This Life of Hieromartry Priest Basil Sokolov was translated from volume two of Igumen Damascene Orlovsky's series on the New Martyrs and Confessor of Russia.
This was the second judicial procedure, after the one in Shui, which was conducted according to the Lenin-Trotsky plan—to use the confiscation of Church valuables as a cause for sweeping arrests among the bishops, clergy and laypeople of the Orthodox Church, with the organization in various cities of show trials and executions. A detailed study of all the circumstances surrounding this matter led us to the conclusion that out of the fifty-four people accused at these proceedings, the ones who were sentenced to execution and shot were those who were most competent, firm, having deep faith; who did not wish to betray others (betrayal of others always inclined the favor of soviet courts), who did not excuse themselves before the regime who by its barbaric decree had insinuated itself into the life of the Church and legalized surveillance of it. Among the four executed priests were Frs. Christopher Nadezhdin and Alexander Zaozersky—Muscovite chancellors; and Fr. Basil Sokolov—a gifted preacher and pastor. Hieromonk Macarius Telegin and layman Sergei Tikhomirov were shot for independent behavior at trial. God's Providence preserved for us much of the details of the life and last days of priest Basil Sokolov. Apart from his many years of pastoral activity, two tragic events threaded through his life: the death in 1902 of his ardently beloved wife Hilary, which left him with six orphaned children, and his arrest twenty years later—prison, trial, two-weeks on death row, and finally, his martyric end. He himself wrote about his wife's death in the story, "Her Prayer Was Granted", which was published in the magazine, Pilgrim, and which we present here in abbreviated form. We know of Fr. Basil's last days before execution from his letters, passed along by the watchman in the death row cell block.
Life was good to Fr. Basil, the priest of the village of Pustovo, Vladimir diocese; so well did he live that it could not have been better, as he himself said. First of all, the Lord blessed him with a happy marriage. Secondly, God blessed Fr. Basil with success in his service and material sufficiency. Fr. Basil had not served long as a priest in his little parish, but he achieved much. The satisfied parishioners said: "There is none better than our Batiushka; he preaches and he keeps order, all so well!" By the priest’s good stewardship and tireless labors, the temple of God was always preserved beautifully, continually renewed and adorned.
It would be an understatement to say that he Lord also did not leave the happy couple without offspring. After twelve years they had six children, all little ones, ten years and under. The children grew to be healthy and good, bringing joy and consolation to their parents, who could ask for nothing more. Understandably, the children brought much caring and labor to batiushka and matushka, but the couple did not grow faint or complain of their lot. Encouraging and strengthening each other in their labors, they spared neither their energy nor their health, only so that their children would be satisfied and upright in all respects. "We have lived for ourselves, and now it is time to live for the children; it is for us to decrease—that is the law in this world," they reasoned amongst themselves.
Quickly and unnoticeably, like water in a wide, deep river, did their life flow along its course of worldly cares, anxieties, and worries; in a constant flux of joys and sorrows over various successes, abundance, failures and losses. Fr. Basil recognized that life cannot go so smoothly. This is not natural, he thought. It is written: In the world ye shall have tribulations, and of course it was not said in vain. One cannot avoid tribulations, just as a calm sea cannot escape storms. A storm is dangerous and terrifying after a long, pleasant calm. So are tribulations difficult for those who are not accustomed to them, especially after a long, unruffled, happy life. "Would that the Lord would send us a cross to try us," Batiushka secretly prayed, "not too heavy, but just so that we would not be forgetful of man's earthly lot.
The autumn of Fr. Basil's twelfth year of priestly service was exceedingly pleasant, the kind of which it is said: "The old folks do not even recall one like it." Dry, fair, even unnaturally warm for autumn. In a word—God's grace. However, in Fr. Basil's house all were far from cheerful. What to do?! Tears were in every eye, ready to spill over at the first provocation. The matter was that the master of the house "for no apparent reason," as it was explained, came down with typhus—an illness that is no laughing matter. It will push a man right into the grave, not making him suffer long. Of course, everyone in the house comprehended that well, especially since the local doctor did not hide the patient's serious condition. The assessment of Batiushka's health was not reassuring. Therefore all turned in fervent prayer to the Lord, that He by His power would raise the sick one from his death bed. The parishioners prayed for their sick spiritual father, sincerely asking that he be delivered from the danger of death; the flock's attachment to their pastor became especially clear in these troubles. Fr. Basil's many relatives prayed for him, sympathizing wholeheartedly with his and his family’s difficult situation, inwardly trembling at the thought of the illness' grievous end. The little children prayed for their beloved papa, positioning themselves before the icon corner and bowing to the ground with great fervor.
But it was worse of all for Matushka Hilary. She felt not regret, but rather a horror that seized and clenched her heart like a vice. She had no tears, and no prayer came to her mind; she could find no solace in it.
"Lord, what will happen to us," Matushka said in desperation to Fr. Basil. "Couldn't you have even a little pity on me and the children? Look—we are just dragging around the house like autumn flies."
"What can I do?" Batiushka answered. "Apparently we have gotten what we deserve—suffering. Perhaps I will have to die. I won't hide it—I feel very badly."
"Why are you thinking about death? Think about life," Matushka tried to encourage her husband. "Who will raise and feed the children? What will I do with them by myself?"
"You just wait a bit before you begin lamenting too early. When I die, then you can weep and lament. One of us has to die first—we can't arrange to die in the same hour. And how will you live without me? You will survive, God will grant it. You can become the prosphora baker here and that's how you will feed yourselves."
"God be with you! What are you saying?"
Matushka lost all spirit from talking with her sick husband. She did not walk but ran away from him and poured woeful, inconsolable tears.
Then suddenly, in the midst of her very lamentation, a thought occurred to Matushka; a sure way out of her plight came to her mind. She headed towards the icons, bent her knee there before the images and began to pray with extreme fervency. She did not pray with the usual, studied prayers. She herself created her own prayer as she was able.
"Lord, raise him up," she said, "grant him healing. I know that I do not deserve Thy mercy, I did not earn it. Help me according to Thy loving kindness, Thy love for mankind. Thou, O Lord, seest my helplessness, Thou knowest better than I my sorrow and need. Do not leave me a bitter widow, and my children orphans. What will I do with them? Where will I go, how will I feed them, and how will we live? Could it really be that Thou hast given us children only for them to weep out their years over their poverty, to their parents' reproach? Preserve for their benefit their father-caretaker. And if according to your righteous judgment you must take one of us from here, then take me. Take me instead of Him, Lord! I will die with joy; I will die peacefully, because my children will not be without bread or protection. Mother of God, Holy Intercessor! Bring Thy maternal prayers for me to Thy Son, that He would attend to the voice of my supplication!"
Her deep sighs, broken only by unsuppressed wails, reached the ears of the sick man.
"What are you doing in there?" he asked.
"I am praying," Matushka answered. "There is only one thing left to do, as you can see for yourself—to pray. I have no hope in anyone, but God can do anything. Don't you know? I have prayed to the Lord that I had better die rather than you. Isn't it right, won't that be better?"
"You should not have asked for that. It is said: do not tempt. Though you have asked, you will not receive it if it is not pleasing to the Lord. He sees more than we, and knows what to do with us, and what we need.
"That is why I have asked," Matushka protested, "for without a doubt it is better for the children that you stay and I die. Isn't it so?"
"No, it isn't," Batiushka interjected impatiently. Don't even think about it. Whether I die or you die—it is equally bad and untimely. That is according to our thinking, but to God perhaps this is best for us and for our children."
It pleased the Lord to attend to unremitting supplication about sick priest Basil. The crisis passed successfully, and the beginning of October brought a clear reversal towards recovery. Matushka Hilary was so enraptured with joy over her deliverance from the threatening danger that she could scarcely feel her own feet beneath her. "My Fr. Basil did not recover—he’s resurrected," she gaily boasted to everyone." I don't even know how to thank God for this." The daily work again resumed within their home.
A year passed, and autumn returned. But how contrary it was to the previous one! As if on purpose, for greater contrast, all foul weather and unpleasantness characteristic of this season were combined in this autumn. Fr. Basil's wife, Hilary, was seriously ill. She fell ill unexpectedly, at first not badly, but then became bedridden. She was sick in body, but hearty in spirit, and this heartiness gave hope to those around her that she would soon recover and arise. But these hopes were never realized. To the contrary, her pangs of illness became worse. Matushka received Holy Communion and then insistently, tearfully asked her husband to give her Divine Unction.
"What are you afraid of?" she persuaded her husband. "It's as though you were not a priest, and don't know what this sacrament is for. Don't you see that the medicine is not working? Perhaps the Lord is showing us intentionally that healing is only through Him. You yourself know of examples where people in almost hopeless cases recovered after Unction. And if I do not recover, then this sacrament will serve me when I pass on to eternal life. Fulfill, my friend, this request of mine; you see, I need nothing more."
"Ah, if only you could take a look at what is in my heart, how torturously painfully it aches just hearing these words of yours, then you would spare me. Don't torment me, I will do as you say; maybe I will survive this torture. I would bear even more than that, if only God would give you health. Ah, mama, mama! What grief you have caused us. I cannot even imagine what to do now."
"It is time to pay the debt, batiushka," came her answer. You tortured me even worse in your turn. But I bore it, I survived. God will help, and you will bear it also. Besides, so far nothing so bad has actually happened. If I die, then truly you will have a hard time… But even so, you will forget, and heal," she added after some thought.
"It seems to me that you are saying this so indifferently, as if you were joking. You even have the strength to smile. Well, I have other worries. Mainly I am not so anxious for myself—it's the children I'm more concerned about; it will be hard for them without you."
"But I, to the contrary, am thinking less of them than of you; I feel sorrier for you than for them. The children? They still little comprehend my significance. They will grow up, if God grants it, and you won't even see how. They will be a consolation to you, you will begin to love them, to care for them, teach them, find a place for them, and time will pass unnoticeably.
After Divine Unction the patient felt much better, to everyone's great pleasure.
"Well, now I feel just fine. Nothing hurts, only it's true, I have no strength."
On the day after the Unction service the doctor came from the regional town, invited by Fr. Basil to consult with the local doctor. Fairness required relating the true diagnosis without any embellishments. "Batiushka, my colleague and I have found in your wife an ailment of the liver, the main illness, which is causing all the rheumatic symptoms. We must admit that it is difficult for us to treat her. Thus we have decided to suggest that you take her quickly to a clinic for advice from doctors more knowledgeable than we are.
The doctors' conclusion struck Fr. Basil like thunder, it was completely unexpected. The patient was calling to her husband wanting to know right away the doctors' decision.
"Well, what do the doctors say?" she greeted him, looking inquisitively at his face. "It's bad, I can see it in your face—you can't hide it."
"Well you haven't guessed it," Fr. Basil answered, bending himself as much as he was able. "True, they did not promise much good, but they likewise did not prophesy anything bad. They say that the illness is stubborn and drawn out. Incidentally, they strongly suggest that we go to the clinic in Moscow. I don't know what you will say to that."
"I can see that the doctors out of pity just did not want to scare you, so that you would not lose hope; but they are entirely sure that my song is sung."
"Lord! Again you are thinking dark thoughts. Where is your faith, your hope in God? Would the Lord really abandon us like that? You just think about it: wouldn't it be a sin for you to refuse a means for cure and subject yourself to the threat of death? You are a mother of children after all! You should at least have pity on them—preserve yourself."
"Well, as you like," Matushka concluded. Since you've decided, we will go to Moscow. Only I don't know how I'll make it there."
Having attained consent to a trip, however tentative it was, Fr. Basil immediately began preparing for the journey. The preparations were not long. Before she departed the sick mother insisted upon blessing the children, in spite of Batiushka's attempt to dissuade her from creating this difficult scene. "It won't hurt, just in case," she affirmed her position.
"Be smart, children, be obedient, love your papa, and do not forget me," she said instructively to her children, kissing them and blessing them with the holy icon.
In the clinic, Fr. Basil was met with sympathy and good will. A crowd of students headed by medical supervisors immediately surrounded his wife. There were hurried inquiries, inspections. The professor himself took a look, listened to them, shook his head and said to Batiushka, leading him off to the side:
"It is a serious illness that your wife has, Batiushka. Perhaps cancer, perhaps something else, but it is hardly curable. It seems to me that in vain have you tormented her and yourself by coming here. However, do not lose spirit. We will look some more at her. May God grant that we turn out to be wrong.
The professor's suppositions were correct. The council of clinical doctors diagnosed cancer of the liver, which was announced to Fr. Basil on the third day.
"We cannot help your spouse; you must make peace with your situation. Cancer is incurable, and the liver cannot be operated on. There is only one way out—death."
After praying at the holy shrines of Moscow in the Dormition and Protection Cathedrals, in the Iveron and St. Panteleimon chapels, Fr. Basil started home.
"May Thy will be done, Lord, may Thy will be done!" Batiushka affirmed mentally, looking with compassion at his beloved wife, who was lying before him like a beautiful but wilted flower, struck down by the autumn frost. "Just do not deprive me, O Lord, of Thy final mercy and aide—bring her home alive, deliver me from the torment of seeing her die along the road."
And the Lord plenteous in mercy arranged it according to Fr. Basil's wish. Uneventfully and even without any particular difficulties, they made it home to their little village. It was not about this kind of return that Fr. Basil thought a week ago when he departed with the sick one from his village. He dreamt of bringing her back healthy, laughing, joyful, and able to serve the family and run the household with renewed strength. But now instead of that he was carrying her in his arms, almost senseless and unconscious into the house to the loud crying of the children who met them; to the eruptions and wailing of the neighboring lady parishioners who had run over to see them.
On the following day, the feast of the Protection, his father and mother-in-law came, as well as his sister.
"Yes," the patient's parents reasoned at her bedside, "it is clear that the end is near. There's nothing to live for. She's all dried up, it's all gone, she only breathes and that just barely. And what made this cancer take a hold of her? It's a strange thing. Isn't it that grief she suffered last year over your illness that brought it on?"
"It could be so, of course," replied Fr. Basil. I remember well myself what torment my illness cost her. But what did she do? She prayed to the Lord that He would take her to Himself instead of me. Only the most extreme despair, ruled by determined love, could have moved her to such a prayer and request. And what is amazing—that was on the second of October, which is this very day. Will the Lord really judge that should it be according to her request, and take her to Himself? Then it would all be understood: it is the hand of God; her prayer was granted and she has laid down her life for me."
On the evening of that same day, Matushka Hilary was no more—she departed in peace to the Lord. Fr. Basil lost his ardently beloved wife, his family lost its caring mother, her relatives lost their generous, affectionate hostess, and the parishioners, especially the women, lost their obliging, cheerful matushka. It was a great loss for everyone.
Many people gathered for Matushka Hilary's funeral, regardless of the fact that it was on a weekday. Everyone was boundlessly sorry that such a needed life had so soon been extinguished. They felt sorry for the orphans, half of whom did not even understand the meaning of their loss, and they felt sorry for Fr. Basil, become a widower at such a young age, his family happiness and the welfare of his household destroyed—a household that many had always looked to as worthy of emulation.
"It's God's will, God's will, the hand of God," Fr. Basil mentally affirmed to himself, the last to return from the fresh grave. "If only I could lie down next to the reposed, I would need no other consolation. Only… the children, there are the children…" And the children were right there, moaning near him, grabbing him by his helplessly hanging hands, getting mixed up in the folds of his billowing ryassa, falling under his feet, trying to look him in the eye and feeling with their tiny hearts that their father is all they have left, that he would now be a mother and a father to them. He looked at them, at these orphans of his, and bitterly, bitterly wept.
To be continued.