An Indonesian student about his spiritual path and impressions of Russia
The tradition of education of foreign students in Russian theological schools has ancient roots. In the XIX century, Russia turned out to be not only the stronghold of Orthodoxy in the world, but also the center of church education. Since 1850, Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Syrians were educated in Russian theological academies and seminaries. Some of them returned to their homeland after studying, while others remained in Russia. Among the foreign graduates were future bishops, theologians, church leaders. Today, the idea of getting a theological education in Russia is still popular among foreigners. A correspondent of the “Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate” went to the St. Petersburg Theological Academy to find out what use they plan to find of their theological education, whether it is easy to study, what they dream about and how they plan to serve in their homeland.
Academic Church in the name of the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. Students of the Academy and regular parishioners gathered at the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. The temple is not crowded, the echoes of the pandemic are noticeable – not all students have started full-time training. Meanwhile, all those gathered are praying diligently, there is no usual whispering or exchange of greetings. I notice, on the right, a group of young people who are different from everyone else…
These are our students from Indonesia and the Philippines,-the dean and senior lecturer of the Faculty of Foreign Students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy Nadezhda Vasilyevna Kolesnikova quietly says, – they always pray at divine services near the especially revered icon of the Mother of God “The Sign” of Tsarskoye Selo.
After the service, Nadezhda Vasilyevna takes me around the St. Petersburg Theological Academy and shows the audience where students from other countries study.
All my students regularly, without delay, come to worship services, they do not need to be reminded or warned in advance, – Nadezhda Vasilyevna says. – During the divine services, students of our faculty read the “Trisagion” to “Our Father”, they pray, they work in the refectory, like everyone else. They never refuse to obey.
It is clear that Nadezhda Vasilyevna is ready to talk for hours about her wards. She surrounded the students of the faculty, who have all their relatives and friends very far away, with real maternal care.
Foreign students study at the preparatory department for two years, – explains Nadezhda Vasilyevna. – The first year they study only Russian, pulling up their knowledge to the basic level. During the second year, they continue to study the language, and also master the main program of the department, which includes: biblical history, catechism, liturgics, history of the Fatherland, Church Slavonic and English. At the end of the training, everyone passes an exam in the Russian language and in theological disciplines.
In the corridor, we meet our students and all go together to the classroom where classes are held.
Is it true that Russians rarely smile? – I ask the guys on the way.
Yes! Stefan answers decisively.
Well, not always… Leo refutes.
Basically, yes, – Kirill sums up.
The guys interrupt each other and laugh.
Do Filipinos and Indonesians smile a lot?
Before the class starts, we have time to talk about the students’ impressions of studying and living in St. Petersburg.
What difficulties did you experience in mastering the Russian language? – I’m interested in them.
The most emotional question is about the places they have already visited. Nadezhda Vasilyevna comes to the rescue.
We mostly visit museums and monasteries during the holidays, – the dean explains. – We went to Tikhvin, Kronstadt, the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. But even here in St. Petersburg, students can go out to the city on their own and go to museums, if I can’t accompany them. In St. Petersburg, students visited the St. John’s Monastery, the Chapel of St. Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Nicholas Epiphany and Transfiguration Cathedrals. We have all been to the Hermitage and plan to go there again. I can’t remember everything. For example, three of our students: Leo Gondayao, Kirill Benalon and Dimitri Situmeang, lived for a month in Pskov and the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery. We are going to visit Peterhof in the next vacation.
And what struck you most about Russian culture? – I ask the guys.
“Russian cuisine,” Kirill answers and smiles. The others nod in agreement.
Maslenitsa! – Dmitry is connecting. – Or when people plunge into the river on the feast of the Epiphany. But the most amazing thing in Russian culture is Orthodoxy.
Nadezhda Vasilyevna, smiling, goes on business, the guys go to classes, and I stay to find out from the young man what he was so impressed by the Orthodox life in Russia.
They offered to convert to Islam
Dimitri Situmeang is originally from Indonesia. Now he is 29 years old.
Dimitri’s father is called Gasudngan Situmeang, and his mother is Salavati Simamora. They are Protestants and still live in a small Indonesian village where Dimitri was born. As a child, he lived with his grandparents, and when his grandfather died, he moved to live with his uncle. In 2013, he received a degree in Economics from the University of North Sumatra in Medan. But Dimitri did not have time to work in his profession. The fact is that shortly before graduating from high school, he learned about Christ.
For the first time I heard about Orthodoxy from a Protestant preacher, – says Dimitri. – First he told about Christ, then about the Ascension of Christ and about the history of the first temple. I became interested and began to study articles about the Orthodox faith on my own. He began to visit the church of St. Sergius of Radonezh in Medan, where he was later baptized.
My uncle and aunt are Muslims. The issue of religion in Indonesia is very important in usual life of the family, and a few years ago they suggested that I convert to Islam. I explained that I could not, because Christ is our Savior. Unfortunately, my uncle and aunt could not accept my choice and asked me to leave their house. Medan is a big city, it has more than two million inhabitants. At that time, I was working in a promising company engaged in the export of various consumer goods, but since my uncle had arranged for me to take this position at the time, I lost my job immediately.
For about a year, the newly baptized Indonesian lived in Medan at the temple and he did not have a permanent job.
“It was the most difficult period,” he recalls. – I was longing for my family and one day I decided to call my grandmother, whom I missed very much. In the conversation, she admitted that she really wants me to come home. I told her everything I could about Orthodoxy from the bottom of my heart, but she only sighed bitterly and did not understand me, because she is very old. After that, my heart felt even heavier.
Soon Situmeang was forced to move from Medan to Jambi. There is no Orthodox church in this city on the island of Sumatra, and the young Christian went to services in a Catholic church, but did not receive communion there.
“I cried and prayed to God to help me,” Dimitri continues. – Finally, I moved to Jakarta and found a job as an administrator at a Catholic hospital. I received a scholarship from the Catholic Church to study. Life began to improve. But soon my new friends began to persistently suggest that I convert to Catholicism. But I loved Orthodoxy very much and could not become a Catholic in any way. Therefore, I was very happy when I learned that I could study at an Orthodox seminary.
In 2019, Situmeang returned home and told his father and mother that he wanted to study in Russia. His parents, he said, were horrified. They had no idea where an unfamiliar country was located, and they did not want their son to study “at the end of the world”. But since it was a very important decision for Dmitry, in the end, they agreed.
I like church singing most of all
At first, the Russian language was the most difficult for him.
It’s still difficult, – Dmitry smiles. – For the first six months, I had a feeling that no one understood me, and I didn’t understand anyone. Now I am studying in the first year and I have improved the Russian language a little. We study philosophy and basic theology. Teachers give lectures, and I do not always have time to write down notes.
Dmitry says that he has made real friends in Russia. He has already got used to the usual routine: on school days, students get up at 7:30 in the morning, at 8:00 prayer, and at 8:15 breakfast. Then, at 9:00, classes begin at all courses of the academy and seminary. In addition, foreign students continue to study Russian with teachers and do this for 4 hours a day.
Most of all, I like church singing, – the interlocutor admits. – I really like to sing. Last year at the Academy I had obedience in the choir, this year I am already helping in the altar as a subdeacon of the Vladyka rector.
Ask for help from the Lord
For a long time, Dimitri dreamed of visiting Valaam. When in Indonesia, he saw a video about the monastery on Valaam and was eager to visit it.
The film was in Russian, I didn’t know the language at all at that time, – the future clergyman smiles, – but I knew one thing very well: I just needed to come to Valaam.
For the first time he was on the island in the winter, at Christmas. Dmitry was given the obedience to work in the refectory, although he wanted to be at the services with all his heart. And that’s why I was a little upset.
In the end, the Lord ruled, and I was transferred to obedience as an altar boy in the temple, where I immediately asked for the choir, – he continues his story about the pilgrimage. – They asked me what voice I sing in. I replied that I was a tenor. We went to the regent, Father David. He asked: “Can you sing in Russian?”. Of course I couldn’t. But I really wanted to and received a blessing.
Valaam became a native for the young Indonesian.
The monastery has a different way of life. Constant work, which is not a burden, – Dimitri is sure. – I communicated with the brethren, with people with pure souls, and I understood what grace is. Lay people who come to the monastery are looking for Christ here, and I understand them: in such places He is especially close. I have already made friends on Valaam – familiar monks. I remember how once I made a mistake and read the “Trisagion” twice (instead of thrice) for the divine service. After the service, I went to the hermitage and on the way I cried: “Lord, why?! I have read this prayer so many times!” One monk comforted me – there is no need to get upset, we must continue to read prayers in Church Slavonic more and ask for help from the Lord.
After some time, Dimitri came back to his favorite monastery. On the Feast of St. Sergius he met with the Patriarchal Exarch of Southeast Asia, Metropolitan of Singapore and Southeast Asia Sergiy.
It was some kind of miracle. Vladyka Sergiy knew that I was on Valaam and invited me. At that time I still did not have a cowl, I was in dirty clothes, in which I worked in the refectory and was very shy of my appearance. But when I came to the meeting, it turned out to be completely unimportant. We managed to talk, although at that time I did not understand Russian very well. I was overwhelmed with joy from the meeting with Vladyka. I really fell in love with him during this time. For me, this meeting was exciting and at the same time joyful. Later, in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Ostankino, I met Bishop of Jakarta, vicar of the Diocese of Singapore, Vladyka Pitirim, then he was still a hieromonk. Together with him and other students, we visited Optina monastery. Vladyka Pitirim treated us very warmly and fatherly, we felt his sincere concern for us on that trip.
After studying, Dimitri would like to become a priest and return home.
After graduating from the academy, by the grace of God, I will serve in Indonesia.
But first I want to reconcile with my parents and uncle. They still have not accepted my path, and it is very important for me that my parents understand me.
The future priest has an extraordinary dream – he wants to build a monastery in Indonesia.
I understand, it’s not easy, – says Dimitri, – because I’m not a holy person, here as God willing. And if in an ordinary business everything depends on money, then in such an undertaking everything is given by prayers. Why do I think that everything will work out? In Indonesia, people really want freedom, but everyone has a different understanding of this. In Orthodoxy, a person is called to be free from sin, that’s where real freedom is! And now I understand with all my heart the lines from The Epistles to the Philippians of the Apostle Paul: I can do everything in him who strengthens me Jesus Christ (Phil. 4: 13).
St. Petersburg Theological Academy