Orthodox America

Who is my neighbor?   

A fine rain intensifed the penetrating dampness of the early morning fog. In spite of the weather, a crowd of people filled the small courtyard of the church house.  The door leading into Priest Peter Goremykin's apartment was open, now as always, to these familiar visitors, but he did not greet them, as he was wont, with his welcome smile.  His kind eyes were closed forever.  No more would his kind lips utter words of consolation. He died yesterday, and today all the parishioners had gathered to bow down before the remains of the dearly-beloved pastor.  Even with people leaving after paying their respects, the crowd continued to thicken.  It was not surprising; the deceased was to them not only a father, but a dear mother. He approached each individual with a rare love and tender concern, and helped out in any way he could, whether with counsel and prayer, or with money and other forms of support.  Everyone was sorrowful and entered the house with mournful countenances; strangely, however, on leaving they were bright and joyful.

One of the last to arrive was a student.  A profound grief was written on his face, which was serious beyond its years.  It was evident that life had not dealt him an easy hand, that he had known difficult times, and that this head and these hands had already labored considerably. "Make a line; this is impossible," a voice came from the crowd.  The crowd shifted and gradually formed itself into a spiral following the contours of the courtyard.  The student, somehow dazed and indifferent, observed all this and joined the line near the end.  It was a long wait, but he was occupied with a myriad of thoughts and recollections jostling around in his head. It seemed a long time ago that he had met the departed.  From the first he had become attached to him with a reverent love and filial devotion.  And what a vital role the departed had played in his life! A succession of scenes, one more disconsolate than the other, presented themselves to his mind. Here were his final years at school.  It was a day-to-day struggle, but he scraped along thanks to meagre earnings he obtained by private tutoring.  It was difficult for the family to make ends meet.  He made it through, passed the exams, and there within reach was the crown of his efforts-university.  He payed his hard-earned money and was admitted to the lectures.  His difficulties multiplied; he was constantly in search of private tutoring positions, the studies were very demanding, but with his mother working they managed to get by, and there was always the hope that he would find better paying lessons and that his mother would take in more work.  And so they struggled, looking ahead with hope to the possibility of a good job and being able to contribute something to society.

One day, however, his mother fell ill, dangerously ill.  The last of the savings were spent on medical care, but the boy did not despair.  He managed to support her with his tutoring, and there was even enough money for medicines.  But her illness dragged on, the savings were depleted, and he had to ask for loans.  At home there was no one to look after her and sometimes he was compelled to skip his tutoring sessions, diminishing his earnings. At the same time, the sleepless nights and constant anxiety began to affect his studies; he could no longer keep up and was asked politely to drop out.  With a ten-rouble note in his hand and a dull sense of utter hopelessness, he made his way home.  His mother was worse.  The ten-rouble note did not last long, and there came poverty, naked poverty.  He could not find any lessons and would have been glad to chop wood, but there could always be found those who were stronger and more adept.  Having endured all he could, and alarmed at seeing his mother wasting away, he went begging to neighbors for money for medicine, but the neighbors were themselves poor and could not give much, while the rich did not care to give, and in any case he did not have the courage to ask them.

It was in such circumstances that he came to the desperate thought of suicide.  No more would he have to witness the sufferings of one so dear to him, sufferings he was powerless to alleviate. He would be released from the grip of this constant agony. With this intent, he went one night to the banks of a river.  His resolve was sure.  He recalled that terrible moment as if it were the present.  A numbness settled over him and he was conscious only of a dull aching in his heart.  He did not waver; death was surely preferable to this unbearable existence.  His mother?  She would die in any case.  Nothing was left him but a profound, unalloid despair. All was quiet.  He was ready to jump, when suddenly he heard footsteps nearby.  "I'll have to wait," he thought.  His mind was hazy.  He stood there waiting for the sound of the footsteps to disappear.  Just then, someone gently placed a hand on his shoulder, and a man's voice, loving and compassionate, penetrated his benumbed consciousness. "Come, lad. Come along home with me."

The boy did not move.  It was as though he did not hear, but inside, where it hurt, he felt that these kind words had excised a source of pain. "Come with me, lad," repeated the voice firmly. It was both a request and an injunction, but so gentle, so compassionate and heartfelt that again he felt in his soul that something had been cut away, some badly afflicted part of him.  At the third such behest, the poor boy finally made a move and mechanically followed after the stranger.  He was not aware of what he was doing or of why or where he was going.  As if in a stupor, he walked unsteadily after his saviour, barely lifting his feet.  The stranger led him to his house and into his study, where he sat him down in a soft armchair.  Only then did the boy recover himself and he collapsed with his head on the table; his body convulsed with sobs.

He sobbed and sobbed, the tears washing away, as it were, the pain in his heart, while the stranger's gentle words soothed his agitated spirit. Meanwhile, the kind man prepared him a bed, lay him down, and assuaged his feverish head with cold compresses.  The student fell asleep for the first time in many nights; he slept soundly, without stirring.

When he awoke it was dark.  He started. His mother!  "Where am I?" he cried out. "Here, at my home," said the priest, from a nearby chair.  He got up and went over to the boy. "I'm so glad that you're better now.  I was beginning to fear you had taken ill.  Tell me, my lad, what is troubling you? Tell me, please."

"My mother is dying, and here I am . . ," the boy answered tensely. "Let's go to her at once," offered the priest, helping him to get dressed. "What is the matter with her?  Don't despair. God willing, she'll recover." "Oh, you don't know," the boy blurted out, retreating again into silence. Quietly and carefully but insistently, the priest questioned the boy until finally his story came out. He could not resist the steady and searching gaze of this shepherd of souls.

They dashed out of the house, secured a night cab standing at the street corner, and sped off towards the address indicated by the student. In a rundown neighborhood, they came to a large tenement building packed with dozens of small apartments and still more cramped quarters. There they found the sick woman in a dreadful state. The room was crowded, dirty, unheated and damp. She lay on a cot, groaning and tossing about feverishly. With difficulty they found a candlestub.  In the halflight the room looked even more wretched.

The priest went up to the sick woman, looked at her with an experienced eye and noted, turning to the student, "She is sick with exhaustion, but her case is by no means hopeless.  So get that out of your head.  I'm confident that it's not too late and that we can pull her through."  The sick woman, as if in assent, opened her eyes.

"Would you like to ease your conscience by having confession?" asked the priest.

"We are Jews," broke in the student tersely.

"Oh, I didn't know," said the priest.  "That's all right.  Let's pray together, you in your way and I in mine."  He stood on his knees and prayed quietly, then he got up quickly and, telling the student to stay there at the bedside, he rushed off to the nearest pharmacy.  He returned as quickly with his purchases, having bought whatever might help the unfortunate woman.  He gave her some refreshing and nourishing almond milk. She drank it avidly.  Then he lit the spirit-lamp which he had likewise brought from the pharmacy, and heated up a strong infusion of boullion, into which he broke some white bread, and gave this to the woman.  Gradually she gained some strength, and in half an hour she was able to say a few words.  Her son, meanwhile, did not take his eyes off his benefactor; he could scarcely restrain tears of joy at the sight of this stranger showing such solicitude towards his mother.

By this time morning had brought its light. The priest handed the student a twenty-five ruble note, saying, "Go, buy some fire wood, some tea, sugar, provisions-all that's needed.  I'll stay here with your mother until you get back.  Then I'll have to go."

As if in a dream, the student went about his errand.  Returning with the supplies, he tried to thank his benefactor, but the latter interrupted him. "That's enough, that's enough.  Tomorrow I'll come again.  I'll bring you some more money and see if I can't arrange for you to give some lessons. Don't worry, you'll repay me in time.  I'm sure of it."

When he had left, Simonson, that was the student's name, was overcome with bewilderment: joy and disbelief jockeyed for first place in a chaos of thoughts and emotions.  Only one thing was certain-an Orthodox priest had rescued them from destitution.

The next day and the next, the kind priest visited the wretched hole-in-the-wall, which had now been transformed into a cozy living space. The mother began slowly to recover, and the son was given a decent wage and fee for lectures.  All thanks to kind Father Peter, who had solicited aid from all quarters to meet their needs.

Now his mother was working again.  The student had resumed his studies. Soon he would sit for the final examinations, and ahead he could look forward to a good position which had been promised him through the good services of the same Father Peter.  Simonson was provided for, and then-Father Peter died.

Peace to your remains, kind, extraordinarily kind man!  You, a pastor of Orthodox souls, did not disdain to enter with your whole soul into the unfortunate lot of a non-Orthodox.  You spared neither money nor effort to pull out of a pit an absolute stranger.  And you continued to exert yourself on his behalf, and not once did you try to convince him to adopt your own faith.  He was indifferent, and you, an ardent believer, did not say a word to him about religion.  But what a magnificent hymn of praise to Christ and His teaching, so full of love, you sang with your silence and your actions.  No sermon could have been more eloquent, more effective. With these thoughts, Simonson inched along in line until it was his turn to go into the room.  The person in front of him made a prostration with the sign of the cross and kissed the Gospel lying on the chest of the departed. Simonson likewise fell to his knees.  When he got up, wet with tears, he longed to look upon the face which was so dear to him-but it was covered with an aer.

"So, here it is, the end of your sojourn," he thought.  "Thank you, my teacher, thank you," and he pressed against the cold hand holding a cross. Then, it dawned on him.  Crossing himself, he venerated the cross.  That faith, which had guided such a man and which inspired such actions, must be the true faith.  "I shall follow in your steps, my teacher. I shall give away whatever I can to those in need, and if I come across an unfortunate soul, I'll help him, unsparingly, as you did," he thought as he left.  His face was radiant.

(Translated from Raiskie Tsveti s Russkoi Zemli, Sergiev Possad, 1912; reprinted by the Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, Baldwin Place, NY.)