Orthodox America


I Remember….


Another chapter in the samizdat manuscript Life of Hieromonk Arseny; continued from the last issue

       Within five to six months I had already become Fr. Arseny's spiritual daughter, related Nadezhda Petrovna. One incident which occurred during that time influenced me particularly.

 

     My husband and I had a good friend, Nicholas. He was arrested at the same time as my husband Paul; the same case was brought against him. He was released in 1955, rehabilitated; all his rights were restored. He worked in Kharkov where he held an important post in economics. Once he was on business in Moscow and decided to come visit me. We hadn't seen one another since the camps, although we had corresponded.

       He arrived. I began to ask him about Paul, about life in the camp; I told him about myself, why it was that I was living here in this small town; I cried over my children. Nicholas told me about himself, of course, his arrest, the camp; he recalled the interrogations, who had informed against him in the trumped up affair. He began to ask me about my daughter, he talked about his wife, and then he suddenly asked, laughing:

       "Nadezhda, you haven't gotten married? When I was taking off my coat, I saw a man's hat and coat hanging in the foyer. Whose are they?"

       I answered rather bruskly, but then caught myself and said that I had a roomer living with me, or rather, a close acquaintance who was in the camps with my husband during the last year of his life. Probably automatically, Nicholas asked, "Who?" I told him, "A priest, Streltsov, Petr Andreevich. You couldn't know him since for the last four years you were in a different camp from Paul.'

       Nicholas literally jumped up. "Father Arseny! Here?! Where is he?"

       Without knocking he rushed into Father Arseny's room, and I heard him exclaim: "Father Arseny! Father Arseny!"

       I followed Nicholas into the room and saw him embrace Father Arseny and, what really amazed me, he burst into tears. I was even more astonished to hear him say:

       "Lord! How happy I am to see you. I inquired after you, I tried to find you through acquaintances but without success. For God's sake bless me," and he approached for a blessing.

They sat down and forgot about me. I left th eroom to make tea. I was in a state of bewilderment. What had gone on with my Paul, and with Nicholas? Why had they both, one could say, lost their heads over Father Arseny? I brought in some tea but neither Father Arseny nor Nicholas touched it.

       Towards nightfall Nicholas appeared. While I was alone I had been thinking. Father Arseny was a good, kind man, but how was it that Nicholas, a communist, had asked for his blessing. I couldn't understand it. I didn't know what they talked about for hours on end, and only some years later Nicholas told mc that he had had confession.

       Nicholas came away a changed person, brighter somehow. He was silent at first, and then spent practically all night talking about Fr. Arscny. In the beginning this irritated me. A man comes to see me; he hasn't seen me for ages, and suddenly he leaves.

 

Of course, Fr. Arseny was a good man, but to act in such a way towards me, a woman who had endured so much.., it seemed to me to be tactless and wrong. He could have Spoken with Fr. Arseny later. I did not conceal my vexation.

      "Listen, Nicholas. I myself see that Petr Andreevich is a good man, but why do you act towards him as you do? You ask his blessing, leave me and throw yourself at him; after all, we haven't seen each other for years!"

      Nicholas looked at me in astonishment, and began to talk. He spoke for a long time, a very long time, and I saw Petr Andreerich, Fr. Arseny, in a completely different light. I remember his story.

 

    "The camps, Nadia! they showed me a different side of life: opinions, people, ideas, events, my past and present., I began to value them differently than before. You yourself were in the camps, you know. In freedom a person is kind, trustworthy, sympathetic, invaluable, and you trust him. But the same person is sent to camp and immediately you see he's a cad, an informer, a traitor, scum. He'd sell his mother and father. You and I have seen such people and because of them we sat out many years in camps, we lost o ur close ones.

      "But this man, Nadia! He saved hundreds of people from deatht and torture. How? Through a kind word, through his concern, help. You know how much inner, moral support meant in camp. It meant everything more than food. In the camps we were drawn to our own: the Party man to the Party man, the intellectual to the intellectual, the kolkhoz worker to the kolkhoz worker, the thief to the thief, the blackguard to the blackguard. And if anyone helped it was only their own. Even that was rare; for the most part people betrayed one another. But he, Fr. Arseny, helped everyone, he didn't have any people that were “his" or that were strangers; to him they were simply people in need of help.

       "And so it was that he found Paul and me. We were on the brink of despair; we wanted to escape - something that was tantamount to death. We didn't say a word to anyone, and then, on the eve of our flight from the transit, he came up to us and began talking. We looked at him stupified. How did he know? We were bewildered, scared. He spoke kindly, persuasively trying to dissuade us. We calmed down.

       When in the barracks I learned that he was a priest, I formed a negative attitude towards him; he looked rather homely besides.

       "I lived with him in the barracks for about a year, and he became for me and for Paul like a guiding star. Study him more closely, Nadia, and you, too, will go to him for a blessing."

       Nicholas' story made a strong impression on me. I had by they, as I said earlier, become quite attached to Fr. Arseny. It was simply that Nicholas' leaving me for him had upset me.

I shall continue the story of Fr. Arseny, his life.

 

     The room which Nadezhda Petrovna offered him was quite large. It looked out onto the yard, planted with apple trees, plum trees, mountain ash. The neighboring fence was at some distance; it was altogether unseen in the summertime and barely visible in winter.

       Early in the morning the copper rooster flew onto the fence and gave several piercing cries. At that time Fr. Arseny arose and began morning prayers. Then he again lay down and at seven o'clock conducted services until nine. From seven to nine, when he served, all those spiritual children who had come to see him were present, and sometimes Nadezhda Petrovna. After services he would talk to his visitors or work. He wrote letters; when he wasn't feeling well he would dictate them. He read a lot of books about art, and also occupied himself with writing.

     Many people came, a great many.

      Vera Danilovna was a tall, gray-haired and outwardly stern and unapproachable woman; in fact, she was the nicest, kindest person. She was Fr. Arseny s closest friend and spiritual daughter and among the first to have come to him Nearly all of us used her services; she was a doctor. There were two other doctors who used to come --Liudmila and Yulia; they were the same age. Then there was Irina, a beautiful woman of 45 or 50, who used to come with her husband and children. Together with Vera Danilovna they took care of Fr. Arseny's health and sometimes even took him off to Moscow to one clinic or another. Fr. Arseny always protested, but under their combined pressure he gave in. At those times Nadezhda Petrovna would join them; she would gather his things and Fr. Arseny would literally be put out of the house. Departing, he would invariably say: "I'm fine, it’s all your imagination."

      Irina was special: soft, womanly, uncommonly kind; no one would have thought that she was a famous surgeon with the title of professor and her own chair. I didn't know Irina's life, but I noticed that Fr Arseny had a special respect for her.

      I remembrr the arrival of the engineer Sazikov, a handsome, always elegantly dressed man who literally adored Fr. Arseny. They would walk in the garden with measured steps and talk for hours. Sazikov was witty, smart, and seemingly jolly. But in his large brown eyes there lived a constant grief. He came often, and on one of his visits he became talkative with me. He told me that he had been in camp together with Fr. Arseny, and that he was a former thief, a repeat offender I was shocked and said that no doubt he was joking. But Sazikov replied:

       'I’m not laughing; I'm an old criminal whom Fr. Arseny rescued out of that milieu. ' Sazikov gave the impression of a man totally immersed in his faith and in his work. Who and what kind of a man he was I didn't know. Fr. Arseny had taught us never to question anyone; this was the rule Nevertheless, about four years after making his acquaintance I met Sazikov in Moscow, and he became a regular visitor in our family. It was then that he told me and my husband his life story.

 

       I remember there came a gray-haired man with a strong face; he had the bearing of a military man and penetrating eyes. He greeted me silently together with the rest of those sitting in Nadezhda Petrova's room, and disappeared into Fr. Arseny's quarters.

       Fr. Arseny always greeted all those who came to him affably and joyously. But he seemed to give this man an especially warm welcome. We didn't know who this visitor was and, as I have already said, we were not to make it our business. But once Fr. Arseny called me and said:

       'Get acquainted! Ivan Alexandrovich Abrosimoo. When I am no longer around do not forsake him." I wanted to say something, but Fr. Arseny firmly and insistently repeated: 'Don’t leave him, don't leave him! You, Ivan Alexandrovich, keep up an acquaintance with Tanya, a warm, close acquaintance, when I am gone, find him another priest."

       And in this way I became acquainted with Ivan Alexandrovich.

       The camp-student Alyosha was a frequent visitor. There is no need to tell about him; we all know him well as Priest Alexis, who took upon his shoulders Fr. Arseny's flock. Nevertheless, I can't resist writing something about our Fr. Alexis.

       While Fr. Arseny was still alive, this amiable, shining, blue-eyed Alyosha became his support and hope. Tender and kind, he was sensitive to another's sorrows, affectionate with people; he knew well the church services and prayed with great concentration. Who would have thought that Alexis would become the spiritual father of many of us.

       I remember the meeting of Sazikov and Abrosimoo at Fr. Arseny's; I remember their meeting with Alexis This was a meeting of people who were united by more than friendship; even brothers who loved one another would scarcely have met like this.

     Sazikov and Abrosimov literally showered Alexis' son Peter with toys and whatnot.

      Sometimes there would come state farm workers; there came a poet, a lathe operator, some old ladies who looked as though they belonged to the intelligentsia; there was an elderly teacher with his wife from Leningrad; the aged Bishop Jonah came to live at Nadezhda Petrovna's for extended periods of time; he was retired but retained a youthful memory and sober mind; he was an expert in the history of the Russian Church and its liturgics. /.../

      People came and went, they wrote and received answers and carried away with them tranquility, faith, hope in something better, and a part of Fr. Arseny's soul. I often noticed that Fr. Arseny himself, in conversing with his spiritual children and friends, received from them something new, and there were many whose arrival he awaited with impatience.

      "Each person with whom you have contact enriches you; he brings you a piece of light and joy, and even if he brings his grief, even here you will find the will of God and, seeing how together with you a person overcomes his grief, you are glad for him.

      "But among my spiritual children there are those who renew me each time I see them. They are for me light and joy!" 

      I often had occasion to pray with Fr Arseny. We would stand in the room, in the semi-darkness, the vigil lamps illumining the icons. And Fr. Arseny would be serving. He read distinctly, clearly, and one felt that he had withdrawn completely into the prayer. He prayed in such a way that even you-who have only just arrived, just gotten off the train, haven't yet shaken off the journey and the city's vain commotion--gradually follow after him. Forgetting what surrounds you and seeing before your eyes only the icons of the Mother of God, you penetrate into the words of prayer, and somewhere within you there is enkindled the joy of communion with that great mystery of the Lord's service.

      On bended knees, Fr. Arseny reads to himself the priest's prayers; silence enters and you begin at this moment to pray to the Lord to have mercy on you, to forgive your sins, to grant and fulfill your entreaties. The room does not exist, nor anyone standing next to you; you are standing in a church; the vigil lamps are burning, the faces of the Vladimir and Kazan Mother of God look down from the icons, as though embracing you with their all forgiving mercy. And Fr. Arseny leads you towards the warming and illumining light of prayer.

      To pray next to Fr Arseny was always a great joy for all of us.

      There is a great deal more that can be said about Fr. Arseny, much more, but I think I have said what is essential.


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