Orthodox America

  “Where two or three are gathered in My name…”

A chapter from the Russian samizdat manuscript, "Hieromonk Arseny"

    One winter there came to the barracks a young fellow of about twenty-three. He was a student sentenced to twenty years under Article 58.[1] Having come directly from Butvrka prison into the "special",[2] he was not yet wise to the ways of camp life.

    Young, still green, with little understanding of what had happened to him, he arrived in the "special" and at once had a clash with the criminals. The fellow was decently dressed; his clothes hadn't been picked off his back in the transits. The criminals saw this and, with Ivan Kari as their leader, they decided to "undress" him.

    They sat down for a game of cards, staking the newcomer's clothes. Everyone saw they would strip him, but no one could say a word; even Sazikov dared not transgress the camp tradition. It was the law; keep quiet and don't interfere. Any interference and they'd knock you off.

    Those prisoners who had spent a long time in the camp system knew that if any of their belongings were made the subject of a wager, they mustn't resist. Death would be their only gain.

    Ivan Keri won the lot. He 'went up to the student: "Well, my friend, take off your duds." Then it began.

    The fellow's name was Alexis. He didn't understand the "rules of the game," and refused to hand over his clothes.

    Ivan Karl decided to put on a "show" for the barracks. He began with a grin, using affable persuasion; then he took to beating. Alexis tried to resist, but the barracks already knew that he would be beaten to within an inch of his life, and perhaps to death. Whatever the outcome, it was going to be quite a performance.

    Everyone held their breath as Ivan Keri struck out with increasing fury. Alexis tried to ward of the blows, but what was the use; blood was streaming down his face. The criminals for the fun of it divided themselves into two camps; one rooted for Alexis.

During this "performance," Fr. Arsany was stacking wood at the other end of the barracks and did not see how it started. But then he came to a stove nearby and saw Karl beating the student to a pulp. By that time Karl had grown vicious and was hammering away at Alexis who was covered with blood. For him it would soon be the end.

     Silently Fr. Arsany placed the wood in front of the stove and calmly made his way to the scene of the fray. There, before the eyes of the astonished onlookers, he grabbed Karl by the arm. The latter looked at him in amazement and then whistled with glee. 'Pope' had violated tradition by interfering in the fight. Indeed, the rules called for the offender to be 'eliminated.' Kari despised Fr. Arseny, but so far he hadn't touched him because he feared the barracks. Here, however, was a lawful situation; his prey had fallen into his hands. Karl stopped beating Alyosha.

    "Well, Popesy, it's the end for both of you; first the student, then you."

     The prisoners were agitated. If anyone interfered all the criminals would together rise up, like one man. Somewhere Kari got hold of a knife and threw himself at Alyosha.

    No one could make sense of what happened next, but suddenly the always quiet, kind and weak Pr. Arseny drew himself up, leaned forward towards Karl and hit him on the arm --with such force that the knife flew from Keri' s grip. Then he pushed Keri away from Alexis. Keri staggered and fell, striking his face against the corner of one of the bunks. At that moment many gasped. Fr. Arseny went up to Alexis. "Go, Alyosha, wash up. No one will touch you again." And, as if nothing had happened, he went off to continue stacking wood.

    Everyone dispersed. Karl got up. The criminals were silent; they knew that Karl had lost face before the entire barracks. Someone smeared the blood into the floor with his foot and picked up the knife; Alyosha's face was cut up, an ear was torn, one eye was shut completely, the other was black and blue. Everyone was silent. A bad end was in sight for Fr. Arseny and for Alexis. The criminals would kill them, for sure.

    It turned out, however, quite differently. The criminals assessed Fr. Arseny's action according to their own standards, seeing in him a man of courage and, most importantly, highly individual. Unlike the rest of the barracks, he didn't fear Keri, even when the latter was armed with a knife. They respected courage, and because of his courage they came to love him--after their own fashion. Long ago they had come to know Fr. Arseny's kindness and uniqueness.

     Kari retired to his bunk. He conversed in whispers with his comrades, but he had the feeling they would not back him up since they had not done so at once.

    The night passed. In the morning the prisoners went out to work. Fr. Arseny set about his tasks in the barracks: firing the stoves, tidying up, scrubbing away the dirt. In the evening they returned. Suddenly, just before the barracks were locked up, the camp commandant stormed in accompanied by several inspectors.

    "Line up!" he barked. The prisoners got up and stood as ordered. The commandant went down the line as far as Fr. Arseny and began beating him, while the inspectors found Alexis and pulled him out of line.

    "For violating the camp rules and picking a fight, numbers 18376 and P281 are sentenced to the cold cell #1 for kB hours without food or water."

    Kari had denounced them. This was considered by the criminals to be the basest and most despicable action possible.

    Cell #1 was a small house which stood at the entrance to the camp. In this building were several isolation cells and one cell for two persons with a single narrow platform for resting; (actually this Was nothing more than a board about 9 inches wide). The floor, walls and platform were entirely covered with metal sheeting. The cell itself was no more than 2 1/2 feet wide and 6 1/2 feet long.  

     There was a frost of 30 degrees below, it was hard to breathe. On going outside one instantly felt numb. The prisoners of the barracks understood – it was certain death. They would freeze in the cell within a matter of a few hours; they would freeze to death, no question about it.

    In such frosts prisoners weren't sent to this particular cell. At five or six below, prisoners were known to be sent in for 24 hours. Only those survived who spent the entire time jumping around. To stop meant to freeze to death. And here it was 30 below, Fr. Arseny was old, Alyosha beaten up, both were exhausted.

    The inspectors dragged out the two of them. Avseyenkov and Sazikov broke rank and addressed the commandant:

    "Citizen commandant, they'll freeze in such frost. You can't throw them into that cell; they'll die there!" The inspectors swore a bloody streak and flew from the barracks half-crazed.

     Ivan Kari drew his head into his shoulders, sensing that his days in the barracks were numbered; his own mates would do him in for his denunciation.

    Fr. Arseny and Alexis were taken to the cell and shoved in. They both fell, bruising themselves as they stumbled over they knew not what. It was dark. Presently Fr. Arseny got to his feet. "Well," he said, "the Lord God has brought us to live together. It's cold, cold. Alyosha. We're surrounded by metal."

    Behind the door the bolt rattled, the lock snapped, the voices and footsteps faded away, and in the ensuing silence the cold seized them both and held them fast.

    "We'll freeze to death, Fr. Arseny," moaned Alexis. "Because of me we'll freeze. It's death for both of us. We must keep moving, jumping the entire 48 hours. I have no strength, I'm altogether worn out. The cold is already getting me; my feet are numb. And it's so cramped here that it's impossible to move. It's death for us, Fr. Arseny. These aren't human beings! Isn't that so? Human beings couldn't do what they have done to us. Better the firing squad."

     Fr. Arseny was silent. Alexis tried to jump in one place, but his efforts to warm up were in vain. It was useless to resist the cold. Death was sure to come within two to three hours. After all, that is why they had been sent there.

     "Why don't you say anything? Why don't you say anything, Fr. Arseny?" Alyosha was almost shouting. The answer reached him as if from somewhere far away:

"I'm praying to God, Alexis !"

     "What's there to pray about when we're freezing to death?" responded Alexis.

     "We are alone together, Alyosha. For 48 hours no one will come. Let's pray. This is the first time in camp that the Lord has granted me to pray aloud. Let us pray--the rest is up to God."

     The cold was affecting Alexis, but one thing he understood: Fr. Arseny was losing his mind. There he stood in a milky shaft of moonlight, crossing himself and uttering something in a low voice.

     Alexis' arms and legs had stiffened with cold. He had no strength to move. As he lay there, freezing, he was overcome by indifference. Fr. Arseny grew silent; and suddenly Alexis heard clearly the words pronounced by Fr. Arseny, and he understood-this was prayer.

     Once, out of curiosity, Alexis had gone into a church, His grandmother had baptized him years ago, but none of his family had faith in God; they were, in fact, absolutely indifferent to matters of religion; they didn’t even know what faith was. Alexis was a member of the Komsomol, a student. What kind of faith could one expect to find here?

    Through his numbness, the awareness of imminent death, the pain incurred by the beatings, and the cold, Alexis began to make out the words of prayer--vaguely at first, then more distinctly:

    "O Lord God! Have mercy on us sinners. O, our All-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, out of great love Thou didst come down and become incarnate in order to save all. According to Thine unspeakable mercy, save and have mercy on us and deliver us from a cruel death, as we trust in Thee, for Thou art our God and Creator."

    The words of prayer streamed forth, and each word uttered by Fr. Arseny contained profound love, hope in God's mercy and unshakable faith.

     Alexis began to listen attentively. At first he could barely make sense of it. But the more the cold gripped him, the more clearly he understood just what the words and phrases meant. Prayer enveloped his soul in tranquility; it led his heart away from icy terror and united it with the old man standing beside him--Fr. Arseny.

    "O Lord, our God Jesus Christ! Through Thine own pure lips Thou hast said that if two shall agree on earth concerning any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them ' by My Heavenly Father, For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:18-19).

    The cold had wholly taken possession of Alexis; it penetrated the very marrow of his bones. He was no longer conscious of whether he was lying down, sitting on the floor or standing. Every inch of his body was turning to ice. But there suddenly came a moment when it all disappeared--the cell, the cold, the freezing of the body, the pain from the beatings...

    Fr. Arseny's voice filled the cell--if indeed it was a cell. "There I am in the midst of them...' Who could possibly be here with us? Who? Alexis turned to Fr. Arseny and was stunned. Everything was changed, transfigured. A tormenting thought crossed his mind: I'm hallucinating; it's the end; I'm freezing to death.

     The cell had expanded, the shaft of moonlight had disappeared; it was light, bright, and Fr. Arseny, clothed in brilliant white garments, his arms upraised, was loudly praying. Yes, he was wearing the same apparel as Alexis had seen in church.

     The words of the prayers spoken by Fr. Arseny were now understandable, even kindred; they penetrated his soul. Fears, suffering, danger departed; he felt a desire to steep himself in these words, to fathom their meaning, to remember them for life.

    There was no cell, there was a church. But how did they get here, and why was someone else here, beside them? Alexis saw in amazement that two men were assisting Fr. Arseny. They, too, were in glistening garments and shone with an indescribable white light. Alexis did not see their faces, but he felt they must be extraordinarily beautiful.

     Prayer suffused Alexis' entire being. He got up, stood behind Fr. Arseny, and began to pray. It was warm. easy to breathe; a feeling of joy entered his soul. Everything Fr. Arseny said Alexis repeated, and not simply repeated but prayed; he prayed together with him. ....

     It seemed that Fr. Arsney had become fused with the words of the prayers, but Alexis understood that he had not forgotten him, that he was with him all the time, helping him to pray. Alexis became conscious that God exists, that He was now there with them, and he felt that he saw God with his soul, and that the two men were His servants sent by Him to help Fr. Arseny.

    Again there came to him the thought that they had both already died or were dying and were merely hallucinating. But Fr. Arseny's voice and his presence brought him back to reality,

     Alexis didn't know how much time had passed when Fr. Arseny turned to him:

    "Go, Alyosha, and lie down. You are tired. I shall pray. You'll hear me."

    Alexis lay down on the metal floor and closed his eyes. The words of the prayer filled his entire being: "... agree concerning any thing...it shall be done for them by My Heavenly Father..." In his heart there echoed repeatedly the words "gathered in My name..." Yes. yes! we are not alone, thought Alexis from time to time, as he continued to pray.

     It was peaceful, warm. Suddenly, his mother came from somewhere and covered him with something warm, as she used to not so long ago. Her hands clasped his head and she pressed him to her breast. He wanted to say, "Mama, do you hear how Fr. Arseny is praying? I've come to know that there is a God. I believe in Him." Whether he wanted to say this or actually did, he was not sure, but his mother answered:

    "Alyoshenka ! When they took you, I too, found God, and this has given me strength to live."

    Alexis felt good; all dread was gone; his mother and Fr. Arseny were close by. The previously unknown words of prayer now rejuvenated and warmed his heart, leading it towards the sublime. He felt he must do everything possible in order not to forget these words, to remember them forever. He must never be separated from Fr. Arseny, he must always be with him.

    Lying on the floor at Fr. Arseny's feet, Alexis listened through his ethereal somnolence to the glorious words of the prayers. He felt blessed beyond measure.

     Fr. Arseny prayed, while the two men in shining garments assisted him. It seemed they were amazed by how this Man prayed. He was no longer petitioning the Lord, but glorifying Him and thanking Him.

    How long Fr. Arseny's prayer lasted and how long Alexis lay on the floor half-asleep neither of them could afterwards recall. Alexis remembered only this – the words of the prayers, the warming and joyous light, Fr. Arseny in prayer, the two co-servers in garments of light, and the incomparable, intense feeling of inwardly renewing warmth.

      They were beating on the door bolt, the frozen lock screeched, voices were heard. Alexis opened his eyes. Fr. Arseny was still praying. The two men in bright garments blessed him and Fr. Arseny, and slowly departed. The brilliant light disappeared, and the cell became dark, cold, and gloomy as before.

     "Get up, Alexis; they've come," said Fr. Arseny. Alexis arose. "They" proved to be the camp commandant, the head doctor, the chief of regulations and the chief of the "special" section, Abrosimov. Someone from the camp administration spoke from behind the door:

     "This is altogether inadmissible; it could be reported to Moscow. Who knows what they'll think. Frozen corpses--that's outdated."

     The door was opened. In the cell stood an old man in a camp-issue vest, and a young fellow in torn clothing with lacerations and bruises on his face. The expression of one and the other were calm; their clothing was thickly crusted with frost.

     "Alive?!" cried out the commandant in astonishment. "How did you manage to survive in this place for two whole days?!"

     "We're alive, citizen commandant," answered Fr. Arseny.

      The officials exchanged bewildered glances.

"Search them ," snapped the commandant.

     "Out with you," ordered one of the attendant inspectors.

      Fr. Arseny and Alexis came out of the cell. The inspectors, taking off their gloves, began to search them. The doctor likewise removed his gloves; he thrust his hand under the prisoners' clothing and, addressing no one, remarked pensively: "Amazing! How did they survive?! They're actually warm!" He entered the cell and carefully looked it over. "What kept you from freezing?"

     "Faith in God and prayer," replied Fr, Arseny.

     "Fanatics. Quick, into the barracks," said one of the inspectors, visibly shaken.

     As they left, Alexis heard the officials arguing, the last phrase to reach his ears was, "Astounding! An unheard-of occurrence! They shouldn't have survived more than four hours at such temperatures. It's perfectly astounding, unbelievable, considering the 30° frost. You were lucky, comrade commandant. There could have been some rather nasty consequences."

      The barracks greeted Fr. Arseny and Alexis as ones resurrected from the dead, only asking incessantly, "How did you do it?"  to which they both replied: "God saved us."

    A week later Ivan Kari wzs transferred to another barracks, and the following week he was crushed by some rock. He died in agony. It was rumored that his own fraternity gave the rock a fatal nudge.

    Through his experience in the cell Alexis was reborn. He became attached to Fr. Arseny and would question all the believers in the barracks concerning God and Orthodox services.  

The above incident occurred in the '40' s. The account was written from the words of Alexis and several eye-witnesses in the barracks. Alexis remained close to Fr. Arseny even after their release, and eventually became a priest.

[1] A broadly interpreted section of the USSR Criminal Code, under which most dissidents were arrested; described by Solzhenitsyn as “a fan whose spread encompassed al human existence.” (cf. Gulag, vol. 1, pp. 60-67) 

[2] An exceptionally strict regime prison camp.

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