Orthodox America

  I Remember…. A chapter from the samizdat manuscript Life of Hieromonk Arseny

       The train stopped and Father Arseny stepped out of the car. It was spring, 1958, cheerful, joyous exhuberant. The morning was bright, sunny. Patches of still unmelted snow lay on the ground; puddles glistened blue with sky.

       Walking along the platform and coming out onto the square in front of the station, Fr. Arseny looked around. The pure, limpid air traced patterns of distant belfries, the roofs of churches with bent crosses atop the cupolas.

       In his quilted jacket, his cap with earflaps, his knapsack and small gray beard, Fr. Arseny might have been taken at first glance for a collective farm worker who had come to town for provisions. But other less discernible features in his clothing, his gait, his manner, said that he had returned from imprisonment.

      The city had scarcely changed in the past two and a half decades, although it was still more rundown, dirtier, dingier; even the spring weather didn't enliven it; on the contrary, it only accentuated the wretchedness of houses crying for repairs, of broken cobblestone pavements, of rubbish-filled gutters, of desolate shops and booths, the oppressive monochrome of everything around.

      Fr. Arseny reached his hand into his pocket, pulled out a note with an address, and went to search out the house of Nadezhda Petrovna.

      Now everything became new: people, conversations, people's behavior and the small city itself which at one time he had often visited and where he had once lived for several years..

      Monastery, River, Embankment... these streets had been renamed: Engels, Marx, Soviet, Civic, Ilyich.

      Fr. Arseny had to question a number of people before the street he needed finally appeared, climbing a hill in front of him. He found the house and, going up to the closed gate, tugged the bell handle.

      He rang several times and heard the weak rattle of the bell in the house. But no one appeared. Fr. Arseny looked about helplessly, not knowing what to do.

       It was getting cold, his journey had exhausted him: transfers, anxiety, a wearying uncertainty, torn from his accustomed camp life, the complexity of being at liberty--ah this had caused him to lose his inner concentration and peace.

       As Fr. Arseny remained standing there by the gate, he was overcome by a feeling of bewilderment. Where was he to go? What to do? He knew no one in the city. There was a second address, but he searched his pockets and didn't find it. He needed someone who would help find him a room to rent. He had to rest, to live alone for a time, to get used to everything new. to understand, to enter into life "outside," to which he had grown unaccustomed through long years in the camps, and then to make contact with his spiritual children and friends. 

       What to do? Perhaps Nadezhda Petrovna had gone away? A small bench stood near the gate.' Wiping it with his sleeve, Fr. Arseny sat down, exhausted.

       "I began to reflect," Fr. Arseny later related. "It came to me that I had unnoticeably given myself over to the spire of pride: I thought I could manage a new life by myself, without the help of friends and spiritual children, that I would get used to it. But the Lord showed me my mistake. Everything around me was frightening; it was strange, unfamiliar. My only hope was in the Lord."

      Passers-by were few, and the old man in the quilted jacket with a pack on his back, sat half stooped over on me bench, leaning against the fence, and appeared to doze off The town, the street, the locked house-- all grew distant, disappeared, and all that remained was prayer to the Lord and to the Mother of God, prayer in which Fr. Arseny asked forgiveness for his pride, for doubting the charity of his close ones. 

      About three hours passed in this way when a woman came out of the neighboring house and asked: "Whom is it you want, citizen?" Fr. Arseny was surprised at finding himself on the bench next to the fence, at the unfamiliar street, at the woman standing next to him, and with difficulty realized where he was. Finding the note in his pocket, Fr. Arseny answered: 'Nadezhda Petrovna." But the questions kept coming: "Who? Where? Why? Have you been in town long?"

      "An acquaintance. For a visit; haven't seen one another in a long time." It seemed impossible to stop the flow of curiosity, but at that moment a woman approached the gate and Fr. Arseny understood that this was Nadezhda Petrovna,

    This, then, was how he arrived in the town and how he met Nadezhda Petrovna, at whose home he was to live for more than ten years, the last years of his life in freedom.

    Nadezhda Petrovna's life was far from ordinary. The daughter of a teacher, she joined the Party at the age of 16, took part in the Civil War, had charge of the Women's department of the province, worked in the Party organs, entered college, graduated, and  went to work on the so-called "ideological front." Articles, brochures, books written by her gained renown; she worked with Skvortsov-Stepanov and Varga, she was elected a delegate to various assemblies. In 1937, however, she was arrested and only at the end of 1955 was she released with a “clean slate”, she was 55 years old.

      Of three children only the eldest daughter Maria was still alive, and when Nadezhda Petrovna returned from the camps, Maria had long since been married to an army doctor. Her son Yuri, having spent a few years in a children’s home, had been taken to the front where he was killed at the age of 19. The youngest, Sergei, died in that town in a children’s home. Nadezhda Petrovna had no desire  to live in Moscow and decided to settle there, where little Sergei had died and was buried.

      Beliefs, love, interest in life, a past – at one time exciting… all this was uprooted, erased by interrogations, degradation, camps. In the soul there was left a constant pain.

      In this town her daughter and son-in-law had bought Nadezhda Petrovna a small but nice house with a lovely yard.

    In 1952 Fr. Arseny met Nadezhda Petrovna’s husband Pavel in the camps; he was seriously ill but continued to work at heavy labor very nearly until the day he died. They became friends and Pavel asked that if Fr. Arseny succeeded in getting out of the camps, he find his wife and tell her about his life, and, if possible, help her. 

    At the end of 1956, while still in camp, Fr. Arseny made written contact with his friends, and with great difficulty they found Nadezhda Petrovna, who by this time was already living in her house in R. Fr. Arseny wrote her a detailed letter about her deceased husband, about the final days of his life. In response she wrote inviting Fr. Arseny to come live with her after his release.

      Nadezhda Petrovna welcomed Fr. Arseny warmly. He described in detail her husbands, life in the camp, his integrity, the thoughts he expressed before he died. There was a lot he told her.

       In listening to Fr. Arseny, Nadezhda Petrovna at times would weep, while at other times her face became angry, malevolent, and she would repeat the same phrase: “What a man Pavel was! What a man! They killed him, consciously, deliberately. The monsters!”

      Fr. Arseny stayed with Nadezhda Petrovan for several days, but it was difficult for him; he didn’t feel at home. He was self-conscious about praying and felt like a guest, although he had his own room. At this time the second address showed up in his jacket pocket and, thanking Nadezhda Petrovna for her hospitality, he went to live with his close acquaintance and spiritual daughter from Moscow, Maria Sergeevna.

      “About ten days later,” related Nadezhda Petrovna, “I came to visit Fr. Arseny (at that time I called him Petr Pndreevich). I saw that the house was dilapidated, he was living in some kind of closet in which there was a broken folding cot with an old cotton blanket. Maria Sergeevna was old and had difficulty in moving about; she herself needed help and couldn’t be expected to take care of Fr. Arseny. In short, an impossible situation. I asked if he wouldn’t come live with me again. He gave ma a singular look and asked meekly: “Are you sure? After all, I am a priest, I pray a lot and conduct services at home; you have different views, you are an unbeliever, an atheist. And besides, friends will be coming to visit me, and not one or two but many. I’m not a suitable roomer for you.”

      “I saw that Maria Sergeevna didn’t approve of the move either, but for some reason I felt such pity for him. The next day I came and took him home with me.  

    “I settled Fr. Arseny in a large room; the windows looked out on the yard, it was quiet, peaceful there. I began to look after him. After all, I lived alone. I was fortunate if my daughter and her husband came once a month from Moscow to visit, and my granddaughter cam only during the winter vacation. I had a lot of free time which I had begun to occupy with reading; but here was something for me to do. And anyway, he was obviously a very interesting man, and somehow special.

      In the beginning I didn't understand what it was that was special about him. At first he spent all his time praying--during the day, in the evening, at night, in the morning. He had brought an icon from Maria Sergeevna's and had hung it in a corner; in front of it he kept a vigil lamp constantly burning.

      All this was strange to me, incomprehensible. I thought he was uneducated, a fanatic, or else that the camp had affected him; but when he spoke I could see that he was intelligent. I began to study him more closely. In the evenings we would sometimes have long talks. And then, in the course of the next month and a half, I came to understand that before me was a man of great learning, highly cultured, who was marked by an exceptional, exalted spirit and uncommon goodness. I likewise noticed that Fr. Arseny hadn't yet grown accustomed to freedom, and the camp experience was still weighing on him, with all its horrendous past. Although he had told me that friends would be coming to see him, no one ever came, nor did he write any letters, and, as I later found out, he had forbidden Maria Sergeevna to tell anyone of his whereabouts.

      For the first three weeks he didn't even go out; then he began to sit on the bench in the yard. I understood his state since I myself and many of my friends had experienced something similar on leaving the camps: some became introverted, others threw themselves feverishly into some activity which was later replaced by depression."

      "I began," related Nadezhda PeSorna, "to speak more often with Fr. Arseny, to ask questions, to tell him about myself; I asked permission to come into his room when he was praying or having services. At these times he became a different person, one I hadn't seen before, one that amazed me. 

      I remember how one evening I was overcome by an agonizing, crushing depression. My children Yuri and Sergei stood persistently before my eyes; I remembered my husband, and something dark crawled into my soul; I wanted to throw myself on the floor and beat my head, to scream, to lament all that was lost, wasted. Life seemed to be pointless and unnecessary. Why live? What for?

      I paced about the room, threw myself on the bed, sank my teeth into the pillow, got up and wept in silence, tears streaming down my face. Who could help me? Who could give me an answer, to all that had happened? Who?

      It was unbearable; I wanted to die. I remembered the suffering of my children in the orphanages, the terror of parting with them at the time of my arrest, their eyes wide with fear and pleading directed towards me as I left with the NKVD officials who had come to arrest me. The death of my husband in the camp. Interrogations. My life. Everything came to me with a peculiar clarity, sharpness, pain. I wanted to run away somewhere and demand an answer: WHY had all this happened?

      I felt alone in the house; Petr Andreevich was worn out, a man removed from life, unable to help me. But there was no one else, and so, weeping, I went to him.

      Depression, grief, and a particularly strong bitterness seized me. I entered without knocking. Petr Andreevich was standing in the corner before the icon of the Mother of God; the vigil lamp burned dimly; he prayed aloud. I entered noisily, abruptly opening the door. But he didn't turn around. Standing there without moving, I heard the distinctly pronounced words of his prayer.

      "My most gracious Heavenly Queen, my hope, O Mother of God, defender of orphans and strangers, protectress of the offended, salvation of the perishing and consolation of all that sorrow, thou seest my trouble thou seest my sorrow and grief. Help me who am helpless, strengthen me who am suffering. Thou knowest my pain and my distress;.deliver me from them; extend over me thy hand, for in whom can I hope; thou alone art my defender and intercessor before the Lord, for I have sinned immeasurably and I am guilt? before thee and my neighbor. O Mother, be thou my conseler and helper, preserve and save me, chase away from me all grief, anguish and despondency. Help me, O Mother of my Lord!"

      Fr. Arseny finished the prayer, crossed himself, knelt, made several prostrations, read some other prayer which I didn't remember and stood up. While I, clutching the lintel of the doorway, sobbed aloud, drenched in tears as the words of the prayer to the Mother of God came to my ears. Skipping ahead, I want to say that they remained with me for life, they immediately imprinted themselves on my memory, forever; I remembered them just as I had first heard them.

      Through my sobbing I could only say: "Help me, I am so miserable!"

      Without asking any questions Petr Andreevich pried me away from the lintel and sat me in a chair. Shaking with sobs, I began to speak, at first angrily, then agitatedly; finally calmed down. My whole life, down to the minutest detail, came before me, and I spilled it out onto Fr. Arseny. I told him about myself, about my grief, sufferings, children, my husband, about my life, mistakes, strivings, my former work.

        The past, the naked past suddenly appeared to me in an entirely different light. In speaking about myself, I saw not only myself, but also those people to whom I had brought suffering, pain, humiliation, and perhaps even death. Everything passed before my eyes    And during the entire course of my narrative-confession, the words of the prayer I had heard were invisibly present, as though illumining my path.

      I spoke at length, several hours, and Fr. Arseny, his hands leaning on the table, listened without moving, without interrupting, without correcting me. When I had finished, surprised myself by all that I had said, Fr. Arseny got up, went over to the icons, adjusted the vigil lamp, crossed himself several times and began to speak. He didn't speak for very long, but what he said again and again made me understand all my sufferings differently from before. I had, after all, suffered and been tormented also for those actions which I had at one time committed; after all, there were people who had suffered from my actions, from what I had done, and I hadn't thought of them, I had forgotten their sufferings. Why should I be better than they?

      "It is a good thing.' said Fr. Arseny, "that you told your life story, because total frankness is the foundation for cleansing man's conscience. You will find yourself, Nadezhda Petrovna." And he blessed me three times.

      I did not become a believer straight away, but I understood that there was a good deal, a great deal that l had missed in life and what I had missed and had earlier overlooked, with the help of God and Fr. Arseny, I found.

      At first I became used to him, then l became attached, and I saw in him someone altogether exceptional, bearing within himself a profound spirituality, faith and kindness towards others. Never could I have imagined that the thin tired .man, who came to me in a camp-issue jacket, would have such an influence on me, and that I, who before had denied and offended God, would become a believer.

      This talk brought me much closer to Fr. Arsony, and he began to be less self-conscious, to gradually thaw out and take an interest in his surroundings By the end of the second month he had even written a few letters, and three or four days later some people came at once to see him. There is no point in my concealing the fact that these people seemed rather strange to me. But later I came to understand them and undoubtedly came to resemble them myself. With many of them I became friends and grew to love them. 

(To be continued)

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