Illustration by artist Alexander Linnik
Father Vasily came from the “godforsaken village” of Zhmiyevka [in the Ivankov district of the Kiev region, Ukraine.—Trans.], as the villagers themselves called it, near Chernobyl, where 100 people remained to live out their day—mostly pensioners, and even some gypsy families who had occupied deserted huts. After 1986, when the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, and the world was shocked by this unprecedented ecological catastrophe, most of the 3,000 inhabitants of the once prosperous village with a collective farm, a private farm and a sugar factory spread out all over Ukraine, away from the deadly radiation.
But Lydia Fyodorovna, the mother of the future Fr. Vasily, the then sixteen-year-old Vasya [a diminutive form of the name Vasily.—Trans.], flatly refused to leave her native village. She sang in the church choir, and after the Chernobyl disaster she also began to carry out the duties of reader and churchwarden, becoming the right hand of the old and lonely father Andrei, who had served there for almost fifty years.
Fr. Andrei’s wife had died long before, and God had not given them children. Vasily's mother, Lydia Fyodorovna, was widowed a year after the Chernobyl disaster as well. Vasily began to help his mother at the church, read the Hours in the choir and assist the priest at the Liturgy. And one day Fr. Andrei said to Vasily:
“Son, go to the seminary and get ordained. And if you want, take a letter of referral from the bishop here, to our Zhmiyevka. Don’t worry that there are few people here—their number will increase over time—you will see, and the Lord will not leave you without bread. Among our former village residents there are directors of factories, people with doctoral degrees, and deputies of the Supreme Soviet. They visit the village regularly, look after the graves of their loved ones and help me by donating to the church. And they will support you financially. And you’ll have a house of your own, a pond with fish nearby, a river, an apiary, an ancient mushroom forest, hurtleberries, raspberries and other berries, water meadows... Just pray and prosper. And what will you have in the city? Vanity of vanities... After all, radiation barely affected our village—I have seen a map of radiation pollution in the district center. So radiation bypassed our village, although it is only twelve miles from Chernobyl. I tried to persuade people not to leave, but they did not heed my advice...”
The words of the old priest imprinted themselves in the young man’a soul. He prayed for many days to discern the will of God, travelled to the Kiev-Caves Lavra to ask for the blessing of the saints of the Caves and then revealed his plans to his mother. With tears of joy she blessed her son, taking down the old family icon of the Mother of God from the wall.
“All of us will be filled with joy if you come back here as a priest,” Lydia Fyodorovna said in a voice trembling with tears. “After all, many generations of your paternal-line ancestors—grandfathers and great-grandfathers—rest in our cemetery. And my Ostapenko ancestors have lived here for several centuries in a row—since the time of Catherine II. I learned this from our history teacher, and he found information in the archives about our Zhmiyevka and its outstanding villagers. Your forefather Ivan Timofeyevich Sevruk was a hero of the Patriotic War of 1812, and your great-grandmother Vasilisa Timofeevna ended her life as a schema-nun in Florovsky Convent in Kiev. Perhaps she prayed for you to become a priest...”
Years passed. Vasily Sevruk graduated from the seminary and entered the theological academy, where he completed his studies with honors. And he came back to his native village with a Masters in theology. The joy of his mother was boundless. The old Fr. Andrei was happy for his spiritual child too.
“Brother Vasily, I am preparing for the heavenly journey. Pray for me,” Fr. Andrei said to Vasily quietly. “If your heart does not incline to monastic life, then you should be an archpriest. And you will have an excellent wife. Just pray... But you will not escape the trials of life. Rely on the Lord in everything...”
The elder's words came true. A young lady named Elena graduated from the college of choir directors and became Vasily’s wife. So the young Priest Vasily Sevruk came to the ruling bishop to ask for the letter of referral to his native Zhmiyevka. But in the office of the metropolia a completely unexpected decree with the seal of the ruling hierarch was already waiting for him—for Priest Vasily Sevruk to be a cleric of the cathedral.
“Oh, great appointment. Congratulations, Vasily!” the main secretary of the bishop, Fr. Igor, stretched out his hand in welcome. “Many dream of serving there, but not everyone is sent to the cathedral...”
Dumbfounded, Vasily went to the Metropolitan's reception room. He kindly received the ordained priest, listened to him with interest and said:
“It is very praiseworthy that you wish to serve in your native village. But I need competent priests at the cathedral, I need to work with young people. We have no end of work. And you can always return to the village if needed...”
There was No getting away from it. His young wife Elena was delighted:
“It’s God's Providence! I wanted to remain in the city so much!... After all, I am a linguist with a higher education; I was going to teach at school and become a choir director in the church. I have already found a place... And we will rent an apartment, and later, God willing, will have our own home...”
“How could it be?” Fr. Vasily thought. “What about dear Zhmiyevka, the apiary, and the blessing of the elder?.. After all, everything was coming true—the seminary with the academy, and my beloved Elena...” True, he himself had doubts: “How can someone with a masters in theology serve in a rural church where a dozen people come to the service on Sundays? Maybe it really is the Providence of God?... But recall our great missionaries: St. Herman of Alaska, or St. Nicholas, the enlightener of Japan, or holy Metropolitan Makary (Nevsky)... Or take modern priests traveling to Africa, China, Mongolia and India. What awaits them there? Services in well-established cathedrals? No! Many of them risked their lives. Are you afraid to leave your snug job, Fr. Vasily?..."
And Fr. Vasily again travelled to the saints of the Kiev Caves, and then to the Lavra’s father-confessor for advice. But the elder answered categorically:
“You must obey the Metropolitan. And pray. The Lord Himself will arrange everything.”
And his workdays as a priest at the cathedral began to flow day by day...
Soon Fr. Vasily received sad news: his mother suddenly died. And a year earlier, the old Fr. Andrei had passed away.
Fr. Vasily stood at the grave for a long time, wiping his tears, and saying:
“I will certainly come back here, my dear mother... Forgive me…”
Five years passed. Fr. Vasily was awarded a miter, and now he was the deputy Chairman of the Synodal Department for Work with Youth, the author of brilliant publications and literary works on Orthodox websites, and a welcome guest on radio and television. The housing problem was resolved as well. But the young family had one particular sorrow: They still had no children... Fr. Vasily prayed hard, and together they went to the Pochaev Lavra and to the Holy Land—but in vain.
Finally, there was consolation: Elena became pregnant. There were already a bed, a stroller, and everything needed for a newborn in their house. When Elena was taken to the hospital, Fr. Vasily knelt down in the church, crying out to God and the Mother of God in front of the icon, “Helper in Childbirth”. Pale after a sleepless night, Fr. Vasily rushed to the hospital, but sad news awaited him there: The doctors couldn’t save the baby and it was dead... And Elena was in ICU, with the doctors fighting for her life...
“Lord, I know, I know! I didn’t keep my promise. I didn’t return to Zhmiyevka!” Fr. Vasily was beating his chest in front of the icons. “I didn’t fulfill my mother’s blessing. Forgive me, O Lord!”
“You thinking is wrong, brother!” the Metropolitan, to whom Fr. Basil had turned, tried to comfort him. “This is not a punishment, but just a test. There is nothing to punish you for, father. You have been fulfilling the blessing of the Church hierarchy and not voluntarily sent to serve at the cathedral. And you work conscientiously in the vineyard of the Lord. The main thing is to be afraid of murmuring... I have decided to give you the letter of referral to your native Zhmiyevka for a year. It is some fifty miles from the city, so you will be able to travel back on weekdays if necessary. And then we'll see...”
And he gave Fr. Vasily his blessing.
Fr. Vasily never returned to the city. He managed to repair the old wooden church in Zhmiyevka, in the construction of which his great-grandfather Ilya Fedoseyevich Sevruk had been involved in at the end of the nineteenth century. He organized an Orthodox camp for city children in his native village, started beekeeping and set up a mini-farm of cows and goats. He also opened a home for lonely pensioners and homeless people in the building of a former rural hospital, which had ceased to operate in the late 1980s. Fr. Vasily’s community has really grown and strengthened: many of the city's parishioners regularly come to his village for services, and some have even moved to Zhmiyevka, buying inexpensive unoccupied houses. The bishop has sent Fr. Vasily an assistant—a young priest Fr. Nicholas, a native of this area. Elena now teaches at the district school, conducts a choir of rural old women and visiting singers, and, most importantly— she’s given birth to three sons.