It has now been seventy five years since monastic life was resumed in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. It was not interrupted in one way or another during hard Soviet times–even when there was a museum here, and ordinary people who had been moved by the Soviets into the cells within the fortress walls drank strong drinks, played balalaikas and danced right in the Lavra’s courtyard.
Sometimes in the evenings they would see a figure pass by with an unusually quiet, unhurried step. Once the policemen guarding the museum territory shouted: “Who are you?” “The master of this place,” he replied. They rushed after him, shouting, “What are you doing here?” “I’m keeping guard.” No matter how much they tried, they couldn’t catch the old man who proceeded to the Holy Trinity Cathedral and disappeared behind its closed doors. One of the guards on his deathbed confessed how he and his colleague had earlier found an icon of St. Sergius in the museum storerooms and realized who was protecting the spiritual heart of Russia.
A place to acquire grace
“The Lord willed to create the great Lavra for the salvation of our people here, ordain Venerable Sergius as its organizer and call disciples here,” says Archimandrite Ilya (Reyzmir), who has lived here for more than half a century.
Now many churches and monasteries have been restored and opened, but the Lavra was, is and will be the heart of Orthodoxy in Russia. It has a special mission. Its meaning is enduring.
After the Russian revolution the Lavra was closed, but people still flocked to this holy place; they kissed the walls, venerated the relics displayed as an “exhibit” in the museum, and prayed to St. Sergius. And now thousands of people from every corner of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and all over the world are coming here. They confess:
“It is enough for me to visit venerable Sergius once to receive grace for a whole year.”
Archbishop Nikon (Rozhdestvensky), who was buried at the Lavra behind the Church of the Holy Spirit, wrote a touching story about Russian pilgrims in his diaries.
An old woman barely limped to the saint’s relics. She was asked:
“Grandma, why are you crying?”
“I’m saying goodbye to Father Sergius.”
In order to come here she must have saved her pennies all her life.
St. Sergius healed and instructed so many people here, and he still shows his mercy today.
Oh, those female prophecies
By the grace of God I was vouchsafed to visit the Lavra for the first time in 1965. I then studied in Dnepropetrovsk, renting the apartment of a believer (Yakov Sergeevich, now reposed). He once told me:
“In Pochaev they sing well... But at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra it’s like heaven!”
I had never travelled that far. We lived very modestly. My father, a WWII veteran, died in 1955 at the young age of thirty-five. My mother was left with seven children in her care—I was the third. I often took care of my younger siblings, so there was no time for trips. But when I heard about the Lavra... I chose two weeks before the school holidays and rushed home to my mother:
“I’m going to the Lavra!”
How I rushed here! The subway, the suburban trains—I don’t remember anything, although I had never ridden them before. But I didn’t even think about them. I went into the gates of the Great Cell of St. Sergius. It was the beginning of February—that year Pascha was early and it was the eve of Forgiveness Sunday. I was circling around the Lavra. My heart sank. I found myself by the Dormition Cathedral. I looked closely: “What’s the matter? There are no people anywhere.” The service was in the refectory church. At last people began to pour out into the street—apparently it was the Dismissal. And I didn’t know that I could ask for an overnight stay at the monastery, so I went up to the first old woman I came across:
“Will you let me spend the night at your apartment?”
She agreed. That night I learned for the first time in my life what bedbugs are like. There are no bedbugs in Ukraine. I prayed all night long, and in the morning my hostess uttered a prophecy (I wasn’t thinking about ordination at the time):
“You’ll make a good priest!”
“How do you know?!”
“I heard you pray to God so fervently!” she said ironically, and I ran to the brother’s moleben service.
The gifts of prophecy and clairvoyance some women possess have surprised me all my life. One of them ran up to me while I was hearing confessions:
“Have you seen Elder Ilya here?”
“Why are you running after him? He’s a simpleton!”
“I’ll show you a ‘good priest’. You yourself are a simpleton!!” And she ran on.
At the Lavra everything is resolved instantly
When I first attended a service at the Lavra, I remembered what someone said to me about heaven. I was standing and making bows. How the brethren were reading the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete! My ears had never heard such beauty! The choir was conducted by Fr. Matthew (Mormyl; now reposed)—it was something! He sang, “Helper and Protector art Thou”. Why would anyone ever leave this place after hearing such singing?!
There were so many such situations. Once the children of certain Politbureau members came to the Lavra for a tour. Among them was Pavel—the son of a high-ranking official. He entered the church as a non-believer and left it with the firm desire to get baptized! He couldn’t be baptized immediately here as there would have been a scandal. But he found a church near Moscow, was baptized and asked for admission to Fr. Matthew’s choir! He applied to the seminary. His parents were bigwigs in the upper bureaucracy. His father sent letters to the Department for Religious Affairs: “I ask you to help re-educate my son. He has defected to religion.” So Pavel wasn’t admitted right away, only after serving in the army. For such perseverance the Lord continued to guide him through life. Now he’s a famous priest. Once a group of schismatics from the so-called “True Orthodox Church”1 confessed, looked around, stood at the service, listened to the choir and concluded: “We won’t leave our Russian Orthodox Church again!”
A divine Providence blitzkrieg
Then, after the brothers’ moleben, people headed for St. Micah’s Church. I joined them. There molebens that had been ordered were being celebrated. After I’d come into the church, from behind the backs of those entering, I saw a short priest with a long beard wave to me from the solea and heard him announce:
“Let St. Sergius’ disciple pass!” I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
I wasn’t thinking about studying at the seminary, or becoming a monk. But anyway I squeezed forward and the people parted to let me through.
I found out that it was Schema-Archimandrite Micah. Later he was sent to Odessa, where he died in a monastery not so long ago. The authorities removed such prominent elders away from the capital city, because too many people were drawn to them. They did it with Archimandrite Tikhon (Agrikov; in the schema—Panteleimon), who then lived in seclusion in the Caucasus and later in Transcarpathia; and with Archimandrite Adrian (Kirsanov), who was “exiled” to the Pskov Caves Monastery.
I prayed at a moleben that had been ordered, and they invited me to the altar to meet Archimandrite Theodorit (Vorobyov). That grace-filled elder, who had suffered much from the Soviet regime, was at the time deputy abbot of the Lavra. Once he entered the church, we would become more serious and pull ourselves up. We didn’t even dare whisper in his presence—he spread reverence to everyone. His could not enunciate clearly, because in prison camp they cut off part of his tongue for preaching. The enemy couldn’t tolerate his sermons—and people just wept! And now he was inviting me to his cell.
So persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Mt. 5:12)
When I entered, he took me by the hand and brought me upstairs—so we found ourselves in Fr. Matthew (Mormyl)’s cell. Although he was very young, he already taught at the seminary.
And back then seminarians were so stately, tall—true heroes! Then I heard:
“Fr. Matthew, admit him. He’s our future brother. Help him enter the seminary.”
Then Fr. Matthew told me everything about how to ensure that no one would learn of it. I needed to collect my documents on the sly, telling my mother and no one else. It was necessary to be excluded from the military, to pick up my papers at the passport office—everywhere and all at once.
On July 28, I picked up all those documents; they had to be submitted before August 1. Entrance exams would begin on August 10, so I had time before the exams. I decided to visit my native land, but on the way I caught the flu and arrived home on the feast of the Prophet Elias. My mother said to me on the doorstep:
“Kolya (that was my name in the world), run away quickly! They are already looking for you!”
Forty of them—and all at gunpoint
Before that I had managed to work as an agronomist for some time. I went to my former colleagues who I had rented a corner from. They gave me shelter, and I got some treatment for my flu. Then I went to take the exams. I was shaking all over and still weak. I thought that everyone had already got in. Vladyka Evlogy (Smirnov; later Metropolitan of Vladimir), who was the senior assistant of the inspector, said to me:
“What are you so worried about?”
“Well yes, I’m worried,” I shrugged my shoulders.
I looked at the lists of the enrolled… and found my name!
In those days it was very difficult to get in because admission quota was very limited—no more than forty people from all over the USSR.
The “comrades from the organs” weren’t sleeping. One day they summoned me to the passport office. The assistant inspector looked at me sympathetically:
“Kolya, take your passport and go,” he sighed
The main thing is not to give up and pray to God
I arrived, and they took me to the police station. Three or four people sat down at the table and tried to frighten me:
“You’ll go to trial!”
“What have I done wrong?” I wondered.
“Two months in the Moscow region without a registration!” one of them shouted loudly (in those days you couldn’t stay in the capital city for more than a month).
“The administration is aware of this.”
I kept calm.
“How are you going to serve the Motherland?”
“I’ll continue to serve as I served. My references are excellent.”
Seeing that I was not giving in, they took me to the first floor. There were five people sitting there.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid of anything,” someone blurted out behind my back, locking the door behind me.
“How will you serve? There are Banderites [Ukrainian nationalist militants.—Trans.] and foreigners among your students.”
“I’ll serve as I served.”
“We need employees.”
“I’ll pray to God for you!”
The devil seized one of them at these words! He jumped, apparently intending to strike me with all his might, but another one managed to stop him:
“He’s just a young greenhorn!”
“It doesn’t matter!” He ran over to me, grabbed hold of my shirt front and threw me against the wall. I found myself by the door post, but couldn’t sneak away as the door was locked.
“Be sure not to tell anybody!” a local guard said as he unlocked the door.
I told everything to Vladyka Evlogy, and he laughed, “Well, don’t tell anyone in the city.”
Don’t answer the curious
For me, the meeting with those “comrades” was a lesson. I’ve talked with many seminarians, and some of them didn’t manage to escape scot-free.
Despite all the troubles I finished the first year of seminary with distinction and was immediately transferred to the third year. After the New Year holidays another “dispatch” from the “comrades” followed. There was a periodical, something like the “Young Communist”. In it was this brief commentary: “Unfortunately there are people like Nikolai Reyzmir, a third-year student at the Moscow Seminary, who’s fallen under the influence of religion... deceived his colleagues and entered the seminary!” After that publication I received over 1,000 letters! “How did you become a believer?” inquired girls from technical schools and various institutes. There were also inquiries from soldiers and workers, who demanded to know: “How could you join a seminary? Write and tell us why you became a believer under the Soviet regime” I didn’t answer a single letter, because I understood the essence of this provocation. One elder said, “Now that all the churches are open, let them go and ask if they really need to know.”
If I had answered a single question, I would have been evicted from the monastery within twenty-four hours and arrested for “promoting religious views among young people.”
Evil on the sly is always more terrible
The young monks looked up to the older brothers. At the time there were many monks in the Lavra who had joined after prison, the camps, and the war. The closeness of torture, abuse and death had forged soldiers of Christ from the fathers of the older generation. The future Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov) came to the Lavra immediately after the war in his soldier’s coat. Here he saved thousands upon thousands of human souls. He was both an ascetic and a hero.
“The Battle of Stalingrad was like hell,” he recalled. “But when we were redeployed to Western Ukraine, it was worse.”
I was born in Ukraine in 1944, so I only remember the post-war famine. I asked him, “Why? There was no war going on there.”
“There, Banderites shot at our officers from attics and vents like they were pigeons. Such stealthy murders are worse.”
His Holiness, Commander-in-Chief
Those who had taken the monastic vows before the war were also sent to the front in the 1940s. No one cared if you were already a monk. The future Patriarch Pimen (Izvekov) was tonsured in the Lavra Skete of the Paraclete in 1927. He was a hierodeacon there, and then became a hieromonk. Then the war broke out. He took part in the liberation of Bucharest, and when the commander-in-chief was killed, he was replaced by Fr. Pimen.
And how reverent Archimandrite Peter (Semyonovykh; in the schema—Seraphim) was! When the Civil War began in Russia, unwilling to participate in fratricidal massacre he emigrated to China, to Harbin. The conditions were very harsh. Before that, he had struggled at the Russian St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mt. Athos for eight years. The Theotokos appeared to him there. At the Lavra he was a father-confessor of the brethren. He came right after the restoration of the Lavra in 1946, and died here in 1971, aged ninety-six.
These are the fathers who, after entering the Holy Lavra gates, never left it until they were taken to the cemetery. These are our predecessors.
After Fr. Theodorit (Vorobyov) died the brothers went into his cell, but it turned out to be empty. At one time he had had a lot of books, but he had gradually given them away. Only his own handwritten excerpts from the holy fathers on the virtues lay on the table.
This was the older generation of monks who had gone through the trials of the twentieth-century. They treasured every service; they didn’t miss a single one! And we were instilled with the awareness that the first sign of piety is when you are drawn to church.
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