One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet. 3:8). This truth is particularly evident in the days of Great Lent, when prayer alone gives us a feeling of the particular fullness of life, while the rest seems to be falling into the abyss without leaving any memories of itself. The black Lenten vestments of clergy, the Twelve Gospels of the Passion of Christ, the correction of prayer, and the jubilation of the news of the Resurrection of Christ—we experience this in a particular way in churches, entry into which is currently restricted for many of us.
How we begin to understand and appreciate our recent “everyday life”, when the doors of churches were always open! We could come there any moment of our lives, share our sorrows and joys, find like-minded people and soar in our minds to heaven. It is this ability to rise above daily routine that enables us to see the picture of life as if from above. And all of a sudden in the depths of our hearts we come to realize that we had already experienced all of this: we just need to look back on our common past closely.
Become a church yourself
Bishop German (Ryashentsev) The future New Martyr German (Ryashentsev; 1883–1937), bishop of Vyazniki, was first arrested almost 100 years ago, on the night of February 19, 1921. The remainder of his life, right until his execution by a firing squad in 1937 near Syktyvkar, was a continuous chain of arrests and imprisonments. In the first years of exile, including in village Samarovo (now the town of Khanty-Mansiysk), the bishop was able to serve in churches that were still active. He wrote about this to his spiritual children.
“I am gradually beginning to restore my prayer rule, though I’m run down by illness,” he informed Natalia Alexandrovna Verkhovtseva [1893–1991; a nurse and sister of mercy for many years, and a spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt and a spiritual friend of Hieromartyr German (Ryashentsev).—Trans.]. “The happiest news is that we have returned a local new calendarist priest (a young, sincere and simple man) to the Orthodox calendar. On the ninth of the month I served [the feast of St. Joseph.—Auth.] in a simple way. Tomorrow I will probably serve with something [a bishop’s miter.—Auth.] that Tanya has made at my request. Such a treasure as the mantle of Vladyka Macarius [St. Macarius (Nevsky; 1835–1926), Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna (1912–1917) and the “apostle of the Altai region”, gave him his bishop’s mantle.—Trans.] is with me. It is hard to believe that, cut off from the centers, we have moved so close to mighty nature and, most importantly, if we don’t grow very lazy, we will be able to begin our spiritual ‘rebuilding’ and draw close to God.”
But with time the tone of the bishop’s letters changed. Describing the life in Samarovo, he noted “the coarsening effect of secularity.” The village residents were “absolutely indifferent to the service of a visiting hierarch” and the preparation for the patronal feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. He wrote in another letter, “Here we see a different kind of danger—the present environment is very coarse, primitive, and even pagan by way of life and spirit in many ways.” And though “there are forget-me-nots, lilies of the valley, violets and wild strawberries here, there is a lack of friends and the simple souls in which I once learned to recognize and love Christ.”
Later, after having typhus on Solovki and surviving the lot of an exile (who often had no roof over his head), after being transported and deported under guard many times, he nevertheless called his exile in Samarovo “spoiling”. The consequent horrific conditions of life, virtually without any possibility of celebrating, attending church and participating in the sacraments of Christ, set the hieromartyr (together with thousands of other new martyrs, but revealed and not revealed to the world), on the path of the Golgotha of martyrdom. With what clearness these stages of his spiritual growth are reflected in the bishop’s letters, which his biographer characterized as “the supreme refinement of faith.”
“We have fewer churches now; but you must be a church of God yourself. If access to many holy places has become limited, become a holy place and a living icon yourself,” Bishop German wrote to his spiritual children from exile in Siberia. “Many external things that have a considerable effect on external babies in faith have disappeared; give them what is incomparably higher than this and is equally clear and close to both men of wisdom and infants; give them the warmth of sincere and undistorted prayer and the supreme refinement of faith: the simplicity and depth of reverence and humility… To put it in the words of a Lenten prayer, today ‘the time for works has come’.”
When God is near!
I believe now it has become clear to many that our “self-isolation” is in fact a test of our faith. But we don’t always pass the test worthily. The external is gone, and it has turned out that hidden behind it is our lack of faith, despondency, complaining, and earthly attachments—the things we live by day after day, only allowing God to enter our hearts for a short time. The Russian Revolution was such a test too, though it was harsher and more dangerous for our lives. It happened that those who had studied the catechism nevertheless became adherents of the new government that set itself the following task: “Priests are to be arrested as counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, to be shot mercilessly and everywhere. And as many as possible” (Lenin’s instruction no. 13666/2, on the fight against priests).
In this sense the story of the closure of the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign” in Laryak village of the Nizhnevartovsk district [Tyumen region.—Trans.] in the backwoods of the Russian taiga is revealing. In the early 1920s, the parish had over 800 members, making it the largest Orthodox community in the area. Ten years later the number of parishioners shrank substantially. It’s like a long-distance race: Those who are morally and physically weaker drop out. Only the “strongest” and “most faithful” remain. They will receive the “crowns of life” (cf. Rev. 2:10) from the Lord.
I recall dozens of accounts of how in the period of persecution the Lord helped ordinary Christians who found themselves in exile, prisons and confinement for their faith. “God was near!” Elder John (Krestiankin) recalled the years of imprisonment, adding that he had never prayed with the same living faith as he did in the camps.
In my book, Faith in Disgrace, there is an account by Khanty-Mansiysk residents about Alexandra Shityakova, who was exiled for her faith:
“In exile she didn’t go to work on the Nativity, for which she was sent to a punishment cell for fifteen nights. And she was forgotten there… Fifteen days passed. An escort who was a distant relative of St. John of Kronstadt came and said: ‘We have forgotten Alexandra.’ Everybody thought that they had lost their Alexandra. And there were such violent storms in the steppe that they had to hold on to a rope to prevent themselves from being blown away. He opened the doors: ‘Alexandra, are you alive?’ She replied: ‘Yes, I have been continuously praying to the Queen of Heaven, Who has fed me and given me to drink. I rejoiced that I was facing such an easy death.’”
Clearly, in those years there were no active churches in Siberia within the radius of many hundreds of miles. And exiles for their faith loved prayer so much. One of them, Maria, who was sent to Khanty-Mansiysk, would read the whole Psalter within a day, for which she was repeatedly strapped by a local policeman who was appointed to keep an eye on the repressed.
Lyubov Petrovna Plotnikova recalled, “After getting up in the morning we would read the Akathist hymns to our Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ, then to the Holy Theotokos and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker; and only then did we proceed to daily work.”
Clearly, they had the harshest possible living conditions. “I had a place of my own only after I got married,” Lyubov Plotnikova recalled. She also shared a wonderful story about Paschal bread. They lived from hand to mouth; meanwhile, Pascha was coming. How could they mark “the Triumph of triumphs”? They had neither kulichi nor colored eggs. But suddenly her brother brought a loaf of white bread from work. Their joy was ineffable!
People lived, remarkably putting all their hopes in the mercy of God, thanking Him for every single day they got through. For them faith was the main value in their lives. Not only did they preserve their faith over the years of exile, in the absence of churches and without any possibility of taking the Gifts of Christ—they also increased it, bringing forth fruit an hundredfold to the feet of Christ (cf. Mt. 13:8). Their faith was “practical” by nature. It grew out of humility in the face of terrible circumstances of life, through enduring starvation and persecution, the unfailing hope that the world is ruled by Divine providence. Alexandra, Lyubov Plotnikova’s mother, who served two terms in labor camps only for identifying herself as an Orthodox Christian in the 1937 Soviet census, on her deathbed asked a fellow-exile and kindred spirit: “Well, when will the Second Coming of Christ take place?” Those people lived this way. God was close to them—in their hearts.
“Joy is inside me”
There are numerous surviving stories of how the faithful celebrated Pascha at the Solovki Special Purpose Camp (SLON). How many tears of gratitude and living faith, how much strength of spirit and humility!
The last Paschal Matins of Bright Week was served in 1928 at an old cemetery church. The Solovki Camp was then nicknamed “the monastery of spiritual giants”—hundreds of bishops, priests and laypeople were exiled there, and many of them were afterwards canonized. One of such accounts stuck especially in my memory.
The name of a female ascetic who was sent to the Solovki camp for her religious convictions has not survived in history. Speaking of her past, she would call her years at the camp “happy” (see: Reminiscences of Solovki Prisoners, vol. II).
“The Paschal night fell. Even the ghostly northern night now seemed unusual—it vibrated and breathed. The inmates were whispering to one another, ‘Will you go? Will you try?’ And many ventured, despite a double line of guards who kept a vigilant eye on us. The imprisoned clergy were allowed to concelebrate. Twelve bishops were solemnly celebrating the service. I was standing on the stairs of our barracks near the cemetery and saw the luminous interior of the poor little church.”
And the cross procession came out with banners and icons. The figure of Archbishop Hilarion (Troitsky) of Vereya towered above everybody. He looked so powerful and imposing—he was no longer the emaciated man who toiled in the labor camp day and night.
“No one paid attention to the GPU (State Political Directorate) armed guards that encircled the church to block the way of the inmates to the procession. Tomorrow they would pay for their disobedience. But why think of tomorrow? ‘Christ Is Risen!’ the choir was singing gaily. ‘Let us embrace each other!’ ‘Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive everything in the Resurrection of Christ!’ indescribable joy rose inside me. ‘Christ Is Risen!’ these words resounded in the air over and again. The procession entered the church. Everything around me was dark again, but the distant voices were bringing me the joy of the victory of Christ… I was not afraid of tomorrow, it couldn’t cloud my soul—joy was inside me!”