Orthodox America


 The Greatest Joy 


By Archpriest Valentin Sventitsky

Is it true that unbelievers have no need of religion?

    In a small church a wedding is in progress. “The servants of God Alexander and Helen are joined together...'' They are a good looking couple, both well built and blooming with health. They fell in love long ago. Why? For the same reason, one supposes, that so many young people fall in love--physical attraction.

      They share the same convictions; neither believes in God, nor in a supernatural world. This was reflected in the setting of the wedding: the church was not illumined; the "choir" consisted of a single psalm-reader, even though a decent choir could be had at a moderate cost. The bride was not dressed up in the traditional manner; her outfit was plain, almost casual. The same was true of the groom.

      "What's the point of all this, all these external rites?" they said. "We came to get married in a church only because we couldn't really do otherwise; our old people wouldn't allow it. So old fashioned.. But what can you do! They say you have to get God's blessing. Well, let them have their way! It's not worthy arguing."

      The ceremony ended. The young couple kissed each other. Two or three witnesses shook their hands. The newlyweds took the first train to the village where they had both received teaching positions. 

    It's evening in the village of T. A young couple heads to a nearby forest for a walk, a breath of fresh air. It's our acquaintances, Alexander and Helen, the "teacher" and "teacheress", as they were called in the village.. ......

      “Sasha! Isn't it wonderful! What a fragrance! And what a view! There's your school, there's the church. Isn't it lovely!"

      "You've been in the local church, haven't you Lena?"

      ''Yes, I looked in one day. It's on the way to my school."

''Well?"

      "It's nothing particular. The usual. There was an old priest, a psalm reader in the choir. Old men and women bowing."

"And did you bow?"

      "No," answered Helen, smiling. "You know how I feel about religion. You yourself told me that I'm strong-opinioned, remember? We live well enough without God. I wanted to write this to mother, but I don't want to hurt the old lady...Besides, it would only prompt her to order another service of intercession, and she can't afford such a waste of money." 

    It's night in the clean, cozy apartment of the teaching couple. The room is dim; people are tiptoeing about, whispering, clearly worried. In an adjacent room a young boy lies in bed. It's the couple's eldest son; he's seriously ill with croup complicated by pneumonia. "What will the doctor say? Perhaps be made a mistake, perhaps it's not as bad..." Helen dares think to herself. ''Well?" ask the parents, as the doctor finishes examining the boy. "Let the medicine take effect. Tomorrow, we’ll know," the doctor replies, avoiding the eyes of the anxious parents. Alexander accompanies the doctor out the door. The doctor turns to him. "Somehow you'd better prepare Helen... It's hopeless. The boy will not survive the night." 

         Three ours later the agony begins. It' is obvious that the boy is dying.

       "You might at least place an icon in the comer and light a vigil lamp. It would ease his sours departure, if you don't want to call a priest," offered compassionately an elderly woman who had come to help the popular teachers.

       "That's enough, Grandma Malanya," said the teacher. No icon or vigil lamp can help, let alone a priest. It's too late. We should have called a doctor sooner."

       "It's your child, and your decision," remarked the old woman sadly. 

     The same apartment. Suffering departed and a profound peace has settled upon the face of the dead child.

       "How ever are we going to bury him, Helen?" asks Alexander, trying to comfort his wife. "We'll have to call a priest. Here among these villagers one can't do otherwise. Remember how they insisted he be baptized?"

       ''Yes, of course, he'll have to be invited. And we'll have to ask Simeon Simeonovich, the psalm reader, to sing something nice with his choir... Ask him, please, Sasha, so that everything would be done as it should be... We'll have to get candles, a coverlet. Our dear Valya..."

       Alexander went to see about the funeral arrangements. Helen was drawn again to the coffin. "My darling son, what more can I do for you! There's nothing to buy here, no flowers, no ribbons... I know you don't need such things, but I, what consolation can I find? My heart is torn, I don't know how to convey my love for you! Perhaps this is what all these rituals are about, maybe they are inspired by the human heart..." But Helen did not pursue this thought; it made her uncomfortable; she felt it contradicted her way of thinking, her whole way of life; it was new, painful. "Now's not the time for such philosophizing!" she determined, and silenced her thoughts on the matter.

      Many people had gathered in the village church for the funeral of five year-old Valentin. At Helen's request the large candles had been lit. Other candles surrounded the small coffin. The choir, under the direction of Simeon Simeonovich, sang with feeling, inspired by the grief of those present. The elderly priest served his part. Everything was just as it always was. But now Helen saw not only some outward form, some external ritual. It suddenly acquired meaning, the ritual came alive...

      Helen couldn't remember how she took leave of her son. For some reason there stuck in her mind the words sung by the choir, "O, my child, who would not weep thy lamentable translation from this life! A babe from thy mother's arms, like a fledgling thou hast flown swiftly hence, and hast fled unto the Creator of all men..." "I can't let him go, I can't let him go!" sobbed Helen. Tears rolled down Alexander's face. Three year-old Vanya, their youngest son, was also crying. Nearby stood Malanya. Everyone felt sorry for the popular "teacher and teacheress."

      “So they've all come, although they don't want to know God. And ours who have gone astray....The Lord and King of Heaven will enlighten them. But 1 suppose you can't quarrel with them..." 

      A city apartment. The rooms are brighter and the ceilings higher than in T., but it is similarly cozy and tidy. The death of his son affected Alexander deeply, and he decided at the first opportunity to move to a city in order to be less dependent on chance, thanks to which he had lost his first son. Had they been able to get hold of a doctor sooner...

      Seven years had passed. Alexander's second son, Vanya, was already ten, and doing well in school. He was obviously a gifted child..

In the apartment we find a consultation in progress. Vanya has been ill for two weeks: croupy ]pneumonia. Alexander was already preparing himself for the worst. It was the same all over again, the same symptoms, the same development. And the outcome would be the same, he was sure of it. Even the doctor held no promise. But it was soine time before Alexander could bear to tell Helen. What could he say? How could they possibly part with a second child... And Helen loved him so. They had no other children. But he had to tell her. Helen became frantic. She began racking her brains, calling for help to everyone but God. "Sasha, call the best doctors! rll spend my last penny...!"

      So a consultation was called. The parents anxiously awaited the verdict. "Perhaps...?" The door opened and the doctors came out. The first three left with hardly a word. Only the child's own doctor went up to the parents. "Croupy pneumonia. What can one do?" he said, shrugging his shoulders, and added, as if embarrassed, "Everything depends on God's will." 

      Helen no longer heard the doctor. It was as if she were offended by his prognosis. She went in alone to her son. "What does this mean! There, in T. we were late; that's why we lost Valya. This time we did everything, everything humanly possible. Is man really so powerless? Maybe we should pray, maybe we should ask that unseen Power which people worship. Maybe something will come of it?"

      Helen was seized by a feeling of hope. "Where should I stand to pray? Somehow it doesn't seem right without any icons. I must get an icon." Helen remembered that her elderly cook, a very pious woman who often visited monasteries, had many paper icons, crosses, flacons of oil. Helen went and brought back an icon of St. Seraphim, but finding Alexander standing at Vanya's bedside, she concealed the icon under a sheet of newspaper. 

    It was late' at night. Vanya's condition had worsened. He could no longer speak. He lay quite still, his head to one side. Both parents kept an anxious watch. Alexander in particular was exhausted.

      "Sasha, you should get some rest, you look awful,'' said Helen.

      "I won't sleep, I'll just lie down for awhile. If he gets worse, call me."

      But as soon as Alexander lay down, he was overcome by a deep sleep.

      Assured that her husband was asleep, Helen took the hidden icon of St. Seraphim and placed in on a table in the corner. ''People talk a lot about St. Seraphim," thought Helen. 'They say he loves children, that he helps them. I'll ask him to send us help from above." Helen knelt down before the icon. She prayed. Her prayer wasn't the prayer of a religious person. She crossed herself awkwardly, quickly. She wasn't accustomed to any of this. But while the outward expressions of her prayer were immature, untutored, her soul became thoroughly immersed in her prayer. She was, after all, praying for her child, and she expended her every resource for his salvation. It was her last resort.

      Suddenly she heard behind her a faint rustle. "Is Alexander awake?" Helen quickly stood up from her knees and turned around. She started with fright. Was she hallucinating, delirious?! A feeling of panic raced over her in the face of a mysterious power... From the doorway, she saw distinctly, a cloud floated, and on the cloud stood St. Seraphim, all in white, with a sack thrown over his shoulders and a staff in his hand, exactly as he was depicted in the icon before which Helen had been praying. The cloud floated towards Vanya's bed. The Saint looked intently at the sick child. Helen was afraid to move; she was covered with goose bumps. The cloud stopped over the bed, it began to fade...and disappeared. At that very moment, Vanya, who had been lying immobile, opened his eyes and, in a loud, clear voice, said, "Mama, rub me with the oil of St. Seraphim. I've just seen him."

     Seen him?!"

"Yes, Mama, I saw him!" "And what?"

       "He did this with his hand," and Vanya motioned as if to bless. "And he said, 'Ask to be anointed with the oil from Fr. Seraphim and your sickness will go away.'"

      Already the boy gave the impression of being quite well, or as if he had just awakened from a deep sleep.

     Helen remembered that in the kitchen the cook had some oil from St. Seraphim, and she ran to fulfill the Saint's instruction. She had no more doubts. She could have been mistaken, she could have hallucinated, but the boy, the boy!... He didn't know I was praying; he never saw this in our home, none of us prays. And he couldn't be lying--and just at the very moment when I saw the Saint. Besides, Vanya never lies. And this change, so sudden, in his condition? What's the cause of it?

       She had no doubt that it was a miracle from God. Vanya was healed! She flew into the kitchen as if on wings.

       Alexander was stunned. At first he thought Helen must have lost her mind. She didn't look herself...and what she said! Excited, passionate talk about God...about miracles. It was one of two things: either Helen had gone crazy or, indeed, there had really occurred a miracle. It was obvious that Vanya had experienced a sudden change for the better, inexplicably. And how could one explain it if not by some supernatural power? Just hours earlier human wisdom had consigned Vanya to death, but now Vanya looked completely healthy. Helen was telling about such strange things. But, thought Alexander, I know her well; she's an intelligent woman, absolutely truthful. Something extraordinary must indeed have happened. I feel it in my heart.

       Alexander paced the room for a long time, lost in thought. Helen watched him. She understood that her husband was analyzing what had just taken place, and she sensed that whatever he concluded would bring to their lives either complete oneness of mind or radical discord. It was an anxious moment.

       Just then, Alexander stopped--and crossed himself. Helen's heart raced with joy. He believed!

     The next day was, as the couple expressed it, a day of 'holy illumination." By noon some purchased icons adorned the walls of the apartment with lighted candles before them, just as in the homes of the simple believers in the village of T(..). The main icon corner was literally ablaze. These no nonsense people now followed after Christ with the same firmness which be/ore had marked their scorn of religion. Everything was ready for a thanksgiving service. The psalm-reader Fedoseyevich was already there, and they were awaiting the priest who this time was unusually late. There was a ring at the door, and Fedoseyevich went to open it, sure it must be the priest. It was the doctor. "Already?" asked the doctor, seeing the candles and assuming the boy had died.

       "Please, doctor! No, our boy has much improved," answered Helen. "How, improved??

      "Well...;' and Helen related what had happened. The doctor listened, then smiled condescendingly and said:

      "Of course, there's a great deal that goes on in this world that we cannot explain... True, there are cases when religion, by some means as yet unknown to science, appears to have a healing effect. Professor N. wrote about this..."

      "And you, doctor," interrupted Helen, "knew of course that religion sometimes helps?"

      The doctor obviously did not expect such a question and replied awkwardly:

       'The professor, whom I just mentioned, wrote..."

But Helen was no longer listening. ''Hypocrite!" she thought, walking away from the doctor and into her son's room. "If you really believed in what you are saying, you should have said something, you should have said there is something quite harmless that is known to have helped.., that millions of people in times of great need have recourse to... O Lord!" sighed Helen, "we think we're so great..."

       The priest came in, and the doctor quickly took his leave.

       The thanksgiving service began. For the newly enlightened Orthodox Christians, the words of the service were a wondrous revelation: "Rejoice, thou who art above the angels...O most holy Mistress, from all misfortunes preserve Thy servants; we praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit, crying: O Holy Trinity, save our souls." 

       A large monastery. In spite of its being a weekday, a crowd had gathered in the church and in the monastery enclosure in order to venerate the relics of the man of God. At the monastery gates there stood and sat countless poor people, cripples, all types of disabled: without arms, without legs, blind, paralyzed, people with frightful sores; and then there were those who were simply down-and-out, depressed, alcoholics, those scarcely beating the image of man... They were such a sorry-looking lot, wretched, dressed in rags and tatters. They knew that it was useless to gather at the doors of some temple of art, that only at the temple of God, or here, at the relics of the God-pleaser, would they find compassion, human kindness, a greeting, assistance in their misfortune... And they are not mistaken. Their hearts softened by the Divine service, by the Word of God, by the example of the God-pleaser, the people do not ignore these needy ones.

       A tall, pretty woman accompanied by a young boy makes her way among these poor. It is Helen and her son. She had planned to come alone, but Alexander had insisted that Vanya also go along.

       “Wasn't it wonderful to be in the cathedral, Mama," said Vanya.

       "Yes, indeed, especially for those who believe in God."

"And you, Mama, don't you believe in God?"

       ''Yes, my child, I do. And Papa believes." As she said this, Helen sighed.

       “'Why do you sigh? It's a good thing that you believe in God!"

       ''Well, you see, previously Papa and I did not believe in God, and then the Lord opened our eyes with a miracle. But Jesus Christ said, Blessed are those who do not see and believe."

       And she explained to Vanya what that meant.

(Translated from Trezvon, No. 82, Nyack, NY)

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