Many are the tribulations of the righteous, and the Lord shall deliver them out of them all.
We went through fire and water, and Thou didst bring us out into refreshment.
Carrying on in their way of the cross, at times desponding and grieving, they nevertheless did not lose heart but found in themselves the strength to pray and give praise to God. How did they survive? How did they remain true to Christ? This is what our article is about.
Three children were left in the family of the famous Moscow priest and talented preacher Fr. Michael Shik after his first arrest. Left without any means for existence, his matushka travelled with her six-month-old daughter from Sergiev Posad to Moscow [74 kilometers or 45 miles] for work. She would leave the girl with her relatives and run to the historical museum, where she gave guided tours. Then with groceries and diapers in a knapsack and a little child in her arms she would return to Sergiev Posad. “Despondency was not characteristic of her,” writes her daughter Elizaveta in her memoirs. “After I was born, mama wrote to father in prison, “May God give you patience. While I am missing you I feel boundlessly happy, happy with you, and know that ahead is the joy of meeting with you, and I believe that it will not be taken away from us, and I pray only that we ourselves might not somehow poison it…” Fr. Mikhail was executed in 1937 at the Butovo firing range south of Moscow. Matushka Natalia Dimitrievna searched for him in various prisons. Without knowing about her husband’s fate, she wrote him a touching letter of farewell before her own death: “My dear, priceless friend! Now my final spring has passed. And you? Your fate is still a mystery. The hope that you will return still flickers in me. However, we will no longer see each other, but how I would like to wait till you come. But we mustn’t have any regrets. After meeting it would be even harder to part, but it’s time for me to go… Your name is sacred to the children. Their prayers for you are the most cherished thing that unites them. Sometimes I recount something about you so that the marks of your spiritual image would never be erased from their memories.”
The memory of a loved one is always in the heart, and even at the gates of death all our thoughts are of him. One never ceases to wonder at the exalted spirit and reverent relationships these saintly people had for each other. They had that love between them that in the words of the apostle Paul never faileth (1 Cor. 13:8), but continues on into eternity.
Matushka Alexandra Sergeyevna Golysheva preserved Fr. Nicholai’s final letter behind her icons like a holy relic. In this farewell note from batiushka, written in prison not long before his execution, is revealed his marvelous humility and boundless love for his family. “Do not worry about me…” writes Fr. Nicholai. Understanding what awaits him (“I am not likely to survive”), he says, “My worry is for you. You have nothing…” The last words of his note are almost a prayer: “May the Lord preserve you, my dear ones. Be strong and pray for me, do not remember evil of me… Forgive me for Christ’s sake… I kiss you and pray to God that He would keep you from harm. Do not forget God, the Mother of God, and St. Nicholas; and to the protection of St. Nicholas do I commit you. Loving you to the very grave, Papochka.”
St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) wrote about love as a great gift of God: “People become close to each other for a time in the flesh, but for eternity in the spirit.” This love is a miracle; it gives souls who love each other communion with each other even after death.
Hieromartyr Vasily Nadezhdin in his final letter from Solovki prison camp gave his wife, it could be said, a spiritual will and testament: “I bless you for your love, for your friendship, for your faithfulness to me… May God’s will be done! We will await our joyful reunion in the bright Kingdom of love and joy, where no one can separate us any longer. And you will tell me about how you lived your life without me, how you were able to raise our children as Christians, how you were able to inculcate them with horror and repugnance for the dark, godless worldview, and impress the bright image of Christ in their hearts…”
The matushka of priest Sergius Sidorov, who spent the final years of his service in Vladimir province, did not write an inquiry to the NKVD about her husband’s fate; he himself informed his spouse in a dream about his death, according to the testimony of their daughter Vera. Such communion is only possible under the condition that people live one and the same spiritual life, and all of it is in God.
The matushka of Hieromartyr Ilya Chetverukhin, a Moscow priest who died in a prison camp in Visher in 1932, recalled the words from the canon for Holy Pentecost: “There will be no separation for you, O friends…” “It will soon be fifteen years since batiushka departed to the Lord,” wrote Evgenia Leonidovna, “but I feel no separation from him; I veritably continue to live with one life with him. I often hear his encouraging voice within myself when I am experiencing hardships: “Don’t worry mamasha, that’s my girl.” That is how he would speak to me, and it would make things easier. And if I do something not as I should, not as he would have liked, I see in a dream that he is somewhere far away from me, and my heart is wrung with pain.”
There were instances when the martyrs took care of their children’s upbringing even after death. The daughter of Fr. Michael Shik remembers, “After papa’s arrest, mama refused to continue subscribing to Pioneer’s Pravda newspaper, saying that father had scolded her in a dream for that subscription, because every person subscribes to the paper of his party, and we do not belong to that ‘party’.”
Deprivations and sorrows teach us to reassess our relationship to earthly values and emotional worldly attachments. Before his arrest, Archpriest Ilya Chetverukhin liked to sit in the library for long periods of time and his family was not to disturb him. Later he admitted to his son, “Love of books hindered me from loving you as I should have, my dears.” To matushka he wrote, “Forgive me if I divided my love between you and the library. Now you are my only treasure.” “Ach, how I miss you!” He says in another letter. “Not freedom, not home, not my books, but only you! If only you were here near me I would be happy!”
At times the families of priest endured want of the most basic necessities. The daughter of hieromartyr Dimitry Kedrolivansky from the village of Krugi in Egorievsk region wore a dress sewn from her father’s cassock. And in the family of Tver hieromartyr Nicholai Morkovkin there were six children when the authorities burdened them with an unreasonable tax and decided to confiscate batiushka’s quilted winter ryassa, out of which matushka had wanted to sew a coat for her daughters. The parents’ hearts constricted. “My wife and I decided not to give away these things for the children’s’ sake,” Fr. Nicholai later related. For this the priest and his wife were sent into exile, leaving the children alone. Later batiushka wrote in a letter from prison, “Now I have become richer, but not with what is only passing, which rots and corrupts, but with what remains until the grave—that is, with the riches of spiritual life.” Of his spouse he said, “I thought that she would not withstand such a heavy cross, according to our own reasoning… But God gives a cross to each believer according to his strength, and all is possible to the every person who has faith even as a grain of mustard seed.”
Not long before his death, Hieromartyr Ilya Chetverukhin said to his wife during a visitation in the camp, “Here I am going through a spiritual academy without which they won’t let me into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The steadfastness and courage with which many priests’ family accepted their trials is amazing. The poverty of their outward circumstances did not oppress or embitter them. The daughter of Sergiy Sidorov, Vera, recalls how her mother laughingly called their room a “lair”. Her parents slept on the floor, covering themselves with whatever they could, since their blankets and sheets were completely threadbare. All their clothing hung on nails, and the belongings of the children, who slept on the bench and beds, were kept in postal boxes. Once an apartment thief broke into their room. He was thrown into confusion at the sight of such poverty. When he noticed Matushka Tatiana approaching him he just said, “Don’t worry, no need to be afraid of want, everything will be alright.”
Suffering made these people’s spirit strong, and raised them above worldly vanity, freeing them from worldly cares.
Once Fr. Sergiy was asked how he decided to become a priest, with such a large family. If they “take” him, to whom will he leave the children? Fr. Sergiy replied, “To the Heavenly Queen. If I perish, then I leave them to her Son. Could you really allow the thought that in such a case she will abandon my children? Never! She will save and defend them.” In two months Fr. Sergiy was arrested, and he perished. But the “father’s faith that the Heavenly Queen would save and defend his children was justified,” wrote his eldest daughter Vera. “How many families were destroyed in those days! First they would take the husband, then the wife, and then the children to an orphanage, where they would forget everything connected with their families, its traditions, and what it held sacred. But they didn’t touch us, although many priests’ wives were sent to prison camps.”
In the Lives of the New Martyrs we often meet moments when their wives begged them for the sake of the family to move to another place of service or to change to a secular job and abandon their priestly service. But we can’t judge them for this natural fear for themselves and their children. “It is not a shame to be afraid,” said Fr. Sergiy Sidorov. “We are all human, and humans are weak. But fainthearted we must not be. After all, God is with us, and he will not abandon us anywhere.”
The famous nineteenth century poet A. N. Maikov wrote:
The darker the night, the brighter the stars.
The deeper the sorrow, the closer is God…
And truly, God did not abandon these people in the most difficult situations. Faith helped them survive and worked miracles. Truly, mercy shall surround those who hope in the Lord (Ps. 31:10).
“I remember, it was six months after father’s arrest,” writes Vera Sidorova. “We were in great want, didn’t have a penny, nothing but debts. Mother sat on the bed and nursed three-month-old Serezha (the fifth child, who never even saw his father), and I was busy with something. Suddenly mama says to me, ‘Vera, go look in the chest under the bedclothes—maybe a bundle is left in there… A ‘bundle’ is what we called the small change that father received for his service. In the bundles would be copper and silver coins. But I knew that in our only chest were the bedclothes were kept there hadn’t been anything left for a long time. I said this to mother but she protested, “Pray to St. Nicholas the God-pleaser. He is the protector of the Sidorov family, and you are a child—he’ll hear you better and perhaps will help us. Go look for a bundle.” I prayed quietly, opened the chest and began digging through our unbelievably old and tattered shirts and sheets. And suddenly—my heart still jumps when I remember it—I shouted to mama, ‘A bundle!” I opened it up. It contained 20-kopeck coins! I started looking further and saw one, a second, and a third bundle lying in the corner of the chest, and in each one were not copper but silver coins! Mother didn’t believe me when I shouted about it—after all, this wasn’t the first time we had dug through the chest in the recent months; everything has been spent long ago… ‘Thank St. Nicholas, Vera,’ mama said to me. I found seven bundles then.”
The Lord strengthens His children’s faith. But while He is always near, the merciful God often tests us: How will be bear our cross, with what heart will we meet hardships and suffering? S. Bekhteyev spoke very succinctly about this difficult burden in one of his poems:
And why in these terrible, wearying hours,
So heavy the tormenting cross,
The onslaught of all satan’s hell is ours
For our serving the commandments of Christ.
Many then had minutes of despondency, when it seemed that there was nothing and no one to hope in. “All is lost, we will die of hunger,” Matushka Tatiana Sidorova would at times say to her children. But a little while later she would find the strength to laugh and encourage her little ones. This is the strength of inner steadfastness, the power of the spirit, based on the readiness to bear and endure everything for the Lord’s sake, and which did not allow many people to perish in those terrifying years of persecution. The words of the apostle Paul are applicable to these people: We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed (1 Cor. 4:8-9). One never ceases to be amazed at how these people in such circumstances never lost their faith—it only became stronger in them. After the Ufa priest Peter Varlaamov’s matushka, Anna Ivanovna, died (after her husband’s arrest she had been left with five children: the oldest eight years old, the youngest seven months), a prayer written in her handwriting was found among her papers, and this was the prayer she prayed to the Lord after her husband was arrested: “I thank Thee, O Lord, for everything—for life, for the adversities I’ve experienced, for the separation from my beloved husband (priest), for torments and joy… I thank Thee for everything.”
The wives of the holy martyrs and confessors often accepted trials with submission to God’s will. As they parted with their husbands, many of them said, “Go and suffer for Christ” (from the Life of holy Hieromartyr Nicholai Pospelov). With her faith, steadfastness, and patience the priests’ wives shared the lot of their beloved husbands and themselves became bloodless martyrs. In the most difficult moments, when the priests were faced with a choice of either saving their own lives under the condition that they renounce their priesthood, or to die, condemning their families to suffering, their wives often supported them in their confession of the faith. Thus did the wife of Hieromartyr Valerian Novitsky answer her husband when she received a note from his imprisonment in which he expressed his anxiety over the fate of their children: “Do not renounce God, or your priestly rank. The Lord will help me.”
How can we, people of the twenty-first century, understand the New Martyrs? Isn’t it strange to thank God when your most beloved husband and only breadwinner has perished; to serve molebens of thanksgiving when they are leading away the family’s only cow; to rejoice in life and give birth to children in poverty and hunger? St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) says that our cross, that is, all the sorrows and sufferings of earthly life, seem heavy until we learn to carry it with patience and humility in Christ’s name. “When your cross is transformed into the cross of Christ, it receives extraordinary lightness. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is Light, said the Lord.” The apostle Paul spoke about this also: For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ (2 Cor. 1:5).
The well-known ascetic of our times Archpriest Nicholai Guryanov, who also walked a hard path in life, wrote a poem that wonderfully completes our theme:
The Path of God
To the Holy Mountain, the City of God
There are many different paths,
But the beginning of them all
Is the Cross on which God was crucified!
And without a crown of sharp thorns
Without wounds, and vinegar, and nails
Without torments of heart and weariness
We won’t reach the doors of paradise.
But Christ’s burden is easy
It won’t be hard for us to bear it,
If we are able to bring to mind
That many are the tribulations of the righteous,
But He shall deliver them out of them all
And that the thorny paths
Lead them to peace and joy,
That the Kingdom of Heaven is open
To those who walked the narrow path
And what is now hidden from us
Will be made known to us there.
That there, where eternally shines
The lamp of God’s love
The blessedness of paradise is waiting
For the sufferer—the earthly wanderer.