“No, no, no that is not how it is sung, Fr. Philemon, that is tone three, not seven... This is how it is sung…” an elderly voice tried to reach the high resonant note, but began to quaver and broke off.
“You are trying to get tone five, not seven,” interrupted another aged voice.
A third voice, more manly in character, was heard from the altar, “Why are you quarreling, venerable fathers,” and with a high-pitched sweet baritone, in full voice, he began to fill the small wooden church with the words of the holy irmos: “Night is not bright for the faithless, О Christ, but for the faithful there is illumination in the sweetness of Thy words. For which cause I wake early unto Thee and hymn Thy Divinity” (Irmos 5 of Sunday Matins, Tone 7).
It was a cold, gray, Siberian, November night and there was hardly anyone in the church. Besides the serving hieromonk, Fr. Vladimir, the one with the good voice, and two old rassophore monks, Fr. Procopius and Fr. Philemon, only one other old man was at Matins, a fisherman who had been a regular attendant at this poor church for almost fifty years, from the very day of the founding of the skete on the coast of Lake Baikal. The locals from the surrounding villages, most of whom were former convicts, rarely attended services; all the same, more people used to come.
The grandeur of the Church services had been grander too. Instead of just the two old monks in the choir, there were four others, younger and possessed of sweet harmonious voices. Fr. Vladimir was canonarch then.
For a brief period the White Army was in control here, but when the atheistic Soviet authorities came and took over, Archimandrite Palladius, abbot of the Holy St. Innocent-Ascension Monastery, which administered the small skete, ordered the young, untonsured novices to be released and sent through Kjala and the Mongolian wilderness in order to cross the border. The rassophore monks were taken into the main monastery, while Fr. Vladimir was blessed to remain as superior of the skete and for that reason ordained to the priesthood.
So two old rassophore monks, who were prevented by age from going abroad and who loved the skete more than the main monastery, remained with him. And here, by the irony of fate, the incomprehensible providence of God, the skete, which Archimandrite Palladius had worried about so much because of its isolated location, still stands, while the St. Innocent-Ascension Monastery was destroyed long ago by the godless authorities. The monks were dispersed, some to forced labor, some back to their home villages. Nearly all the sacred vessels of the monastery were taken away and placed in godless museums. However, Fr. Palladius managed to save some holy objects, and together with Fr. Vladimir, hid them around the Skete. They were so well hidden that if someone searched for a hundred years, they still would not be able to find them.
Daybreak does not come early on the shores of Lake Baikal in the month of November. It was already seven o'clock when Matins finished in the skete church, but still there was no sign of the morning light.
Fr. Vladimir stepped out into the doorway and sank into deep admiration for the sheer beauty of the moon's rays shimmering on the waters of Lake Baikal. In the moonlight the frozen waves of ice sparkled like uncut diamonds on the vast expanse of this mighty lake. Such beauty!
Dark mountains, so steep that they are nearly snowless, encircle the lake on all sides, casting their shadows on the brilliantly glittering field of ice, and under the light of the moon countless curling pine trees form a splendid trimming for the massive cliffs.
How Fr. Vladimir loved that view. He loved the deep beauty of the Baikal which had become kin to him. The lake's varying scenes of beauty never repeated themselves. Every day of the year offered a new and different picture of the breathtaking beauty of Lake Baikal.
The rays of the morning sun had just begun to glimmer in the east as Fr. Vladimir completed the last prayer of the rule before Communion. As the sacred words and melodious hymns echoed in his heart, he quietly and with peace of soul once again stepped onto the porch to go to the church for Liturgy. The sound of bells and the squeaking of sleighs in the distance caught his attention. It almost surely meant that they were coming, which meant there would be unpleasantness. Fr. Vladimir had prepared himself for this moment for a long time; each day that had passed in peace only surprised him. He crossed himself as he gazed upon the white cross on the church illuminated by the sunrise. He did not go into the church, but remained on the steps of the very entrance to the skete.
“Arrest all the monks and take them to Irkutsk, and search the property,” ordered a tall, frowning Soviet commander, the Chief of the Red Army detachment sent to the skete for the arrest and search.
Fathers Procopius and Philemon began to weep. Remaining completely calm, Fr. Vladimir tried to comfort them. Long ago Fr. Vladimir had placed his fate in the hands of God. He celebrated every feast day of the martyrs, of which there were so many throughout the year, with particular reverence, begging the ancient passionbearers to intercede on his behalf before the Lord, to strengthen him in his weakness with the same divine help that had empowered them.
Though he had already completed the prayer rule before Holy Communion that morning, Fr. Vladimir had no time to serve the Liturgy and partake of the Holy Gifts, but an inner voice said to him that the rule was not read in vain. It was a preparation for Communion in the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father, that Communion for which he had prayed at every Liturgy in the words of the ancient service: “Grant that we partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy Kingdom” (Paschal Canon, Ode 9).
The court session was brief. The monks were imprisoned for a little over a month. Fr. Vladimir was accused together with Fr. Palladius and “other monks” of hiding “the property of the people” from the “former St. Innocent-Ascension Monastery.”
Fr. Vladimir did not try to deny this, nor did he begin to defend Fr. Palladius, for he knew the strength of spirit of his spiritual father and abbot and was not worried about his resolve. He put all his effort into defending the old monks, weaker brethren who might be tempted. Fr. Vladimir was successful in this and Fr. Philemon and Fr. Procopius were released and sent to their home villages on the condition that they never return to their ruined skete.
Since he admitted to having hidden Church property (holy objects) and firmly refused to reveal their whereabouts, Fr. Vladimir was sentenced to be shot. The tall, Red commander who had brought Fr. Vladimir from the skete to Irkutsk was assigned to carry out the sentence.
It was a gray morning when Fr. Vladimir was lead out of town to be shot. With a tender, almost perplexing smile, Fr. Vladimir refused the blindfold with which they offered to cover his eyes before the execution. The commander did not force him. As the Red Army members were preparing their firearms, Fr. Vladimir leaned against the pine tree and began to sing that especially memorable irmos which had been heard by him for the last time on this earth at his last Matins: “Night is not bright for the faithless, О Christ, but for the faithful there is illumination in the sweetness of Thy words...”
Suddenly the Red commander, who until then had been quite polite, asked in a startled tone, “What are you singing?”
“It is a church hymn,” Fr. Vladimir calmly answered. “It has a very deep meaning for it explains about how for you—the faithless, unbelievers in Christ—the night is always dark, unilluminated, joyless—you are lovers of a moonless night, that is, accumulated sins. But for believers, the faithful, all of life is full of light and joy, even death itself is powerless in defeating that joy.”
“So, you really do not fear death?” the commander interrupted.
“No, I rejoice in it, for it will bring me to Christ!” exclaimed Fr. Vladimir. The tone of his voice and his bright, composed countenance conveyed such sincere tranquility, light, and authentic joy that one could not help believe him in these moments before death.
The commander, grimacing from the rush of emotions, quickly gave the signal for the soldiers to prepare. The shots rang out and Fr. Vladimir collapsed onto the snow, the same serene expression never leaving his face.
A few years passed. A tall, emaciated man could be seen crossing the border at the river Amur, from the Soviet side to the Manchurian, which was still free.
Endangering their lives, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people crossed that border. But this man was not the typical refugee—a peasant or tradesman or the occasional Red Army soldier fleeing from the unbearable pressure in the homeland in search of work in the border villages of China, or for the same purpose, heading south to the train line.
This refugee was not looking for work. Arriving on the Manchurian side of the Amur he began to question the Russians he met about the location of a closed Orthodox monastery. And soon a tall, frowning novice, never smiling and rarely speaking began to labor in one of the Orthodox monasteries in Manchuria.
He did the work of four. From the few phrases he let slip, it was possible to conclude that he was a man of intelligence. But every time the abbot of the monastery offered him the tonsure so that in the future he could become a hierodeacon or hieromonk, the novice declined. Once when the abbot, with particular force tried to make him accept, the monastery's spiritual father stood up for the novice and would not bless him for the tonsure.
Only once did the solemn monastery worker slightly lift the curtain on his secret. In answer to the monks’ persistent question, “For what did you make such an effort to come to the monastery, if you will not accept the tonsure?” He replied, “I came to the monastery so that my night would become bright, to learn how not to fear death.” And then in a dark, husky voice he sang the irmos of tone seven: “Night is not bright for the faithless, О Christ...”
No one could get any more out of him.
In 1945, after the second of November when the Soviet army invaded Manchuria, the somber novice left the monastery. In a brief note to the abbot, he wrote of the change in his life caused by the martyrdom of Fr. Vladimir. Concluding his note the departing novice wrote, “May the Lord save you, my Abbot, for in your monastery I have found what I sought: I have learned not to fear to die for the truth. And now I go in order to receive such a death from that satanic authority which I once served.”
Translated from "Talks on Holy Scripture and Faith" by Archbishop Nathaniel
Orthodox Life, vol. 48, no. 2 Mar.-Apr. 2008