Orthodox America

  The Good Master – Fr. Simeon Voznesensky

     In the spring of 1909 I turned 16. That same year a priest was assigned to the church built by my parents near their estate. Before his arrival we were informed of his appointment by the provincial archpriest who wrote to us the following words: "We hear that an archangel-like bear is coming your way."

     We sent the sleigh to the station to pick up Fr. Simeon (our new priest). From the window I saw them arrive. There were three figures in the sleigh, all wrapped in thick, red blankets: Fr. Simeon, his matushka EuIalia Stepanovna, and their faithful servant Paula. When first I set eyes on Fr. Simeon after he had come into the house, I was quite taken aback; his unsightly, rather sickly appearance was almost frightening. The features of his narrow face were ill-proportioned and very homely. "Really," I thought, "just who is this they sent!"

We sat down to dinner. Batiushka was anxious to see the church, so I ran off to have the sleigh readied. The stables and other out-buildings were located a short distance from the house. Batiushka accompanied me. As we were walking, my first impression vanished without a trace. I don't remember now what it was we talked about along the way--it may have been very insignificant but to my amazement, as soon as this rather ugly man began to speak, his uncomeliness simply disappeared. Before me stood a man of enormous strength of spirit and an equally great power of love. He could conquer anyone. The charm of his meek personality was irresistible. He could do with each of his parishioners whatever he wanted--in spite of the spiritually uncultivated nature of those who surrounded him.

     Fr. Simeon lived with us for about two years. He found our new church very much to his liking, but thought that the interior was rather poorly furnished. There began to arrive--heaven only knows from where--all sorts of donations for the church. We barely had time to bring a cartload of crates from the station when another shipment arrived: candlestands, censor, a set of service books, rizas, a silver set of vessels , a shroud.

     Not a year had passed and Fr. Simeon engaged a group of artists who covered the interior with frescoes depicting scenes from the Gospel. Batiushka also intended to purchase a better quality set of bells, but his untimely death cut short his plans. Where did all these gifts to our church come from? It turned out that Fr. Simeon was known by many in Russia as a man of prayer. For example, I remember he once received a hundred roubles with the request to pray for a certain Ivan. And such requests were numerous. But Batiushka was very reticent on this subject. Our job was simply to send the horses to the station for the boxes. Soon the church interior was transformed beyond recognition.

      Fr. Simeon used to travel around the border posts where there lived officers and soldiers of the border guard (we lived near the German border). For the military men and their families, his arrival was a joyous occasion. Even the Germans in the neighboring town took part in the general celebration by sending masses of flowers to decorate the makeshift church. In these border towns Fr. Simeon left cups affixed with signs which read: "For the church ." These cups soon returned to him filled with the soldiers' pennies. With the death of Fr. Simeon all this came to an end.

     Fr. Simeon's family consisted of four souls: first--his matushka, Eulalia Stepanovna, a tall, dignified old lady. She had a northern accent with its very pronounced, rounded "o's". The eldest son we nicknamed Absalom, because of his thick crop of hair and his endless quarrels with his father. He was a university student and related to his father with a distinct feeling of his own superiority. The second son was a surveyor, and there was a daughter who was a student. All of them loved their father dearly, but little did they understand him.

    To say that Fr. Simeon lived humbly would be an understatement; he cut his own wood, he engaged in carpentry work, he wore homespun cassocks which came from Archangelsk; these were of a nondescript color, sometimes lined with fustian. On his head he wore a broad rimmed hat, also handmade. This outfit gave him a very unique, rather odd appearance. Yes, here was a man from another, a very special world, who had nothing in common with the mediocre, prosaic aspects of the daily provincial life which surrounded us. He was the son of the far north whose beauty, forever impressed in the depths of his soul, enhanced his poetic nature. His sermons were never contrived; rather, they flowed from his heart, conveying a spirit of life and never tiring the listener.

     How fascinating it was of an evening to hear Fr. Simeon describe his travels on the White Sea or the majestic beauty of his homeland, wondrous pictures of the northern landscape. Those playing whist threw down their cards and everyone formed a tight circle around Fr. Simeon. Among other things, he described how the bishop who had ordained him invited him, his young protege, for tea, during which he gave him a lesson in manners: how to use the sugar tongs, what was proper and what was not. This bishop was clairvoyant and foretold that Fr. Simeon would fall ill three times and that the third illness would be fatal. Everything came to pass just as the hierarch had said.

       I remember the story Fr. Simeon told about meeting Eulalia Stepanovna. Having finished seminary and desiring to become a priest, he had to find himself a wife. He didn't know any eligible girls and didn't trust matchmakers. So, he decided to travel about as a menial laborer. He came to the home of a priest who had five daughters, and was engaged as a workman. One of the daughters was his future matushka. Without suspecting the new workman to be an eligible husband~ she showed herself to be very warm and possessed of a kind and good character. Convinced of her positive spiritual qualities, Fr. Simeon revealed his true identity and made her a proposal of marriage. In this way he found himself a good wife.

      Souls thirsted for contact with him. Even non-Orthodox--Jews and Catholics--came to him for consolation in their sorrows. I, too, loved to visit him. It happened that you'd go to him with some kind of heaviness on your soul. But after sitting with him in his cozy dining room, without even saying a word about yourself, about what was troubling you, you left as if you had wing s, as though your burdens had simply disappeared into thin air.

     Fr. Simeon's best and closest friends, however, were the local children. It was a common sight to see Fr. Simeon walking around the village square surrounded by children. Some hung on to his fingers with both their hands, one of the older ones carried his briefcase and walking stick. The little Jewish boys would take off their caps, bow deeply and run on ahead. When Batiushka caught up with them this performance would be repeated. And again they would run ahead and again stop to bow. They, poor things, could express their love only from a distance. Once the schoolchildren noticed that in winter Batiushka's hands got very cold. They made a collection amongst themselves and together purchased some gloves. In the school Fr. Simeon gave catechism lessons. Once           there was a Polish Catholic holiday and school was cancelled. As a new arrival, Fr. Simeon was unaware of this. The children met him as usual and led him to the classroom. The lesson went on, and an. "Why isn't there a bell?" asked Fr. Simeon, puzzled. "Batiushka! Forgive us, we tricked you! Today there is no school," replied the children.

     When vacations came the children begged Fr. Simeon not to interrupt the lessons. One boy came more than 9 miles on foot to attend the class. They all gathered in church. Even we older ones, almost adults, came. Fr. Simeon was a talented and inspiring teacher. What he communicated was both ancient and eternally fresh and new. It captivated both heart and mind. We listened to the Gospel stories and parables as if hearing them for the first time in our lives.

     Of all the children, Batiushka's favorite was a little three-year-old girl, Mary Prilutskaya. One Saturday evening there was the usual vigil. The Gospel reading was from St. John: "Jesus saith unto her, Mary; she turned herself, and saith unto Him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master." The service ended, the lamps were extinguished, and everyone dispersed. Fr. Simeon was detained in the altar. The children had run home long ago for dinner. But for little Mary there was no greater happiness than to be in the presence of Batiushka, to accompany him on his way home, during which time she enjoyed her special privilege of holding his hand. Batiushka knew this, he knew that she was patiently waiting for him there in the growing darkness of the church. "Mary," he called out to her. "Master,' came the little voice of his faithful disciple.

    Once, in winter, I drove Fr. Simeon home in the sleigh. I myself sat at the reins and together we rode over the snow-covered fields. Evening was approaching. AH that remained of the setting sun was a faint strip of light glowing far away on the horizon. I turned to Fr. Simeon: "Batiushka, what do you think? Suppose that a person loves God but has no fear of belittling his brother. If we seriously thought about how closely and inseparably the first and second Gospel commandments are bound together, think how much easier life would be!" It was a moment before Batiushka said anything. "You, at least, have understood me. But little do my own children understand me--let alone anyone else." This was not quite true. Everyone loved him without exception, Those who were unable at the time to fully grasp what it was he was after, understood this later. Some years afterwards Fr. Simeon's daughter wrote to me about her older brother and said how much his character had come to remind them of their father's.

Fr. Simeon was not with us for long. He was soon struck by a cruel illness: cancer. His physical sufferings were intense. When I came to see him he would hold me by the hand and tell me how much my visit meant to him, because I understood him. Obviously, during the last days of his earthly life the awareness of his spiritual loneliness grieved him terribly.

    Pascha came. By this time another priest was serving in the church. On Holy Night Fr. Simeon sat at home on the windowsill of his apartment, listening to the ringing of the bells, the tears running down his cheeks.

    Soon the sick one was taken to the medical facility nearest us, a hospital in the German town of Konigsberg. There they tried to save him with an operation, but in vain. He died on May 19, 1911. Two days later a whole crowd of us went to meet his body. All the local inhabitants came, Russian and non-Russian, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. On the day of his funeral there were just as many people crowding the church. His body arrived in a closed coffin, but because everyone was so anxious to see once more their beloved pastor, the coffin was opened. In spite of the fact that the body had been transported 13 miles in a zinc coffin through the sweltering heat, there wasn't the least sign of decay. Fr. Simeon lay there, peaceful and majestic; his marble-like face reflected a spiritual beauty not of this world. He was buried behind the altar in the church yard. On his gravestone appeared the following inscription: 

'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth' You conquered our hearts through meekness and love.

     Nearly a year went by. Again it was Pascha. I arrived at the church before the begnning of Matins and decided to sit for a while on the bench at Batiushka's grave. As I approached I heard a strange sound. Peering into the darkness, I saw a group of school children; they were huddled by the grave, sobbing. The children had not forgotten their meek and kindly Batiushka. And I think that wherever life led them, the image of Fr. Simeon remained in the heart of each and every one of them as a brightly guiding star.

Mrs. Helene Kontzevitch

(Translated from "Russkaya Zhizn," Sept. 20, 1955)