HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE HOLY FATHERS
On the Sunday of the Holy Fathers – the last Sunday before the Nativity of Christ – the Church offers us two comforting lessons. The first one is contained in the long enumeration of names which is heard in the Gospel reading of the day. The Evangelist Matthew begins his Gospel with this genealogy, in order to prove that Jesus Christ satisfied the requirements of Hebrew law concerning the Messiah’s provenance from the ancestry of Abraham and David, and that He is, in fact, the expected Messiah.
But for us, dear brethren, this genealogy has an even deeper significance. In this list of the Lord’s earthly forebears we find not only righteous men, but also great sinners. On a par with the righteous Abraham, Isaac, Boaz and Solomon, we see the Jewish king Ahaz, who dishonored himself with bloody idol-worship and was even denied burial; Manasses, who engaged in sorcery and idolatry, and who killed the great prophet Isaiah; and Josiah, who was struck with leprosy.
The Lord deigned to come from such different forebears, in order to show His incarnation from all people and for the sake of all mankind, both good and bad. The Lord came to earth to save all of us, with all our sins and passions. Even more than that – the Lord Himself said: “I came to save not the righteous, but the sinners.” These are very comforting words for us, because they mean that every one of us has the full possibility to be with the Lord.
The second comfort we find in the Epistle reading of the day. The previous week the Church commemorated the Holy Forefathers, i.e. all the venerable ancestors of Christ, the ancient patriarchs and all the prophets, up to the last and greatest of them – St. John the Baptist, while on this Sunday it commemorates the Holy Fathers, i.e. all the righteous men who lived on earth before the birth of Christ.
Apostle Paul describes the great deeds and the miracles that these righteous ones performed: they subdued kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, repelled the armies of foreign hosts, even resurrected the dead. And for all this they endured various tortures: they were stoned, they were sawed through with saws, they were tortured, they died from the sword, they endured mockery and trials, bonds and imprisonment, they were destitute, afflicted, and tormented.
And all these righteous ones did not, in their own time, receive the promise, i.e. heavenly bliss. Why? Because, as Apostle Paul explains to us, God had provided something better for us, that they – these righteous ones – would not attain perfection without us.
Regard, dear brethren, what great mercy and great love the Lord God shows us! He delays giving the promised reward to the righteous ones of the Old Testament, – because prior to Christ’s coming into the world and His resurrection the gates of paradise remained closed, – in order that all men – and that includes even us, dear brethren, – might share in this reward!
Let us, too, love our Saviour with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and let us mentally rush forth to that cave in Bethlehem, where very soon the great mystery of the Nativity of Christ will take place.
Christ is born – glorify Him!
HOMILY FOR THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
The Lord Jesus Christ did not begin His open preaching of the Gospel until the age of 30, because the Jews did not accept anyone below that age as a teacher or priest, and this rule has also been incorporated into the Christian Book of Rules.
When the time came for Him to preach salvation, by God’s command He was preceded by John the Forerunner, who proclaimed throughout all the environs of the Jordan River that the Heavenly Kingdom was at hand, and that the awaited Messiah was coming… John preached repentance, necessary for entering this Kingdom, and baptized in the river Jordan all those who confessed their sins. This baptizing, which merited John the name of the Baptist, was, according to St. John Chrysostome, only a preparation for the sacrament, and not the sacrament itself. The Lord Jesus Christ, upon coming to the river Jordan and sanctifying the waters by immersing His most holy Self in them, thereby established the sacrament of baptism, which serves as a door into a new and eternal covenant with God. It was not the water that cleansed Him, Who was most-pure and without sin, but He Who sanctified the water by deigning to lave Himself in it, as is sung in the office of the great blessing of the waters: “Today is the nature of water sanctified.”
Before embarking upon His universal preaching, Jesus Christ also came to John to be baptized in the Jordan River. The Forerunner had never seen the Saviour, but God revealed to him that this was the Messiah. Then John exclaimed in pious awe: “…I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” “Suffer it to be so now,” – the Lord replied to him, – “for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14-15).
After that John placed his hand upon the head of Jesus Christ and immersed Him; in the words of the church hymns, the Lord takes upon Himself the sins of the world and is covered by the waters of Jordan. When the Lord came out of the water, the heavens opened above Him, and John saw the Spirit of God, Who was descending upon Christ in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father was heard: “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). In this manner God appeared as the Holy Trinity.
In commemorating this event on the River Jordan, the Church established the feast of the Lord’s Baptism to be celebrated on January 6th (19th by the new calendar). This holiday is also called the day of Theophany. Why is that? For the following reason: this holiday is distinguished by the fact that, as is sung in its troparion, on this very day “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” For the first time all three Persons of the Holy Trinity revealed Themselves individually: people heard the voice of God the Father, God the Son was being baptized by John, while the Holy Spirit descended from the Father upon the Son in the form of a dove.
St. John Chrysostome says: “It is not the day on which the Saviour was born that should be considered as the day of His revelation, but the day on which He was baptized. He did not become known to all through His nativity, but through His baptism…”
The beginning of this holiday dates back to the apostles, it is mentioned in apostolic decrees. St. Clement of Alexandria bore witness to the celebration of the Lord’s Baptism in the second century. There is also mention that the feasts of Christ’s Nativity and Baptism were merged into one celebration, which lasted from December 25th to January 6th (by the old calendar).
In His Nativity and Baptism the Lord teaches us humility, as opposed to the vanity and egoism on which contemporary mankind prides itself. Let us learn from our Saviour, dear brethren, this God-pleasing and fragrant virtue, without which, according to the Holy Fathers, no other virtue can be complete. Amen.
ON THE BEGINNING AND END OF TIME
The Book of Genesis speaks of the six days of the creation of the world. But what can we know of God's days? One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter, 3:8). What are all those thousands, and millions, and billions, and sextillions of years for the Pre-eternal One, all the calculations of periods and epochs, all this earthly arithmetic? Even for a person time can pass quite differently: it either “flies” or “drags on,” without any correspondence to the ticking of a mechanical clock. In a moment of mortal danger or agony, a person can relive his entire life in the smallest details: just several seconds pass, but before him images of decades rush by. In the opinion of the Holy Fathers, expressed way back in antiquity, the week of the six days of creation is simply the period of time in which the Almighty deigned to show to the first man Adam, and afterwards to the God-seer Moses, specifically how the world had been created. Time does not exist for God: His dwelling is eternity. But the concept of eternity belongs to those concepts, which do not fit into the limited earthly intellect. Eternity is by no means the period of time that extends on both sides, as it seems to flat logic, – no, this is a totally different form of existence. Mathematicians are beginning to guess about something like this when they talk about multidimensionality instead of the customary three spatial and the fourth, temporal, dimensions. The bliss of the Heavenly Kingdom is, therefore, unimaginable to us, because the mysteries of eternity are indescribable in the human language.
The Holy Writ begins and ends with indications pertaining to time: in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Gen. 1:1) – there shall no longer be time (Rev. 10:6). The Biblical in the beginning indicates that time is a creation of God. It is a fundamental property of the created world. God has enclosed His creation in time. Time is a measure of earthly duration. It has a beginning and an end. The Creator has assigned certain rhythms, to which the entire world created by Him is subordinated: the movement of the heavenly bodies and its related alternation of day and night, the cycle of the seasons, the succession of human generations. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die (Eccl. 3:1-2). In regard to the temporal being of the world, God remains transcendental. Man lives within time, while God lives in eternity: My days are like a shadow that declineth... But Thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever (Psalm 102:11-12). Time is inescapably running towards its end. There is cosmic time and historical time. The first is cyclical, the second is forward-moving. There is no progress, no social evolution, but only the eschatological future determined by Divine Providence. History is not subject to a cyclical law, as the ancient Greeks supposed. It is advancing towards final events. This goal defines the meaning of history. The time of the history of the sinful world will end with the final Judgment: When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory, and before Him shall be gathered all nations (Matt. 25:31-32). When the Judgment is complete, then time will cease. Then mankind will enter God's eternity.
The parable of the talents
In one of the Sunday Gospel readings we hear the Lord’s parable of the talents. A certain man, going off on a long journey, summoned his servants and gave his estate into their keeping, in order that they invest it and make greater profit on it for their master. Two of the servants did as their sense of duty bid them, while the third did not wish to do anything with what the master had given him. After his return, the master commended the first two servants for their diligence, and condemned the third one in his own words and his own judgment. The Lord ended the parable with the words: “Whosoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Let us piously accept the Lord’s invitation and let us ponder the meaning of this divine parable, in order to gain spiritual profit and avoid the fate of the lazy servant. The master in this parable is God, the Creator and Provider, while the servants are all of us, human beings. The Lord gives all of us various gifts – both innate and through grace. Each person receives these gifts-talents according to his capabilities. There is not a single person who has no talents! And so we must use these gifts for our spiritual perfection. What are these talents?
Talents are different endowments, so-called innate, and sometimes material, such as: a good memory, physical endurance, excellent abilities, ancestry, education, sometimes wealth, etc.
Often we use many, if not all, of these talents only for ourselves, and not for God or others. Moreover, it often happens that highly-talented people use these talents least of all for their spiritual life, and vice versa – less talented people work more diligently to make use of their talents. We often hear the following comments: “We are not apostles, nor saints, nor righteous people, we do not possess their grace…,” and with such words people try to excuse themselves for their shortage of virtues and good deeds. But do not these words of self-justification remind us of the wretched servant in the Gospel parable?
Also noteworthy is the joy with which the faithful servants report to their master. Their conscience is clear; they have fulfilled their duty to the best of their ability. They ascribe their success to their master, saying: “You have given, and I have acquired…” Righteous men regard their efforts in the same manner: “Not I, but the grace of God has done this…,” says Apostle Paul.
It often happens in life that people who have been greatly endowed by the Lord with diverse talents and earthly goods do not want to use them for the glory of God. But in His parable the Lord points out the servant who had only one talent and shows that it is not a high or noble position in life that is important, but whether or not a person has fulfilled his duty faithfully. Only that point will serve to justify us at the Lord’s Judgment, and prior to that our conscience can serve as our barometer, provided we are ready to heed it.
“Some people soothe themselves with the following thoughts,” says Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, “ ‘Oh, I am not like that wretched servant who buried the talent he was given and did not do anything else; I, on the other hand, am doing at least something, so it does not matter that I have not fulfilled some of the commandments, have not dedicated to God some of the requisite hours or days, have used up good resources exclusively for my personal pleasure’… But you do not judge in the same way that our righteous Lord judges… It is not quantity that matters, but quality, and in your case the quality is poor. Consequently, allowing unfaithfulness in small things, you deprive yourself of the right to great things…”
The main idea of this parable is that every true believer in Christ must serve Him with all his will, all his effort. Do not volunteer for spiritual labors, but if the Lord should summon you, i.e. should provide you with such an opportunity – do not refuse it.
“Whosoever has ears to hear, let him hear,” i.e. whoever wishes to be attentive – heed these words and apply them to yourself.
In the history of Orthodox monasticism of the 6th and 7th centuries there is the name of the venerable Dorotheus, who had a disciple named Dositheus.
Dositheus was assigned to Dorotheus for the purpose of spiritual instruction. Dositheus remained under his Abba’s guidance for about six years, and then he reposed, being 26 years of age.
The Lord revealed to one of the ascetics Dositheus’ fate and life after death. The ascetic was shown an assembly of elders and great fathers of monasticism, and the young Dositheus was among them. When the vision ended, the ascetic began asking Abba Dorotheus and the other monastics about how and in what Dositheus had spiritually labored, to merit such a blissful fate after death.
It transpired that Dositheus was not distinguished by any special abstention or by any great feats of fasting. There were times when he was late for services and exhibited other small daily deficiencies.
How then did Dositheus become worthy of being among the greatest fathers of monasticism?
It turned out that throughout his entire life at the monastery Dositheus never took offense at anyone, willingly performed all the obediences that were placed upon him, repented immediately after doing something he should not have done. In other words, he possessed the spirit of humility. Everything that he had to suffer through, he regarded as having been sent to him by the will of God.
Humility is the sign of obedience to God’s will! By subjecting himself to God’s will, man places himself in a correct position before the Creator of “all that is visible and invisible,” and thus strictly observes the so-called “hierarchy of values.”
In the Gospel story of the woman of Canaan we see a woman who also showed in deed that a humble acceptance of God’s will is a sure method of supplicating the heavens, for which her request was granted. The Lord Jesus Christ extols such a model of faith!
And if we do not receive a response to our request, we must understand that it is either because the time is not ripe for our request to be fulfilled, or because it goes against God’s Providence.
Thus, let us be attentive. Let us ponder instructive examples from the Holy Scriptures and the lives of venerable ascetics, and may the Lord help us apply them to our own lives.
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
A Righteous Man Lives Forever…
The 120th anniversary of the glorification
of Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1903 – 2023)
One hundred twenty years have passed since that great day when finally took place the church glorification of “our joy” – the wondrous Father Seraphim, whom the Russian people regarded as a saint even in his lifetime. People still remember those triumphant days in July, when the isolated Sarov hermitage temporarily turned into a crowded city, and thousands of pilgrims, not satisfied even with the lengthy church services, rapturously sang church hymns all through the night. The pious Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II himself, together with his entire august family, led this truly national celebration, and it was not surprising that in the wondrous night of 18th to 19th July, no one in the multi-thousand crowd that had settled around the hermitage could sleep, while the singing included even paschal songs. All of this, as was later remembered, was the fulfillment of the words of the elder, who had said to one of the Diveevo nuns before his repose: “What great joy there will be! In the middle of summer they will sing Pascha, my joy! The Tsar and his whole family will come to us!”
One hundred and ninety years have passed since the blessed repose of this greatest ascetic of our times. A period of time that is long enough for the memory of a mortal man who lived so long ago to pass into oblivion. How many people have been born and have died in this time, and no one remembers them with a kind word safe their kinsmen, and even they often forget to pray for the souls of the deceased.
But this happens only with those people who place the entire joy and happiness of their lives in earthly pleasures, who throughout their brief earthly life think only of how to spend time more comfortably and more pleasantly.
Those who renounce themselves for the sake of Christ and take upon their shoulders the Cross of Christ, who willingly crucify themselves to the world, who suppress their flesh – that unruly and willful slave, in order to live in Christ and for Christ, regarding all as dust for the sake of Christ, – such men live eternally and their memory remains unto the ages of ages. “The memory of the righteous shall be eternal,” – sings the Church about such people, – and shall not be affrighted by evil rumor.”
The memory of such righteous people as Saint Seraphim not only does not fade with the passage of time, but becomes stronger and more exalted. To many of us “Father Seraphim” is, perhaps, even closer and more precious than he was to his contemporaries. His bright image shines before us as a guiding light into the Heavenly Realm. As we think about this and pray to him, we can sense the reflection of the majestic glory with which, after his repose, the Lord imbued him in the celestial dwellings.
And this is not in the least surprising. The saint’s entire life offers us a highly instructive example of true Christian asceticism, sincere and ardent faith, and fiery love for God and one’s neighbors. This fieriness is his most prominent characteristic, for which, in monasticism, he was providentially given the name Seraphim (which means “fiery”), and which is lacking most of all among modern Christians, who are being spiritually destroyed by their lukewarmness. “I am come to send fire on the earth,” – says the Lord Jesus Christ, – “and how I wish that it be already kindled” (Luke 12:49). The holy fathers understand this “fire” to be the fire of divine ardor, the fiery zeal of pleasing God, without which genuine spiritual life is impossible. It was this fiery zeal for pleasing God which Saint Seraphim had in abundance, and it glorified him to such a degree that he, who lived close to our times, became in spiritual status the equal of the great Christian fathers of ancient times, and left a blessed memory of himself.
Celebrating the centennial of the glorification of our wondrous saint, let us pray to him especially to obtain for us, contemporary lukewarm Christians, this fiery zeal for pleasing God. Let us also remember the deeply-moving testament which he left to the nuns of Diveevo, and through them – to all of us:
“When I am gone, come to my grave, come whenever you have time, the more often the better. Everything you have on your mind, everything over which you sorrow, everything that may have happened to you, – come to my grave and tell me all about it, as though I were alive, and I will hear you, and your sorrow shall pass! Speak to me as to a living person, and I will always be alive for you.”
Nowadays, when all of us experience so many sorrows, when we are living in the terrible times which Saint Seraphim foresaw and foretold, it behooves us more than ever to remember his testament. No matter that we are deprived of the sweet opportunity to actually fall upon the grave of St. Seraphim, in order to weep out our sorrow; let us not be upset by it – the great saint will hear us nevertheless, so long as we warmly pray to him with sincere faith and tenderness of heart:
“O venerable Seraphim, pray for those
who with faith and love revere Thy holy memory!”
From the life of Saint Seraphim
Two nuns from a certain convent once came to visit Saint Seraphim. Suddenly a bear lumbered unexpectedly out of the woods and frightened the visitors with his appearance. “Misha,” – said the saint, – “why do you frighten the poor orphans! Go back and bring us a treat, otherwise I have nothing to offer to my guests.” Hearing these words, the bear went back into the woods, and two hours later he tumbled into the holy elder’s cell and gave him something covered with leaves. It was a fresh honeycomb of purest honey. Father Seraphim took a piece of bread from his bag, gave it to the bear, pointed to the door – and the bear left immediately.
If we had lived in the saint’s times, if we had gone to the Sarov hermitage, visited the saint’s solitary abode, we would have met there the holy elder with his face shining like the face of an angel. In the summer we would have seen him in white clothes – a coverall made of sackcloth. On his chest he wore a copper cross, – the same cross with which his mother blessed him when, as a youth, he set out for Kiev. In the winter he wore a coat and mittens.
If we were to go to the Sarov hermitage, we would have bathed in the holy spring. The Queen of Heaven Herself, together with John the Theologian and the Apostle Peter, appeared to the holy elder, struck the ground with Her staff – and from the ground sprang a stream of the purest cold water, and afterwards many sick people, having bathed in this water, were cured.
Once, in the deep thicket of a pine woods, the saint found a large rock. He then embarked upon a God-pleasing spiritual feat similar to those undertaken by ancient holy people: for one thousand days and one thousand nights, with his arms raised up to heaven, the great saint prayed to God with tears of spiritual tenderness. Day and night he whispered a single prayer: “O God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Throughout the winter nights, in the darkness of night, the saint stood on the rock, all alone in the thick dark woods. We would have been afraid of wild animals, and evil people, and the cold, and the wind, but Father Seraphim feared nothing – the Lord and His angels were with him. The saint’s legs began to hurt from his long stay on the rock, and he was forced to return to the Sarov hermitage, where he lived in a small, solitary cell. In the corner hung an icon of the Mother of God “Tenderness,” before which a lampada always burned. The cell did not have a bed. The saint spent the night in prayer and did not sleep on soft beds as all of us, sinners, do. When he was overcome by sleep, he lay down on the floor and dozed off for a brief while. For his great spiritual feats the Lord showed him the incredible beauty and wonder of paradise even while he was living on earth.
The saint’s fame spread through all of Russia, and people began to come from afar, just to see and talk with the great elder. Father Seraphim welcomed everyone with joy and love. He greeted people merrily and affectionately, but instead of “hello” he would say “Christ is risen!” In the saint’s heart there was always joy, always Pascha, because he loved the Lord with all the purity of his heart.
St. Seraphim was especially tender and affectionate with children. One time a little girl, Nadya Aksakova, visited the saint together with her parents, and when she grew up, she recorded her meeting with him. When Nadya and her family came to the saint’s cell, he wasn’t there, but had gone into the woods to pray. Nadya and her parents, together with some other children, went to look for him in the pine woods. The children went ahead, while the parents and other pilgrims followed. Here is how Nadya herself describes the meeting: “The woods became thicker and blacker. Under the high arches of huge pines it became completely dark. The gloomy woods seemed terrifying. Luckily somewhere in the distance a ray of sun gleamed through the needled branches. We perked up, ran towards the light, and soon came to a green sunlit meadow. We looked – and there, near the roots of a pine tree, a small and thin old man was working, all bent down to the ground, deftly cutting the grass with his axe. Hearing a rustle in the woods, the old man quickly got up, quickly ran into the thicket and disappeared from our view. We all cried out in unison: “Father Seraphim! Father Seraphim!” Hearing the voices of children not far from him, Father Seraphim could not remain in his hiding place, and soon his head appeared over the high blades of the woodland grass. Placing a finger on his lips, he gazed upon us tenderly, as though entreating the children not to reveal his presence to the adults, and then, lowering himself onto the grass, he beckoned us to him. Our little one, Liza, was the first to throw herself around the old man’s neck, pressing her soft face against his shoulder, which was covered by sackcloth. “My treasures, my treasures,” – he whispered softly, pressing each one of us to his thin chest. On the way back from his cell, little Liza, whom Father Seraphim had embraced first, came up to me and said: “Father Seraphim only appears to be an old man, but in reality he is a child like you and me, isn’t he, Nadya?”
Shortly before his blessed repose, the great saint was visited by the Queen of Heaven, Who told him about his imminent departure from the sinful earth. An old Diveevo nun by the name of Eupraxia was in the elder’s cell when he was visited by the Mother of God, and later told others about this wondrous celestial vision. It was very, very quiet in the cell. The saint was praying, when suddenly a fresh fragrant breeze wafted in, the singing of angels was heard, the door of the cell opened by itself, the cell was filled with bright light. At first the angels with golden flaxen hair came in, carrying blossoming branches from paradise in their hands. They were followed by St. John the Baptist and St. John the Theologian, and after them, shining with an extraordinary, unearthly brightness, came the Queen of Heaven, accompanied by twelve virgins. The Mother of God wore a green-colored robe, on Her head there was a brightly shining crown, and Her hair was more beautiful and longer than the angels’. She was taller than all the holy virgins. The Queen of Heaven spoke with the holy elder at great length, and before Her departure told him that he would soon be with the Lord.
Soon after the feast of Christ’s Nativity, on January 2, 1833, the soul of the righteous one departed from this sinful earth for God’s paradise. Before his repose the holy elder sang paschal hymns. He died while praying on his knees before his beloved icon of the Mother of God “Tenderness,” leaving the world of tears for a world of eternal joy.
UNBELIEVABLE FOR MANY, BUT ACTUALLY A TRUE OCCURRENCE
I recall with absolute clarity how and what happened to me after these words.
At first I felt as though something pressed close upon me; this was followed by an unpleasant sensation of cold, and the return of this ability to feel such things (which had been absent in me up to then), vividly reminded me of my previous life, and a feeling of deep mourning came over me, as though I had lost something (I should note here that this feeling has always remained with me after the occurrence described above.)
The desire to return to my previous form of life, although up until now there was nothing especially sorrowful in it, did not once stir in me; in no way was I drawn to it, nothing in it attracted me.
Reader, have you ever had the occasion to see a photograph that has been lying for a considerable amount of time in a damp place? The image on it is preserved but faded from dampness and mold, and in place of a definite and beautiful image one sees a kind of continuous light gray murkiness. In like manner life here has become faded for me, appears as a monotonous and blurry picture, and appears so to me even up to the present time.
How and why I suddenly felt so – I do not know, but one thing is certain – life held absolutely no attraction for me. The horror which I had experienced earlier in regard to my separation from the surrounding world, had for some reason now lost its strange significance for me. For example, I saw my sister and understood that I could not associate with her, but this did not disturb me in any way; I was content simply to see her and know all about her; unlike before, I no longer had any desire even to announce my presence.
Moreover, this was not my main concern. The feeling of being compressed from all sides caused me ever-increasing suffering. It seemed to me that I was being squeezed between pliers, and this sensation increased with time; on my part, I did not remain passive, but whether I did anything, whether I struggled trying to free myself of it, or whether I made no exertion to free myself, to cope with this sensation and overcome it – I am not able to say for sure. I only remember that I felt an ever-increasing sensation of tightness around me and, finally, I lost consciousness.
When I regained consciousness, I found myself already lying on a bed in a hospital ward. Opening my eyes, I saw myself surrounded by a crowd of inquisitive people or, in other words, faces that were straining to observe me with close attention.
At my bedside the head physician sat on a stool which had been moved over towards my bed, trying to preserve his usual air of grandeur. His posture and manner seemed to say that all this was a common occurrence, and that there was nothing astonishing in it; at the same time, however, tense attention and confusion could be seen in his eyes which were fixed upon me.
As for the younger doctor – he, of course, without any reserve whatsoever, literally fastened his eyes upon me, as though trying to penetrate right through me.
At the foot of my bed, dressed in mourning and with a pale, excited countenance, stood my sister, and next to her – my brother-in-law; behind my sister could be seen the comparatively calmer face of the hospital nurse, and still further behind her – the completely frightened countenance of our young assistant surgeon.
Recovering myself completely, I first of all greeted my sister; she quickly came over, embraced me, and began to cry.
- Well, dear fellow, you certainly gave us a scare! – the young doctor spoke with that impatience to share extraordinary impressions as soon as possible, which is characteristic of youth. – If only you knew what happened to you!
- Why, I recall all that happened to me, – I said.
- How is that? Is it possible that you did not lose consciousness?
- Apparently not!
- This is very, even extremely strange, – he said, glancing at the head physician. – It is strange because you were lying like a block of wood, without the slightest sign of life, nowhere even a hint of life, not the slightest hint. How is it possible to preserve consciousness in such a state?
- Evidently, though, it is possible, since I both saw and was conscious of everything.
- As far as seeing is concerned, you could see nothing, but to hear and feel…? And did you really hear and understand everything – everything? You heard how they washed and dressed you…?
- No, I did not feel anything like that. In general, I was completely insensitive to my body.
- How can this be? You say you remember everything that took place with respect to yourself, but that you did not feel anything?
- I said that I did not feel only that which was done with my body, being under the strong influence of that which I was experiencing at the time, – I said, thinking that such an explanation was entirely sufficient for understanding what I was saying.
- Well?… - said the doctor, seeing that I had stopped speaking.
At this point I faltered for a moment, now knowing what else was required of me. It seemed that everything was so clear, and I only repeated once more:
- I told you that I only did not feel my body and, therefore, everything related to it. Now then, my body – it is not my whole self, is it? Why, it was not my whole self that was lying there like a block of wood! The rest of me lived and continued to function within me! – I added. I thought then that that division or, better to say, divisibility of my persona, which was now more apparent to me than the living day, was just as apparent to those people to whom I addressed my words.
Evidently I still had not entirely returned to my former life, did not transfer myself over to their point of view, and in speaking of that which I now knew and felt, I did not understand that my words would seem almost like the delirium of an insane man to those who themselves had not experienced the like, and who rejected it as being untrue.
The younger doctor still wanted to reply or to ask me something, but the head physician made a sign to him to leave me alone, – I do not really know why, whether this quietude was actually necessary for me, or because from my words he concluded that my mind was still in disorder and, therefore, there was no use in reasoning with me.
Having become convinced that the organic mechanism of my body had come into a more or less proper condition, they listened to me through the stethoscope; there was no edema in the lungs. After this, having given me, as I recall, a cup of bouillon to drink, everybody withdrew from the ward except for my sister, who was allowed to remain with me for a while longer.
Apparently they thought that my being reminded of what had taken place could only arouse anxiety in me, causing all kinds of terrible conjectures to arise in my mind, such as being buried alive and the like. All those who were around me avoided talking about it, only the young doctor was an exception and did not exhibit any reserve in his conduct.
Evidently he was extremely interested in what had taken place with me, and several times in the course of the day he would run up to me, either to simply glance at me and see how things were going, or to pose some question that had come into his mind. At times he would come alone, and sometimes he would even bring some friend, in most cases a student, in order to look at a man who had been in the morgue.
On the third or fourth day, apparently finding me sufficiently strong or, perhaps, having simply lost patience to wait any longer, he came into my ward in the evening and allowed himself a more prolonged conversation with me.
After having felt my pulse for a while, he said:
- Amazing: all these days your pulse has been completely even, without any irregularities or deviations, but if you only knew what had taken place with you! A miracle, that is all it could have been!
At this time I had already become used to myself as an earthly being, had entered the framework of my previous life, and came to understand the whole extraordinariness of what had taken place with me. I also understood that only I knew about it, and that those miracles of which the doctor spoke were only external manifestations of what had actually taken place with me, some type of hitherto not understood pathological rarity from the medical point of view, and so I asked:
- When did these miracles take place with me? Before my coming back to life?
- Yes, before you recovered. I do not speak only for myself, I have very little experience and up to now have never even seen a case of lethargy, but no matter to which of the old physicians I describe your case, they all become astounded, and to such an extent that they refuse to believe my words. I think you know – and besides, it not necessary to know, it is self-evident – that when a person goes through even a simple fainting spell, all organs at first function very weakly: it is hardly possible to feel the pulse, breathing is completely imperceptible, one does not hear the heart beat. But in your case something unimaginable took place: the lungs suddenly began puffing like gigantic bellows, the heart began knocking like a hammer against an anvil. No, one just cannot put it into words: one had to see it! You see, you were in a state resembling a volcano before its eruption, one shivered to look at such a sight, it became frightening to those standing by; it seemed that just one more moment – and there would not even be any pieces of you left, because no organism can withstand such intense activity.
“Hmm… it is no wonder then that I lost consciousness before recovering consciousness,” – I thought.
Before the doctor told me all this, I had continued to be perplexed, not knowing how to explain that strange, as it then seemed to me, condition, that when I was dying, i.e. when all was gradually leaving me, I did not for a moment lose consciousness, but when I was coming back to life, I went into a fainting spell. Now it all became clear to me: when dying, although I also had the sensation of being pressed in from all sides, at the moment of extreme agony it resolved itself through my casting off that which was causing the sensation, and apparently the soul alone is incapable of fainting; however, when it was necessary for me to again return to life, I, on the contrary, had to take upon myself that which was subject to all physical suffering, including fainting.
Meanwhile the doctor continued:
- And do not forget, this is not after some kind of fainting spell, but after a thirty-six hour lethargy! You can judge the power of this process by the fact that initially you were like a block of ice, but after 15-20 minutes your members already exhibited some flexibility, and in an hour even your extremities were warm. Why, this is unbelievable, as though out of a fairy tale. And so when I relate it, they refuse to believe me.
- And do you know, doctor, why this happened so extraordinarily? – I asked.
- Do you, according to your medical concepts, understand lethargy to mean something similar to a fainting spell?
- Yes, but only to the most extreme degree…
- Well, then it follows that I was not in lethargy.
- Then what?
- It follows that I actually died and returned to life. If there had only been a weakening of life functions in the body, then, of course, they would have been restored without the upheaval which took place, but since it was necessary for my body to prepare in an extraordinary manner to receive my soul, then all the members also had to work extraordinarily.
The doctor listened to me attentively every second, but at these words his face took on an expression of indifference.
- Why, you are joking; but for us, medics, this is an extremely interesting case.
- Let me assure you that I have no intention of joking. I myself firmly believe what I am saying, and I would like you to believe it, too… well, at least for the purpose of seriously investigating such an exceptional phenomenon. You say that I was unable to see anything, but would you like me to describe to you the whole setting of the morgue, where I had never been as a living person? Would you like me to tell you which of you were standing around, and what you were doing at the moment of death and afterwards?
The doctor became interested in what I had said, and when I related to him all that had taken place, he, looking like a man who had been thrown out of his usual state of equanimity into confusion, stammered:
- N-n-n… well, y-y-yes, that is strange, some kind of clairvoyance…
- Well, doctor, there is something wrong with your thinking: a state of similarity to a block of ice – and clairvoyance?!
But my narration of the state in which I found myself immediately after the separation of my soul and body evinced extreme surprise: how I saw everything, saw that they were moving about my body, which, due to its insensibility, had for me the significance of discarded clothing; how I wanted to touch or push somebody in order to draw attention to myself, and how the air, which had at that time become too dense for me, did not allow me to come into contact with the objects around me.
He listened to all of this with gaping mouth and wide-open eyes, and hardly had I finished than he hurried to bid me farewell and left, apparently hurrying to share with others this extremely interesting narration of mine.
Apparently he reported all this to the head physician, because during visiting hours on the following day, the latter, after examining me, lingered at my bedside and said:
- It seems you had hallucinations during your lethargy. So take care and try to free yourself of this, otherwise…
- I can become insane? – I prompted.
- No, that is going too far, but it can turn into a mania.
- Can there really be hallucinations during lethargy?
- Why ask? You now know this better than I.
- A single case, even though it concerns myself, is not proof enough for me. I should like to know the general observations concerning this condition.
- And what are we to do with your case? Why, it is a true fact.
- Yes, but if all cases are brought under a single heading, will not then the door be closed to the investigation of diverse phenomena, diverse symptoms of illnesses, and through similar attitudes an undesirable prejudice will take hold in medical diagnoses?
- Why no, nothing of the sort is possible here. That you were in lethargy is beyond doubt; consequently, we must then accept the fact that everything that took place with you is possible in this state.
- And tell me, doctor, is there any cause for the appearance of lethargy in such an illness as pneumonia?
- Medicine cannot indicate precisely what basis is needed for it, because it occurs in all illnesses, and there were even cases when a person lapsed into lethargic sleep without any kind of illness preceding it, being apparently entirely healthy.
- And can an edema of the lungs pass by itself during lethargy, i.e. at a time when the heart is inactive and, consequently, a progressing edema does not meet any hindrance?
- Since it happened with you – it follows that it is possible, although, believe me, your edema passed when you came to your senses.
- In the course of several minutes?
- Well then, in the course of several minutes… if it was even that. Such activity of the heart and lungs that took place at the time of your waking could, it seems, even break up the ice on the Volga, let alone disperse any type of edema in a short period of time!
- And could compressed, edemic lungs function in such a manner as had occurred in my case?
- Apparently they could.
- Therefore, there is nothing surprising or striking about that which took place with me?
- No, why so? This, in any case, is a phenomenon that is rarely observed.
- Rarely, or under such conditions, under such circumstances – never?
- Hmm, how never, when it occurred in your case?
- Consequently, an edema may pass by itself, even when all the organs in a person are inactive, and a heart compressed with edema, and edemic lungs may, if they so desire, function to their heart’s content; it would then seem that there is no reason to die of edemic lungs. But tell me, doctor, can one recover from a lethargy which had come on during an edema of the lungs, i.e. can a person simultaneously slip out of two such unfavorable conditions?
An ironic smile appeared on the doctor’s face.
- Now you see: it was not in vain that I warned you about the appearance of a mania, – he retorted. – You are continually trying to place what occurred to you into any other category except lethargy, and you are asking questions for that precise purpose…
“For the purpose of becoming convinced, – I thought, – about which one of us is a maniac: I, who desire by means of scientific conclusions to test the basis of the classification which you have made with respect to my state, or you, who, contrary to all probability, place everything under the sole classification you have in your science.”
But aloud I said the following:
- I ask questions for the purpose of showing you that not every man who sees snow falling around him, is able, contrary to all indications of the calendar and blooming trees, to affirm in all cases that it is winter, for I myself recall how snow once fell when the calendar showed it to be the 12th of May, and the trees in my father’s orchard were in bloom.
My answer apparently convinced the doctor that he was late with his warning, that I had already fallen into a mania, and he did not contradict me in any way, and I desisted from asking him any further questions.
(Reprinted from“Orthodox Russia,” Nо.4, 1976)
REQUEST FOR THE NEW YEAR
Dear Master, for this coming year
Just one request I bring:
I do not pray for happiness,
Or any earthly thing.
I do not ask to understand
The way Thou leadest me,
But this I ask: teach me to do
The things that pleaseth Thee.
I want to know Thy guiding voice,
To walk with Thee each day.
Dear Master, make me swift to hear
And ready to obey.
And thus the year I now begin
A happy year will be,
If I am seeking just to do
The things that pleaseth Thee.