Prisoner #18376: God Will Not Abandon His People

Prisoner #18376: God Will Not Abandon His People

Hi everyone! Quick disclaimer, this blog post is a bit longer than normal, but there was so much that I wanted to put in that I couldn’t tell myself to stop. Below you will read an inspiring story of one of my favorite church heroes. So, sit back, relax, and I hope you enjoy this blog post!

 

By Evyenia Pyle

When I think of superheroes, I tend to think of super strength. While thinking about superheroes of the church I thought of what it meant to have super strength in the church. Sure, we could look at Sampson in the Old Testament and read about his hair, but that was a long time ago. What if I told you that a church superhero lived in the 20th century with super strength? To open things up I have a question: How much does it take to survive the harshest conditions? I can tell you plainly that in my walks to class last winter, although they were at most 15 minutes, felt like if I didn’t get inside right then and there, I would surely die. On average it was probably 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While I admit I am a bit of a wimp, it was brutal. Today I am going to tell you the story of a man who survived unimaginable conditions in -27 degree Fahrenheit weather, a man who must have had the kind of strength only God can give you, a man who is a superhero of the church, and someone who I keep very close to my heart. This man is Father Arseny.

To give some background information before I go into the story, I should probably tell you about the prison camps. These camps were spread across Russia in its period of communism under Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. They were labor camps where “enemies of the government” were sent to die/be worked to death. You aren’t supposed to survive these camps. The conditions were terrible. Hygiene was nonexistent, no heat, barely any food, and one pair of clothes. This is where most of our story will be taking place, as Fr. Arseny was in one of these prison camps.

In the book Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, it opens the scene portraying a dark morning, with gusty winds, around -27 degrees Fahrenheit. We see the people in the prison camps get out of bed for role call. Those who didn’t make it out were either dead (due to the cold, sickness, and exhaustion) or on the verge of being dead. Fr. Arseny wasn’t old, but he certainly wasn’t young, but he was always on duty. He was sent to the camps with many other priests and religious figures at the time. Most priests had to be priests in secret because of the fact that they would most likely be arrested. A middle-aged man was out in negative 27-degree weather chopping wood. Now, axes weren’t allowed on the grounds of the camp, so Fr. Arseny split the half frozen and damp wood with a wooden wedge, and another log to function as a hammer. If he failed to do this, they would have no firewood and would surely die, but Fr. Arseny was vigilant. He said the Jesus prayer has he worked, he knew that if the wood wasn’t done on time he would be punished and beaten by not only the guards, but the prisoners too. So, this was Father Arseny’s daily life, I could write so many pages on how the conditions should have killed him, but I will spare you for now. Now that you have a feel for the daily routine, I’m going to tell you about Father Arseny made it out of the place he was brought to die.

So, for starters I talked about super strength. In the book it reads, “‘Have mercy on me a sinner. Help me. I place my trust in Thee, O Lord, and in you, O Mother of God. Do not abandon me, give me strength,’ prayed Father Arseny, almost falling from exhaustion as he carried bundle after bundle of logs to the stoves.” Imagine being so close to falling down but knowing that God has a hold of you. Father Arseny trusted God to keep him upright, but the story doesn’t end there. How could he get damp frozen wood to light, he did not want to be beaten, so he prayed the Jesus prayer and at the end he added, “Thy will be done!” hoping to find dry wood. He searched and searched but found nothing. An infamous criminal saw him and asked what he was doing. This criminal reportedly committed so many crimes he could not remember them all. He evoked fear from all of the other prisoners. Fr. Arseny was afraid but told him he needed some dry wood. The criminal told Father to go with him, Fr. Arseny thought it was a trick, but went to see what would happen. The criminal had a large pile of dry wood he kept for himself, but he offered it to Father Arseny, who was a bit reluctant thinking that he might have been set up for stealing. Father finally accepted and started taking some. The criminal told him to take more and more, and then he himself picked up the dry logs and they carried it back to the stoves together. A criminal, who brought fear and despair among people and prisoners, gave Fr. Arseny what he needed so he would not be beaten. This is one beautiful example of how God never left Fr. Arseny’s side in the camp.

Another thing Fr. Arseny was known for was giving parts of his daily bread ration to the sick. Imagine working in such cruel conditions, but with only a small amount of food to help other people. I am not sure I would have the strength to do that.

Every night, even when Father Arseny didn’t get any food, he would pray the Akathist to the Theotokos, St. Nicholas, and St. Arsenios and pray for his spiritual children. When he awoke the next morning he would feel rested and full of new strength almost as if he had eaten the night before.

Some nights Fr. Arseny would stay up late and take care of the sick. He would feed them and make them hot water. This meant he would usually not get any sleep. One of the sick patients Fr. Arseny knew well. In fact it was the exact man that sentenced him to the death camp (when the government was tired of an official they too went to the death camps). Not only did Fr. Arseny forgive him, but he thanked him for sentencing him to the camp instead of sentencing him to be shot. The man was amazed by how genuine Father Arseny was and became a friend to Father Arseny. How much strength would it take to forgive someone who sentenced you to a long terrible death? Super strength.

One day Fr. Arseny was watching the prisoners fight and kill one another, he went and pleaded with a criminal who respected him, to ask him to stop the fighting, to prevent more from dying. All the criminals would listen to this man because he was one of the worst, but the criminal laughed and told Fr. Arseny that “his God” would do it if he really cared about his people. Fr. Arseny frustrated with these words cried aloud in prayer, “In the name of God, I order you. Stop this!” and immediately Fr. Arseny retreated inside himself so deeply into to prayer that he did not see the fight stop, and the living fighters caring for one another’s wounds. The criminal told Father Arseny that he doubted his God, but he wouldn’t any longer, for he had witnessed a miracle. How amazingly strong Father Arseny had to be in Christ to stop people from killing each other with words! This is yet another example of the super strength he received from God.

Now, let’s talk about how Father Arseny got the flu, with a 104-degree fever, and was expected to die in two days. Everyone was sad and tried to help, until the dreadful day came. According to the witnesses Father Arseny was physically dead. Father Arseny later reported that it was God showing him that the people in the camp were twice the ascetic he was and that he had more work to do within himself. Then the mother of God spoke to him and sent him back, and Fr. Arseny woke up and arose as if nothing had happened.

Another account of Father Arseny’s super strength is from a prisoner who was certain he would die. He couldn’t keep his boots dry for fear of them being stolen or worse, being beaten for warming his boots with the criminals. He eventually got frostbite in his feet and could not get out of bed and work. One night, Father Arseny took the man’s boots, and the prisoner assumed they were being stolen, but he had no strength to fight back. When he awoke the next morning, he was greeted by Fr. Arseny with dry boots. Every night Father Arseny would take the boots and put them by the stove and stayed and kept watch over them so that they would not be stolen. Imagine the super strength it must have taken for him to barely sleep and still be able to function enough the next morning to do the hardest work anyone has ever had to do! That is super strength.

I could go on about Father Arseny all day, I love him, but I need to make sure this blog is readable. So, again, I want to highlight the amount of strength Father Arseny had to survive the prison camp. Not only did he survive the most brutal conditions that almost no one else survived, but he lived many years after being released. Through his prayers to God, his faith, and his unwavering trust Fr. Arseny was able to bear the intolerable. It is superheroes of our church like this that cause me to yearn for this spiritual strength that is indescribable by those who witness it. I pray that one day I will have the super strength Father Arseny had in the camp, and I pray that all of you will find Fr. Arseny’s story an inspiration, a remembrance that God will always help us.

Evyenia Pyle

Evyenia Pyle

Publications Student Leader

Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net 

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Names are powerful way that we humans distill the lives and identities of people into a linguistic expression. Names are powerful. We are lucky because our Lord became human, and even the evocation of His name, Jesus, holds power (think about the Jesus Prayer). In the Jewish tradition, the name for Lord is YHWH, an unpronounceable and incomprehensible name for God. In Christianity, we know our God and His name.

My name, Demetri (or legally, Demetrios), comes from my grandfather, and our patron saint is St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki. He guides his namesakes, and the city of Thessaloniki of which he was charged to protect during his earthly life as a Roman. Patron saints are important because they are our guides and hopes to follow in their holy lives. Today (10/26), marks the feast day for St. Demetrios, so many years to all those celebrating!

Here is some information about his life, borrowed from a writing by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese daily readings:

“Saint Demetrius was a Thessalonian, a most pious son of pious and noble parents, and a teacher of the Faith of Christ. When Maximian first came to Thessalonica in 290, he raised the Saint to the rank of Duke of Thessaly. But when it was discovered that the Saint was a Christian, he was arrested and kept bound in a bath-house. While the games were under way in the city, Maximian was a spectator there. A certain friend of his, a barbarian who was a notable wrestler, Lyaeus by name, waxing haughty because of the height and strength of his body, boasted in the stadium and challenged the citizens to a contest with him. All that fought with him were defeated. Seeing this, a certain youth named Nestor, aquaintance of Demetrius’, came to the Saint in the bath-house and asked his blessing to fight Lyaeus single-handed. Receiving this blessing and sealing himself with the sign of the precious Cross, he presented himself in the stadium, and said, “O God of Demetrius, help me!” and straightway he engaged Lyaeus in combat and smote him with a mortal blow to the heart, leaving the former boaster lifeless upon the earth. Maximian was sorely grieved over this, and when he learned who was the cause of this defeat, he commanded straightway and Demetrius was pierced with lances while he was yet in the bath-house, As for Nestor, Maximian commanded that he be slain with his own sword.”

St. Demetrios was a young adult during the time of his martyrdom. He stayed true to his faith, despite the danger that it entailed. He was a high-ranking officer in the Roman military and was a very successful and educated man. He humbly accepted his legal punishment but offered his boldness and devotion in prayer to God on behalf of his friend, Nestor. St. Demetrios provided answers and prayer in times of fear and anxiety. His relics still stream myrrh to this day and are located in Thessaloniki.

For me, St. Demetrios is a guide and an example for me to follow in his footsteps. Just as parents genetically pass down traits and qualities, so do spiritual namesakes. I mean, many of our parents name us after specific people and saints, and we name them after them in hopes that they emulate the life of that saint, and that the saint guards them in life. My name is a way for me to honor my grandfather, and continue his memory. St. Demetrios is the patron saint of the organization that arose from the repatriation of the people of my village to the United States. When I think of St. Demetrios I also can understand my personal history and the guidance he gave to the people coming from my father’s village. I particularly turn to my saint when I feel stressed about my direction in life. Knowing that we share a name, my connection with him is a lot deeper.

A relationship with the saints is important as an Orthodox Christian. They are our examples, guides and protectors throughout our lives. Luckily, their stories come to us and you can accumulate different relationships throughout different times in your life. For example, St. Joseph becomes an awfully important saint as soon as a man becomes a father. They are the living example of gospels and they want to love and support us. Building a relationship with them now is important because they stand a lot closer to God as of now than we do, ask them to pray for you. And if you don’t have a good particular relationship with a saint, the best place to start is with the Theotokos. She is our church’s greatest saint and she also has a motherly relationship with our lord. Another good place to start is with your patron saint, whether it be the saint you were named after, or the saint of your family (in terms of slava). Reach out to them!

St. Demetrios was charged with protecting Thessaloniki during his earthly life as a roman general. As he was stripped of his authority and job, his true path in the spiritual protection of the city was revealed.

St. Demetrios is a powerful saint, and I am grateful for his spiritual guidance in my life. I hope that we all can embody is courage, faith and strength in our own lives. St. Demetrios was known to intercede in an earthquake in Thessaloniki, when your life may seem like its falling apart, ask for his help. Or, if there is a real natural disaster, ask for his help. May he intercede for us all!

A Christian Ending To Our Lives – St. Nikolai Velimirovich

A Christian Ending To Our Lives – St. Nikolai Velimirovich

We have a lot of saints in our spiritual arsenal to help us combat the trials and tribulations of modern life, and many have lived right at our doorsteps! Saint Nikolai Velimirovich is a Saint of North America, one of Serbian descent and a model for Christ’s Love throughout his life.

Let’s take a few minutes to learn about his life and how we can learn from it as college students. The parts of his life I quote are from here.

Saint Nikolai of Zhicha, “the Serbian Chrysostom,” was born in Lelich in western Serbia on January 4, 1881 (December 23, 1880 O.S.). His parents were Dragomir and Katherine Velimirovich, who lived on a farm where they raised a large family. His pious mother was a major influence on his spiritual development, teaching him by word and especially by example. As a small child, Nikolai often walked three miles to the Chelije Monastery with his mother to attend services there.

Many of the saints were inspired and influenced by faithful parents, adults, and role models. We see that St. Nikolai’s spirituality was cultivated at a young age. Let this be an example for us who may have younger siblings, cousins, or godchildren in that the formative years of a child’s life can be taught about Christ and His mercy. Also, we see that St. Nikolai is a relatively new saint, and his experiences are similar to those of us who lived not so long ago.

Sickly as a child, Nikolai was not physically strong as an adult. He failed his physical requirements when he applied to the military academy, but his excellent academic qualifications allowed him to enter the Saint Sava Seminary in Belgrade, even before he finished preparatory school.

Wow. It really seems like God was guiding his life throughout his adolescent years. Luckily for us, hindsight is 20/20. St. Nikolai had the wisdom as a young adult to learn from his failures and to transform them to make him a better person. A lot of times God isn’t going to straight out tell us exactly where we are meant to go and in what way our lives will develop. That would take out all the fun in life! St. Nikolai had faith and that guided him in his path towards sanctity; we should model his great faith and trust in God in our lives!

Saint Nikolai was renowned for his sermons, which never lasted more than twenty minutes, and focused on just three main points. He taught people the theology of the Church in a language they could understand, and inspired them to repentance.

This paragraph reminded me of the apostles when they traveled across the world. The Gospel is meant to be spread from people to people. Sometimes you have to translate the message in a way that others would understand. This particular skill I believe many of the North American saints possessed and made them excellent teachers and spreaders of the faith. St. Nikolai was nicknamed the “Serbian Chrysostom,” and many of his books, teaching and prayers are available for reading to learn more!

When Germany invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, Bishop Nikolai, a fearless critic of the Nazis, was arrested and confined in Ljubostir Vojlovici Monastery. In 1944, he and Patriarch Gavrilo were sent to the death camp at Dachau. There he witnessed many atrocities and was tortured himself. When American troops liberated the prisoners in May 1945, the patriarch returned to Yugoslavia, but Bishop Nikolai went to England.

Wow. St. Nikolai endured. I encourage you to reread this paragraph and really think about the power St. Nikolai was blessed with to endure such treacherous treatment.

On March 18, 1956 Saint Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord Whom he had served throughout his life. He was found in his room kneeling in an attitude of prayer. Though he was buried at Saint Sava’s Monastery in Libertyville, IL, he had always expressed a desire to be buried in his homeland. In April of 1991 his relics were transferred to the Chetinje Monastery in Lelich. There he was buried next to his friend and disciple Father Justin Popovich (+ 1979).

St. Nikolai remained faithful to our Lord until his last breath. When we pray for “a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the Judgment Seat of the Lord” the life of St. Nikolai is echoed. If you would like to learn more about his life, I encourage you to discuss it at your next OCF meeting.

Our chapter discussion resource, There’s a Saint for That, can be found here!