The following is an entry in the Optina Monastery chronicles by Hieromartyr Vasily (Roslyakov), on Pascha in the years of the monastery's rebuilding in the early 1990's. The monks bore the weight of poor living conditions, and seemingly endless reconstruction of monastery buildings that had been ruined during the period of communism in Russia.
Fr. Vasily, who died at the hands of a Satanist murderer on Pascha morning in 1993, wrote this essay during his time as the monastery chronicler. The future martyr loved the Feast of feasts with all his soul; when he was asked at his first Paschal meal after receiving baptism in Moscow what he wanted more than anything else, he replied that he wanted "to die on Pascha."
This excerpt is taken from the book, Thou Hast Proved Me, O God and Knowest. The Life of Hieromonk Vasily.
* * *
Truly, Optina Monastery “is being born from on high,” born by the mercy of God and the bold prayers of the holy Optina fathers. But it acquires its life not as an irrational infant, but as Lazarus the four days dead, embodying the unified meaning, which places rebirth next to resurrection.
Christ’s Resurrection has come to pass, and therefore our faith is true, says the apostle Paul. In relating his words to the fate of Optina Monastery, it could be said that the magnificence and glory of Optina is true, because beginning of its rebirth has been placed. Those who have received life again feel its fullness in a new way.
Probably this is why Optina Monastery has a particular awareness of the events of the Holy forty days of Lent and Passion Week; probably this is why the Monastery meets the Holy Resurrection of Christ with extraordinary joy.
The Monastery bore the burden of rebuilding as it walked the path marked by the Church calendar, and comprehended its spiritual secrets. As if in grateful response, the commemorated dates enlivened the monastery’s everyday life, diminishing temporary sorrows and confirming timeless hope.
Unnoticeably the Lenten Triodion melted away, Spring came into its rights, and through the thrown-open gates of Palm Sunday, Passion Week entered into the Monastery’s life. Every step towards Pascha became tangible. Clearly marked and brightly illuminated by Church singing is the path that brings us nearer to the holy feast. “I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, Oh my Savior…” A little further and, “Having approached with fear Thy Mystical Trapeza…” Yet a little further and, “Thy Mystical Supper today…”
Now the church is filled with partakers of the Holy Trapeza, now the Thursday fire spreads throughout the earth, now the sepulchral silence constrains the earth, all is stilled, and only the voice of the Savior breaks the silence of Great Friday, “Weep not for me, Oh Mother…, I shall arise and be glorified…”
The church of the Entrance is prepared to meet the Savior with a new iconostasis in the St. Nicholas side-altar. Only yesterday the church shook from loud conversations and the beating of hammers, as if recalling with its being the hours of Christ’s crucifixion. The shining Cross, raised above the iconostasis, now proclaims the victory of life over death.
The final preparations, the final precautions. Unhastily, all in good time, the people begin streaming into the church. The variegated crowd fills the Monastery. Here are people from Kozelsk as well as Muscovites, regular parishioners and unfamiliar people, children, old people, and noisy youths.
An hour before midnight the bells call all to Services. It is noisy and close in the church: the crowd at the candle counter, the queues behind the hieromonks hearing confessions, groups of newcomers looking over the icons with curiosity. Everywhere is impatience and expectation. Finally, the priest’s proclamation announces the beginning of Nocturns. Further on, the reader’s wavering speech is drowned out by loud conversations, as he unassumingly calls all to silence. But then the choir begins the canon for Great Friday, and with the very first irmos, like a wave of the sea, the singing breaks upon the idle talkers and covers them, depriving them of their last audacity and strength. Everything moves vigorously in one impulse to meet the Paschal Matins. A little scurry arises when they carry the icon and Cross out of the altar in a timely manner for the procession, but even this scuffle is quickly replaced by the silent and concentrated lighting of candles.
Expectation and presentiment of joy fixes everyone’s limbs, and only their eyes look toward the holy doors. Now, quiet singing can be heard from the altar, and as if with an unbelievable effort, the curtain is pulled aside, the holy doors open, and a flood of light and sound streams out of the altar into the church, from the church into the nocturnal darkness, then spreads out commandingly over all the earth. Fr. Archimandrite and clergy proceed from the altar in gleaming festal garments that multiply the Paschal rays, and following the marked path, go forth from the church. A brilliant train like the tail of a comet seems to follow the procession, which girds the church in a fiery ring, stopping only before the closed doors. The proclamation verily bursts forth from the lips, “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered!”
What are these great and mysterious words? How the soul trembles and exults upon hearing them! With what fiery grace do they fill the Paschal night! They are immeasurable as the sky and near as breath. In them is long expectation, transfigured in the instant of meeting, life’s problems swallowed up by eternity of life, age-old languishing of the weak human soul, disappearing in the joy of truth possessed. The night steps aside before these words, time runs from before their face. It seems as though the church is trembling, and its doors open by themselves, unable to withstand the flood of human exultation breaking against them. The echo of the empty church takes up the Paschal troparion, but soon hides in the cupola from the multitudes, and disappears into the white domes. The church becomes like an overflowing, raised chalice. “Let us drink a new beverage.” The wedding feast is prepared by Christ Himself, the invitation sounds forth from the lips of God Himself. It is no longer a Paschal Service that is taking place in the church, but a Paschal feast. “Christ is risen—In truth He is risen!” ring the proclamations, and the wine of joy and gladness sprinkles over the edge, renewing the soul for eternal life. The Heart understands as at no other time that everything we receive from God, we receive freely. Our imperfect offerings are eclipsed by God’s generosity, and are no longer seen, just as the light of a fire is not seen in the blinding light of the sun.
How can the Paschal night be described? How can we express in words its greatness, glory, and beauty? Only by writing out the Paschal service from beginning to end could it be done. There are no other words fitting for this. How can the Paschal moment be committed to paper? What could be said in order to make it understandable and tangible? One can only unfold his arms in perplexity and point to the festively adorned church—“Come and delight…”
Bright Week passes by like a day. And there was evening, and there was morning; one day. Whoever has lived through that day needs no proof of eternal life, or an explanation of the words of Holy Scripture: That there should be time no longer. Time returns only on Bright Saturday, when at the festal dinner, Fr. Superior congratulates the brothers with Christ’s Resurrection, and wishes that they all carefully preserve the Paschal joy in their hearts.
Today Optina Monastery is being reborn and places a beginning—here everything is being served for the first time. The first Great Lent, the first Pascha. But near the altars are the Elders’ graves, and all too often is our fathers’ wisdom and care observable in the time-worn monastery buildings. Therefore, we say, “for the first time,” but add, “after a long interruption.”
The link with former times is being restored, Optina Monastery is being restored, the truth is being restored. At the head of it all is Christ arisen from the grave. “I shall arise and be glorified!”