Another chapter from Otets Arsenij [Father Arseny], a samizdat manuscript now in published form, Moscow 1994, 2nd ed. Translated for Orthodox America by A.)
This account is based on the recollections of Fr. Arseny as he related them to his spiritual children and likewise to me.
My meetings with Avseonkov, Sazikov and Alexey the student, after our release from the concentration camp, likewise serve as a Source for this reconstruction of all that transpired, since these persons were present when Fr. Arseny physically died in the barracks, and they were also eye-witnesses of his return to life.
After writing all this, I felt it necessary to show the manuscript to Fr. Arseny. He read it, fell silent for a long time, and when I asked, "Isn't that what happened?" he replied:
“A great mercy was shown to me by the Lord and the Mother of God, revealing to me the greatest and most secret thing of all----a human soul filled with Faith, Love and Goodness. They showed me that faith never judges and that a multitude of people bear it within themselves, some in a fiery form, others with fear, others just a spark; a pastor is indispensable in order for this little spark to be fanned into an inextinguishable flame of faith. The Lord revealed that people who bear faith within themselves, and especially the pastors of human souls, must help and fight for every person with all their strength down to their last breath. The foundation for this struggle is love, goodness and help to one's fellow man, which is offer - not for one's self but for the sake of one's brother. With respect to an individual person, people make their judgments about faith and Christ, for it is said: 'By your deeds you will be justified and by your deeds you will be condemned.' And it is also said: Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
"What happened to me was one of the greatest lessons, an instruction that put me in my place. After spending many years in the concentration camps arid being preserved by the mercy of God, I thought that through faith I was strong; but when I died, the Lord and the Mother of God showed me that I am unworthy even to touch the clothing of many persons who were imprisoned with me, that I must learn and he instructed by them. The Lord humbled me, put me in the place that I was supposed to occupy, showed me my great imperfection and gave me time to correct my errors and transgressions. But have I corrected them? Lord, help me!"
After saying this, Fr. Arseny took the manuscript and after a few days he
returned it to me. When I reread it, I discovered that he had made a number of
corrections and had supplemented certain sections. This is the text which is now
set before you in this book. When Fr. Arseny gave the manuscript back to me, he
told me, "While I am still alive, do not show this to anyone. When I die,
then people can read it."
The hot, exhausting summer and the constant buzzing of insects was replaced by a damp, rainy and cold autumn. The earth was seized at times by frost, then by streams of thawed mud. It was damp and cold in the barrack and for this reason it was particularly trying. For weeks on end the inmates' clothing never dried, and their wet feet were constantly irritated and in pain. A severe epidemic of camp influenza broke out.
Each day from three to five persons died in the barrack. Fr. Arseny's turn came. He collapsed in his bunk. His temperature was over 40 ; chills, cough, phlegm; his heart began to fail.
When there were "special" mass epidemics, the sick were not taken to the camp infirmary. If a leg or arm had been cut off or broken or a head injured, then they admitted the injured person to the infirmary for treatment, but with any form of influenza: stay in the barrack and get well on your own. In the camp, the "law" was that if you are on your feet, you work; if you collapse, prove that you are not faking. If you manage to prove this, you will be given medical treatment - if the authorities give their approval.
In the camp there is a set work program for every inmate; when extra work is done surpassing the established norm, the authorities receive the reward. The inmates do not see this, but there is a financial control exercised over them. The authorities must maintain the camp regime, so there is no time for "creature comforts."
When an inmate is sick, with a high temperature, you have to get permission from the guard instructor to go to the infirmary. There they take your temperature. If it is 39o C, go to work; if you argue, they put you in solitary confinement and the guard will beat you in the face for being impertinent. When you fall unconscious in the barrack, the trusty in the barrack calls the paramedic; he takes your temperature and leaves some medicine. Just lie there and make the best of it, but be on your toes as soon as your temperature falls to 38 C.
In general, the rule is that if you can walk, it's better to go to work and not get involved with the camp doctors. The doctors in the "special" zones are hired from outside. They know their job well and scream, "Faker! March off to work. I'll put you in solitary!" There were a lot of doctors among the inmates in the camp, but they were not permitted to work at their profession; they were sent to the common tasks and were used for hard labor.
When Fr. Arseny fell ill, on the third day one of the inmate doctors examined him and called over a professor, a lung specialist, for consultation. He also examined him. They stood and talked, then told Avseenkov, "The patient is suffering from double pneumonia, total exhaustion, vitamin deficiency, and heart failure. He is in critical condition and probably will not live another two days. He needs medicines, oxygen and intensive care, but in such a state of exhaustion even this will not help."
Fr. Arseny was virtually an old man. This was not his first year in the "special" zone. During his time the population of the barracks had been replenished more than once; only ten or twelve of the "old timers" remained. Looking at the "old-timers," the camp authorities as well as the inmates were quite amazed: how and why have these "patriarchs" remained alive?
The barrack trusty called the paramedic. He looked at Fr. Arseny from a distance, standing about two meters away from him. He tossed down some aspirin tablets; he gave a thermometer to Avseenkov so that he could take Fr. Arseny's temperature. When he saw that his temperature was over 40 C, he muttered "flu" and left.
Fr. Arseny's condition continued to deteriorate. His friends realized that the time had come for him to die. They tried to save him. By round-about moans they sent a messenger to the infirmary, who had friendly contacts with the inmates who were criminals. They bribed the person on duty and managed to get some dry mustard, raspberries and whatever else they could. The messenger managed to get into the infirmary, asked for help and for medicine and told about Fr. Arseny. The doctor asked how old the inmate was and how long he had been in the "special' zone. The messenger explained that he was forty-nine years old and had been here for three years.
The doctor replied to this, "So what do you think? Is a hard-labor camp some kind of sanatorium where the inmates are supposed to live to be a hundred? Your sick man holds the record; he's survived for three years. It's time for him to learn his place. We don't have any medicine; they need it all on the front."
...His temperature continued to climb. He began to slip in and out of consciousness. Avseenkov fed Fr, Arseny aspirin with raspberries; Sazikov rubbed the mustard into a rag and placed it on Fr. Arseny's chest and back. The inmates who were medical doctors also helped in every way they could after returning from the day's work. But Fr. Arseny's condition continued to deteriorate; he would fall silent from time to time. He was dying.
Death was a common occurrence in the camp; everyone was used to it. But this time, for some reason, everybody was worried. [Finally it reached the point where all one could hear was, "Fr. Arseny is dying. Peter Andreevich is dying." He had performed some special good deed for everyone. A special person was departing. Everyone realized this, both the political and the criminal inmates, I added this last sentence in brackets after the death of Fr. Arseny; it was contributed by Sazikov and Alexey the student.]
Fr. Arsany kept praying and praying. He was aware of the help his friends were offering, but he was slipping away.
"He's giving up," someone said. Fr. Arseny fell silent and he himself sensed that he had died. The barrack, Sazikov, Avseenkov, Aleksey, Doctor Boris Petrovich--everything went away somewhere, vanished, disappeared.
Fr. Arseny felt an extraordinary lightness come over him and realized that he was surrounded by silence. He became very calm. The congested lungs, the phlegm that choked his throat, the fever that burned his body, weakness and helplessness--all disappeared. He felt well and energetic.
Now Fr. Arseny was standing next to his bunk where a skinny, exhausted, unshaven and graying old man was lying with tightly closed lips and half closed eyes. Around him stood Avseenkov, Sazikov, Alexey and some of the other inmates Fr. Arseny knew and loved. Fr. Arseny started to examine the person lying there and suddenly was startled by the realization that it was he, Fr. Arseny.
His friends gathered around the bunk, the huge barrack with its many inmates, the vast camp all suddenly became visible to Fr. Arseny, and he realized that now he was seeing not just the physical condition of persons but their spiritual state as well.
Through the silence that enveloped him, he saw the movements of the inmates; he could not hear but for some reason he dearly understood what these people were saying and thinking. Fear-struck, Fr. Arseny realized that he was seeing the condition and contents of every human soul. But he was no longer with these people; he no longer lived in this world from which he had just departed.
An invisible barrier clearly separated him from this world and he could not pass over this barrier.
Now Sazikov put a cup of cold water to "his" lips and tried to pour it into the mouth, but he couldn't. The water slipped over the face. Avseenkov and Aleksey said something to each other and then to the others around.
Fr. Arseny stood at the feet of his own body, looked at himself and at the people gathered around like a stranger and realized that his soul had departed from his body, that he, the priest Arseny, was physically dead.
Fr. Arseny looked around in bewilderment. The barrack vanished in darkness, but far, far away in the darkness, a blinding light was burning.
Fr. Arseny concentrated and began to pray, beseeching the Lord not to abandon Aleksey, Avseenkov, Alexander, Theodore, Sazikov, and all those he had lived with in the camp.
"Lord, Lord, do not abandon then! Help and save them!" he cried. He especially begged the Mother of God, imploring Her in Her mercy not to leave them, not to abandon the inmates in the "special" zone.
Praying, weeping, begging and imploring the Lord, the Mother of God and the saints, Fr. Arseny begged for mercy, but everything was still. The barrack and the camp were seen by Fr. Arseny in a unique way through his spiritual vision. As if from within, Fr. Arseny beheld the entire camp with all the inmates and guards that were living in it. Each person had a soul within him which was now clearly visible to Fr. Arseny.
One person's soul was enveloped in the fire of faith, and this fire burned all those around him. Others, such as Sazikov and Avseenkov, had only a small fire, but at least it was burning; in others sparks were smoldering and they needed a pastor who would fan these sparks into flames. There were others whose soul was dark, dreary, without even a trace of a spark of Light. Now looking at the souls of men that were revealed to him by God's command, Fr. Arseny was profoundly moved.
"Lord, Lord, I have been living among these people but never noticed or saw them. How much beauty they bear within themselves, how many genuine strugglers for the faith there are who discovered themselves amidst the surrounding spiritual darkness and unbearable human sufferings, and they discovered themselves not just for their own benefit, but in order to give their lives and love to the people around them, helping everyone both in word and deed. Lord, where have I been, blinded by my pride and regarding my little deeds as something great?
Fr. Arseny saw that the Light of faith was burning not only among the inmates but also in certain of the guards and administrators, who did good as far as they were able and circumstances permitted, even though this was extremely difficult for them.
"What is the meaning of all this?” Fr. Arseny pondered, "What is the meaning?" He stood looking into the spiritual world of people, of the people he had constantly been living, associating, conversing with, and seeing, and now how unexpectedly different and varied and spiritually beautiful they appeared to him. People who had seemed to be spiritually empty and indifferent in the general mass of the inmates, bore so much faith within themselves, so much inexhaustible love for those around them, did so much good and bore the cross of their life without complaint, while he, Fr. Arseny, lived together with them, but he---priest monk Arseny--had seen only what was near him; he had not noticed their spiritual state and had not had any communication with these people.
"Lord, where have I been? Forgive me and have mercy on me, for seeing only myself and deceiving myself by not putting much faith in people."
Bowing down, Fr. Arseny prayed for a long time. Getting up off his knees, he saw that he was still standing in the camp, but the vision of the camp that had been revealed to him had ended; the bunks and the barracks had vanished, Fr. Arseny stood at the carnp's exit; the searchlight beams stabbed the surrounding darkness; guards were standing at the gate. It was night; the camp was asleep.
Turning to the camp, Fr. Arseny blessed it and began to pray for those who had remained with him:
"Lord! How can I leave them" How can I exist without them? Do not abandon those who are living here by Thy mercy. Help them!"
Kneeling in the snow, he began to pray. It was cold; the wind was blowing the snow. Fr. Arseny remained still but felt nothing. He prayed for a long time. Then, getting up off his knees, he left the camp. He passed through the guarded gate and headed down the road. In the dark night, off in the distance, far, far off, a bright light was burning. Fr. Arseny walked towards it. He walked easily, calmly. He passed the forest, the settlement and suddenly entered his home city, where his church was, his very own church. He had started his priestly ministry in this church and had invested so much effort in it, together with his spiritual children, to restore its former, ancient magnificence. "What is this, Lord? Why am I here?" he said to himself, and entered the church.
The first thing he saw was the icon of the Mother of God, that ancient, miraculous icon whose sorrowful face looked so penetratingly and intensely at those who came to Her. In the church everything was just as he had left it. But now it was full of people. In fact an extradordinary multitude was gathered there. The faces of those gathered for prayer were joyful; they were looking at the icon of the Mother of God.
Fr. Arseny went to the altar; the people at prayer parted to let him pass. With deep emotion and reverence, he looked at the icons and moved forward in a particularly light manner. Entering the altar, he prepared to serve. He started to take off his padded inmate's jacket so he could vest, but someone standing next to him said in an authoritative voice:
"Don't take it off; that is also a sacred vestment.'
With a glance, Fr. Arseny noticed his jacket was shining somehow; it was blinding white. He put on his stole (epitrachelion) and started the service. He was amazed at how the altar was drenched in such bright light. The entire church was radiant. The icons were somehow especially visible on the walls; it seemed they had come to life. There were so many people gathered in prayer, and they were all praying so intensely, and their faces were all so joyful.
As he conducted the service, Fr. Arseny saw that others were serving together with him: priest monk German, priest Ambrose, deacon Peter and several other priests. Fr. Arseny knew all his concelebrants. Bishops Jonah, Anthony and Boris were standing off to the side of the altar, and together with them was his spiritual father and friend, Bishop Theophilus. They were all looking at him, Fr. Arseny, with great joy. - -
"Lord? Fr. Arseny thought. "They have all died long ago, and now they are here. How good it is for us to be together!"
Fr. Arseny served, and his soul was filled with joy; prayer engulfed everything and raised him on high...
Blessing the people gathered in prayer, Fr. Arseny saw that he also knew them all. Here were his spiritual children; here were the parishioners of this church; here were others he had met and cared for in his wanderings and in the camps; at one time or another he had lived with these people. And all these people were praying for someone; they were interceding. Fr. Arseny looked at these people and clearly realized that all of them, like the bishops and the priests concelebrating with him, had all died, some of them long ago and others more recently.
"Mother of God, what is this?" Fr. Arseny thought, but without replying to himself, he immersed himself in the service and in prayer. As he conducted the service, Fr. Arseny sensed that he was burning from joy and internal warmth. He received the Holy Mysteries, finished the service and fell before the Vladimir Icon of the Queen of Heaven, begging for the forgiveness of his sins.
"Mother of God, my heavenly Father has called me to judgment, because I have died. Do not abandon me, a sinner, and be the intercessor and mediator for my sinful soul before the Heavenly King. Do not abandon me. I hope in thee; I am sinful and unworthy."
After praying for the forgiveness of his sins, he beseeched the Mother of God not to deprive of her help all those whom he knew and whom he had left in the world. He prayed for his spiritual children and for those who had lived with him in the camps and who were now left behind. He interceded for Alexey the student, for Sazikov, for Avseenkov, for Abrosimov, for Alchevsky, and for many, many others in the camps. He gave himself over completely to prayer, forgot about time and so intensely entreated the Mother of God that it seemed that those praying in the church heard his prayer. He constantly repeated, "Mother of God! Do not abandon them in their sufferings," and sobbed and wept and shed streams of tears.
Fr. Arseny's heart ached in anguish. How were his friends going to live now, left behind in the camp? He knew how hard it was for them; they could not endure it. He cast himself down before the icon of the Mother of God, begging and begging Her not to abandon his friends, to help them, to ease their sufferings and torment which surpassed the measure of human distress... And suddenly he heard a voice full of exceptional softness, clarity and at the same time authority.
"The hour of death has not yet come, Arseny. You must minister to people yet. The Lord is sending you to help my children. Go and serve them. I will not deprive you of my help."
Fr. Arseny lifted his head, looked at the icon and saw that the Mother of God had as if stepped out of the icon and was standing in place of it. Fr. Arseny, overwhelmed, fell at the feet of the Mother of God and kept repeating, "Mother of God, do not abandon them. Have mercy on me a sinner." And once again he heard the voice, "Lift your head, Arseny; look at me and tell me what you want to say and what you are thinking."
Fr. Arseny lifted his head, looked at the Mother of God and overwhelmed by her kindness and unearthly majesty, he bowed low and said,
"Mother of God, my Lady! May thy will and that of thy Son be fulfilled, but I am old and ill. Will I be able to serve the people as thou, my Lady, desirest?"
The Mother of God continued, "You are the only one I have, Arseny. You will serve me with many people; they will help you, and together with them, you will help very many. The Lord has shown you now that He has many helpers. The Lord showed you the souls of the people who inhabit the camp. Do not think that you alone are doing good. Faith and love are alive in many people. Go and serve me. I will help you." And Fr. Arseny sensed that the Mother of God placed her hand on his head.
Fr. Arseny got up off his knees, repeated his prayer again and again, took off the stole (epitrachelion), bowed to all those gathered in prayer and to the clergy. Again he realized that he knew everyone in the church; he had administered the last rites to most of them and his life was somehow hound up with these people.
He went to the Royal Gates, kneeled down, and when he arose, he turned to those gathered for prayer and asked for their prayers and help. Then he went to the church's door, while the people blessed him.
He left the church. Joy filled his soul. It was easy to walk; he was headed for the barrack, for the camp. The forest, the road, the houses all passed by him. He passed by the guards; he entered the barrack; he saw his lying place, his body lying on it and the people gathered around him. He entered; he lay down on his bed; he heard voices, "It's all over now! He's turned cold. Our Fr. Arseny has died. Five hours have passed already. Soon it will be time to wake up. We will have to inform the superiors."
Someone else nearby continued, "The barrack has been orphaned. He helped lots of people. He helped me. I spent my whole life fighting against God. He showed Him to me; he showed me through his deeds."
Suddenly Fr. Arseny heaved a deep sigh, startling and stunning all those gathered around him. 'I went to church, but the Mother of God sent me back to you," he said. And these words did not seem strange or unusual to anyone amid the total shock of his return to life.
Some two weeks passed before Fr. Arseny was back on his feet again. Somehow everything was strange in the barrack; life and people appeared different. All of them helped him in any way they could; some of them set aside a portion of their rations and brought it to him. The "Upright Guard" brought some butter and gave it to Sazikov for Fr. Arseny.
Once he was on his feet again, Fr. Arseny began to liven up. The severe illness had passed.
The Lord and the Mother of God had sent him to serve people; they had sent him back into the world.
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