The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

I Was Born Dead

October 9 marked the 90th anniversary since the birth of Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga, John Snychev. This is a chapter from a book by Aleksei Solonitsyn, Russian Orthodox writer, describing a few episodes from Metropolitan John's childhood and youth. The entire book is based on personal encounters with the famous elder and his spiritual heritage.

"The thought of God's Providence in human life is the greatest thought worthy of man. Caring for the salvation of the soul is the greatest care, worthy of man. Waiting for death is the greatest expectation, worthy of man." Saint Nicholas the Serbian (Velimirovich)

The first time Vania was saved was October 9, 1927 - he was born dead.

The fact that Matvei and Matrona prayed for his little son is beyond doubt - the parents were believers.

And life entered the little body of the newborn - as the breath of a breeze enters a green shoot that has broken out from under the earth.

And there he is already gaining strength, stretching toward the sun, and the first timid shoots are showing up, and on them - leaflets.

Vania is the fourth son in the family. There will be five. It is not easy to feed such a large family, especially during the arid bad years. Fleeing from hunger, the family moves with their relatives, to Ukraine, and then finds themselves in Sorochinsk, Orenburg region.

Children's impressions, it is well known, remain in memory for life. Let us single out the most important: Vania told them to his spiritual father, to whom he is now completely devoted.

Hunger drove the boys into the field, where the leftover spikelets could be found. If you're lucky, you can catch a gopher. It's not easy to catch one - the gopher quickly runs away, it's not even easy to get close.

But Kolia, Vania's little friend, is cunning. He collected a handful of spikelets, placed them under a hillock, where there's a mink of gophers, made a loop, tied it to a stick. If you pull it, the loop tightens, and the gopher is yours.

Gopher meat is edible and even tasty - especially if you are dizzy from hunger so you have to sit down on the ground and wait until the sky and barbed stubble on the field cease spinning around.

You have to wait for the gopher patiently for a long time. But here he is sticking out his sharp muzzle from the mink. He looks around to see if there is any danger. Vania and Kolia are hiding, lowering themselves to the ground. The gopher sees the spikelets and, bouncing back several times, approaches them.

He grabs the spikelet and quickly begins to peel the grains.

And then Kolia jerks his stick and the loop tightens.

The gopher is struggling, but the hinge tightens even more.

Kolia grabs the gopher, firmly pressing it to his chest.

"Gotcha!"

The gopher's eyes, oblong and quite large for his small head with tiny ears, are staring at the boys.

His thin, yellow body is trembling with fear.

"It hurts, you frail one!"

"He's scratching! Oh, you scoundrel!"

Then the guys who were also hunting ground squirrels, but did not catch a single one, approach.

With interest they look at Kolia's catch.

"And what to do with him?" Asked one of the boys, taller than the others.

"Noth'n."

"Just for fun?"

"What?"

"And if we throw him into the fire?" suggests the tallest one - evidently, the leader.

"What for?"

"It would be interesting!"

And they began gathering everything suitable for a fire.

They spread the branches around a dug hole to make something like a stove. They throw dried straw into the hole, the stubble torn from the ground.

The clever kid has the matches.

The flame appears.

"Throw it in!" shouts the boy, and Kolia pulls the quiet squirrel out of his bosom.

"Throw it all in, so the fire would burn stronger!"

They do as he says.

The fire grows bigger.

And Kolia thrusts the gopher, who recoils from the fire, into the very center.

The gopher is whining thinly for a long time, trying to jump out of the fire.

But the boy is on his guard. He pushes Kolia on the side.

"Come on!"

With a sharp stick Kolia drives the gopher into the fire again and again.

The gopher's cry is now hoarse, loud and prolonged.

The boys, as bewitched, watch the gopher.

They shout and laugh - somehow in a jerky, mean way.

Kolia jabs the ground squirrel with the sharp end of the stick again, driving it into the pit where the stubble burned hotter.

The gopher jerks desperately, but his strength is already running out. He manages to pull half of his body out of the fire. He lifts his face upward, his oblong eyes glancing at the torturers for a second.

Right at him, it seemed to Vania.

And then the head hangs down, motionless.

The boys look at the gopher's scorched body.

The laughter ceased.

"He's done," said the perky one. "Let's go."

They returned home silently.

When Vania and Kolia were left alone, Vania asked:

"Why did we torture him?"

"For laughter."

"Was it funny?"

"Well, you're a crybaby! Sissy!"

Vania did not answer, turned to the house.

In the evening, Kolia's mother came running, looking extremely upset.

"Matrona, help!"

Matrona stopped circling around the stove, looked at the terrified neighbour.

"Kolia poured the kerosene from the lamp on himself! Scorched! I don't know what to do!"

Matrona wiped her hands on her apron, ready to follow her neighbor immediately, then stopped, approached the shelf with various bottles of herbs, with which she treated the children.

She took two of them and quickly left the house.

Vania followed her.

Kolia's chest and leg were burnt. He lay on the bed with open red blisters and wounds. He groaned, sometimes screaming in pain.

Matrona carefully smeared the burns with her medicine.

"Take him to the hospital tomorrow," she said.

"What a fool! Broke the lamp, the damned! Poured out all the kerosene! How did you manage that!" the grandmother chastised Kolia.

Kolia, after his wounds were greased, stopped moaning loudly. He was just whimpering thinly.

Almost like the gopher.

In the morning he was taken to the hospital in Orenburg.

He was cured, although he lay there for a long time.

***

"So, you continued to be friends with this Kolia?" - Bishop Manuil asked, when Ivan finished the story.

"How not to be friends when he lived next door. Besides, I was sorry for him - his burns were bad. But I was left with a burn as well. When I remember that gopher, I see his eyes. Brown, wet...

The bishop looked closely at Ivan:

"Did you understand that the Lord taught you a lesson?"

"The Lord?"

"Well, yes. He showed how atrocities end."

Ivan thought about it. He nodded.

"This is what I also thought ..."

"And why didn't you stop acting up?"

"Well there was famine... The old woman gave me the rotten, hard crust, the last one she had, when I begged, I still remember." Like the eyes of that gopher.

Ivan fell silent, bowed his head. His hair is soft, golden.

Vladika raised Vania's head, looked into his eyes:

"Well, tell me how you went with this Kolia to steal."

Ivan winced, pulling away.

"Why are you surprised?" You were not the only one who went to beg out of hunger. And to steal. Even if only trifles. Right?

"Yes, your grace. In Sorochinsk I went to the melon field with Kolia... It stretched out behind the railway..."

"And what?"

"We waited till the watchman in his tent becomes quiet - he was old, after all. But he had a whip. We made our way to the melon field, putting watermelons and cantaloupes in bags. Everything went well, but then another dude showed up - he helped to watch. We didn't notice him! We started running! The uncle runs well, I threw the sack and also started running with all my might. Kolia is ahead. The uncle took me by the collar and grabbed me! He asks: 'Where do you live?' I came to myself a little and answered: 'Trumpet street, house number two zero!'

How the uncle laughed! Well, I thought that's it! They will whip us now. The whip is long, we saw how the old guy clicks it, swinging, so the vermin would not break into the melon plant!

The uncle puts me in the tent, gives me a watermelon. He says: 'Hit it with your fist! Trumpet street, house number two zero!' I hit it. The water melon does not budge. He says: 'Once again!'

I do it, nothing. He says: 'Ah, you! Here, look'.

"He takes a watermelon and hits it with his tanned, heavy fist. Watermelon splits into large chunks.

The old guy looks at me, then at the watermelon slices - and laughs.

The uncle is smiling too. And my fear is gone! I smile too. I am not thinking about the whip anymore! Uncle takes a slice of watermelon - and it is juicy, sweet. Ugh! He gives me: 'Eat.' I eat and they eat. 'Do you want more?' and gives me a new slice. I was full. The uncle gives me a melon and watermelon to take with me, and says: 'Here, kid. Tell your friends: stealing is the last thing you do. You mustn't steal, you understand?' 'I understand'. 'Well, go now'. And I went. And I will remember this uncle, and his face, and the tanned fist forever."

Ivan fell silent, looking at the teacher.

The bishop sighed, thought for a while, apparently remembering something of his own.

"Yes, Vania, something similar happened to me too. Only I turned out to be the uncle. This was when I received a parcel in prison, and I shared everything there was with the prisoners. And one of my roommates did not look at my felt boots anymore, the ones he wanted to take off me. I always knew that goodness is more powerful. So your uncle showed that a strong fist must be good. And it will split the evil, just like it chopped the watermelon."

Another time, when they were talking again, the bishop said that it is important to learn to discern. He taught the disciple to look inside himself.

"I enrolled in an industrial college," subdeacon John told his teacher. "But I couldn't finish my studies, because I was suffering from hunger again - there was nothing to eat. I returned to Sorochinsk, and then the year came when I had to serve in the military. I went, and new trials began.

To begin with, I never concealed my faith anywhere.

... Ivan already had a habbit to get up early. He prayed, then made a morning walk around the barracks.

This was immediately noticed and reported to the commander of the unit. But the commander went through the war, he knew that many prayed before the battle. Some to themselves, some aloud. So he didn't take it against the young soldier. He's praying, so what. He follows the discipline, serves well. But during Philipp's fast, when private Snychev began to eat only bread and drink sweet tea, it was reported again. Some concluded he wanted to get sick and be released.

They sent Ivan to medical examination. He was received by a doctor  there - a woman, determined and strict. That was okay, doctors were supposed to be strict, especially women. But this one was also irritable and spiteful if she met with the slightest disobedience.

And then an ordinary soldier comes, who thinks and acts according to his own rules, believing in God, which is absurd and savage.

"Well, Snychev, so you do not want to serve in the army?"

"What do you mean? I know I must do my duty. And I do not refuse the service."

"And why don't you eat anything?"

"Well it's the fast."

"What fast?" she exclaimed, looking terrifyingly at Ivan through the small glasses in a metal frame. Her brown eyes were piercing Ivan. "Fasting ("Post" in Russian) is the protection of military facilities - that's what fasting is."

"You are absolutely right" But fasting is also the protection of the soul. Do I disturb anyone when not eating meat?

"Sure you do. You are a real pest. Because you do not want to serve your Fatherland. You want to get sick on purpose so you can be sent home. Practically you are a self-mutilator. Do you know how people like you were treated at the front?"

The nodules on her cheekbones were prancing, her curly hair was badly combed, her body was thin and bony. And her entire appearance was saying that she should be the one treated, not Ivan.

"I wasn't at the front, but I know how the traitors are punished. And I want to tell you that you cannot get sick from fasting. Because fasting only strengthens the soul. And, therefore, the body."

"What? You want to teach me?"

"What do you mean? Still, I have to say that I have stomach pains. And abstinence from food is good in these cases."

He answered her questions calmly, and she grew more and more angry, sarcastically grinning.

Then she began to write something in her notebook, angrily shifting her eyebrows. Wrinkles appeared on her forehead - a triangle pointing toward a thin nose, on which round small glasses were sitting. She often dipped the pen in a glass inkwell. The pen creaked, occasionally splashing the ink.

"Look, he's talking about the soul. We will not cure your soul, because it doesn't exist, but your brains, Snychev Ivan," she rambled. "And you will remember me, you'll see."

In this she was not mistaken.

When a group of sick people, including him, was taken to the station, and then put on a train, he wondered why this doctor was so furious. Whereto and why they were being taken, no one knew. But when during the trip one of them had an epileptic attack, he started guessing their destination.

The escort only said they were going to Ufa - there is a good hospital there. Ivan understood what "a good hospital" means.

And he was right - a few kilometers from Ufa there was a psychiatric ward.

He was taken to a huge room, where there was more than fifty beds. One of them was given to him.

"Lord, have mercy," he prayed. "A nuthouse! So, that was the diagnosis given by the doctor. This is why she was threatening!"

He looked around at the patients next to his bed. Is this a room for violent people? Then you can really get out of your mind.

The man who was lying on the next bunk got up, sat down looking at Ivan.

"Let's get acquainted, newcomer. Just tell me right away - are you violent by any chance?"

"Certainly not."

"And why were you brought here?"

"I was just thinking about that."

"Everyone says that. Whomever you ask, everyone will tell you he is normal. And that he got here by mistake."

"And in fact?"

"In fact, everyone is sick. But only a few in their mind."

"What are the rest lying here for then?"

"Rather sitting, not lying." It looks like you weren't treated well either. I will not ask you, you'll tell me if you want."

The neighbour was in his right mind, and Ivan realised that the ward, thank God, was not for the violent. But he still decided to make sure.

"Are you afraid?" answered the neighbour. "The riotous are kept separately. But there are various cases here. I am here, for example, for believing in God. And I did not reject my faith."

"Really!" Ivan rejoiced. "What joy! Here is how God arranged everything! Glory to you, O Lord!" And Ivan crossed himself.

"Well that's for naught." I told you there are various people here. Do not show your faith in vain. It is said: 'Do not throw your pearls before swine'" (cf. Matthew 7, 6).

"...'And do not give dogs what is holy', I know. And yet, it's amazing. There are so few believers now. And you are next to me..."

"What's so surprising? If you truly believe, then you know that the Lord will not leave you in the dungeon. Let's go, I'll show you what is where in this mansion. How many days and nights you will stay here no one knows."

He led Ivan into the courtyard of the hospital. There was a bench behind the bushes. Before sitting down, he bent down and pushed aside the stone lying under the bench. There he had a little hiding.

"You don't smoke? Well done. And I started smoking in the war, can't quit now. And I don't want to, I confess. There is a good nurse here, Anastasia. She provides me with tobacco."

There were newspapers in the hiding place, cut into rectangles, and tobacco. He started skillfully rolling cigarettes.

Vania told the new acquaintance about the evil doctor who sent him here.

"They hate our faith, that's what it is, Ivan," the neighbour explained. "So she made up you are cuckoo and subject to treatment. They do it without blinking. But if they see here that everything is all right with you, they will not hold you for long. Because you don't present danger, and it doesn't pay off to keep you - you have to be fed, dressed, and given a bed. And there are inspections here, too. Hold on to Anastasia. I will be released soon."

Nurse Anastasia turned out to be a believer. And soon she learned about Vania, why he was in the hospital.

Once Vania made up his mind and asked:

"Anastasia, there must be a church left in Ufa."

"Sure. It's right on the outskirts of the city," she answered, stopping by Ivan's bed. She stopped washing the floors, looked at him waiting for him to continue. She already knew that Ivan prayed in the mornings and evenings, covering himself with blankets from prying eyes.

"A great holiday is coming, Anastasia."

"Well, yes, I know. So what?"

"What if the two of us, Anastasia," Ivan started whispering, "could pray in the temple... What a joy it would be... huh?"

Anastasia smiled sadly, softly.

"You know how it is, Vania. If I ask the manager, he will not allow. According to the rules - it is impossible." She sighed. "And you cannot break the rules."

Ivan also heaved a deep sigh.

"A great holiday, Anastasia. Holy Trinity is the birth of our Church, after all, so our priest interpreted it to us. And if we left the morning, we would return by lunch ... Huh?"
Anastasia lowered the mop with a rag into a bucket of water, then picked it up, waited until the water drained from the rag.

"I'll talk to the manager. His heart cannot be made of stone. Maybe he'll understand. And you wait for a signal from me. I'll prepare clothes for you just in case."

The manager, that is, the head physician in the hospital, knew Anastasia well. For the first time she asked him to release a patient taking on the responsibility. She also explained why he was asking.

It was difficult to refuse her.

The chief doctor was also a front-line soldier, like that long-nosed doctor who sent Vania to the nuthouse. But he was not embittered in his soul, on the contrary, he became kinder and gentler - he saw too many deaths, he understood too well how important it is for the soul to catch on to something and believe.

Then the soul can recover. And this Ivan Snychev is just one of those who are sick according to the book. You just need to keep them as a warning... And then release them. This is the practice...

"All right, go. Only…"

Anastasia wanted to kiss his hand, but he strictly brushed it off.

Ivan and Anastasia left the hospital at dawn. The hospital was in the open field. There were several kilometers to the ring tram stop. Then a trip to the other end of the city. And there, near the cemetery, on the high banks of the Belaya River, a temple stands. Small, single-domed, miraculously preserved.

The Bolsheviks sure behaved brutally in Ufa - against the churchmen from the white movement, landlords and other enemies of the Soviet regime. The priests were shot right in the churches - all those who came across a hot proletarian hand. And then the churches were smashed, even shot at from cannons. The ruins left blood behind them.

And this little church, white, slender, survived. She was saved by the Purest and the Immaculate.

Because of the morning mist strips above the water, the walls appeared first, then the dome.

A ray of sunshine flashed on the cross, and the whole church showed up - fragile and tender, resistant and unbreakable at the same time. White scarves are hastening to the entrance, making the sign of the cross as they are walking in. Some are kneeling down, prostrating themselves.

You are alive, alive, the Indestructible Wall, Joy of All Who Sorrow, under the Cover of Thy Blessed saving all - one cannot count all the names given to you by the Orthodox people.

Anastasia and Ivan also kneel down, making the sign of cross.

And in the temple - the smells of summer, grass and flowers. Thin birches are placed on both sides of the choir, the floor is covered with green grass.

And next to the iconostasis there are peonies in vases - lush, white, red, pink.

Ivan will see many churches later, majestic and solemn, large and small, where he prayed, where he addressed the Lord and the Mother of God, but he remembered this church in particular. 

Maybe because the soul had suffered. Maybe because the day turned to be so special.
After the joy temptations came again, worries and anxieties.

And did they.

On the way back the tram fell off the tracks, and the whole traffic stopped. They had to walk. They finally reached the other end of the city. But the tram to the hospital never came.

Again they set out on foot, and it was already getting dark. All because they couldn't leave the temple immediately after the service. So yes, women whom they had just met invited them to share a meal. Not far from the temple, they spread a tablecloth on the grass, placed everything they brought on it.

There's joy in the soul. They sat, thanking the Lord.

And only then they started on the way back.

Who knew misfortune with the tram would occur. But they firmly promised they would return by dinner.

They didn't know what to do in the hospital. They even wanted to tell the police about the escape of an inmate with the cleaning lady.

The chief doctor shouted at the most zealous ones, he ordered to wait.

And then, finally, the "fugitives" appeared - breathless, sweaty. They ran the last few kilometers so they could at least come before dark.

Anastasia explained what happened.

The chief doctor patiently listened, frowning.

"Well, at least you didn't fall under the tram," and left, waving his hand.

Bishop John remembered Anastasia for life.

She was the type of old ladies who taught Vania how to read Church Slavonic in the church, looked after him like Fevroniushka, like the holy fool Pashenka, to whom he was taken by the old ladies in Sorochinsk. In a word, they were the ones who, in spite of cruel persecutions, reprisals toward the believers, physical extermination of the clergy, preserved the Orthodox faith, brought it out of the hearth of suffering, and saved the Russian people.

On the fronts, in a cruel, unprecedented battle with the enemy, their sons and brothers fought with weapons in their hands and defeated the fierce enemy.

And they, Fevronniushkas, Pashenkas and Anastasiushkas, here, in the rear, prayed to the Lord and Christ, the Savior, to His Purest and Blessed Mother, and thus saved their sons from death. And if they perished, the old ladies with scarves knew they were praying for their Fatherland, which is the foot of the Most Holy Mother of God, Her House, called the Holy Rus'.

And they obtained what they prayed for - the steppes of the Orenburg region, and the Volga expanses, and the forests of Ural and Siberia with untold riches the Lord gave to this land called Russia.

And Russia won, and was resurrected, like Christ, who rose from the tomb on the third day and showed the whole world there is no death, only eternal life, toward which one must go, overcoming even the sting of death.

These great truths were comprehended by Ivan Snychev, a boy with golden hair, the pure youth by the will of God's providence, by the efforts of the Russian old ladies, who brought him to the elder Manuil. On top of people's faith, which already resided in Ivan's soul, a meaningful, supreme faith was added, united with the love of reading and the wisdom of the holy fathers.

http://pravoslavie.ru/106928.html

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