Faith, Unbelief, and Doubt
by Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov)
Part I. Children’s Faith.
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I also remember how my grandmother (Nadezhda who was holy and humble; may she be granted the Kingdom of Heaven!) took me to the church that stood on a hill, about two versts from our house, to receive the Holy Mysteries. I was dressed in a clean, colored shirt, I remember, and it was in summer, which also pleased me. I do not remember my impressions of Holy Communion in early childhood, but I do remember only a slight impression: peace and quiet, reverent, silent, triumphant: I was as though becoming a grown-up, serious…
One time, my grandmother and I arrived late for communion and it was upsetting… Why was I alone of the children taken (my brother, Michael, was older than me by 2 years, but he was not taken with me)? I do not know… Was it really already God’s Providence for me, the unworthy?
By the way, about my holy grandmother: My mother told me that my grandfather married grandmother not by choice but by the will of his parents, as was usually done in the old days in simple rural families and clergy. Here is how it happened. One winter evening, my great-grandfather, Deacon Basil (Orshevsky), came into the house, and my grandfather, Nicholas, then a young man (he for some reason did not finish studying in religious schools), was lying on the stove [Footnote 1].
[Footnote 1 (of translator): Traditional Russian stoves are quite large and have one or more places where someone could lie down.]
“Nicholas, hey Nicholas!” Said great-grandfather to grandfather.
“What, batushka? [Footnote 2]”
[Footnote 2 (of translator): Batushka was not used exclusively in relation to clergy, but was used as a more intimate form for one’s own father.]
“I decided to marry you off.”
“To whom, batushka?” asked the groom.
“Well, I want to take Fr. Basil’s (in that village, Orshevka, there was another deacon, also named Basil) Nadezhda for you.”
“Batushka! That pock-marked thing?!” Objected the disgruntled and unwilling groom. Grandmother had smallpox as a child and she had a few large pockmarks, though they really didn’t mar her face.
“What?!” Fr. Deacon said angrily. “Well, what? Am I really your enemy and not your father? I know whom I choose. Come on, get off the stove!” Grandpa was in tears, and his father took a poker (what we used to put our pots and cast iron into the oven) and let it loose on his back—once, twice and he “taught him.”
“Forgive me, batushka,” pleaded grandfather. “Whether to a pockmarked or one-eyed woman, it’s your will!”
And they were married. It had been a wise choice: grandfather did not have an entirely peaceful nature, and later he drank a lot of wine. He had a big apiary, several hundred hives, bought and sold, mead and beer. And during parish office he constantly drank, and thus became an alcoholic. During the last 18 years of his life (he died at 71-72 years), he even lost his wits and lapsed into childhood. He lived with us and then with another daughter, Anna Sokolova (also a meek, holy woman who was married to a wealthy reader, Yakov Nikolaevich). He was very quiet and just joked and smiled. None of the children were afraid of him… He died at Anna’s; I was not there at the time.
It was particularly to such a restless groom that the Lord sent the most humble wife Nadezhda. And she never complained, never judged grandfather; she was always oh-so-calm, quiet, and gentle.
Yes, we can say that she was holy. The Apostle Paul often wrote about Christians in his letters: “All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22); in another place, he writes simply: “All the brethren greet you (Corinthians)” (1 Cor. 16:20); “All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith” (Titus 3:15). The first Christians lived faithfully, remaining in families, with husbands, wives, children, or even as slaves. Grandmother was truly of this kind.
The Lord, therefore, granted her an unusually quiet repose, about which we pray: “a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful,” “let us ask of the Lord” [Footnote 3]. This I remember: I was probably 7 years old already, perhaps still just a little over 6. I slept with my little brother Sergei on the big bed, while the others slept on the floor. Grandma slept on the bench (an addition on the side to a large, Russian stove, for warmth while resting and sleeping)… Grandmother, as I remember, was never ill. She was about 71-72 years old probably, but she already was getting very weak. This must be why the lamp was dimly burning. Suddenly I heard (but maybe my mother later recalled?):
[Footnote 3 (of editor of Russian text): Christian ending to our life… – The words of the Litany of Supplication]
“Natasha!” (Grandmother calling to my mother). Sergei tossed about in his sleep (that is, threw off his blanket in his sleep): cover him up.
Evidently, she was already weak; she did not get up. My mother, who is very responsive and fast in general, instantly jumped up from the floor and covered my brother. By this time, I was not sleeping. Then my mother wanted to go to bed, but grandmother suddenly began to breathe with unusual difficulty. Mother heard it and was frightened. She went up to grandmother and said to father:
“Father, father!” Get up, there’s something not good with grandmother.
My mother was a nervous person, but my father was always calm: what could one worry about in this world? And Ukrainian (Fedchenko! [Footnote 4]) mildness was in his nature (Ukrainians rode on oxen: very “so-o-f-ftly”). Father stood up, looked at grandmother, and completely peacefully said:
[Footnote 4 (of translator): According to Metropolitan Benjamin’s biography, his father’s (or even earlier ancestor’s) last name, Fedchenko, was given a Russian ending.]
“Grandmother is dying.”
My mother immediately began to cry loudly … Everyone woke up… I do not remember, but think I was not worried. Father lit a beeswax candle and went up to grandmother:
“Grandmother, cross yourself!” (Perhaps she still had enough strength.) “Take the candle.”
She took it, and then she breathed infrequently a few times. And she died absolutely calmly… Mother sobbed… On the third day, she was buried. And they carried her along the same road by which we went to communion. In front of the coffin, I carried an icon… They buried her in the cemetery, to the left, almost next to the chapel. She was holy. This was, it seems, early autumn, maybe even in September (about 1886-87). Six months later, ailing grandfather died at their other daughter’s in the village.
To this day, I not only remember grandmother in my prayers, but when I have emotional difficulties, I ask her to pray for me there, before God; her prayer, humble and pure (of course, she lived a pure life), reaches to God.
…In connection, I recall how I fasted later. This was already 5 years after my grandmother’s death…
Fr. Vladimir heard confessions during the fast on the right kliros. And it seems that he confessed innocent children in groups of five… And, really, what kinds of sins did we have then? I afterward joyfully flew home on wings: my soul was so light! And after confession, we were not supposed to eat. My mother, also happy for us that we were cleansed (the people say, “you dealt with it and were fixed”), gently used to say:
“Well, you go, go quickly to bed already so as not to sin again. Tomorrow is communion!”
And we, truly afraid of soiling our conscience even in word and thought, went right to bed; and we fell asleep in untroubled sleep of innocence. On the next day, we were “made worthy” to receive communion, which was even more joy for both us and our parents. They were particularly affectionate to us at this time… Holy peace and love entered into the house with those who had communed: “the God of love and peace” came with us into the house (2 Cor. 13:11).
Everyone congratulated us, treated us to good things, and generously awarded us for the previous day’s fast.