In this article we bring you a glimpse of the divine, as experienced by Farther Arseny, an orthodox Russian priest, while he was imprisoned in one of the prison camps in Russia, in the days of Stalin. The following excerpts are taken from the book "Father Arseny - Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father", which is a collection of letters, memoirs and stories told by people who knew Father Arseny, collection put together by "the servant of God, Alexander".
Father Arseny's description of his own death, followed by his coming back to life, is very similar to other out-of-the-body descriptions of yogis, experienced in states of deep meditation. In the case of Father Arseny, deep faith in God and complete surrendering to His will have opened for him the gates towards the beyond, towards the Supreme Reality.
"Father Arseny was a kind and simple man, with an honest, open face, a man who was not influenced by the convictions nor the habits of the world that surrounded him - a world impregnated with lies, self-interest, vanity and cruelty - a world that fashioned and warped so many of us into its own image and likeness. Father Arseny was uncompromising, courageous and unswervingly committed to what he believed to be right and fair. He did not fall victim to the cruel and passionate powers that had consigned him to heavy suffering and persecution, instead he was a man who chose freely his path toward God, in the name of God. He walked this path to the end with a rare dignity, selflessness, and simplicity. He always tried to find a path to the hearts of everyone, including some of the most fearsome and cruel people who surrounded him, ignite in their souls the spark of God, correct their ways and direct them to do good. He saved and supported many people through the most difficult periods of their lives, at times in their last hours on this earth."
"O Mother of God! Do Not Abandon Them!"
"This story is based on one Father Arseny himself retold to his closest spiritual children; I was one of them.
The reports I heard when I met Avsenkov, Sazikov, and Alexei (the student, who was by then already out of camp) helped me to describe what follows. These people were present when Father Arseny physically died in the barracks, and they witnessed how he came back to life.
When I finished writing all this, I felt I had to show the manuscript to Father Arseny. He read it, was silent for a long while and when he heard my question "Was it not really so?" he answered:
"I was granted great mercy by the Lord and by the Mother of God, who showed me the most sacred and magnificent treasure - that of the human soul, filled with faith, love and kindness. They showed me that faith will never die on earth. Many people carry it within them - some with ardor, others with a trembling respect, others again just carry a spark - and it is essential for them that a good priest help them as a pastor to turn this spark into an unquenchable flame of faith. The Lord showed me that the people who carry the faith, and especially the shepherds of human souls, must help fight for each person to the end of their own strength, until their last breath. The basis of the fight for a soul is love, kindness and helping your neighbour, help given not for one's own sake, but for the sake of one's brother. People judge faith and judge even Jesus Christ Himself, based on the behavior of others. It is also written: 'By your words you will be saved, and by your words you will be condemned' (Matthew 12:37) and, 'Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ' (Galatians 6:2).
"What happened to me was for me an enormous lesson and an admonition. It put me back in my place. Having lived in camps for so long, and having been saved so many times by the mercy of God, I began to believe that I was strong in faith. When I died the Lord and the Mother of God showed me that I am not worthy even to touch the clothes of many of those who are also in camps. I have much to learn from them.
"The Lord humbled me, put me in my place, the place where I should have been all along. He showed me my great unworthiness and granted me rime to improve myself, to correct my mistakes and errors. But have I? O Lord, help me!"
Having said this Father Arseny took my manuscript and returned it to me in a few days. Rereading it, I saw that he had changed a few words and added others. The manuscript he gave back to me is what is before you now.
Returning the manuscript to me, Father Arseny said, "Please, while I am alive, do nor show this to anybody. When I die - let people read it."
The exhausting hot summer with its clouds of mosquitoes had been replaced by a rainy, humid, and cold autumn. The ground was sometimes frozen and sometimes streaming with rivers of melted mud. It was damp and cold in the barracks, which made life particularly difficult. The clothing of the prisoners never could dry out, their feet were constantly wet and covered with blisters. A flu epidemic began. Every day three to five people died. It was now Father Arseny's turn. He could not rise from his bunk. His temperature was 104°, he had chills, he was coughing, he was congested, his heart refused to function.
In the special camp, during such epidemics of flu, patients were nor even put in the hospital. Only if your skull was cracked or if your leg or arm was cur off or broken were you taken to the hospital. Flu had to be dealt with within the barracks. The rule of the camp was - if you can stand, you work; if you can’t stand, then prove you are nor faking an illness. If you prove it, they will take care of you, if the authorities approve.
In the camp there is a plan as to how much work must be done by each prisoner. If he is made to do more more work than expected, the authorities are remunerated. Of course the prisoner himself did not even know it, but his work brought money to somebody. The authorities exist to keep to their plan, so there is no rime for softheartedness.
When a prisoner is sick or has a high fever, he has to ask permission to go to the infirmary. There they will take his temperature. If it is below 103°, he is sent back to work; should he argue, they will send him to the punishment cell, and on top of it the supervisor will hit him in the face to remind him of his responsibilities. If the fever is higher than 103°, he may stay in the barracks in bed, bur he must appear every day in the infirmary. If he becomes unconscious in the barracks, the medic will come to check his temperature and throw some medicine onto his bunk. Then he can stay in bed; but take care he doesn’t remain there after his temperature drops below 102°.
So this was the general rule: if you can walk, walk to work; don't use the camp doctors. They are usually hired by the government, and know their job. It doesn't take much for them to shout, "You're faking - off to work! If you don't I’ll send you to the punishment cell!" It is true that many of the prisoners had been doctors before they were arrested, but those were never allowed to practice in camp. They had to do physical work like anybody else, and particularly hard work at that.
On the third day after Father Arseny became ill, one of the doctors among the prisoners looked him over and called a lung specialist to discuss the case. They called Avsenkov over and told him, "The patient has pneumonia, complete exhaustion, a serious vitamin deficiency, and his heart is worn out. It looks very bad. We do not think he can last more than two days. We would need medication, oxygen, care. But under these circumstances, there is nothing we can do."
Father Arseny was almost an old man. He had lived in this camp for a number of years and over that time many people in the barracks had died and been replaced by new ones. Only perhaps twelve people were such "veterans" as he was. Everybody looked at these old-timers with surprise - how and why were these patriarchs still alive?
A medic was called in. He looked at Father Arseny from a distance of two meters, tossed some aspirin onto his bunk, gave Avsenkov a thermometer to check his temperature, saw that it was over 104°, and saying, "He has the flu," he left.
Father Arseny grew steadily worse. His friends could see that it was the end, that his time had come. They sent a man to the hospital to try and get help; his friends from among the criminals tried to soften up the supervisors; they managed to obtain some mustard powder for a plaster, and some raspberry jam; they brought anything they could. A messenger managed to get into the hospital with great difficulty, and with the help of some true friends he begged for help, for medicine, and explained what was going on with Father Arseny.
The doctor listened and asked the messenger, "How old is the zek, and how long has he been in this camp?" The messenger answered that the patient was 49 years old and had been in the camp for three years now.
The doctor answered, "Do you think that a special camp is a sanatorium, and the zeks in it should live until they are 100 years old? Your patient has beaten the odds, and it is time for him to go. He has lived long enough. There is no medicine for him, it is needed for the army."
The fever rose higher and higher, Father Arseny lost consciousness more and more often. Avsenkov tried to give him aspirin with raspberry jam to drink. Sazikov put a rag with mustard powder on his chest and back. The doctors among the prisoners helped as much as only they could the minute they returned from their labor; but Father Arseny grew worse and worse; at times he was nearly motionless. He was dying.
Death is a common occurrence in camp, everyone is used to it. But in this case everyone felt it in a special way. (From one end of the barracks to the other you could hear, "Father Arseny is dying! Piotr Andreyevich is dying!" For each one of them he had done something good, something kind. A most unusual man was dying; this was something the politicals as well as the criminals understood) - [This last sentence, in parentheses, I added to his memoirs already after Father Arseny's death; it was contributed by Sazikov and by Alexei - the student.]
Father Arseny prayed on and on, and felt the support and help of his friends. Gradually he grew silent.
"He is going," said someone. Father Arseny felt also that he was dying; the barracks, Sazikov, Avsenkov, Alexei, the doctor Boris Petrovich - he could see them no longer, everything had disappeared, had faded away ...
After some time Father Arseny felt an unusual lightness grip him and heard an absolute silence surrounding him. He grew calm. His difficulty in breathing, the mucus that had blocked his throat, the fever that had been burning his body, his weakness and helplessness all disappeared. He felt healthy and energetic.
Now Father Arseny stood by his own bunk, and on it he saw a thin, exhausted, unshaven, almost white haired man with pinched lips and half open eyes. Near the man he could see Avsenkov, Sazikov, Alexei and a few more of the prisoners whom he, Father Arseny, especially knew and loved. Father Arseny looked attentively at the man on the bunk and suddenly realized with amazement that the man on the bunk was himself.
His friends who were gathered near his bunk, the enormous barracks with its numerous population, the whole vast camp - Father Arseny was suddenly seeing it all with absolute clarity. He understood that just now he could see not only their physical appearance, but their souls.
Through the silence that was in him, he saw the movements of the prisoners, and although he could not hear them, he could somehow understand clearly what they were saying and thinking. With awe, he realized that he could see the state of each of their souls, but he knew that he was no longer with them in this world.
An invisible line separated him from this world, and he was unable to cross it. Now Sazikov brought a cup to "his" lips, and tried to pour something into his mouth, but could not. The water spilled over his face. Avsenkov and Alexei were talking about something with a few of the others. Father Arseny stood at the foot of his own body looking at himself and at the other people as though he were an outsider. And suddenly he understood that his soul had left his body, and he, the Priest Arseny, was physically dead.
Father Arseny turned around in wonder; the barracks was disappearing into darkness, but somewhere in the distance there was a blinding light.
Recollecting himself, Father Arseny started to pray and immediately was at peace; he understood that there was somewhere he had to go. He started walking towards the blinding light, but having made a few steps, he turned back into the barracks, and went up to his bunk. Looking at Alexei, Alexander Pavlovich, Ivanov, Sazikov, Avsenkov and the many, many others with whom he had shared the thorny path of suffering, he understood that he could not leave these people. He could not leave them.
He kneeled, and began to pray, begging God not to leave Alexei, Avsenkov, Alexander, Theodore, Sazikov and all of the others with whom he had lived in this camp.
"O Lord, O my Lord! Do not leave them. Help them and save them!" he prayed. And especially he asked for the intercession of the Mother of God, begging her in her mercy not to abandon the prisoners of the special camp.
As he prayed, he cried, begging God, the Mother of God, and all the Saints to have mercy on them all. But his prayer was wordless. And now the barracks and the entire camp appeared before his spiritual eyes in a very different way. He saw the whole camp with all its prisoners and its prison guards as if from inside. Each person carried within himself a soul which was now distinctly visible to Father Arseny. The souls of some were afire with faith which kindled the people around them; the souls of others, like Sazikov and Avsenkov, burned with a smaller but ever growing flame; others had only small sparks of faith and only needed the arrival of a shepherd to fan these sparks into a real flame. There were also people whose souls were dark and sad, without even the least a spark of Light. Now, looking into the souls of the people which God had allowed him to see, Father Arseny was extremely moved. "O, Lord! I lived among these people and did not even notice them. How much beauty they carry within them. So many are true ascetics in the faith. Although they are surrounded by such spiritual darkness and unbearable human suffering, they not only save themselves, but give their life and their love to the people around them, helping others by word and by deed.
"Lord! Where was I? I was blinded by pride and mistook my own small deeds for something grand."
Father Arseny saw that the Light of faith burned not only in the prisoners, but also in some of the guards and administrators, who, within the limits of what they could do, performed good deeds. For them this was extremely difficult, because it was very dangerous.
"What is all this for?" flew through the mind of Father Arseny. "What is it all for?"
He stood and observed the spiritual world of the people, the same people with whom he had lived, talked, or had only just seen. How surprisingly varied and spiritually beautiful this world appeared before him. People who in the crowd of others had seemed to Father Arseny to be spiritually empty and depersonalized, he now saw anew. He saw that they carried so much faith, so much inexhaustible love for others, did so much good and bore their cross without complaint. And he, Father Arseny, living among them, he, the Priest and Hieromonk Arseny, had not seen them, had not noticed them, had not connected with them.
"O Lord! Where was I? Pardon me and have mercy on me. I only saw myself. I was deluded, I did not have enough faith in people."
Bowing down, Father Arseny prayed for a long time. When he stood up he saw that he still was in the camp, but he no longer had his new perception of it; the bunks and the barracks had disappeared. Father Arseny stood at the gate of the camp. The sharp beams of the search lights were sweeping the region and by the gate stood a sentry. lt was night. The camp was asleep.
Father Arseny turned towards the camp, blessed it and prayed for all those still living in it.
"Lord! How can I leave them? How will I be without them? Do not leave all those who live here without your mercy. Help them!" And kneeling in the snow, he prayed.
It was cold, the wind threw clumps of snow but Father Arseny felt none of it. He prayed for a long time, then stood up and left the camp. He passed the sentries and walked along the road. Somewhere far away he saw a bright, inviting light and walked towards it. He walked easily and calmly. He passed the forest and the village and suddenly found himself in his own town, the one with his church, his very church, the church where he first served as a new priest, where he with the help of his many spiritual children had worked hard to restore its ancient beauty. "How can this be, my Lord? Why am I here?" he murmured, and entered into the church.
The first thing he saw was the familiar icon of the Mother of God, the ancient miracle-working one whose sorrowful face looked deeply and attentively at each who approached her. Everything in this church was as he had left it, but now it was full of people, even overflowing with people. The faces of the people praying were joyous and they looked at the icon of the Mother of God.
As Father Arseny walked towards the altar, the people squeezed right and left to leave a passage for him. He walked towards the altar with a light and happy step. Having entered the altar, he wanted to vest himself and began to remove his camp jacket for the service, but someone who was standing nearby said firmly to him, "Don't take it off! These clothes are also vestments for service."
Father Arseny looked at his padded cotton prison jacket. It was shining and blindingly white. He put on his priest's stole to begin serving and he was amazed. The altar was flooded with a bright light, the whole church gave out light, and the icons looked quite extraordinary on the walls; they seemed almost alive. There were many praying people; they were praying deeply and joyously.
Serving the liturgy, Father Arseny saw that together with him served the Hieromonk Herman, the priest Amvrosy, the Deacon Piorr and several more priests. And he, Father Arseny, knew all those who served with him now. At the side of the altar quietly stood Bishops Jonah, Anthony, Boris, his spiritual father and friend Bishop Theophil, and they all looked at him with joy.
"Lord," thought Father Arseny. "They all died a long time ago, and now they are here. It is so good to be here together!"
Father Arseny served and his soul was full of joy; prayer filled all his being and uplifted him.
Blessing the people praying with him he understood that he knows them all as well. They are his spiritual children, his parishioners, and others he had met in different places, in different camps: he had shared his life with these people. And all these people were praying for someone, they were asking for something. And looking more carefully at them, he realized that just like the priests serving with him and the bishops standing in the altar, all these people had died, some a long time ago and some more recently.
"O, Mother of God, how can this be?" thought Father Arseny. He did not wait for an answer, but he entered deeply into the service, into prayer. As he served the liturgy he felt that he was burning with joy and inner warmth. He received Communion, finished the liturgy, and knelt before the icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir asking her to forgive all his sins.
"O, Mother of God, the Heavenly Father has called me to judgment, because I have died. Do not leave me; be my intercessor before your Son. Do not leave me. I put my trust in You: I am an unworthy sinner." As he prayed for the forgiveness of his own sins, he also begged the Mother of God not to leave all those who were still alive. He prayed for his spiritual children, for the prisoners with whom he had lived and who were still in camps. He prayed for Alexei (the student), for Avsenkov, for Sazikov, for Abrosimov, for Alchevsky and for many, many others. He lost the concept of time and prayed so hard that he felt that all those praying in this church prayed with him; repeating again and again, "O, Birthgiver of God! Do not forget them, the longsuffering!" He cried, he sobbed and tears flowed all over his face.
Father Arseny's heart ached and was tight in his chest - how would they survive, all those who were there? Again he asked the Mother of God not to forget them, whose suffering is beyond what man can bear ... And suddenly, he heard a voice, a clear extremely gentle, but firm clear voice, saying, "The time of your death has not yet come, Arseny. You must serve people some time longer. God is sending you back to help His people! Go and serve. I will not leave you."
Father Arseny lifted his head, looked at the icon and saw that the Mother of God seemed to have come down from the icon and stood in its place. He fell on his knees at her feet and could only repeat, "Mother of God, do not leave them. And have mercy on me a sinner!" And again he heard her voice:
"Lift up your face, Arseny, look at me and tell me what you want to tell me, tell me your thoughts!"
Father Arseny lifted his face, looked at the Mother of God and, overcome by her kindness and her unearthly greatness, bowed low, and said:
"Mother of God, your will be done, yours and the Lord's, but I am old and ill. Will I be able to serve these people as you, the sovereign one, want me to?"
"You are not alone, Arseny, there are many people serving me. You will serve alongside them. And, together with them you will help many. God has just shown you that He has many people helping Him. He has shown you the souls of the people who live in the camps. Faith does live in many of them, faith and love. You are not alone in the kindness you bestow. Go, serve me. I will help you!" And Father Arseny felt the hand of the Mother of God touch his head.
Father Arseny arose, took off his priest's stole, bowed to all those gathered, the priests and the people, and saw once again that he knew them all, and that he had accompanied most them to their eternal rest; his life was in some way tied to each of them. He approached the Royal Doors, knelt, arose, and asked the congregation gathered there not to forget him in their prayers, and walked to the door of the church. As he was walking by them, the people blessed him. He came out of the church with his soul overflowing with joy. It was easy to walk. He was walking towards the camp, towards his barracks. The forest, the road, the houses, all raced by him. He passed the sentries, entered his barracks, walked to his bunk, saw his body on it, with the people gathered around it. He lay down on his bunk and heard someone say, "It's all over! He is getting cold. Our Father Arseny has died. It's almost five o' clock, and will soon be time for reveille; we will have to inform the supervisors."
Someone added, "We all have been orphaned: he helped so many of us. I fought against God my whole life, but he showed Him to me. He revealed Him by his own actions. "
Father Arseny sighed deeply - it surprised them all and it frightened many - he calmly said, "I was in my church, and now you see the Mother of God has sent me back to you!" And nobody felt that these words were strange, although they were still amazed at his return. Some two weeks later Father Arseny was able to get up. Everything seemed strange to him: life in general and people, all looked different. Each person wanted to help, each brought him a little bit of his own ration. Even the Fair One brought some butter and gave it to Sazikov for Father Arseny.
Father Arseny got up, came to life. The terrible illness left him. The Lord and the Mother of God had sent him to serve people, had sent him back into the world.