The Most Beautiful Service of my Life

by Archimandrite Tikon (Shevkunov)

The abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon, has recently written an amazing book, Everyday Saints. In sixty short chapters, Fr. Tikhon introduces the reader to a selection of ordinary, mostly contemporary, Orthodox believers – clergy and lay people, young and old, male and female – and tells their stories with talent, sympathy, humor, and honesty. These are not officially canonized “saints” in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather holy women and men living their lives with faith and holiness. The people portrayed represent an amazing mix of humanity and show the diversity of people drawn together by the Orthodox faith. - Harold M. Leich, the Library of Congress

During soviet times there perhaps was no more horrific symbol of the devastation of the Russian Orthodox Church by Communist rule than Diveyevo Monastery.

The monastery had been founded by St. Seraphim of Sarov, yet it had been turned into a frightful ruin. The gutted remains of what was left towered over the pathetic Soviet “regional center” into which the once glorious and flourishing town of Diveyevo had been transformed. The authorities didn’t bother destroying the monastery completely. Instead they deli­berately left the ruin standing there as a memorial of their triumph, as a trophy of their perpetual enslavement of the Church. By the Holy Gates of the monastery, they put up a monument to the leader of the Revolution—Lenin—whose arm was raised to the sky in mocking greeting of anyone who came to the devastated monastery.

Everything about the scene said convincingly that there would never be any return to the past. The prophecies of St. Seraphim about the grand destiny of Diveyevo Monastery, which had been so beloved in all of Russian Orthodoxy, seemed to have been forever profaned and destroyed.

Nowhere in Diveyevo, neither within the town, nor in its surroundings, was there a single working church, not even the memory of a church—all had been utterly destroyed. And in the once renowned Monastery of Sarov, and in the towns around it, instead of a holy site, now one of the most top-secret and heavily guarded constructions of the Soviet Union was housed instead—a project known as Arzamas-16. Here nuclear weapons were made.

If any priests ever made a secret pilgrimage to Diveyevo, they hid their intentions, dressing in secular clothes. It was to no avail. The secret police would find them out anyway. In the year when I first visited the devastated monastery, two monks who came to pray and express their reverence for the holy relics of Diveyevo were arrested, cruelly beaten by the police, and then kept imprisoned for fifteen days in a jail cell, sleeping on a frozen floor.

That winter, Archimandrite Boniface, a wonderful and extremely kind monk from the famous Holy Trinity Monastery, asked me to accompany him on a trip to Diveyevo. According to our ecclesiastical rules, a priest who sets out on a journey with the Sacred Gifts of the Eucharist—the Body and Blood of Christ—must always be accompanied by someone, so as to help defend and protect the great Holy Gifts in the event of any emergency that might arise. And Father Boniface was on his way to Diveyevo in order to give Communion to a few old nuns still living in the area around the monastery—some of the last few still living in our time of the thousand who once inhabited the pre-Revolutionary convent.

To get there we had to take a train through Nizhny Novgorod, then called Gorky, and next drive by car to Diveyevo. In the train all night long Archimandrite Boniface could not sleep. Hung around his neck by a silken cord was a small sacred receptacle for the Holy Gifts. I was sleeping on a neighboring bunk, but from time to time would wake up at the sound of the wheels and see Father Boniface seated at table reading the New Testament in the dim night light of our train wagon.

We made it to Nizhny Novgorod, which was his home town, and stayed in his parents’ house. Father Boniface gave me a seriously transformative book to read—the first volume of the works of Holy Hierarch Ignatius Brianchaninov—and all night long I couldn’t sleep a wink, as I first discovered for myself that amazing Christian writer.

Next morning we set off for Diveyevo. We faced a drive of about eighty kilometers. Father Boniface tried to dress in a way so that no one would ever suspect him to be a priest: carefully tucking away the pleats and folds of his cassock beneath his coat, and hiding away his very long beard into his thick scarf and upturned collar.

It was already getting dark by the time we reached our destination. Looking out of our car window through the snowflakes whirling in a February storm, I was distressed to see the tall watchtower, wrecked dome, and ruined shells of the desecrated churches. Despite this mournful scene, I was still struck by the unusual power and secret energy of this great monastery. What’s more, I had a sense that the Monastery of Diveyevo was not yet dead, but still alive with some ineffable spiritual life, well past the comprehension of this uncaring material world.

And so it turned out to be! In a ramshackle little hut on the outskirts of Diveyevo I saw something that I could have never imagined even in my most radiant dreams. I saw alive the Church Radiant, invincible and indefatigable, youthful and joyful in the consciousness of its God, our Shepherd and Savior. It was then that I was struck by a great verse of the apostle Paul: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth” (Philippians 4:13)!

And what’s more, the most beautiful and unforgettable church service in my life took place then—not in some magnificent grand cathedral, not in some glorious ancient church hallowed with age, but in a nondescript building in the community center of Diveyevo, on Number 16, Lesnaya Street. It was not even a church at all, but an old bathhouse somehow vaguely converted into communal housing.

When I first arrived with Father Boniface, I saw a dingy little room crowded by about a dozen elderly women, the youngest of whom could not have been younger than eighty, while the oldest were definitely more than 100 years old. All of them were dressed in simple old country maids’ clothes and wearing peasant kerchiefs. None of them was wearing a habit or any kind of monastic or ecclesiastical clothing. Of course, these weren’t nuns—just simple old ladies; that’s what anyone would have thought, including me, if I had not known that these old women were in fact some of the most courageous modern-day confessors of our faith, true heroines who had suffered tortures and decades in prisons and concentration camps for their beliefs. And yet despite all their ordeals, their spiritual loyalty and unshakable faith in God had only grown.

I was amazed to see how before my very eyes the venerable Father Boniface, an archimandrite and rector of the churches in the Patriarchal quarters of the Holy Trinity Monastery, a respected and well-known father confessor in Moscow, got down on his knees before blessing these old women, and bowed low to the floor! To be honest, I could not believe my eyes. But after lifting himself up from the floor, this priest fervently began to bless those old women who were hobbling up awkwardly to him, each in their turn. It was clear how truly delighted they were by his visit.

As Father Boniface and the old women were exchanging greetings, I looked around. Icons in ancient ceremonial frames, dimly lit by flickering lamps, were hung on the walls. One of them particularly attracted my attention. It was a large and beautiful icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. The elder’s face exuded such kindness and warmth that I could not tear my eyes away from him. As I found out later, that image had been painted right before the Revolution for the new Cathedral of Diveyevo, which they had never even had time to consecrate, and which only by miracle had been spared from complete desecration.

Meanwhile I started to prepare myself for the Vigil service. It took my breath away as the nuns started to take out of their secret hiding places and set down on the crudely put together wooden table genuine artifacts belonging to St. Seraphim himself. Here was the stole of his ecclesiastical vestment; there was his heavy iron cross on thick chains, worn for the mortification of the flesh, a leather glove, and the old-fashioned cast iron pot in which the saint had cooked his food. After the Revolution when the monastery was pillaged and destroyed, these holy relics had been passed down from sister to sister by the nuns of the Monastery of Diveyevo.

Having put on his vestments, Father Boniface gave the priest’s pro­nounce­ment that begins the Vigil service. The nuns immediately perked up and began to sing. What a divine and utterly amazing choir they were!

“In the sixth tone! Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me!” sang out one of the voices quavering with age; it was the canonarch nun, who was now 102 years old. She had been imprisoned and exiled for over twenty years. And all those wonderful sisters sang out together with her: “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me! Hearken unto me, O Lord!”

There is no way to capture the sublimity of this service in words. Candles flickered, and the limitlessly kind and wise face of St. Seraphim looked down from his icon upon us . . . These incredible nuns sang the entire service virtually by heart. Only very rarely did one of them glance at the thick old books, for which they needed to use not just eyeglasses but gigantic magnifying glasses with wooden handles. They had risked death or punishment saying this service in concentration camps and prisons and places of exile. They said it even now after all their sufferings, here in Diveyevo, settling into their wretched hovels on the outskirts of the town. For them it was nothing unusual, and yet for me I could scarcely understand whether I was in Heaven or on Earth.

These aged nuns were possessed of such incredible spiritual strength, such prayer, such courage, such modesty, goodness, and love, and they were full of such faith, that it was then at that wonderful service that I understood that they with their faith would triumph over everything—over our godless government despite all its power, over the faithlessness of this world, and over death itself, of which they had absolutely no fear.

Excerpted from the Book, Everyday Saints and Stories: