again, it is not anything in particular, including thought, prayer, fast or anything else, but the totality of the mention above Narrow Way, i.e. seeking of your Creator and Triune God through Jesus Christ that consequentially and gradually changes one’s personality in the process, provided that one dedicates the totality of one’s life to it. It is a nature of such life. And the change is gradual, but tremendous! Though, I am still a sinner, I am not nearly the same persona I use to be in my young days. The whole system of beliefs, values and goals which forms person’s actions is changed towards the eternity and Christ the Savior.

Dr. Knight: Do you think that your life is a mosaic of your different abilities in studying the theology, anthropology and ascetics of your life's work?

Father Vladimir: The only meaningful purpose of life is actively seeking to meet your Creator face to face and merge with Him in His energies while still living this life. This is achieved by, first of all, finding and restoring His image in your inner self and, second, by professing your faith through your personal deeds, which are founded on prayer and love. And such image is always a coherent and indivisible leaving being. The only division in indivisible “dualune” (no idea what would be the term similar to “triune” here) human nature took place after primordial fall when evil entered into previously uniform human being. So, I think that my life is a perpetual and hopefully coherent search for God in all of His Creation, first in my heart then in my deeds, rather than mosaic. Abilities are just discovered in the process inner instruments for it, something what was invested in me as a potency By God’s providence at the very start. Term “mosaic” bears connotation of “connected loosely”. I see abilities as integral and interacting tools for living my life as God wanted, “unearthed”, so to say, in the process of mentioned above quest for merging with God.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?

Father Vladimir: Oh, no! One can write whole PhD on this issue. Here are just some challenges for any modern true Church of Christ. Among inner challenges: general weakening of “gospel by personal sainthood”, i.e. of ranks of saintly people. Massive covert and imperceptible for most replacement of true ways and values of faith as Christ had taught them to us. Steady secularization and of mentality, normalization and globalization of sin. Outer ideological: temptation of neo-paganism and neo-Gnosticism. Globalization of uniform culture and destruction to cultural diversity and identity. Creation of uniform world religion “from all beliefs”. Political: trans-national governance and centralization of political power. Fusion of state political elites and church hierarchy. Proliferation of modern technologies of consciousness manipulation and of control and formation of mass mentality. IT and internet surveillance and personal data accumulation. And these are just to name a few.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?

Father Vladimir: Joy is a treacherous word. Most of common joys we experience in this life come as consequences of fallen nature and as such are unnatural and impure. And yet, we can’t function without reasonably many of them. Experiencing joy is our most innate ability. From the very start of our existence we were created to receive joy from just being in communion with God and having everything He blessed for us. After the fall we parted from this primary Source of any true joy. But the inborn need to experience joy stayed. So, we substituted this original joy with extending our needs into realm of “earthly joyful”. Let’s say, I enjoy good food. Well, who doesn’t? But in truth it comes from our unnaturally developed lust for amount and taste while satisfying natural bodily need for nutrition. And it concerns everything, from good food and nice clothes to every obvious and socially banned perversion.

What would be my most pure but still imperfect joy of being a priest? Probably to witness the change that God produces through my humble work in the soul of the other, the change from darkness to light, from not knowing to realizing, from gain to sacrifice and from existing for oneself to living for God and others. What would be my most pure joy as human being? To see the same change in my soul shown in my deeds and approved by God blessing my work.

What is the impurity in these joys – with them inevitably comes a shadow, a hidden pride unnoticeably assigning this success not to God only, but to me too, whispering in my sub consciousness the words of “those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”

Dr. Knight: As a priest what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?

Father Vladimir: In my opinion, there is, actually, only one daily duty for any priest: deification of God’s visible universe as in saturating with God’s grace everything you can. There are two major services which God performs through priest by which it is done - deification of Gods universe with Church sacraments, first of all Eucharist as their highest manifestation, and promotion of the word of God, i.e. of the original teachings of Christ’s. In order to be able and worthy of performing these two, the third duty of the priest would be purification of his own soul, body and personal action with the name of God. It is done on the daily bases with prayer and by perpetual struggle and use of force on oneself, like in Mathew. 11,12. These three are interconnected and further realized in many different forms. However, there is one, universal and all-pervading foundation for any of priest duties – love, which is a duty in itself.

Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a priest? About living in community?

Father Vladimir: It depends on the type of reader. But to generalize cautiously for everyone it goes as follows.

“Being a priest”. It needs patience and hope without any expectations of even spiritual rewards. Patience and hope in respect to yourself first of all and then in respect to others. Because only “the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved”. And it demands a godlike transformation first of all of yourself. Only then one becomes able to receive divine gifts without which leading others to God is impossible.

“Living in community”. Two things are needed first of all. As a foundation of everything - love: “For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." And as the end of everything - TRUE love, as opposed to love which is forced. As God puts it: “go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'.” Because initially love is always forced since for earthly man there is no other way to love in God. But such love does not survive the strain of everyday faith forever and thus does not “endure to the end”. It dies or turns to fake despite of any gifts. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing, but only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” What very few know is that true love as it is described by apostle further in the same 1st Corinthian 13:4, is also a gift from God, may be the only one we really need, and as such it cannot be forced into existence, created or bought with deeds by any man. It can only be awarded by and received from God, the sole Source of true love in its entirety.

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