In this conversation, Fr. Dimitry Torshin speaks about how the Lord called the entire Torshin family to service to the Church in either the monastic or priestly rank by one wondrous and providential event, about how the future priest Dimitry received an answer to an as-yet unasked question from Elder Iliy, about how quickly the saints come to help, and why it’s so important to hold on to those who have prospered more than us in the spiritual life, and also about one miraculous find—and several other wondrous and edifying stories.
Sometimes people ask what I felt during my ordination to the priesthood, whether I felt some special graceful power that is given for pastoral ministry. I can’t speak for everyone, but as for myself, I rather had a keen feeling of just how weak I am, of how I don’t meet the standard that the Lord Himself gave to His servant. The consciousness of my infirmity sharpened. But at the same time, the presence of God became apparent, like never before: When you humble yourself, the Lord comes and does everything for you.
As for my own weaknesses and the power of God that can act in a man, I would like to share these recollections. I wasn’t a priest yet, just a simple seminarian, and it was my turn on the schedule to give a homily in church during Liturgy. It was the first homily in my life.
I prepared, I wrote a draft, I confessed and communed at Liturgy, I put on the acolyte’s robe, and I went to get a blessing from the priest. He took the cross from the altar, blessed me with it, kissed me, and said, “Go, preach the Gospel!”
And I unexpectedly sensed an incomprehensible power, which is not in you, but with you. They the put the analogion on the ambon for me so I could put my text on it, but when I went out, I felt I didn’t need it at all—that the analogion would only divide me from the people.
I moved the analogion to the side, didn’t take my text out, and began to give my homily. I didn’t say anything special—the simplest words, but I could feel the unusual power they possessed. I felt every person in the church and understood that every person could feel me.
It’s difficult to describe: You feel how everyone, yourself included, trembles from the power of the words, but not from your own eloquence, which you might not actually have, but from that power that is present here and does not depend on you, but depends only on the Lord, Who touched the hearts of these people. And you are simply the conductor of this power of God.
When I went out into the church after the service, people came up to me with words of gratitude, saying how stunned they were; men even admitted that they had to wipe away tears. After the service, in the evening, I met an abbess of a monastery I knew, who told me people called her and shared their impressions of what an amazing sermon they heard in the cathedral today.
I was very inspired and thought it would always be that way. And when my second homily came up on the schedule, I decided it would be even better. I prepared even more carefully, and I didn’t have enough time for confession and Communion—I repeated the words of the homily to myself throughout the whole service, to hone it properly.
When I went out onto the ambon, I pushed the analogion to the side like last time, and felt nothing happening. There was absolutely no power in what I began to say, however beautifully, and accordingly, it did not reverberate in the hearts of those who heard me. My words were completely dry and lifeless. Then I pulled the text out of my pocket and simply read everything I wanted to say.
The Lord showed me in practice how His words are realized: Without Me, ye can do nothing (Jn. 15:5).
This is the podvig of all the saints: They were so humble, so lacking in self-reliance that the Lord could work freely through them.
God’s providence in the life of my family
The providence of God works in the life of every man, but sometimes it is hidden, and sometimes it clearly reveals itself in some signs, significant meetings, in words you hear. How did the Lord call my family? This is how it happened.
My mother’s brother, my uncle, studied in Tver State University. In 1990, he went to Optina Monastery. The monastery had only just been returned to the Church (in 1989), and it lay in ruins. My uncle, twenty-five-year-old Vyacheslav (later Monk Gabriel), felt the calling grace in the newly-opened monastery with all his heart. In one day, he completely reassessed his values—so powerfully did the Lord call him.
My uncle met Fr. Iliodor, now an archdeacon, and told him how Optina touched his heart. Fr. Iliodor responded to him: “Go home, grab your things, and return to the monastery.” That’s what my uncle did. He was tonsured in monasticism with the name Gabriel. He had the obedience of cell attendant to the Elder, Schema-Igumen, now Schema-Archimandrite Iliy (Nozdrin) for several years.
Fr. Iliy The Elder blessed my uncle to write letters to his sisters and tell them about the faith he had found. Having read the letter, my parents went to Optina to see everything with their own eyes. They saw it. They baptized me in Optina and were soon crowned.
After that, a conscious Church life began in our family. We were living in the Moscow region then. In the late 1990s, Elder Iliy unexpectedly advised our family to move to the sticks and start a farm and plant a garden. We did it. And when the default struck and money depreciated, we survived that period very well on our milk, our own meat, and all the gifts of our garden. Our city friends were struggling to make ends meet then.
A few years later, the Elder blessed us to move closer to Optina, and my brother and sister and I grew up there, spending all our breaks and free time in the monastery, helping at obediences. We were with Fr. Iliodor literally all day. It was he who gave us our first prayer rules and instructed and supported us.
As a result, one of my sisters went to a monastery in her youth and now she’s a nun. Another sister is married to a seminarian who is awaiting ordination. With the Elder’s blessing, my mother received the monastic tonsure. In 2000, my grandmother was tonsured as a nun in Shamordino. I myself now serve in the Church of the Dormition in the village of Ozersk (Podborky), and twice a week at Shamordino, where my grandmother labored in monasticism for fifteen years before departing to the Lord.
My mother’s sister is also a nun. Her sons, my cousins, also live Church lives. One of my cousins, Fr. Dionisiy, serves in the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Mekhzavod, not far from Optina. Another is a subdeacon for the Bishop of Ostrogozhsk and Rossoshansk.
How I received an answer from the Elder to a question I hadn’t even asked
When I grew up and was faced with the choice of my path in life, I was interested in many things: sports, mountaineering, and military stuff…
I did well with the humanitarian disciplines, and I was even a multi-time winner of the All-Russian Olympics on the basis of Orthodox culture. I had admission letters to immediately enter several Moscow universities. I was also an altar boy in church.
So many paths were open that I didn’t know which was best for me. I went to Elder Iliy for a solution to this question. He was already serving in Peredelkino then, and it wasn’t so easy to see him. I chose the moment when he was consecrating the bells in the church in Mekhzavod, and squeezed through the crowd to the Elder at the end of the moleben to ask him my question.
At that time, the Elder, pressed by the people, was removing his phelonion, cuffs, and stole. He saw me in the crowd, waved to me, beckoned to me, and silently handed me the vestments. In a split second, he was caught by the crowd and he left. I remained standing, having received a comprehensive answer to my unasked question.
A miraculous find
When someone has just come to faith or a newly-ordained priest begins to serve, the Lord holds them in His hands, and for me, that’s obvious.
Once, after being appointed as the rector of the Church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the village of Ozersk, I was going through the garbage in the church’s attic and found an old icon in a large kiot. The face on the icon couldn’t be made out because it was covered with metal gilding that became worthless over time. The icon was probably put there for burning, as it was lying among candle stubs, empty bottles of lampada oil, and other old Church utensils prepared for burning.
I took the icon in my hands, opened the kiot, scraped off the gilding, and under it appeared an unusually beautiful face—the ancient Kazan Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. The face was so alive that it made its way into my soul. And it was a large icon, consisting of several parts and metal embossing, while the image itself is much smaller in size.
I carved out the icon, separating it from the metal cover. I started looking for a suitable kiot for it, smaller, and in this heap of Church items I found an old kiot that fit the icon just right, as if it was intended especially for it.
For me, it was the mercy of God, like an accident but not an accident, as if the Lord showed me through this incident His providence for everything, even in the small things.
I began to pray often before this icon, and when I would do so, the Lord would miraculously arrange everything through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos. It seems to me that when an icon is connected with some unusual circumstances or is venerated as wonderworking, a person prays with greater faith, and the Lord said: According to your faith be it unto you (Mt. 9:29).
Wherein lies the miracle in the Church?
How is it in a parish? With the greatest sorrow, when people don’t know where to go, they go to the priest. They may not know much about God yet, but they are seeking help and intuitively feel and hope that the priest will help them. And he should really help them—intercede for them before God. And what is my main duty? To pray for these people.
When people went to St. John of Shanghai or St. John of Kronstadt, they prayed, and the Lord heard them. But they were holy people, and we are ordinary priests, simple people… But wherein lies the miracle in the Church?
There is the earthly Church Militant, and the Heavenly Church Triumphant. Those who have passed their path in life and have become saints belong to the Church Triumphant and take a very active role in our lives. While still here on Earth, they learned to truly love—and after their deaths they continue to love us who live on Earth and encounter numerous problems, sorrows, and sicknesses in life. They love us, they pray for us, and in them we find people who understand and feel us like no other.
And each of us who turn to them for prayerful help know this from personal experience—it’s not for nothing that we ask: “Holy Hierarch Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!” or “Holy Blessed Mother Xenia, pray to God for us!”
If we didn’t have this experience, it’s unlikely anyone would start praying.
The saints quickly come to the call and pray together with us
I would like to share my stories about how important it is to pray to the saints of God.
Once some people, around forty years old, came to see me. They had a grief—no children. In another situation, a woman from the Moscow maternity hospital called weeping: She gave birth to a child in the morning; it was already evening and he was showing only weak signs of life, and was breathing with difficulty and not eating. They called at midnight, asking what could be done—maybe the child should be urgently baptized? She was my acquaintance, and it was truly unclear what to do: Either she had to wake up some unknown Moscow priest, or I had to immediately go to Moscow, but it’s a five-hour drive… But they needed an answer right away. And although you’re a priest, you’re not a saint, but the most ordinary, sinful man, and the bar is even higher for you because you’re a clergyman.
But you can turn to the Heavenly, triumphant Church and call upon the help of the saints, who quickly come to the call and pray together with us. And the Lord answers our prayers.
So I prayed with this childless couple before the Kazan Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, which had miraculously appeared. And in the second case, I went and read the Akathist before this icon at midnight, so the Most Holy Theotokos herself would help that which people are powerless to arrange.
And the result of this prayer was immediately apparent. A few months later, I again met the childless couple, and they were completely happy, and I immediately understood why: The woman’s stomach was rounded, and it was immediately evident that she was expecting a child. And in the second example, I sent an SMS: “We are praying.” And I received the answer: “Our child revived and began to breathe normally and took a breast on his own.”
“Well, Sophia, are you expecting a child?!”
I also want to share my story about how important it is to hold onto those who have succeeded more than us in the spiritual life: With the holy thou wilt be holy; and with the innocent man thou wilt be innocent. And with the excellent man thou wilt be excellent; and with the perverse thou wilt shew forwardness (Ps. 17:25-26).
Once, some friends of ours suffered a misfortune: The young woman miscarried, and she had to undergo an operation to remove the dead fetus.
Of course, they were very worried about this, and I asked Fr. Iliodor to pray for the grieving parents, and he cried out with great sorrow: “Why have an operation?! They should have given her Unction and the child would have revived!”
I was simply amazed by the faith in his words…
Some time passed, and one day, Fr. Iliodor asked my matushka: “Well, Sophia, are you expecting a child?!”
Matushka had just done a pregnancy test before our trip to Optina, and it was negative. She shook her head, and Fr. Iliodor said: “For some reason it seemed to me we were expecting…”
A while later, Matushka’s stomach started hurting very badly and I took her to Kaluga. The doctor examined her, did an ultrasound, and told her she had miscarried. He scolded us because it came to such a serious situation and told us that in the morning they would remove the baby.
We were thunderstruck. Matushka was sobbing. At some point I remembered the confident words of Fr. Iliodor about how if our friends had had Unction in time, the baby would have lived. This suggestion seemed quite implausible, but I took my wife out of the hospital, signing a document saying I was taking responsibility for taking her out early.
We got home and I started to anoint her with Unction. We were both crying and fervently praying like never before. The pain in her stomach stopped; she had no fever. When we went back to the women’s clinic, the doctor examined my wife and said the child was alive and well. The Lord performed an obvious miracle.
I want to add, so no one would be tempted by this story, that a miracle is a miracle, and we can’t expect it to happen in every case of a miscarriage. Of course, there are pregnancy complications that are life-threatening for the mother and child when the first thing we should do is call the ambulance and go to the hospital, and you can talk about Unction only then in the hospital ward. But prayer should accompany every pregnancy, like our entire life in general—that’s for sure.
Thus, my matushka was pregnant, and Fr. Iliodor asked her endlessly: “Well, when will a grandson be born to me?”
Matushka answered that, according to the results of the ultrasound, she was expecting a girl, to which Fr. Iliodor noted: “And it seemed to me it would be a grandson…”
In the end, she gave birth to a son, whom we named Iliodor. He is three months old now.
If not for Fr. Iliodor, it wouldn’t have happened. We wouldn’t have had enough faith and our son wouldn’t have been born. But when a man burns, he ignites those around him with his faith.
The great power of the Sacrament
With Matushka and our son Iliodor About the great power of Unction: I want to also share the following story. Sometimes we don’t attach much importance to the Sacraments that operate in the Church; we treat them more like a tradition, forgetting about what great power they possess.
A priest friend of mine had a Godfather who was very ill and he went to visit him in the hospital, and perhaps to see him off on his final journey—he didn’t really know then. His Godfather was elderly and in a serious unconscious state in the ICU, only occasionally coming to himself.
Seeing him sick and unconscious, Batiushka was perturbed: There was no chance to commune him. Suddenly the doctor on duty in the ICU came to him. He noticed his cassock and asked: “Are you a priest?”
Having received an affirmative answer, he asked the priest to give Unction to everyone who was in the ICU then. Besides his Godfather, there were two people there: a seriously ill elderly man in critical condition, and a young athlete, who did a very unsuccessful flip. He injured his spine and was also in critical condition.
The priest asked them: “Will you receive Unction?”
Somehow, through some signs, they made it clear that they agreed, and Batiushka gave Unction to all three of them.
When he returned to the ICU the next day, none of the three who were dying were there. With fading heart, Batiushka asked the doctor where the patients were, and he exclaimed with surprise: “What do you mean, ‘Where’?! They were transferred to the general ward, of course, for therapy.”
“How is that possible?”
“I’m an unchurched man, and I have no idea how this is possible or how it works. You’re a priest—you explain to me how it works! I know only one thing: If a dying person receives Unction—he will either die and no longer suffer, or he will quickly be on the mend.”
Such power Unction has! And we don’t even always realize what a great Sacrament it is we’re resorting to!
Repentance is more than just a day’s work!
The Christian life consists in constant spiritual growth. If we are not spiritually growing, we are spiritually dying, spiritually fruitless. The Lord said: Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Mt. 7:19).
Some people are in no hurry to change their lives, in hopes that they will engage in repentance and prayer later, when they will have more free time, that they will manage to repent at least before their very death.
I can share this story about that: During my studies in seminary, when it would come time for break, I loved to go to the mountains, to the Caucasus, to touch the greatness and beauty of God’s creation, which are especially noticeable there.
Once a friend and I went to the Caucasus and headed for a hike in the mountains. The weather was fine, and we, being young, were very thoughtless about our foray, dressing too lightly, and hoping to get a quick hike and return. On the way back, we had only to cross one Alpine plateau.
The weather unexpectedly turned bad and clouds crept in. They creep right along the ground there, and you find yourself right in the midst of a cloud. Fog descended and you couldn’t see beyond your outstretched arm. Then came a heavy downpour, very cold. There was nothing around except grass and rocks: no trees, no caves, no shelter. Those who go hiking in the mountains can imagine how dangerous it was. Then the rain turned into sleet.
Surely you have heard about inexperienced tourists dying in the mountains, and even local shepherds who didn’t orient themselves in time and froze thirty feet from their cabins.
We soon completely lost direction and after several hours of wandering realized we were walking in a circle. And in this situation, it became clear to me that we might die in a few hours. You would think that before the face of mortal danger, an unusually strong feeling of repentance would come, which many rely on, putting their spiritual lives on hold.
But I very clearly felt in my heart that nothing drastic would happen. I don’t mean to say it’s a general rule. The Lord is free to visit someone a few minutes before his death. But it also might not happen. At the very least, postponing repentance in hope of doing it later, even just before death, is very audacious and reckless.
And I experienced it firsthand: No special repentant feeling arose within me. Regret came, of course, that much in my life had not gone as I would have liked. But there was no spiritual leap, no breakthrough—no drawing near to what a man should achieve in his life by gradual spiritual growth.
Then I very clearly realized that to repent requires time, that it can take a very long time. I clearly understood from my own experience what the Holy Fathers say, that remorse and repentance are different things. Judas had regret, and then went and hanged himself. But with repentance comes a change of thinking, a turn in the vector of the movement of the human heart towards God.
Thus, we mustn’t postpone repentance for later, because every day of this spiritual work is valuable. It’s more than just a day’s work!
How Fr. Iliodor cleaned up his cell
When I had just arrived to my first parish, I immediately felt that it was the place for me. It was such a strong feeling, such tenderness, to the point of tears. I felt great warmth of soul, inasmuch as the Lord had revealed to me the place where I should serve Him.
My parish life began. The Lord wants spiritual growth from all of us, perfection, and when we don’t desire to strive for this perfection by our own will, He puts us in such conditions that we have to do it whether we want to or not.
When my matushka and I had just arrived at the parish, it turned out there was nowhere for us to live. There was a parish house, but it wasn’t finished, so we rented an apartment at first. I remember how the first month I was waiting for my first salary, and at the end of the month, the treasurer said we had to pay 30,000 rubles (taxes plus electricity), so not only did we not talk about my salary, but I myself had to find this 30,000 rubles to be able to continue serving in our church.
But something amazing happened—the Lord gave me everything I needed for life and ministry in the most unexpected way, as He promised: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these (Mt. 6:28-29).
A few months later, I began equip a room in the parish house where there was nothing but walls.
One of the dearest people for me in Optina is Fr. Iliodor. He has known me since I was a baby, from the moment my parents brought me to Optina and baptized me. Thus, I went to see Fr. Iliodor to entreat his prayers and help.
In front of me, he began to busy himself humbly calling all the numbers in his phone, asking them to give me some help. But everyone answered that they weren’t able to right now—maybe later. Then Fr. Iliodor went with me to the parish, looked at the room in the parish house I could start living in, and offered me some furniture: a couch, a table, and chairs.
Since I had been in his cell, I immediately realized he had listed everything that was in his own cell, and he had gotten the couch only recently; before that there was no couch.
I refused, but the next day, they brought everything to me, and the driver said with a smile that Fr. Iliodor cleaned up in his cell that day and decided to get rid of everything superfluous.
With this furniture, Fr. Iliodor began to beautify our dwelling, where Matushka and I had already managed to arrange one room, which would serve for us as both a living room and a bedroom, and a nursery, and would sometimes miraculously accommodate up to twelve guests.
“Your task is to get through to everyone!”
At one time, there stood a beautiful stone church with four altars in our village. The central altar was the Dormition, and the other three were in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, St. John the Theologian, and the Joy of All Who Sorrow Icon of the Mother of God. They blew up the church in 1941—they needed the bricks to build a road.
The local old women still recall how everyone was ordered to shutter their windows so the blast wave wouldn’t knock out the glass. Those who didn’t do it were left without glass—that’s how powerful the blast was. But the church collapsed into large chunks from this blast, and the bricks couldn’t be used as intended.
The new church, erected by the whole world, is also beautiful, but completely different—it’s a log church with seven domes, with silver crosses reaching for the clouds. You look at it and you freeze, as if you’ve miraculously found yourself in ancient Rus’. The new church is much smaller than the old one, with one altar.
When I was still a seminarian, I went to Pskov and was amazed by the beauty of the iconostasis in Mirozhsky Monastery—it was made of gray stones, and there was something majestic and ancient about it.
And when I arrived at my parish, I went down to the basement and saw that there were windows and that with time, a warm winter church could be built there with an iconostasis from gray quarry stone like in Mirozhsky Monastery. Now it is my dream to make a warm lower church in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, because the upper church is very cold—it wasn’t caulked during construction and the wind blows there, such that the parishioners have to seriously bundle up in warm clothes to pray there in the winter.
I plan to insulate the upper church, but it requires more funds than to equip the lower winter church. Unfortunately, there are no funds for it yet.
I sought out a meeting with Fr. Iliy to ask his prayers for a resolution to our material problems with the church and the parish house. Fr. Iliy asked where I serve, and hearing my answer, he rejoiced and said to me: “Is it difficult for you? Just imagine how difficult it is for those who live near you! They blew up their church and they grew up not knowing anything about God or eternal life. They were deprived of the most important thing… Now a new church has been built, but many from the village don’t understand why the church is necessary. Your task is to get through to everyone! Do it! Begin! Build! And the Lord will help through people.”
I live and labor by these parting words from the Elder.