Way of the Orthodox
Sergius Alexandrovich Nilus
Dear Reader here is spiritual portrait of servant of God Sergius Alexandrovich Nilus renown orthodox writer and worker in the vineyard of the LORD. Because it is rather extensive it will be sent in 2 parts.
"I was born," writes Sergius Alexandrovich Nilus about himself, "in 1862 (25 August), in a family which on my mother's side counted in its midst not a few advanced people - advanced in the spirit for which the 60s of what is now already the last century was distinguished. My parents were nobles and landowners - major ones, moreover. It was perhaps because of their links with the land and the peasants that they escaped any extreme manifestation of the enthusiasms of the 70s. However, they could not escape the general, so to speak platonic-revolutionary spirit of the times, so great then was the allure of the ideas of egalitarianism, freedom of thought, freedom of thought, freedom... yes, perhaps freedom of action, too, which overcame everyone. It seems that at that time there was not one home of the nobility in both the capitals where the state structure of the Russian empire was not reshaped in its own model, according to the measure of its understanding and according to the last book it had read, first from Sovremennik, and then Otechestvennye Zapisi or Vestnik Evropy. Of course, the hard food of conversations of a political character did not much help to develop in me religious dreams, as they were then called, and I grew up in complete alienation from the Church, uniting it in my childish imagination only with my old nanny, whom I loved to distraction.
"Nevertheless, I did not know any prayers and entered a church only by chance; I learned the law of God from teachers who were indifferent, if not outrightly hostile, to the word of God, as an intractable necessity of the school's programme. That was the degree of my knowledge of God when I, as a youth who was Orthodox in name, went to university, where they already, of course, had no time for such trivialities as Orthodoxy. Left to my devices in the life of faith, I reached such an abominable degree of spiritual desolation as only that person can imagine who has lived in this spiritual stench and who has then, while on the path of his own destruction, been detained by the unseen hand of the benevolent Creator.
"But under all the spiritual abomination which accumulated in the course of the years of the freedom of religious education in family, school and, finally, public life - the silent, but loved-filled lessons of Moscow, of the country and of nanny; the boundless Christian kindness of my mother, who ceaselessly did good to her neighbour with the meekness that belongs only to Christians - all this did not allow the spark to go out in my soul, the spark of dimly recognized love for God and His Orthodoxy - although, it is true, it hardly twinkled in my soul's darkness. Quite a lot of time passed. How it was passed, or rather, conducted, it is terrible to say! Terrible, of course, for a Christian. In a word, I lived a gay life!
"I had left the service a long time ago and had settled down to keep house in the country. One Holy Week, not having fasted for seven years or more, I fasted, as they say, after a fashion and received Communion. This was not without a feeling of false shame before my 'intellectuality', perhaps more out of condescension to the 'prejudices' of my lesser brethren, the peasants, who had elected me as church warden of our village church. However, when I received Communion I had what was for me a strange, incomprehensible, secret feeling of trembling, which for a long, long time I did not want to admit to myself. And after Communion I felt as if renewed, somehow more full of the joy of life: my soul experienced something which I had known a long time ago, which felt familiar; moreover, it was something inexplicably sweet and at the same time triumphant...
"Something came to fruition in my soul: I began to be visited more often by a thirst for prayer, a thirst which I was not clearly conscious of and which was sometimes even violently drowned out by everyday cares..." In accordance with the call of his heart, Sergius Alexandrovich went to the Trinity - St. Sergius Lavra - the spiritual support of the throne and the homeland: "There were quite a lot of worshippers. The hieromonk on duty was serving a general moleben for everyone. I fell on my knees in front of the shrine containing the holy relics of St. Sergius and for the first time in my life surrendered to a wonderful feeling of prayer without cunning sophistries. I besought the saint to forgive my spiritual weakness, my lack of faith, my apostasy. Involuntary, grace-given tears welled up somewhere deep in my heart: I felt as if I had gone somewhere far away from myself, like the prodigal son, and had then returned into the bosom of the loving Mother-Church. These few hours spent under the roof of the holy monastery, this wonderful prayerful mood sent down from above through the prayers of the saint - all this accomplished such a turning-point in my spiritual life that in itself this turning-point was nothing other than a miracle quite o! penly accomplished over me. I came to believe. This was a deep, irrevocable faith in which Creator and creature are invisibly united into one, in which the reverent gratitude of the creature raises it to the very One Who has created it."
But the enemy of the human race cannot leave even one soul in peace, still less one who is on the path of conversion. In this period of his life Sergius Alexandrovich experienced many trials, doubts, uncertainties, falls. "I was no longer the former man, but I had not yet become a new one. The world and its delights had lost their significance for me - I somehow became detached from people, but the emptiness left by them in my soul did not find its fulfilment. I was visited occasionally by a prayerful mood: I acquired a greater taste for reading the Holy Scriptures, and I rested my attention and meditations on them more often and more deeply than before. But I still could not tell myself with complete sincerity that my heart had found satisfaction for itself. I began to go to church more often, but neither in church did I find what I desired. This mental state continued for about a year."
Sergius Alexandrovich heard about the great man of prayer John of Kronstadt and decided to meet him without fail. In February, 1900, when he had caught a cold and had lost his voice, Sergius Alexandrovich went to the House of the Love of Labour for an unforgettable meeting with God's righteous one. This is how he describes this visit: "I heard steps in the direction of my door... Someone pulled on the handle. 'Why is the door not open? Open it immediately!' sounded an authoritative voice, and with a quick, energetic stride batyushka entered my room. Behind him came the reader. Fr. John took me in in a glance... and what a glance that was! A piercing, penetrating glance like lightning which revealed all my past, and the wounds of my present, and pierced, as it seemed, even into my future! I felt so stripped that I began to be ashamed of myself and my nakedness... The reader bent towards Fr. John and said loudly: 'Batyushka, here is a gentleman from Orel province (at this point he pronounced my surname) who has come to seek your advice, but he has fallen ill and lost his voice.' 'A familiar name! How did you lose your voice? Did you catch a cold?'
"In reply I could not utter even a sound - my throat was simply not up to it. Helpless and at a loss, I could only look at batyushka in despair. Fr. John gave me the cross to kiss, put it on the analogion, and then with two fingers of his right hand stroked my throat behind the collar of my shirt three times... My fever immediately left me, and my voice returned to me sounding fresher and purer than usual... It is hard to convey in words what took place in my soul then! For more than half an hour, as I knelt at the feet of my longed-for comforter, I told him about my sorrows, opened to him the whole of my sinful soul and offered repentance for everything that lay like a heavy stone on my heart. That was the first true repentance in the whole of my life. For the first time with my whole being I understood the significance of the spiritual father as the witness of this great sacrament - a witness radically crushing, by the grace of God, the evil of the pride of sin and the pride of human self-love. For the first time I experienced with all my soul the sweetness of this repentance, for the first time I felt with all my heart that God, God Himself, was sending me His forgiveness through the lips of the pastor engraced by Him, when Fr. John said: 'God is very merciful - God will forgive.'
"What ineffable joy I felt, with sacred trembling was my soul filled at these love-filled, all-forgiving words! That faith which so stubbornly had not been given to my soul, in spite of my evident conversion at the relics of St. Sergius, only flared up in me with a bright flame after this heart-felt confession of mine with Fr. John. I became conscious of myself as a believer and an Orthodox."
Sergius Alexandrovich travelled much around Russia and its secret corners. He listened to and drank in every word that the simple people let fall - a word that may have seemed worthless, but which bore in itself the very essence of the Russian people and its hopes and joys, the spiritual strength of Orthodoxy. Often Sergius Alexandrovich - alone or with his wife, Helen Alexandrovna - stayed in Optina Hermitage. He lived for a long time in this last outpost of Russian monasticism. After these visits there poured out from under his pen the remarkable books entitled: Holiness under a Bushel, On the Banks of God's River, The Power of God and the Weakness of Man, The Optina Elder Theodosius. In these works Sergius Alexandrovich described with amazing simplicity and talent the piety of Optina, "the swansong of Russian monasticism", as Helen Kontzevich put it, not without some sorrow in her heart.
In the book Holiness under a Bushel, Sergius Alexandrovich writes: "I offer to my pious readers materials consisting of vivid and lively examples of everyday life which clarify the true secret of the monastic mission and cast a bright light on the most secret corners of the monastic heart. They illuminate the inner cell life of the monk's soul, which in this material poured out his thoughts and feelings not for worldly honour and glory, not for the satisfaction of egotistical self-love, but spoke out of the abundance of his heart to himself and to his God."
And at the end of the preface, sensing the approach of the terrible tragedy not only of Russia, but of the whole world, he speaks with pain about the untimely loss of the last lamp of Russian monasticism - Optina Hermitage and its inhabitants: What a lamp of reason has gone out. What a heart has ceased to beat.. In his book, On the Bank of God's River, Sergius Alexandrovich writes: "After the publication of this book, I sent it as a gift to Bishop Theophanes of Poltava. In reply Vladyka wrote to me the following on November 24, 1915: 'Respected Sergius Alexandrovich! I thank you from the heart for taking thought for me by sending me your book, On the Bank of God's River. I read all your books with great interest and I completely share your views on recent events. The people of this age live by faith in progress and lull themselves with unrealizable dreams. Stubbornly and with a kind of cruelty they drive away from themselves the very thought of the end of the world and the coming of the Antichrist. "'Their eyes are spiritually blinded. Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not understand. But the meaning of contemporary events is not hidden from the truly believing children of God. More than that: to those upon whom the goodwill of God rests will be revealed both the coming of the Antichrist and the end of this world... Therefore great are the merits of those who remind the people of this age of the coming great events. May the Lord help you to talk about this in the hearing of this world 'in season and out of season, with all long-suffering and exhortation' (II Tim. 4.2)! Your sincere admirer and intercessor, Bishop Theophanes.'
"May the Lord help you to talk about this in the hearing of this world" - these words of the bishop were fulfilled exactly in the years of the revolution. Such is the significance of a bishop's blessing and especially of such a bishop as Vladyka Theophanes. It is precisely to Sergius Alexandrovich that we are indebted for the discovery and deciphering of the "Conversation of St. Seraphim with Nicholas Alexandrovich Motovilov on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit".
After the publication of the "Conversation" Sergius Alexandrovich recalled: "If only someone could have seen the state in which I acquired Motovilov's papers, which preserved in their hidden depths this valuable witness to the God-pleasing life of the holy elder! Dust, pebbles and dove's feathers, bird's droppings! ... All the papers were old, written on in a rapid and indecipherable hand, so indecipherable that I was simply horrified: what could I make out there?! Sifting through this chaos, bumping up against all kinds of obstacles - the handwriting, especially, was a stone of stumbling for me, - I remember almost giving way to despair. But then, amidst all this pulp, no, no, a phrase deciphered with difficulty would shine like a spark in the darkness: 'Batyushka Fr. Seraphim told me'... What did he tell? What did these uninterpreted hieroglyphs hide in themselves? I was in despair. "I remember that towards the evening of a whole day spent in stubbornly fruitless work, I could bear it no longer and cried out: Batyushka Seraphim! Did you give me the possibility of receiving the manuscripts of your 'lay brother' from such a distant spot as Diveyevo, in order that they should be consigned uninterpreted to oblivion? My cry must have been from the heart. In the morning, having set about deciphering papers, I suddenly found this manuscript and immediately received the ability to make out Motovilov's handwriting. You can well imagine my joy, and how significant seemed to me the words of this manuscript: 'I think,' Fr. Seraphim replied to me, 'that the Lord will help you to keep this forever in your memory, for otherwise His kindness would not have inclined so suddenly to my humble petition and would not have deigned to hearken so quickly to poor Seraphim, the more so since it is not given only to you to understand this, but through you to the whole world...'
"For seventy long years this treasure lay under a bushel in trunks, amidst various forgotten rubbish. But was it meant to be published, and if so when? Before the very glorification of the holy relics of the God-pleaser!"
Prince Nicholas Davidovich Zhevakov writes in his memoirs:
"Sergius Alexandrovich did not think up or 'compose' anything. He preferred to live near the famous Russian monasteries and use the monastery libraries. He extracted from the wealthy monastic archives valuable material and reworked it. Being a truly Orthodox Christian, Sergius Alexandrovich fervently loved his own people and deeply understood the heavy burden of that time, sincerely experiencing it in his heart.
"In our time, which is distinguished by extraordinary discoveries and inventions - all the so-called 'miracles' of technology with which light-minded humanity amuses itself as with brilliant trinkets, playing a dangerous game that loses for it, in the expression of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, the Heavenly Kingdom, - it is especially timely and useful for every believing Orthodox to oppose to all these 'false miracles and signs'. [And to attest to] the true miracles and signs worked by the Holy Spirit through the mediation of the vessels of grace chosen by Him - the saints who are pleasing to God.
"Faith in miracles, the search for the miraculous that transcends the greyness of everyday life, and is raised above the sphere of that which is known by our five imperfect senses, is innate to the whole human race regardless of the various degrees of its spiritual development. The semi-savage cannibal searches for the satisfaction of this faith of his in shamanism, the educated theosophist - in brahmanism or yoga. The intellectual who has lost his faith hurls himself at the miracles of spiritism and hypnosis... The human race since time immemorial 'seeks signs and miracles'. For over seven thousand years now the fallen nature of mankind has been striving to find that which it lost in the fall... but cannot find it. Only true faith finds that which has been lost, and only through it are true signs and miracles given to those who search, who have been able with the help of the grace of God to preserve their faith in purity and who have not mixed with the work of faith the proud inventions of the inconstant and limited mind of man. That is how it has been in all ages. Such is now the particular spiritual condition of the majority of mankind, when the terrible times foretold by the apostle have arrived for it. People's spiritual eyes have been closed by their lack of faith or, more precisely, their apostasy from the faith, so that 'seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear and understand'.
"Man's chief good on earth - and almost his only one, one might add - is faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, in God in Trinity glorified. Without this faith our earthly life is not life, but senseless vegetation."
No one was taken by surprise by the revolution of 1917 in Russia. Some prepared it, others prepared themselves for it. The catastrophe was inevitable. Sergius Alexandrovich considered it his Christian duty to warn not only the Orthodox people, but also the whole world, about the terrible times that were coming, just as before him Dostoyevsky had given warnings in his novel The Devils. In 1903 there appeared the first edition of his remarkable book, The Great in the Small, in the preface of which Sergius Alexandrovich wrote: "The great intercessor for the Russian land, Fr. John of Kronstadt, to whom this book was dedicated during his lifetime, and to whom I now dedicate to him as to a living person, said to me on July 14, 1903 in the Nikolo-Babayevsky monastery: 'Write: I like everything that you write.' 'For whom should I write it?' I was about to object. 'Who now reads such writings?' 'God gives the blessing,' replied Fr. John, ' - and they will buy it and read it.' It is by this blessing of the great pastor of Kronstadt that I explain to myself the completely unexpected spread of my sketches collected in the book and called The Great in the Small."
This book is deeply Orthodox. During his wanderings round the monasteries, Sergius Alexandrovich had many conversations with the elders and spiritual lamps of Holy Russia. This book was written with spiritual fervour during these wanderings. And it is not simply an Orthodox book, but even, one could say, a Church book. S.A. Nilus approached the question of the signs foretelling the appearance of the Antichrist in a churchly manner, on the basis of the writings of the Holy Fathers. The apostolic word: "The mystery of iniquity in action" have since early times irritated the minds of men and forced them to be watchful with regard to the activity of this mystery; and this is the duty and obligation of all Orthodox people. It was only out of love for his neighbours that Sergius Alexandrovich warned them about the danger threatening the salvation of their souls.
"What is in store for Russia?" asked Sergius Alexandrovich. "The events of contemporary world and Russian life, and also my dealings with people who have devoted their whole life and all their activity to the service in spirit and in truth, in the likeness and truth of real Christianity, have revealed to me something new, great and terrible, 'the depths of Satan', which was still hidden from me in 1905, when the second edition of this book appeared. This revelation, which was drawn from observations of the current spiritual and politial life of Christian peoples and the study of the secrets of the religious sects of the East, and in particular Masonry, have given me material of such enormous importance that I would consider myself a turncoat traitor of Christ my God if I did not share this material with the God-loving reader."
"I draw the attention of my reader," writes Sergius Alexandrovich in the preface to the second edition of The Great in the Small, "to the sketch 'The Antichrist as an imminent political possibility', in which is found the solution of a great world mystery hidden until the times of its final realization. Now the mystery has been realized and the key to it found: the imminent triumph of all justified Christian hopes, the triumph of the whole Christian faith, is coming. But the imminent triumph of the faith has also brought closer the terrible antichristian time of persecutions against the faith, and it is not without the will of God that this sketch contains a forecast of that for which the Christian world must prepare itself so as to meet with the whole armour of its humility and patience the terrible ordeal of the temptation that is aiming to deceive even the elect. 'He who endures to the end will be saved.'"
In the preface to the final, fifth edition of The Great Thing in the Small (an edition that was never brought to fruition), Sergius Alexandrovich writes: "My book about the coming Antichrist, which in its fourth edition was called It is Near, Even At The Doors, was published in January, 1917, and already on March 2 of the same year there took place the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II from the all-Russian throne for himself and his son. The House of Romanov, as an autocratic dynasty, ceased to exist, and the provisional Russian government was not slow to declare that Russia was a republic. That which was foreseen as a possibility by my book became an already accomplished fact, the heritage of the past. He who restrains was taken from the midst of the Orthodox Russian community. One does not have to be a prophet to foretell his removal in the very near future from all the other monarchical states, too, not excluding 'victory-bearing' Germany and her allies. This cannot take place later than that universal peace congress which must bring to an end the still-continuing universal human catastrophe which is already coming to its final moment.
"According to the word of the Apostle Paul and the tradition of the Holy Fathers, this removal of him who restrains represents the closest and most important sign of the coming of that time when the lawless one will be revealed - he whose coming, in accordance with the working of Satan, will be with all power and signs and false miracles, and every unrighteous deception of those who perish because they did not receive the love of the truth for their salvation (II Thess! . 2.7-10)."
The most famous part of Nilus' literary output, and the part which especially drew upon him the wrath of the Bolsheviks and the opprobrium of Western historians, was the section entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These were the records of meetings in Paris of the leaders of International Masonry, in which the Masonic plan for the subjugation of the Christian nations and the establishment of Jewish dominion over the whole world was formulated in detail. First published in 1902 in a St. Petersburg periodical, they came out in 1905 in book form in Nilus' The Great in the Small and The Antichrist.
Arguments have raged over the authenticity of the Protocols. What is undeniable is, first, that Nilus was genuinely convinced of their authenticity, and secondly, that, as the London Times pointed out, whether they were authentic records of a Masonic meeting or not, the Protocols were remarkably prescient in their description of the workings of "the mystery of iniquity" in the twentieth century.
"In publishing this edition of my work," wrote Nilus, "I nourish no hope that I will see it in any further editions, for reasons which the reader will understand. I conclude it with the divine word of the chief of the apostles, the apostle of the Gentiles: 'But of the times and seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For ye yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as the thief in the night. For when they shall say, peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness' (I Thess. 5.1-5)."
After the revolution, when the prophetic significance of the Protocols became clear to many, the Bolsheviks tried by all means to have the remaining copies destroyed. However, we know that the Martyr-Empress had a copy; as she noted in her diary under April 7/20, 1918: "Nicholas read to us the protocols of the free masons." And copies were smuggled out to the West, where the first translation into German appeared in January, 1920. "Before long," writes Richard Pipes, "translations appeared in Swedish, English, French, Polish; other foreign-language versions followed. In the 1920s, the Protocols became an international best-seller." It was only 50 years after the "bloodless" revolution that the books of Nilus began to be published in America. As E. Kontzevich writes, the appearance of Nilus' books was a clear miracle, since in those times it was highly improbably that anything could be sent out of Russia.
There is one small, little-known book entitled The Wheat and the Tares, which was written by S.A. Nilus and published in 1908 by the Holy Trinity - St. Sergius Lavra, in the preface to which Sergius Alexandrovich wrote the following: "In the woes and sorrows which like a narrow, heavy ring have oppressed your wandering along the paths of life from all sides, and which have become so much more difficult in recent times, have you ever given a thought, O reader, to the final and only common end, for all those who live upon the earth, of their labours and efforts, all their sorrows and joys, disillusionments and hopes, love and hate, good and evil - everything, in a word, out of which the thorny crown of life is woven? Do you even fully know what this end is like? And if you know, do you remember it with that careful thought which its importance merits? I don't think so. So allow me, my reader and brother in Christ, to remind you, whoever you may be - a ruler of the peoples, or a poor homeless man - that there is no other end to your life than death, than preparation for death. O how great and terrible is that word, that reality! And how few people in the world think about it!
"'Remember the hour of your death and you wil! l not sin to eternity', calls our Mother the Church. 'You will not sin to eternity!' Do you hear what she says? We have forgotten about this hour, which none can escape: and yet what have we turned the whole world that surrounds into through our sins? We have forgotten about death.
"Public and family quarrels, leading to bloodshed, in which sons raise their hands against their fathers and mothers, brothers against brothers, husbands against wives, wives against husbands; civil strife, in which public garbage and our youth that has been diverted and made senseless by antitheist teaching rises up in mindless blindness against the powers that be and against everyone that lives in accordance with the commandments of God, and not according to the elements of this world. Blood is shed in torrents, and the scythe of death mows down such an abundant harvest that the heart grows cold in horror. It seems that the times have come about which the faithful Christians were warned by the threatening word of Holy Scripture, that "blood will reach the horses' bridles" (Rev. 14.20), and "if those days should not be shortened for the sake of the elect, no flesh would be saved" (Matt. 24.22). And yet, people see all this, they see all the horrors of death, but few are those who think about death; as if only they, among those who are temporarily left among the living, have a guarantee of eternal life upon earth - a guarantee only they know about, and as if only those who are dead were predestined to death. "'I will judge you as I find you'... Savage is the death of sinners... It is terrible for the sinner to fall into the hands of the Living God in that desired world in which the faces of the saints and the righteous shine like the stars!... No stain of flesh and spirit will enter there. "In my quiet retreat it is as if I hear the enemy devil whispering into the ear of him who pays attention to my words: 'Don't listen to him! Go after the educated world - that's enough of fairytales about the Heavenly Kingdom. Give us the earthly kingdom that belongs to us by right!'"
The essence of the personality of Sergius Alexandrovich consisted in a flaming love for God expressed in love for people and a completely unacquisitive life to the end of his days. By his love he transfigured even Bolsheviks, leading them to faith in God. Not only the second half of Nilus' life, but also his death were wonderful and truly miraculous: he died peacefully in Soviet Russia, in which those who read his books were threatened with death by shooting. Is that not a miracle?! And being completely poor, Sergius Alexandrovich miraculously received sustenance in the Bolsheviks' land, and himself shared his last clothes with others.
Prince N.D. Zhevakov in his memoirs describes an interesting incident from the last years of the life of Sergius Alexandrovich:
"S.A. Nilus was preserved by God and after the revolution continued to live in the houses of his friends, in a small two-storey house in the depths of a shady park. On the upper floor of the little house was a house church and the residence of Schema-Archimandrite N., the former superior of one of the neighbouring monasteries which had been destroyed by the Bolsheviks, while on the lower floor lived S.A. Nilus and his wife.
"In those days anyone found in possession of the Protocols (in Near, even at the Doors) would be shot on the spot, while the book became better and better known, being translated into European and Asiatic languages, spreading throughout the world and arousing the satanic spite of the world conspirators. Meanwhile, S.A. Nilus continued to live in one of the wings of an estate seized by the Bolsheviks, where, to cap it all, daily Liturgies were celebrated by a reverend elder-archimandrite who had taken refuge there!
"It goes without saying that none of the local soviets, composed of criminals, caused S.A. Nilus the slightest concern, for, it goes without saying, they did not suspect him of being the publisher of The Protocols of Zion. Some considered that he had died long ago, while even thought that he never existed.
"But the enemy did not slumber. The fact that the 'masters' remained on the estate, even if they had been expelled from the main house, but continued to live in one of the wings, troubled the representatives of the local Soviet, and the evildoers decided at a meeting to kill all those living in the little house in the garden.
"One dark night in November, 1921, at the appointed hour, a band of eight Red Army soldiers under the leadership of the local bandit, armed with guns and knives, penetrated into the park and slowly began to approach the house, stealthily creeping through the bushes and looking around on all sides. They had decided to kill the aged schema-archimandrite first. But the closer they came to the house, the clearer became the sounds of a night watchman's rattle. He was walking round the house and rattling with a wooden crank that had a little sphere attached to it. The evil-doers decided to wait until the night watchman went away. But they had no success that night, and decided to try again the next night, only with ten men this time.
"It seemed as if everything favoured them. Instead of the wind and frosts of the previous night, the weather was wonderful, quiet and almost warm. The moon shone, and everything around was steeped in a deep sleep, but... the hateful old watchman was still fearlessly walking round the house and rattling his rattle, as if he were calling for help, as if he were mocking the criminals.
"'What are you waiting for,' suddenly shouted the leader, losing patience, 'there are ten of us and he's alone, let's go!' And the evildoers, encouraged by their leader and certain of victory, headed with guns on their shoulders towards the old man, considering it no longer necessary to hide themselves from him. They were already within a few strides of him, and they could clearly see him. He was a frail, bent-over old man with a white beard. He was walking confidently round the house and displayed not the slightest fear or concern at their approach.
"'Get him,' commanded the enraged ataman of the band of criminals. And, coming up to the old man, with all his might he struck him on the head with his axe. The blow flew through the air, the old man disappeared, and the evildoer fell as if dead onto the earth, losing consciousness. His comrades, mortally frightened, hurled themselves towards their ataman, who displayed no sign of life, and carried him home. Several days passed, but none of the inhabitants of the house even guessed at their miraculous delivery from the death that threatened each one of them. In fact, no one would probably have known about the attempt if the wife of the criminal had not come to the schema-archimandrite and told him about the crime. Drenched in tears, she besought him to help her husband, who was lying paralyzed.
"'If it were not for the night watchman,' she said, 'the criminals would have killed you all. It was only thanks to him that you were saved from death and the souls of the evildoers from eternal damnation.' For a long time they tried to convince the woman that in those times there could be no question of any night watchmen. But she insisted and asked that her husband be brought there, then he himself would tell them everything.
"'Bring him here, let him confess, receive Communion, kiss the icon of the God-pleaser St. Seraphim, and then the Lord will release him,' said the archimandrite.
"That day the paralysed criminal was brought on a stretcher to the house-church. But before starting confession, the archimandrite went up to him with the icon of St. Seraphim and asked him to kiss it. The eyes of the criminal met those of the kindly elder and God-pleaser Seraphim, and... a hysterical shouting filled the little church.
"'It's him, it's him!' shouted the unfortunate criminal, recognizing in the face of St. Seraphim the old watchman walking with his rattle round the garden-house and guarding it. Tears of contrition flowed from his eyes, and the love of God not only healed him instantly, but also completely transformed him. After the Liturgy, in which he was counted worthy to commune of the Holy Mysteries, he stayed for a long time in the church and told everyone present in detail about the miracle of St. Seraphim, after which a moleben of thanksgiving was served to the saint for the miraculous deliverance from death of those living in the house."
Maria Vasilievna Orlova-Smirnova - later the nun Mariam, the daughter of the martyred priest Fr. Basil Smirnov - shared her impressions of the last days of Sergius Alexandrovich, who spent the last two years of his life in her house and died there: "Inwardly, he was a colossus of the spirit, who stood so firmly 'on the rock of faith' that neither persecutions, nor slander were able to shake his faith and love for God. Having chosen his path, he went along it without looking back.
"Sergius Alexandrovich got up very early: at about four o'clock, and when he had finished his special morning rule, at about seven o'clock, Helen Alexandrovna got up and they read the morning prayers together."
Fr. John of Kronstadt knew and loved the wife of Sergius Alexandrovich. When Fr. John, during a trip down the Volga, met the newly-crowned couple, he bowed to Helen Alexandrovna and said to her: "I thank you for marrying him." It seems that he was the only person who thanked her. The rest were so hostile to them, and mocked them and their marriage so much, that they could not stay in Petersburg. Prince N.D. Zhevakov recalls: "The marriage between Sergius Alexandrovich and Helen Alexandrovna was concluded in their old age, when they were both over 60, or thereabouts. Its foundation was not carnal, but was rather a strengthening of their friendship of many years, which had been established on the soil of their common profound religiosity." The words of Sergius Alexandrovich are both simple and deeply Orthodox: "Christ the Lord and His Orthodox Church - that is the one truth that makes us free, the one source of every earthly blessing, every true, unbreakable happiness that can be attained on earth and above the earth - in the depth of the endless ages, in the height of the fathomless heavens. For him who, by the mercy of God, attains this truth, who devotes himself unreservedly to its service, life becomes clear; and he sorrows for unsettled contemporary man, who mindlessly and unwittingly drives away from himself the grace of God, without which he is dust and ashes!"
Sergius Alexandrovich spent some years as a wanderer, and was briefly imprisoned in 1924 and again in 1927. At one point he was banished from Chernigov and was forbidden to live in the six major cities of the Soviet Union. When Metropolitan Sergius' notorious declaration submitting the Church to the God-hating atheists was published, he opposed it. Thus on January 29 / February 11, 1928 he wrote to L.A. Orlov: "As long as there is a church of God that is not of 'the Church of the evildoers', go to it whenever you can; but if not, pray at home... They will say: 'But where will you receive communion? With whom? I reply: 'The Lord will show you, or an Angel will give you communion, for in 'the Church of the evildoers' there is not and cannot be the Body and Blood of the Lord. Here in Chernigov, out of all the churches only the church of the Trinity has remained faithful to Orthodoxy; but if it, too, will commemorate the [sergianist] Exarch Michael, and, consequently, will have communion in prayer with him, acting with the blessing of Sergius and his Synod, then we shall break communion with it."
At the end of April, 1928 the Niluses arrived at the home of the Orlovs in Krutets, Alexandrovsky uyezd, Vladimir region. Sergius Alexandrovich died on January 1/14, 1929. On that day, he forced himself, with great difficulty, to go to the church in the village of Krutets, where he was counted worthy to receive the Holy Mysteries. On returning home, he fainted (from a heart attack), after which it was only with difficulty that he recovered consciousness. One hour before his death, he said that difficult times were coming for the Church and that now the doors had been opened for the coming of the Antichrist. Then, pointing at Fr. Basil Smirnov, he said: Ah, Father, Father, I am sorry for you." The last thing he did was bless the little daughter of Maria Vasilievna Orlova. Then, at five in the afternoon, at the very moment when the bells were beginning to ring for the all-night vigil commemorating St. Seraphim of Sarov, he fainted again, and quietly died. It is obvious that the holy God-pleaser St. Seraphim took care of his geat venerator and prayed the Lord that the righteous man should have a peaceful end. Soviet power did not forgive Fr. Basil for giving shelter to the Niluses. The same year he was driven out of his house, and the following year he was arrested, his property confiscated and his family exiled.
Fr. Basil was in exile for five years. In 1936 he returned. In 1937 he was again arrested, and on February 8, 1938 he died.
Maria Vasilevna Orlova was born in 1906, the first of six children. She married Lev Alexandrovich Orlov. After the death of her father she remained in Moscow, where she became close to Tatyana Mikhailovna N, a spiritual daughter of Abbess Tamara, the famous "Josephite" and spiritual mother of Hieromartyr Bishop Arsenius (Zhadanovsky). In 1992 Maria Vasilievna joined the "Matthewite" branch of the Greek Old Calendarist Church. In 1995 she received the monastic tonsure with the name Mariam from Bishop Kyrikos of Mesogaia. She died on July 30 / August 12, 1997.
"On the grave of Sergius Alexandrovich," concludes Maria Vasilievna, "my brother placed a cross which he himself had made. On the cross, under the name of the deceased, was written: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints', and on the other side: 'It is good to keep the secret of a king, but honourable to proclaim the works of God.'"
At the end, or in the preface, of his books Sergius Alexandrovich always asked his readers for their prayers: "In conclusion, I again ask every Orthodox who has a liking for this book to remember the name of its sinful compiler, praying for the time being - for his health and salvation, and in time - for the repose of his soul in the heavenly dwellings of the One Tri-Personal God for the sake of the priceless merits of the One Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be honour and worship and glory to the ages."
Helen Alexandrovna, nee Ozerova, was the scion of an aristocratic family. Her father, Alexander Petrovich Ozerov, had many posts at court. He was, it seems, an envoy to Greece, where Helen Alexandrovna was born. He was an envoy to the Russian embassy in Persia, and thereafter the ober-hofmeister of the Court of His Imperial Majesty. He had seven children. His eldest son, Alexander, perished in Bulgaria during the siege of Shipki. His eldest daughter, Olga, the Duchess Shakhovskaya by marriage, took monastic vows after the death of her husband and died as the abbess of the Dmitrievna women's monastery of the Moscow oblast', having taken the name of Sophia in mantia. One of the sons, David, was in charge of caring for the condition of the Winter Palace.
Helen Alexandrovich was the maid of honour at the court of Empress Maria Feodorovna. After the death of Sergius Alexandrovich, she went to Chernigov to live with a little elderly woman, to take care of her. After her repose she lived with the Orlovs in the town of Gorodok in Kalinin province. In 1938 the Orlovs had to move to Moscow, while Helen Alexandrovich was invited by her former landlady in Chernigov to move to Kola in Murmansk district. There she died. (Sources: Monk Boris (Ephremov), "Sergius Nilus", Pravoslavnaya Rus', N 1 (1454), January 1/14, 1992, pp. 5-9; Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolsheviks, 1919-1924, London: Fontana Press, 1995; General Nechvolodov, L'Empereur Nicholas II et les Juifs, Paris: Chinon, 1924; Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide, London: Serif, 1996, p. 107; Bagdasarov, R., Fomin, S., Nyeizvestnij Nilus, volume 2, Moscow, 1995, p. 204; Schema-Monk Epiphanius (Chernov), Ekklesia Katakombon stin Rossia, Koropi, Attica, p. 39 (in Greek); Sergius Nilus, "Pis'mo otnositel'no 'sergianstva'", Russkij Pastyr', 28-29, II/III, 1997, pp. 180-189; M.V. Orlova-Smirnova, "Recollections of Sergei Aleksandrovich and Elena Aleksandrovna Nilus", translated by G. Spruksts, Russian Cultural Heritage Society, 1999; V.V. Antonov, Iosiflyanstvo, St. Petersburg: Memorial, 1999, p. 343; Priests Andrew Sindiev, "I makaristi monakhi Mariam Orlova (+1997)", Orthodoxos Pnoi, 99, August-September, 1999, pp. 133-139 (In Greek))
"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.
"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!...
"They Shall Be One Flesh?" - Sergei Alexandrovich and Elena Alexandrovna Nilus
Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus is a well known Russian Church writer whose narratives provide a splendid literary montage of Holy Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also responsible for bringing to light St. Seraphim's conversation with Motovilov On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The following account, however, focuses not on his literary achievements but on his relationship with his equally remarkable wife. It is not a Life but a series of sketches, illustrating their godly marriage and the heartwarming Christian ambiance it engendered
Sergei Atexandrovich Nilus was born in Moscow in 1862, to a family of well-to-do landowners. Like their milieu, the family was possessed by the spirit of the times, i.e., materialism and extreme liberalism. They scorned everything to do with the Church. Young Sergius' upbringing followed along these lines, but cold rationalism was foreign to the child's nature. God had given him a burning heart, and he divided his affection between his nanny and the family estate, Zolotarevo-both of which he loved "to tears".
As he grew older, his godless upbringing bore its fruit. He always received bad marks in catechism classes, and once he came to confession shamefully drunk. In his fourth year of high school, aware that he was unprepared for his exams, he gave a vow to go to "Trinity-Sergius" [Lavra] and there to cross himself "with both hands and feet"... But the vow was forgotten until there occurred a miracle which reminded him that he was an oath-breaker. This happened after his graduation from university when, as a court magistrate in the Caucasus, he was horse-back riding on a mountain road strewn with sharp rocks. He spurred on his horse when it stumbled and turned in the air, throwing the rider onto the rocks. Such a fall was sure to be fatal. But by a mercy of God, both horse and rider escaped with only minor bruises--a miracle which prompted the recall of his childhood vow.
When he arrived at Holy Trinity Lavra, a monk first guided him around all the significant places of the monastery and then took him to St. Sergius' reliquary, where a general service of intercession was being held. Sargei Alexandrovich began to pray fervently to God. Lifting his eyes, he looked at the Saint's schema under the glass, and trembled, as he beheld on the cloth the living visage of the Saint looking at him sternly. Through his fervent, penitent prayers, the Saint's expression became less stern and soon disappeared.
Even this time, however, the transformation which Sergei Alexandrovich experienced in his soul was not definitive. He could not break free of his slavery to the passions. His full conversion occurred somewhat later, at the feet of St. John of Kronstadt, to whom he was directed by a chance fellow traveller, Fr. Ambrose, the treasurer of Liutikov Monastery and former cell-attendant who shared in the last five years of the righteous life of that great God-pleaser, Elder Ambrose of Optina.
It was February, and there was a bitter frost. Nilus traveled to Kronstadt with a bad cold: he was feverish and had lost his voice, and he made the trip in an open cab, wearing a light coat easily penetrated by the wind: He risked his life, but his need to see St. John was insuperable. Nilus later described his experience during confession with the Saint. When asked a question, he writes, "I couldn't make a sound in reply; my throat Was completely constricted. Helpless, bewildered, I simply looked at Batiushka in despair. Fr. John gave me the Cross to kiss and laid it on the analogion and then, with two fingers of his right hand, he ran them over my throat inside the collar of my shirt, three times. Instantly my fever left me and my voice returned, fresher and purer than before. It is hard to express in words what went on at that moment in my soul!...
"For more than half an hour, standing on my knees at the feet of the longed-for comforter, I told him of my sorrows; I opened to him my sinful soul and repented for everything that lay like a heavy stone upon my heart. It is difficult to expose oneself before God in front of a witness, to overcome this difficulty, to renounce one's pride--this is the very essence, the mysterious and healing (with the help of God's grace) power of confession. For the first time I felt with all my soul the sweetness of this repentance.
"...Only after this heartfelt confession with Fr. John did that faith--which so stubbornly refused to come to my soul, despite my evident conversion at the relics of St. Sergius- -come to dwell in my heart as a bright flame. And I became conscious of myself as a believer and as an Orthodox Christian."...
Sergei Alexandrovich was grievously tormented by the loss of his beloved "Zolotarevo". It proved to be a crisis in his life which tore him from his accustomed foundation. Henceforth he gradually moved away from "this world," and became a seeker after the "heavenly city' The Lord led him towards this goal m gradual stages, through alternate sorrows and spiritual consolation.
A joyous event soon afterwards was his meeting with his future wife. Elena Alexandrovna Ozerova, in contrast with Nilus, was raised from childhood by her pious mother in strict obedience to the Church. From the age of thirty, her spiritual father, Protopresbyter I. Yanshm, forbade her to participate in worldly life. Her life was devoted to caring for her elderly father and to good works. She was a trustee of one of the "Patriotic" schools, founded in the last century by Empress Elizabeth for orphans of the Patriotic War; there, in addition to sciences, the young women were instructed in trades. She was also a trustee of the Rozhdestvensk medical assistant courses for women, and it was here that she met Nilus who was visiting the directress of these courses.
During the Russo-Japanese War Elena Alexandrovna worked in the Winter Palace together with Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Here she developed a close acquaintance with the Empress, who offered Elera Alexandrovna to become the Red Cross representative in Tsarskoe Selo and to take charge of all her charitable organizations. This was in 1905-6.
The Niluses were married February 3, 1906 in Petersburg. The crowns were held by general D.A. Ozerov--brother of the bride, and Raphael---an elderly valet who had served in the family for forty years. They both wept, certain that Elena Alexandrovna was: committing a folly.
Their plans were that Nilus enter the priesthood and become a village priest in Volhynia. His parish and date of ordination were already set, and all seemed to herald a cause for rejoicing. The newlyweds complemented one another remarkably. For example, thanks to Elena Alexandrovna, her husband's artistic talents surfaced. As a young girl she had studied art and knew the technique, but she tacked talent. He had learned only to draw in high school, and that was limited to pencil sketches. When she taught him how to work with color--the results were some beautiful studies which lived and breathed: they conveyed a sense of perspective, the expanse of fields, air, sunshine.
As for Elena Alexandrovna she blossomed inwardly and became still more kindhearted. Although she was not beautiful, she was pleasantly attractive. She was older than her husband by seven years. Thanks to her-exceptional mind, her spiritual refinement and highly cultured development, Elena Alexandrovna made a singular impression. She was a treasure and stronghold in everything regarding Christian duty, and she never argued with her husband, who possessed in her a firm support.
At that time Sergei Alexandrovich still bore signs of his former good looks--in spite of his broad, graying beard. An interesting conversationalist, a wonderful musician who retained vestiges of a once good voice, he was--thanks to his warmth and affectionate manner towards everyone--a very charming personality. This was a guileless, captivating man who possessed a truly childlike simplicity.
But Petersburg society regarded him and this marriage in an entirely different light: a general consensus was formed that he was an adventurist who had married one of the Empress' favorites--an older maid of honor--and was becoming a priest in hopes of entering the ranks of the court clergy with the aim of wielding a politically reactionary influence.
Within this society there arose an unbelievable furor, chiefly fueled by an article in the paper "New Times," in which Sergei Alexandrovich's past life was laid out in the most abominable terms; he was characterized as the worst libertine. In fact, the story of his past was the following:
Nilus was still a youth when a neighboring landowner, a distant relative, fell in love with him. This woman s husband was paralyzed; she had several children and was 18 years older than Nilus. From this affair a son was born; he was adopted and raised by Nilus' father, and received a good education. Natalya Afanasievna was wealthy, but although she wanted for nothing, she continued to frustrate all Nilus' efforts to marry. She was not yet a widow when Nilus broke off ties with her and finally got married. It was then that this story surfaced in the guise of the most unbelievable scandal, as it was portrayed in the "New Times" article.
There could be no more talk of ordination. The Nilus couple wanted to disappear from Petersburg, where relatives and acquaintances avoided them as if they were outcasts. Tying up their affairs in the city, the Niluses chose as their retreat the remote Babaevsky Monastery on the shores of the Volga, where the ever-memorable Bishop Ignaty Brianchiannov had spent his last days. On the way they met with an unexpected joy: one of their fallow passengers on the boat was Fr. John of Kronstadt. He was acquainted with both of them and tried, with his affection and kindness, to compensate for the slanders and offenses inflicted upon them by Petersburg society. He approved and blessed their marriage and told Elena Alexandrovna that she would never regret her dccision. And indeed, Nilus treasured and loved his wife as a gift sent from God. One couldn't imagine a closer union and a more compatible couple.
Nilus had often spoken to his wife about the well known Optina Hermitage. During the several months he had spent there in preparing for the priesthood, he had become a changed man; it was for him his spiritual homeland. Elena Alexandrovna had never been there, and in the summer of 1907, she suggested they go together. They arrived not long before the Feast of Definition. The next day was the feast of the Icon of the Saviour 'Not-Made-by-Hands". Nilus wrote in his diary:
"We attended the late Liturgy. After the dismissal my wife and I were preparing to leave by the southern door. And there, in front of the Kazan Icon, we were met by one of the elders, Hieromonk Sergei. He gave us his blessing, and then said, unexpectedly:
' 'What a pity, Sergei Alexandrovich, that you live so far away!'
"'What do you mean?'
"'Well, you see, we have in mind to publish Optina leaflets, similar to the Trinity leaflets. If you lived nearby, you could be our co-worker 'What's there to hinder this?' I said. 'Thanks be to God, we are free people, and are not tied down by any worldly obligations. If there could be found a place for us here--we are yours.' '
[IMAGE] As it turned out, there was a sizeable house belonging to the monastery, located just outside its walls. It had been built by a certain Archimandrite Juvenaly in the late 1870's. Ten years later he was appointed to another diocese, and apart from serving occasionally as a short-term summer residence, the house was left vacant. There the Niluses spent almost four years; it was for them an earthly paradise.
Best of all was the opportunity to frequently, attend the monastery services, and to be closely guided by an elder. The Niluses' spiritual father was Elder Barsanouphy. (He confessed them together, knowing that they kept no secrets from one another.) At that time Elder Joseph was still living, and there were many other righteous ascetics among the monks: Abbot Mark who had been tonsured by the great Elder Moses, Fr. Joel, Fr. John (Salov), blind Fr. James, the future Elder Nektary... As a literary artist, Nilus deftly impressed their holy and shining images on the pages of his Optina diary, a remarkable portrayal of Holy Russia later published under the title: On the Banks of God's River.
The book was not composed solely of monastic portraits. Besides their association with the Optina monks, the Niluses became acquainted with many of the pilgrims who visited the hermitage.. Among them was Abbess Sophia of the Protection Convent in Kiev, who at that time was superior of a small monastic community, "Joy and Consolation." There was also Elena Andreevna Voronova [see OA, Vol. 11, No. 2], and her helper Natalia Ivanovna Yevreynova, who succeeded her as head of the prison mission. Like Elena Andreevna, she was a righteous woman. The mother of a large family, she had been secretly tonsured. She had the gift of healing eye diseases, a gift which she exercised with the blessing of Elder Barsanouphy...
A large dining room ran the length of the Niluses' manor house. Sitting at the hospitable table, one found a diversified company of pilgrims: here was Mafia Nikolaevna Maximovna, wife of the governor-general of Warsaw, drinking tea next to some simple peasants; here there were no class distinctions, all felt part of one spiritual family here there reigned a sincere, Christian altitude The Niluses were able to unite people, surrounding them with their hearthfelt love.
Their life at Optina promoted the development of a keen spiritual perception. The reality of the spiritual world was manifest with a clarity unknown to people of their world. "their life was so saturated with prayer that one could scarcely wonder at the daily revelation, of God's Providence. A striking illustration appears in Nilus' biographical narrative.
"July 7, 1909...Last night I had a heavy attack of a suffocating cough. Just what I deserved! It was from smoking, a habit which I cannot break; I've been smoking since my third year in high school and now I am so penetrated with this accursed nicotine that it has undoutedly become an essential part of my blood. A miracle is needed to tear me from the claws of this vice. I haven't enough willpower to do it myself. I tried to kick the habit I didn't smoke for a day, two ,days--but the result was that I became irritable, angry, and this new sin was more bitter than the first Fr. Barsanouphy forbade me even from making such attempts, limiting my daily portion to fifteen cigarettes. (I had previously smoked without counting Later Fr. Barsanouphy wrote: "Your hour will come, and you will stop smoking." Regarding this same habit, Fr. Joseph said to me: "Hope, do not despair: in good time, God willing, you will quit.!' And, according to the word of the elders, this miracle occurred. It happened in the following way:
"I lived with my friend, my God-given wife, 'soul in soul,' as they say, in the full sense of the Gospel words; i.e., in such a way that we were not two, but one flesh. The great mercy of God was granted us from above on account of our profound and firm faith in the Mystery of Marriage, which we both approached with fear and trembling Then, in June, 1910, my wife fell seriously ill, and neither the Optina medical assistant nor the summoned doctor could identify the nature of her illness: in the morning she appeared to be almost well, but as soon as evening came her temperature rose to 40. And so it went on for a week, another, a third! I saw that my joy was melting before my eyes, like a wax candle; at any moment imagined she would flare up for the last time and be extinguished. And my orphaned heart became filled with a great, an immeasurably great distress and grief. I fell down before the Smolensk Icon of the "Mother of God, which stood in the corner of my study, and I wept, pouring forth my anguish and distress and speaking to Her as it the Icon were alive: 'Mother, Queen, my All-blessed Theotokos! I believe it was You who gave me my angel wife. Save her for me, and in return I vow before you that I will never smoke again. I give this vow, and yet I know that I cannot fulfill it through my own powers, but not to fulfill it would be a great sin; therefore, help me!'
"This was about 10 o'clock at night. Having prayed and calmed down somewhat, I approached my wife's bedside. She was sleeping; her breathing was quiet, regular. I felt her forehead: it was damp but not hot. My sweet darling was sound asleep. Glory to God, glory to the Most Holy Mother of God! In the morning her temperature was 36.5, in the evening--36.4, and a day later she was up as if she had never been ill. As for myself, I forgot that I had ever smoked, although I had been a chain-smoker for thirty-three years and my entire organism was so saturated with the cursed tobacco that I couldn't live without it, not for a day, not even for a minute. Was this not a miracle of the Hodigitria?'
It was the Niluses' fervent desire to remain in Optina to the end of their days. In moving there, they had asked their spiritual father to give his blessing for this. But to their dismay he told them they would only spend a few years there. And indeed, scarcely more than three years had passed when the Evil One stirred up a scandal which resulted not only in the Niluses having to leave their beloved "Juvenaly Manor," but also in Elder' Barsanouphy's "deportation" to another monastery. A contributing factor here was the arrival of Natalie Afanasievna, now in impoverished widow, who begged Nilus to take her in. Elena Alexandrovna generously took pity on the elder woman and soon conquered her initial hostility with her angelic kindness and solicitude. They spent several years under the same roof
Moving north to Valdai, Nilus feared that he would have to abandon his work ' On the Banks of God's River,' but there, too, life was rich with spiritual impressions and encounters with people devoted to the Church. People came to see them from all parts of Russia; they received letters... And Nilus continued casting his nets--with great success. One of their visitors, a student at the time, recalls the quality of their life in Valdai:
"The Niluses' house stood in a beautiful, deserted park, which sloped down to the lake. Here was a small wharf where boats were moored. Women operated the ferries, carrying passengers primarily to the Iveron Monastery, situated in the woods on the island in the middle of the lake...
'I arrived in Valdai June 29, 1916, on the feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and was unexpectedly plunged into an extraordinary atmosphere which words can scarcely convey.. I will say only this I had had occasion in my life to meet good Christians, but such a life of faith, of such profound, living evangelical spirit as I saw here, I had never before encountered anywhere, nor would I afterwards. The Niluses' relation to others--in spite of the troubles they suffered--was so simple, so honest, heartfelt and affectionate; it exuded such light and warmth that I could not but immediately submerge myself with all my soul into this joyous, cozy, love-filled atmosphere. Here there was nothing false or contrived: this was the way the Niluses were; this was their life, their spirit. Daily they read the Lives of Saints and were penetrated by their frame of mind. I spent six weeks in this wonderful house, and this time put such a strong stamp on my soul that the cumulative impressions of the rest of my life could not efface it."
Elena Alexandrovna's niece, the future Elena Yurievna Kontzevitch, was a young woman of 20 when she first visited Valdai in the fall of 1913: "I left about noon and arrived in Valdai shortly after 4 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark when, by the light of lanterns, I stepped off the train, and I immediately found myself in the broad, familial embrace of my dear, elderly aunt and uncle, who had come to meet me in spite of the early hour. 'That night, or rather that morning, we didn't go to rest but talked and talked--endlessly: beginning by lamplight and continuing into the daylight. In the morning they showed me around the house. 'The principal room was the study-cozy and old-fashioned, with heavy, stuffed armchairs and a divan arranged about a round table with a lamp and partitioned off from the door by Chinese screens. In the corner could be seen an enormous icon of the Hodigitria Mother of God. At one window stood uncle's desk, where so much of his life took place, his work. The walls were hung with portraits and other art--the work of the master and mistress of the house,.. 'The other remarkable room was their bedroom, half of which had been transformed into a chapel. There were many icons; some of them were old, family icons. Most striking of all was a wondrous image of Christ, as if alive, wearing a crown of thorns--the work of an unknown Italian artist....There was also a captivating icon portrait of St. Seraphim, painted by some Diveyeva nuns. Vigil lamps burned in front of the icons. "A special feeling of peace and coziness emanated from these two rooms. Never again and nowhere in my life did I encounter such a soothing, peaceable atmosphere. The other rooms -a dining room and two guest rooms--did not bear such a personal stamp. "This time I only stayed about a month in Valdai. The weather wasn't particularly conducive to taking walks. I sat in the study in one of the armchairs opposite aunt with some work or a book in hand. Sitting at his desk, uncle turned to my aunt: "This girl doesn't bother me; she knows how to be quiet, like you." I didn't find the silence burdensome; on the contrary, I was delighted by this old world atmosphere, the affection and love of my relatives. After all, there are different kinds of silence: one is cold, dry, oppressive, rooted in a feeling of alienation and differing opinions; and then there is the opposite, when there reigns a perfect understanding, an inner harmony; then words are superfluous." Life for the Niluses in Valdai was rich and fruitful. The nearby Iveron Monastery, with its holy things and spiritually attuned monks, although it could not replace their beloved Optina, was for them a source of comfort and joy. With the coming of the Revolution, however, "normal life" ended and "history" took over. At the very outbreak of the Revolution, the Niluses were providentially invited to move south, to the estate of Prince Vladimir Zhevakhov (the future Bishop Ioasaph). Fortunately they agreed- and were spared the famine and terror which soon swept the north; their local friends all perished. Preparing for an uncertain future, the Niluses received a blessing from the diocesan bishop, Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, to establish a church in the top floor of their house. Abbess Sophia of Kiev, whom they knew from Optina, took an active part in setting up the church and sent some of her nuns to help out. The altar was separated by a screen partition covered with dark blue satin trimmed with silver galloon. The icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God were in silver rizas and framed with the same galloon. Vigil lamps were suspended in front of them. A curtain served for the Royal Doors. The Niluses were both readers and singers; others joined them, forming a choir. Most people came to this church only irregularly, But still, they were drawn to the services and obtained spiritual consolation. When times were hard, those who came brought provisions. From abroad letters came with offers to help the Niluses leave the country. But apart from having no money, they felt it was not right to abandon their church, where the Lord and the Queen of Heaven had appointed them "guardians, watchmen, readers, chanters and lamp-lighters." 'There is no way," wrote Nilus, "that we can change our assignment; we must stand at our Divine post until the Lord Himself clearly indicates4hat our mission is finished, or until our death..," The Niluses were too well known to escape the notice of the new, godless authorities. The net began to tighten. Meanwhile; however, .their Christian love continued to prove its strength. One of their guests at Linovitsa later wrote:
"In their house there reigned the grace of God; one could sense it upon entering. There was always an atmosphere of joy; no one ever quarreled. SA. Nilus had a gift of burning love towards one and all. While I was there it happened that a Bolshevik commisar came to look at the house. Of course, he did not remove his cap; he had an insolent manner and was very crude in his behavior. SA. showed him around the whole house and took him into the chapel on the top floor. They were there for a long time. S A.'s wife decided to have a look and saw that the Bolshevik was crying m the embrace of her husband.. S.A. himself was weeping Evidently he had been able to find words which had melted his heart..."
In 1923 the Niluses were banished from Linovitsa, and it was only through a miracle that they were not executed. Already getting on in years, the couple began to lead a life corresponding to the uncertainty of the time, 'We don't think about what is to become of us," wrote Nilus in a letter abroad "Let us commend ourselves and one another and all our lives unto Christ our God." In August, 1924 Nilus was arrested--no reason, no interrogation; But God was merciful. Describing her husband's circumstances in a letter to her sister, Elena Alexandrovna wrote: "He is calm, as always, cheerful... Only one thing grieves him--the separation from me. We've never been separated before, not once..." Soon, however, Nilus was transferred to Kiev where conditions were stricter. He became quite ill and after five months was released. The couple settled temporarily in a women s convent. Once again, they felt as though they were in paradise. It is just the life we love," Wrote Elena Alexandrovna "We have a nice room, and--and for nothing! We have only to cross a small courtyard to get to church where there are daily services, splendid, with two choirs and two priests--one better than the other....Everything seems like old times, so you can understand how blessed we are. They show us love in every way and bring us so much that there's no place to put it...." Sergei Alexandrovich added: "My head is spinning from all the impressions we have and are experienced. Now with this head and with all my heart I have become absorbed in contacts with people of the same spirit with us ...There aren't enough hours in the day to fully and worthily take advantage of this and the more so because Great Lent is here and a lot of time is spent at services." Nilus was arrested a second and a third time, and the strain eventually told on his health. A friend arranged for the couple to move in with his father, a priest who lived in the country They hoped that Nilus would get well in the fresh air. But he never recovered. He died January 1 (o.s.), 1929. Elena Alexandrovna wrote to her niece in Paris, assuring her that she needn't be anxious over the fact that Sergei Alexandrovich had died suddenly as though without the necessary preparation. "He was a doer of unceasing prayer-, which was for him like breathing" And truly, already many years before his death, one could observe his left hand fingering a prayer rope which he kept concealed in his jacket pocket. Elena Alexandrovna herself constantly said the Jesus Prayer, and even at night in her sleep, she felt at times its movement in her heart. After her husband's death, Elena Alexandrovna moved back with Natalia Afanasievna, whom she supported for the next four years by giving foreign language lessons When Natalia Afanasievna died, Elena Alexandrovna wrote: "Understand, I thank the Lord that He granted me--if years ago I caused her much grief--to live with her these last four years, to care for her and bury her...So it was meant to be; this is how the story of our life was meant to end." Elena Alexandrovna herself died peacefully on April 10, 1938. (Translated and compiled tram the Introductory Life of Nilus in Volume II of On the Banks of God's River; Orthodox Christian Books & Icons, San Francisco, 1969.)
Translated from Na Beregu Bozhyei Reki, St. Elias Publications, Forestville, CA, 1975. article from Orthodox America
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