For a long time I doubted whether I should share this story or not. But our general negligence, coupled with a desire to lead a sinful and at the same time joyous and carefree life, prompted me to bring up the subject of the reality of the invisible, spiritual life and the need for a right attitude towards it, for the umpteenth time.
Why is this subject so important? First and foremost, because some don’t believe in this realm and become playthings of the demons without realizing this; others regard this realm as something interesting and mysterious, which, as they think, nevertheless has nothing to do with them; and others foolishly dare to “break into” the spiritual world without being protected by humble obedience to God and His Church, and, having a high opinion of themselves, make themselves a laughing-stock for the demons and doom themselves to perdition and spiritual ruin.
I have changed the names for obvious reasons, but I guarantee that the story is based on real facts.
On Holy Wednesday I was visiting old women in our Pochtovoye1 hospital. They had prepared for the sacraments of confession and Communion beforehand, so all went off quite well. But when I was walking along the corridor towards the exit, the ward attendant Lyudmila approached me. Before my meeting with the old women she had asked me to spare her a few minutes to speak on a very serious topic. We both went into our hospital chapel—a small room with a couch, a table with icons and an icon lamp on it, and a bookshelf hanging on the wall. The first thing Lyudmila did was ask me to light the icon lamp; I saw that she was very worried.
At last she began to speak:
“Father… I even don’t know if you believe me or not… I had earlier thought that such things were only possible in movies. Now I am going to tell you everything.
“Several years ago I became a widow. After a while I met a good man, Andrei, who was a widower and had a son named Nikolai. And it can be said that I raised him. Now he is a young adult, a young man of twenty-two. He met a girl, they started dating, and now they live together. And one day this girl called us and said: ‘Something is wrong with Kolya [a diminutive form of the name Nikolai.—Trans.]… I am at a loss!’
“His father was at home. He said: ‘Call a taxi and take him here quickly!’
“She brought him home, and he was… not quite himself, as if out of his mind, you know. We seated him in an arm-chair and I began to read the Psalter… I am baptized, and I believe in God. I confess that I don’t go to church regularly, but I do know a little about the Church matters. So when I was reading the Psalter, I heard Kolya laugh in an unnatural voice, so it gave me the creeps… I looked at him, and saw him glower at me sullenly, with his scary gaze, as if it were not him…”
At that point I gave a sigh as it became clear what that story was all about.
“I read the Psalter for some while,” Lyudmila continued. “And he went limp, calmed down, and fell asleep. After that he finally came to his senses… But since then he has had recurring seizures like this, though not so often. In connection with this I would like to tell you the following story. Andrei came from the village of Sovietskoye—you know, it is in the Crimean steppes. He recounted that his grandmother was a real, ferocious witch, and when she was dying, she kept looking for and calling Andrei in order to pass on her power to him. Truly, one never knows where one will gain and where one will lose, as the proverb goes! At that very time Andrei had taken to drink, gadding about somewhere day and night, so no one could find him. Then the witch called his sister, took her hand, and passed on the demonic power to her. From that time on the sister began to practice witchcraft with special ‘black’ books quite openly, all the more so because now we have freedom and all kinds of magic are allowed. She ultimately became a rather successful sorceress. Then she found a boyfriend, and they really enslaved Kolya, pulling the wool over his eyes. Now Kolya is like a zombie: he sweats his guts out, working two jobs at once, feeding and providing clothes for the whole family. He managed to buy a car with great difficulty and was coaxed into giving it to his aunt and her boyfriend immediately. And they didn’t do it by deception—he had fallen under his aunt’s thumb and become as compliant as possible; she only has to say ‘Give it to me!’, and he obediently does whatever she tells him to. In a word, it’s a tragedy.
“And, father, on top of other misfortunes, this is what happened yesterday. If I hadn’t seen this with my very eyes, I would have never believed this. Our Kolya works at a canning factory. He asked his friend to take a photo of him. Look at what a photo he got!”
And Lyudmila took out her cellphone with her hands shaking, browsed the pictures and opened one of them for me. I saw a guy in a workroom near a conveyor belt with cans on it. He was standing and smiling, while a demon was hanging over him! Grey and bony, his long fingers resembled those of a skeleton, and his head was like a skull, with his mouth wide open and baring his teeth. And, just imagine: the demon had something like a bridal veil on his head.
Lyudmila remarked with bitter irony:
Lord, preserve all of us from such “brides”! It was a ghastly sight!...
The first thought that crossed my mind was that I should ask her to send this snapshot somewhere (but not to my cellphone because I have an ordinary push-button phone) so that I could save it on my flash drive or publish on my VKontakte [a Russian social network.—Trans.] page. But next I thought: “Do my friends and I really need these diabolical things on our computers?” And in the end I didn’t ask her to share that snap.
In the meantime Lyudmila continued with her story. Kolya had been crying for the second day, while her partner Andrei was itching to go to his sister “for a showdown”, but he was afraid he would kill her on the spot. In a word, this was sheer devilry…
The upshot of it is, I heard a reasonable question: “What should we do with all of this?!”
And it was my turn to have my say… And what could I say?... As St. Ambrose of Optina used to say: “Giving advice is like throwing stones from the bell-tower, and taking one’s advice is like carrying stones up to the top of the bell-tower.” But there are certain obvious things that cannot be ignored.
“What should you do?...” I began. “Tell me, Lyudmilla, is Andrei your legal husband? Did you register your marriage? Did you have a church wedding?”
“No, father, I am sorry but we are not legally married.”
“What about Kolya with his girlfriend?”
“Neither are they...”
“So let us start with this… The demons are not afraid of people. They simply laugh at us, at our carelessness and self-confidence. They are afraid of God alone, so if we want to be protected from the evil spirits we must do our best to attract Divine grace in our lives and find the favor with God, as it were. And, first and foremost, for that we need to be reconciled with God. That is, we must repent from the bottom of our hearts and reform. How can you ask for God’s help, if Nikolai and his partner live in sin, and you (though you, Lyudmila, call yourself a believer and Orthodox and even go on pilgrimages to monasteries occasionally, as you have said) and Andrei are not legally married, and your union was not blessed by the Church…? And this is a mortal sin. That is, a sin that deprives us of the vivifying grace of the Holy Spirit. How can we beg for God’s help and live in continuous and conscious sin at the same time?! That makes no sense at all. The Lord Himself said about this: And why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Lk. 6:46).
“Therefore, the first thing we should do is embark on the path of life according to the commandments of Christ. That is absolutely necessary and we can do nothing against impiety on our own. Only Christ Himself can protect us and deliver us from evil.”
We talked a little more on this subject. Lyudmila agreed with me, received my blessing, and promised to mend her ways.
As I said above, I was unsure as to whether I should share this story. But while I was musing on this, another, a parallel and similar story was unfolding, and it completely inspired me to remind people that the spiritual realm really exists and that we are all involved in its life in one way or another. And this second story has its prehistory and it is quite edifying and interesting.
We had a church shop assistant Alexandra—a very generous, honest, and sensitive woman. About seven years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. I confessed her and gave her Communion several times, and she passed away, leaving behind a husband, a son and a daughter. The daughter has lived in the city for a long time, and her husband Ivan is the elder brother of our church warden, Vladimir Vasilyevich. Ivan had never been seen at church before, but he pined for his reposed Alexandra so much that he began to come every Sunday towards the end of the Liturgy to pray at the memorial service. And he did this for a few years until an event happened, which was unpleasant and providential at the same time. Ivan and Alexandra’s son, Viktor, found and got close to a woman in the city (she turned out to be a member of some sect) who literally enslaved him, demanding that he drive his father out of the house, sell the house and give her the money.
It’s strange how things work. In both stories the demons revealed themselves through women who were not protected by Divine grace. Though, of course, it’s not a matter of women—it’s a matter of our carelessness and lack of faith. In a word, from that time on Viktor behaved like someone possessed: he had a stormy quarrel with his father and ultimately turned him out of the house.
But every cloud has its silver lining. Ivan was temporarily sheltered by his brother (our church warden) and his kind-hearted spouse Galina Stepanovna, who is a prosphora baker in our church. Little by little the couple got him involved in their home prayer rule, and then—in a wider sense—in the life of the church. And, just imagine: Ivan began to attend services, confess and take Communion and proved a consistent and good Christian. It was a rarity, given the fact that he was about eighty. Very few men change their lives so radically in their declining years. But this is only the beginning, though a happy one, of the real story.
One day Ivan came up to me after the service very puzzled and said that he had begun to hear voices. These were supposedly people he had known in his childhood and youth, and these “people” began to remind him of events that had taken place in his life about seventy years before. I instantly figured out what kind of “acquaintances” were trying to find an approach to Ivan. I said to him that, firstly, these were not his “acquaintances” but demons in the guise of his friends, and, secondly, that he must ignore their tales, even if they seemed plausible. Instead, he must pray hard—the stronger their pressure the stronger his prayer. Ivan was no coward: he immediately understood what was what and agreed not to enter into any dialogue with these “folks” and to pray hard as soon as new assaults recurred. I blessed Ivan for this good warfare with a cross, and we parted. Several days later Ivan met me at the church gate and exclaimed with surprise:
“Father, it’s terrible what is going on! After our conversation I stopped talking with them and started praying continually… And they stopped pretending and openly admitted that they are demons… And their main task is to make me fall away from the faith. But the most remarkable thing is that now they openly say: ‘Yes, your Master is stronger than ours’—that is, God is stronger than the devil—‘And we can do nothing unless it has been allowed by Him…’ But I kept reading the Lord’s Prayer without responding to their words. And then one of them said: ‘Well, your Borisovich blessed you with a cross, while he must have hit you in the forehead with it...’ While I was listening to him I couldn’t make out who the ‘Borisovich’ in question was. ‘Don’t you know the patronymic of your rector?...’ the demon clowned around. And indeed I don’t know! What is your patronymic, father?”
“Borisovich. That’s right, Ivan,” I replied. “But you mustn’t believe them anyway. Because if they ever tell the truth, they do it in order to gain favor with people, capture their attention, take control of their souls, and then lead them into delusion and spiritual ruin. That’s why Christ forbade the demons who justly called Him the Son of God to speak. He didn’t allow them to proclaim His Name because these spirits use the truth to commit evil. That’s why no one should come into contact with the demons.
“No one should believe them either—all we need to do is pray fervently. And one more important thing: not just pray, but pray with contrite hearts, humility and total commitment of ourselves to the will of God. As for the demons, they can repeat the words of prayers too.”
“Exactly so, Fr. Dimitry!” Ivan agreed. “They can repeat the words of prayers and psalms… More than that, one of them is present in the church during services and—I’d hate to have to tell you—even teaches me how to pray, puts me right, drawing my attention to the people who do something right or wrong in church...”
“It’s very good, Ivan, that you’ve shared this with me. Because the objective of the demons is to distract us from God… By all means. Even by teaching us how to behave in church and pray properly, however paradoxical it may sound. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need the rules; it means that in its essence prayer is a contrite heart, humility and total commitment of yourself into the hands of God. This is precisely what prayer is about; it may be composed of words of a prayer rule or the Psalter, or it may be silent and even have no words… But it ought to be performed in spirit and the truth and not substituted for outward performance of a prayer rule.
“And, most importantly, we must perceive every act of interference of the demonic powers in our lives as nothing but a signal, a call from God for this penitential, humble prayer.”
Dear brothers and sisters, let us keep in mind and be firmly convinced that the spiritual world exists and we in our essence are spiritual creatures, and there has been fierce warfare for our souls. Let us not be inert; rather, let us struggle with and oppose the demons that in most cases influence us through sinful thoughts, feelings, and desires. Let us resist them through unwavering confidence in God and prayer to Him. And if we commit a sin, then let us repent, beg for God’s forgiveness without justifying ourselves, trying to reform over and over again. We have no path other than that of a penitential and sober ascent to the Heavenly Kingdom.