Roman Catholic Hermit Priest and Patristic Scholar Embraces Orthodoxy

Fr. Gabriel Bunge, a Roman Catholic hieromonk of the Order of Saint Benedict who has been a monk for 50 years and has lived a solitary life in the Swiss mountains for over thirty years was received into Orthodoxy by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware.) Fr. Gabriel is a renowned Benedictine hermit and considered a master of Patristic thought. Following is the official announcement of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as two very interesting interviews Fr Gabriel gave before and after his conversion.

On 27 August 2010, the eve of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk officiate at the All-Night Vigil at the church of the “Joy to All the Afflicted” Icon in Bolshaya Ordynka Street in Moscow.

Concelebrating were Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, a vicar of Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain (Patriarchate of Constantinople), president of the “The Friends of Mount Athos” charity society, clerics of the church, and a well-known Swiss theologian, hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge) who became an Orthodox before the divine service.

Many parishioners worshipped at the church together with the members of “The Friends of Mount Athos” representing Great Britain, the USA, Greece and other countries. The object of the society is to promulgate knowledge about monastic tradition and the Holy Mountain and, promote restoration of the monasteries there, and to attract pilgrims. The delegation is on a visit to Russia with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. The pilgrims venerated holy sites in Uglich, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov the Great, Nizhniy Novgorod, Gorodets, Kalyazin, and the Laura of the Holy Trinity and St. Sergius.

After the divine service, Metropolitan Hilarion addressed his archpastoral words to the worshippers, congratulating them on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. He said: “Today we glorify her Dormition and contemplate our life and death. Our life on the earth should be full, spiritual and divine, while our death should not be a tragic event, but a natural passing to life eternal; it should be dormition, rather than death.

By her tomb that emanates grace, peace and love, the Most Holy Mother of God testifies that the mortals can pass from death to life, from sin to grace, from human life to divine life.

The Church believes that the Mother of God never sinned even in her thoughts. We are sinful people, but the way to the Heavenly Kingdom is not closed to us. This way leads through death that could become Dormition in case we live in accordance with the commandments of God and pray to the Lord and His Most Precious Mother to grant us shameless and peaceful death leading us to life eternal.”

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk addressed Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, saying: “I cordially greet Metropolitan Kallistos, a hierarch of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a teacher at the University of Oxford in Great Britain for over forty years.  Fifteen years ago I was fortunate to be his student. He was my supervisor when I worked at my thesis on St. Simeon the New Theologian. Today Metropolitan Kallistos is a most renowned theologian of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. He has arrived in Moscow as head of the group of pilgrims that includes clergymen, professors, and laymen. For ten days they have visited Russian cities, venerated holy sites of our land, and have get to know our religious culture. Tomorrow Metropolitan Kallistos will concelebrate with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia at the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Moscow Kremlin.

“I greet you not only as a hierarch and an outstanding theologian, but also as my teacher and friend. I wish you a blessed stay in Russia and God’s help in your archpastoral ministry and scholarly work. May He keep you for many and good years.”
Metropolitan Hilarion presented Metropolitan Kallistos with a mitre made at the workshops of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The DECR chairman cordially greeted hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge) who has lived a solitary life in the Swiss mountains for over thirty years. Metropolitan Hilarion said to him, “Your have been a Catholic, but an Orthodox deep in your heart. Today, before the All-Night Vigil, you have become an Orthodox, thus naturally completing a long spiritual way.”

While congratulating Fr Gabriel on this move, Metropolitan Hilarion presented him with an icon of the Mother of God called “Joy of All the Afflicted” to which the church in which Fr Gabriel joined the Orthodox Church is dedicated.

Metropolitan Kallistos said to Metropolitan Hilarion that it was a great joy and privilege to concelebrate with him on the eve of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. Adding that Metropolitan Hilarion’s ministry in this church and for Orthodoxy in the world will be blessed with grace from the Lord through the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God.


Father Gabriel (Bunge) “Orthodoxy is the Fruit of
My Whole Life as a Christian and Monk”

By Archpriest Pavel Velikanov
Jan 25, 2011, 10:00

Translated by Svetlana Tibbs. Edited by Jacob Aleksander Brooks and Isaac (Gerald) Herrin.

A famous Swiss Catholic theologian, Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge, converted to Orthodoxy on August 27th 2010 in Moscow, on the Eve of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. It was Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk who received Fr. Gabriel into the Orthodox Church. We are glad to offer our readers translations of two interviews with Fr. Gabriel. The first interview I came to the faith owing to my peers” was conducted by Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, the editor-in-chief of the scientific theological website “” in 2008. At the time Fr. Gabriel was still a Catholic hieromonk. The second interview “One Can't Learn to Pray Sitting in a Warm Armchair” Fr. Gabriel had right after he had converted to Orthodoxy. It was conducted by a Russian Orthodox Christian Journal for Doubting Thomases – Foma.

A short biographical note.

Gabriel Bunge was born in 1940 in Cologne. His father was Lutheran and his mother was Catholic. At the age of 22, Fr. Gabriel joined the Order of Saint Benedict in France. In 1972 he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood. For many years, Fr. Gabriel devoted himself to studying works of Evagrius of Pontus. He has been living in the Skete of the Holy Cross in Swiss canton Tichino since 1980 following the ancient typicon of Saint Benedict. He is the author of the following books: “Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition,” “The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-painter Andrei Rublev,” “Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread”, “Spiritual fatherhood,” etc.

En excerpt from the article “Back to Unity” by Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge

My discovery of Orthodoxy wasn't a result of some kind of scientific study, but the fruit of my whole life as a Christian and a monk. This discovery of Orthodoxy, that had started 40 years ago and is in progress up till now, has formed into a specific meaning.  It let me enter and penetrate into what we can call “a mystery of the Church.”

I remember how I came to this discovery. Long before university, when I was very young and was studying in the school, I started to read the Holy Fathers, mostly monks. I started with Apophthegmata (sayings of the Desert Fathers), St. John Chrysostom, and St. John Cassian who was a kind of a bridge between East and West in the 4th-5th centuries. Later I began to read “The Philokalia” in a brief edition in German.

Later I read “The Way of a Pilgrim”, that was translated into German in the 1920s. It was truly a breath-taking experience. As is well known, this book consists of several parts, but I started from the three stories and didn’t get to the theoretical part. And then without a spiritual guide or even a prayer-rope, I started to practice the Jesus prayer. I was 20. Like a Russian “pilgrim,” I started to learn this prayer “on the run”: on my way to the university through a park I constantly repeated it in my mind. And it has stayed with me for all my life, since then I have never stopped saying this prayer. It has entered into the rhythm of my existence and my breath. I knew nothing about Orthodoxy at that time.

At the time when I was studying in Cologne there were some Orthodox but I never met them. Then, spontaneously, I found the origins of Christian and monastic spiritual life. This discovery became very important for me when later I thought over all my experience and all my life. Thus, by the grace of God, I received the most important thing.

“I came to the faith owing to my peers”

Fr. Pavel: Father Gabriel, please tell us how you came to the faith?

Fr. G.: I came to the faith owing to my peers, at the age of 17--18. The thing is that my family was a bit strange, mixed: my mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant. As a rule, it follows that you become, as they say, "neither fish nor fowl." Quite early I discovered for myself works and lives of the Holy Fathers, the life of Saint Anthony the Great, sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Lausiac History, the short Philokalia (there were only brief excerpts on foreign languages). But just a little spark is enough to set a big fire: bring it close and the fire will flare up.  Something similar happened to me. I wanted to follow those I had met in the books. Looking for what was the most genuine in our Catholic Church, I entered the Order of Saint Benedict.

Archpriest Pavel Velikanov and Hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge)

But before that, I made a small trip to Greece. It happened in 1961, when I was still studying in Bonn. One day by chance, I got in touch with the Orthodox Church very closely. On the boat I met one of the Greek metropolitans who was coming back from Palestine together with clergymen. He was like one of the fathers I read about, very honorable and with a long beard. He saw me, a young man, and asked me to come and sit with him and showed me his books.

I stayed two months in Greece on Lesbos. There weren’t many tourists then and, therefore, we were lodged among local families. I lived in a family of a priest. And of course, I was going to church every Sunday. The family knew I was a Catholic, but because there wasn’t any Catholic church around, I was going to an Orthodox one. Everyone in the family was kind to me and treated me with much love. On the small entrance, they even brought me the Gospel to kiss as if I was an honorable guest.

Also I have to say that before that trip I was very prejudiced against Orthodox Church; I was inclined negatively to Orthodoxy.

Fr. P.: What was the reason for such a negative attitude?

Fr.G. The teachers told me to be careful with this Orthodoxy. They said that the Orthodox are schismatics. So during my trip it was as if was wearing a pair of gloves so that I wouldn't stain my Roman purity by contact with Orthodox.

And of course, I hadn’t any problems. Greeks were very friendly and kind. I was even allowed to enter the altar though it wasn’t right according to the canons. In a word, my prejudices diminished every day.

At the end I went to Athens for a week and lived there in the theological seminary together with other seminarians. During one conversation with them I had an experience that turned the scale. I said to them “Well, everything is fine in your Church, but I feel sorry that you broke away from us.” And they replied: “No, you are wrong. It was you who broke away from us.” I was astonished. In Germany, we meet only Protestants and we all know that they are schismatics, which means that it was they who once broke away from the Catholic Church. But here this scheme didn’t work because the question was about the Church which has its origin from the Apostles. The Apostle Paul had walked on these lands before he came to Rome.

I was 21 at that time. I started to think everything over, and even now I haven’t stopped doing that. I had to realize that they were right on many issues even from the scientific point of view. There is nothing even to discuss as it is useless to defend something that can’t be defended in principle. The results of my reflections you can find in my book “Earthen Vessels” that has been translated into Russian. This book is about the practice of the Jesus Prayer according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers. And it is quite clear that the practice of the Jesus Prayer was the same both on the East and in the West.

Fr. P.: It would be interesting to find out what is the Jesus Prayer in the Western tradition? Quite often we can hear that the specific character of Eastern Christianity is in the inner work that is absent in the West. How truthful is this point of view?

Fr. G.: At first I would say that the Catholic Church is a huge organization that consists of billions of Catholics. Catholicism has different internal movements which can conflict with each other, even mutually exclude each other. Many note that, thanks to the discovery of Orthodoxy in the West, people are beginning to find renewed interest in their own spiritual origins. Often that sort of discovery takes place with the help of icons, songs, and books. There are many Russian Saints who are revered in the Catholic world: St. Silouan the Athonite, St. Seraphim of Sarov... We tonsure a lot of monks with the name Seraphim here. Seraphim of Sarov is even included in litanies for commemoration.

But there are very strange things as well. And here I am talking as a monk first of all.

The origin of western monasticism is from the East. It came to the West quite early: the life of St. Antony was written by St. Athanasius due to the request of Latin monks. If they hadn’t asked, his life wouldn’t have been written down. The original is in Greek, but the most ancient manuscripts are in Latin.

So, the East has been the guideline for monasticism for many centuries. But you always have to rediscover this guideline for yourself… Once you lose it, you have to focus on it again. We could see over the centuries how the West periodically rediscovers the East. For instance, there are treatises in France that could find their place in “The Philokalia.” There is an interesting article about it written by an Orthodox historian Jean-Paul Bess called “The footprints of hesychasm on the West.” An interesting character whom I have discovered for myself is the Abbot de Rancé (1626-1700), the founder of the monastery of La Trappe. He was a contemporary of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, but his school, the Trappists, do not exist anymore in the original form in comparison to St. Paisius Velichkovsky.

The lives of many monks for example, of Elder Joseph the Hesychast are very popular on the West and are translated into many languages.  The book “The Way of the Pilgrim” was translated in the 20th century. This book inspired me. I was a student at that time and had never seen a prayer-rope. I read that you can even pray the Jesus prayer while walking. And I started to pray while walking. On the way to the university and back, I always said the Jesus Prayer and it entered my heart.

Now the Jesus prayer is very popular in the West. By the way (“smiling”), if you would like to please me, give me prayer-ropes as a present, short or long ones, doesn’t matter.  Faithful who visit me and come for confession often ask for them.  

I pray to God that we don't forget again, and another hundred years pass, and we have to again discover Eastern spirituality. Today we have to get to the core of things: the Eastern and Western Churches have to come together. I speak freely about this. They don't burn people at the stake anymore. We are not speaking about Ecumenism. That word has already become ambiguous. Right away we think of the Dalai Lama, etc. I am not even talking about unity of the Church, as "unity" is understood by each in his own way. That one and the same word can mean many things. Contemporary Catholics can consider "unity" in only one form, the one that they grew up with in the Catholic Church. Orthodox Christians don't know that kind of institutional unity. Inside one local church? Yes. But not between local churches. And it is because of that, unfortunately, there is no mechanism for settling internal disputes. There is sobornost, of course, but that is another question.

Returning to the subject, I have to say that we always need to come back to the Fathers. The ancient “Ambrosian” liturgy contains a litany that lasted until the Second Vatican Council but then it was lost. It contained the following petition, “Let us pray for peace between Churches, for conversion of the faithless, and for peace among barbarians.”

What is this peace between Churches? “Churches” are in plural here, although the Creed mentions only One Church. But One Church exists only in a great number of churches. This litany is the program that has to be performed. We have to work on keeping our churches in peace.

Today we can see the signs showing that it is possible. In the West, the Orthodox Church is in a minority. It is not large; quite often a congregation is not even able to build its own church. However, there are no problems when the Catholic Church hands over its churches to Orthodox parishes. For example, the Cardinal of Milan handed over three big ancient churches. Our believers are very happy when this happens. People are friendly to the Orthodox faithful nearby. I think that never before did Western people have so much sympathy to Eastern Christians as now. The West only gains from that.

I know that this wouldn’t be possible in Russia. And there are some historical reasons that could explain that. Of course, there was a certain evolution regarding this issue, but your problems are not my work… For me personally the ideal would be peace between the Churches, a lessening of existing prejudices to the minimum of most important issues so that with mutual respect we can decide these questions in the future.

Fr. P.: The next question would be about those examples that are often taken by the Orthodox as indicators of false orientation of Catholic mysticism. If for the East the crystal purity of the soul is the main condition for inner work in order that the Divine Light would act in it, then the examples of such ascetics as Teresa of Ávila show something very opposite: the aim of podvig is to attain to ecstasy where a person experiences God. Could you please comment on this?  

Fr. G. There are two types of mysticism in the Catholic Church: restrained (inner work) and ecstatic. Both schools are rooted in the monastic tradition. The first school that originated in Sts. Macarius, Anthony, and Evagrius is the inner mysticism, “inner work.” But St. Macarius’ Homilies contain the other school too, more affective mysticism. Therefore he is traditionally considered to belong to the softened or semi- Messalianism, that is a kind of ecstatic monasticism. I think, that here we could see just two different spiritual temperaments that confront one another. That’s why it’s difficult to find a common language. The follower of the inner work could say to his opponent, “You are too sensual,” and the latter could reply, “You are too reasonable. You don’t have any inner experience.” And both these opinions would be wrong.

However, I have to admit that in the middle Ages there were purely women’s mystical movements on the West that seem strange to me and are beyond my comprehension. I belong to a different school. I don’t have anything that could help me to understand or feel deeply that affective, ecstatic mysticism. The main rule of any spiritual life for me is restriction and lack of exaltation because exaltation itself is a ground for demonic prelest. This experience we can find today in charismatics. To avoid mistakes that Evagrius calls imitation of spiritual and mystic states, we have to be very careful, wise, and to possess simplicity and purity. Today it is called a self-suggested condition, that is, an imaginative mystic (spiritual) condition. 

St. Theophan the Recluse, who is very popular in the West, by the way, understood the matter of western mystics very subtly. Once he exclaimed: “Oh, these Western people, they cannot distinguish between psychic and spiritual!” And really, when I talk to people who come for confession, I see how often they mix these things. One has to teach and help people to see the difference between their feelings and true spirituality from God. People quite often feel something deep inside and think “Here it is, here is that true spirituality.”

Fr. P. You have just touched upon a very important issue. Both Ignatius of Loyola in his book “The Spiritual Exercises” and Thomas à Kempis in his book “The Imitation of Christ” underline the developing of the imagination as most important. Could one say that even if it is just one of the several schools in the Catholic Church, it is, however, quite weighty and officially recognized by the Catholic Church?

Fr. G. No, it is not dominating, but is still wide-spread among the Jesuits. They practice these methods of imitation of Christ even nowadays.

By the way, the book “The Imitation of Christ” was very popular in Russia at a certain time. Now the work about the influence of this book on Russia and its history is being prepared for publication. I asked the author of this book if there is any impact of popularity of this book on the image of Christ on iconography. I asked this question because it appeared that at certain time Christ on Russian icons got a very human look that you cannot find in Byzantine icons, a kind of soft and tender sense. Since what time did it happen?  This would be a question to the historians of art.

Fr. P: What works of St. Theophan the Recluse are most popular in the West?

Fr. G. There are some brochures and extracts from his works. Hegumen Chariton of Valaam wrote a book between two world wars called “The Art of Prayer.” It is an anthology about prayer based on his knowledge and experience.  Part of this book that contains extractions from teachings of St. Theophan the Recluse is very popular.

Fr. P.: Don’t you think that the main aim of modern clergy and monasticism is to adapt the tradition of the Holy Fathers for contemporary people? This was the same aim as that for St. Theophan the Recluse  

Fr. G. Well, I believe that the latest teachings of the Holy Fathers should be learned together with the teachings of the early Fathers. Every later Father has to be checked with earlier texts. This is my method.

When a beginner comes to me, he receives from me basic texts, which are sayings of the Desert Fathers, Philokalia etc. After having read those texts he can read anything he wants. First the taste should be cultivated. When the taste is refined, one would be able to tell if the work is true or not.

If you start your reading with the teachings of women mysticism of the 13th century you will spoil your spiritual taste forever.  But if you have a healthy taste, you can also read it and be able to find something useful for yourself.

Fr. P.:  I have one more question about asceticism. One can say that monasticism is the elite, forefront of the Church, even though the largest part of the faithful is laity. Obviously, Christian ethics are unthinkable without asceticism. What, then, could be support for Christians in the world? When monastic life imprints on family life, the latter gets ruined together with Christianity. That’s why Christianity is today being accused of “antihumanity.” Everyone should become a monk; life in the world is accepted but not welcomed. Such an approach becomes a barrier for those people who long for Christianity: they want to enjoy life, which doesn’t mean to sin but to live fully. They could be in the Church but alas often avoid it.

Fr. G. Firstly, there is no separate spirituality for monks, laymen, and priests. Christian spirituality is one for everyone. If you look from the outside Christianity you could really say that monasticism is the elite of the Church. But every single monk shouldn’t think that way, shouldn’t consider himself to be in the elite. There is a well-known saying of a Desert Father who said that he lives in the desert because he is not good enough to live in the world. The best virtue for both a monk and a layman is the humility.

I think that deep love and compassion for everyone are the distinctive features of Orthodox Elders. You have many of them in Russia and I knew one from Romania personally.

One day I was traveling to Athos on the boat together with many different people: businessmen, bankers, etc. They were going to their spiritual fathers. They said, “Our spiritual fathers on Athos are very strict. But they know us very well and know what treatment we need for our diseases.” There were many young people among them, many family men. They could visit any other spiritual father in the world who could say: “All this doesn’t matter much.” But these people were going to a strict ascetic, who would cry with them over their sins and give them a treatment which they could bear and which would heal them. He would tell one person one thing, another person something else.

Returning to your question, I have to say that I come across this problem almost every day. I left the world 28 years ago to become an eremite. I am sorry but I’ll talk a little about myself. I didn’t plan to do scientific or pastoral work. I translated the works which seem important for me. I wanted to make them accessible for others. But how can the contemporary man of the 20th century understand a text from the 4th century? I had to add a little bit of water to this “good wine” to make it understandable for people. And lately, people started asking for my advice. Gradually I became a spiritual father for many of them.  Most of them, around 90%, are family men. There are not many women as the monastery is closed for them and not many priests.

What can I do to help to my brothers who are businessmen, professionals in the world? How can I help them to live a true Christian life while everything around opposes it?

First of all, I give them a prayer rule adapted to their personal life, depending on how old they are and how many children they have. I think that there is only one way to pray. There is no such a thing like a special monastic prayer. Monks just have more time for it. There is the Jesus prayer and the other prayers too. And every morning, every evening these people are standing in front of the icons and praying. Within their “normal” life they are seeking for the same as we monks do. I am astonished how this “monastic discipline” changes people’s lives. I am not trying to impose the real monastic discipline on them. Some charismatic schools try to do that, but such attempts always end in failure.

Fr. P.: We have several not very profound but very important questions. In your opinion, what are the most important discoveries in western theology that happened recently?

Fr. G. I do not follow it anymore; I am not even able to as I don’t subscribe to magazines. Sometimes I read only some interesting works. As for Church science, I don’t know it. 

Fr. P: What was the most important discovery for you personally in the teachings of the Holy Fathers?

Fr. G.: While reading Isaac of Nineveh (of Syria), I understood that the Fathers were inspired by works of Evagrius of Pontus. I decided to find out more about him, I learned the Syrian language and found that there are a lot of prejudices relating to him. The fact is that in the Fifth Ecumenical Council he wasn’t personally condemned, but only in connection with Origenists. Since, it was decided that he was an Origenist, impossible things were imputed to him.

When I touch upon this subject with somebody, I say: “Evagrius is accused of disagreement with almost every statement of Orthodox Christology. Good, but don’t you consider it strange that St. Basil the Great didn’t notice anything like this in him? And Gregory the Theologian hadn’t noticed either. Moreover, Theophilus of Alexandria wanted to make him a bishop (he got away from it). Even anti-Origenists (Epiphanius of Cyprus, Hieronymus) never accused Evagrius of anything, although they knew him personally. Are we making a mistake somewhere?”

So I started seriously studying Evagrius. The eighth letter of St. Basil the Great which is traditionally ascribed to St. Basil was undoubtedly written by Evagrius. This letter contains all of Evagrius’ teaching. It means that Evagrius can be always read in an Orthodox way. But he can also be read in an unorthodox way. The issue is in the method. I could also mention “On Prayer,” known as a work of Nilus of Ancyra. The names of Orthodox Holy Fathers were put on Evagrius’ works in order to save them and in order to read them in an Orthodox way. It’s really possible to read his works from the Orthodox perspective. I appraise him from this point of view.

Fr. P. Do you use the Internet?

Fr. G. No. There is a forest all around…

Fr. P. It means that you have completely kept aloof from the world.

Fr. G. I have only a telephone. And there is a typewriter as a computer.

Fr. P. Unfortunately, today there are many myths and legends about western mysticism. It is very desirable to achieve some scientific accuracy in this question. Your activity as a scientist, a monk, a theologian is very interesting for us. Therefore, we would like to stay in touch with you, even in writing. You have secluded yourself from the world, but we will not leave you alone! 

Fr. G.: How can I reject to stay in touch with you? I devoted one of my best books to the Lavra’s Brotherhood.

Translated from French into Russian by Hieromonk Savva (Tutunov) and Priest Dmitriy Agueev.


One Can't Learn to Pray Sitting in a Warm Armchair

By Konstantin Matsan
Jan 26, 2011, 10:00

Translated by Olga Lissenkova. Edited by Yana Samuel and Isaac (Gerald) Herrin

A Catholic hermit converted to Orthodoxy

A well-known theologian, hieromonk Gabriel Bunge, rarely gives interviews. He leads a hermit's life in a small skete in Switzerland, never uses the Internet, and the only means of communication with him is the telephone. The latter works as the answering machine in a distant room. If you want to talk with him, you have to leave a message with the time when you are going to phone again, and if Father Gabriel is ready to talk, he will be near the telephone at the time you specified. We were lucky not to go through this complex operation because we met Father Gabriel in Moscow. On August 27, he converted to Orthodoxy from Catholicism.

In our conversation, Father Gabriel told us about the motives for his decision, about the main differences between Valaam and Switzerland, and about many other things.

“We Are Like Weirdos”

Q: If someone comes from one Christian tradition to another, it must mean that they feel they lack something vital in their spiritual life...

A: Yes. And if this person is seventy years old, like me, this step cannot be called a hasty one, can it?

Q: No, it can't. But what did you lack, being a monk with such a great spiritual experience?

A: I have to speak not of one decision, but of the whole life journey with its inner logic: at one point an event happens which was being prepared by one's whole life.

Like all young people, I was searching for my way in life, so to speak. I entered the University in Bonn and started studying philosophy and comparative theology. Not long before that, I had visited Greece and spent two months on the island of Lesbos. It was there that I saw a real Orthodox monastic elder for the first time. At that time, I was already inwardly being drawn to monasticism and had read some Orthodox literature, including Russian sources. That elder amazed me.  He became the incarnation of the monastic that I had come across only in books before. Suddenly, in front of me, I saw a monastic life which from the very beginning seemed to be authentic, true, the closest to the first Christian monks' practice. Afterwards, I was in touch with that elder my whole life. So I got an ideal of monastic life.

When I came back to Germany, I joined the Order of Saint Benedict - it seemed to be the closest to my aspirations. The structure of the Order itself resembles one of the early Christian Church. In the Order, there is no vertical system of subordination; each community exists on its own. What guarantees the unity of these communities is the tradition and the Church Typicon. That is, not the juridical order but the spiritual ideal. By the way, in this sense I think that it is the Benedictines, of all Western believers, who are ready to understand the Orthodox believers most keenly. But still my spiritual Father and I saw very soon that with my fancy for Eastern monasticism and the love of Eastern Christianity on the whole, I was not in my proper place in this Order. So the abbot, an elderly and experienced man I still honor, decided to transfer me to a small monastery in Belgium, and not without regret. I spent 18 years there, acquired great experience, and from there, with a blessing, I went to the skete in Switzerland. All those transfers were caused by one reason: the attempt to progress to authentic monastic life, as it was with early Christians. Like the one I saw with Eastern Christians. The most recent step on this way was the conversion to Orthodoxy.

Q: Why did you decide to adopt it? One can love Orthodoxy with all one's heart and stay within the traditional Catholicism. There are many such examples in the West.

A: Yes, many people who are drawn to Orthodoxy stay within the Catholic Church. And this is normal. In the majority of Western cathedrals there are Orthodox icons. In Italy, there are professional schools of icon painting taught by Russian specialists and others. More and more believers in Europe are interested today in Byzantine hymns. Even the traditionalists of the Catholic Church have been discovering Byzantine singing. Of course they do not use them during the divine service in the church, but outside of the church, for example, at concerts. Orthodox literature gets translated into all European languages, and the books are published in the major Catholic publishing houses. In short, in the West they really have not lost the taste for all authentic, Christian, that the Eastern tradition has preserved. But, alas, it changes nothing in real life of people and society on the whole. The interest in Orthodoxy is more cultural. And those wretched people like me who have a spiritual interest in Orthodoxy, are left in the minority. We are like weirdos; we are seldom understood.

“Simply to Know Where Everything Comes From”

Q: As a theologian, you have often spoken on the problem of West and East's separation. Can we say that your conversion to Orthodoxy is the result of your meditation on this topic?

A: When I was in Greece and started turning towards Eastern Christianity, I began to perceive the schism between the East and the West very painfully. It stopped being an abstract theory or a plot in a Church history book, but rather something that was directly affecting my spiritual life. This is why the conversion to Orthodoxy started looking like a very logical step. In youth, I sincerely hoped that the union of the Western and the Eastern Christianity was possible. I was waiting for it to happen with all my heart. And I had some reasons to believe in it. At the Second Vatican Council, there were observers from the Russian Orthodox Church, including the current Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg and Ladoga Vladimir (Kotlyarov). At that time Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) was very active in international affairs. And many people thought that the two Churches were moving towards each other and would eventually meet at one point. It was my dream that was becoming more and more real. But as I was growing older and learning some things deeper, I stopped believing in the possibility of the reconciliation of two Churches in terms of the divine services and institutional unity. What was I to do? I could only go on searching for this unity on my own, individually,restoring it in one separate soul, mine. I could not do more. I just followed my conscience, and came to Orthodoxy.

Q: Isn't it too radical an opinion?

A: While still in Greece, being a Catholic, I realized that it was the West that separated from the East, not vice versa. At that moment, it was unthinkable for me. I needed time to understand and accept this. I cannot blame anyone, of course I can’t! We are talking about a whole big historic process, and we cannot say that this or that person is to blame for this. But facts remain facts: what we call Western Christianity today was born as a chain of ruptures with the East. These ruptures were the Gregorian reform, followed by the separation of the churches in the XI century, then the Reformation in the XV century, and finally the Second Vatican Council in the XX century. This is, surely, a very rough scheme, but I think it is correct on the whole.

Q: However, there is an opinion that the chain of these ruptures is a normal historic process because any phenomenon (and Christian Church is no exception) goes through its stages of development. What's the tragedy in that?

A: The tragedy is in the people. In a situation of radical, revolutionary events there always appear people who start to divide life into 'before' and 'after.' They want to start counting only from this new point as if everything that happened before had no meaning. When the future Protestants proclaimed the Reformation, I do not think they knew it would lead to the separation of the Western Church into two big camps. They did not realize it, they just acted. And they began to divide those around them into the healthy ones - those who accepted the Reformation - and the unhealthy, sick ones - the followers of Pope.
Moreover, history repeats itself: the same is happening now around the Second Vatican Council within the Roman Catholic Church. There are people who did not accept its decisions and people who consider it to be some kind of a starting point. And everybody reasons along those lines. A simple example: if in a conversation, someone mentions 'council' without any additional details, everybody automatically assumes that they are talking about the Second Vatican Council.

Q: What's your opinion on the modern liberal moods among Catholics?

A: I am very glad to have the opportunity to address myself to the Russian audience and say that you should not reduce all Catholics to one level. Among them are such who would like to be more secular, more liberal. It does not mean they are criminals; it's just their point of view on life. There are others, those who are fully dedicated to tradition. I would not call them traditionalists, because tradition itself is not so important to them. This is not an ancient folklore that one must nourish artificially and keep aswim. No! Tradition to them is what in every epoch ensured and still ensures live personal contact with Christ, everyday living in God's hands. As John the Theologian said, "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). I am sure that the position "there is God and there is me" is for heretics. For Christians, it is "God, me and everyone else." Everyone else is other believers, and those who for many centuries have preserved the faith for us. If people had not listened to other people so devotedly, if they had not written it down and had not passed it on, there would have been no New Testament. It means there would have been nothing...

Q: And what, in this case, should our attitude be to those who are not very dedicated to tradition?

A: We should not beat them in the face and of course we should not chase them out of the Church. Any person deserves Christian mercy. If I, being an Orthodox, saw a Catholic in an Orthodox church, I would like to approach him and tell him openly, softly, and confidentially, "Listen, brother, you might be interested to know that in the beginning we all crossed ourselves in this way: from right to left. Now everything has changed. No, I am not calling you to reconsider all your life and rush to the Orthodox Church. I just want you to know where things came from."


Q: And why did you choose the Russian Orthodox Church?

A: I think the key factor in such decisions is the people who surround you. When my acquaintances, Russian bishops from Saint Petersburg, learned I was adopting Orthodoxy, they said, "We are not in the least surprised! You've always been with us. But now we are going to have closer communion, a sacred one - at one Chalice." I've known Metropolitan Hilarion, the current head of the Department for external church relations of Moscow Patriarchate, for a long time. We first met in 1994 when he was a hieromonk. I consider him to be my good friend and I cherish this friendship.

Hierarch Hilarion, if you will, is one of the most competent and knowledgeable people I've ever met. He actually became for me the only person I could turn to with my request, who knew me, my beliefs and my situation. And who, as I was sure, was ready to respond. And that’s what happened.  

Q: How will it help you in reaching your ideal of spiritual life?

A: You want prophecy from me, but I am no prophet. I do not know specifically what will happen next. We shall simply live. Even now I have already found in Russia many things that keep me interested.

For example, I visited Valaam. You know, in the West if a believer is drawn to a life utmost monastic seclusion, he actually has nowhere to go.

Hermitages such as they are in Russia, do not exist in the West. This form of life seems to be outdate already. As a monk I am constantly in search for the utmost seclusion, even loneliness. In Valaam, I felt all of it was there.

Q: Isn’t there enough loneliness in your skeet in Switzerland? Valaam is also a crowded place, pilgrims come there regularly.

A: Switzerland is a small and densely populated country. The skete is surrounded by a forest, but in a 15 minutes walk there is a village with approximately a hundred people living there. In Valaam it is much quieter. Yes, of course, there are many people there. But the place itself, as I felt, is isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe it is so because it is an island, or maybe it is due to other, non-geographic reasons.

It seems to me that all this can give rise to this desirable state of seclusion in the heart of everyone who comes there.

Q: Is it more difficult in Europe?

A: To put it roughly, we can say this does not exist in the West altogether. The authentic monastic tradition in the West was practically stamped out in the course of the French bourgeois revolution in 1789. I have a firm belief that the consequences of this revolution for Europe were no less heavy than the consequences of the 1917 revolution and the 70 years of atheist power for Russia. In France after those bloody events monasticism had to be restored almost from scratch. Common priests, not monks, were to perform this. There was no one else. In Russia monasticism survived in-spite of all the shocks and horrors. Yes, it happened at the level of particular individuals, namely, elders. But they existed! And they kept the spiritual tradition and authentic monastic life. It seems to me that in everything that concerns monastic life, Russia did not have to start from scratch. This is why I am sorry to hear Russians say sometimes "we had it all destroyed, the Church was stamped out, etc." I always want to respond, "On my opinion, you have it all, new martyrs and confessors, monastic elders." And they are all near, just stretch out your arm. Only you have to stretch it out, take this wealth and use it in practice, so to speak, in your life. I often get the impression that the majority of people in Russia do not value this. Or they just do not understand that this is valuable.

Q: Why, in your opinion, does it happen so?

A: Speaking of problems, people concentrate on material, at times external difficulties that monasteries and the Church face nowadays. Yes, there is much to reconstruct. But this is only the technical part, so to speak, only the walls and the roofs. It goes without saying, people complain: roofs and walls cost money, and where can one find money... But if we mentally go above the roof - let it be with holes - we shall see that the walls is not the main thing, it's more important with what kind of heart one enters the walls. The Russian saying goes, "The church is not in the logs but in the ribs." And this is the most important thing, this spiritual tradition that is still within Russians. Monastic elders and new martyrs preserved all of this for us. Sometimes people argue, "But there are so few elders now, most of them died already. There is no one to teach us." I always respond, "If you have no living elder to teach you, turn to the deceased one. You have his hagiography, his texts, his teachings. Read them, and correlate with your life. I don't mean to say that I have never met people in Russia who know, value, and cherish this knowledge. There are many, many people who do and my visit to Valaam proved it.

Jump into the Water

Q: What must change now in your daily life after the conversion?

A: Of course, there are things that cannot but change. Having become a member of the Russian Orthodox Church but still living in Switzerland, I submit to Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun. My relations with the Catholic Church cannot, naturally, remain the same.

Q: What reaction do you expect from your spiritual children? They must be all Catholics...

A: Firstly, I fortunately deal with good understanding people, and I am sure they will respect my decision. And secondly, I have never kept my opinions and beliefs in secret. All my spiritual children have known that my ideal of Christianity is in the East. I do not think they will be that surprised. I had not said anything to them beforehand to avoid unnecessary discussions. But I do not think anything extraordinary will happen. I believe that the tradition of spiritual talks my children used to come for will remain; I have no reason to stop it. Finally, people I communicate with regularly share my spiritual ideal more or less; otherwise, they would not be coming.

Q: What about divine services?

A: Of course, from now on I won't be able to administer communion to Catholics. But even before I used to do it very seldom: the skete is away from the big world, the territory is kept locked, the services are also private, the chapel is small - for ten people at the most. Only at Christmas and Easter we open the doors for everyone who wants to join us.

Q: If you could and wanted to give contemporaries a very short piece of advice about organizing their praying life, what would you say?

A: If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. Only that way you can learn. Only the one who prays will feel the meaning, the taste and the joy of prayer. You can't learn to pray sitting in a big warm armchair. If you are ready to kneel, to repent sincerely, to raise your eyes and hands to Heaven, then many things will be revealed to you. Of course you can read many books, listen to lectures, talk to people - these are also important and help to understand more. But what is the value of all these things if we don't take any real steps afterwards? If we don't start praying? I think you must understand this, too. Obviously, you are asking this question from the position of one who does not believe...

Q: Exactly. Our magazine is for those who doubt.

A: There is nothing wrong with doubts, they are even useful. One should not search for them, however. But if they do appear, one must simply recall that we all have a chance to hear, "Reach your finger, and behold My hands; and reach your hand, and put it into my side: and do not be unbelieving, but believing" (John 20: 27).

Photo: by Vladimir Yeshtokin




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