Orthodox America

A Spiritual Treasure from Samizdat  

Bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

    The following story was translated from "Nadezhda," No. 9, the last issue compiled by Zova Krakhmalnikova before her arrest in August, 1982. It is a chapter of a book, now circulating in Samizdat [literature which is unofficially reproduced and secretly circulated; "self-published"] in the Soviet Union, which describes the remarkable life of a saintly priest, Fr. Arsenius. As we prepare this month to celebrate the feast of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, let us remember those dedicated servants of Christ who have kept burning the flame of faith which, in God's mercy, will one day blaze before the eyes of the whole world.


From the Author's Preface

     To seal one's lips would mean to cast into oblivion the sufferings, torments, ascetic labors and death of thousands of martyrs who have suffered for the sake of Christ--and for the sake of us here on earth. We must not forget; we must tell about these sufferers; this is our duty before God and man...

    In these memoirs there stands before us only one of the countless number of Christian warriors from the first half of the 1960's. And how many were there, who perished for our sakes?...

    Over nineteen centuries mankind accumulated a wealth of knowledge; Christianity brought people Light and Life. But out of this vast storehouse, the people of the twentieth century have chosen only evil, and calling it a scientific achievement, they have managed to bring excruciating and prolonged suffering upon thousands of people, and for many--an agonizing death.

    It was God's Providence that a short period of my term in the camps was spent with Fr. Arseny, long enough to come to the Faith, to become his spiritual son, to follow in his steps, to understand and to witness his profound love for God add neighbor, and to come to know the meaning of--a "Christian".

    Members of the intelligentsia, workers, peasants, criminals, political prisoners, old Bolsheviks, party workers--m any of those who came in contact with Fr. Arseny became his spiritual children, his friends, they came to the Faith--and followed after him...

    It would be presumptuous were I to say, "I wrote. I collected." Many, very many people who knew and loved Fr. Arseny, wrote and gathered and sent me material. What is written here belongs to them. I only tried, just as all those whom Fr. Arseny regenerated and placed on the path of faith, to return through my labors a small part of my immeasurable debt to One who had saved me in giving me a new life. And if, in reading what is here set forth, you remember in your prayers the slave of God Alexander, that will be for me a great reward.



     The inspection was over. The prisoners were chased into the barracks according to their number and the door was locked. There was still time before sleep to chat with one another, to exchange camp impressions, the new s of the day, to beat someone at dominoes, or to lie on the wooden planks of one's bunk and think of the past. Two hours later the sound of talking could still be heard, but it gradually subsided and silence reigned as the prisoners drifted off to sleep.

    Long after the closing of the barracks, Fr. Arsenius stood by the wooden sleeping platforms and prayed; then he too lay down and, continuing in prayer, fell asleep.

    It was, as usual, a troubled sleep. About one o'clock that night he felt someone shaking him. Sitting upright he perceived the agitated figure of a man who whispered:

    "Let's go. Quick. My neighbor is dying and is calling for you!"

    They found the dying man at the other end of the barracks. He was lying on his back; his breathing was heavy and irregular, his eyes open unnaturally wide.

    "Forgive me. I need you. I'm dying." Looking at Fr. Arseny he added firmly, "Sit down,"

    Fr. Arseny sat on the edge of the bed. The light from the corridor formed by the row of bunks weakly illumined the face of the dying prisoner which was covered by large drops of sweat. The hair was matted, the lips drawn in pain. He was worn out and deathly pale, but his eyes were wide open and, like two flaming torches, they looked up at Fr. Arseny. In these eyes there was now reflected the entire course of his earthly life. He was dying, departing this life, tired and in pain; but he clung to one last desire, to give an account to God for everything.

    "Confess me, release my sins. I am a monk in secret tonsure."

    His neighboring prisoners left to sleep elsewhere. All saw that death had come, and even in the barracks of a prison camp, mercy and compassion were shown towards the dying.

    Drawing closer to the monk and stroking his short matted hair, Fr. Arseny arranged

the torn blanket. With his hand on the monk's head, he read the prayers in a whisper and, gathering his concentration, prepared to hear the confession.

    "My heart is failing," whispered the dying monk and calling himself by his monastic name, Michael, he began his confession.

    Bending over the prostrate figure, Fr. Arseny listened to the barely audible voice while he looked involuntarily into Michael's eyes. At times the whisper ceased and the only sound was the wheezing of his chest. Then Michael desperately gulped at the air with his open mouth. At other times he became altogether silent and it seemed as though death had come, but his eyes continued to live and, gazing into them, Fr. Arseny read all that the whisper was trying to convey.

    Fr. Arseny had confessed many people in their last hour, and these confessions were always deeply moving, but now, listening to Michael's confession, Fr. Arseny clearly understood that before him lay a man who had attained a rare level of spiritual perfection.

    A righteous man was dying, a man of prayer who had devoted his life to God and his fellow man--until his last breath.

     A righteous man was dying, and Fr. Arseny began to realize that the priest Arsenius was small and insignificant before him, that he was unworthy even to kiss the edge of his garments.

     The whisper broke off with increasing frequency, but the eyes shone with life, and in them, in these eyes, Fr. Arseny read, as before, all, all that the dying man yearned to express.

    In confession Michael was his own judge, and he judged himself severely, without pity. At times it seemed as though he drew away from his own self, as though he were seeing another man die. And it was this man that he judged together with Fr. Arseny.

    Fr. Arseny saw that the earthly life, like a ship laden with burdens, troubles and sorrows-both pa stand present--was already floating away from Michael into the distant land of oblivion. Now there remained only to throw aside everything trivial, everything superfluous, and give over the essential into the hands of the priest who, by the power of God vested in him, was to forgive and absolve him of all he had committed.

     In the minutes of life which were left to him, the monk Michael had to give everything over to Fr. Arseny, to lay everything open before God, to recognize his sins, and having cleansed himself through the judgment of his own conscience, to stand before the Judgment of the Lord.

     A prisoner was dying, just as so many had died in the presence of Fr. Arseny. But this death affected him as no other; it caused him to tremble as he realized that in His great mercy the Lord had vouchsafed him to confess one who belonged to the choir of the righteous.

     Here the Lord revealed His great treasure which He had nurtured for so long and with such love. He showed what heights of spiritual perfection can be reached by those who love God with an everlasting love, those who take upon themselves the yoke and burden of Christ--and bear it to the end. All of this Fr. Arseny saw and understood.

     The incredible complexities of contemporary life offered only obstacles on the path to God; revolutionary ferment, personality cults, complex human relationships, officially supported atheism, the trampling of faith, decline of morals, constant surveillance and denunciations, the lack of spiritual guidance. The confession of the dying monk, however, showed that a man of deep faith could overcome all of this, everything that stood in the way, and be with God.

      It was not in a skete, nor in an isolated monastery cell that Michael had made his way to God. Rather, it was in the very turmoil of life, in its filth, in the cruel battle with the surrounding forces of evil, atheism and militant godlessness. He had had very little spiritual guidance; there had been occasional meetings with two or three priests and almost a year joyously spent in close contact with Bishop Fyodor who tonsured him. But after two or three short letters from the bishop, there remained only his unwavering and burning desire to go on, and on, always further, towards the. Lord.

    "Did I go along the path of faith, did I follow the right path to God? or did I lose the way? I don't know," said Michael. But Fr. Arseny saw that not only had Michael not deviated from the path indicated to him by Bishop Fyodor, but that he had gone a long way on this path, overtaking and surpassing his mentors.

    Michael's whole life had been a battle "on route," a battle for spiritual and moral perfection, waged amidst the crudeness of contemporary life. And Fr. Arseny understood that Michael had won this battle, a battle which he had fought in single combat against the evil surrounding him. Living in the world, he had occupied himself with good deeds in the name of the Lord and had carried in his heart like a flaming torch the words of the Apostle, Bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

    Fr. Arseny was conscious of the greatness, the transcendence of Michael's spirit. He likewise recognized his own wretchedness and fervently begged God to give him, priest Arseny, the power to alleviate the monk's sufferings in these last remaining minutes of his earthly life. There were moments when Fr. Arseny felt utterly helpless, but at the same time he felt uplifted by his closeness to Michael, whose deathbed confession opened before him the wondrous ways of the Lord, teaching and guiding him onto the path of supreme faith.

    The time now came when Michael gave to the priest all that lay on his heart, and through him--to the Lord. His eyes looked questioningly at Fr. Arseny. Taking from the dying monk the burden of sins and holding it in his hands, Fr. Arseny, as a priest, took it upon his own soul--and trembled; he trembled once again at the knowledge of his unworthiness and human frailty. Pronouncing the prayer of absolution over the slave of God, Michael, Fr. Arseny sobbed inwardly and then, unable to restrain himself, burst into tears.

    Michael lifted his eyes and looked up at Fr. Arseny. "Thank you. Be at peace. The hour has come. Pray for me while you walk this earth; you still have a long path ahead of you. I will ask you to take my cap; in it there is a note addressed to two people, both of great spirit and great faith. Very great. When you are released, take them this note--they need you and you need them. Restitch the number on the cap. And pray to the Lord for monk Michael."

     During the entire course of the confession, it seemed as though they were alone, as though the barracks and its inhabitants, the whole atmosphere of the prison camp--everything had become very remote; it had all gone into a kind of non-existence. There remained only the nearness of God, the prayer of their hearts, and the silent spiritual union which took hold of them and brought them before the Lord.

     All suffering and turbulence ceased; everything earthly was gone. There was God. And now one soul was going to meet Him, while the other was vouchsafed to behold a great Mystery--death, the departure from life.

     The dying monk held tightly Fr. Arseny's hand and prayed; he prayed with such force of concentration that he became altogether detached from his surroundings. Inwardly, Fr. Arseny drew even closer; reverently and unquestioningly, he strove to follow after the monk’s prayer.

Then came the moment of death. The eyes of the dying man became brightly illumined with a quiet ecstasy. His words were barely audible: "Lord, turn me not away.''

     Raising himself up from the bed, Michael stretched forth his hands and loudly repeated, "Lord! Lord!" Again he reached forward, but the next moment he fell onto his back and immediately his body relaxed.

     Shaken, Fr. Arseny fell to his knees and began to pray--not for the soul and salvation of the reposed monk, but in thanksgiving for that great mercy which had made him worthy to see that which was invisible to the eyes and incomprehensible to the mind, that most secret of mysteries--the death of a righteous man.

      Getting up from his knees, Fr. Arseny leaned over the body of the newly reposed Michael whose eyes were still open, still full of light, but the light gradually faded and was replaced by a barely visible haze. The eyelids slowly closed, a shadow ran across the face and in its wake his face became at once noble, tranquil, and joyfully triumphant.

     Bending over the body, Fr. Arseny prayed. Although he had just witnessed the death of this young monk, he felt no grief; instead, ! he was filled with peace and an inner joy.

He had seen one of God's righteous ones, and he had experienced God's mercy, beheld His glory.

     Carefully Fr. Arseny straightened out the clothing on the body of the reposed; he bowed down before it and suddenly realized that he was in the barracks of a "strict regime" camp. The thought struck him like lightning: this very camp had just experienced a visitation of God, the Lord Himself, Who had come to take the soul of the righteous Michael.

     Only a short time remained before reveille. Fr. Arseny took Michael's cap, picked off the number and went to inform the senior of the barrack about Michael' s death. The senior, the oldest of the criminals, asked for the number of the deceased and offered his sympathy.

     The barracks were unlocked and the prisoners ran cut for inspection, falling into rows. The senior prisoner approached the inspectors who were standing at the entrance to the barracks:

"We have a dead man, Number N382." One of the inspectors entered the barracks, looked at the deceased, nudged the body with the toe of his boot, and left. Two hours later a sledge arrived for the corpse. A prison doctor, one of the "free workers," came in; he ran his eyes carelessly over the body, lifted an eyelid with his gloved hand and, in a tone of distaste, said to those on duty, "Quick, get it onto the cart."

      Several corpse s already lay on the sledge. Michael's body was carried out and put on top of the others. The driver settled himself on the crossbars, balancing his feet on the corpses which were already growing numb with cold.

      A light snow was falling and when it rested on the faces of the dead, it slowly melted; it seemed that they were weeping. Near the barracks stood the inspectors talking with

the doctor, the orderlies, and Fr. Arseny who pressed his hands to his breast in silent prayer.

      The sledge began to move. Bowing low, Fr. Arseny made the sign of the cross over the lifeless bodies and returned to the barracks. The driver, tugging at the reins, urged the horses on with a curse, and the sledge slowly moved away from the barracks and disappeared from sight.