Chapters 21 and 22 of Boris Shiriayev 's Unfading Light tell the inspiring story of Fr. Nikodim [surname unknown], for many years father-confessor and loving shepherd of believers who languished and died in the Solovki concentration camp. Among Father Nikodim's spiritual children were many "Tikhonites" whose main crime was to reject the 1927 declaration of Metropolitan Sergius. True Orthodoxy has suffered much and continues to suffer at the hands of those who accept corruption and compromise. As the new century begins, the signs of the times indicate that further trials await Orthodox faithful both inside Russia and abroad. We would do well to prepare ourselves by studying the shining example of Fr. Nikodim, lovingly called by his spiritual children "the comforting priest" (utieshitielny pop). In what follows, I have somewhat modified Shiriayev 's account in order to relate the story of Fr. Nikodim within the limits of a brief article. May the resulting imperfections not unduly obscure the glory of this righteous man. Fr. Nikodim pray to God for us!
Shiriayev 's narrative begins with the arrival of Fr. Nikodim one winter evening in the late 1920s. He first came to the writer's attention in the barracks of the Transfiguration Cathedral where new prisoners were herded directly from the steamer without being sorted out. Actually, he did not see him, but rather heard him. Visibility was poor; high above the prisoners, beneath the charred and sooty arches of the ancient temple several dim bulbs emitted a feeble, yellowish glow. Below, in the fog of evaporation from wet clothing and the breath of two thousand people packed into a solid mass, one could scarcely make out the posts of three-tiered bunks extending along the walls and between the columns supporting the arches. Throughout them swarmed a thick crowd that spilled all about like dark gruel.
"Like worms in rotten carrion.... Have you ever seen the like?" grumbled a man who was searching for familiar faces amidst the new arrivals. He, as it turns out, had previously been a rural veterinarian. "You wouldn't recognize your own brother in this jumble. Everyone looks alike, a faceless mass; protoplasm, not people!"
This "protoplasm" hummed and buzzed monotonously like a disturbed beehive. It was quieter, however, by one of the thick, square pillars nearest the broken iconostasis, despite the fact that the cluster of faceless human bodies there was even thicker. One could see only colliding, overlapping torsos.... Suddenly a triumphant voice cut through the hum of the crowd. Ignoring the depressing and indecent conversation around him, a simple priest was telling a story with remarkable exuberance. This was Fr. Nikodim explaining a fresco of the Prodigal Son on the pillar beside him:
"And he made it, after all, he made it! He was all covered with sores and scabs, you know; he'd worn his feet to a bloody pulp, of course--that's rocky country there, hard on bare feet. But he made it nonetheless and fell to his knees. There! Tomorrow morning, take a look and you'll see. Painted on this pillar directly behind me: he's kneeling--that's the son--and extending his open arms upwards--that's the father. He's rejoicing, that is, thanking the Lord." Fr. Nikodim continued to give a vivid paraphrase of the parable from the Gospel of St. Luke (15:11-32).
A small crowd gathered around the jubilant priest. Some were curious, while one skeptic with a thunderous bass engaged him in a debate: "So it happens in Scripture, as you teach batiushka, but in real life you get quite the opposite. A scoundrel like that shouldn't be let back into the house. Why I'd ... "
"That's exactly where you're wrong!" countered Fr. Nikodim, explaining that love is the surest method of correction. To drive home the point he offered an illustration from daily life: "How does your wife train the cow to give milk without resistance? How then? She collects some slop and offers her a snack, right? The cow gets a treat, some love, am I right? What would a beating have produced?" When the owner of the raspy bass was forced to agree, Fr. Nikodim said, "Now would you rank a human being, your own son, beneath a farm animal?" This shamed the skeptic into silence as other listeners clamored for more: "Be quiet and let him continue. Go on, father!"
Fr. Nikodim described the disappointment of the faithful son: "Hey papa, he said, I've worked so much for you and you've given me no reward. But just look how you've honored that brother of mine!"
"Of course, he's indignant," droned on the low voice, "It's as if he were personally insulted!"
"Again you're wrong. There's no insult here at all. Look, if you lose a ruble or a fifty kopeck piece, say, and then find it again; you're glad, right? Of course, you are, even though you might have ten rubles at home as well. But the newly-found coin is still a greater joy beside the other money. It was lost but suddenly recovered again!" At this, one of those eagerly listening to Fr. Nikodim lit a scrap of paper to shed light on the fresco that had generated so much interest.
Shiriayev returned the following afternoon, feeling an inexplicable need to talk to Fr. Nikodim. He found the priest on his bunk basking in what little sunlight penetrated the gloom of the barracks through a narrow window. "Have you come on some specific business, or simply to see me for yourself?" inquired the priest. Shiriayev admitted to being uncertain of his motivations. "That's how it is sometimes:" noted Fr. Nikodim, "a person stumbles about not knowing where he's going, when suddenly he happens upon a sign or indication which leads him to find something he needs. Just look at the sunshine today!" Exposing his whole face to the light, he opened his mouth as if imbibing the warmth. "What joy, just like spring!" There followed a sort of introductory interview between the priest and his new spiritual son:
"Whereabouts are you from, my son? Are you from simple folk or of noble stock?" "Well, I'd have to say that 'noble' is out of the question. I'm a CR, father, Counter-Revolutionary."
"An officer then? So what do you mean 'not noble'? You officers were hailed 'your nobility' [vashe blagorodiye] and rightly so. Without it, an officer's not an officer. How long are you in for?"
"That's a bit on the long side. But don't grieve, son. You're young yet.
There'll be life left after you've done your time. Married?"
"Didn't get around to it."
"And glory to God. You won't be missing anyone. Are your parents living?"
"My father is dead; my mother lives with my sister."
"Again, praise the Lord. So, no need for sorrow: your mother is settled and the Lord Himself is looking after your father. Be glad! A real winner, with only life and more life to look forward to!"
"What the devil is there to be glad about in a life like mine?"
Father Nikodim abruptly turned away from the ray of sunlight. His face turned gray and strict, even angry.
"Don't talk like that. Never talk like that. There's no joy from [the evil one], just sorrow and despondency. But from the Lord there's joy and merriment."
"Some merriment! Stay a while and you'll get a good taste of the 'merriment' around here. The Lord has rewarded us with gifts, all right."
"And, so you're a fool after all," said Fr. Nikodim with a sudden laugh.
"An utter fool, nobility notwithstanding. You probably even studied at the university; am I right?"
"Yes, I managed to graduate just before the war."
"What a fool! You've attained to higher philosophical wisdom, you've learned to locate stars and other celestial objects, but have no idea how to acquire earthly happiness, ordinary happiness, so to speak. As I said, a fool!"
"And where might this 'ordinary happiness' be?" I retorted, bristling with indignation, "Where? Take a look, there's just mud, blood mixed with filth; that's all we see, and nothing more! Our entire existence is like that."
"That's all we see." repeated Fr. Nikodim mocking me, "That all we see.... Don't speak for others. A splendid conclusion you've reached Mr. philosopher. That you 'don't see' follows naturally. But others do see, so don't speak on their behalf. For example: a woman gives birth to child who is infirm, or to put it more directly, deformed; say he's blind or lame. Everyone feels badly for her: 'The poor woman will have nothing but grief with such a child!' they say. But for the mother, the baby is a precious gem. She favors him above all her healthy children and he fills her heart with tender feeling. That's joy for you. And you say 'filth.' No, son, such 'filth' is above any nectar and ambrosia; it's fragrant myrrh and incense for the soul. So it is even here, in my parish."
"And what sort of parish might you have now, father?" It was my turn to laugh, "You were a priest; you had a parish. But now you're nothing, not even a priest, a zero!"
"A zero, you say.... me?" Fr. Nikodim leapt down from his bunk. Who dares reduce me, a child of God, His creature--and a priest at that--to a 'zero'? I was a priest and a priest I remain. As you can see: a priest in full uniform!" The old man stood before me straightening out the remains of his tattered riassa which was a quilt of multicolored patches. Adjusting his insignia-less soldier's helmet (budenovka) he asked: "How am I not a priest? Again, I am a person created in the image and likeness of God. And you say 'a zero, a nothing'." Fr. Nikodim even spat to one side. "Nor have I been stripped of my parish. Who has deprived me of parishioners? Here it is, my parish."
Shiriayev 's skeptical inquiry revealed a man of great spirit and cheer. Not only had Fr. Nikodim begun hearing confessions and conducting services upon arriving at Solovki but he sustained himself and his unfortunate fellow-deportees along the way. Crammed for many days in a "Stolypin" car transporting prisoners confined in small groups to squat cages in which they could not even stand, Fr. Nikodim conducted the cycle of divine services lying down gazing at the night sky:
"We lay there, three of us--a crook on one side of me and a Tatar from the Caucasus on the other, a Moslem. At nightfall you could hear the guard pacing outside the cage; the train would sway as it sped along the tracks... It was still... I began vespers: 'Having come to the setting of the sun and beheld the evening light, we hymn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Lord.' Although he knew little Russian, the Tatar understood immediately that we were offering up praise to the Creator. He got the point and began to pray as he knew how. The criminal kept quiet, huddling in a corner like a rabbit. He put out his cigar, however, and tucked the butt into his pocket. I continued my prayer: "From my very youth many passions assail me, Do Thou, my Savior, yourself intercede and save me.... By the Holy Spirit every soul is quickened..." Up to that point I had been serving in a whisper accompanied by the Tatar's quiet and private prayer; but when I came to the Great Doxology I broke out into song in full voice: "O Lord our God, Lamb of God who taketh the sin of the world accept our prayer." At this point the crook made the sign of the cross! Thus did we conduct the services every evening for nine days while they transported us in the railroad car. So what do you mean 'not a parish'? The Lord has promised us that were two gather in His name, He is there in our midst. And there were even three of us in that car! What joy I felt: though a prisoner, confined to the point that I could barely move, afraid to utter a single word out loud, I was free in spirit. I felt a sense of fellowship with my neighbor with whom I shared inspiration and elation."
"But they didn't understand those prayers of yours."
"What do you mean? They prayed, didn't they? That means they understood: listening with their ears they heard with their hearts."
"I heard you here yesterday telling the story of the prodigal son. You sure gathered quite a crowd of rabble to listen to you. But they're always like that. Tell them a story, especially something bawdy, and they'll gladly listen all night, as long as it's entertaining."
"And do you think that only the enlightened and educated went to Christ our Savior and Lover of man? No; He had the same audience, no different. They knew nothing. Do you imagine that they said to themselves 'Here the Lord has come to us; He has brought us salvation'? Far from it, my friend.
Hearing that an unusual person was in town, healing the blind, cleansing lepers, they'd rush to take a look. At first they'd come and, of course, marvel at what they saw. Then they'd hear His word and think: 'Hold it, so that's what it's all about!' Everyone, naturally, has need of physical sight. But there is also spiritual sight. As they realized this, their spiritual eyes would open and they would begin to see, just like kittens.
It is the same with leprosy. In a few cases, He, the Lover of man, miraculously purged the body of this illness. But for countless others he cleansed the soul with His Word. Thus it is written in the Gospels.
"Where is this written, father? I've read the Gospels and remember no such thing....."
"Well, that means you missed the point," grumbled the old man, "It's there, clearly represented on every page."
Father Nikodim rose from his bunk, took a few steps to one side, adjusted his cap and turned to continue the conversation. Now light seemed to pour from his eyes and stream down along his radiant wrinkles and tangled beard gathering at the bottom in bright pearls.
"You, silly man, have read with your bodily eyes but haven't even opened the Holy Book to read with your spiritual eyes." he said tenderly, stroking his companion's shoulders with both hands. "That's all right. The reason you haven't gained your sight is that you yourself have never witnessed the miracle of another gaining his. You've never beheld a man being cleansed of his leprosy."
"What miracles are there today?" came the dismissive retort. "No lepers either, no one to heal."
"No one you say? No lepers?" whispered Fr. Nikodim urgently. His face continued to emit a quiet radiance. "You've never seen lepers? Well, take a look." He turned and gestured around the vast barracks full of miserable humanity. "Who is lying there? Who do you see stumbling about? They are all lepers in need of cleansing which they beg for unwittingly. They don't know it, but they are praying for purification mutely, without words. Not only here in prison but out in the world there are even more of them. Everyone is thirsting, everyone is pleading...." As he spoke, everything seemed to pale before the elder's radiant eyes from which there streamed tears of compassion. The sad prisoners, the desecrated temple of God, everything receded into the background.
Fr. Nikodim turned his companion to the dark mural behind them which was running with condensing moisture that resembled the elder's tears. One could barely make out the image of the jubilant father, both hands outstretched to heaven.
"Look! Receive your sight and rejoice! whispered Fr. Nikodim.
Fr. Nikodim's surname remained a mystery to most at Solovki. Nevertheless, from the central headquarters ("the kremlin complex") throughout the vast camp territory he was everywhere famous as "the comforting priest." Fr. Nikodim was known from desolate Muksolomsk, Savvatievo, and Anzer to myriad forsaken outposts in the wilderness. This was his path, to have "done time" everywhere.
Upon arriving at the island, exiled clergy (bishops, priests, monastics) first passed through the initial stages of common labor details while living together in the Transfiguration Cathedral. They were then usually assigned to the relatively privileged sixth company that was relieved of regular roll calls and allowed to leave the confines of the "kremlin." Mere clerical rank, however, was insufficient for access to this company. One needed, in addition, a special conviction for anti-Soviet activity, criminal association, espionage, or some other counter-revolutionary business. Now Fr. Nikodim had been tried and sentenced by the three-man commission of the Poltava NKVD for professional misconduct. It was precisely this absence of counter-revolutionary activity in his record that barred Fr. Nikodim from entering a quiet and peaceful haven.
A curious paradox emerged: On the one hand, a Jew by birth such as Vladimir Shklovsky--brother of the well-known communist writer Viktor Shklovsky--could live amidst priests and high-ranking bishops as a "Tikhonite." (His crime consisted in keeping the church vessels for a priest friend of his. Toward the end of his sentence, it must be noted, Shklovsky was baptized--a fact which he did not conceal. From Solovki he was sent into "voluntary exile" to western Siberia.) On the other hand, Fr. Nikodim, who had served as a priest for more than fifty years, circulated through every imaginable detail working variously as a logger, a farmhand, a fisherman, an accountant etc.
Fr. Nikodim most certainly had no political connections or inclinations either at Solovki or in the past. "I lost track," he recounted, "of all the different groups that passed through our village: The Reds, the Whites, the Germans, troops loyal to (general) S. V. Petlyura, some sort of "Balbachanovites"... I saw them all. Our hamlet stands on the main highway from Sumy to Poltava. As far as I'm concerned they're all the same, the Reds, the Whites. All are God's children, human beings, sinners. At his Judgment the Lord won't ask who's Red, who's White... nor did I ask."
"Didn't you suffer at their hands, batiushka?"
"Not at all, what did I suffer? Well, they destroyed my apiary, but that's a wartime situation. Slurping his cabbage soup for one year, for two, a soldier gets the urge for some honey. And where's he going to get some? Now the bees, God's creatures, don't know for whom it is they're gathering and making honey, for me or a soldier. It's all the same to them, so why should I take offense?"
"They didn't make fun of you?"
"Yes indeed, rather often at that," Fr. Nikodim laughed and small wrinkles gathered about his wry, faded eyes like frisky children. Once an important superior officer of some sort stopped to spend the night at my place. He was young, you know, clever. 'Hey father,' he says, 'How about I bring a girl over here to spend the night with me, what do you say?' 'I have nothing to say,' I answered, 'In seventy some years I've seen it all. It's your, young, sinful business. Go ahead if you can't do without.' 'Well then, pops, maybe I should bring one over for you as well?' 'No son, don't worry about me. Though I've been a widower for fifteen years don't have that sin on my conscience.' 'Didn't the demon tempt you?' 'Tempt me? Of course he did! Do you think a priest is not a man? We are all human; none of us is stranger to the human condition. This was demonstrated by the sages of Latin antiquity [here a reference to the famous dictum of Roman playwright Terence:"homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto", "I am a man: I think nothing human alien to me."] It is ordained for the demons to tempt people; they must do their duty. They assail me with temptation; I respond with prayer... Anyway, the officer and I had a good talk, we laughed, and he ended up sleeping alone; never did bring the girl over. In the morning he even made me a present of two packets of 'zausailovkaya' factory tobacco. 'Now that's a vice I admit to having,' I said, 'I do use tobacco, son... many thanks!'"
On another occasion I was summoned to a [party] meeting for a debate, as it were. Their spokesman put the following question to me: 'Answer me this, cult practitioner: Do you assert that God, in fact, created the entire universe in six days?' 'Indeed,' I answered, 'for it is written thus in the Scriptures.' 'But modern science has proved that nothing can be created in so short an interval. The process of creation requires millions of millennia, not days.' 'Yes, but what sort of days?' I asked. 'What do you mean what sort? Ordinary days, Twenty four hours--a day and a night.' 'Haven't you read the scientific literature about the length of a day on Saturn, that it turns out to be in excess of two Earth years?' 'True enough. This is confirmed by astronomy.' [Some confusion here, perhaps the result of inadequate textbooks of the time: actually, a 'day' on Saturn--time of rotation at the equator--is 10 hours and 14 minutes, so an Earth day is 2.4 times the length of a Saturnian day; the Saturnian year--the time of one revolution around the sun is 29.46 Earth years] 'Now, what sort of days might the Lord, Creator of the universe use? Do you know? Earth days, Saturnian days? His day might stretch out to a hundred million years! Or do you think God punches a clock, called to work by a factory horn? You, Mr. Philosopher, wanting to make a laughingstock of me have not yet resolved your own questions. It turns out that you are the one who has been put to shame.'"
"What did they actually put you away for, father?" "They did the right thing. I'm guilty of professional misconduct." "What profession are you referring to?" "What do you mean 'what profession'? My duty as a priest, to which I was ordained: to baptize newborns, to marry adults, and to administer last rites and serve funeral services for those the Lord gathers unto Himself. I was plenty busy! I did everything the old-fashioned, traditional, way: I baptized, married, performed funerals and recorded everything in the parish register. The new authorities introduced new requirements: I was not to marry a couple without official authorization from the city (Poltava), no funerals without an official coroner's report. What position do you think that put me in? For example, everything's been arranged for a wedding, a hog's been butchered along with geese and chickens; plenty of moonshine's cooked up for the feast; all the guests invited. The only thing left was to sing 'Isaiah Rejoice.' But no... now you must go first to Poltava! Who ever heard of such a thing?! 'Batiushka,' they say, 'marry them! Don't you know Aksana and Gritsko? After all, you baptized them both! What authorization do you need, after all?' So I went ahead and married them.
It was even harder when it came to funerals, especially in the summer season: The heat is on, but the medical professionals make you wait three days. Finding myself in a bind, I went ahead and performed funerals without the coroner's report. Thus I violated the new rules of my profession and have been punished for it."
Father Nikodim continued to perform his pastoral duties on Solovki. Everything was taken from him at Kem' when he was searched for the last time before arriving on the island: his silver pectoral cross, an epitrachelion, vestments, and a kamilavka. He was left his gospel-book which, as a "cult practitioner," he was permitted to keep. On the timber detail in the forest his last little cotton-lined camlet riassa came apart to the point of indecency. He was forced to trim the bottom flaps ever shorter. Similarly, the priest's hat in which he was arrested had long since deteriorated. Someone gave Fr. Nikodim a Red Army helmet which now covered his gray hair. On this, one could still clearly see the outline of the red star which had been pried off.
Though Fr. Nikodim received no parcels from the outside he did not lose heart. Bent beneath the weight of the final years of his eighth decade he was uncommonly cheerful and robust for his age. Admittedly he could no longer hew a tree at the base; but in stripping the branches he plied his ax with greater facility than many younger men. As a hand on the Muksolomsk farm he was simply irreplaceable.
Fr. Nikodim was not embarrassed by the remains of his tattered riassa and headgear inappropriate to his clerical rank. "The people have a proverb, 'You can always spot a priest though he be wrapped in rags.' Well, nobody has to 'spot' me, everybody already knows who I am. Besides, these are no rags I'm wearing, but name-brand material. I bought it in Kiev. If I could only mend it properly, it would last a lifetime... But all my necessaries are in order."
These "necessaries" included a skillfully carved wooden pectoral cross on a string worn beneath the shirt, an epitrachelion of rough cloth lined with a thin layer of cotton, and a pyx [receptacle for Holy Gifts, "daronositsa"] made of a flat German soldier's cup cleverly fitted with a cover.
"Why did you line the epitrachelion with cotton?"
Fr. Nikodim smiled wryly: "To avoid temptation. In the event of a search, an official of the Cheka (Soviet security police) would be required to confiscate my necessities. So I'll avoid leading him into sin by taking it upon myself: This, you see, will be a 'chest-warmer' I've worn for years to ease my cough; and in the cup I carry my 'medicine.' This ensures that I'll be allowed to keep everything."
Fr. Nikodim never parted with these "necessaries" of the priestly calling in which he had served for over fifty years. Every day without fail, he would rise before everyone else, find a secluded spot, and serve the Divine Liturgy. As it happens with some in their later years, he slept no more than two or three hours a night.
"That's why I carry my 'necessaries' with me: I never know when I might be called to minister to someone. In the secret recesses of his heart, every man believes. Once, for example, there came to us an important high commissioner, decorated and all. He finished his business and paid a visit to my garden. Now this was a labor of love with all sorts of botanical rarities and an apiary... The commissar approached me politely, took a look around and praised my efforts. We sat down to have tea with fresh honey and got into a conversation.
"You're such an accomplished apiarist," he said, "as well as a gardener with considerable botanical knowledge. How is it that you prefer to occupy yourself with this obscurantism, these dark delusions, and to pester people with them? Why not join the faculty of an agricultural institute and become a productive and useful citizen?"
"And you, Mr. Comrade," I countered, "do you really not believe in the Lord?" He was taken aback, even offended: "An odd question! I'm a communist and a politically conscious, cultured individual besides. Why would I be a believer?"
"So, having become 'politically conscious,' you've never once called on His Holy Name?"
My commissar hesitated, embarrassed. "Well, there was one situation," he replied, "Our caravan was attacked one night by Cossacks. I dove, as I was, in my underwear, under the nearest cart. But a Cossack spotted me there and began circling it on his horse, trying to get at me with his long pike. Like a rabbit, I kept hopping back and forth, first to the front then to the back of the cart. At that point I called on God, the Mother of God, Saint Nick... I remembered them all. The Cossack suddenly gave up and galloped away. Then I crossed myself, it's true. But that was out of fear, and fear is the basis of religion..."
"So why didn't you call on another name in your panic?"
"An old habit," replied my commissar and looked away.
"All people believe in the Lord," continued Fr. Nikodim, "all yearn to partake of His Body, though they are not always privileged to realize it. Did you know Gubichev? No? Impossible! A conspicuous individual, he was; like Peter the Great in stature with a harsh personality, a gangster by profession. Some three days before his death he nearly strangled the fellow on mess detail distributing food. The latter had allegedly cheated Gubichev of his fair portion. Yes, Gubichev not only used extremely foul language but was a blasphemer as well, constantly reviling the Queen of Heaven. Anyway, about a week ago a large pine fell and pinned him down, right across the chest. He's lying there, wheezing his last, a bloody foam already at his lips: 'I'm done for! Call a priest!' The guys ran to get me. I came, but a guard was already on the scene. What should I do? Gubichev's eyes are already rolling back into their sockets. I said to the guard,
'Look away for a moment, Mr. comrade, and do not doubt. You see that the man is dying.' 'Go ahead, priest, do you duty!' replied the guard. Turning he stepped away from us. I covered Gubichev with my epitrachelion and begin reading the prayer of absolution as he wheezed his confession: 'I... Three people....' The rest was unintelligible. Upon receiving Holy Communion he twitched one last time and his soul flitted away. So that's faith for you. All along, you see, this murderer and blasphemer was a believer! And the guard, do you think his cooperation was a coincidence? No, he'd tucked away a divine spark that still glowed beneath his communist indoctrination." Fr. Nikodim never refused to perform his pastoral duties. He served panikhidas and moliebens at a whisper in remote and inconspicuous places, administering the Holy Mysteries with a carved wooden spoon. He performed the Eucharist on water and cranberry juice. "Now where am I going to get wine? Cranberries, you see, are the grapes of the midnight lands. They're cultivated by the same Vineyardist. There's no sin in that."
At the request of a group of officers he went to the forest to the grave of men executed by a firing squad. There he served a panikhida for the victims as well as for the Czar-Martyr (lit.: "Czar-Redeemer"). He was also escorted in the guise of a carpenter to the theater [in the kremlin center] to women who wanted to receive Holy Communion. The prison rabble even managed to drag him through the infirmary window to visit the dying--a very difficult and risky stunt which none of the other clergy ever dared try. Should he be caught, he would most certainly be sent to Sekirnaya Gora, or "Ax Mountain" [Is my rendering correct? Cf. the names Sekirka and the Sekirnaya Church]. However, Fr. Nikodim was not afraid of this possibility or an extension of his sentence: "What can they do to me? One more year and I'll be eighty. Extend or reduce the human sentence all you like, it's the Lord's sentence that you cannot change! Anyway, it is more fitting for me, a priest, to come before His Throne wearing a martyr's crown," he would add and let out a elderly cackle. His eyes would be rimmed by radiant wrinkles leading you readily to believe that Fr. Nikodim would cross the final threshold just this way, with great joy.
This joy attended him throughout his entire earthly pilgrimage. Nor did it leave him during his final days on Solovki. He strove to share it with everyone he met, to sprinkle everyone with living water from the vessel of his spirit. This earned him the title of "comforting priest."
The long winter nights in the wilderness outposts were very different from those in the kremlin center. There was no theater, no cinema, no bright electric lights; no opportunity to visit another company for a session of "lowdown scuttlebutt radio" with it's continual "updates." In these outposts dinner was served earlier which the guard on duty would supervise and then leave, having conducted roll call and locking the barracks. Seal oil would sputter in homemade, smoky lanterns... A few men would quarrel here and there out of sheer boredom.
I never heard of suicides in the kremlin, but many took their own life in the forlorn wilderness outposts. A man would sink into depression, find a scrap of rope and that was that... They'd find him on a pine at the end of the day, or in the morning hanging in a corner of the barracks.
Fr. Nikodim's clever, faded eyes would immediately spot such a depressed prisoner. At nightfall in the barracks, he would strike up a conversation with the man, inadvertently as it were. He'd begin with something unrelated, for example, with an anecdote about how, while a student in the Kiev seminary, he was caught stealing apples from the archbishop's garden. He'd laugh heartily about it. Or he'd remember his matushka, his garden, the apiary. Fr. Nikodim would pitch the conversation to the level and mood of his interlocutor. As the man's mood improved Fr. Nikodim would quietly whisper a suggestion:
"Son, pray to the God-pleaser Nicholas and the Mother of God 'Assuage my sorrows.' Tell her your story, say, 'slave of God so-and-so has sorrows, he is sad and depressed... Take from me my sorrows, O Heavenly Intercessor; and you, merciful father Nicholas, banish from me my depression...' It'll help. Be sure to remind them as often as possible of yourself and your troubles, as often as possible... The holy hierarch is rather busy; everyone goes to him for help. You never know, he might forget, being a elderly man and all. So you be sure to remind him!"
The quiet speech of the Comforting Priest trickles like a laughing brook beneath the snow, a stream cleansing the soul of its sorrow. The smoky gloom lifts and the barracks seems to grow lighter.
"You're still young," he told Seirieayev, "You'll do your time and return home. And if not home, then to "voluntary exile" in Siberia. You know they say life isn't all bad there, some even have good words for it. You'll get married...."
Hope would be kindled and shine with all the colors of the rainbow. The flame of Faith would blaze forth. These two forces would enter a blackened, charred heart laid waste and desolate. From another heart radiant and luminous there smiled at them the Love and Wisdom of the simple "comforting" Russian village priest.
Fr. Nikodim had another talent, a truly great, God-given talent: He was a superb story-teller. Colorful and juicy were the stories he recounted "from life" accumulated over the course of his half-century of priesthood. Even better were his "sacred tales." This gift of his was recognized immediately upon his deportation, while he was en route to Solovki. He arrived already a celebrity and in the evening people from various other companies would gather to hear him in the Transfiguration Cathedral.
"So, father, start out with a little something 'from life,' but don't neglect to tell something 'sacred' afterwards!"
Stories "from life" were always cheerful and entertaining. "Why should I tell of sorrows? They've all got enough of that already. It's better to share something on the cheerful side. At any rate, I've got loads of both sorts."
His "sacred tales" were free renderings from the Old and New Testaments. It is doubtful that there has ever been a teller of stories from these books of Fr. Nikodim's caliber.
A strict dogmatist and pedant would, no doubt, have found in them much that is not mentioned in the Bible. Such departures, however, were all details and tidbits that not only did not obscure, but rather made the basic point of a story more vivid and powerful. Most important, Fr. Nikodim told his stories as if he himself, just yesterday, had sat beneath the Oak of Mamre, at the tabernacle; no, not at the tabernacle, but by Abraham's sturdy hut, built to last a lifetime. And the Patriarch himself was just like his dwelling, somewhat similar to Turgenev's Khor' [the name derives from khoriek, "weasel", the name of a rugged individualist muzhik from the story "Khor' and Kalinych" that introduces Turgenev's Notes of a Hunter ], only this was not the work of a light-minded, worldly artist, but from the steady hand of an iconographer of the severe, Suzdal' school. The wayfarer-angels of the story were vividly fleshed out, ragged clothing and all. The story-teller brought to life also "babushka" Sarah, crouching behind the door eavesdropping on the men's conversation. There was not a hint of official Church jargon, not a jot of dry book-learning in these quietly flowing narratives about the fishermen of obscure Galilee and their meek Teacher... Everything was crystal-clear, down to the last desert pebble and tiny fish hauled from the depths of lake Gennesaret. The prison rabble listened with rapt attention.... The parable of the prodigal son was especially popular. Fr. Nikodim had to repeat it every evening.
Shiriayev could only listen to Fr. Nikodim's "sacred stories" in the shrill hubbub of the Transfiguration Cathedral. Even so, he relates always coming away enchanted by the marvelous beauty of what he'd heard. How much more powerfully must they have sounded through the endless nights in the desolate wilderness, in the sooty gloom of the barracks!
Nevertheless, Fr. Nikodim was not able to elude "Ax Mountain" and the martyr's crown after all. On the first day of the Nativity the entire population of the forest barracks--twenty people in all--decided to attend the Divine Liturgy before the dawn reveille while the doors had not yet been unlocked. As it turned out, the service ran a little late. The guards opened the doors only to discover Fr. Nikodim and two Cossacks singing the Cherubic Hymn. The congregation was able to disperse and hide in the bunks, but these three were apprehended.
"Why are you spreading your opium here, priest?" The Divine Liturgy must not be interrupted, so Fr. Nikodim could not answer and made gestures to that effect.
All three were sent to Sekirka, "Ax Mountain."
In the spring Shiriayev asked one of the few survivors who managed to escape from there whether he know Fr. Nikodim. "You mean the 'comforting priest'? And who doesn't? Why, he'd tell his 'sacred stories' the whole night through to us in the stacks."
"What do you mean 'in the stacks'?"
"Are you saying that you don't know? I'll explain. In the winter, there's no heat in the Church building on 'Ax mountain' (Sekirnaya Gora) in which the prisoners are confined. Moreover, they are deprived of all outer clothing and blankets. So we devised our own survival scheme--to sleep, stacked like logs: Four men would lie down on their sides close to one another. On top of them four more lay crosswise; on top of these four more the other way, and on top of these four more, again crosswise. The entire stack would be covered with whatever trash was to hand, whatever was lying about. The stack would warm up from within from breath and perspiration. We rarely lost a man to the cold if the packing job was thorough. We would lie down in stacks immediately after the evening roll-call. It was, of course, hard to fall asleep right away, so we listened to the 'sacred stories' of the comforting priest. They would dispel the gloom from one's soul.... Everyone up there admired and respected Fr. Nikodim. They made him an epitrachelion, a pectoral cross, a pyx...."
"When will he be finished serving his sentence there?" asked Shiriayev . "He died, on the very day of Pascha. He concluded the Bright Matins of the Resurrection in a corner of the church and exchanged the triple Paschal kiss with everyone. We then lay down in stacks to get a few more hours of sleep while Fr. Nikodim told us a 'sacred story' about the Resurrection of Christ. In the morning we took apart the stack.... Our 'comforter' wasn't rising. We tried to wake him but he was already cold. I guess, being in the bottom tier, he was asphyxiated in the crush. He ministered to so many people with prayer and communion as they died and yet himself departed on the long journey alone with no escort or company...
On the other hand, what need had he of these? He knew the way perfectly well himself!
(Translated by Deacon Gregory Dobrov)[OA/_private/oabot.htm]