“I felt: God is looking at me”

How a Filipino decided to be an atheist and became an Orthodox monk.

Once upon a time, this Filipino student decided that he was an atheist and broke with religion. And a few years later he found himself in Russia and… became a monk! How is this possible? Yes, it’s just that one day he saw something that shocked and turned his soul upside down. Hieromonk John (Gondayao), 26 years old, cleric of the Philippine-Vietnamese Diocese of the Patriarchal Exarchate of Southeast Asia: I was born and grew up in the Philippines, in Manila, the capital of this country. My parents gave me the name Leonil, diminutive — Leo. Father is a Protestant, mother is a Catholic, they never talked about God, they considered faith a personal matter for everyone. But we still agreed that all the children would be Catholics. That’s why my younger brother and sister and I were baptized in the Catholic Church. The school I attended was private and, of course, Catholic. Nuns taught there. They brought us up in strictness and piety, and I did not miss a single morning mass — I served as an altar boy, soon learned all the prayers by heart. My grandparents rejoiced at my religiosity and already saw me as a priest. I also wanted this and dreamed of a seminary. But then I was transferred to a regular school, and secular education affected me very quickly. I remember when we started studying world history, I first learned about Orthodoxy and was surprised: “Is there really any other apostolic church? Why are there several of them?” And the deeper I studied the history of Christianity, the more questions I had about what I was told in Catholic school. I continued to go to the temple, but I realized that my search for truth had just begun. To the joy of my parents, I no longer aspired to the seminary. A lawyer, a doctor, an engineer—my dad and mom wanted me to be. But my future profession was decided by chance. I helped a school psychologist, watched, studied, and I wanted to, as they say, get to know a person. After graduation, I entered the Polytechnic University at the Faculty of Psychology. I remember how a philosophy teacher once told us in class: “And there is no God at all! Are you crazy? Only a madman believes in God!” This professor stunned me. My whole life seemed to be reset at the moment, it seemed absolutely worthless. I thought: “If he’s right, then I’ve spent a lot of time serving an empty place?” I lost my faith and even started calling myself an atheist. And with the new worldview came new desires. A fun student life began! Studying was easy for me, I aspired to graduate from university and become a practicing psychologist. And I also became passionately interested in art, went to galleries, communicated on social networks with the same connoisseurs of beauty. One of them was an Anglican preacher. He told me the story of an icon that was accidentally found in their church during repairs — it had been walled up in the wall for many centuries, and no one knew about it. That pastor then told me, “God is always with us. No matter how much we hide from Him or even forget about Him, He is here.” And he showed the icon of the Savior Almighty. And then… something turned over in me. I felt: God is looking at me. His presence became so obvious that my atheism was gone. I immediately wanted to paint the face of God myself. But where to learn? There is no icon painting school in the Philippines. I searched, watched video tutorials, read a lot. And I came across a book by Michel Keno “Icon — a window to the Kingdom.” There, icon painting was talked about not as a craft, but as a key to spirituality. I read about the theology of the icon, about the history of church art, the sayings of the holy fathers. While studying iconography, I discovered Orthodoxy and painted three icons: Christ, the Virgin and Seraphim of Sarov, and took them to the Orthodox parish in honor of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God in Manila. This parish opened in 2017, just when I first came there. It was Sunday, and I had to stand for the whole service to meet with the priest — Father Philip. “These are paintings, not icons,” the priest told me sternly and added: “To paint holy images, you need to be Orthodox.” But I didn’t want to change anything, and I left, confident that there would be no new baptism. At home I prayed all night, putting my icons in front of me. And the next morning a clear understanding came: if I want to study icon painting, I need to be Orthodox. There is no one without the other. A week later I was baptized with the name Leo. “Without God, nothing is possible” I often repeated these words after baptism. Everything that happened in my life eventually led to Him. Since that time, I have not missed a single service in the church of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God. The parish became my family: I served at the altar, sang in the choir, cleaned in the evenings, and Father Philip became my spiritual mentor. One day the secretary of the Orthodox mission in the Philippines came to us. He suggested that I go to Russia to study at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. Of course, I wanted to live in an Orthodox country and get a good theological education. Thank God, my parents didn’t mind and blessed me. I came to Russia in the autumn. I remember it was very cold and it was raining, and I didn’t even have a jacket because we don’t wear them in the Philippines. At the beginning there were difficulties with the language, but I managed to cope with them quickly. I graduated from the first year with honors. However, I was not very happy about it. I had one wish: “I want to serve God, give all of myself!” Because there, in my country, there was a lot of missionary work ahead, and it was unrealistic to combine it with family. And I decided: before the start of the second year, on August 21, 2021, I took monastic vows with the name John — in honor of the Orthodox missionary, St. John of Shanghai. The end of the second year was special for me: on June 19, 2022, on the Sunday of All Saints, I was ordained a hieromonk. And now I trust in the mercy of God, I believe that He will support and strengthen me, because I stand before Him and am responsible for the people He entrusts to me. The Lord said: Whoever wants to follow me, deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34). Now I have a big priestly cross, it’s heavy, but it saves me. I will remember for the rest of my life the first service I held as a priest. It was the liturgy on the Monday after the Feast of All Saints. The temple was quiet, there were few people. I have been reading prayers for a long time in front of the Royal gates — the Church Slavonic language is still difficult. And the most touching moment was after the Great Entrance, when the consecration of bread and wine takes place. I felt intense fear and joy at the same time. I have two years left to study, then I will return to the Philippines. I want to establish a monastery there. So that it becomes a spiritual center and an example of life in Christ.

Prepared by Eva Kalashnik

Patronal Feast in Makalangot

August 1 is the day of St. Seraphim of Sarov. A lot of parishioners gathered at the parish in Makalangot village for the patronal feast. The All-night vigil, Divine Liturgy and procession were led by the clergy of the diocese in Mindanao: the secretary of the diocese, Hieromonk Cornelius (Molev), priests Joachim Gonzalez, Moses Kahilig, Nicholas Salgado and Ambrose Sumagaysay. In his sermon, Fr. Cornelius recalled the feats of the saint and urged the faithful to imitate him in piety. Reverend Father Seraphim, pray to God for us!