Orthodox America

   "Suffer the Little Children..." An excerpt from the diary of Sergei Nilus, On the Banks of God's River.

Nilus' diary was first published in 1916 by Holy Trinity-Sergius Lavra. When it was later sent for publication abroad, the author supplied names of people who had died, which he had originally noted simply by initials. "Vera" was in fact Seraphima Nikolaevna Vishnevskaya, from Tambov, as indicated in the 1975 edition published by St. Elias Publications, Forestville, CA

June 1, 1909.  Today there left Optina our new acquaintance who, in the brief time she spent at the monastery, became close to us like a sister-closer still, like a sister in Christ.

I shall call her Vera, for her faith is great. [Vera in Russian means "faith"].

 In early January of this year I received a letter from the city of T., in which some womanly Christian soul wrote some warm words encouraging my labors in Christ's vineyard.   The letter bore the woman's full signature, but I didn't recognize the name.

On May 25 my wife and I were at Liturgy. Before the Cherubic Hymn a lady passed by where we were standing; she was modestly dressed and led by the hand a boy of about five.  For some reason she attracted our attention.  At the end of the service, before the royal moleben (it was the birthday of the Empress Alexandra), we saw her again as she went to get a candle.

Now that's a servant of God! I thought to myself.  One of her children from his early years and another still in the womb-both are sanctified by the mother's prayers and holy contemplations.  Smart woman!  May the Lord and the Mother of God bless her!

At that moment she approached the icon of the Mother of God "Quick to Hear",  before which we usually stood in the church of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, and she kneeled down to pray.  By chance I caught sight of her expression, directed at the icon.  And what an expression it was, what faith emanated from it, what love for God, for what is divine, what is holy!...  Oh, if only I could pray like that!  Mother of God, my heart prayed for her, answer her prayers according to her faith!

In leaving the church through the north doors, in front of the icon "Surety of Sinners", we again saw the woman.   She was holding a prosphora.

"Are you not Sergei Aleksandrovich Nilus?" she asked me with a shy smile.

"Yes. With whom have I the honor...?"

It turned out that it was the same woman who wrote to me in January from T.**

This was that Vera with her five-year old son Seryozha, whom we saw off today from Optina.

It's worth focusing one's attention on this God-loving pair, to return love for love, to preserve in our grateful memory their pure image, with its illuminating rays of otherworldly light.

"Today," said Vera, "Seryozha and I will be preparing to receive Holy Communion and Holy Unction tomorrow.   After the unction service, allow us to pay you a visit.  It is such a joy to find people who share the same spirit.  One wants so much to rest from the oppression of the world.  Don't refuse us your hospitality."

And what a joy it was, this new acquaintance.

The day we met Vera in front of the icon of the Mother of God, "Surety of Sinners," my wife and I were walking past the dear graves of Optina's great elders, and we stopped in to venerate them as usual. Entering the chapel over the grave of Elder Ambrose we found Vera and her Seryozha.   The boy stretched his hands in front, palms up, and said, "Batiushka Amvrossy, bless!"

Just then the boy's mother noticed us.

"Seryozha and I have this custom.   After all, Batiushka Amvrossy is alive and is present here invisibly with us.  And one should ask his blessing, as one would of a hieromonk."

I barely restrained my tears...

The next day I stopped by Elder Anatole's cell while he was performing the service of unction. Besides Vera and her son there were about twelve others, slaves of God of various ranks and occupations, who had gathered in Optina from different corners of Russia.  One should have seen with what serious concentration the five-year-old boy approached the Mystery of Holy Unction!

This is how pious mothers begin right from their breast to prepare the souls of their children for the Kingdom of Heaven! Is this not how the pious boyars, Kyrill and Maria, raised the soul of him whom the Lord placed as a lamp for all Russia, a pillar of Orthodoxy, St. Sergius [of Radonezh].

When I am pregnant, Vera told us later, I often partake of the Holy Mysteries and I pray to that Saint whose name I wish to give the child if he is born of that sex.  On the fourth day of Nativity 1905, I lost my firstborn son, Nicholas, who was born on Great Saturday, 1900. When I was still carrying him I prayed to the great wonderworker St. Nicholas, asking him to take my child under his care. When a son was born he was named in honor of the Saint. Seryozha here was born on Nativity, 1903.  I had prayed for him to St. Sergius.  There was a lot about his birth that was unusual, even remarkable. He was born at eight months.  Due to his godfather, the baptism had to be postponed until Theophany. He was churched on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. And there was also something unusual with his name. I had prayed for him to St. Sergius, but when the priest asked what name I wished to give him, I hesitated and replied, "I'll tell you at the baptism."

The reason for this was that that year was the glorification of St. Seraphim, in whom I'd always had great faith.  As a girl I had gone on foot from my village to Sarov, to his grave. And the first time I felt the child in my womb was during the vigil service on the eve of his feast, July 19.

So I didn't know what to do-to call him Sergius, as I'd planned originally, or Seraphim.  I began asking the Lord to reveal to me His will. And on the eve of Theophany, when the baptism was scheduled, I had a dream in which I took my newborn to Trinity-Sergius Lavra. And I concluded from this that it was pleasing to the Lord that my son be given the name Sergius.  This put me at rest, the more so since St. Seraphim had such love for St. Sergius, and was buried with an icon of this great God-pleaser in his coffin."

As I listened to this quietly bubbling stream of living waters of childlike faith, there beat in my heart the words of the Lord's great promise to His Church: The gates of hell shall not prevail against it!

Will not prevail!  truly, they shall not prevail if even in times like ours there are still children such as these to be found in the Church.

Vera continued her inspiring story.

You like my Seryozha.  What would you have thought had you met my Kolya!

Even here on earth he was already a citizen of heaven...  One night I tucked him into bed together with the other children.  It was about eight o'clock.  I heard his voice calling me from the bedroom.

"What is it, child?" I asked.

He was sitting up in his bed and whispered to me ecstatically:

"Mama, mama! just look how many angels are flying about here."

"Good heavens, Kolya," I replied, "where do you see them?"

My heart was pounding, as if driven by a pair of bellows.

"Why, everywhere," he whispered.  "Mama, they're flying around...  Just now they anointed my head.  Touch my head; see, it's anointed!"

I felt his head: the crown was wet, while the rest of the head was dry.   I thought perhaps the boy was delirious, but no, he had no fever; his eyes were calm, shining but not feverish.  He was healthy, happy, smiling... I felt the heads of the other children-they were all dry, and the children were sleeping; they didn't wake.

"How is it, Mama, that you don't see the angels?  There are so many of them.  And, Mama, the Saviour sat on my bed and spoke to me."

Just what the Lord said to the child I don't know.  Either Vera didn't say, or else I can't remember.  It wouldn't have been wise to choke on the torrent of living faith which gushed forth upon us, its miracles which seemed to transgress the boundary between the earthly and the heavenly.

"Kolya even foretold to me his death," continued Vera, glad that she could pour forth her heart to people willing to listen.  "He died on the fourth day of Christ's Nativity, having told me about it in September.  One day he came up to me and said, out of the blue:

"Mama, soon I'm going to leave you."

"Where will you go, my child?" I asked.

"To God."

"How will this be? Who told you about this?"

"I'm going to die, Mama!" he said, embracing me.  "But please don't you cry.  I'm going to be with the angels, and I will be very happy there."

My heart fell, but I calmed myself at once. After all, could one attach such significance to the words of a child?  Of course not.  Some time went by and again Kolya interrupted his play to come up to me and tell me not to cry when he dies...

"Mama, it's going to be so nice there, so nice, dear Mama!" he repeated insistently, comforting me. But however much I asked him where he got such an idea, who told him about this, he wouldn't give an answer; he deliberately evaded the question.

Perhaps this is what the Saviour told the boy, as the angels were flying around his bed?

He was such an amazing child, continued Vera.  Judge for yourself by the following story.

There worked in our house an elderly carpenter, and one day he accidently sliced his finger with an ax. The man ran to the kitchen. I was there at the time and he showed me his finger, which was streaming with blood. Kolya was also in the kitchen.  On seeing the carpenter's finger he shrieked and took off running to the dining room where we have an icon of the Holy Trinity.  Falling to his knees before the icon and choking through his tears, he began praying:

"Most Holy Trinity, heal the carpenter's finger!"

At that moment I came into the dining room with the carpenter.  Kolya  was so concentrated in his prayer that he didn't even notice us, and he continued tearfully:

"Most Holy Trinity, heal the carpenter's finger!"

I went after some medicine and a bandage; the carpenter remained in the dining room.  By the time I came back Kolya had managed to climb up to the vigil lamp for some oil and was anointing the finger of the carpenter, who stood trustfully holding out his wounded hand and weeping with emotion:

"What a child, what a child!"

Thinking he was crying from pain, I said to him, "What are you crying for, old man?  You were in the war and you didn't cry, and now...!"

"Your son," he said, " could make a man hard as nails to cry!"

And what do you suppose?    The blood stanched immediately and the wound healed without any medicine, just a bandage.  That was my beloved Kolya, a dear, extraordinary little boy.

Before Nativity my stepfather and the boy's godfather asked if the boy could visit with him in his village.  Kolya was his favorite. The trip proved fatal.  There, Kolya fell ill with scarlet fever and died.  

Since I learned about my son's illness only through a courier-there were strikes everywhere at the time and I didn't get the telegram-I arrived barely twenty-four hours before he died.  When my husband and I reached my stepfather's, we found Kolya still quite energetic; it appeared as if the scarlatina had run its course, and it didn't occur to any of us that the boy's final hours were numbered.  We asked that a moleben be served for his recovery. During the service Kolya himself prayed earnestly and kept asking to be given icons that he might kiss them. After the moleben he felt so well that, in spite of my request, the priest decided not to give him Holy

Communion, saying that he was well and there was no need to commune him.

We all cheered up, and after a bite to eat went off to rest.  I sat at Kolya's bedside, far from any thoughts that his last minutes were approaching. Suddenly he said to me:

"Mama, when I die, you will carry me around the church."

"God be with you, my child," I said.  "We're still going to be alive and together for some time, God willing."

"And godfather will soon follow after me," continued Kolya, paying no attention to my objection.

He was silent for a moment and then said, "Mama, forgive me."

"What is there to forgive?" I asked.

"For everything, forgive me for everything, Mama!"

"God will forgive you, Kolya," I replied.  "You forgive me; I've been stern with you at times."

I had no idea this was my final farewell with my dying child.

"No," protested Kolya, "I have no reason to forgive you anything. I can only thank you, my dearest Mama."

For some reason I was overcome by a feeling of dread. I awoke my husband.

"Get up," I said.  "I think Kolya is dying."

"What?!  he's better; he's sleeping."

Kolya was lying with his eyes closed.   On hearing my husband he opened his eyes and with a joyful smile he said, "No, I'm not sleeping; I'm dying. Pray for me!"   He crossed himself and began praying himself: "Most Holy Trinity, save me!  St. Nicholas, St. Sergius, St. Seraphim, pray for me!  Make the sign of the cross over me!  Anoint me with oil.  Pray for me, everybody!"

And with these words my dear boy's life on earth came to an end.  His face lit up with a smile, and he died.

For the first time in my life my heart rebelled. So profound was my grief that there at his bedside and later at his grave I refused to believe that the Lord had taken from me my treasure. I asked, I insisted, I almost demanded that He, for Whom everything is possible, would restore my child to life; I couldn't reconcile myself to the thought that the Lord might not desire to answer my prayer.  On the eve of the funeral, seeing that the body of my child continued, in spite of all my entreaties, to be without breath, I all but fell into despair.  Suddenly, at the head of the coffin where I was standing burdened by my thoughts, I was drawn to take the Gospel and read the first passage I opened up to. It was the sixteenth verse of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. In it

I read: ...Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God.

For me these words were an answer to my grief from the Saviour Himself. Instantly they softened my heart, and I submitted to God's will.

At Kolya's funeral, his words were fulfilled. Deep drifts of snow had swept against the church, and in order to get the coffin onto the porch it had to be carried around the whole church.  This was for me a sign, and a source of joy.  But when they buried my little one in the frozen ground, and a harsh winter covering lay on his grave, my heart was again gripped by anguish, and again I began entreating the Lord for my son.  I knew no peace.  Day and night I begged God to give me back my consolation and my joy.  I was preparing to receive the Holy Mysteries on Kolya's fortieth day. In my grief I reached such a state that I had begun demanding God for a miracle-to resurrect my son.  And...  on the fortieth day I saw my Kolya in a dream, as if alive.   He came up to me, happy and bright faced, illumined by some kind of radiance, and he said to me three times:

"Mama, you mustn't!  You mustn't!  Mama, don't!"

"What mustn't I?" I cried out in despair.

"Don't ask that, you shouldn't ask that, Mama!" "Why not?"

"Ah, Mama," Kolya replied, "you wouldn't even think of asking such a thing if you only knew how splendid it is for me there with God.  It's better there, it's infinitely better there, dear Mama!"

I woke up, and with this dream all my grief vanished.

Three months went by and Kolya's second word came to pass: his godfather followed him into God's heavenly mansions.

The slave of God Vera told me of many wondrous occurrences in her life, but one cannot communicate everything, even to one's notes: there are still people living who could be upset by my words. No one has yet repented of silence: it's better to be silent this time!...

Translated from Na Beregu Bozhyei Reki, St. Elias Publications, Forestville, CA, 1975.