Faith, Unbelief, and Doubt
Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov)
Part I. Children’s Faith. Chapter 3
* * *
Everyone knows to what extent children actually live in quite another world. And if I do not remember much about myself, I will write down something from the lives of other children.
One child of three, whose grandmother wrote me, was suffering with whooping cough for a long time. Before going to bed, he said to his grandmother:
“Babushka! If you see angels in your dream, ask them that my coughing would stop, I’m very tired!”
Another grandmother who came to visit her daughter who was dying of tuberculosis in Paris told me about her grandson Alexei.
“My daughter married a commissar. He did not even allow the mention of God. I, however, had a cross on my necklace and little Alexei saw it.
‘Babushka! What is that you have?’
I said, ‘A watch, my dear!’
He listened to it: there was no ticking, and he did not believe it.
And yet, bells were still rung on holidays. I do not know how but he somehow learned about God. And once told me,
‘Granny! Carry me to the church; I’ll one time, just once look at God and won’t any more.'”
Often, in the earliest years, they confuse the priest with God. In Bulgaria, I met a 4-year-old child who ran to his father in the shop and shouted: “God, God is coming!” I gave him some money for a treat.
In New York, a Negro boy (in 1933) asked me in English:
“Are you God?”
“Who are you? The Mother of God?”
“No, I’m a bishop.”
He didn’t understand… He probably hadn’t heard that word.
“Svyashchenik, priest, priest!” I said [Footnote 1].
[Footnote 1 (of translator): In Russian text, the word priest is printed in Russian the first time and in English the last two times.]
A very tiny child was brought to the church. When he came home, he was asked: “Well, what did you see in the church?”
“God came, let loose smoke on us (from the censer), and left. And that was the whole service.”
There was a 7-year-old girl, Sonia, whose mother fell ill. They said that death was near. But her daughter was completely calm. When the mother especially complained of pain and was afraid of death, Sonia went to her and asked:
“Mama, why are you afraid of death? After all, you tell me that it is very good with God in paradise. And do you not want to go there?”
…I do not know what her mother answered.
Sonia often received communion, and she loved it.
In New York, one mother often communed her little ones: Peter and Paul, little pale kids. How I loved to commune them! And they, too, loved it. Simply angels.
I also remember about older “angels” of the Don Cadet Corps (in Bileća, Yugoslavia) [Footnote 2]. They fasted in groups (2-3 “companies” of a class).
[Footnote 2 (of editor of Russian text): In 1924-1925, Bishop Benjamin was an instructor for the Law of God in two cadet corps: Russian and Don of General Kaledin.]
One day, after Communion, two young men, 16-17 years old already, came to me… Pure, handsome. They knocked. I let them in.
“What do you come for?” I ask.
They sat down. Everyone was silent… They sit quietly…
“Well, how do you feel?” I ask.
“Good-oh!” One of them answers.
The other added:
“As though it were Easter!”
We were silent again. And I was happy to sit in silence with them. Then one says thoughtfully:
“And to think: why did God gave us this joy? Just because we have confessed (i.e., revealed our sins).
We sat a little and they left. And I was left with the impression that real angels had been with me… Even now it is joyful to remember them.
Another cadet from the same corps, a clever young man, the first student in the company, said to me after Communion that he suddenly felt so physically “light that I have less weight in me.” This deserves attention: a person is enlivened when he unites himself to Christ. After His resurrection, Christ received a spiritual body, which did not have any weight or density; because of this, He appeared and disappeared through doors…and ascended. And the custom of the Church to read (by the clergy in the altar, secretly) after Communion “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ,” “Shine, shine, new (future, spiritual, about which is written in Revelation 21 and 22) Jerusalem” is full of meaning. A spiritual, divine city, in which “they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light” (Revelation 22:5), “Having the Glory of God (Revelation 21:11); “new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). And then they read “O Great and most sacred Pascha, Christ!… Grant that we partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy Kingdom” (Paschal Canon, canticle 9).
I remembered about another extraordinary action of Holy Communion. But not about infants in the flesh…
In Paris, a young, 25-year-old girl came to me in the Sergiev Podvorye [Footnote 3]. She was a writer. It was the first time I had seen her.
[Footnote 3 (of editor of Russian text): Sergiev Podvorye in Paris was founded in the mid-1920s by Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievskii), who oversaw the Russian parishes in Western Europe, Prince G.N. Trubetskoy, M.M. Osorgin, and other Russian exiles. At the podvorye, a theological institute was established, at which taught Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, G.V. Florovsky, B.P. Vysheslavtsev, A.V. Kartashev, and V.N. Il’in. Bishop Benjamin was a professor and served as dean of students of the institute. According to contemporaries, the theological institute was largely obliged to Bishop Benjamin for the particular spiritual atmosphere, almost monastic way of life, that prevailed within its walls.]
“How can I serve you?”
“I came to you to for confession.”
“Good: I do not dare refuse. And why exactly did you come to me?”
“I was sent to you by R.”
This was a baptized Jew, a girl known to me.
After a few more phrases, I wanted to proceed to the Sacrament of Confession. Suddenly she resolutely declares:
“No! I will not confess before you.”
“What is it? Why is that?”
“Well, I want to confess before such a priest who does not know me at all and that I do not know. And I have only spoken with you 5 minutes here, and I feel like I’ve known you for 20 years. No, I will not, I will not! I would be ashamed!”
And she was about to leave.
I earnestly tried to persuade her to drop this temptation of the devil. But she stood her ground: “I will not, I will not!”
Then I decided upon an innocent ploy.
“Listen,” I say, “well, you will not say anything; only stand on your knees, and I will speak for you: if my words are true, then you remain silent, but if they are wrong, tell me only: no. Now this is no longer difficult.”
Vacillating a little more, she agreed. I read the prayers. We knelt. I spoke… Confession, thank God, was accomplished. It was Great and Holy Thursday, after Divine Liturgy. Liturgy and Communion does not take place the following day. And the Plashchanitsa is brought out only at Vespers. The sacrifice of Calvary is made.
The girl from confession was at the service. After Vespers, she ran to my room and said in horror:
“And once again I have chaos in my soul. Everything in my head is mixed up again. That’s all very nice, but what if all this is only a creation of my own heart and mind? And what if all of this is in actual fact not real?” (I’ll write specifically about doubts later.)
“Why do you think this?”
“I myself do not know why!” She says in grieving horror. “Those thoughts came into my head from somewhere, against my will. And I’ve fallen to pieces again. This is terrible!”
“Wait, wait!” I said. And suddenly the thought came to me to read her something from the Gospels. She stopped.
“I am not going to prove existence and truth to the world right now… But just look at it… We will see with our own eyes.”
“How?” Surprisingly she asks with a secret, joyful hope to get out of the horror of doubt that has seized her.
“Here is the Gospel. Just what is it? We say, Divine “Revelation,” “the Word of God.” If it is “revelation,” it does not prove but simply shows, “opens” to us the other world and its undoubted reality and truth. Well, I will open it at random and we will read and see that world.”
I opened the Gospel of Mark by chance, and my fingers fell upon the end of the fifth chapter. I read to her about the resurrection of the daughter of a ruler of the synagogue:
“And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat” (Mark 5:41-43).
“Well, look,” I say, “Is it not obvious to you that all this was written by credible witnesses?!” Tell me, why would they write about a young girl who, after being resurrected, “began to walk” around the room?! Does it really matter if Tabitha, who had been resurrected by the Apostle Peter, walked or if she sat? She “opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up” (Acts 9:40-41). And yet, witnesses saw and recorded this detail. As is known, the Holy Apostle Mark wrote this according to the words of his teacher, the Apostle Peter, who was present at this miracle along with John and James (Mark 5:37). And they themselves were surprised by this walking: she was just dead and now is healthily walking. We know, of course, that children do not like to sit and love to move, to do something. And the Apostle explains particularly this: she was then still only “about 12 years old”… Still a girl… And then: “Give her something to eat”… Another great detail; although she was walking around the room, yet was still weakened by illness, and the Savior also took care of that. Now,” I say, “tell me yourself (you are an honest and intelligent woman); is it not obvious to every unprejudiced mind and heart that all of this really happened? Well, has it really not been “revealed” even to us that all of this is the truth? And if these two or three verses are true, then is not everything above and below written of Christ and of His Father and the Holy Spirit and, in general, all that is revealed in the Gospel about that world true?! Say for yourself.”
“Yes, it is true!” Quietly confirmed the troubled writer. “It’s true.”
“Well, go in peace, and take communion tomorrow. If you again find doubtful thoughts in yourself, do not pay them any attention. Be calm and firm: you see that all this ‘in fact’ was and is.”
She left completely calmed.
She received Communion on Holy Saturday. I had only returned from the church to my room and she comes in extremely joyful. I liked to invite the communicants to tea.
“Welcome, welcome! Come in.”
“No, I will not stay. I only ran in for one minute.”
“You should at least drink some tea!”
“No, no, no!” She said, all the while continuing to stand in the hallway. “I just came to tell you what happened to me during Communion…”
I am silent … She sighed for two or three seconds and said:
“During communion, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared to me.”
(And further I do not remember the details, for she said it only very briefly.)
“That’s what I ran in to tell you!” And having received a blessing, she joyfully, with radiant Paschal brightness quickly ran away…
I never met her again… Just where are you, child of God? I believe that whatever happened to you, Christ did not appear to you in vain in a particularly obvious way after Communion… He will not let you perish in the whirlpool of life nor in the callous lie of disbelief.
More about children.
In Simferopol, a 3-year-old favorite was dying in the family of R-kh. The parents are crying, but he is telling them, “Home, I’m going home.”
Count A-n [Footnote 4], in the presence of members of the Synod, in 1920, said the following about his girls (Martha and, it seems, Nadya) in Kherson monastery:
[Footnote 4 (of editor of Russian text): Probably Count Apraksin, a member of the so-called “Crimean Synod,” Provisional Supreme Church Administration (PSCA) dioceses of southeast Russia, of which Bishop Benjamin was also a member.]
“They were already in bed (in Yalta). I, as usual, came to them in the bedroom at night to make the sign of the cross over them. The doors opened silently, and I can hear their conversation:
‘What do you think: will they now come to us?’ Says one.
‘I think they will come…’
About whom are they talking? About their parents or what? I ask:
‘For whom are you waiting? Who will come?’
They answered simply, ‘angels.’
‘Fair, with wings.’
‘They come to you?’
I did not ask about anything else. I silently crossed them and with tears of joy came out.”
His wife too was holy, from the Baryatinsky family… Someone who knows her life should write about her. She was humble… And pure… And a believing soul…
She was deprived of everything, but she never grumbled not only about God but not even about the Bolsheviks … There were saints among the aristocrats and not only among ordinary people…
Concerning angels, I still remember the story of Bishop Tikhon (Tishchenko), at the time an archimandrite, the former rector of the Russian Church in Berlin. In 1923, I was invited to give a lecture at a congress of Christian youth in the town of Falkenberg, near Berlin. Archimandrite Tikhon was also there. He was a very learned theologian with a theological degree and dean of students of the Kiev Theological Academy. He came from a peasant family from the town of Belaya Tserkov. They had a large family with seven children. The youngest child, Maria, fell dangerously ill. After several sleepless nights, their mother laid the child beside her on the bed and fell asleep. And the boy, then still Timothy, was sitting at the window.
“I was seven years old. Suddenly I saw an angel with Manka in his hands and I shouted: ‘Mamo! Mamo! [Footnote 5] Manka was taken, Manka was taken!’ My mother woke up: ‘What are you shouting about?’ ‘Manko was taken!’ ‘Who took her?’ And she rushed to look at the sick child. ‘An angel took her. I saw it.’ Mother took up Maria but she was already dead.
[Footnote 5 (of translator): This is the vocative form of Mama.]
Archimandrite Tikhon told me that he had seen a white angel with wings.