The Novo-Tikhvin Women's Monastery
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Hand-painted icons by the sisters of the Monastery

Donation and blessing

Since January of 2002, a new tax code, which deprived religious organizations of their privileges and makes them functionally equivalent to commercial enterprises, has been in force, requiring religious organizations to pay taxes on their profits. In connection with this law, Patriarch Alexii has said that, serious dialogue with the government on many questions of taxation still awaits us. What we usually refer to as the price of a candle or an icon is actually an offering, and according to Canon law cannot be subject to any kind of tax.

Not many years ago, during the time of the militantly atheistic regime, priests were officially known as employees of the cult. This epithet was intentionally designed to denigrate the mystical service to God and man that is the priesthood.

The social order of our country has changed, and now certain people within the government are trying to represent the priesthood no longer as employees of the cult, but as some kind of businessmen or entrepreneurs. By this fact itself they demonstrate that they see in the Church of Christ not a mystical Divine authority in and above the entire world, but merely a human organization, albeit not without its particular characteristics.

Unfortunately we must acknowledge that at times we give people reason to come to this conclusion, such as when monetary and commercial transactions are routinely carried out on church property, which leads people into temptation. The most frequent example of this is the prices posted for church goods and services in our church bookstores and shops. It is absolutely necessary to explain to our church workers, and especially to our parishioners, that these are not prices; Gods grace is not for sale. The prices marked are nothing more than an approximation of an appropriate donation, posted for the convenience of all involved.

Canon law firmly supports this position. The 23rd canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council states: Let none of the bishops, or presbyters, or deacons, while distributing Holy Communion, demand money or any other thing for such communion from those receiving. For grace is not to be sold, and not for money do we distribute the sanctification of the Spirit, but must distribute it without contrivance to those worthy of this gift. If any of those numbered among the clergy shall be found demanding any kind of recompense from those to whom he gives the Most Pure Communion, let him be deposed. The clergy receive their gifts of grace freely, therefore they must give freely of those gifts to all who are worthy of them (Mt 10.8).

Any reference to grace will confirm that extortion of money or any other remuneration for the Holy Mysteries is strictly forbidden. Of course, clergy have the prerogative to make a living from the altar if they serve the altar (I Cor. 9.14), just as they have the right to accept offerings brought by the faithful. The type and amount of offerings for the benefit of the clergy writes Bishop Nikodim (Milash, a renowned authority on canon law), is left entirely to the voluntary good will of the faithful. At the same time, any kind of extortion of remuneration or payment for the holy Mysteries on the part of the clergy contradicts both the spirit of the law of the Gospel and the attributes of the gifts of divine grace.

The commentary on the 23rd canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council makes reference to the fourth canon of the Holy Apostles, which speaks of the necessity for the faithful to support the clergy materially: Let the first fruits of every other kind be sent to the house of the bishop or of the presbyters and not to the altar. For it is understood that the bishops and presbyters will share them with the deacons and other clerics.

According to Bishop Nikodims commentary, These offerings of first fruits were the only means of support for the clergy in the earliest years of the Church. Although these offerings were voluntary, the faithful were charged with the responsibility of the material support of the clergy. The Apostle Paul clearly states that those who preach the Gospel ought to make a living off of their preaching. The offerings were usually collected by the deacon and presented to the bishop, who had the right to divide them up on his own authority. These offerings were divided into three parts, of which one part went to support the clergy, another was used for liturgical needs, and the third part went to provide help for the poor.

In antiquity, the Church and Her clergy were sustained by offerings from nature. Now, however, especially in our larger urban areas, it is much simpler and more convenient to make offerings to support the church in their monetary equivalent, which makes it possible for the clergy to divide the offerings among their pressing needs: the material support of the clergy and church workers, the restoration and maintenance of the beauty of the temple and the divine services, and, of course, charitable works.

One must not understand the offerings made by the parishioners and the imparting of divine grace to them as a commercial act of buying and selling goods and services. It is demeaning and offensive to believers to consider a moleben (service of intercession) for an ill person, or a funeral service for their departed parent as a paid service, or to consider an icon of the Savior or the Mother of God or Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, or a book of the sacred scriptures as consumer goods.

We cannot agree with this blasphemy or accept the spirit of this age, according to which everything can be bought and sold. The money that is offered in church is not payment, but an offering; the icons, candles, books and other religious items are not consumer goods, but blessings, which have their specific symbolic material expression; they are a blessing for prayer, a blessing for good deeds and a virtuous life.

Is it not the case that we will decline to perform the mystery of baptism for an unprepared person, who does not recognize the significance of this mystery, even though he may offer to pay the appropriate amount of money? And in the opposite circumstances, do we not baptize people who are in need of baptism, asking nothing from them for doing so? Do we not establish libraries of religious literature in military units and in prisons and places of confinement? Do we not also set up prayer rooms with icons and other necessary items in various establishments and take upon ourselves the necessary costs of doing so?

It should be clear from these examples that there is no direct relationship between donations in the form of money and blessings in the form of the performance of mysteries and the acquiring of icons and books. Therefore the fundamental principle of trade, the exchange of money for goods, is not applicable here.

We must not allow a purely ecclesiastical relationship to be turned into the act of buying and selling. Likewise, we must not allow church bookstores to be turned into specialized boutiques of religious goods and services.

It is very sad that our legislature does not wish to regard this purely ecclesiastical phenomenon as something that is legally unique, and an exception to the usual rule, and they thereby profane it and degrade it to the level of mere economic activity.

The great Russian spiritual commentator Saint Theophan the Recluse speaks of this in his commentary on the words of the holy Apostle Paul: If we have sown that which is spiritual within you, is it a great matter that we harvest that which is material? and the commentary on those words of St. John Chrysostom: In order that those who provide for the teachers might think much of themselves, he (the apostle Paul) shows them that they receive more than they give. For what farmers sow, they also reap, but we sow that which is spiritual in your hearts, and reap that which is material, for such is the food that is provided to us. Those who partake of spiritual good things through faith are prepared in and of themselves to give up everything to those who brought them to the communion of these good things. For faith in Christ is not a mere theory, but is rather a matter of the renewal of the soul, which is felt immediately. He who has felt it recognizes that he has been deemed worthy of a great gift, which cannot be bought for any price on earth. How can such a one not be prepared to share all of his earthly goods with his enlightener?

There is nothing further for us to add to these words. We can only hope that we ourselves, priests and lay people, will behave ourselves in such a way that those in authority might see and recognize that it is not commercial acts that take place in church, but rather voluntary donations are accepted and a church blessing is given in a spirit of mutual Christian love.

Church Herald No. 1, 2002

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