Thirty years have passed, and this story still pops up in my memory in remarkable detail. It usually happens when my conscience demands repentance. It demands it, but I don’t give it… Then the image of deep repentance I once saw comes to mind as a vivid reproach… and my heart softens.
In those years, the Lord vouched me to go to confession with one of the best spiritual fathers of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. Fr. Kirill (Pavlov) soon secured my luck with his blessing, recommending that I come to him on a consistent basis. And I began to trample through the thorns to the stars.
It became clear that first impressions of the Lavra are one thing, and regular trips there two or three times a month are another. Then came the realization that smart people like me, in Moscow and in the suburbs, are a dime a dozen—we stood in huge lines to see Batiushka. So as not to stand in life half a day, you had to use various cunning methods to get to the metro as it was opening, dash through the transfers, scaring people, and be tormented by the dilemma—be late for the first train or get on without a ticket? And then you rush again, this time from the station to the Lavra.
All of this, you can easily imagine, pretty strongly prevented any displays of generosity to those who were trying to get to confession without waiting in line. However, having received either a good upbringing or a good dressing down from their spiritual father, Batiushka’s regular spiritual children almost never cut in line. But since confession was done in the St. John the Forerunner gate church for everyone, such temptations still happened regularly.
And one day, having gotten into this line in the traditionally thorny way, I caught my breath, took out the piece of paper with my confession on it, and began to get my thoughts in order. I was already used to Batiushka, and I evaluated my behavior recently as close to ideal; moreover, I’d been praised by the rector in my own church—overall, there was no reason for any real repentant feelings to be found in my soul.
But then some grotesque figure sidled up to the font of line, that is, to me. This gangling man of indeterminate age and appearance was circling around near me, and then moved ahead that microscopic distance that determines who is in front of who.
It would have been fine, but my reaction immediately demonstrated the essence of the proverb, “A holy place is never empty.” My poor, self-satisfied soul, not occupied by any spirit of repentance, was momentarily taken by a legion of irritated and indignant thoughts. Seething with indignation, I waited for Batiushka to read the prayer of absolution over the previous penitent and to restore justice. But he indifferently glanced down the line and nodded to this shameless man, as if to say, “Next.”
The man was behaving strangely—he sidled up to Batiushka as well, but he stopped a few steps short and timidly began to stamp his feet.
“Well? How have you sinned?” Batiushka asked calmly.
From their conversation, it became clear that the man was mentally retarded, as he did not even think to speak quietly so as not to be heard by the rest of the line. I was somewhat ashamed. My thoughts of irritation decorously left my soul, giving way to thoughts of curiosity.
The man had clearly done something out of the ordinary but could not say it. He then started talking about how he came to the Lavra, and started praising the Lavra’s Church services, but he didn’t name his sin. And the more patiently Batiushka returned him to the need for repentance, the more distraughtly he would dodge the answer. Finally, covered with sweat and crimson from shame, he said: “I,” and fell silent, gathering his courage.
The painter of the Mona Lisa would be kicking himself, looking at Batiushka’s face. The line held its breath for fear of hearing something completely unacceptable.
“I… don’t listen to my mama,” the man stammered, and burst into tears.
A stream of bewildered mirth flowed through the line, and it was silent.
Batiushka probably knew this man. He didn’t ask anything else but said: “Well, you must try to obey,” and read the prayer of absolution. And this big, gentle child loudly kissed the cross and Gospel, and left the church.
He walked past the line, head lowered, with an expression of deep shame on his face. And shock slowly appeared on the faces of those waiting to confess.