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At Nun Martha’s - A priest remembers...


     On the eve of the Synaxis of Holy Archangel Michael and the Bodiless Powers, I always made my way to Matushka Martha's to serve the vigil there in the small cottage of this Shamordino nun. This is not to say that l went to Shamordino itself. The convent, as a refuge for souls acquainted with this world's grief, had long vanished from the face of the earth.

     When , according to the unfathomable way s of God's Providence, the Optina and Shamordino monasteries were closed, their inhabitants dispersed to Russia's four corners in search of a place where they might lay their heads. It was then that Matushka Martha arrived in our area with two other nuns. About a mile from my church, on the outermost limits of the next village, Matushka Martha, with no resources of her own save that of God' s mercy, built herself a small cottage. Added onto this were several tiny cells which sheltered five Shamordino refugees. Matushka Martha governed them, or rather, she nurtured them with her sincere and profound love. In general, all who came to Matushka Martha's were amazed by her spiritual wisdom and boundless compassion. She was blind, but she never complained about her condition. "How wonderful that I am blind," she would say, "and do not see all the temptations that you do."

     This group of angels chose me to be their spiritual father. I often visited Matushka's abode, and there I first came to appreciate the excellence of monastic life and its superiority in relation to even the most prestigious position in the world.

     Matushka observed the Feast of holy Archangel Michael with special honor. On the eve of this holiday I always made my way to her cottage for prayer. Oh, that unforgettable, humble dwelling. What an abundance of grace filled peace it contained. The life-giving, celestial gifts which it received beneath its low-hanging thatch would have sufficed for any great city.

     The rooms in Matushka's cottage were tiny, their walls plastered with white paper. Everything was tidy and immaculate, and this, against the background of their material insufficiency, only magnified the spiritual wealth of the inhabitants. In the undisturbed stillness two large bronze weights of an old clock ticked peacefully. Elder Ambrose of Optina, Matushka' s spiritual father and mentor, smiled benevolently from the wall. There, too, hung portraits of other great spiritual elders, as well as pictures of various holy monastic habitations. In front of a large Kazan icon of the Mother of God, which had been brought from Shamordino and which had once stood in Elder Ambrose's cell, shone the steady flame of a vigil lamp. And what a heavenly fragrance filled Matushka's cell. You could breathe and breathe and never get your fill. Its only ingredients were peace and love. My spirit was always calm there.

    Matushka Martha would set me close beside herself and feel my hands to make sure they hadn't gotten chilled with the frost; she likewise poked at my clothes to see if I hadn't gotten wet from the rain. Then she began asking about my inner constitution--what was sustaining it, what pained it. She began questioning me--was I beset by evil despondency, had anyone hurt me, was I murmuring about my impoverished state of existence, what harassments was I experiencing from the godless authorities.. I described everything to her, holding nothing back, and she analyzed my spiritual affairs more keenly than many who consider themselves wise, and comforted and instructed me more than many a "father confessor."

    Occasionally I would ask her: "Matushka dear, are you not spending too much time and attention on someone as undeserving as I?' She responds softly so that I alone can hear: "One who receives someone as a prophet receives a prophet's reward."

    Once she has learned all my troubles and taken them into her heart, Matushka insists that I rest before the vigil. 'Batiushka," she says, "you must lie down for at least ten minutes before the service. When your heart is calm you will pray differently." She would then lead me to one of the closet-like rooms where there was even more tranquility, where it was impossible to think about sins. Matushka herself made ready the bed, covered me as I lay down, and later woke me. Sleepily I wonder: "Why is it that we don't want to acquire that wealth which Matushka Martha possesses?"

     After my rest the vigil would begin. Softly, but in high voices, Matushka's cohabitants read and sang. From their singing there arose in the soul a longing which no earthly joys could satisfy. It was a longing for that true and only homeland of ours which has been forgotten in a multitude of worldly cares. It was a holy, salvific kind of longing.

    If you could only have seen how Matushka Martha prayed. How far she was then from this sorrowful world. To approach her then was not permitted, and in any case she would not have understood our questions, engrossed as she was. If only you knew how there, in her little abode, you could lift your heart to God ! There, nothing interfered with prayer. It was as if there were constantly present those angels which gather the harvest of prayer and carry it to God. Here, a weak person, able to do no more than lie on the ground, was given strong wings of grace. The long service with the singing of special melodies following the Optina typicon, was never tiring. There is a kind of water--pure, cool and sweet; the more you drink, the more you desire it. This is the kind of service it was. The soul wished It could last forever.

     After the service we had tea. Matushka would arrange several small jars of jam near my place and from each of them gave me to taste. "Matushka," I would say with quiet emotion, "you area saint." "No," she ,would reply, "I'm just blind."

     "Matushka ," says one of the guests, "even your clock ticks somehow differently than ours, more calmly," "What's so amazing," she replies. "You can reset your clocks to tick the same way. Live more peacefully, more quietly, Try to look less at the world, to de sire it less. Don't analyze other people' s sins; rather, pester yourselves more often about your own dung heap."

     "Matushka," says one of the novices, "what should I answer my sister? .... Keep your letter brief," she tells her, "A longer letter needs greater wisdom. Simply write: What you plant is what you reap, and that will suffice."

      Almost every day Orthodox believers would come to Matushka for counsel and prayerful assistance. Each year more and more of these people crowded her cell. But I never noticed that they caused any noise or disorder, All who entered Matushka's dwelling spoke softly, almost in a whisper. Before going in to her cell, they spent a long time in the hallway preparing themselves, shaking their clothes free of the elements, absorbing the surroundings, settling their souls.

     "Live less like a porcupine and more like a beaver," I hear Matushka say to a young woman who had come to complain about her mother-in-law.

     "Don't esteem yourself; let God appraise your good deeds. It may be that what you consider a good deed, God will not," she advises a pious youth.

     "If you hurt someone who has offended you, then where will be the justice by which we all must live?" Matushka exhorts a man complaining about his enemies.

    Who taught Matushka Martha to love people so much? Who gave her that exceptional peace which she so generously communicated to all those around her? How did she attract so many people who came to see her from near and far, often choosing to come here rather than to their own parish priest. In seeking to answer these questions, one is involuntarily drawn to those immortal Optina elders who illumined the whole Russian land with the burning flame of Divine love.

    The blessed minutes of my visit to Matushka Martha's have come to an end. I prepare to depart. Early tomorrow morning I am to serve Matins and Liturgy in my church. I must go. Outside there is a light frost, but there is little snow as yet, and it is so fine and powdery that it doesn't even stick to the ground. The road is dry, easy. A bright moon hangs in the clear sky. As I walk, Matushka stands before my eyes. My heart is filled with a deep sense of remorse, of guilt before God and before my own soul. Long forgotten sins come to remembrance. I realize that I haven't taken pains, that I haven't forced myself to acquire humility--without which it is impossible for the soul to gain peace and the true understanding of Christ's righteousness.

    Already many years have passed since I was at Matushka Martha's, but her image has not faded from my heart. It has become only more stirring. How I regret that I did not properly assimilate those lessons of Christian life which she imparted to me. 

(Translated by Elizabeth llyin from Nadezhda #13; Possev, 1986)


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