Among others who struck my neophyte imagination was another Nikolushka, who came to see Fr. Konstantin at Our Lady of Kazan Church in a village in Tver Region, which we frequently visited. Our children were most enthusiastic about going there. Barely able to wait for the school break to begin, they would come together in a the large house in which the priest lived, where a massive table loaded with meter-long berry pies (the berries were jointly gathered in nearby forests), freshly baked in a huge Russian stove, was set up for them. Batiushka would share with them thrilling stories of miracles with all sorts of surprising narratives. Where else could you find a swing that swung as high as a two-story house (Fr. Konstantin couldn’t imagine having anything less!), so that the joyous cries of the swingers resounded all over the neighborhood? “Batiushka! Batiushka! What on earth is this, oh, my!” – wailed the elderly ladies, “victims” of his inventions, whom he also used to send off to outer space. Where else could you play hide-and-seek for five hours straight, where everyone would untiringly catch one another? Not only the kids but also the adults (including batiushka himself!) enjoyed the game, it was always so much fun. Or how about walking on stilts? Or adventures in the woods? Or boating? All the children who used to come to see batiushka during those years have scattered, each to his way—some took vows at a monastery, others taught at theological schools, became writers or sang in church choirs, while others became parents with many children serving as parish priests and taking in pilgrims with grateful remembrance of the love they experienced in childhood.
So, that Nikolushka I wanted to tell you about was more than eighty years old but he still led the life of a wanderer. Almost completely blind and infirm, he was a treasure trove of love! He could recognize people by the way they walked and was happy to see anyone.
Once I woke up at night and saw Nikolushka sitting on a bench, abundant tears quietly streaming from his blind eyes.
“Nikolushka, why are you weeping?” I asked
“Why wouldn’t I weep? I am going to received Communion tomorrow.”
Then there was Liubushka, Fr. Konstantin’s charge—a slim, tall woman of regal bearing, around fifty years old, who was always seen wearing the same black pressed-velvet dress. No one knew who she was or where she came from. It looked as if she had been a part of this parish forever. Batiushka would play a game with her by creeping over and calling her by name loudly from behind her back, while she was supposed to pretend to be scared and to laugh back, saying:
“By golly, batiushka!”
She had the most peculiar eating habits! She would start by pouring soup on her plate, adding salad, then pasta and veggies, and then plopping some dessert and topping it with a drink, such as compote—and then she’d proceed to eat it with her hands. She also preferred to shake hands with everyone. However, before stretching her aristocratic-looking hand out to greet you, she would inspect it closely to announce:
Not only her hands were clean. The women who shared a small hut with her not far from the church and helped her with bathing once a year before Pascha confirmed that she had no body odor. She used to sit at a church porch, collecting alms before service and putting the donated change in tiny pouches. Before her death, she left instructions to give all of her savings to batiushka. She died peacefully, as if she simply fell asleep. Batiushka carried her coffin on his shoulders to the churchyard. On a sunny day, the cross at her grave shone like gold…
It is such a pity that fleeting, blessed time is long gone—the time when daily miracles happened every minute of our lives, when we saw the world with the innocent eyes of a child, free of sarcasm and doubt or nerve-wracking attempts to find the meaning of life that I had become so accustomed to by then. It was as if the Lord highlighted for me the hidden pages of a wonderful book that could only be perceived with a trusting heart, so that I would cherish the memories of it for the rest of I life, even if I were unlikely to ever return there. I was thinking at the time, responding with all my heart to the Divine love that was revealed inadvertently before my eyes: Even if all mankind agreed that God didn’t exist, I’d bear witness about Him all alone. I’d do it because the Lord vouchsafed me to feel His love so undeservedly, as if He rolled back the stone from the tomb of my soul, condemned to gradual corruption without Him, and told me simply: “Go and sin no more.”
I immediately returned to childhood (could I ever imagine that the idle wish many have of returning to childhood isn’t an illusion but the reality?) and I could once again observe the trees, the grass, and the skies with my transformed vision, as only a child can see them—so real and magnificent. I remember how all of us (that is, my father, mother, grandma, my brother, and I) were having supper at our kitchen table eating fried potatoes with pickles and talking about some simple and precious things, when my dad suddenly looked at me and said, “You are going to remember this moment forever.” He was right, because throughout my life I have preserved the memory of that evening, the love I was immersed in and the childish joy of observing every drop of rain, the rustling of leaves in the trees, warm soil parted by the shoot of a budding flower, or that very first, barely pink strawberry (which I saved for my Grandma who was gone for a few days).
How upset I was when this feeling of joy gradually disappeared over the years, returning less and less frequently in my heart! When we moved to Moscow, I enjoyed taking short trips away from home. As soon as I would find myself standing again on the railway platform after a month-long absence, that feeling of joy would inevitably return as strong, distinctive, and transfigured as it was in childhood. Later on, even those short-lived moments of joy ceased as well. No matter how often I traveled, they never returned. But no, there were fleeting moments, scarcely noticeable, when my heart would flicker with joy. At first, I thought this feeling of unexpected joy was unrelated to anything in particular and only later did I realize that it would happen when I walked by a church…
There it was, and so I found myself falling asleep and waking up again in a “child’s world.” I felt at ease with life as before and even my childish love for ice cream returned when I already thought I had stopped liking it for good. This “childhood” lasted for as long as two years. Nina Pavlova, the author of Red Pascha,1 called this period, “Orthodox childhood”. It is not an allegory—it is a genuine, joyful and exciting time in the lives of neophytes. I also found out that the theologians call this joy “inspiring grace”—the Lord bestows it on people at times to draw them to Him. Why doesn’t it happen all the time, and last forever? I wish I knew. However, an answer was given to this question once: He is the Lord. He will do what seems good to Him (1 Kings 3:18).
To be continued…