The Sunday of the Blind Man, and Courage

Archimandrite Alypy (Voronov)
Archimandrite Alypy (Voronov)
This sermon was given on April 26/May 9, 2010 at the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the superior of the monastery. This day, the sixth Sunday after Pascha, on which the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of the Blind Man, coincided last year with the celebration of Victory Day—the anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The Russian people have great respect for their World War II veterans and honor them everywhere, with parades, concerts, etc. In honor of this combined spiritual and civil celebration. Fr. Tikhon spoke of Russian veterans who embodied the same faith and fearlessness displayed by the man born blind in the Gospel reading for this day (John 9:1–38).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

Today in the Gospel we heard a story about an exceptionally courageous man—the man born blind. This man, having come to know and having seen God, was not afraid of any of the trials, of any of the temptations that the spiritually blind Pharisees, who warred against the truth, who warred against Christ, were setting before him. The man born blind turned out to be an extraordinarily wise and sharp-witted man. You remember his whole story: after the Savior healed that man, who had been blind from birth and had never seen the light of the sun, the Pharisees immediately came over to him, that they themselves might understand what had happened, and put a stop to what they considered unlawful—the doing of good works on the Sabbath. For them these were evil deeds; for them this was a crime. And this man began, in a real way, his courageous, very serious and wise battle with these powers of falsehood. But just the same, this man who had been born blind remained unvanquished. In his soul he did not betray the Faith; he remained true to the One Who had performed the great miracle of granting him his sight. So too, brothers and sisters, should we be courageous in standing up for our faith; we should be just as courageous, wise, and quick-witted as that man born blind had been. And there have been quite a few such people, followers of that remarkable man, in the history of our Church.

Today, on Victory Day, I would especially like to recall those people who were connected, in the most direct way, with today’s occasion. There come to mind people who were just as wise, resourceful, self-sacrificing, courageous and fearless; who went through the war, had their spiritual sight opened, and found God. And in the battles that followed, new Sadducees and Pharisees tempted them and demanded that they renounce God; demanded that they surrender their new position—the knowledge of God—as others had done to the man born blind, a man who also occupied a new position in his life. It was the same with those people, who lived just a few decades ago—it was demanded that they surrender that position upon which they had entered with all their life, all their experience, and all their courage. I happened to have had the happiness to see such people in the Pskov Caves Monastery.

When May 9 would come around, the veteran-monks would gather together. Although many had already reposed by beginning of the 1980s, there were still quite a few of them, such as Archimandrite Antipas, Archimandrite Nathaniel, Schema-abbot Mechisedek, Archimandrite Theophan, Monk Theoctistus, Hierodeacon Anatole, Hierodeacon Maxim, Schemamonk Irenarchus, and many, many others. The superior would bless them to wear their decorations and medals on the outside of their ryassas, and they would do it as an obedience. They would go to the refectory like that, and some of the military people from the city would come there too. It was still Soviet times, and at times the latter would come quite reluctantly, but veterans are veterans, and they would congratulate them. We would congratulate them too, and sing “Many Years” to them. They would hardly ever say anything about their military deeds, like many other military people. Then there would be a solemn photograph, and they would stand there in all their regalia. After this they would quickly run to their cells, take off all those awards, and hide them somewhere in a trunk. But they were absolutely amazing people. They had gone through such a war, and had such experience, that you and I could not even imagine it—it’s incomprehensible.

Of course, their recognized and marvelous commander—I’m not afraid of that word—was Archimandrite Alipy (Voronov), superior of the Pskov Caves Monastery, who had already reposed by that time—the ‘80s. I don’t know how his life took shape before the 1930s, but he entered the 30s as an unbeliever, according to his own testimony. When he went through the war he was also an artist, and therefore along with his gun he had a sketch-pad, which he took with him everywhere. He was a pretty good artist. He returned from the war as a member of the Church, a believer. A little while later he became a monk in the Holy Trinity–St. Sergius Lavra, and was later appointed superior of the Pskov Caves Monastery by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy [I].

This was an extraordinarily complex time. From 1958 to 1964, during the Khrushchev persecutions, more than four thousand churches were closed—that is, seventy percent of the churches that had been opened after the war. Four thousand churches. They wanted to close the Pskov Caves Monastery the same way—and they would have closed it, had it not been for Fr. Alipy, because he understood that he had to defend that monastery. He did it like a true soldier, and like a true follower of the wise, resourceful man born blind. He had a ready tongue and could give answer to those people who were insidiously trying to destroy the Church, to destroy the monastery that had been entrusted to him. And there were quite a few such raids on the monastery by bureaucrats.

Once, when they were making their usual attempt to close the monastery, they came with decrees from the local and regional Executive Committees, and even with a decree signed by Nikita Khrushchev himself. Fr. Alipy knew how to repulse all these—and again, I’m not afraid of this word—attacks.

During one of their earlier attempts, Fr. Alipy warned them: “Excuse me, but I know how to defend myself. Glory be to God, I went from Moscow to Berlin in Lelyushchenko’s army. Almost all of my monks are former soldiers, and so we’ll defend ourselves to the last drop of blood. You won’t get through to this place, through the swamps, with tanks, and so you’ll only be able to take us from the air. But when you begin the bombing, the BBC will immediately report it, and it will only be worse for you.” And so, even that time they left him in peace.

The last time they came to close the monastery was in 1961, when they brought the order signed by Nikita Khrushchev. The government representatives came into Fr. Alipy’s reception room and told him that such-and-such a document existed, and he said, “Well, let me have a look at it.” They gave him the document, he read it, and right before their eyes—this was in 1961—right before their eyes he tore it up and threw it into the burning fireplace. And when they were all horrified—because you yourselves understand what was in store for those bureaucrats—he told them, “I would rather go to a martyric death than close the monastery.” And even that time they decided not to close the monastery. There was a multitude of such cases.

Once, when they were coming to close it down—and you have to take into account the fact that they actually had closed many monasteries, like the Kiev Caves Lavra, Glinsk Hermitage, and many, many other monasteries and churches—Fr. Alipy was able to hold them back. They came and saw a sign on the monastery gate: “Plague in the monastery. Entrance forbidden.” When the senior of this group, the president of the Committee for Culture, one Anna Ivanovna Medvedeva, asked, “How can that be? Plague?”

[Fr. Alipy] said, “Plague, plague.”

“But how can the monks live there?”

“I don’t feel sorry for my monk-fools—they’re registered in the Heavenly Kingdom anyway. But you, Anna Ivanovna—I can’t let you and the other chiefs in. Why, I won’t be able to find a word for you and your chiefs at the Dread Judgment—I won’t know how to answer for you. So, forgive us—we won’t open the gates for you.”

Once they came to forbid the serving of memorial services in the caves, and Fr. Alipy said, “I won’t obey.” “Why not?” they asked him. “That directive was written through faintheartedness, and I don’t listen to fainthearted people, only to strong-hearted ones.”

There, brothers and sisters, is how marvelously a man was able to understand and perceive a situation, and defend both his own faith and the Church. One could say a lot about this. It’s amazing what Fr. Alipy bequeathed to us and, first of all, to those grandmothers and mothers who, for the most part, constituted the whole flock of the Pskov Caves Monastery. He believed that these grandmas and mamas would raise their grandsons, granddaughters, and sons, who would then come into a renewed Church—to a Church that would live under completely different conditions: “Raise your children in the spirit of the Orthodox Faith; confirm them in the Faith so that they’ll never renounce the Lord. If such moments are encountered that try your faith, imitate Mother Solomonia and the Maccabees, and don’t renounce the Lord. Do this for the sake of your own salvation and for the glory of His name. For the sake of your salvation and for the glory of God’s name don’t renounce the Lord. Hold firmly to the Orthodox Faith to the end of your lives. We have no other instructor or teacher beside the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our true instructor, teacher, and Savior. Do not acknowledge any other instructor than Him—only He is our way, truth, and life. If you do not heed His instructions, you will go astray and perish forever.”

These are the simple, clear, and absolutely definitive words that Fr. Alipy bequeathed to us. And again, I repeat, he also bequeathed to us his amazing, unique courage, as well as his joyful and sometimes even mischievous view of life. Legends go around about him. For example, once the government wanted to do something to harm the monastery: [the monks] were forbidden to drive the cattle out to pasture. [The officials] said, “Feed them any other way you want.” Well, imagine—the monastery has to live; they have to feed the brothers and the pilgrims, and [the government] doesn’t let them put the cattle out to pasture. And there were quite a few of them: probably fifty cows, and three or four bulls. And so, about three or four days after this began, a foreign delegation came to the Pskov Caves Monastery. Some highly placed bureaucrats showed them the beautiful monastery squares and churches. When everyone came out onto the Dormition square—now, you understand, there are roses growing there and it’s very beautiful—suddenly the gates were opened and the cows and bulls ran in, hungry, not having been out for a while. Fr. Alipy had ordered this to be done. Naturally, all those bureaucrats and foreigners simply flattened themselves along the walls and asked, “What on earth is this? What’s going on?!” Fr. Alipy said, “Well, you see, we have no place to give them pasturage; we have to move the animals in here.” Of course, the next day the monks were allowed to pasture them again. He had such courage, such quick-wittedness, because there was no other weapon with which to fight against all this…. There was no weapon but resourcefulness. Of course, he could have come out and said everything and done something courageous, and then they could have put him in prison and closed the monastery. But he had to preserve the monastery and preserve everyone’s faith, and implant faith in people, so that they might always be victorious.

Once, on the eve of an election, a highly-placed bureaucrat said, “What’s going on? Why are they bringing a ballot-box right to the monastery for the monks?” They were citizens of the Soviet Union and they had to vote. “What is this privilege all about? What kind of disgrace is this? Let them walk to the polling station!” And Fr. Alipy said, “Fine. We’re obedient Soviet people.” They organized a procession with a cross and banners, and with the singing of troparia and prayers (now, take into account that this was in the 60s) they set out for the polling station. At the polling station they celebrated a moleben and then voted. Of course, the bureaucrats never demanded anything again. That’s the kind of weapon he had; that’s the kind of weapon. But his chief weapon was prayer and the most profound conviction that Christ is our true God—our Savior and Lord. [Fr. Alipy] was endlessly devoted to the Church, to the Lord, to the Most Holy Theotokos. And it was not without reason that when he was dying—from his fifth heart attack—the Mother of God appeared to him. He, being an artist, said, “The Mother of God has come—how beautiful she is! Quickly give me a brush so I can paint her.” But he didn’t have the strength; he crossed himself and died.

There were other quick-witted, amazing, wise people, like the man born blind, like Fr. Alipy. There were other soldier-monks, like Fr. Nathaniel (Pospelov). Perhaps someone who has been to the Pskov Caves Monastery remembers him. He was an amazingly wise man, and at the same time the kind of resourceful and quick-witted man that was able to defend the Church and direct people in such a way that they could begin to understand how blind they were and how unsure their paths were.

Once—and I was a witness to this—a whole delegation of children of highly-placed officials came from Moscow to the Pskov Caves Monastery during the 1980s. These were spoiled young people—golden Moscow youth, children of the party elite. They were brought to the Pskov Caves Monastery and, bored, they looked over everything. Fr. Nathaniel was given the job of showing them the monastery. Fr. Nathaniel fulfilled the obedience with humility, and I helped him—I carried the keys to the churches and the caves. We went into the caves—if you remember, right there, as soon as you enter, are the relics of St. Vassa, as well as the place of repose and the chains of Hieroschemamonk Lazarus (now glorified, but then not yet glorified). There also is the very small cave in which he labored ascetically. When we entered that small cave with its small window, Fr. Nathaniel recounted that Hieroschemamonk Lazarus had lived there, and had labored there for more than twenty years in reclusion. Then one of the young people asked sarcastically, “And where did your Lazarus go to the toilet?” He began to laugh, and then the whole company began to laugh stupidly. Fr. Nathaniel said, “To the toilet? Really? Alright, I’ll show you right now. Let’s go.” He went out of the cave and said, “George,[1] lock the cave.” I closed the door and went along with him and those Communist Party kids to the service yard, and there was—pardon me—a toilet, with the letters “M” and “W” written on it; one of those green structures, most likely familiar to everyone. He arranged them before this toilet as if on a tour, and said, “This is where Hieroschemamonk Lazarus went to the toilet. Now stand here and look at it.” And he left. They stood there around that toilet, not understanding what would happen next. But that was it. They went to the superior and said, “Fr. Superior, we wanted to have a look around, but we were only brought there.” The superior said, “Well now, you were brought to what you were interested in. We’re not going to show you anything else.” As to those spoiled kids—those unfortunate, blind ones, who could have seen the path to eternal life but were only made worthy to see what they saw—this probably remained with many of them for long years, and later made them think.

We, of course, do not have such spiritual or intellectual gifts as Fr. Alipy, Fr. Nathaniel, or those people who went through the war and gained unmatched experience. But all the same, we must ask the Lord to grant us courage and steadfastness, and the wisdom to defend our faith, like the man born blind was able to do. When he was really defending his position, then Christ came up to him, as we read in the Gospel, and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”Then the blind man asked, “Who is the Son of God?” And the Lord Jesus Christ said, “It is He Who is now standing before you and speaking with you.” Then the man born blind, who had received his sight, both physically and spiritually, worshiped Him and said, “I believe” (cf. John 9:35–38). Only such faith that can defend itself—it alone can be vouchsafed an amazing and beautiful crown of awareness of God and union with Him.

May the Lord save you.

Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)
Translated by Monk Nicolas (Liebman)

5/28/2011

[1] Fr. Tikhon’s name in the world.
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