The Holy Elder Tavrion of Riga (1898-1978)
The whole life of the holy Elder Tavrion of Riga was one of persecution and suffering. Born Tikhon Batozsky in the town of Krasnokutsk near Kharkov on 10 August 1898, the Elder described his early years in the following words:
'We had a large family of ten children and I was the youngest. Once when I was lying on the stove, listening to my brothers reciting their lessons aloud, Mum said: 'See, you all study all the time, but Tikhon knows everything without that. They tested me, and it was true, I knew everything: Russian history, the history of the ancient world and everything they were studying. Later when I went to school, in my history classes I would crawl under the desk and draw. I really loved drawing. Once the teacher noticed me and pulled me out by my ear. 'What are you doing?' he asked. I answered: 'I already know the whole lesson'. 'How can that be?' said the teacher. He began to test me, and it was true: I knew everything, and even knew the lessons ahead. Then he allowed me to draw during his classes.
We all worked hard, my mother was an especially hard worker. No-one knew when she got up. In the morning she would make pancakes and give them to us, and we would run to school, eating them on the way. We would work the whole day, and in the evening after supper, we would sit down to sing. We were all very musical and one brother even played the violin. And so he would play and we would sing religious songs. All the neighbours envied my mother and said: 'You're lucky. No one's got a family like you'. Because my father wanted all the boys to become officers, and all of them did except me, he was arrested during the civil war and put in prison where he died. Some of the children were killed and some were imprisoned. I was in a monastery and then in a concentration camp. Mum died in someone else's house.
I remember how when I was quite small, my godmother, a pious elderly lady, took me to church. I sat in her arms and all around me were icons and the little flames from lamps and candles. And it was so beautiful, so magnificent. I loved it so much that when I was seven years old I ran away to the Monastery in Glinsk. But they sent me back because my father wanted all his children to be officers. Then, at the age of ten, I finally entered the Monastery in Glinsk for good. My mother said of her ten children: 'We must give a tithe to God'.
Revolution and Persecution
In 1920, still a novice at Glinsk, Tikhon was called up by the Soviet government for military service. He went to Kursk and made it clear to the authorities that as a monk he would not serve in the army. He was allowed to return. On the way back, he nearly drowned in the spring flood waters just outside the Monastery. Later he wrote down an account of this experience out of gratitude to God for sparing his life.
At Glinsk his first obedience was painting icons. However, in 1921 he was ordained hierodeacon in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow by Bishop Paulinus (Krishechkin), with whom he remained until the latter's death. In 1925 he was ordained priest and from that time on he served the liturgy daily. In 1926 Fr Tavrion, as he now was, became Abbot of the Monastery of St Mark in Vitebsk and in 1927 priest of the Church of St Theodore. In this same year he took part in a failed secret attempt to elect a new Patriarch, gathering votes from exiled bishops.
In 1928 Fr Tavrion was made an Archimandrite - 'for your future sufferings', as Bishop Paulinus said, and was exiled to Perm with the Bishop. Shortly after he was arrested and sentenced to concentration camp. The Elder spent over 27 years in exile, prisons and concentration camps, where, among other things, he helped build a canal. Regarding his life in prison he related the following: 'How great is the sacrament of confession! There we were, lying on our bunks and all around us was dirt, swearing and spitting. But for us it was as bright as paradise. A prisoner whispered in my ear: 'How glad I am I came here, Father! I know that tomorrow they'll take me for interrogation again, they'll torture me, I know I won't leave here alive, but for the first time in my life I've unburdened my soul in the sacrament of confession'.
As regards his years in the concentration camps the Elder said: 'People were dying like flies. But I dug out a little cell in the earth and every day, very early in the morning, I used to celebrate the Divine Liturgy'. Later the nuns in Riga related how they had visitors who had sent grapes to the Elder in his camp, where he had made wine from them. In 1953 the Elder was exiled to Kazakhstan, where he endured the most difficult years of his life, working as a guard in a school. In 1956, after Stalin's death, the Elder was 'rehabilitated' and appointed priest at the Cathedral in Perm.
In 1957 the Elder was able to return to Glinsk, where he had begun his monastic life as the novice Tikhon nearly fifty years before. He was appointed Abbot, but the monks had become unaccustomed to the strict rule and began to complain: 'We are old, we are ill, it is difficult for us to get up early'. The Elder was transferred to Yaroslavl. Glinsk closed, and the monks were scattered to different monasteries. In 1958 the Elder spent several months in Pochaev Monastery. As the persecutions under Khrushchev worsened, later the same year he went to Ufa and became chief priest of the Cathedral and also Diocesan Secretary. In 1961 he served in the Yaroslavl Diocese, in the village of Nekrasovo and in 1964 in the village of Nekous. There he was forbidden to preach by Metropolitan John (Wendland), when the number of people coming to hear him upset the Communist authorities.
The Convent of the Transfiguration
In March 1969, the Elder was appointed spiritual father of the Convent of the Transfiguration near Riga in Latvia. He arrived here with a great number of women who had followed him, many of them were secret nuns. In the fewer than ten years he was to spend there, this Convent became a place of pilgrimage from all over Russia.
Here the Elder established the custom that all the pilgrims in the Convent should take communion every day. Therefore, the food was strictly lenten and very poor - soup, gruel and tea, though this was given three times a day. The nuns, on the other hand, did not receive communion so frequently and therefore ate separately. Although many of the buildings in the Convent had been built by Father Tavrion, conditions were very hard. Pilgrims were placed in large rooms where they slept on the floor, forty to a room. There were no chairs in church and the services were long. The liturgy began at 7.00, but for those who were to take communion, they read the rule at 4.30 and there was confession. The Elder asked that even the children should come this early.
One pilgrim related the following that happened at the end of her first visit. 'He asked me kindly. 'Well, what do you say?' I said, 'Father, I have seven children'. He was radiant. 'Seven children! What a wonderful thing! Your husband must love you very much'. And he smiled a joyful smile. I said: 'No, Father, my husband has left me. 'He's left you! Well, that doesn't matter. The children are probably good'. And he became yet more joyful. I sighed: 'No, Father. My children are disobedient'. And the Elder said to me, even more joyfully: 'Well, that's all right. Everything will be well with you. Seven children - how wonderful!' I became encouraged. 'Is it true, Father, that everything will be all right?' He smiled and said. 'Well, perhaps it won't be'.
At these words I became even more joyful than when he had said that everything would be well with me. Then suddenly he looked at me (usually he spoke to people without looking at them) and said. 'Do you want to be saved? I see that you want to be saved. Love children'. And he repeated again. 'Do you want to be saved? Love children. In life not everything seems fair. This is because everyone has got used to looking at things from the point of view of this life and people forget that this is only a small minute, no, just a fraction of a second, an instant in comparison with eternal life'. Later he told me: 'Do not think that God is cruel or wishes to torture us. God is a loving father, He does everything for our salvation. Do not forget that this passing life is so small in comparison with eternal life''.
The Elder placed great importance on the outward adornment of the church, the singing and the services. The whole year long fresh flowers adorned the church and the altar. Two large vases with white liles stood around the icon of the Mother of God surrounded by cherubim. And these white lilies, joining together with the white wings of the angels, left an indelible impression.
The Elder was an Archimandrite with three crosses and he had the right to serve the liturgy with the holy doors open. He made use of this privilege every day. During the liturgy Fr Tavrion would change his vestments three times. He would begin serving in a vestment of a colour appropriate to the day (yellow, blue, green etc), the Eucharist itself he would celebrate always in red vestments, and he gave communion in white vestments as at Easter. He did all this to make the various people who stood in front of him, and who understood almost nothing, to be reverent and to love the beauty of the church services.
At Christmas the church was adorned in an especially solemn manner. Two small fir trees, adorned with silver threads were placed on either side of the altar and the large icon at the back of the altar was changed to an equally large icon of the Nativity of Christ. This icon had been painted by the Elder who painted very well. The Mother of God and Joseph were depicted in black monastic garments on the icon. On the left, behind the choir, there was a small icon of the Nativity, and on either side of it were cardboard figures of the shepherds and the magi, also painted by the Elder. Christmas services were held at midnight and after the liturgy everyone went to break the fast. The food then was potatoes, herring, a piece of cheese, butter and an egg. This was a luxurious feast, because on Christmas Eve no-one had eaten or drunk anything.
At the Dormition there was always a procession with the Shroud of the Mother of God around the two Convent churches. When the Shroud returned to the church, it was held up high at the door and everyone went in beneath it. The same thing was done at Easter. At Pentecost the carpets were taken out of the church and carpets of long grass were made instead. In place of the runner down the centre of the church, a path of flowers went from the entrance all the way to the holy doors. They also made a cushion of grass on which the Elder knelt when he read the prayers at the Vespers of Pentecost.
Despite all Fr Tavrion's efforts, the singing at the Convent was terrible. There were two choirs. On the right were the nuns and on the left the secret nuns who had followed the Elder from Yaroslavl, together with all the pilgrims who wished to sing. The problem with the choir on the left was that there was no choir director and the singers in this choir came and went, and many things are sung differently in different places. Therefore, the Elder himself often had to stand on the choir. On the choir on the right there was a choir director, but the singers did not listen to her much and they sang sorrowfully, as the Elder put it, 'as if they were dragging us into the grave'.
The little peculiarities of the Elder's services were especially beautiful. These made them unlike the services of any other priest. For example: 'Holy God' would be sung first by the choir on the right, then Fr Tavrion would face the people and exclaim: 'Let the whole church sing!', and he would lead the singing. The third 'Holy God' would be sung by the choir. The other time he said, 'Let the whole church sing', was before 'Our Father'.
Without ever openly opposing the Soviet authorities, Fr Tavrion did not give in to them in anything. For example, in 1977 on the sixtieth anniversary of the Revolution, all the churches were ordered to celebrate services of intercession for the well-being of the authorities. These services were celebrated and sermons preached in all the churches. The Elder marked the event with the briefest of sermons: 'So you see how good it is, very early in the morning we glorify God at the Divine Liturgy. But what are they doing now in the cities? They are going around screaming 'Glory, glory! But glory to whom?' Of course, he did not celebrate any services of intercession.
Why did the government tolerate the existence of such a monastery? There were several reasons:
First of all, there was the extraordinary ability of Fr Tavrion to speak to government representatives. Once the Elder was suddenly summoned to Moscow. Everyone was upset and cried. They thought that they would never see him again. It was forbidden for anyone to travel with him. However, one nun, who up to then had strongly disliked the Elder and had even made complaints against him to the Abbess, was now more upset than anyone else and secretly set out in the same train as Fr Tavrion.
The accusation against Fr Tavrion was completely ridiculous. Supposedly, some pilgrims had complained that the Elder had taken money from them for commemorations and not given them a receipt. The idea of the KGB was that the Elder would get confused, be unable to answer and then be arrested. However, as if expecting their plan, he pretended to be an exemplary Soviet civil servant: 'To be sure. I brought all the account books with me on purpose, please check them'. And they had to let him go.
The second thing that preserved the Convent was money. Three dioceses (Latvia. Lithuania and Estonia) were supported by immense sums from all over Russia. The nuns related that whole truckloads of flour, buckwheat etc were sent to the neighbouring monastery at Piukhtitsa in Estonia. All the taxi drivers knew the Convent and gladly drove to 'the little Elder who gives a lot'.
In general the Elder managed to get everything the Convent needed from the money-hungry authorities. For example, in the Soviet Union it was forbidden to put up churches or other buildings in monasteries and convents. The Elder, in his own words, 'used to wait for opportunities'. He invited officials and, while giving them something to eat, said that he needed to build a bathhouse. The Latvians, who were very clean and neat, gave permission for a bathhouse and building would begin. Unnoticed, a second storey would be added to the little bathhouse, where pilgrims could spend the night. In the same way a gigantic refectory and kitchen were built onto the woodshed.
The third reason for the peaceful life of the Convent was the exceptionally good attitude of the Diocesan Bishop to the Elder. The Elder never taught people to hate Communists, but to hate the Communist spirit, the spirit of Antichrist. Thus, when people came to the Convent from modernist parishes, he would reprimand them a great deal more than he did Communists, whose mothers and wives often visited.
Once two abstract artists came. The Elder said nothing to them personally, but in his evening sermon (he would give sermons twice at the Liturgy, once after the Gospel, once at the end of the service, and then twice in the evening) he said: 'We must keep the Church rules on how to receive communion, how to fast and so on. But if you do not wish to keep them, then what should I, a prophet, tell you?' And looking straight at the artists, he almost shouted. 'Out of the church with you!' One of them left the following day; the other stayed a little longer, but then he kept all the Convent rules. When in his last years the Elder was given letters from such modernists, he almost groaned: 'Burn the letters, burn them! Have pity on me, I am ill, I have no time.' But at the same time, for the letters of simple people, believers or those who wished to believe, he had both the strength and time to answer.
The essence of the teaching of the Elder was carrying the cross. Very often he loved to repeat that the place of the true Christian is on Golgotha, which he must endure as the crown of his life - to die on his cross. For if we 'die with Christ, we shall rise with Christ'. 'Everyone should do his duty', he said, 'this will be the saving cross of Christ. If you are a pastor, shepherd your flock fervently, laying down your life for the sheep. If you are a monk, be an earthly angel, a heavenly man; a monk should know only two words.. 'Forgive' and 'Bless'. If you have a family, take care of it. The family is the basis of life: you are a little church, a pillar of the Church's foundation. And how the Elder rose up against any violation of this law! Priests who changed their places for the sake of money he called money-changers. And concerning bishops he once said the following: 'You have heard the sermon of St John Chrysostom. How splendidly, how instructively it is written! What kind of bishops there once were!'
The Elder often spoke about family life: 'Some people say: 'We cannot have children; our flat is poor'. And what kind of conditions did they have before? In the room there was a large bed, the father and mother slept in it, and the children were at their feet. And at night an angel would come and wake the father up and say: 'Get up, take your wife and children and pray to God'. The Elder would never bless divorces, and women who got married a second time while their husbands were still alive he called 'lawless Herodiases'. 'What did Herodias do, that John the Baptist rose up against her? She married, contrary to the law. And as she had already begun to live according to her own will, so she thought up the idea, 'Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter!' That is where self-will leads'.
There were many families where the abandoned wife or children were almost abnormal or were physically ill, and the Elder helped them both spiritually and materially to stand on their own feet. How many families there were who could barely endure their grief, with ill, underdeveloped children. The Elder taught that these ill children should be considered the source of the salvation of the whole family. 'Nothing happens by chance in life. God does everything for our salvation'.
There were many cases of clairvoyance and the Elder often called people by name on seeing them for the first time. The Elder always used to outline the sign of the cross on the forehead, when he wished to make a person understand. Some of his sayings were: 'Grace is trying to enter us and we oppose it'. 'The yearly cycle of the Gospel readings is so arranged that everyone who listens attentively to the Gospel readings hears precisely what he needs at that moment'. 'Love a man even in his fall'. The Elder much appreciated certain writers. Of Solzhenitsyn he said: 'He is a prophet, he is our Pushkin'. He also loved Dostoyevsky and said: 'In Dostoevsky it is written that if one in his childhood has received just one pious, good impression, then no matter how dark and filthy his life might be in the future, this impression will not allow him to perish utterly'.
At Christmas 1977-78 the Elder began swallowing with difficulty. At first, this seemed to respond to treatment, but it was to take him to his grave. For seven months, from Christmas to 13 August, each day he ate and drank nothing at all except for half an egg or else juice. At Easter the Elder stopped serving daily in church. He came out at Ascension, on the Saturday before Pentecost when the departed are commemorated, and at Pentecost. On the Day of the Holy Spirit he lay down and did not get up again.
At 5.30 a.m. on Sunday 13 August 1978, the Elder called a priest so that he could take Holy Communion, be anointed and have the prayers for the departure of the soul read. At 6.40 a.m., during the prayers, he reposed in peace. After long and tormenting sufferings, 'his own passion', Archimandrite Tavrion had died of cancer of the oesophagus. The Elder had called such difficult and tormenting pains like cancer, 'the wounds of Christ'. His repose on Sunday was the final word of his preaching. The Elder had always called on people to prepare themselves carefully to acknowledge and meet the Day of the Lord - Sunday - like a living Easter. For, as he said, if we live this day like a day in the Kingdom to come, and always receive communion, we shall prepare ourselves for death in the best possible way.
After several unpleasant, rainy days, the day of the funeral, 16 August, dawned bright and sunny. It was three days before the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Patronal Feast of the Convent, and many of the mourning faithful affirmed that they saw the sun dance. During the funeral, celebrated by a bishop and twenty-two priests, the Gospel for the day was read. The words were from the Gospel of St John which the Elder used to repeat most frequently of all: 'He that eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day'. His memorial service on the fortieth day was also symbolic and joyful. It was the Feast of the Birth of the Mother of God - the Patronal Feast of the Monastery of the Birth of the Mother of God in Glinsk. There the child Tikhon had entered, out of his great love for God all those years ago, some seventy years before one of the most remarkable lives of the tormented twentieth century had been lived out.
Father Tavrion, Pray to God for us!