Orthodox America

  An Example for Life

Great Lent. Spring is approaching. The sun is beginning to give more warmth. The birds are chirping more merrily. There's a smell of spring in the air... The lenten bell sounds drawn-out and doleful... In church the black coverings and the subdued singing inspire a pensive mood.

      In the small village church, in a comer near the cliros, stands an old woman with a boy, her beloved and only grandson. They are there every day. Both of them look devoutly at the icon and earnestly pray. The old woman is very weak and leans upon the boy. He is a tall, well-built eleven year-old, with a serious face.

      The service ends. The old woman slowly wanders home, supported by her grandson. The boy guides her carefully. They reach their small apartment, the boy unwraps his grandmother's outer garments and seats her carefully in a large easy chair. He spreads a warm shawl on her worn shoulders and lovingly lays his cheek upon her thin, feeble hand. The old woman is blind. Her eyes do not see the serious face of the child. She affectionately feels the head and face of the boy and gently kisses him.

      At one time this old woman was very wealthy. She was the daughter of a rich merchant, and did not know what it meant to be denied anything. Her mother died when she was still young, and her father found as a husband for his daughter a rich, gouty baron. The young girl, pretty and vivacious, became the wife and nursemaid of a capricious, .complaining invalid. With angelic patience she looked after her husband, enduring his whims. She divided her time between looking after her husband and raising her daughter. In ten years' time the baron died. The baroness devoted all her selfless soul to her daughter, who was sickly and feeble. She lived and breathed only for her. When, a year after the daughter's marriage, the girl died, leaving a baby boy, the elderly baroness transferred all her love to the boy. Her son-in-law moved abroad, and the baroness moved with her grandson to a modest apartment. Almost all her estate she distributed to various orphanages and schools.

      She raised the boy, taught him, and passed on to him her sensitive soul, her loving heart. In that quiet little comer, surrounded by gentle love, the young Seryozha grew and developed. He loved his grandmother dearly, his quiet little corner.

    The years went by. Misfortune fell upon the baroness: she became blind. Her meek eyes no longer cast their gentle, caressing glance. For a long time young Seryozha could not accept this and often wept. Then he became accustomed and did not leave his grandmother's side. Blind and frail, she did not forget works of love and mercy. Together with Seryozha, leaning on his boyish arm, she continued to be a guardian-angel to the poor and unfortunate. Meanwhile, she herself faded day by day.

      Every day they went together to their parish church. Returning home, she would sit down in her big chair and rest. The old woman had little strength left, she wouldn't live much longer. They lived in a small, cozy apartment. Seryozha liked their clean, oak-trimmed dining-room, his small, light-filled room, its window looking out onto the yard with its thick foliage. And he liked his grandmother's bedroom, with a whole case of precious icons. He liked to sit there in the gathering twilight. In the evening the stove was well stoked. It was warm in the room. The vigil lamps gently flickered before the icon~. Shadows crawled along the walls. Outside the wind blew.

      The boy's head was filled with serious thoughts beyond his years. In his heart he promised to follow after his grandmother's example. With his child's soul he found in her something holy, something great. He wanted to grow up to be like her - kind and honest.

       The blind woman, unmoving, looked somewhere into the distance. Her thoughts were also serious. She was thinking about her Seryozha. Would he remain as he was, pure and kind? What would life make of him without her, when she was buried? Her heart pained her at the thought.

    From the beginning of Great Lent the old woman began to grow weaker and to feel poorly. Seryozha was sad.

    "Seryozha, let's prepare for Holy Communion next week," said the old woman, sitting one evening with him in her room. "Perhaps I will feel better."

     Seryozha only pressed closer to his grandmother in silence. His heart ached for her. The next week they began to prepare. Every day they would stand in the corner of her room and pray fervently for one another, for all those who suffered and were oppressed. In the evenings a lamp was lit in the small bedroom, and Seryozha read to his grandmother from the Gospel. He read attentively and earnestly. The light from the lamp fell upon the grey head of the old woman, upon her kind, gentle old face; it illumined the fine features of the boy, his serious, grave countenance. The old woman's hand rested upon the boy's head. Seryozha liked to read the Gospel. His grandmother had taught him to understand the holy and truthful words.

       Tears flowed down the boy's cheeks. The blind woman pressed him close to her and soothed him, telling him about God's merciful kindness, His righteousness and longsuffering. The old woman and her grandson prepared diligently to receive the Holy Mysteries. The blind woman became very weak. Seryozha noticed this, he noticed a change come over her face, and his heart was heavy with grief. She was barely able to make it to Confession. After confession Seryozha went with his grandmother to visit some sick people. It was a clear day; the sun warmed the earth. The old woman smiled.

       Meekly and at length she spoke with the sick folk, who blessed her as she left with her grandson to go home.

       That evening they sat for a long time in the little bedroom.

       "Remember, Seryozha, my dear," said the grandmother, caressing the boy, "remember that all people are not evil in their hearts. Learn to find what is good and holy in the soul of each person. Don't judge or blame others for anything, and no one will condemn you. Think more often of the Saviour's Sermon on the Mount. I am old, Seryozha, and I don't know how much longer I will live. You have a father. I wrote to him, and he is returning in a few days. Love your father. Work all your life; do not forget that God gave you life that you might help the poor and suffering. Remember how the Saviour suffered, and how during His Passion He thought only about the sinners. You and I had confession today. I sinned a great deal in my life, perhaps I also did much evil. You, however, still have a pure heart. Guard it, Seryozha, guard it from people and from evil! This is a great treasure, it is your wealth. If you grow up to be a good and honest man, my heart will rejoice and give glory. Do not forget God and your neighbor, Seryozha.

       The voice of the old lady, although quiet and weak, conveyed such love, such kindness and fervent faith, and it awakened in the soul of the young boy good feelings and thoughts.

      "Live with me, Grandma," pleaded the boy. 'I won't be able to live without you. I shall die. I can't live without your hands, your voice. Remember, Grandma, I shall die." The boy wept bitterly, pressing against the beloved breast. Tears from the blind eyes fell upon his head.

      The next day they received Holy Communion. The old lady was calm and cheerful. She spent the whole day talking with her grandson, explaining passages from the Scripture, caressing him. Before he went to bed, she kissed him warmly, and with her trembling hand, blessed him with the sign of the Cross. A tear fell upon his brow. For the last time she kissed her beloved boy.

      The next morning Seryozha awoke calm and cheerful. The sun peeped brightly through the window. The clean spring air poured through the open casement. Somewhere in the blue sky a lark was singing. Seryozha ran into his grandmother's room and stopped short. She sat in her chair, her head tilted back. In her hands rested a Bible.

      Seryozha took her hand. It was cold and heavy. She did not breathe. Her heart no longer beat with infinite love and kindness as it used to. She had died. Seryozha fell unconscious beside the chair.

      A few days later the dear old lady was buried. Seryozha's father spared no expense for the funeral. But the best reward she received were the tears of all the poor people who followed after her coffin. Another grave in the cemetery. They sprinkled earth over Seryozha's grandmother, they wept, they left, and they calmed down. Only one poor child's heart refused to be consoled. Seryozha could not forget his Grandma. How much gentleness, how much kindness, how much self-denying love he had lost. The pain tore at his child's heart. For hours the boy lay sobbing on the fresh grave, his tears watering the earth. The sun shines warmly from the clear sky. The lark sings a cheerful song of spring. The honorable heart rests quietly in the damp earth, asleep forever. 

A chapter from Semya Pravoslanogo Khristianina, Holy Trinity Monastery 1958, reprinted in Pravoslavaaya Zhizn, April 1973.

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