Orthodox America

  The Christian Spiritual Life - A Righteous Death (The “Recluse” Mitrosha)

             The following translation is an excerpt from the book, On the Banks of God’s River by the Russian church writer Sergei Nilus.  A member of the intelligentsia, Nilus had little interest in the Church until, as an adult, his heart was converted through the prayers of his pious wife and her spiritual father, Elder Barsanouphius of Optina.  It was under the latter’s guidance that Nilus undertook to collect and write incidents reflecting the action of God’s Providence upon the hearts of men.  In his writings is found a faithful and inspiring portrayal of the essence of Holy Russia. 

            One of the first of those close to me who died was the only son of my spiritual father, the archpriest of a church in a provincial town not far from my estate.  He was still a young man, even a youth, and had been serving for a time as a lawyer’s apprentice in the local circuit court.  It was only two or three years before his death that he completed the course of studies at the Moscow University law school.

            I visited my spiritual father fairly frequently at his home and was always received as one of the family by the biblical couple, the father and mother of the aspiring lawyer, but it was some time before I met their son.  He seemed to hide from me as if avoiding any acquaintance.  The first time he was pointed out to me was in the church where his father served.  He was rather sickly in appearance, not very handsome, of slight build with a sunken chest, a large head on a skinny neck, and a sparse beard - in a word, he made an altogether unremarkable impression on me and I made a mental note not to make any further effort to become acquainted.  Then I chanced to hear one of the lawyers make some comment to the effect that here was  man unfit for anything, and this opinion only confirmed my first impression.  I felt sorry for the poor parents and was only glad that the unsociability of the young aspirant saved me from a superfluous and boring relationship.

            There was, however, one characteristic of this young man which rather impressed me:  he was the son of a priest and a graduate of the oldest university, and yet, not only did he not forsake the Church, but evidently he even loved it.  Whenever I would go to his parish church during his free hours, I would see him standing in some secluded spot, humbly praying.  This was unlike the majority of clergy offspring who leave the holy path of their fathers once they taste the fruit of  “superior” human wisdom.  Of all the apostates from the Faith, none are more insolent than these blackguards who lay bare the nakedness of their fathers!  A thought crossed my mind:  no, obviously this young aspirant was unsuited for the legal world, precisely because he is not of this world…Some time passed and he ceased to avoid meeting me.  Once I came to his elderly parents for evening tea.  The samovar was brought out.  I looked up, and there he was.  He had come for tea.

“And here’s our recluse, Mitrosha,” the priest’s wife lovingly exclaimed.  And so we met.

Soon, or rather from that very evening, Mitrosha ceased to shun my company, and each time that I found him at home, he came out to greet me and began to have tea with us - which I used to do rather frequently.  In the simple patriarchal setting of the old priestly household, untainted by modern influences, my soul could rest from the tumult and anxieties of my worldly life.  It was this that drew me to those evening teas at the home of the old priest and his matushka Nadezhda Nikolaevna, his faithful support.

But although Mitrosha came out, he did not take part in the general conversation, only rarely offering a brief reply when faced with a direct question; and then, having finished his tea, he would once again retire to his room.

“Our Mitrosha is a virtual recluse,” the elderly matushka would say to me occasionally, and her voice betrayed a note of sadness.  “It will be difficult for him with such a personality to live in the world.”

The father-priest was silent, but it was obvious that the prospect of Mitrosha’s future lay heavy on his heart also.

“Batiushka,” I once asked the priest, “as far as I can see, your son is drawn to monasticism.  Wouldn’t he want to go to a monastery and devote himself to serving God?” 

“He never says anything about it.  In general, he doesn’t talk to us very much.  As soon as he comes from court, he eats a bit and then runs off to the library of our brotherhood.  He only returns in time for evening tea.  And if he sits at home, he likewise occupies himself with reading spiritual books when he hasn’t any homework to do from the circuit court.  I pulled him out of seminary and sent him to the university, thinking this would be better for him, but it seems that it was only worse.”

Over a period of a year and a half, no more, the recluse Mitrosha and I would meet, but our relationship never became close, despite the fact that I had grown to love this lonesome soul.  In Mitrosha’s friendly smile, when he welcomed me on the occasion of our meetings, I saw that I was no longer a stranger to him.  But in this year and a half, the inner secrets of his spiritual world remained a mystery to me.  They were only opened to me later - and how!

Finally Mitrosha had to leave the staff of the circuit court.  The prevailing opinion among those who were at the top of the anthill there at the court - that he was not fit for such a profession - became so entrenched that willingly or unwillingly he had to leave and seek other employment.

The invisible tormentor of Mitrosha’s soul - which sought fulfillment for its striving in the radiant world of a conscious spiritual life - found for him just the position … in a brokerage firm, and Mitrosha was sent as the youngest comptroller in a district of brokers to a distillery on the estate of some bigwig.  This was the last blow to Mitrosha’s sacred strivings, but it was surmised only then when it was already too late, when everything had become indifferent to the burdensome covering of his soul.  At the time, however, when this brilliant appointment was made, it seemed that for Mitrosha one could not think of a better position.

Four months had not passed since the day Mitrosha was assigned to the brokerage firm, when he became ill at the distillery.  His condition was so critical that a telegram was sent to his father to go at once for the best doctor of the province to save his son from death.  But it was already too late for the doctor to do anything for Mitrosha; one glance was enough to clearly discern the signs of the swift and deadly disease of consumption against which the only cure was - the grave.

It was hard to see the grief of the elderly parents while before their eyes melted away the burning candle of the precious life of their only son.  And this inconsolable grief was close to my own heart, although I felt that no future could be better for the soul of the solitary recluse Mitrosha than such an unexpected approach of eternity.

The provincial luminary of the medical world soon stepped away from the sickbed and gave place to the healing of another, the true realm - faith in Christ and the Holy Mysteries of the Church which prepare one to cross over into that world from which there is no return.

And it was here that all the greatness and all the beauty of Mitrosha’s Christian soul were revealed to me and to his close ones - all the fullness of its powerful and boundless faith.  Sensing in his heart that science was powerless to arrest his illness, Mitrosha concentrated on preparing himself for eternity.  The intense suffering and painful lack of breath prevented him from being able to lie in bed and he had to be taken from the bed into an armchair.  Here, propped up with pillows, he spent his agonizing days and endless, oppressive nights.  He received Holy Communion daily and the Sacrament clearly gave him the strength to bear without murmuring and without a trace of despair the painful attacks of his consumptive disease.  Always in prayer, with an icon of the Queen of Heaven on a small table in front of his chair, Mitrosha, although still on earth, gave the impression of already having flown to heaven with what remained of his quickly fading, still youthful life.  Prayer and love for Christ, which he had hidden within himself while healthy, suddenly made themselves apparent in the two months of his suffering, to such a degree that even the believing hearts of his parents trembled; even they were unable to foresee such a flame of faith which burned in the entire being of their beloved son.

“Father,” he said, when the coughing subsided and he could catch his breath, “how do we pray, what faith do we have, how do we love our God?  Is this the way we should pray, love and believe?… If prayer does not burn you, if your heart does not melt like wax from the fire, from the flame of your prayer which issues from the very depths of your heart and enflames your entire being with such power that it is about to turn to ashes…then you are not praying, father!  Father, if your love is not a flame, consuming the grief of your neighbor and your very being, your very soul, if it does not enter into the very soul of your neighbor…then, my father, this is not love.”

At such times Mitrosha would speak at length and would say such things that would make the hearts of his parents tremble and shake with sobbing.

“Who could have guessed what strength our Mitrosha had hidden within himself?” the elderly priest asked me, barely able to catch his breath in the midst of his tears.  “We destroyed this strength with our love.  Yes, O my Lord God, who would have thought…?  He never said anything; from childhood he was silent; he never said a word to anyone; he was never close to anyone; he was never open with anyone concerning that which was sacred to his soul.  Only in seminary, with one old professor, Gabriel Michailovich P., he became rather close.  This was a deeply religious man who had the heart of a confessor.  Mitrosha was in constant contact with him and even while at the university he carried on a steady correspondence with him.  But Gabriel Michailovich was one of those people from whom one can’t squeeze an extra word.  Besides, it’s already almost two years since his repose, and with him died the secret of Mitrosha’s heart which was open to him alone.  O my God, great God!  Who could have guessed that neither in the courts, nor in the brokerage house was there a place for our Mitrosha!”

The poor father wept before the throne of God in the altar, his hands raised towards heaven, begging God for the life of his Mitrosha, his beloved, misunderstood, precious son…And how his mother mourned and wept!  Only a mother who has lost her beloved child for eternity can understand such grief.

And so, the tortured last days of Mitrosha’s life drew near.  Day in and day out, his communion with Christ through the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist was uninterrupted; each day his spiritual father, the second priest in the parish, came from Liturgy with the Holy Gifts of which the dying one partook with burning faith.  His sufferings seemed to abate; he began to breath more easily and the deadly, vicious cough of consumption tormented less cruelly his exhausted, wasting, and tortured body.  “Mitrosha,” his mother would joyfully exclaim, “are you feeling better, our dear sunshine?”

“Yes, mother dear, better!”

“God will hear our prayers for you; He will hear them!”

Suddenly the sick one shrunk back into the chair; his eyes uneasily and fearfully fixed themselves on a spot behind his mother’s shoulder, on something he alone could see.

“Mitrosha, what’s the matter?  Do you see something?”

“Yes!” whispered the sick one; his whisper communicated a feeling of terror.

“What do you see?” again asked the frightened mother, sensing that her heart too was pounding with an unexplained anxiety, a foreboding of an invisible but terrible danger.  But Mitrosha was silent and only continued to stare fixedly at that same invisible spot with that same expression of unbounded, cold terror, and only with difficulty he made the sign of the cross.

“Mitrosha, Mitrosha!” his frightened mother cried in distress, “tell me, what is it that you see?”

“Them!” came the reply, and with this reply his face became bright.  “Now they’re gone,” he sighed peacefully.

“How is it possible?” asked his mother.  “After all, you have Holy Communion every day.  Can ‘they’ reach you?”

“’They’ have no right to approach me - but they have the audicity to try.”

This incident took place several days before Mitrosha’s death.  Exactly who were the ‘they’ of his vision, the grieving mother could not but guess.  Whether or not ‘they’ continued in their brazen attempts to disturb the sick one I do not know, but even one of their appearances was enough to fill the soul with indescribable terror and dispel any unchristian disbelief concerning the inevitability of a meeting between a soul preparing for eternity and this dark, invisible, evil power which until then is concealed from mortal eyes.

Two days before his death, the sick one felt quite well and was again given Holy Communion.  The mother, who kept a constant watch over her son, was sitting near his chair.  Suddenly, the face of the sick one became radiant with an unexpected joy, and from his heart burst forth the exclamation:

“Oh, Gabriel Michailovich, it it you?”

Asonished by this sudden cry of joy, and not seeing anyone else in the room, the mother froze in anticipation…

“So it’s you, Gabriel Michailovich.  O Lord, I’m so glad!  Yes, yes, speak.  Oh, how interesting!”

Mitrosha became fully attentive.  On his face shone a beautific smile.  His mother was bewildered but also overjoyed.

This intense silence lasted but a moment.  It was broken by a cry from the sick one:

“Are you leaving?  Well, all right.  Then it’s goodbye.”

“Whom did you see, Mitrosha?  With whom were you speaking just now?”

“With professor Gabriel Michailovich!”

“But he died, Mitrosha.  What can you be thinking, God bless you!”

“No, Mama, he’s alive.  He was just here and spoke to me.”

“What did he say?”

What Mitrosha’s old friend said to him remained a mystery of that other world.  He began to cough and again was overcome by an attack of shortness of breath, and this hour marked the beginning of the final attack of his illness from which he barely regained consciousness - and then only for short intervals between bouts of frightful suffering.  Death came to claim its due.

Two or three hours before he died, the sick one came to himself.  His breathing became easier and he was fully conscious, as though the ominous spectre of death had stepped aside before someone’s greater power.

“Farewell, my dear ones,” he said, “until we meet again - there, where there are no more goodbyes.”

“Mitrosha, are you really dying?” sobbed his mother.

“Yes, Mama, I am dying.  Look, look who has come!  Holy Archangel Michael!  O Lord, receive my soul in peace!”

Thus died the recluse Mitrosha, son of a country priest.

They say, and I myself have seen it, that in placing its mark of corruption, death completely disfigures a man.

Mitrosha lay in the coffin as though alive.  How handsome he was, this wasted and rather ugly fellow.  You didn’t want to tear your eyes away from his face which was transfigured by an unspoken, triumphant and mystical joy full of perfect peace and contentment.  It was not death but life, eternal haevenly life, incomprehensible to the mind but perceptible to the heart; this life shone on the pale and handsome face of the righteous one.  And this face, shining with a pure chaste beauty, was unforgettable.  I had no doubts that Mitrosha had died in virginity.  His body lay for three days in a warm room and there was no sign of corruption.  The second day after he died, for half an hour I read the Psalter at the head of his coffin and was not aware of even the faintest odor.

And so the grave concealed the “recluse” Mitrosha until the final resurrection.