I lived by the cathedral for three months, almost the whole winter. The following episode happened in my life. There was an office building in front of the church entrance, and I spent those months in a small room on its first floor. I would go to the service in the morning and then work at the construction site. I would come back in the dusk just before the evening service. Then I attended theological courses arranged for the parishioners and listened to interesting lectures.
The church was situated in the middle of a cemetery, with a path leading to it between rows of graves on either side. It was a splendid cruciform cathedral with cupolas and three altars, built in the so-called Russian style. It was quite an imposing building that could be seen almost from all the streets of the small regional center. Spires with golden crosses rose above the domes covered with copper that had darkened over time. Three semicircular apses adjoined the church from the east and a belfry adjoined it from the west. The cathedral was particularly glorious at night. The stars in the sky were hardly discernible due to the lights all over the town; but the moon could be seen clearly and the temple looked fabulously beautiful in the moonlight. And during snowstorms it looked even more majestic when floodlit. As if it were an illustration to a fairy tale.
But the caretakers didn’t like snowfalls. Not only did they guard the cathedral—they also cleared its precincts from snow, which was quite a large area. There were no automatic snow-clearing machines at that time, so these strong men cleared the asphalt with scrapers. In the evening, when there was nobody in the office building, I was bored sitting in my small room alone, so I would go down to talk with one of the caretakers. I would also take another scraper in my hand, and our work went quicker. After that we would have tea in his tiny room, talk, and then I would go to sleep.
There were three caretakers there. Together they would take turns on duty twenty-four hours each. I became particularly close with Sasha [a diminutive form of the name Alexander.—Trans.]He was a tall, sturdily built man of about forty-five. Dark-haired, dark-complexioned, and dark-eyed, he seemed to be the picture of physical and mental health. He was the most serious of these three. He was a solid man and a man of few words. Whatever he did he did well, and he would clear snow thoroughly. When there was a snowfall all night long, he would walk with the scraper right till the morning and the next shift’s arrival.
Alexander was diligent in prayer as well as in work. He would stand erect like a soldier in the tiny caretakers’ room in front of icons with a prayer-book in his hands. He made the sign of the cross perfectly, made bows properly, and never shortened his prayer rule. During that time he wouldn’t talk, so I would join him later. We would put the kettle on, and my companion would get the sweets out. We talked. I spoke more than he, while Sasha gladly listened to me. Alexander was certainly not prone to exaltation and never indulged in fantasies. He didn’t speak about faith and was disinclined to talk on theological subjects. He had a completely rational mind. In connection with this I found his story even more interesting.
I knew that Sasha had two children. His earnings were modest. He was not going to become a priest. One day I asked him:
“Sasha, why is it that you work here at the cathedral and not at a factory where wages are higher?”
He thought for a minute and answered my question with a question:
“Shall I tell you from the very beginning? So now listen…”
Here is Alexander’s story:
In my time I worked in a watch factory, in a galvanizing room. Factory work harms your health, but when you are young you simply don’t care; and wages were quite high there. My health was affected by my contact with chemicals, and, to tell the truth, at that time I took to drink. We had many quarrels in my family because of that. So I developed a gastric ulcer that one day caused an internal hemorrhage. I was rushed to hospital by ambulance where they brought me back to life. But I fell seriously ill. It was as if I was losing energy and growing weaker with every passing day. I can’t say that then I didn’t believe in God—but I was absolutely indifferent to spiritual things. My mother is religious and goes to church almost every day; as for me, I went to church with her as a child but when I grew up I stopped going to church. The only prayer that I knew by heart from childhood thanks to my grandmother was “O Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice…”
One night I had a wonderful dream. St. Nicholas the Wonderworker came to me. He was in green vestments and with crosses on his shoulders; he looked exactly like on this icon. He said: “Sasha, I will help you. But you must give up drinking for the rest of your life and start to go to church.” I woke up in amazement. There had been no room for miracles in my life before. And, of course, I didn’t trust any dreams. But I remember feeling profound joy! After that vision I got better very fast. A month later no trace of my illness remained. Though I didn’t start to go to church, I quit drinking. So I abstained from alcohol for three years.
The time came when I was going to celebrate my fortieth birthday. My wife tried to dissuade me from that, saying that celebrating a fortieth birthday was considered as a bad sign. But I am not superstitious. There were not many guests (about ten) at the party. My childhood friend with whom I had not met for ages gave me a bottle of some classy three-star cognac. I wanted to try it so much that I put the bottle in front of myself on the table to prevent others from opening it. Greediness was awakened in my soul and I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I uncorked the bottle and poured fifty grams into a shot glass. Then fifty more grams… three small glasses over the evening. At first I didn’t feel anything special.
But at night I suddenly had tachycardia, with a cold sweat and trembling in my hands and legs as in a fever. I was rushed to hospital by ambulance and ended up at ICU. I got myself into a real mess, to put it mildly. I had to leave my work and I only moved with a stick at home. My head was spinning all the time and I was wasting away. We had to call for an ambulance twice a week. I was wearing my wife out. At last I asked her to drive me to my mother’s for a while. Frankly speaking, I didn’t want my children to see how I was dying. In my mother’s house I lay in bed day and night; my strength failed me.
The malady racked me so much that I decided to die. I didn’t believe in the afterlife: I thought that I would kill myself and my suffering would stop. I just needed to choose a way to kill myself. I considered hanging myself, but I took pity on my mother—she was religious, and funeral services are not performed over suicides and even memorial services are not conducted for their repose. So not only would she lose her son: she would believe that I would be doomed to eternal torments in hell. How would she live with this?
And it occurred to me that I should buy a liter of vodka, drink it, and die… I tried to find money in the house; I searched in different places until my glance fell on the table with mom’s New Testament lying on it. The Gospel was open, and I read the first line I saw: Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). I went hot and cold all over. So even in that case no funeral service would be performed, and my mother would grieve over me… What should I do?
In the evening my wife came and said: “Sasha, a woman psychic has come to our town. They say, she practices bioenergetics healing and helps many people. Would you like to have a try?” I didn’t believe in this nonsense, but a drowning man will clutch at a straw. We took a taxi and arrived at a departmental club where the “healer” leased a hall. We waited for our turn and finally got to her. The woman was advanced in years. With clever eyes, her look was as penetrating as an X-ray machine. She moved her hands over me and pronounced the diagnosis: I supposedly had a “deficit of protection” and thus I was “losing energy”. She added she had a gift from God to cure such things. So she “worked” with me a little. I didn’t believe a single word she had said, but after the first “session” I felt considerably better. I started going to the “healer” for “treatment”—these were paid services. However, the second “session” didn’t help me much, and the third one was inefficient. After the elderly woman’s manipulations I began to feel anxiety and fear without any obvious reason. I don’t know what is worse: my former malady or that depression, when nothing made me glad. Besides, I had to pay a lot of money, but I had no more savings left. It seemed to be a deadlock.
And at that moment the psychic made an advantageous offer to me: “Sasha, I am holding a big seminar soon. My disciples and patients are coming. I need an assistant to receive people, seat the guests and so on. Do you feel like helping me? Then I will work with you for free.” Of course, I agreed.
The day of her workshop came. A large number of people arrived, mostly sick. The psychic seated everybody around the tables and started reading a lecture about her “gift of healing” and how God allegedly worked through her, and so on. As I was listening, I was seized with irrational fear. Though I was ignorant, it came home to me that that elderly woman was not just an empty talker with vague “psychic abilities” but a really dangerous person. At some point she announced, addressing the audience: “You are not healed because your prayers can’t reach God. There is satan between you and God, and he blocks your petitions. Now I’ll give a secret code to each of you: satan won’t understand your words and your prayers will go up directly to heaven.” As she walked she mumbled something in everybody’s ear. Then she commanded: “Pray!” And something indescribable happened: some began to grunt, others—to bark, others—to howl. Many even started running on all fours. Meanwhile, the witch was triumphantly feasting her eyes on the spectacle. I was horror-stricken. It was then that the only prayer that I knew by heart came to my mind. I was sitting in the corner and whispering it to myself very fast: “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of Thy womb, for Thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.”
Suddenly the witch turned to me with features convulsed from spite, with gleaming eyes. She shouted: “Sasha, stop interfering! What are you doing? Go away! Clear off! Think about your conduct if you ever decide to come back to me!” I staggered out and walked along the street with my legs like inflexible stumps. It seemed I had nothing to hope for. I repeated the prayer as I went—and fear disappeared, and my soul was filled with such peace I had not felt since my illness had begun. I physically felt that as long as I read this prayer the witch was unable to do me any harm and nothing bad would happen to me. I began to repeat it continuously: after waking up, while walking or doing something…
One night after returning home I had the following dream. I saw a vast emerald green meadow with beautiful flowers. A road ran through it right towards me. On either side of the road stood people in white robes with their arms crossed on their chests as during Communion, with their heads lowered and eyes cast down. A very beautiful woman was going towards me over that road. It would be audacious to suppose that it was the Holy Theotokos, because who am I to be vouchsafed an appearance from the Queen of Heaven? If it was not the Mother of God, at least it was clear that it was someone sent by Her. It was most probably a blessing for repeating the prayer permanently. The woman came up to me and said: “Sasha, I will treat you like no one else. But you must begin to go to church. And never drink liquor anymore.” She inserted her palms inside my head right through my temples and abruptly pulled them apart. I woke up in a dazzling flash and pain as though a grenade had exploded in my head. The pain instantly abated, and my soul sang with joy. I woke my wife up and said: “I must go to church!” She responded: “But not in the middle of the night.” I agreed: “Well, in the morning then.”
In the morning my wife took half a day off work and took me to that cathedral. I felt a burst of energy and wanted to run. As soon as I entered, I felt I was aching all over and sick in my stomach. I thought I was going to die! Once I went outside, all got back to normal. But once I came in, I was racked with pain again… But at least it was clear what I ought to do. There were daily services at the cathedral, so I began to go there every day. I schooled myself to stand in the church porch, then at the refectory for a short while, and later I learned to stand through the service. Next the time came for confession and Communion. I started to go to monasteries and visit an elder. There was a lot of trash in my soul and it took a long time to remove it.
And now the cathedral is like my second home. You can’t earn all the money in the world. We have enough…
I haven’t been to that cathedral for a long time. I don’t know how they are all doing and whether Sasha still works there. I gained a lot from that experience. I was disappointed in some things and became stronger in some respects. Alas, the problem I had visited that place with was not solved. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting (Dan. 5:27).