My father, Pyotr Dyachenko, spent his early childhood in Povolozhye. He was born in 1916, and was still a child during the civil war and didn't yet think for himself. He was too young to fathom adult concerns; at that age he couldn't even if he tried. However, he was witness one day to an incident which he later related to me more than once. This is a story from our family biography, about heartfelt prayer.
The family was large. Peter was the youngest, the thirteenth son. By that time the elder children had already left home, settled in various parts of the country, married. Their father had returned from the front an invalid after the First World War. It fell to my grandmother to run the household. There remained at home only those sons who had not yet reached their majority.
Peter heard the grown-ups discussing the war between the Whites and the Reds, but the fratricidal war, thanks be to God, by-passed their village. By chance Peter overheard his brother Theodore making plans with one of his friends to "run off to war." Secretly from their parents they were gathering up some belongings. Theodore compelled Peter to promise, making the sign of the Cross three times, that he wouldn't divulge their secret to anyone. Once you had given your word, you had to keep it; Peter knew the rule. And so he had to bite his tongue and couldn't say anything about his brother's plans, even to his mother.
The day came when his brother was to leave. Without blinking, Theodore informed his parents that he wanted to study, to get a profession, and for that reason he must leave home. He was fifteen at the time, an age suitable for learning a trade. He gave them to understand that an agreement had been made with a good shoemaker in Saratov, who had agreed to apprentice three boys - Theodore and two of his friends. It was important that they get there by the appointed time, and so they had to make haste to depart. His parents did not object; after all, to become apprenticed to a trade - this was a good thing.
"We must pray before you leave," said the father, and he knelt down before the icon corner. He told his wife and younger sons to kneel beside him. They began with the Lord's Prayer. As soon as they uttered "and lead us not into temptation," the mother suddenly began sobbing uncontrollably, as if she had a presentiment of something dreadful. Without finishing the prayer, the father asked, "What is the matter?"
"My heart suddenly contracted. I am afraid of - I don't know what." The father told Theodore to recite the Lord's Prayer aloud. Peter knew that his brother knew by heart this and other prayers from the the daily prayer rule, but for some reason Theodore began stumbling over the words, and mixing up the phrases. His father told him to begin the prayer again. And again Theodore was unable to recite it. Meanwhile, the mother was loudly weeping, as if she were mourning a dead person in the house.
"You have sinned, Fedya," said his father sternly. "The Lord's Prayer has exposed you." (given you away?)
Then Theodore frankly admitted that his friends had persuaded him to run off to the Red Army, to Chapaev. Together they had agreed to deceive their parents, telling them that they were going to study in Saratov.
At this point the mother took little Peter outside, and so he never knew what else was said between his father and Theodore. He only remembered that afterwards his guilty brother stood for hours on his knees before an icon of the Mother of God, praying intensely, repenting of having told a lie. Theodore's friends ran off to join the Red Army without him. Soon news reached the village that they had been killed.
"Thank you," said Theodore to his father, "for having saved my life." "It was the Lord's Prayer that saved you," declared his father.
I heard this family story when I was young; since then it has gained new meaning for me. It seems to me that lively, heartfelt prayer, which draws us closer to God, also reveals to us God's Truth: what is good and what is evil. One has only to learn to listen carefully to those feelings that are generated in the heart by prayer.
This was confirmed by an incident I found described in the wonderful book, Saint Silouan of Mt Athos (England, 1990, p. 223). There it relates how Fr. Silouan, travelling in Russia in 1905, met in a train a merchant. Wishing to treat the elder, the merchant pulled out a silver cigarette case and offered him a cigarette. Fr. Silouan thanked him but declined a smoke. Then the merchant began extolling the benefits of smoking: it reduces feelings of stress at work, relieves tiredness... Fr. Silouan suggested that the merchant pray each time before smoking, that he say simply the Lord's Prayer. His travelling companion replied that to pray before smoking was impossible; it wasn't done. Father Silouan then concluded, "And so, if you are embarrassed to say a prayer before doing something, it is better not to do it."
Listen to the words of the elder. How simple, and at the same time, how wise. All of us commit involuntary sins in our lifetime, blunders, mistakes. No, not through evil intent but through carelessness; we don't pay close attention to what we are doing. And how many times could such sin be avoided if our thought, our choice, our action or undertaking were preceded by a heartfelt prayer; if only we would turn in time, averting disaster: "Our Father... Thy will be done... And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one..."
All parents who love their children worry about them, fearing lest something bad should befall them. A child is weak and helpless; his young mind does not yet comprehend, he lacks experience in life, and for that reason he is more vulnerable than adults to evil and misfortune. And therefore it is so important to teach children, from the earliest years, to pray fervently, to entrust their hearts to the Lord. For to each is given according to his faith.
A doctor, an acquaintance from the Pediatric Institute, told me how he was once preparing a seven year-old boy for a serious operation. The boy, Vanya, was high-strung; he suffered from insomnia, and constantly cried out of fear. Medicine alleviated his pain, but Vanya was petrified of the impending operation. The day before the surgery was scheduled, his mother spent the morning with him. She brought him some oranges and bananas, thinking to cheer him up with these treats. Vanya ate nothing; a piece stuck in his throat. In the afternoon his father came, bringing Vanya's favorite toy, a furry teddy bear. The boy continued to cry. Late that evening, after the father had left, the boy's grandmother arrived from Novgorod. The doctors did not want to admit her into the ward, thinking she would only further upset the boy.
"What did you bring your grandson?" they asked.
"He needs something else," she answered. "I must pray with him."
Thanks be to God, they did not deny the Orthodox woman her request. In half an hour the doctor looked into the ward. Vanya, pressing to his cheek the cross he wore around his neck, was sound asleep. No, the doctor was not imagining it; the boy really was smiling happily in his sleep. He had entrusted himself to the Lord. And the operation was successful. The doctor was an unbeliever and previously he had considered that prayer had no place in a hospital. After this incident, however, he changed his opinion. "If only there were more such grandmothers," he declared.
Saint Petersburg, 4 December
Translated from Pravoslavnaya Zhizn, April 1998, Jordanville NY