This is the story of how an unbelieving wife, through her husband’s prayers before the Vladimir Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, decided on her deathbed to become Orthodox and did so in time.
It was five years ago that the wife of a good friend of mine, Veronica, passed away. Her husband Ivan said concisely, “Dear Veronika is no longer with us.”
Ivan has beautiful photographs of his wife on the desk and the walls at home: Veronica with her twin children on vacation in Sochi, in Crimea, with her husband in Cuba, swimming with dolphins, etc.
After the funeral Ivan mentioned that Veronica had passed away happy, surrounded by her nearest and dearest.
And on the fifth anniversary of her death Ivan told me an amazing story about how on her deathbed, Veronica had managed to receive an Orthodox Baptism, confess and receive Holy Communion.
Here is his brief account:
Veronica grew up in a family of Communist Party leaders, so one could say that she was a representative of the “golden” (privileged) communist youth. Her behavior, however, broke all the stereotypes of the children of the leaders of the Communist Party.
Veronica was kind-hearted and sensitive, she never “pulled the blanket onto herself” and was always the first to run to help others. Maybe someone will argue that it is easy to be like that when you have everything you need, when your education and career are laid out from birth. Nevertheless, Veronica always cared about others, offering support to anyone no matter who they were, be it a close friend, a distant relative or a total stranger.
I remember how, in our third year at university, the administration was planning to expel one student for his entry into a lecture room for an exam on Marxism-Leninism “in a Leninist manner,” i.e. taking two steps forward, one step back. One of the professors at Moscow State University took the joke both as a personal insult and a political provocation. This was in the early 1980s before perestroika. The history professor stopped the exam and rushed to the dean's office! He then paraphrased a well-known quote, saying, “Today you laugh at Lenin, tomorrow you betray your Motherland.”1 Veronica went to speak to the Marxism-Leninism teacher, saying that her classmate was a creative person, involved in theater, a committed Communist Youth League member, and a good friend. She showed him pictures from the student’s performances. Veronica was ready to get her parents and their acquaintances involved to prevent the young man from being kicked out of the university because of an unsuccessful joke. Here’s a key detail of this whole story—that fellow student was not a friend of Veronica’s, she didn’t even know him. Moreover, he hadn’t even turned to her for help. She just thought, “If I see that someone needs help, how can I not get involved?” The story had a happy ending: the young man was not expelled from the university.
There were times when I would tell her, “Slow down! Let’s get our children on their feet first, and then we will start saving the whole world.” But my wife didn’t understand such “tactics.” Her kindness was legendary. Once there was a woman, a friend of our friends, who stopped Veronica on the street. With tears in her eyes she complained that her thirteen-year-old son—the same age as our twins—had gotten involved with the wrong people, things had really gone downhill, and the police had already promised to add him to their register... I asked Veronica, “What exactly did the woman want from you? Did she ask you to get involved in the belated upbringing of someone else’s matured son?” I thought my humor and sarcasm would stop her. After all, what could be done in such a situation? We weren’t familiar with the unfortunate woman, even less so with her son. But Veronica found a way out. I don't know how she succeeded, but she persuaded the unmanageable teenager to go to boxing lessons. Before that, she had convinced the coach to admit the boy and take care of him. She said to him, “You can save this boy if you show some concern!” Her efforts bore fruit, though obviously not right away. The teenager began to help his mother around the house, began to read, and found new friends in the class. I can tell lots of similar stories.
I could talk for hours about how Veronica loved our children, was aware of their interests, played chess with them, and helped them write poems for their teachers’ birthdays.
But the trouble was that although she had such a kind and open heart, Veronica was a unbeliever. She believed that the Church and prayers were a relic of the past, and that faith in God was for illiterate old women. Every educated person knows well that one should be moral, respect others, help people, overcome evil with good, not take revenge, and look for a way to reach every person. She used to say that only people who are not familiar with classical literature and music need to be told that if you treat others badly, God will punish you.
I myself didn’t convert to the faith overnight. Integrating into Church life wasn’t easy for me. But Veronica didn’t want to hear anything about Baptism, the Holy Fathers, Holy Communion or Confession. She respected my choice and never joked about the fact that I kept the fasts, prepared for Communion, or searched for a spiritual father, but told me that she wouldn’t go to church. She explained it this way. “My parents were ideological Communists, they believed in what was spoken during Party meetings. They never waved their Party membership cards around, never flaunted their position. Their friends were the same. How can I get baptized?! I would be betraying their views, their principles! They brought me up in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, and I know that a man is the architect of his own happiness, his destiny, that one should be decent…”
We often discussed these matters and debated. I tried to show her the path to the faith. Once we were in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem. First, Veronica said that while we were there, “It was as if time stopped, as if we were in the past, two thousand years ago... There is no hustle and bustle, no one is running around.” But she went on to say that it was just a trip. We also were in Italy, in the city of Bari: according to her, it too was an interesting experience, but nothing more.
I am coming to the main point. Veronica became seriously ill and was diagnosed with cancer. My wife underwent treatment with courage, and the disease went into temporary remission. But a few years later, there was a relapse. Veronica again underwent treatment and had surgery, but then the disease manifested itself again. My poor wife went through so much and never complained, never looking for anyone to blame. Her immunity weakened as a result of repeated treatments. She fell ill with pneumonia, and the doctors warned me that she would never leave the hospital: her body was no longer fighting to survive, and the drugs were no longer effective. I won’t go further into medical details as they are not what is important.
Veronica was unconscious for several days before her repose. Almost every day I went to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, now part of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. There is a miraculous Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God there. I was told that it was the most “affectionate” and touching icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. I prayed before it and before other icons. I knew that Veronica was dying and I prayed to the Mother of God to miraculously arrange my wife’s Baptism, so that she might die a Christian.
My prayers were answered. I was phoned from the hospital and informed that my wife had come to her senses. I instantly rushed to her. Veronica smiled and asked me to invite a priest to get baptized.
I quickly found a priest and explained everything to him. Veronica was baptized, confessed, and received Holy Communion. Before her death she had time to tell me about her desire to get baptized.
While she was unconscious, she saw a beautiful, noble woman with huge, kind and gentle eyes. Her head was covered with a long headscarf. She held out Her hand to Veronica and said, “How can it be that you want to go without a cross? I know that you were kind, decent, and a loving mother. Without Baptism all your good deeds will be erased. Nobody can force you. Whether you love the Lord is for you to decide. Think now before it is too late!”
After the Sacraments, Veronica hugged me and the children. Her last words were, “I am dying so happy because I was able to get baptized, put on my cross, and receive Holy Communion!”
I dare not say that it was my unworthy prayers that got Veronica baptized in time. But I firmly know that the Most Pure Mother of God had mercy and took pity on her.