Everyone knows the Gospel parable about the workers of the eleventh hour, in which the master paid his workers equally, regardless of how many hours they labored. It doesn’t happen this way at a factory, but in life… Sometimes you think: Here’s someone who’s been in the Church since childhood, who fasts and communes; and another was a communist and came to the Church only in his old age—will they really be equally saved? Of course, we don’t know who will be saved. But in this parable, at the very end, there are some key words that explain everything: For many be called, but few chosen (Mt. 20:16). It’s possible that the Lord’s providence for many of those who came to the Church at the “eleventh hour” was always for them to be chosen but only at the end of their lives; having passed through the thorns of doubts and sufferings, these people were able to see the road open before them, and suddenly realize with startling clarity what they had long known…
Here are two stories about such people.
Optina Monastery. Photo: A. Pospelov / Pravoslavie.Ru
The most ancient faith
The Optina hieromonk Fr. Michael was one of the first to come to the monastery when it was revived in the late 1980s. This story happened before his eyes.
At that time, ruin reigned all around. The churches were in disrepair. Nothing remained of the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God but half-collapsed walls. Instead of the dome there was the sky. In soviet times, the Church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was first used as a stable, and then disassembled into bricks. The Cathedral of the Entrance housed vocational-technical workshops, with a tractor in one of the church’s side altars.
The same ruin reigned in the hearts and minds of the locals, next to whom the first Optina monks had to live.
The majority of these locals were non-believers. You could find believers, but what sort they were! An elderly woman named Tatiana went to the Baptists. When one Optina hierodeacon congratulated her with an Orthodox feast, she didn’t hesitate to answer: “We don’t celebrate such holidays at all. We have our own faith!”
“What kind of faith is it?” the hierodeacon asked in surprise.
“The most ancient and most correct!” the old woman joyfully exclaimed.
Fr. Deacon grieved: People were living in such a blessed place, where the Optina elders had labored in asceticism, and they’re in dangerous delusion… Are they to blame that the godless authorities destroyed the monastery with its atheistic propaganda? But a living soul seeks faith, and is sometimes lost, wandering in the darkness…
Fr. Deacon looked at the woman’s simple and kind face; he looked at her small figure and noticed her overworked hands and her sincere eyes. He thought for a minute, and then asked Tatiana: “Perhaps I could get to know your most ancient faith?”
Tatiana rejoiced: “Of course you can! I’ll take you with me! We’re having a meeting tomorrow. I’ll introduce you to everyone!”
So they agreed. The hierodeacon was a learned monk—he had graduated from seminary. He went to this meeting with Tatiana. There was some kind of pastor running everything. The hierodeacon immediately started asking him spiritual questions. But the pastor, who was either a locksmith or an electrician, couldn’t really answer any questions. It seems he had read the Bible and could quote it, but he didn’t know the spiritual meaning. After all, this spiritual meaning is revealed by the grace of God. But this pastor had never confessed, never communed, and was like those who, in the words of Scripture, “see with their own eyes, but do not perceive, and hear with their own ears but do not understand” (cf. Mk. 4:12). So it ended in embarrassment.
After this meeting, the Baptists punished the Optina hierodeacon and Tatiana, as being to blame for the embarrassment, with excommunication from these general meetings for three months. There was a schism in the community, and Tatiana herself was thinking hard.
Some time passed. One day, Tatiana’s neighbor in the bunkhouse noticed that she hadn’t left the house for a few days already. The Optina dean, a respected spiritual father in the monastery, found out about it and sent Fr. Michael to visit the old woman.
This dean, who had chosen the monastic path from his youth, has one peculiarity: He is very observant and sharp. People come to him for confession and they’re amazed: “I didn’t even have time to open my mouth before Batiushka gave me a book to read with all the answers to my questions!” What can I say? The monks don’t use the word “clairvoyance;” they usually talk about “pastoral intuition” in such fathers…
So the dean warned Fr. Michael: “When you go see her, don’t forget to take everything necessary for Baptism and Communion.”
Fr. Michael was surprised and thought to himself: “But she’s a Baptist!”
But he didn’t say anything out loud. He took all the necessary items out of obedience, and headed for the bunkhouse by the walls of Optina. It was October 1, the commemoration of the Optina Elder Hilarion. Fr. Michael was going to see the sectarian and recalled that Elder Hilarion, when he was still a young man in the world named Rodion, living in Saratov. The city was simply infested with heretical sects at that time. The sects were hostile to one another, converging only in one thing: hatred of Orthodoxy.
Rodion received a blessing to hold conversations about the faith with sectarians, based solely on the word of God and the explanations of the holy fathers of the Church. And such were the conversations, the spirit of the future elder so burned, so fervent was his faith, that the sectarians themselves started coming to him. And he converted many to Orthodoxy. The brotherhood headed by Rodion, the future Optina elder, became known far beyond the borders of Saratov. Later a mission was even established in the diocese for converting sectarians and schismatics.
So Fr. Michael was going to see the sectarian and began praying to St. Hilarion: “Our dear Batiushka, Fr. Hilarion! You saved so many people from sectarian webs in your lifetime! Help now! Today is the day of your commemoration. Bless!”
He went up to her door but it was closed. He knocked—no answer. He started trying to break down the door, but it wouldn’t give way. But Fr. Michael is not one to give up in the face of difficulties—he continued fervently praying to St. Hilarion. He had just finished saying a prayer when the door gave way.
Tatiana was lying on the floor, barely alive. Fr. Michael picked her up and placed her on the bed, and sprinkled her with holy water. The old woman came to, opened her eyes, and, seeing the priest, exclaimed: “How glad I am to see you, Batiushka. So glad!”
Then she added, with difficulty: “Baptize me, for the sake the of Christ!”
Although Fr. Michael had taken everything necessary for a Baptism out of obedience, he didn’t expect that Tatiana would want to be baptized. He asked her: “Tatiana, do you really want to be baptized?”
And the dying old woman answered joyfully: “Yes, Batiushka, I want to be baptized. What a mercy of God that you came!”
She raised her heavy, overworked hand with difficulty, folded her fingers into the sign of the Cross, and slowly and solemnly crossed herself: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
“Amen!” the priest responded. “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
So they began the Sacrament of Baptism. Fr. Michael recalls that he experienced an amazing spiritual upsurge: The grace of God was poured out abundantly, and it was felt unusually strongly by both the priest and the one being baptized. Large tears were streaming down Tatiana’s face. After the Baptism, she received Communion.
I couldn’t help but interrupt Fr. Michael’s story: “Batiushka, did you feel this grace for a long time?”
Fr. Michael was still off in his memories; he looked into the distance and said: “I didn’t sleep all night after the Baptism… The demons beat me and weighed on me. They really didn’t like that a soul was plucked nearly out of hell, that this soul wasn’t given to them.
Then Batiushka thought better of it and added: “But that’s another story, not for your ears. Monastic temptations should remain for monks. If you’re going to interrupt then I won’t tell you anymore!”
“I won’t… So how did it all end?”
“Tatiana refused to see a doctor, but we called the ambulance anyways. The doctor shook his head: ‘Her heart is worn out. They haven’t come up with a medicine for old age yet.’”
And a few hours after the Baptism and Communion, the handmaiden of God Tatiana peacefully departed to where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.
There’s a large Orthodox cross on her grave in the village in the Kozelsk District.
A tight belt
I didn’t only hear this second story—I was witness to it. It just so happened that I was in the city where I grew up, with my friend Inna from childhood. I had some business for a few days and she was visiting her mother. We were both staying with her mother and spent a few days there.
Her mother, Nadezhda, was very kind and welcoming. But she had one drawback—she drank heavily. Inna justified her mother by her hard, unfortunate life.
And in fact, you wouldn’t envy Nadezhda’s life. She was born during the war, and her father died on the front without ever seeing his daughter. She grew up with a drunkard of a stepfather. When she was sixteen her drunk stepfather tried to rape her, and Nadya left home. She didn’t finish school, didn’t get a profession... She worked as a dishwasher in a cafeteria and as a janitor.
Her family life didn’t work out either. Her husband cheated soon after the wedding and treated his young wife with disdain. And he soon left her along with her daughter without any support. Nadya raised Innochka alone and treated her daughter well. She bought her food and clothes. But she started spending all her remaining pennies on drinking, forgetting herself after work and drowning her melancholy and female loneliness in wine.
Inna left home early, went to school, and started a family. She wasn’t getting rid of her mother—she visited and helped her. But the woman continued to drink. And now Nadezhda was calling her daughter to bid farewell before her death—she was very ill and for some reason was certain she was dying, although she wasn’t even seventy.
When we went to the apartment, Nadezhda met us sober: She was waiting for her daughter and didn’t want to upset her. It was obvious from the look of the place that the owner of this small apartment was a drinker. All the more touching was her effort to hide her passion for wine, to welcome us cordially. From an old cupboard, she took out some chipped cups that were just as old. True, the handles of the cups were broken, but it was clear—these were for guests. The hostess herself drank tea from a blackened mug.
I looked more closely at Nadezhda. She reminded me of the mother of a friend from school: a sweet and friendly face, kind eyes, the bags of an alcoholic under her eyes, gray, partially cut hair, almost no teeth, hands shaking… But now her legs, stomach and heart hurt too. Obviously, her heart was in bad shape from her drunkenness. What a pity…
Inna brought her mother a gift. After she found out about her mother’s sickness, someone brought her a belt from Mt. Athos, blessed on the cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos, and holy oil from Vatopedi Monastery. And I had just recently witnessed in Optina how a husband brought his wife the same gift from Athos. On Mt. Athos, in Vatopedi Monastery, they usually pour just a little holy oil, not a full vial like we do. The belt was also a small band. So this husband came from Mt. Athos and brought his wife these holy items. The wife took the holy oil in her hands, made a dissatisfied face, and said: “The oil vial is so small! Couldn’t you have brought a little more? How much do they give? Apparently they’re trying to save it! And why’s this band so small?!
And now I was witness to how Inna handed the same holy items to her mother. Nadezhda ran to wash her hands, and then, breathing laboriously, took the bottle of holy oil and whispered: “It’s for me?! Lord, is it really for me, such a sinner? So much oil they gave! Such happiness, my daughter! And what’s this—a belt?! Ah, yes, it’s an entire belt! It was blessed on the belt of the Most Holy Theotokos?! I’m not worthy of such a gift, my dear daughter! How could I even dare to wear it?!”
And she started to weep, awkwardly wiping away her tears with her fists and sniffling like a child.
“You understand,” my friend whispered to me in the shabby kitchen in the evening, “for as long as I can remember, I always felt very sorry for my mother. She’s been unlucky in life, and that’s all there is to it. Her drunkard stepfather wanted to abuse her, and her husband left her without help or support. She had no profession and there was nowhere for her to work—everything went wrong everywhere. The accounting department accused her of theft. She was still quite young; she sobbed all night long and even wanted to kill herself. Then they found the actual thief, caught in another theft, but they didn’t really apologize to my mother. Then she got a job as a hospital nurse, but the department closed a year later…
“That’s how her whole life’s been. And she has such a weak character… There are people like oaks, others like birches. But my whole life I’ve imagined her as a thin aspen—trembling and bending in the wind… She has no support in life. So many times I wanted to bring her to stay with me! But she won’t. She knows she drinks too much and won’t be able to quit, and she doesn’t want to ruin my life.
“Tell me, why is it like this? For some people, everything turns out good in life with their parents, their family, and work. But my mother’s whole life has been cumbersome. And now she’s going to die—and what? I hope she doesn’t die as a drunk…
“Why is her whole life like a rough draft? Why couldn’t she manage to realize her kindness or her tenderness? Her weak character? So if someone is weak they can’t become strong. What did she do wrong? Why is she so unfortunate?”
I was silent. What could I say? Then I muttered consolingly:
“Inna, well, she realized her goodness in you—she raised you. And you love her. Don’t you? There you go. And then: To whom much is given, much will be required of him, and to whom a little—a little. The Lord sees all the circumstances of a person’s life—maybe He has different demands for your mother’s life—who knows?”
In the morning, Inna came out pensive and serious. She said slowly: “Dear daughter, I, unworthy, anointed myself with oil and I dared to put the belt on. And I’m lying there on my bed in the morning, and it came to me so clearly—whether a voice or a thought, I can’t say—but, you know, sweetie, it seems I am unbaptized.”
“What do you mean you’re unbaptized, Mom?! You never mentioned that! Last time I came, you were sick and we called Batiushka to come see you! Do you remember?! You had Unction! How could you suddenly remember that you’re unbaptized?!”
“Don’t be angry, dear. As soon as I put on the belt and anointed myself with the oil, everything in my head cleared up. It cleared up pretty well, do you understand? Before that, I hadn’t noticed that I had a fog in my mind. But when it cleared up, then I understood. And you know, I suddenly remembered everything so clearly! My childhood, my mother… When I was born in ’43, there wasn’t a single church open near us. Then I got really sick, and some old man was walking by the village. I just now remembered, as my mother said, that he whispered something over me. He whispered something—that’s not Baptism?! And it appeared to me so clearly, my dear, that I am unbaptized.”
“Yes, Mom. Now you’ve got us baffled!”
Inna and I started thinking about what to do. We called my spiritual father at Optina (Igumen A.—the brother’s confessor, a man of prayer). We asked Batiushka what to do. He said he would pray and give us an answer the next day. And indeed, the next day, Father A. firmly said we had to get her mother baptized.
We took Nadezhda to church. The church is right by her house, but she could barely walk there. She was quite sick. The priest came out, looked at her, and said: “I remember your mother. I gave her Unction! What’s this you’ve suddenly realized?! What do you mean, unbaptized?! I don’t know…”
And he asked Nadezhda sternly: “Why do you want to be baptized?”
Nadezhda suddenly fell at his feet and entreated: “Dear Batiushka, baptize me, for Christ’s sake!”
The priest softened. He didn’t say anything. Then he asked: “Do you believe in the Most Holy Trinity? Do you know what the Trinity is?”
Inna and I were worried. What would her mother answer? She drank her whole life. What could she say about the Holy Trinity? But her mother raised her voice and answered firmly: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” and she began to steadily recite the Nicene Creed.
I looked at Inna—her mouth was agape in shock. I whispered to her: “Friend, cover your mouth. Your mother did great!”
And Batiushka said: “Generally, we don’t baptize adults without catechumen classes, but considering your sickness… I’ll be waiting for you on Saturday at one o’clock for your Baptism.”
We took Nadezhda home. She was doing very poorly, and Inna and I were afraid she wouldn’t make it to Saturday. We decided, if need be, we would bring the priest in a taxi. But anyways, she made it till Saturday and even went to church on her own two feet, although with difficulty, with us supporting her on both sides.
The Baptism began, and it was already time for the font. The priest touched the water and got upset: The altar boy forgot to heat the water in the font. I heard Inna whisper to her mother: “Mom, I jumped in a holy spring in January, but here the water is at least room temperature. You’re going to be completely submerged, alright?”
I saw Nadezhda nodding her head in agreement.
We took her to the font, Batiushka dipped her three times, then she stumbled a little, and he thought she was losing consciousness. Startled, he grabbed her tightly. Inna and I grabbed her too. And she smiled and said: “It’s nothing, I just slipped a little.”
When Batiushka grabbed her, he had a bucket in his hand. He forgot about it and it swung in her face. And as we were lifting Nadezhda out of the font, she said so joyfully: “Ah, what happiness! And it’s good that you put a bucket on me, Batiushka! It suits my sins! Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee!”
We all turned around, looked at Nadezdha, and she had a welt growing on her forehead right before our eyes, and she even had a cut from the heavy bucket. The priest clutched his heart: First the water was cold, then he had hit the baptizee on the forehead…
“Forgive me—I hit you with the bucket!”
“Dear Batiushka, I owe even more for my sins!”
That’s how we baptized our Nadezhda.
She got out of the font and got dressed. We left the church, and we heard an old woman behind the candle desk say: “How lucky some people are! They get baptized at the end of their life, and all the sins of their previous life are forgiven, and they go to God clean!”
Inna and Nadezhda could only smile. We went outside and went home. We were almost home when we suddenly realized: She was walking on her own, without support. And how was she walking? She was practically flying ahead of us!”
The next day, we went to church again: Batiushka blessed Nadezhda to commune. And again she walked there without help, as if she’d fully recovered.
Inna and I left the next day and Nadezhda baked us potato pies. She accompanied us to the train station, waving at us for a long time. I looked at her rejuvenated face, her clear eyes, and marveled: “Such power the Sacrament of Baptism has!” Nadezhda had as if returned to herself.