Orthodox America

  Bishop Varnava - a Link in a chain of Elders

       In Kiev, Payel Protsenko  became acquainted with Bishop Varnava's niece, the elderly nun Seraphima, and was helping her to compile the biography of her uncle. Pavel’s arrest last June did not allow him to complete the task. But even if it lacks details in its unfinished form, it is printed here as a tribute both to the Bishop and to his biographer as true confessors of the Faith, worthy members of a host of righteous ones through whom Holy Russia has been, and is, kept alive. 

     Bishop Varnava of Vasilsursk, a vicariate of the Nizhegorod diocese, was born May 12 (o. s .), 1887, in the village of Ramen not far from Moscow. Before he became a monk his name was Nicholai Nikanorovich Belyaev. His parents were simple, pious people: his father, Nicanor Belyaev, was a factory worker; his mother, Clavdia Stairnova, the daughter of a deacon.

     In spite of the fervent desire on the part of both parents, they were childless for 18 years. During this time they persevered in prayer to Sod and to St. Nicholas that they might be granted a child--a son. The mother vowed that if the Lord answered her prayer she would raise the child to be spiritually oriented and well-educated and would give him the name Nicholas. Once, when she became severely ill, several doctors together agreed that she would never be able to bear children. But scarcely more than a year later, within a week after the spring feast-day of St. Nicholas (May 9), she gave birth to a son. He was to be their only child, and they raised him in faith and piety.

    When the boy came of age he was sent to school which he finished in 1910 with a gold medal. Following his graduation and after visiting Optina monastery and its great elder Barsanuphius, he entered the Moscow Theological Academy. where he became a monk with the name Varnava (Barnabas). He was tonsured by the rector of the Academy, a well-known father-confessor and teacher of the Faith, Bishop Theodore (Pozdeyev), under the same mantle with Bartholomew (Romov) who later became a bishop and was shot by the Chekists.

    In his last year at the Academy, Hieromonk Varnava made a pilgramage to the Holy Land, but in the summer of 1914. With the outbreak of the First World War, he was obliged to return. In 915 he completed his course of study at the Academy and was sent to teach in theNizhegorod seminary. As a hieromonk he was spiritually guided by a number of outstanding elders: Schema-Archimandrite Gabriel of Spasoeleazersk Monastery, Schema-archimandrite Barsanuphius of Optina, and Elder Alexis of Zosima Hermitage. It was with their blessing that Varnave became first a bishop, then a recluse, a fool-for-Christ, and an elder.

    In November, 1920, Archimandrite Varnava was apointed bishop of Vasilsursk. Two years later he took upon himself the ascetic struggle of reclusion and foolishnes s-for--Christ' s-sake, for which he was interned in a psychiatric hospital. But the faithful were able to secure his release, and he settled into the home of his spiritual children, the Karelins, where, with the blessing of Elder Alexis, he evidently began writing his major work, The Art of Sanctification. During this period of his life, Vladika did not communicate with anyone. A priest, Fr. Mitrofan, was ,sent by Elder Alexis to the Bishop. After a prolonged conversation, with him, Fr.Mitrofan conveyed to the Bishop’s spiritual children his blessing to receive, for the time being, spiritual guidance from Fr. Peter Topolev.

Several times the Bishop was arrested and sent to prison, but each time he was soon released because the authorities were unable to prove that he was healthy--a necessary condition for sentencing. Sometime in the late '20's, Bishop Varnava moved to Kzil-Orda together with his spiritual son, Hieromonk Cyprian (Nelidov) and several more of his spiritual children. When Hieromonk Cyprian was transferred to another parish, the Bishop moved to Moscow where he lived secretly at the home of a certain architect. In 1933 he was arrested together with his spiritual children and incarcerated in the Butyrka prison. The authorities tried to force the Bishop's spiritual children to testify that he was in good health, promising them freedom in exchange, but their efforts were vain. The spiritual children were sentenced to exile while the Bishop received three years in the camps.

     He began his stint in the Biisk camps of the Altai region. There he continued his podvig of foolishness for Christ, made even more difficult by the camp conditions: because he did not go to work, he was given minimal rations. Finally, the camp doctors declared him to be mentally unbalanced, and he was sent to the prison psychiatric hospital in Tomsk. Next he was sent to the Marginsky camps where he remained until his final release, On leaving the camps he changed his patronymic Nikanorovich to Nikolaevich, and the year of his birth to 1883. He lived secretly in Tomsk where people came to know him as "Uncle Nick".

      In the camp in Biisk, Vladika became acquainted with the daughter of Priest Savva Petrunerich, rector of St. Olga's church in Kiev, around whom there gathered in the '20's all the Orthodox faithful of the city. His daughter Zinaida became Vladika's spiritual daughter, and through her, after receiving his freedom, he entered once again into correspondence with those close to him.

      The bulk of the Bishop's written works had been completed prior to his arrest in 1933 and were preserved underground until 1949, when it was revealed to him that there would be a new wave of emigrants leaving Russia. This opened the possibility to fulfill the blessing of the elders and to have his works published. In hopes of doing so, Vladika moved to Kiev in 1949. Unfortunately, his manuscripts had suffered from the damp conditions of their subterranean hiding place; some pages had deteriorated altogether, and much labor was required to reconstruct them. During these years in Kiev, Vladika also worked to polish his earlier work, The Art of Sanctification, and others.

      Living in Kiev, Bishop Varnova was presented the opportunity to become a bishop of the Moscow Patriarchate, but he refused, preferring to continue in his podvig, and he remained in seclusion and anonymity. To the world he was simply "Uncle Nick." His spiritual children, however, knew him as a spirit-bearing elder and nourisher of souls. He did not bless them to receive the Holy Mysteries in the official Church --except in cases of extreme illness.

     In trying to arrange for the publication of his works in the West, the Bishop became acquainted with a number of people who were far removed from the Church and from Orthodoxy, but who, as the Bishop foresaw, would in time leave for the West. Later, in 1972, this indeed happened, although it was after the repose of Vladika on May 6 (n.s.), 1963.

     Forty days before his repose, Vlaidka gave someone a blessing to sew for him a set of episcopal vestments which he did not have, Priest Alexis Glagolev vested him and served the funeral.