A Worthy Example
The Source of every true joy, of all true tranquility and peace of conscience, of cleansing, of spiritual and bodily healing, the source of spiritual power and boldness, flows in the temple, whilst theaters and various worldly distractions and consolations can never replace that which a true Christian receives in the temple, where God Himself comforts the souls of believers and those whose hearts are turned to Him, as a mother comforts her child. It is from the temple, too, that our departed ones receive consolation and solace, with the cleansing from their sins and forgiveness. How ardently we should love the temple, how we should adorne it! And so do all those who recognize its value; and the Church prays for them, saying, Let us pray for them that, with faith, piety and fear of God enter in; and further, Let us pray for them that bring forth fruit and do good works in this holy and all-venerable temple; or, Bless those that love the beauty of Thine house. Glorify them in return by Thy Divine might. Saint John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ
On 29 November 1899, in the village of Nadezhdin in the Serdovsk district, there took place the burial of an elder who was distinguished for his Christian life and, in particular, for his zeal towards the house of God. He did not come from an illustrious family, nor was he a wealthy man; he was the church caretaker, a retired soldier of peasant stock, Ivan Alekseyevich Alyonov.
His biography is simple and brief. Orphaned in childhood, he was raised by some distant relatives, from whom he received neither a mother's tender caresses nor a father's strict supervision. Nevertheless, there nestled in his heart a spark of God, and he did not go astray. Not because he had committed some offense but simply because he was a loner, he was sent to be a soldier, and he faithfully served twenty-five years. The strict military school of life developed him into a man for whom the fulfillment of one's duties was paramount. Returning from the army already with venerable gray hairs, Ivan Alekseyevich could find no lodgings in the village of his youth, but God did not abandon him; He called him to serve in His house. The parish priest offered him the position of church caretaker, and "Leksevich," as he came to be called, served diligently in that capacity for the next thirty-five years.
In the course of those years, Leksevich accomplished a great deal of good. By his own labors, without any outside help, and at his personal expense, he planted saplings near the church; around the perimeter of the cemetery he planted acacias; he lined the entrance to the church with pine and birch trees, and he planted more trees around the cemetery church. In time these all grew into fine, big specimens. Leksevich could not contain his evident delight. "Look, Batiushka! Look at the poplars, the pines, the birch trees. Can you believe their trunks?! To think that I planted them when they were only this big," he exclaimed, holding up his little finger. Leksevich often expressed his pleasure in this manner, while his cheeks glistened with tears of joy - the pure joy of a child.
In spite of his age, Leksevich spent whole days digging in "his" yard, daily watering his "children." He accustomed the peasants - the parishioners - to stop by the church yard on their way back from the river when they went to haul water, and they would wait for Leksevich to take two pails from each bucket, as a "tax" for his trees.
Leksevich also liked to attend to the cleaning of the church, where, just as in the yard, he kept everything in exemplary order. He derived great pleasure from his work. Someone would say to him, "Leksevich, it's time to rest your old bones. You should stop climbing up the belfry; it's too difficult for you." But the old man looked so dejected at the mere suggestion that he should curtail his duties, that the person regretted having said anything. "As he says, he'll die if he has nothing to do." There is a touching scene that I'll never forget. The parishioners had a new bell cast, three and a half tons. Before being raised into the belfry, it hung from some trestles, so that any passer-by could ring it, testing its tone. One evening I saw Leksevich approach the bell when it was dark and he thought no one was watching. He crept up to the "stranger" and grabbed its tongue.* But, alas! the tongue did not respond. The next day I said to him, "Leksevich, you should try ringing the new bell." "No, Batiushka, evidently my days of ringing are over. I'll have to decline." and some tears rolled down his cheeks.
One would have to be an artist to faithfully depict even an approximation of Leksevich's love for the house of God and for the saints. Without exaggeration one can say that he lived exclusively, body and soul, for the house of God. No matter what time you came, he would invariably be looking after the trees, or cleaning the church vessels, or on his knees, polishing. In his childlike simplicity and innocence, he became totally engrafted, as it were, onto the church. More than once I overheard him talking by himself in the church. He would be standing before the icon of Saint Nicholas, for example, and converse with the holy hierarch as if he were present in the flesh. He would wipe the dust from the icons, the candle stands, the vigil lamps; then he would stand back to survey his work. "Now, that's better! Otherwise, Saint Nicholas, you were so dusty. Forgive me for not having noticed this before." And these were not casual or mechanical remarks. No, he spoke from a prayerful disposition. Afterwards he would make a prostration and then step away.
Having such an attachment to the church, Leksevich could not be indifferent to what he saw to be imperfections or deficiencies. "Batiushka," he would say, "that's a poor quality vigil lamp in front of the Iveron icon," or, "It would be good to have an icon of the Mother of God, 'Joy of All Who Sorrow,' hanging here." And before you knew it, Leksevich had arranged for all this -at his expense. In the last ten years of his life, the good man donated not less than 500 rubles to the church. This came exclusively from his salary of three rubles a month and a pension in the same amount Sometimes one would inadvertently mention in his presence some need of the church, and Leksevich, deeming it his responsibility alone, would straightway say, "Hold on, Batiushka, I'll get together the money..," and he would apply all his energy towards accomplishing what-ever was needed. Sometimes he would not say anything, but later you would notice that whatever had been mentioned had been taken care of - and Leksevich would be beaming.
Although Leksevich's resources were meager, he found opportunity to give alms to those who were truly indigent, helping them to procure their daily bread. He also liked to send donations to the poor monasteries on Mount Athos.
Leksevich led a decidedly ascetical way of life. He slept on practically bare boards, using a pillow of straw for his head. His food was lenten - he subsisted principally on potatoes, bread and water. Rarely did he eat hot food, and he prepared everything himself. He prayed often and at length. He was literate and liked to read the life of the Mother of God, especially about her Dormition. He donated to the church an icon of the Dormition, and every year he had a molieben with an akathist served before it. Being himself a man of strict and holy life, Ivan Alekseyevich could not tolerate any impropriety in the church during the services. In such cases, he would reprove and correct - in a manner that did not offend. There was something about his face that bore a resemblance to Saint Nicholas: stern yet kind, introspective yet also penetrating. He would go about the church, quietly and unobtrusively, and if he noticed that someone (usually among the women) was standing improperly, he would pause and make a reprimand, without, however, creating the least disturbance. Everyone feared Leksevich, and everyone loved him. As for Leksevich, he treated all people equally; he had no respect of persons (excepting clergy, whether of his own or another parish): simple peasants, wealthy men and poor, aristocrats and important "personas" - he addressed them alike with the familiar "thou." But this "thou" was exclusively his, and no one took offense; the use of the more formal "you" would have been altogether out of character for him. More than once I remarked to him privately, "Leksevich, you call everyone 'thou,' and therefore why not call me 'thou' likewise?" "By no means. No, no... A priest is a noble servant of God," said the old man solemnly. To argue with him was useless.
Although Ivan Alekseveyevich was uneducated, his view of life and of the afterlife was perfectly correct and in harmony with the teaching of the Holy Church. Having a pure heart, he had no fear of death; on the contrary, he liked to talk about death and calmly awaited it, confessing and communing frequently. Several years before his repose, he prepared for himself a "little house" (a coffin). He often looked at it and showed it to others, reminding them of death. He made a number of these "little houses." He would wait and wait, and then say, "No, it seems that my death is still a way off." And he would give the coffin for some needy person's burial. At last the Lord granted Leksevich to lie down peacefully in his "little house," without any serious or tormenting illness. Although at ninety years old, he had exceeded the bounds of age (Ps. 89:10), he was fully conscious to the end and he died O so peacefully, like a candle that gradually melts away.
The last five years of his life, Leksevich was unable to work, but the grateful parishioners supported him with a pension of three rubles a month, and he continued to life in a private corner of the caretaker's cottage. In spite of its being a weekday, a great crowd of people gathered for the burial of this revered elder. The local singers sang at the funeral, and pupils from the local parochial school likewise desired to pay their final tribute: they sang at the Liturgy and participated in the funeral. May your memory be eternal, kind, good Leksevich. Thank you for giving us a good example of how to serve God and how to prepare for ourselves a treasure in the heavens (Matt. 6:19-21).
From the magazine Voskresnoye Chteniye, 1900, Book 10; reprinted in Raiskiye Tsveti Russkoi Zemli, Russian Youth Committee, Baldwin Place, NY 19...[../../_private/oabot.htm]