|Sergei Feodorovich Bondarchuk. Photo provided by his family.|
A doctor and a priest are often present at the final moments of a Christian's earthly life. However, the priest is the only witness to his final confession. Here the important thing is not what he repents of, for people's sins are, as a rule, all the same. The priest becomes an eyewitness, to some extent even a participant, in the amazing events revealing the mystery of God's Providence for man.
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An ancient tradition has brought us these words of Christ: "I will judge you as you are when I find you." A belief has long been held among Christian folk that if a person is vouchsafed to receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ just before he dies, his soul will rise unhindered to God, escaping the trials that come after death.
I have at times wondered why some people (and there are many examples) could go through their whole lives attending church, even be monks, priests, and bishops, but nevertheless, circumstances before their death dictate that they die without Communion. Meanwhile, there are others who never went to church, lived like the so-called unbelievers, but during their final days showed not simply very deep faith and repentance, but against all odds were made worthy by the Lord to receive His Body and Blood.
Once I posed this question to Fr. Raphael. He only sighed and said: "Yes, to receive Communion before death!... One can only dream about it! I think that if a person lived all his life outside the Church, yet at the last moment repented, and even received Communion, then the Lord must have granted this to him for a certain secret virtue. Charity, for example."
Fr. Raphael thought a bit and then corrected himself. "Although, what are we talking about? What human being can know the ways of God's Providence? Remember what the Prophet Isaiah said: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways." We at times so harshly judge people who are not Church-going! In fact, we just don’t know anything!
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In the autumn of 1994, my old friend from the film institute, Dimitry Talankin, rushed to find me at Sretensky Monastery. I had not seen him for many years. Dima was bearing sad news: a professor of our institute, the great actor and director Sergei Feodorovich Bondarchuk, was on his deathbed. Dimitry had searched me out so that I could confess and commune the dying actor, who was a friend of Dima's family.
I had not seen Sergei Feodorovich since my student years, but I knew that his final years had been darkened by detestable harassment. This remarkable artist's own colleagues in the cinematography department had set him up for this. Sergei Feodorovich manfully withstood it all. Besides his multifaceted talents, Bondarchuk also possessed a very strong, courageous character. But his health had been irreparably shaken.
As for Sergei Feodorovich's spiritual life—he had been baptized as a boy, but was raised and lived in an atheistic environment. I had heard that he had come to know God in his later years. His religious teachings, however, were derived not from the Church, but from the religious works of Lev Nicholaevich Tolstoy, whose artistic genius Sergei Feodorovich had always worshipped. As is well known, Tolstoy in the late nineteenth century had offered the world his own personally conceived religion. Several generations of Russian intellectuals had succumbed to the temptation of Tolstoyism. For some of them, their relationship to their idol would become a form of religious veneration.
Dima Talankin told me that during the last few weeks, to Sergei Feodorovich's physical sufferings were added very strange and onerous spiritual sufferings. Appearing to him as if alive were likenesses of people long dead—famous actors and colleagues whom he had known. Now they were appearing in the most horrific and frightening visages, tormenting him and depriving him of all peace both day and night. The doctors tried to help him, but to no avail. Worn out by these nightmares, Sergei Feodorovich sought recourse in that religion of his. But the strange visitors intruding upon his consciousness only intensified their mockery and torment.
|Sergei Feodorovich Bondarchuk with his wife and children. Photo provided by his family.|
Sergei Feodorovich lay in a large room with the windows completely shaded. His illness had changed him greatly. Opposite his bed, directly before the sufferer's gaze, hung a large, masterfully executed portrait of Tolstoy.
After greeting Sergei Feodorovich, I seated myself by his bed. At first, I could not help but tell him how thankfully we, the students of the film institute, recall the meetings we had with him during our university days. Sergei Feodorovich squeezed my hand in thanks. This gave me courage, and I proceeded to express the main reason for my visit.
I told him that I was here to remind him about the priceless knowledge that the Church preserves and passes on from generation to generation. The Church of Christ not only believes, but knows that physical death is by no means the end of our existence, but rather the beginning of the new life for which man is predestined. I told him that this new life is opened to people by the incarnate God—our Lord Jesus Christ. I told him also about the beautiful, wonderful world, the endless goodness and light into which the Savior leads everyone who wholeheartedly believes in Him, and how one must prepare himself for this great event—death, the passage into a new life.
As for the frightening visions so cruelly beleaguering the sick man, I told him without beating around the bush about the Church's teaching concerning the fallen spirits' influence upon us. Modern man has great difficulty accepting this tough theme, but Sergei Feodorovich had experienced firsthand the reality of the presence in our world of these merciless spiritual beings, and therefore he listened attentively.
At the threshold of death, when a person approaches the boundary between our world and the next, what was until then an impenetrable spiritual veil between the two worlds becomes more subtle. Unexpectedly, a person may begin to see what is for him a new reality. But the greatest shock occurs when this unfolding new reality is extraordinarily aggressive and truly horrific. People who are far from the life of the Church do not understand that because of their unconfessed sins and passions, they are found vulnerable to the effects of spiritual beings, which in Orthodoxy are called demons. They horrify the dying person, in ways that include assuming the image of someone the person knows. Their aim is to bring the dying person to a state of fear, confusion, horror, and extreme despair, so that the soul would pass over to the other world despairing of its own salvation, with no faith or trust in God.
Sergei Feodorovich was visibly moved as he listened. It was clear that he had already understood and recognized much of this on his own. When I had finished, he said that with all his heart, he wanted to confess and receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
Before I could remain alone with him, there were two important things I had to do. The first was not complicated. Alyona and I opened the heavy curtains on the windows. The light of the sun immediately filled the room. Then I asked Sergei Feodorovich’s family to go to the next room for a minute, and there I explained to them as well as I could that a family’s inconsolable grief and despair only increase the dying man’s emotional pain. Of course our loved ones’ passing over to the next life is a sad event; but it is by no means a reason for despair. Death is not only our grief over the person leaving us. It is also a great solemnity for a Christian—passage into eternal life! We must help him in any way we can to prepare for this most important event. We certainly should not stand before him depressed and despairing. I asked Irina Konstantinovna and Alyona to prepare a festive table, and Fedya to find the best drinks in the house.
When I returned to Sergei Feodorovich, I told him that we would now prepare for confession and Communion.
“But I don’t know how to do it,” said Bondarchuk trustingly.
“I will help you. Only, do you believe in our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ?”
“Yes, yes! I believe in Him!” Sergei Feodorovich said fervently.
Then he suddenly remembered something, faltering as he turned to look at the portrait of Tolstoy hanging on the wall in front of him.
“Sergei Feodorovich!” I said warmly, “Tolstoy was a great and remarkable writer! But he can never protect you from those terrible apparitions. Only the Lord can guard you from them!”
Sergei Feodorovich nodded. We had to prepare for the Sacrament, but on the wall before his eyes hung as usual, like an icon, the portrait of his genius. The only place in the room where I could place the Holy Gifts in preparation for Communion was on the dresser, under the writer’s face. But that was unthinkable! After all, when he was alive, Tolstoy not only renounced his belief in the Sacraments of the Church—for many years he consciously and harshly mocked them. The writer blasphemed the Sacrament of Communion with particular ingenuity. Sergei Feodorovich understood no less than I did that it would be blasphemous in every respect to receive Communion before the portrait of Tolstoy. With his permission, I removed the portrait to the living room. This was the second thing that needed to be done.
In the Bondarchuk’s home was an aged icon of the Savior with a tarnished silver overlay. Fedya and I placed it where his father could see it, and Sergei Feodorovich, having finally left behind all that was old and temporal, did what the Lord had led him to do throughout the years and decades. He made a very deep, courageous and sincere confession before God of his whole life. Then his family came into the room, and Sergei Feodorovich, for the first time since his distant childhood, received the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
All were amazed at the depth of feeling with which he did this. Even the expression of pain and suffering that never left his face had now disappeared.
We set the table near his bed. Fedya poured everyone a small amount of excellent wine and his father’s favorite aged cognac. We then had a real, untroubled and joyous feast, congratulating Sergei Feodorovich with his first Communion, and seeing him off upon the “path of all the earth,” which he would soon have to take.
In parting, Sergei Feodorovich and I were again left alone. On a piece of paper I wrote for him the text of the simplest prayer—the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sergei Feodorovich did not know any prayers, and of course, he would not have been able to learn anything more complicated than that. There was no need, anyway! Then I took my monastic prayer rope from my wrist and taught Sergei Feodorovich how to pray with it.
We said good-bye.
Several days passed. Alyona Bondarchuk called me. She told me how everything had strikingly changed for her father. He was no longer troubled by terrifying apparitions. He had become calm, but had manifestly detached from the world. Alyona said that she often saw her father lying there and gazing for a long time at the icon of the Savior; or, eyes closed, fingering the knots of his prayer rope, whispering a prayer. Sometimes he would press the cross of the prayer rope to his lips, and hold it there for a long time. This would mean that his physical pain had become unbearable.
A week passed. On October 24, at the invitation of the head of the neurosurgical department of the Moscow regional hospital, I had been blessing the operation and recovery rooms since morning. Dima Talankin and Fedya Bondarchuk found me there. As it happened, Sergei Feodorovich had been taken to the Central Clinical Hospital, and the doctors had announced that he could die any day. I had the Holy Gifts with me for communing the sick, and we went straightway to the CCH.
Sergei Feodorovich was suffering unbearably. When I came up to him, he opened his eyes slightly, letting me know that he recognized me. In his hand was the prayer rope. I asked him if he would like to receive Communion. Sergei Feodorovich gave a barely discernable nod. He could no longer speak. I read the prayer of absolution over him and gave him Communion. Then, at his bed, on our knees, his whole family and I read the canon for the departure of the soul.
The Church has one particular prayer rule called, “When a person suffers extensively.” This prayer is read when the soul of a dying person cannot part from the body for a long, torturous time, and he wants to die, but cannot.
Seeing the dying man’s state, I read this prayer at the head of his bed. In it, the Church gives her son into the hands of God and asks for his absolution from suffering and temporal life. I made the sign of the cross over Sergei Feodorovich and said farewell. Dima Talankin and I departed the hospital room, leaving the family with their dying father.
As grievous as it is to see a man’s death agony, life goes on. Dima and I had not had a bite to eat since early morning, and so we decided to head for Mosfilmovsky Street, to the Talakin home for lunch.
At the door, we were met by Dimitry’s tearful parents, Igor Vasilievich and Lilia Mikhailovna. Alyona had just called them to inform them that Sergei Feodorovich was no more.
We served a Pannikhida right then and there, in the apartment.
This story of the Christian end of a remarkable man and great artist, Sergei Feodorovich Bondarchuk, could have ended here, had it not been for one quite uncanny occurrence, which Dimitry’s parents related to us at that very time.
Now, as I am finishing my story, I have to think long and hard—should I recall this event? To be honest, I do not know how people will receive what Dima’s parents told us then, even if they are in the Church. Won’t they say that it is some kind of incomprehensible, far-fetched figment of the imagination? Or simply a strange coincidence, to say the least… But this story remains, after all, no more than the cherished tradition of the Talankins, which they have given me permission to write down.
There are sometimes such strange but absolutely real events in peoples’ lives, which to the bystander appear to be coincidental, or even ridiculous. But to those who underwent these occurrences, and even more so more to those for whom they happened, they remain forever an authentic revelation that changed their entire lives, and their previous understanding of the world around them. We will return to such, as we might call them, personal revelations, directed at a specific person, at his soul, and his life circumstances.
Therefore, I will leave that day of the chronicle unedited. And I will relate this story by two perfectly sensible people—a well known and nationally acclaimed Soviet producer, Igor Vasilievich Talankin, and his wife, Professor Lilia Mikhailovna Talankina—exactly as they told it to Dimitry and me.
Thus, when we finished the first Pannikhida for Sergei Feodorovich, Dima’s parents began confusedly telling us that just a few minutes before Alyona called them with the news of Sergei Feodorovich’s death, something highly incomprehensible and strange had happened to them.
They did not yet know about the death of their friend, and were in their room. Suddenly, they heard from outside the window the loud cawing of a large flock of ravens, which grew louder and louder until it was deafening. It seemed as though an innumerable raven horde was flying over their house.
The surprised couple went out onto the balcony. Before their eyes was a scene unlike anything they had ever beheld. The sky was literally eclipsed by a black cloud of birds. Their repugnant, penetrating cawing was unbearable. The balcony directly faced the wooded park and hospital where, as they knew, their friend lay dying. The enormous flock was hurling forth precisely from there. This all unexpectedly brought a thought to Igor Vasilievich’s mind, which he suddenly uttered to his wife with absolute conviction:
“Sergei has just died… Those are demons, flying away from his soul!”
He said it, and was surprised at himself for saying it.
The gigantic flock finally passed over them and hid amongst the clouds above Moscow. A few minutes later, Alyona called them…
Everything that had happened that day—the death of Sergei Feodorovich, and the unusual appearance of the flock of birds right at the moment of his death—Igor Vasilievich and Lilia Mikhailovna regarded as a message to them from their deceased friend. Neither their friends, nor Dima and I, nor even their own skepticism could convince them otherwise. And as far as I remember, the Talankin couple never again talked about any other occurrences that could be suspected of being similarly mystical. I was eventually able to baptize them, and they gradually became Christians with deep, sincere faith.