New Martyrs of Optina Pustyn
In the year 1993 the Orthodox world was shocked by a tragic event, which had happened in Optina Hermitage: three inhabitants of the monastery were brutally murdered on Easter night. They were Hieromonk Basil (Roslyakov), Monk Therapont (Pushkaryov) and Monk Trophim (Tatarinov). According to the investigator, the murderer Nikolay Averin inflicted the injuries with unusual professionalism, "deliberately—they were not too deep—to make the victim bleed to death over a long time." The knife was double-edged, five centimeters wide, and resembled a sword. It was engraved on its blade with "666" and "satan."
This is a narrative about three martyrs from the Optina Pustyn monastery in Central Russia. All three monks were killed by a satanist on Easter night in 1993. We would like to pay homage to the memory of these three remarkable people, hoping their story will serve to strengthen the spirit of many Christians, who sincerely embrace the Faith.
Hieromonk Basil (Igor Roslyakov)
The first person we'd like to tell you about is Muscovite Igor Roslyakov, one of those who began the process of this revival.
Three months prior to his arrival at the monastery, Igor wrote in his diary: "March 12th, 1988. Morning. Mother finds my small cross. I am 27. I first put this cross on after I had been christened, 27 years ago. An obvious sign from the Lord, reminiscent of Christ's words: '...pick up your cross and follow me...' "
A few words at this point about the hand of the Lord in Igor Roslyakov's destiny.
When in 1984, upon embracing the Faith, he started going to church regularly, one pilgrim, casting a glance in his direction, said: "A monk is praying." At the time, Igor never even dreamt of monkhood. He could always be seen in one and the same spot at the Epiphany Cathedral, in one of Moscow's central districts. A long time ago, a village by the name of Yelohovo used to be situated here—the home place of Moscow's great saint—St.Basil the Blessed.
When inside the church, Igor invariably stood near the icon of St. Basil the Blessed. If you stand in exactly this spot, then you will find yourself facing, in the iconostasis, the large icon of Archangel Michael and above it—the icon of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. Years later, Igor shall take the habit and receive the name of Vasily, or Basil, in honor of Basil the Blessed. Later, on the day in memory of Archangel Michael, Basil was ordained at the monastery church, consecrated in honor of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. However, back then in 1984, Igor Roslyakov had no way of seeing that far into the future.
On June 21, 1988, Igor Roslyakov became an inhabitant of the Optina Pustyn, which then lay in ruins. Together with the then far from numerous brethren, he faced the daunting task of rebuilding the holy site.
Upon entering the monastery, Igor Roslyakov presented the Father Superior with his autobiography. "My name is Igor Roslyakov," the autobiography said. "I was born in Moscow on December 23, 1960. Studied at secondary school No. 466 in Volgograd district of the capital. After finishing school, I spent a year working at an automobile factory. In 1980 I entered the department of Journalism of Moscow State University. In 1985 I graduated from the University as a qualified newspaper journalist. As a member of the University's water-polo team I appeared at All-Union and International competitions; got a Master's degree in sports. Was married. Then signed my divorce papers at the Volgograd district Department of Civic Affairs. I have no children. Since 1985 have been working as sports instructor at the Trade Union Sports Society."
The brethren at the monastery knew nothing about this autobiography, since it is generally not the custom to ask about another's past or offer details about yourself. It was only several years later that somebody brought an old copy of "Izvestiya" newspaper to the Monastery, sporting a faded snapshot of Igor Roslyakov holding a Champions' Cup. That's when they learned that at the University he'd been Captain of the Water polo team, and later, sports instructor.
The first to suspect that Igor Roslyakov was a former athlete were youngsters from the Vocational College, at the time still housed on the compound of Optina Pustyn. These troublesome students were more than a handful for the monks. No sooner had the latter restored some wall or another, than these fellows would be there, writing rude words on it, with no respect for the work that had gone into it. First, they were reasoned with and patiently admonished, yet to no avail. Then Igor Roslyakov took it upon himself to approach the hooligans. Lifting a couple of the fellows up bodily, and holding then aloft by the scruffs of their necks, he then sent them hurtling through the tall grass. This had a remarkable effect on the students, who lost no time in spreading the rumor that all the monks were one-time athletes. This instilled admiration and respect immediately, and put an effective end to all the trouble and pranks. From then on, peace reigned at the Monastery.
Hegumen Melkhisedek recalls how he was once christening one Irina, and lay-brother Igor Roslyakov was helping him:
"I conducted the christening itself, while Igor was holding Irina by the hand, just in case, since the christening was done in a deep holy natural spring. After the third submersion, Igor saw that rays of light were emanating from Irina's eyes." Grace is experienced at every christening ceremony, yet Igor was blessed with a God-given ability to not only sense it, but actually see it.
He generally possessed a keen sensibility for and perception of grace. This became particularly evident at Easter. He felt the spirit of Easter so strongly, there would be tears in his shining eyes. He would be lost in a timeless space. He could stand through two lengthy liturgies in succession, unable to tear himself away from the Easter benevolence and grace, pervading the very atmosphere. Easter was, for him, a sacrament, wherein the Spirit hears the call of the world to come. It seemed he was able to hear this call.
Here are some entries from his diary: "April 10, 1988. Easter. My third Easter... Time is such a mystical entity. I ask myself: was there a Lent or not? Was there a service? One day, I shall thus have to ask about my life. What exists in reality? The Spirit. Pure of sin, or smeared with it."
" 'Exult now and rejoice, Zion...' Yes, rejoice! This is a state of the spirit, for it is an inner manifestation, not provisional."
"April 30, 1989. Easter. The Lord's grace is granted gratis, but we should bring the Lord all we have."
He was already Hieromonk Basil, when the believers asked him: "Father, do you have a special, sacred wish?" "Yes," he replied, "I would like to die at Easter, to the chiming of bells." His wish was granted in 1993.
Father Basil was a profoundly Russian person, with the typical for our people inner guilt for all happening around us. This feeling is characteristic of people, who are endowed with a force of sacrificial, elevated love.
Here are more entries from Father Basil's diary:
"Love your neighbor as you love thyself, pray for him, as for thyself, only to see that the sins of your neighbor are YOUR sins, and go down to hell with these sins for the saving of your neighbor. Lord, You gave me love, changed me completely, and now I cannot do otherwise, but to embrace suffering willingly for the sake of my neighbor. I weep, I lament, but cannot do otherwise, for Your love leads me, and I do not want to part with it, for in it I find hope for Salvation, and despair not, seeing it within myself."
One of the monks of Optina Pustyn shares some recollections of Father Basil:
"Prior to Easter, I twice confessed to Father Basil, and was in a state of profound shock afterwards. Already at the confession I had the suspicion that Father Basil has the audacity to take upon himself other people's sins. On the morning of Holy Saturday Father Basil read the sermon. I was doing my novitiate in the church at the time; was entering and exiting the church, so could not listen to the sermon in its entirety. But what I did hear made me suspect that, indeed, Father Basil was taking upon himself our sins, as his own. Just the night before that I had read of one Elder, who had died a true martyrs' death, for he had willingly accumulated many sins of others. So I thought of Father Basil, wondering how he would die if he was taking on so many of our sins?"
Only great Optina Elders and ascetics of olden times had the audacity to accept sins of others and avert them by prayer. Father Basil did not see himself as an ascetic. It really came down to forced means: Russian monkhood was led to heroic deeds in unexampled conditions, when Monasteries were only just rising from the rubble. His was a period when there was a shortage of clergymen, and the young hieromonks were suffering undue stress and overwork, resulting in early graying hair.
The father of one monk, who fought the German fascists in the Patriotic war of 1941-1945, said of the monks of the end of the 1980s and early 1990s:
"This is similar to what we had in 1941. Young, totally inexperienced, just off the train and—straight into battle. You crawl towards a tank clutching a bottle of incendiary, paralyzed with fear, yet knowing full well somebody has to do it." This is a remarkable comparison: monks of the end of the 20th century and soldiers of the Second World War. True, the monks of the end of the 20th century, just like their fathers of the war years, had to experience hell, to save their neighbors.
Here is another testimony of Father Basil. This time, contributed by a worker, who took part in the restoration of the Monastery:
"A dreadful thing happened to me—in a moment of desperate weakness I felt a strong urge to commit suicide, to hang myself. There I was, going to work at the Optina Monastery, and crying all the way. Archdeacon Vladimir, upon learning what was the matter with me, said: 'You had better immediately go to see Father Basil!' And led me to his cell. Father Basil had been washing his robes, and was wearing faded patched jeans and a threadbare old mohair sweater. We spoke some fifteen minutes. I recall how Father Basil said to me: 'If you can—forgive, if you can't—leave.' He prayed. And I remember leaving him in extremely good spirits. There I stood outside his cell—laughing! If someone had told me fifteen minutes before that I would be laughing and rejoicing in life, I would never have believed it possible! Yet, here I was! From that moment on, Father Basil became like a true Father, a blood relative to me. In the 40 years of my life, I have never met another person like him, with such a beautiful soul. I regularly went to confess to him, even decided to plead for permission to become his spiritual child. However, while I was summoning the courage, Father Basil passed away. For a month and a half afterwards I wept with grief, couldn't force myself to go to the Monastery."
Father Basil was so totally devoid of the desire to please, to win accolades and praise that many of the inhabitants of the Monastery and pilgrims to Optina Pustyn discovered for themselves this silent clergyman only some time before his death.
He was destined to experience the rank of clergyman but for two and a half years. To begin with only visitors went to confess to the beginning clergyman. And these were few, for as it transpired, his monumental, imposing figure was seen as fearsome by many. Youths called him "the monument" behind his back. Indeed, there was some truth in this simile, for he could stand for hours immobile at the lectern. When accepting people's confessions, he never seated himself, but preferred to stand. During Lent, he could stand his way through some 18 hours a day. He had little to say to those who came to confess, silently listening to what they had to impart. After his death, it was discovered from his diaries that not only did Father Basil hear every word, spoken in the confessional, but pleaded to God for each one of them, with sincere love: "Tis I, Lord, who sins, forgive ME!.."
They say that Father Basil made a note of all the names of those, who came to confession to him, or whom he christened. Afterwards, back in the privacy of his cell, he bowed low, praying for all of them to the Lord.
A nun by the name of Varvara, who used to confess to him, said that Father Basil said not a word, as was his custom, during confession, yet one always left him with an amazing sense of relief, as though one had been absolved from all sin.
One of the pilgrims recalls how he went to confess to Father Basil: "I felt such compassion emanating from Father Basil, it was as though we had one pain and sorrow between the two of us." It is known that later this pilgrim went on to become a monk himself.
Father Basil had a large wooden cross that he'd been given as a gift, featuring an image of the Savior, a cross he preciously guarded. Russian pilgrims had carried this cross when entering Jerusalem, walking along the Calvary to the Lord's Tomb, where they had it sanctified. It is often recalled how Father Basil would say that the most important thing in life was to carry one's cross to the end, never stumbling on the rise upwards before meeting our Maker. This is why this cross, that had been carried through Jerusalem, along the Calvary, and sanctified at the Lord's Tomb, had so special a significance for him, occupying pride of place in his small cell.
Not long before his death, Father Basil took this cross and went with it to the icon workshop, where two monks — icon-painters were working. One of them was celebrating his Name day. Father Basil congratulated him, and presented him with his cross, saying: "I should like you to keep it with you for a while. Let's go find a place for it together." The cross was hung on the wall near the Icon corner. Later it transpired that Father Basil had brought this Calvary cross to the place of his own private Calvary: he was killed near the icon workshop, falling down right opposite the cross.
On August 9, 1993, holy chrism was seen to appear on this cross, on the left side, under the Savior's ribs. The drops were large and didn't dry for two weeks. It seemed as if the cross was miracle-working!
Monk Trophim (Alexei Tatarnikov)
Another monk, who died tragically on Easter night in 1993 at the age of 39, Trofim, came to Optina Pustyn in August of 1990. Outside the monastery walls his name had been Alexei Tatarnikov. He was born on February 4, 1954.
This young man came to the monastery with the strong determination to become a monk. He possessed enviable looks, which invariably drew people's glances to him like a magnet. One artist, busy sketching on the grounds of Optina Pustyn, upon seeing him, exclaimed: "Look, a Viking! What a typecast image!"
Indeed, the simile was not without grounds: he was blue-eyed and blond, with powerful arms and legs, which carried him with firm, steady tread. His was the strength that could enable him to tie a poker into knots, or, just for the fun of it, twist a thick nail, held nonchalantly between his fingers, into a spiral.
Trofim had mastered many a trade. After finishing secondary school studies in his native village, he served in the army, after which he spent five years on fishing trawlers in the Russian Far East. As a rule, the fishermen would go off for half a year at a time. Upon coming ashore, as was the sailors' custom, they'd make a beeline for the restaurant. Trofim was the heart and soul of the company, clever at keeping up his end of the conversation, and when he set his mind to dancing, nobody could keep still. As a rule, everyone quite forgot about the drinking, returning home sober, yet light-hearted. For this remarkable ability to ignite revelry without undue intoxication, Trofim was heartily invited to diverse sailors' company and weddings. Everyone could be certain of a grand old time, without drunken debauchery. Trofim was a quick hand at carpentry, a tractor-driver, baker, and many other trades. This is why other people were constantly approaching him for help and guidance. He, in turn, never turned anyone down. His help was always gratis and sincere.
For Trofim, everything he said was as good as done. If he'd promised something, you could be sure he'd see it through. He was remarkably hard-working, a quality that was destined to come in quite handy later at the monastery.
Friar Trofim had such a profound love for people, and dispersed it so generously, that each person saw him as his best friend. One of the clergymen who was acquainted with him, said that he had been "brother, friend, helpmeet and relative to each and every one." Incidentally, this last quality at times led him to rebel against monastery rules and instructions. Here is an example. There was only one tractor at the monastery, and a great deal of work set out for it. So there was something of a list of priorities: first, the plots of monastery workers were ploughed, and only afterwards those of other civilians, from the locals, who approached the monastery for help. Thus, when Trofim would be instructed to carry out the ploughing, he'd dutifully set off, yet the noise of his tractor inevitably drew forth an impressive turnout of elderly, feeble women from the villages. Seeing them, tears would well up in Trofim's eyes. Each old woman would beg with him to plough up her bit of land, or do some other chores. Some of these were lonely old souls, others had but sorry excuses for husbands, pitiful drunkards, while their offspring had moved, and couldn't be relied upon to help. How could he turn these poor souls down? He never did. He helped as much as he could, frequently turning up late at the monastery, and receiving punishment for this. The latter he stoically endured, for he was profoundly aware of the importance of monastic obedience.
The village women, in turn, adored Trofim, and he loved them like a son. He would receive a money transfer from home, only to go and spend it on scarves for his grannies, simple white cotton kerchiefs, edged with color. The old ladies, in turn, treasured these "trophies" more than anything else, all the more so since Trofim would apply them to the sacred relics at the monastery prior to presenting them as gifts.
Once, Trofim was busy loading wood for the monastery. Upon hearing that in the neighboring village an old woman lay ill in a cold cottage, without any wood for the stove, he immediately made a detour. Trofim brought her wood and stoked up a fire. He was already on his way back to the monastery when he heard the distant chiming of bells; there were just 15 minutes till Vespers. It was obvious he was going to be late for service, since there was at least another half-hour's drive to the Monastery. Trofim set his tractor straight off the road, and he drove recklessly across the terrain, nose-diving and stumbling. Sitting in the cabin with Trofim was icon-artist Olga, who was quite terrified: not of the breakneck speed or the rugged terrain, but of the look on Trofim's face. As a rule he wore an easy smile, but was now quite transformed. The man sitting next to her was sullen and aloof. She was struck by the sudden impression that he wasn't really there, so distant were his thoughts, deep in prayer. A miracle happened and they reached the monastery in time for Vespers.
Nobody was loved as much as Trofim at the monastery. However, probably, nobody was as often reprimanded. This is what he had to say about it: "To begin with, through my pride, I wanted to do everything my way. However, once you've trained yourself to be obedient, peace settles on your soul."
Translated from Greek, Trofim means "disciple." He was, indeed, a pupil, a disciple of Optina Pustyn, a beloved child, endowed with the rare for our proud century gift of being the ideal disciple. He knew how to learn from mistakes. And always dutifully accepted meted out punishment. Here is one example:
- They say that when the Monastery turned out its first bread, Trofim was the baker! What day it was: such joy ... the very first bread baked at their Monastery! Half of Optina Pustyn assembled at the bakery to try it... The bread was so delicious and warm, that without the blessing of the Monastery hierarchs, half the batch was eaten there and then. The baker was accordingly punished for this misdemeanor. Trofim had to pray to God with genuflection at length. Yet, Trofim accepted this, as all other penances, as nothing short of the Lord's blessing, preceding Doomsday. Once, a Bishop, head of the Diocese, was visiting at the Monastery. Upon seeing how readily the monk Trofim was fulfilling penance, he pronounced respectfully: "What a good monk!"
Trofim's brother, Gennady, says:
- "When my other brother, Sanya, and I came to Optina Pustyn to visit our brother Trofim, we began by asking him why on earth he'd decided to be a monk?! Trofim told us that not long before his leaving for the Monastery he'd had sign—a radiance had been emanating from one of the icons, and he heard a voice, that said something to him, two or three times. Alas, at the time Sanya and I didn't have much faith in such miracles, so we didn't remember what it was exactly that had been said by the 'voice.' What could we possibly know at the time if all we were capable of was pleading with our brother to come back home with us. 'How can I leave,' Trofim said at the time, 'if every time I enter the church each one of the icons speaks to me.' "
Pilgrim Victor Prokuronov recalls:
"When I think of Trofim, I immediately conjure up a vision of him driving the tractor back from the fields. Children, dogs—all rush towards him, eager for a sign of affection from him, while the horses stretch out their necks, for a pat from him..."
Children adored Trofim. He knew the behavioral patterns of animals, bird voices, had a way with horses. Prior to entering the monastery, he had worked for a while at a stud farm, riding the thoroughbred horses. So, he would be flying across the field on horseback while the monastery folk would stop to watch him admiringly. The vision was just like out of a movie. He sat a horse beautifully! Once, somebody asked him if he were a Cossack. "Of course I'm a Cossack!”
He was a jolly soul, and some over-the-top serious pilgrims reproached him for extreme childishness. However few were privileged to know of his secret ascetic deeds. Only after his death did many discover what a wise and courageous man he'd been, with so spiritually charged an existence. One of the pilgrims recalls:
"Trofim was the quintessential monk—keeping everything to himself; Outwardly, he didn't manifest any assumed, hypocritical God-fearing attitudes. It always amazed me, how deeply Trofim loved God and people! All people!!! There was no such thing as 'bad' people for him! Anyone could turn to him for help, any time of the day or night!"
One more episode, characterizing monk Trofim:
- In the autumn of 1992, the weather was so rainy, that gathering the potato harvest became a nightmare! Rain came pouring down, our boots were full of water... Every one returned to the Monastery long after dark, so exhausted, there was no strength to go to church service. One of the hieromonks decided to shame the others for not showing up for midnight service:
- 'What have things come to? The church is empty while each one of you has an excuse: "We have returned so late from the fields!" You should follow the example of monk Trofim—yesterday he was the last out of the field, and the first to arrive for midnight service.' "
To this I might add that after midnight service, Trofim read all the allotted him prayers, taking up quite a lot of time, then lit the fire to hang up the other brothers' wet clothes and boots for drying for the next day's work. After this, he mended those boots of his brothers', which desperately needed it. To top it off, one of the lay brothers showed up in the middle of the night with the words: "Imagine, I've misplaced my rosary! Can't find it anywhere... I shall be in trouble if anyone notices its absence!" So, Trofim made him a new rosary that night out of some braid. Trofim didn't get any sleep that time. In the morning, he was off to harvest the potatoes again.
One of the brothers from the monastery recalled:
- "I complained to Trofim that I usually sit so long pouring over a book, that afterwards I oversleep and miss midnight service. 'As for me,' he says, 'if I sit up too long reading, I never bother to go to bed. I stand on my knees before the bed, and cushion my head on my arms. This way, the arms soon start to tingle, and you certainly won't fall asleep—you'll be sure to spring up with the first chime of the bells...' "
Muscovite Evgenya Protokina noted that monk Trofim was always brief in his speech, yet graphic: one of her acquaintance suffered from despondency. Trofim said to him: "Read the Psalm book. Sometimes the sky is overcast, and your spirits are down, yet once you begin reading, a sun ray bursts through, and such joy kindles your spirit! I've experienced it personally! Believe me!"
Once, Trofim admitted: "I am with God, constantly, in body and soul! I live only for Him!"
When, after his death, people started to gather recollections of him, other people's impressions, it transpired he'd never conducted any mundane conversations with anyone. His thoughts were always addressed to God. One man, who'd come out of prison, told Trofim of some of the horrors experienced there. Trofim said: "Prison is the Monastery of the devil. It's all just like a Monastery, only the other way around—we are taught humility, while there they cultivate pride."
It is said that there were no pests in the village plots that Trofim had ploughed with his tractor, though the neighboring ones were invaded by them. Village folk would even come to Optina Pustyn to ask monk Trofim what prayer he'd said to ward off the bugs. While he would reply: "I read only one prayer: 'O Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on thy sinner.' "
After monk Trofim's death, some of the locals took earth from his grave, diluted it with water, and then sprinkled their vegetable plots with it, firm in the belief the new martyr Trofim would help them fight the pests, plaguing their crops. There are testimonies that this, indeed, served its purpose.
And here are some excerpts from monk Trofim's last letter to his relatives in Siberia:
- "This is the epitome—to live a life of the spirit! Money and all such (food and rags)—are nothing but the seeds of the devil, worldly rubbish we've all become obsessed with God preserve you from all that. Try to step on the brakes more often when driving past the church, go and confess your sins. This is the principal thing in life. Have Sasha and the boys gone to church to receive the Eucharist after christening? If not, let them hurry. Every day is worth its weight in gold. The world, as we know, is rushing headlong towards disaster... May the Lord help you see this clearly. I'll try to remember you all in my prayers as often as possible. You may let me know the names of all our distant ancestors on mother's and father's side—I shall pray for them.
- "I do not write to anyone simply because I am studying to be a monk. If you take holidays, or have relatives come visiting, nothing will come of it. Experience of others has proved the truth of this. A monk must live in a Monastery, in secrecy. He must seek solitude. Monos—means 'alone.' A Monastery implies life of solitude and prayer for everyone. This is very difficult.
- "I wish you all spiritual joy... Pray for one another. Forgive one another. All the rest is but triviality that one can do without. You need to comprehend this fully. Let it sink in. May God help you make the right choices in life. Forgive me. Love. Unworthy monk Trofim."
Trofim had been ringing the bells, summoning all for Easter midnight service when the satanist by the name of Nikolay Averin struck him in the back with a ritual knife. Thus ended the almost three-year-long monkhood of Trofim.
Monk Therapont (Vladimir Pushkariov)
Monk Therapont was the third victim of the horrendous act by a satanist on Easter night in 1993. He lived to be but 35 years, 7 months old. In secular life his name was Vladimir Pushkariov.
Hierdeacon Seraphim, who personally knew Monk Therapont, recalled: "Therapont lived exclusively for God, and was so far removed from all earthly cares, even from among the brethren at the Monastery there were few who knew him."
Indeed, even those, who shared the same cell with him, knew very little about him. For example, the bell-ringer Andrei Suslov. When after the monk's death this man was asked to say something about Father Therapont, he replied: "What is there to say? He would be praying assiduously the whole time in his corner, behind the curtain. He prayed and he prayed, that's all there is to tell."
When details were required for the newspaper obituary, it transpired there were but two papers in Monk Therapont's personal file: an autobiography, written by him upon entering the Monastery, and his death certificate. His autobiography, dated September 13, 1990, reads as follows:
- "I, Pushkariov Vladimir Leonidovich, was born on September 17, 1955 in the village of Kandaurovo, Kolyvansky district of the Novosibirsk region. I lived and worked in the Krasnoyarsk region. Served in the Soviet Army from 1975 until 1977, and from 1977 'til 1980—joined service on re-engagement. Until 1982 I worked as carpenter at the Building office No. 97. Then came studies at the forestry technical college—until 1984. After completing studies I worked in my profession as forestry technician at Lake Baikal, the Buryat Autonomous Socialist republic. From 1987 until 1990 I lived in the town of Rostov-on-the-Don. I was employed as yard-keeper at the Rostov Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Virgin. Presently am free of all worldly affairs. My mother lives in the Krasnoyarsk region with her children. My elder sister is married, has two children; the youngest sister goes to school."
Vladimir Pushkariov was enrolled in the brotherhood of the monastery a year after he had joined it, on March 22, 1991. This was the day of memory of forty Orthodox martyrs. That day, Father Vasily, one of the new martyrs we have already told you about, read the following sermon during service:
- "The blood of martyrs is still being spilt for our sins. The demons cannot bear to see the blood of martyrs, for it gleams brighter than sun and stars, scorching the demons. Presently, the martyrs are helping us, and come Doomsday they shall convict us, for to the consummation of ages there operates the law of blood: give blood and accept the Spirit. ... Each of our committed sins should be washed away with blood."
Listening eagerly to that sermon had been the future new martyr Therapont, who later was known to say: "True, our sins can be cleansed only with blood..."
Gathering material about the life of monk Therapont, those who tackled the task visited his native places in Siberia, met with his relatives, living in a distant, back-of-the-beyond woodland settlement. Here is what they gleaned from his sister Natalia:
- "... I recollect how, after serving altogether some five years in the army in Vladivostok, Volodya then worked with a team of builders in our own village, besides driving the workers' bus. He was never prone to drink, didn't smoke, and generally enjoyed respect. To this day everyone says in our native village: 'Why did he join the Monastery? He was a saint anyway!' "
Volodya's friend Sergey narrated the following incident. "At the time Volodya was living in Rostov-on-the-Don and working at the church. Well, Sergey suddenly saw him right here in our village: apparently this was a vision of Volodya, come to warn Sergey of the danger threatening his child. Sergey did not heed his warning, alas, and the child was hit by a car and died."
It turned out that Vladimir first felt summoned by God when he was working in the Buryat Forestry on Lake Baikal. Those gathering details of his biography came across a curious incident, recounted by pilgrims from the region of Lake Baikal. The story relates that Vladimir once had an encounter with an old magician, there in the taiga woods, who offered him books on magic. The old fellow told him to study the magic books carefully and to come and meet him at the same spot in a year's time. Vladimir did not like magicians, and he did not show up for the meeting. However, he had apparently read the books. Since he did not treat magic seriously, he made use of what he had learned to amuse the local village girls. He would send them off to a neighboring cottage, instructing them to write notes, which he then proceeded to mind-read. Gifted from birth, yet knowing nothing of God, Vladimir had no notion of the dangerous forces he was playing games with.
The game almost ended in tragedy. According to his friend Sergey, Vladimir experienced his own death. His soul had separated from his body and found itself in the kingdom of terror. He was dying. Then the Lord's angel came to him and said he would return him to earth if he would go to church after that. Immediately after this, Vladimir left the forestry office and moved to Rostov-on-the-Don, where he was christened and took on the job of sweeper at the cathedral there. Why did he not stay on in his native places? Simply because one could reach the nearest church only by plane, flying a distance of hundreds of kilometers, though sects and magicians there were in abundance! Already from Rostov-on-the-Don he wrote to his relatives in Siberia: "Where there is no Church, there is no life," and called on them to come and join him in Rostov. His sister Natalia was to grieve afterwards, and lament this decision of theirs against the move.
It also came to be known that in the army Vladimir studied the martial arts of the Orient for five years, discovering later that they were all linked with the occult evils. One hieromonk recollects how, soon after entering the monastery, Vladimir, then a lay-brother, said with bitterness: "I was wielding a sword in my thoughts again," Monk Makarius Pavlov remembers how once the wood-carvers, of whom Vladimir was one, were sharing details of how each one of them had come to embrace the Faith, while working at what they were doing. Vladimir, already monk Therapont, listened to his brethren in silence, then told them how, after he had embraced Orthodoxy, the demons had plagued and harassed him: appearing to him, attacking and throttling him, just like in the narratives of the lives of the ancient Christians, described in the holy books.
Monk Therapont responded to the Lord's love with all-consuming love for God in return. He gave himself to God without reserve. Immediately upon addressing God, he chose for himself the path of asceticism, rejecting all worldly cares. From now on he lived with God and had but one desire: to be with God. Throughout his brief monkhood, he prayed to the Lord for redemption of sins. The exploit of his life is the exploit of repentance.
Hieromonk Phillip recalls:
- Once, monk Therapont and I were busy doing building work at the farm yard. To begin with, due to lack of building materials, we weren't making much progress, but towards evening things started to go so well, it seemed like a pity to break off. However, at that point the bell for evening service chimed. Since it was a week day, I suggested to Therapont: "Why don't we get some more done?" While he said to me: "What, you've repented all your sins already?" And straight away set off for church."
Witnesses say the monk Therapont went to confession daily. At times he would even confess twice a day. All of his monkhood passed in this tireless work of repentance.
Pilgrim Alexander Gerasimenko, who would work at Optina Pustyn for long spells, and who was acquainted with monk Therapont, recalls:
- At one time I was overly serious and portentous. I remember, when at Optina Pustyn, coming out of the hermitage, I loved to turn to its gates and cross myself self-consciously and then genuflect, hopefully before a group of tourists, thinking: let them marvel at how pious our youth are! Therapont would sigh upon witnessing my show of piety, and later said to me: "Sasha, why do you pray like a Pharisee? You should pray unseen, so that nobody behold you..."
Monk Therapont himself had not a whit of pretense in him, nor pharisaism. His devotion to God was sincere and complete.
One of the women, a pilgrim by the name of Lidya, said of him: "He was not a man of this world, so pure—like crystal. He lived by the Bible laws, and in our day—this is martyrdom."
Monk Therapont had notes in his cell, where he put down excerpts from the works by the Holy Fathers of Orthodoxy. He would write out that, of which he later said with conviction: "This has to be lived out in deed." The walls of his cell were covered with pages featuring quotations from the Holy Fathers, and he would often reread them, trying to implement all their commandments.
As an example, here is a quotation from the Holy Gregory of Nisso:
- "Perfection lies in removing oneself from wanton life not out of fear of punishment, or doing good in anticipation of rewards, thus trading ones' virtuous life and arguing the conditions, but rather in seeing only one terror—that of losing God's friendship, and coveting only one priceless gift—that of becoming God's friend. Therein, I believe, lies the perfection to aspire to in life."
Another quote, copied out by monk Therapont, from the teachings of the Blessed Diadochius:
- "Rather like the doors of a steam bath which, if often opened, let out the steam and warmth, thus the spirit, if it is consumed by a desire to speak often, albeit to speak good, loses warmth through the 'door' of the tongue."
Another quotation from Father Isaac the Syrian: "Silence is the secret of life of the future century."
The world inevitably cultivates a pre-conceived notion of monastic life, and can have an oppressive influence on the monastery. In newspaper publications one is immediately confronted with their groundwork thesis: the monks are useful to society since they take care of the needy and sick and take gifts to foster homes. Of course, all this is a part of the routine at Optina Pustyn. Still, to assess the value of monkhood by deeds of charity is akin to assessing the merits of a microscope for cracking nuts. This is a debate that goes way back when—on the social merits and Christian love. The archives of great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky contain a letter by violinist of the Imperial theatre, who censured Christ for not having turned stones into bread. The violinist wrote with indignation that one should first feed humanity and only then talk of Love and Christ. In a reply letter Fyodor Dostoevsky roughly outlined a picture of sated humankind, without any belief in God, and asked if we would not then be in danger of turning into overfed swine, unable to raise our heads to the heavens? And then prophesied: "bread shall then be turned to stone."
As for monk Therapont, he strove for the principal monastic deed: prayer for oneself and all of mankind. He particularly liked to pray in solitude, in one of the small chambers of the church, where the relics of one of the Optina elders were kept. Church service would be over, yet monk Therapont would still be there in front of the relics, praying.
At one time, one of the visitors approached the person on duty in the church, and told him he had found himself there quite by accident, that he had always had serious doubts about God's existence. "Now I know, God exists!" he said in great agitation to the one on duty, "I saw one monk praying here. I saw what could only have been the face of an angel, talking to God! Do you know you have angels here amongst you?" "What angels?" the confused person queried. The visitor pointed to monk Therapont, who was just leaving the church.
One of the monastery brethren witnessed something similar. Monk Therapont was praying at the relics in the empty church, convinced nobody could see him. The brother quietly came out from behind the altar and chanced to throw a glance at the glowing, angel-like face of monk Therapont. He was so shaken, he hurried away.
"Prayer should be the principal deed of a monk," wrote Holy Ignatius (Brianchaninov). Monk Therapont had such a thirst for prayer, even the lengthy church services could not alleviate it. His cell-mates recollect how he would pray and genuflect at night, too. Just as it is so difficult for us sometimes to go and pray, so it was incredibly hard for the monk Therapont to cease prayer.
Now, looking back, one can see that monk Therapont saw the approach of his own death. Not long before he died, he started to give away his warm clothes with the words: "I shall not be needing this any more." Right on the eve of Easter, he distributed his carpentry tools among the brethren.
On the eve of Easter, monk Therapont was in a state of radiant joy, obviously having received from the Lord the gift of enlightenment and foresight. In any case, some of the monks testified that he could read their minds, while one young lay-brother admitted Therapont had told him his future.
On Easter night, before the murder, monk Therapont was standing in church, not in his usual place, but near the table, where services for the repose of the souls are usually conducted. He stood, as if immobile, head bowed in prayer and sorrow. There were a great many people in the church. He was being shoved and crowded, yet he seemed to notice nothing. Then, he set off for the last confession of his life. A satanist struck him with a ritual knife when, together with monk Trofim, he was chiming the bells.
- Tatyana Shvetsova. New Martyrs of the Optina Pustyn, Voice of Russia, 05-04-2007.
- Orthodoxy and the World, Russian Orthodox Church. New Russian Martyrs: Optyna martyrs June 21, 2006.