Vladimir Shcherbinin has shot about eighty documentary films, and in 1994 he founded the icon-painting workshop at Moscow Sretensky Monastery in which students have created icons for over eighteen churches in Russia, Poland, Serbia, the Ukraine… The book A Contrite Heart by Vladimir Shcherbinin, published by Sretensky Monastery’s publishing house, is a sincere account of a man’s life and comprehension of the truth of eternal life in the journey of faith. This book is about acquiring the original human nature through repentance and faithfulness to the path, preordained by God.
My friend and I are walking on thin ice of Pskov Lake towards the island [the island of Talabsk, or Zalit, in the Pskov region] to visit Elder Nicholas [the famous Russian elder Archpriest Nicholas Guryanov: 1909-2002] who lives there, to ask for his advice on our future lives and to convey to him greetings from an old nun named Maria, the sister of the prominent choirmaster Sveshnikov.
The March Sun is at its brightest, in the air we feel the freshness of snow that has thawed a little, bell-like trills of birds resound in the sky, while lovers of ice-hole fishing are standing motionless on either side of the road.
We are young and naïve; we recollect stories from the Lives of saints of olden times, and of course, are looking forward to seeing some miracles from the elder.
* * *
What do we know about him? He spent many years in labor camps where he had been sent for his faith, he served as confessor of the Riga Convent’s hermitage and then moved here, on the island, where he has lived as a hermit, leaving only from time to time for a short while to see his bishop in the town.
Mother Maria told us a story about his favorite cat named Lipunya.
During the elder’s transfer from Riga to the island the cat was lost somewhere in Pskov. All who learned about this loss tried to find the runaway pet. But how could they do it in a huge city with lots of homeless cats?
Nevertheless, Mother Maria did find it. Once she was walking along a street and incidentally spotted a big cat in a gateway. “Its facial expression was special, and its eyes were clever, almost human.” The nun called it by its name—Lipunya—and the cat immediately responded and jumped right into her arms itself!
On the following day she took a small boat and travelled to the island in order to give the fugitive cat back to its master. It was a long way to the bank, but Lipunya got agitated. He saw the slight figure of the elder on the quay, and started mewing more loudly, ready to jump into the water. As soon as the boat was moored, Lipunya flung himself at Fr. Nicholas, “embracing him with all four paws.”
However, the ascetic loved not only cats. For example, while more than a half of the world’s population was struggling with rodents, and without success, Fr. Nicholas… fed them. In his house there was a pipe going under the stove, fitted with a flap; while having tea he used to put rusks into it. And instantly a crunch could be heard at the other end of the pipe—these were mice, rejoicing at his gift.
In the winter, when Fr. Nicholas went out to the yard, all the birds that lived on the island flew together to him: pigeons, titmice, sparrows, bullfinches, and jays. They sat down on his head and his hands, which he stretched out in the form of a cross.
Not only people are drawn to love and light.
Even now you can see many birds on his grave…
* * *
My friend and I enter the church. The elder is standing before the open royal doors and praying for the departed (it was the first Saturday of Great Lent). A pile of commemoration books lie on the table before him. Then he reads only the names of people for whole two hours—thousands of names, and we have a feeling that he is speaking with these people as if they were alive. He sees them as well as he sees us. As if the fabric of this material world were torn apart and the door to the eternal world opened—where there is no death, no loss, no illness, no time.
Two hours flew by like one moment. We were covered by warmth and light wave and did not want to go anywhere.
Thus your soul touches eternity, and no wise men of this world can make you believe that the world is no more than “matter” and a mere “recurrence of living and dead substances”.
“The distance between us and the spiritual world, the world of angels, is considerably less than our outstretched arm. I say this as a mathematician.” I heard these words later from a wonderful man and scientist, Boris Viktorovich Rauschenbach (1915-2001).
* * *
We did not witness any special miracles on the island.
“I know, I know! She is the sister of a choirmaster from Moscow.”
And then he retold the story about Lipunya word for word.
When we said that we wanted to leave movie industry as it entailed vainglory and many temptations, he exclaimed:
“Absolutely out of the question! Simple workers are often conquered by vainglory and temptations as well! And simple drivers ruin themselves by drinking… And cinematography is art, it must serve beauty!”
He took our hands, as if we were children, and led us up to a wall painting where the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem was depicted.
“If it were not for art, how could we see all of this?.. I must confess that, looking at this painting, I think not about the greatness of this event—that the King of Heaven Himself enters Jerusalem; I think that the donkey is so young and no one has ever ridden it, but it has laid a heavy burden upon itself—the Creator of the world! I pity the poor donkey.”
About two months later a friend of mine told me:
“We are young donkeys.”
And in my opinion, all our generation of latter-day Christians are donkeys! We put the heavy burden of Christianity upon our shoulders and we are proud to be different from others. We look at those whose faith is different or just slightly different from ours with great contempt. We tend to believe that faith is only light emotions and pleasant feelings, but forget that in actual fact it is the burning fire of conscience, backbreaking work at self-improvement, examining and cleansing every single thought and every single movement of heart.
And who can say that his feelings and thoughts are light and pure?
* * *
You sowed peace but have reaped a tempest. You had a thirst for joy but have drained the cup of bitterness. You hoped that your soul would reach the Paradise but it has plunged into the depths of the abyss.
Your mind and heart were ablaze with fire, and nothing was able to deliver you from it.
And then you asked the elder:
“Why is injustice reigning on earth? Why do sinners thrive and behave in the most supercilious ways, while the righteous are mocked and have to live in poverty? Why are people in love not given love in return, and why are the lives of the pure in heart full of pain and suffering? Why are there prosperity and merriment in the houses of robbers, while many honest toilers live in want? Why do we have fire, noise and a whirlwind of doubts in our souls instead of having the long-awaited peace?”
And the elder replied:
“Learn to be happy when you are pursued by misfortunes in life; sincerely rejoice at your sorrows and distress; jubilate when the entire world rejects you; take joy in the things that make others weep: in bereavement, misery, loneliness. By losing these things in this life you are receiving a hundredfold in eternity.”
“You must be completely remolded and transformed.”
* * *
We were returning from the island to the mainland inspired, and spent many days in silence in order not to put out the fire that was burning in our hearts.
The world around us turned very bright, love took our breath away and embraced absolutely all without exception; faith was living and manifest, and prayer soared up high into the sky, like a white bird, nourished by the sweetest fruit of the Garden of Eden.
Oh, if only we could preserve this fire for the rest of our lives!
But where is it now?...
It is essential that a beginning artist see how a great master paints his picture: how he prepares his canvas, how he stands in front of it for hours and hours, trying to discern the outline of his future work in the blank canvas, how he mixes paint colors, how he makes the first brush stroke.
It is useful for a novice musician to observe how an experienced pianist sits still, without moving, before his instrument, listening attentively to the strained silence of the concert hall, and then touches the keys with his fingers and elicits the first sound.
Genuine craftsmanship is passed not by means of sophisticated lectures, but from hand to hand.
Likewise, a person who has chosen the spiritual path needs to find an ascetic who has already walked this path. It would be better for him to sink in the infinite, bright ocean of his (the ascetic’s) eyes, to feel the power of his words and the warmth of his heart. Then this person will be sure where to go and what to strive for. For internal spiritual activity is the highest art, but its subject is neither marble, nor canvas, nor music paper, nor the word—its subject is man himself, his mind and heart, and his whole essence. And here we have to painfully eradicate all that oppresses us, enslaves us and makes us ugly.
Make an attempt to give up at least one bad habit: how difficult it is! And how much effort is needed to change ourselves!
Many will say: “Why should I constrain myself to do all of this if I am beautiful (or handsome), full of vigor, happy, talented, successful and am enjoying my life to the utmost? I don’t care about odd fellows who are always dissatisfied with themselves, who are constantly seeking for something, who stint themselves in everything.”
True, these lucky men are happy, but I know from my personal life experience that earthly happiness is short-lived, and misfortune is always near; every day poverty and illness knock on our doors… And it may happen that your colorful world, that took you a long time to build with great patience, collapses like a house of cards in a twinkling.
Today all is still going well in your life: you have plenty of everything at home and countless friends. You have acquired skills and achieved mastery of them. You can do whatever you wish and go wherever you want.
But you don’t really need all of this because you have lost the purpose. You thought that life is all that you build around yourself, but it has turned out that all these things mean nothing if there is hell in your heart and emptiness is inside you.
Then you remember the island on Pskov Lake and the quiet elder in an old cassock, with whom you feel such joy, as if he were a newborn baby that has just been brought from a maternity hospital. You recall his every word and every gesture and realize that he showed you the right path, but you have gone astray, have lost your way, got carried away by this-worldly concerns. And now, in order to live on you need to cast away all that you have gained and acquired. To return within yourself and start your life anew…