Excerpted from: Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father : Being the Narratives Compiled by the Servant of God Alexander Concerning His Spiritual Father by Alexander Concerning His Spiritual Father
During one of the winters, a young man was assigned to Father Arseny’s barracks. Aged 23, he was a student and had been sentenced to twenty years in the camp. He had no experience of camp life because he had been sent to this special camp directly from the strict Butirki Prison in Moscow. Still young, he did not fully understand what lay ahead of him. As soon as he entered the death camp, he encountered the criminals.
His clothing was still good for he had only been in prison a few months. The criminals, led by Ivan the Brown, decided to get hold of the young man’s apparel. They proposed a card game with clothing at stake. Everybody knew that this lad would soon be naked, but no one could do anything about it; even Sazikov dared not intervene. The camp rule was that whoever interfered would be killed. Those who had been in the camp for a while knew only too well that if the criminals decided to play for your rags, to resist would be the end of you.
Ivan the Brown won all the young man’s clothes. Ivan approached him and said, “Take everything off, my friend.”
At that point things started to go sour. The young man, whose name was Alexei, thought that the game had been for fun and refused to hand over his clothing. Ivan the Brown decided to make an exhibition of it. He began with mocking kindness; then he started beating him. Alexei tried to resist, to fight back, but by now the whole barracks knew that he would be beaten until he could no longer move, or even to death. Everyone sat still and watched as Ivan bashed Alexei. He bled from the mouth and face and was swaying. Some criminals mockingly urged him to fight.
Father Arseny had not seen the beginnings of the fight; he had been piling up logs near a stove at the other end of the barracks. He suddenly saw what was happening. Ivan was going to kill Alexei. By now Alexei could only cover his face with his hands; Ivan was slamming him and smashing him repeatedly. Father Arseny silently put the logs near the stove, calmly walked over to the fight and, before the amazed eyes of the whole barracks, grabbed the arm of Ivan the Brown. Ivan looked surprised, shocked! The priest had interfered in a fight. This meant he must die. Ivan hated Father Arseny. He had never dared touch him for fear of the rest of the barracks, but now he had a true reason to kill him.
Ivan stopped beating Alexei and pronounced, “O.K. Pop, it’s the end for both of you. First the student, then you.” A knife appeared in his hands and he lunged towards Alexei.
What happened? Nobody could understand, but suddenly the gentle and weak Father Arseny straightened himself up and slammed Ivan on the arm so hard that the knife fell from his hand. Then he pushed Ivan away from Alexei. Ivan stumbled and fell, and hit the corner of a bunk with his face. Father Arseny went to Alexei and said to him, “Go, Alyosha, wash your face, no one will hit you anymore.” Then, as if nothing had happened, he went back to his work.
Everyone was taken aback. Ivan the Brown stood up. The criminals did not say a word. They understood that Ivan had lost face in front of the whole barracks. Somebody discreetly wiped the blood from the floor with his foot. Alyosha’s face was completely smashed up, his ear was torn, one eye was closed, and the other one was dark red. Everyone was completely silent. They knew that it was all over now for both Father Arseny and Alexei. The criminals would kill them both.
But in fact things turned out differently; the criminals looked upon Father Arseny’s actions as bold and brave. Even though everyone feared Ivan, Father Arseny had not faltered when Ivan the Brown had held a knife, and they respected a man who showed no fear. They already knew Father Arseny for his kindness and his unusual ways; now they respected him for his courage. Ivan retreated to his bunk and whispered with his friends, but he realized that they did not really support him—they had not come immediately to his aid.
The night passed. In the morning everyone went to work; Father Arseny was busy tending the stoves, cleaning up and scraping dirt off the floor. In the evening the prisoners returned from their labor and suddenly, just before the barracks was locked for the night, the supervisor ran in with several guards.
“Attention!” he shouted. All the men jumped down from their bunks. They stood motionless while the supervisor walked along the line of men. When he came to Father Arseny he began to beat him. Meanwhile Alexei was dragged from his place in line by the guards.
“P18376 and P281 to punishment cell No. 1, for 48 hours, without food or water, for breaking camp rules, for fighting,” shouted the officer.
Ivan had reported them to the authorities. To do so was considered by the criminals to be the lowest and most despicable act possible.
Punishment cell No. 1 was a tiny house that stood by the entrance of the camp. In this house were several rooms for solitary confinement; there was also one for two people which held a narrow board instead of a bed. This board was less than 20 inches wide. The floor and walls were covered with sheets of metal. The whole room was not wider than three quarters of a yard and two yards long. Outside it was -22°F and windy, so that it was hard to breathe. You had only to step outside to become immediately numb. The occupants of the barracks understood what this meant: certain death. Father Arseny and Alexei would be frozen within two hours. No one had ever been sent to that cell in such cold. Occasionally, someone was sent to it when the temperature reached -21° or -22°, but this only for 24 hours. The only ones who stayed alive were those who could jump up and down the whole 24 hours to keep their blood from freezing. If you stopped jumping, you froze. And here it was -22°, Father Arseny was an old man, Alexei had just been beaten up, and both men were exhausted.
The supervisors seized them both and started dragging them out of the barracks. Avsenkov and Sazikov dared to come out of the line and said to the officer, “Comrade Officer, they will freeze to death in this weather. You can’t send them to that cell!” The supervisor slammed them both so hard that they flew dazed against the barracks wall.
Ivan the Brown lowered his head. Fear gripped him as he realized that his own people in the barracks would kill him for this.
Father Arseny and Alexei were dragged to the punishment cell and shoved inside. They both fell, cracking their heads against the wall. It was pitch black inside. Father Arseny stood up and said, “So, here we are. God has brought us together. It is cold, Alyosha, and there is metal all around.”
They heard the outer door close, the locks click, the voices and the steps of the guards fade away. The cold seized them and constricted their chests. Through the small window with iron bars the moon shone its milky light into the cell.
“We are going to freeze, Father Arseny,” moaned Alexei. “It is because of me that we are going to freeze. We are both going to die. We need to keep moving, to jump up and down, but it is impossible to keep that up for 48 hours. I already feel so weak, so battered. My feet are already frozen. There is no room here, we cannot even move. Father Arseny, we are going to die. They are inhuman, it would be better to be shot!” Father Arseny was silent. Alexei tried to jump, but it did not warm him up. It was hopeless to resist such cold.
“Why don’t you say anything, Father Arseny?” Alexei shouted.
As if from somewhere very far away Father Arseny’s voice answered, “I am praying to God, Alexei!”
“What’s there to pray about when we are going to freeze?” Alexei muttered.
“We are here all alone, Alexei; for two days no one will come. We will pray. For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp, with our full voice. We will pray and the rest is God’s will!” The cold was gradually conquering Alexei and he was sure that Father Arseny was losing his mind. Making the sign of the cross and quietly pronouncing some words, Father Arseny stood in the ray of moonlight. Alexei’s hands and feet were numbed by the cold; he had no strength in his limbs. He was freezing and no longer cared.
Father Arseny was silent now, and suddenly Alexei heard Father Arseny’s words clearly, and understood that this was a prayer. Alexei had been in church only once, out of curiosity. Although his grandmother had baptized him when he was a child, his family did not believe in God. They simply had no interest in religious matters. They did not know what faith really was. Alexei himself was a student, a member of the Komsomol. How could he believe?
Through the numbness and the pain from the blows he had received, Alexei could clearly hear the words that Father Arseny was saying: “O Lord God, have mercy on us sinners! Ever-merciful God! Lord Jesus Christ who because of Thy love became man to save us all. Through Thine unspeakable mercy save us, have mercy on us and lead us away from this cruel death, because we do believe in Thee, Thou our God and our Creator.” And so the words of prayer poured forth, and in each of these words lay the deepest love and trust in God’s mercy, and unconditional faith in Him.
Alexei started listening to the words of the prayer. At first he was perplexed, but gradually he began to comprehend. The prayer calmed his soul, took away the fear of death, and united him with the old man standing beside him.
“O, Lord our God, Jesus Christ! Thou didst say with Thy purest lips that if two or three agree to ask for the same thing, then Thy Heavenly Father will grant their prayer because, as Thou didst say, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.’ “ Alexei was repeating these words after Father Arseny.
The cold had taken over Alexei completely; his entire body was numb. He no longer knew whether he was standing, sitting, or lying down. But suddenly the cell, the cold, the numbness of his whole body, his pain from the blows he had received and his fear all disappeared. Father Arseny’s voice filled the cell, but was it a cell? Alexei turned to Father Arseny and was stunned. Everything around had been transformed. An awful thought came: “I am losing my mind, this is the end, I am dying.”
The cell had grown wider, the ray of moonlight had disappeared. There was a bright light and Father Arseny, dressed in brilliant white vestments, his hands lifted up, was praying aloud. The clothing on Father Arseny was the same as the priest Alexei had once seen in church.
The words Father Arseny spoke were now easy to understand, they had become familiar—they entered directly into Alexei’s soul. He felt no more anxiety, no more suffering, no more fear, only the desire to become one with these words, to understand them, to remember them for the rest of his life. There was no more cell: now they were in a church. How had they gotten here? And why was there someone else here with them? Alexei saw with surprise that there were two men assisting Father Arseny. Both were dressed in the same bright vestments and both shone with an undefinable white light. Alexei did not see their faces, but sensed that they were beautiful.
Prayer filled Alexei’s being. He stood up and started praying together with Father Arseny. It was warm and easy to breathe, and happiness filled his soul. Alexei repeated everything Father Arseny was saying, yet he was not simply repeating, but praying together with him. It seemed like Father Arseny had become one with the words of his prayer, but Alexei understood that Father Arseny had not forgotten him and was helping him all the while, helping him to pray. The certainty that God existed, that He was with them, came to Alexei. He saw God with his soul. At times Alexei thought that perhaps they were both already dead, but the firm voice of Father Arseny and his presence kept bringing him back to reality.
How much time had passed he did not know, but Father Arseny turned to him and said, “Go, Alyosha! Lie down, you are tired. I will keep praying, you will hear me.” Alexei lay down on the metal-covered floor, closed his eyes, and kept on praying. The words of prayer filled his whole being: “ ... will agree to ask anything, it will be given to them by my Heavenly Father ... “ In thousands of ways his heart responded to these words: “gathered in my name ... “ “Yes, yes! We are not alone,” thought Alexei from time to time as he continued to pray.
All was peaceful and warm. Suddenly out of nowhere his mother appeared. She covered him with something warm. Her hands took his head, and she pressed him to her heart. He wanted to speak to her, “Mama, can you hear, can you hear how Father Arseny is praying? I’ve learned that God exists, I believe in Him.”
As if she had heard him speak, she answered him, “Alyoshenka! When they took you, I also found God. This is what has given me the strength to live.”
Everything that was awful had disappeared, his mother and Father Arseny were near him. Words of prayer which had been unknown to him now rekindled and warmed his soul. It was important not to forget these words, to remember them all his life. “I never want to be far from Father Arseny, I want always to be with him,” thought Alexei.
Lying on the floor at Father Arseny’s feet, Alexei listened, half-asleep, to the beautiful words of the prayer. Father Arseny prayed, and the two others in bright garments prayed with him and served him. They seemed amazed at how Father Arseny could pray. Father Arseny no longer asked for anything, he only glorified God and thanked Him. How long all this lasted no one could say.
The only things that remained in Alexei’s memory were the words of the prayer, a warming and joyful light, Father Arseny praying, the two others in clothes of light, and an enormous, incomparable feeling of inner renewing warmth.
Somebody struck the door, the frozen lock squealed, and voices could be heard from the outside of the cell. Alexei opened his eyes. Father Arseny was still praying. The two in garments of light blessed him and Alexei and slowly left. The blinding light was fading and the cell at last became dark and, as before, cold and gloomy.
“Get up, Alexei! They have come for us,” said Father Arseny.
Alexei rose. The head of the camp, the doctor, the main head of the special sector, and the Major were coming in. Somebody behind the door was saying, “This is inexcusable—someone could report this to Moscow. Who knows how they will look at this. Frozen cadavers—this is not the modern way.”
In the cell stood an old man in a patched up vest and a young one in torn clothes with a bruised face. Their faces were calm and their clothing was covered with a thick layer of frost.
“They’re alive?” the Major asked in amazement. “How did they survive here for two days?”
“We are alive, sir,” said Father Arseny. All looked at each other in amazement.
“Come out!” shouted one of the supervisors. Father Arseny and Alexei walked out of the cell. The supervisors removed their gloves and started frisking them. The doctor also removed a glove, put it under Father Arseny’s and then Alexei’s clothing and, to nobody in particular, said, “Amazing! How could they have survived? It’s true, though; they’re warm.” The doctor walked into the cell, looked around it and asked, “What kept you warm?”
“Our faith in God, and prayer,” Father Arseny answered.
“They are simply fanatics. Send them back to the barracks right away,” said one of the supervisors in an irritated voice. As he was walking away, Alexei heard somebody say, “It’s amazing. In this cold they could have lived no longer than four or five hours. It’s unbelievable, considering it’s -22° F out. You supervisors sure got lucky. There could have been some unpleasantness in store for you.”
The barracks met them as if they had risen from the dead.
Everyone asked, “What saved you?”
They both answered, “God saved us.”
Ivan the Brown was transferred to another barracks within days. A week later he was killed by a falling rock. He died in terrible pain. It was rumored that his own friends had helped the rock to fall.
Alexei became a new man, as if reborn. He followed Father Arseny whenever he was able to and asked everyone he could about God and about Orthodox services.
This story was told by Alexei and confirmed by several witnesses who lived in the barracks at that time.
This chapter was excerpted from Alexander, Father Arseny 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, trans. by Vera Bouteneff (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) and appears by permission of the publisher.