Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly (Sidorenko), a clairvoyant elder who lived in Georgia, a man of prayer and consoler of sufferers, was born in 1928. A spiritual heir of the Glinsk Hermitage elders, Fr. Vitaly taught his spiritual children repentance and love: “We should reproach ourselves, flog, blame and punish ourselves, while loving other people and regarding them as angels.”
There is a constant flow of pilgrims to St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. The holy relics of a great and grace-filled elder of the Glinsk Hermitage, Metropolitan Zinovy (Mazhuga), in schema, Seraphim (1896-1985), rest inside its chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. From the early 1950s he served as rector of this Russian church in Tbilisi and gathered many ascetics of the Glinsk Hermitage around himself. This island of Russian Orthodoxy in Transcaucasia was nicknamed a “subsidiary” of the Glinsk Hermitage. One of the Glinsk ascetics who came under the omophorion of St. Zinovy was Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly (Sidorenko). His remains are buried in the churchyard of the Russian Church of St. Alexander Nevsky.
Orthodox Georgians, Russians, and believers of other nationalities flock to this Russian church to venerate the holy relics of St. Zinovy and pray at the grave of Elder Vitaly, to light candles and lay flowers at their resting places. Some come in the moment of sorrow, hoping to receive help from these saints of God in difficult life situations; others thank them for answering their prayers. The faithful share numerous stories of how St. Zinovy and Fr. Vitaly helped them resolve their problems and consoled them in times of grief, even after their departure for the tabernacles of the righteous (Ps. 117:15).
This year we mark the ninetieth anniversary since the birth of Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly. In his lifetime the elder was a true embodiment of love, humility, virtues, and compassion. Shortly before his death, in a letter to his spiritual children Fr. Vitaly wrote a remarkable instruction, a sort of a spiritual testament for all of us:
“Love your neighbor, and then you will begin to love Christ! Love your enemies and those who humiliate you! And the door of joy will open before you, the Risen Christ will cleanse your souls resurrected by love. And that is all! The Lord expects us to do so little! This is our Paradise! This is our resurrection, our Pascha! Choose love, and you will live in the love of the Risen Savior forever!”1
“When I came to Fr. Vitaly for the first time, I didn’t ask him any questions. His words were not so important to me, but it was being with the elder that made me really happy. One day I told him that I wanted to become a monk and asked him to bless me to join Optina Monastery. ‘Yes, Optina would be good, but perhaps it will be otherwise,’ Fr. Vitaly replied and recounted how one young man who longed for the monastic life had come to him, but his desire hadn’t been fulfilled until two years later. And I couldn’t have imagined that the elder was speaking figuratively about me! And this is exactly what happened to me. It was not until two years later that my dream came true. My plans were thwarted by the war in Abkhazia. I asked Fr. Vitaly to allow me to go to my native city of Sukhumi. Before my departure the elder gave me an icon with Psalm 90 written on it. ‘Read it!’ he told me. I carried these relics with me through the war and survived.”2
Fr. Vitaly predicted the future archpastoral ministry to the young Andrew. Schema-Abbess Seraphima recalls:
“When Andrew went out of the room, Fr. Vitaly suddenly said to me: ‘Why didn’t you take the bishop’s blessing?!’ Then I didn’t understand his words because Andrew wasn’t even tonsured at that time, let alone consecrated a bishop.”3
There were countless cases of Elder Vitaly’s clairvoyance. One of such stories was related by his spiritual daughter, Nun Mikhaila:
“When I came to the elder, and we sat down on the floor (there were eight or ten of us), Fr. Vitaly started speaking: ‘One monk…’ And I sensed that he was speaking about me. And his account was as follows. There lived a monk at one monastery, who was repeatedly attacked by the brethren. The monk felt resentful, and after resisting his bitter thoughts for a long time he gave up and moved to another monastery. But he was repeatedly attacked at the new monastery as well. He eventually ended up at the third, the fourth monastery, but even there monks tried to drive him out. The same thing awaited him at the fifth monastery. The monk got tired of his ‘wandering’ and wrote a note for himself, reading: ‘Lord, I am bearing this all for Thy sake!’ And he put it into his pocket. Whenever he was in low spirits, the monk would take the note out of his pocket, read it and calm down. The brethren noticed this and informed the abbot: ‘Our Brother Ivan must be a sorcerer! He reads some note, puts it into his pocket, and is always calm after that.’ At night the abbot came into the monk’s cell and read his note. Soon afterwards, he suddenly said from the ambo during a sermon, ‘Brother Ivan, come here!’ He came out perplexed: it was not enough that the brethren always jumped on him, now the abbot was calling him in the presence of everybody! The latter proceeded: ‘Ivan, read aloud the note that lies in your pocket.’ But the monk was standing in confusion, while the brethren couldn’t wait ‘to expose the sorcerer’. Then the abbot addressed another monk who was standing next to him: ‘Take his note and read it.’ The monk seized the note and started reading it speedily aloud, hoping to unmask the sorcery: ‘Lord, I am bearing this all for Thy sake!...’ He was impatient to continue, but that was the end of the note! ‘Well?’ the abbot addressed the embittered brethren. Terribly ashamed, they went down on their knees and begged for forgiveness.”4
And the nun adds:
“Fr. Vitaly finished his story. Though I didn’t get the message immediately, it stuck in my mind. Suddenly malicious attacks on me began, and I was fired and then taken back to work at that church several times, like the monk who moved from one monastery to another. It was then that it came home to me that the elder had called me to patience for the Lord’s sake in his parable. But it took me years to realize that and analyze events and circumstances from a spiritual perspective.”5
Let us cite an extract from Schema-Nun Nikolaya’s reminiscences:
“I met Fr. Vitaly in about 1956. I don’t remember the circumstances under which our meeting took place. At that time he was in hospital with a lung-related condition. We called on him and conversed with him. He then was a young man…
“Fr. Seraphim (Romantsov) blessed Fr. Vitaly to go to Sukhumi, to the wilderness. We visited him there too—Fr. Seraphim blessed us to talk with him. Fr. Vitaly lived there for ten years amid the Caucasian mountains. Our sisters from Taganrog [a town in the Rostov region, southern Russia] would travel there to see him. The elder’s hermitage was very far away and difficult of access—you needed to cross thirty-three rivers to reach it.
“Once, scarcely had I arrived in Sukhumi when a worrying cable came from which I learned that my brother had been drafted into the army. I was the eldest in the family, and we were parentless. When I came up to Fr. Seraphim, he said: ‘Sit here! They will send him off to the army without you.’ I sensed that there was something behind it and didn’t cry. And it was the Eve of Nativity. At that time the brethren from the hermitage came for the feast, and Fr. Vitaly was with them. It came home to me that Fr. Seraphim had told me not to leave so that I could see Fr. Vitaly.
“But it turned out that we (I and several other nuns) had nowhere to stay for the night. And Schema-Nun Larisa (she is now dead) asked Fr. Vitaly: ‘Fr. Benedict [Elder Vitaly’s name before he was tonsured into the great schema], let us accommodate them there? Or maybe there?’ The elder was silent for a while and then answered: ‘Don’t be afraid! Nobody will be killed this night because the Infant Christ will be born!’ And he led us up to three nuns. I remember he was wearing his mantiya [mantle]. When we came, he said: ‘The sisters are tired and looking for a place to spend the night.’ They made us a bed on the floor and we lay down. And Fr. Vitaly sat down on the edge of a chair near us and covered me with his mantiya. One of the visiting nuns saw it and said to me: ‘Maria, come to us. We will clothe you as a nun in Kiev!’ But the elder replied: ‘No, mother,’ and left. The next morning Fr. Vitaly said to me: ‘I’ve already clothed you!’ These words implied that I had become his spiritual daughter.
“Outwardly Fr. Vitaly was strict, but my heart felt that he was a kindred soul: you had only to look at him, and you needed no more words, you forgot everything, as if you no longer lived on earth. You had the impression that things were going well for you. And I just looked into his face without saying anything. Even now, whenever I reread Fr. Vitaly’s letters, I feel as if I have spoken to him again: all my problems disappear, and I seem to have a new outlook on life…
“When Fr. Isaac was murdered, Fr. Vitaly said that it was the end of their eremitic life and it was time for them to leave the hermitage. They had no idea where to go. But soon he was invited to Tbilisi, where we would visit him on many occasions!
“I would often visit Fr. Vitaly and I really felt at home there. Whenever bad things happened to me or my heart was troubled, I immediately went to Tbilisi… Through the journey I felt depressed, and my heart was filled with sorrow. I had merely to look at the elder and all my issues seemed to disappear, and I remembered nothing and didn’t even know what to say; everything was fine with me! And I would “fly on triumphal wings” from Tbilisi! The elder would remind me what I wanted to say to him, and I would wonder: ‘How does he know about it?’
“I lived with my brothers at that time. One day I arrived and heard the elder speaking about me with one of the sisters: ‘Look, how selflessly she takes care of her brothers! But they will play such a low-down trick on her that she will fall sick!’ And this prophecy was fulfilled: seven years later one of my brothers married, and his wife caused so much harm to us that I would have gone mad but for Fr. Vitaly. She wanted to have us evicted and take ownership of our apartment; the legal process lasted three years, and if it were not for the elder’s prayers this mean woman would have taken our flat. Nevertheless, we managed to retain it.
“Fr. Vitaly predicted many events. He used to say: ‘A book will be written about all of our fathers—about Fr. Seraphim, about Fr. Andronik…’6 But in those days a book of this kind was beyond our wildest dreams… I thought: ‘Who will write this book?’ And Fr. Vitaly answered me right away: ‘Such people will turn up!’ He also predicted that the relics of Fr. Seraphim, Fr. Andronik, and Metropolitan Zinovy would be uncovered.7
“He would speak a lot and we couldn’t help but write down all of his instructions, though we didn’t commit to paper his prophecies. I had a notebook into which I copied the elder’s letters. He would address each of his letters to all of his spiritual children in Taganrog, and each of us would copy them into our notebooks. And he would ask us on our arrival, ‘Have you copied the letter?’ ‘Yes, we have, father!’ we would reply8”
When Fr. Vitaly felt very unwell, Mother Seraphima called Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, and His Holiness would immediately send some present to the elder or come to see him. Thus, once he brought him some myrrh from the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon of the Theotokos that was kept in Montreal, Canada. His Holiness’s visits always put Fr. Vitaly and those with him in good spirits. The Catholicos-Patriarch was especially concerned about Fr. Vitaly’s health, although he tried not to show it in the elder’s presence.
Schema-Abbess Seraphima recalls:
“A day before his death, Fr. Vitaly gestured for me to pull the curtains open on the windows. I asked him if he had seen somebody. He was looking at me, deep in thought. Then the elder pointed at the icon of the Theotokos with his hand. I gave him the icon and he blessed us with it. After that I asked him, ‘Have the Most Holy Mary Mother of God appeared to you?’ The elder nodded and began to weep9.”
Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly reposed in the Lord at 6.45 P.M. December 1, 1992, at the age of sixty-four. His excessive ascetic labor caused his premature death. His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of All Georgia came to bid a final farewell to the deceased elder, whom he loved dearly. He thanked the people who had attended up on Fr. Vitaly in his last days. Pointing at the room where the great elder lived and prayed, His Holiness said, “Come, let us bow down before this holy place.”
On December 5, during the sermon after the Liturgy at St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Tbilisi, before the funeral of Elder Vitaly, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II said:
“The remarkable, holy faith, the boundless love, the amazing and exemplary humility and obedience—all of this created a spiritual atmosphere that poured out love upon all those who wanted to receive spiritual consolation from him. Brothers and sisters, he was truly a holy elder. And, while speaking and communicating with him, I saw many times this holiness that he radiated from him …10”
While performing the funeral service for Fr. Vitaly, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II added:
“We are here to pay tribute to Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly, a great elder. All who met the elder know that this wonderful monk led a remarkable, holy life. We’ve gathered to pay our last respects to him, yet we should bear in mind that he will always be with us. Fr. Vitaly will be buried in the churchyard of St. Alexander Nevsky Church so that you might receive consolation every day, and so that he would support us, just as he did during his lifetime.”
Archpriest Pavel Kosach, who served as secretary to the saintly Metropolitan Zinovy for more than forty years, recalls:
“His Holiness read the Prayer of Absolution, folded it up and gave it to me to put it in the deceased’s hand. As his thumb moved aside I put the piece of paper in his hand, and his palm closed. By itself! I was so shocked by this that I shrieked out: ‘He has taken it himself!’ But afterwards I took it for granted, as the holy man was not of this world!”
“He has taken it himself!” Archpriest Michael Didenko, who was standing near, confirmed. The Catholicos-Patriarch nodded silently without interrupting the service11. Mother Larisa remembered these words and passed them along to the sisters, but no one was very surprised. That miracle brought consolation to those mourning for the elder12.
Candles are lit, a vigil lamp burns permanently, and real flowers are laid at Fr. Vitaly’s grave every day. Even people who didn’t know of the elder before come to him to seek his intercession, and they truly feel his help in their lives. The venerable man used to say: “Come to my grave after my death, tell me about your troubles, as if I were alive, and I will intercede for you.” One bishop questioned Fr. Vitaly’s personal holiness. One night he had a dream in which Sts. John the Baptist and Seraphim of Sarov were standing before God’s Throne, saying: “Call Fr. Vitaly! He must serve the Lord with us!” Thus, even after his departure for the Heavenly Jerusalem Fr. Vitaly’s love remains with us on earth all the time. Charity never faileth (1 Cor. 13:8), the Apostle Paul said.