Father Mikhail Vorobyov, “Orthodox Faith” No 18 (374), 2008
Translated 22 March 2009, by Vladimir Berezansky, Jr.
Two years ago I was asked to hear the last confession of and bring communion to an old woman who was preparing to die. Once we had arrived at the house where she lived, the relatives who were accompanying me began finding excuses not to proceed. In shy voices, they said things like:
“You know, Father? she was a smoker.”
“Well,” I answered, “that is certainly not the greatest of sins.”
The thus comforted relatives then led me further, but some time later they stopped again.
“Father, she was for her entire life an atheist; she cursed the Church, and she couldn’t stand the sight of priests.”
Well, now. This was a far more serious obstacle. Quite often, people who’ve begun to believe quite recently wish for anything whatsoever to save their loved ones. They do this more often than not in a clumsy manner; and their lingering doubts or belief-on-condition that’s led them away from the Church. But neophytes can be persistent. They are capable of biding their time, and when a non-believing relative ends up in an impossibly hopeless situation that makes the rendering of any resistance equally impossible, they run straight to the priest and convince him to receive, to christen and commune this poor dying soul. For such circumstances, there exists a special “Mute Confession” rite. The priest himself lists the sins, hoping against hope in that circumstance that the person who lost his ability to speak will nonetheless comprehend the subject of the priest’s words, hear them, understand their meaning and, perhaps, repent in his heart. The depths of Divine Compassion are truly endless. It is possible to agree on a Mute Confession, but only in those instances where the person presented to the confessor is in fact a believer and, when he was in good health, received confession regularly. And here we have an atheist – an atheist smoker, at that …
“Perhaps I should leave,” I said. “There’d be no point in observing such a formalistic offering of the Eucharist. After all, just one little sin …”
“No, no Father,” the family relative insisted, “She herself requested that a priest – and, specifically, that you – be summoned. She still has full possession of her mental faculties, and her memory is intact. She is, after all, just about eighty years old. And you know, she never went to church, but she always sent along lists of the departed that were to be remembered – it’s just that the list was always of one and the same name. So, please, could we get started?
I entered the room. It turned out that the woman facing death’s door was a physician who had been well-known in the city. She was surrounded by a few relatives of the same vintage, and seated in an armchair stuffed to overflowing with pillows. It was obvious that only in such a position could she breathe and speak. The room itself radiated with clinical cleanliness and modesty of décor. The interior was a throw-back to a film inducing Soviet-era nostalgia – Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Five Evenings” perhaps. 1950’s vintage furniture radiated like new: a reading table lamp with a green lampshade, covered with a lace kerchief next to the earliest vintage Soviet television set, a KVN, looking for all the world as though it had just left the conveyor belt.
Greeting me, the aged atheist asked me to read the prayer before confession. I was more than a bit surprised at her evident familiarity with our rite that this request indicated. I then asked that we be left alone, but the old woman wanted to have her confession heard by everyone present. Such an unorthodox request made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I decided not to contradict the wishes of someone preparing to die. I decided that I could most likely cut off her confession if it began to stray into delicate matters not fit for public discussion. Having coughed enough to clear her lungs, she finally began:
“I was sub-deacon to Bishop George, the last bishop of Volsk.”
This information shocked me profoundly. My thoughts raced to the Blessed Marina, who allowed herself to be taken for a Monk, Marin; to the female Cavalier Durova, about whom a film, “The Hussar’s Ballad,” was made. But the old woman sensed what I was thinking and continued:
“Please don’t think I’ve lost my mind. I remember everything quite well. I was indeed sub-deacon to Bishop George (Sadovsky) in 1933 – 1936, when he served in Volsk.”
This grandmother, it turns out, was in full control of her senses. What’s more, she had a tremendous memory. She remembered that when she was a 12-year old girl, she loved to attend church services. In the second half of the 1930’s, there was only one Orthodox Church in Volsk, which had previously belonged to the Old Believers who worshiped without priests. The Soviets had taken this church from them and given it to the Orthodox community following the closure of all the other churches in that city.
“I attended church during the winter in a fur hat with floppy ear flaps, and I looked very much like a boy. What’s more, my hair was closely cropped,” explained Ekaterina Mikhaylovna Ivantsova. “The women of the parish insisted that I take off my hat. They would say ‘You’re a boy. You can’t enter a church wearing a hat.’ And there were no real boys around. In order to serve an episcopal liturgy, it was necessary to find at least four sub-deacons who, in the old days, were always boys. And here there were only two old men and a nun from the already destroyed Vladimir Monastery. So His Grace chose me to be his fourth sub-deacon. I went up to the altar, carried out a candle, held his episcopal staff, and helped with vesting the bishop. Vladyka loved me very much and he always tried to give me whatever food he could during those years of famine. He always saved a big piece of blessed bread for me. Attending to him and being at church was, for me, always a great joy.”
Ekaterina Mikhaylovna lived in those days in Nagibovk, and she would cross the city to attend services. She remembered that Vladyka suffered from serious problems with his legs. Now she understands that this was most likely due to trophic ulcers [трофическиеязвы]. He acquired this condition during his incarceration, and it was very difficult for him to stand during lengthy services. Someone made soft boots for him; and toward the end of an all-night vigil service, they would be soaked in blood.
“Vladyka George had beautiful vestments that the nuns of Belev had sent. He had served there previously. Just before Pentecost in 1936, I was supposed to bring green vestments that had just been sent. As I turned the corner to enter the church, a nun met me, weeping. She told me there would be no service today because Vladyka had been arrested.”
The burden of such torment on a twelve-year old girl was unbearable. She cried unceasingly for several days. She would climb a tree that stood in front of the city NKVD [precursor to the KGB] to see over the fence and occasionally catch site of Vladyka, when he was being led from an interrogation room. But then they sent him to Saratov.
“Nuns told me that a child’s prayer travels to God much faster. I prayed as best I could. I prayed with all my strength both day and night. Summer vacation came, and nothing stopped me from praying for entire days on end. Oh, how I prayed! But next month, news arrived in Volsk that Bishop George had been shot. And then,” the woman broke down in tears, “I lost my faith. I understood that a God who did not hear or did not wish to answer a child’s prayers could not exist. And so I have lived my entire life without faith. The emptiness that took its place in my soul was not simply the opposite of the Living God. I was offended by the now non-existent God. Offence at the Church and its clergy who, out of stupidity or ambition, deceive people. And when they opened the church in Volsk again during the War, I turned the other way whenever I passed by those open doors. And if I should hear the echoes of services being chanted, I would become ill for several days.”
Lord! What a monstrous mistake, I thought, how misguided! Bishop George lived until 1948. But the old woman continued:
“Recently I learned that all my prayers had indeed gone straight to God, and that Bishop George had not been shot. If I had known that then … I would have gone to him where he was in the camps, in exile. I would have lived nearby, cleaned his clothes, brought food to him … My life would have been completely different. And that is the great sin of my life, for which I now repent before dying. Forgive me, Father!”
Ekaterina Mikhaylovna died that evening. On the third day, I served her funeral service thinking about how surprising human fate can be, and how God is merciful, returning such lost souls to Him.