Brad (Reader Irenaeus) Jersak
I experienced spiritual care and
profound healing through Vladika Varlaam Novakshonoff over the course of
eighteen years. As my confessor, time and again he shepherded me gently
from shame, self-loathing, and despair back to the gospel of God’s
great mercy and the good news of forgiveness in Christ. He embodied that
In 2018, I experienced a long year of chronic grief and seething fury. I was feeling this pain and anger because, at the time,
my son’s daughter had left him and taken their daughter (our only grandchild) and told us we would never see her again.
My son was broken and came home feeling hopeless, as his family was now in Korea. I had never seen him so beaten. I managed my emotions about the situation as best I could but usually, I experienced a bad blend of repression, insomnia and could only pray imprecatory psalms. I felt sad all the time and was unable to smile or forgive. When my rage would overflow at home, I would eventually opt for a long walk. On one of these walks, I figured I had better just sputter the Jesus Prayer until the obsessive anger lifted. I strode up the sidewalk, repeating the prayer about three hundred times: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Once that was off my chest and my mind was finally quiet, I recalled Jesus Christ’s gentle invitation from the Gospel: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Instead of addressing my emotional tumours or vengeful imaginations, all that came was Christ’s offer of simple reprieve: “Come to Me… I will give you rest.” I chose to surrender to his care, letting out long sighs and inhaled his solace. That was Saturday. The next morning was the Divine Liturgy at the monastery, where I serve as a reader and often sing the six Psalms and our
many litanies asking for divine mercy. But it was also my weekly time of confession with Bishop Varlaam. Through his ministry, I found the Epistle of James to be true: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” I had developed regular pattern over many years of therapeutic confession with Vladika Varlaam. He truly an angel of grace and seasoned in Christ-centred wisdom. I shall never forget his kindness, especially because he understood confession as a place where we embody compassion and Grace to those who are struggling.
Confession with Vladika was not primarily about assessing my guilt or requiring penance. Above all, it is a time for him to hear my anxieties and speak the good news of Jesus Christ’s love and forgiveness to my accusing conscience. He always, always lightened the load, reminding me to return to the heavenly Father’s house as soon as possible, without fear or self-hatred.
On this particular Sunday, still feeling the effects of my grief and anger, I went to Vladika as usual. There was always a
line-up, sometimes through the whole service. His hips were already very bad, and he was in chronic pain, so he remained in his seat while I knelt beside him. As became our practice, he covered my head with his omophorion, and I came to cheek to cheek with him—the safest feeling on earth.
“What’s troubling you?” he stared as usual. He knew whatever my sins, behind them was a suffering soul in need of mercy.
“I’m furious,” I said, picking up my grief and anger once again. He replied gently, thoughtfully, “Of course. We all experience times of hurt and anger. That comes with the human
condition. But the problem is that our grief and anger make us so weary. And you are exhausted. Perhaps today you could hear just hear these words of Jesus: ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’”
Ah, those words again. Just what I needed! Vladika would deny that he was clairvoyant—that he simply recognized patterns after many decades of confession with tens of thousands of his spiritual children. But in this case, I was not convinced. He read my heart so often without even hearing my confession. But I do know this: on this occasion, a 1000-pound burden began to lift from my shoulders, neck, and back. The spiritual healing was now releasing my body as well.
He quietly prayed the liturgical ending to the confession, crossed, and released me.
As I rose to return to the readers’ stand, I noticed a new-to-me antique icon of Christ sitting on a stand beside Vladika. I asked about it, he explained it was a recent gift, but more than three centuries years old. The icon depicted Jesus holding an open Bible—the Gospel, actually. A verse was written on the page, but I couldn’t read it because it was in Slavonic—old Russian. “Which verse is that?” I asked. “What does it say?” Vladika struggled through his hip pain to stand up, then leaned close to the icon and, running his finger over the painted wood, began translating: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” I was a bit stunned to receive the message a third time. But Vladika said, “Dmitri needs you. It is time for you to read,” and sent me away.
I shuffled back to over to Dmitri, where three of my fellow readers were taking turns praying aloud the ancient prayers in
preparation for the Eucharist. Dmitri was already waiting for me, already holding the blue prayer book open to “The First Prayer of St. Basil the Great.” I began to pray it aloud for the congregation, using St. Basil’s words to express my own heartfelt confession. Do you know t?
“ I have wholly subjected myself to sin and am a slave to pleasures and have defaced your image. Yet being the work and creation of your hands, I do not despair of my salvation; but emboldened by your immeasurable compassion, I draw near. Receive even me, O Christ, friend of man, as you did the harlot, the thief, the publican, and the prodigal; and take away the heavy burden of my sins, you who takes away the sin of the world, who heals our infirmities, who calls to yourself those who labour and are heavy laden and gives them rest, who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance . . .”
By God’s Grace, I had once again experienced Christ, our great Physician and wonderful Counsellor through my beloved confessor, Bishop Varlaam. The “rest” I found was not merely a diversion or reprieve from our weariness. It was medicine
for my soul. Perhaps Vladika was my pharmacist, in that sense, freely dispensing mercy in Christ’s name. As I rested from my drama, the gentle embrace of Christ embodied in Vladika applied balm to my wounds and soothed my raging heart.
His meek touch was not merely a “there, there” platitude, but a powerful and effective ministry of detox and rehab for the passions and impulses that would morph me into the monsters I hate. I wasn’t just grant rest. His rest was healing my hurt and grief, purifying my anger of malice and renewing my heart with the uncreated energies of divine Grace.
P.S. The best is yet to come. Shortly after this event, a spiritual blessing was unlocked. My broken-hearted son became Orthodox, Vladika became his godfather and confessor, and after his chrismation (as Antony), learned to extend mercy and forgiveness to his ex-wife. That mercy then began to transform her. She miraculously owned her part in the marital breakdown and completely let go of judging my son. She made a complete confession of her lack of mercy and welcomed
our family back into her life and the life of our granddaughter. Although they are still divorced, my son and his ex-wife are now good friends, both living in Seoul, reconciled, and enthusiastically co-parenting their daughter.
Central to this story was the ministry of Christ through Vladika. He was saint. Is a saint. I look forward to the Church canonizing formally what so many of us knew directly.
I met Vladyka Varlaam Novokshonov for the first time in 2011, just a
year after arriving in Canada, on that day my husband and I, exploring
the city of Mishin, in which we had just bought a house then, came
across a wonderful, cozy Orthodox monastery in the middle of the
mountains. We were cordially together with Vladika Lazar, he led us on a
tour of the monastery with such sincerity, kindness, warmth that I
immediately wanted to go to this Monastery permanently and stay there
for longer. Later I began to visit the Monastery in Mission almost every
Sunday, communication with Vladika Varlaam became for me a necessary
warm piece of irreplaceable Russian Orthodox Spiritual culture, in
communication with Vladika Varlaam, simple and wise spiritual truths
were revealed, he was always in prayer, during a sermon, and in simple
communication with him in the monastery garden, in the kitchen over tea,
which he loved so much , both in the library and on the phone, he found
for us personally those very wise, kind, seemingly simple, but at that
very moment the most necessary words. Sometimes Vladika himself called
me on the phone at the office, when, as it seemed to him, I disappeared
for quite a long time, he sincerely cared and worried about us and all
his spiritual children. Sometimes we could warn Vladika Varlaam in
advance an hour or two, even in the evening, that we would come in order
to talk about something important, just hug him, drink tea together,
but even when his legs or hip were already very sore in recent years, he
always found time, strength, and a place for us in the monastery, When
we left, he stood under the round white arch of the monastery, warned us
about raccoons and bears, waving at us and baptizing us after us with
happy tears flowed down my cheeks, hands squeezed honey-scented candles
made by Vladika himself, and it always seemed to me that a real Saint
was baptizing after us, blessing us, like Nicholas the Wonderworker,
Sergei of Radonezh or Saint Seraphim of Sarov. My heart felt light,
light, warm, clean and comfortable, as in childhood on the knees of his
parents. an extraordinary ability to make a person smile, dispel the
black clouds of fate overhead, so that the sun comes out, soften the
soul and heart of any parishioner.
Resentments against other people melted and receded, tears dried up by themselves, the most difficult became simple and clear, any sorrows disappeared. Each confession one could feel the faint scent of roses emanating from the hands, beard and robes of the Vladika Varlaam, he bent over the confessor and quietly asked : “Well, tell me, sweetheart / darling, what is in your soul, what worries you?” And the soul softened, and the heart opened up to meet the Lord and the Lord, and I wanted to confess all sins, tell everything, and the speech flowed freely, like a river. “
Several times, no many times, the correct word Vladika helped me in a state of complete despair, when I just wanted to howl like a wolf, for the first time in the event of the loss of the closest person – my dad, I was very worried, very worried that due to circumstances I did not I could get to Moscow for the funeral of my father, that 9 days have passed since my death, but I could not order a memorial service and a requiem for the 9th day on time and was late for a day, Vladika hugged me, consoled me, listened, let me cry, and then said: ,, They do not have time there, it is not so important 3 days, 9 days, 40 days, of course, you have to pray on these days, but you can and should pray on the 10th day and just always pray here for them, and we will pray together be sure, we love them, remember, pray for them here from the bottom of our hearts, it becomes easier for them there, but here, prayers are needed not only by the dead, they are needed by the living! “And my heart revived, and opened and took wings, there was hope in life, light at the end of the tunnel, desire to live. shi hearts with one conversation, with one touch of warm hands, with one glance, he knew how to heal souls and suffering hearts.
Once we had a strong quarrel with my spouse, who, although he belongs to a different culture and a different faith himself, always respects and loved our Monastery and personally both Vladikas very much, did a lot to help our native Monastery, I had to move temporarily from my husband to a friend’s house, where I lived for about a month and a half, it was about parting with my husband after 12-13 years of marriage. Vladika Varlaam was very upset with this news of ours and this decision, my act, he tried in every possible way to support me, dissuade and reconcile, he took over me the true spiritual patronage, Vladika called me himself almost every day, checked my state of health, mood, condition, invited and urged me to come to the Monastery more often, then he appointed obedience to one woman from our regular parishioners so that she would call me, control, bring me to The monastery more often, he prayed for our reconciliation with my husband, asked me to pray to the icon of Theodorovskaya Mother of God, which I constantly did, reading the psalms, praying thanks to the guidance, advice and prayers of Vladika and the help of this kind parishioner, I looked at this situation differently, listened to my husband’s position, became calmer, more sensitive and forgiving, we forgave and accepted each other, reconciled In this way, Vladika Varlaam saved families, people, destinies, souls with his prayers, his inexhaustible kindness, his bright faith in the Lord and in people, his boundless prayer and effective help, shaking hands, hugs, hours and minutes devoted to sincere conversations. He was open and hospitable, sensitive to all people who respect other people and Orthodoxy, Jews, Muslims and Christians of other confessions could come and come to the monastery for advice, warmth, support, care, they were told about Orthodoxy, about our usual, services, icons, and the latter again wanted to come to Vladika.
Vladika Varlaamwas not only my warm and sincere adviser,
wise mentor and friend, he was like my dad, like my own grandfather,
although we are not linked by any family ties, he was our common unique
Spiritual Father, Confessor, Physician, Healer, he was a Saint , and
Vladika Varlaam will forever remain for us the true Saints from Canada,
Mission, Dewdney, healing souls and hearts, reconciling warring parties,
helping everyone who comes to him sincerely, we still go to Vladika’s
grave at the Heritage Garden Cemetery and, standing on our knees before
the grave, we pray to the Lord, we ask our Vladika Varlaam for warm
intercession and help to all of us sinners.