We present to the readers of OrthoChristian memories of the remarkable Russian writer Nina Pavlova (now reposed, unfortunately) dedicated to Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) and Optina Monastery. In the Orthodox world, Nina is known first of all as the author of the book Red Pascha, dedicated to the three murdered Optina monks. But not many know that she ended up in Optina precisely with the blessing of Fr. John, who greatly contributed to her spiritual maturation, especially in the period when she was taking her first steps into Church life.
Let me return again to that fall when Archimandrite John would spend a long time talking with people.
“Batiushka, we’ve been in line for housing half of our lives,” an elderly woman complains, “but there are still seven of us living in one room. It’s so crowded that the grandchildren sleep on one bed head to feet, supporting each other’s chins with their feet.
After the old woman, a man complains nearly screaming, telling about how for ten years he worked in a hot shop for the sake of an apartment that the factory promised him, but after perestroika, the plant told me I’d have to wait a long time. And what should I do now?
“Had you prayed to St. Spyridon of Tremithus,” Batiushka says, “you would’ve recieved housing a long time ago.”
I wrote down the name of St. Spyridon just in case, although I wasn’t planning to pray to him. I didn’t have any problems with housing. Or rather, I did, but after our family waited in line for a quarter of a century for a two-room apartment and in the end received a one-room apartment, we no longer expected anything from the authorities. Okay, so they didn’t remove us from the list, promising to give us our due, but judging by the timing, it would be posthumous. So now our family has other plans—we’re going to buy a house near the monastery in Pechory—thankfully we have enough money. There’s no problem if you have the money. But the strange thing is that I later bought a house near Optina in a nearly penniless state, but here even with the money it simply didn’t work out no matter what. Also, every time I would go to a house sale, I would get a pain in my feet like needles were being stuck in my heels. I would barely hobble along, and the house would already be sold or they’d change their minds about selling it. I suffered six months looking for a house, and then I asked Archimandrite John:
“Batiushka, why can’t I seem to buy a house in Pechory?”
“Because your place isn’t here, but in Optina.”
Forgive my ignorance, Lord, but I’d never heard of Optina at that time. The only thing I took from the Elder’s words was that they wanted to kick me out of my beloved Pechory. I took this offense to my spiritual father Archimandrite Adrian, but he also blessed me to go to Optina. I went. I didn’t like it—the ruins of churches and mountains of garbage all around. They’d just started restoring the monastery. And the abomination of desolation in this holy place was so striking that I immediately went to see Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov) to complain about the Elders who were evicting me to who knows where.
Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov) I remember how Fr. Kirill smiled, listening to my lamentations, and then said, blessing me to move:
“Blessed Optina, holy land.”
How grateful I am now to the Lord Who settled me in this holy land, but how difficult the road here was!
“We’re the Lord’s severe surgery patients,” one nun later said to me. “Everyone has their own pride and their own crown on their head. And the Lord pities us, irrational as we are, and heals us with surgery.”
In a word, my move to Optina was preceded by that “surgery,” when everything that my soul used to be vainglorious about was excised. My savings were eaten up by inflation. And the things that seemed important before: literary success, publications, life in a circle of celebrities—it all became unnecessary and even distasteful when my son got seriously ill and it seemed my mother was dying… There was a heavy smell of medicine in the apartment. The Moscow highway roared under the window, and sometimes we couldn’t breathe in the bluish fog of exhaust fumes. How we dreamed of the village then, and a gulp, at least a gulp, of fresh air! But while I was being picky, not wanting to move to Optina, the prices of the houses there, which used to cost less than firewood, increased so much that I couldn’t afford it anymore.
And that’s how what Batiushka John had warned about in advance came to pass. There was such a cloudy black sky above my head and such desperate hopelessness that I no longer even pleaded, but cried out to St. Spyridon, imploring his help. Help came immediately, and I just kept telling myself: This kind of thing doesn’t happen. But it did. And we soon bought a home near Optina, where my family began to revive and come to life again. I remember how my son, who was in the hospital for four months, first went hesitantly out into the garden, and then ran to jump in the river. And then, just as in the old days, I had a swimming race with him. And my mama is her old self again. She carries radishes in from the garden and rejoices at the carrots springing up.
There are many especially beloved saints of God. But St. Spyridon was the first saint through whom the abyss of God’s mercy was revealed in my life, when you experientially learn that the Lord doesn’t give tests above our strength, but everything is for our good and according to His providence. And I came to love St. Spyridon so much that I read the troparion to him every day:
Thou wast a champion of the First Council and a wonderworker, O Godbearing Father Spyridon. Thou didst speak to one dead in the grave, and change a serpent to gold; and while thou wast chanting the holy prayers the Angels were serving with thee. Glory to Him Who has glorified thee; glory to Him Who has crowned thee; glory to Him Who through thee works healings for all.
I remember how the Voropaev family, including their children, came to Optina for the whole summer, but they couldn’t seem to find housing. They came to me all sad, saying no one would take them into their apartment with their children and that they’d have to leave.
“Come on, let’s read the troparion to St. Spyridon,” I suggested.
I started reading it, and the children looked at me with confusion, not understanding the words of the troparion.
St. Spyridon So I had to tell them about St. Spyridon, because the troparion is a condensed version of his life. There’s a story behind every line, and the children especially liked how he “change[d] a serpent to gold.” It was during a terrible famine. A poor man came to St. Spyridon weeping, telling him how he had asked a rich man to borrow some bread for his starving family, but he refused to give him anything without payment. At that moment, a snake was slithering through the garden, and the saint touched it with his staff, imperceptibly turning it into a gold bullion for the poor man. He gave the gold to the starving man, telling him to buy it back from the rich man when there would be a good harvest. Then the famine passed and there was such an abundant harvest that the farmer paid the rich man back with interest for the bread he’d borrowed, and having redeemed the gold, returned it to St. Spyridon. The saint took the gold out to the garden; by his prayers the bullion turned back into a snake, and it immediately slithered out of the garden. All of this happened right before the farmer’s eyes, so he could be assured and thank the Lord, Who always cares for us…
St. Spyridon was always venerated in Rus’ as the patron of the poor, the homeless, and the suffering. Churches were built and streets were named in his honor, including the famous Spiridonovka Street in Moscow. And in those difficult years, when the ruined Optina was being restored and everything all around also lay in ruins, they read the akathist to St. Spyridon every day…
I told the children how wonderfully St. Spyridon helps, and then we read his troparion and akathist with great enthusiasm. We had just finished reading it when a neighbor called out to me from the street:
“I want to rent my garden house to a family for the summer. Do you know anyone?”
“Yes! Yes!” all of the Voropaevs shouted at once.
Since then, they’ve spent every summer there, in “their” little house.
I read the troparion to St. Spyridon every day for exactly a year. I didn’t ask for anything, but only thanked him with all my heart. And after a year, I got a telegram telling me that I had to immediately leave for Moscow to receive a two-room apartment.
I arrived, and the housing inspector looked at me with a fire-breathing gaze, saying, choking with rage:
“I know all the insiders by heart, but I’ve never seen such inside connections like you have!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. What connections? With whom? Gradually it became clear—no one was planning to give me anything. On the contrary, the authorities ordered to give the apartment to some needy people. The matter was already settled when suddenly the apartment was given to me based on my place on the list. A scandal broke out: Why was it given to me? And then the inspector lamented to me:
“No, it’s not my fault. I fought against you like a lion! I wracked my brain trying to figure out your connections. I know basically everyone—but in this case, no one! Well, whatever, the apartment is yours, but tell me your secret—who’s got your back?”
“St. Spyridon,” I said.
“Come again?”—the inspector didn’t understand.
But I didn’t elaborate further. Incidentally, we didn’t own that apartment very long. My elderly mother was getting weaker over the years, and it was a long walk to the monastery. So we exchanged our prestigious apartment in the center for a much cheaper apartment in a green residential area so we could buy a new home near the monastery.
It’s wonderful and always beautiful here. At Christmas, the snow sparkles under the stars, and in spring everything is white from the blossoming apple trees. The air shimmers with the ringing of the bells, and the whole family goes to church. Mama crosses herself several times when she sees the Optina domes, and my son outpaces us and runs ahead. How long have I been living here, and I still marvel: Why was I shown such mercy? And more and more I think about old Batiushka John (Krestiankin), who admonished us foolish ones: “The providence of God governs the world and the fate of every one of us.” Everything’s like that. But I came to believe this only once I hit Optina.