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Faith, Surrender, and Modern Times (english)
26 Oct 2002
A penetrating and provocative account of spiritual resistance to violence. A book review of Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father and tales of his profound humanity in the midst of Stalinist prison camp.
Faith, Surrender, and Modern Times

A review of Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father

For a long time I had been hearing about Father Arseny, the story of a Russian Orthodox priest who not only survived the Russian gulag, enduring twelve years in harsh prison camps under the Stalinist regime, but who was a beacon to everyone he met, and whose influence transformed even the most hardened criminals. “Really, you’ll be inspired,” one friend after another told me. I knew, no doubt, that I would be, but for years it remained a title on the list of books I should read, but hadn’t quite gotten around to yet. I had a nagging doubt about having never picked up Father Arseny, Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, it sounded inspiring, but…well...a little remote. After all, this is the twenty-first century, the pressures of globalization, climate shifts, environmental devastation, terrorism, are pressing in on us on all sides. The world calls for some innovative, integral, systemic thinking, for new visions rooted in a deep spiritual ground—if we are going to make it past this century, let alone to the next millennium, in any semblance or form that would be at all attractive to us.
As it happened, this past spring as I was exploring some of the systems proposed by creative futurists like John Petersen of Arlington Institute, (who trains business leaders and the Department of Defense in wildcard scenarios—structured exercises in out-of-the-box thinking to foresee unpredictable major events, any of which could radically alter global life) and WorldWatch Institute, (with their Vital Signs 2002’s terrifying, scientifically-backed expose of climate warming, the apocalyptic spread of health hazards like HIV, and the dearth of potable water for much of the world’s burgeoning population) that, simultaneously, I also finally picked up a copy of the simple gray and black covered anthology about the unusual Russian Orthodox priest and began reading some of the excerpts. Instantly, beyond expectation, I was captivated, struck, my pulse quickening.
“Why didn’t they tell me!” I exclaimed to myself. This was not a dated, still inspiring, but bordering on mythic account of an ascetic Christian Orthodox holy man—although the priest’s single pointed faith, courage in the face of Stalinist brutality, and perseverance through unimaginable adversity—are mythic in degree. It’s not only the noble stature Piotr Andreyevich Stretzov carries under the hardships of life in the work camp through year after year of bitter Russian winters, wet Russian springs, and bug infested Russian summers. It’s not only his intense spiritual devotion and powerful self reflection. What struck me, what I hadn’t anticipated, was the juxtaposition of his orthodox—in the truest sense of the word—spirituality and his contemporary relevance.
For as profoundly immersed as Father Arseny was in the primordial ground of being, he was also a man of his times. And the coexistence of the two—the depth of his spirituality and his open minded inquisitiveness—are a powerful challenge on both fronts to any man or woman endeavoring to live a spiritual life in our times. His vigilance with pride underscores the commitment needed by any of us if we want to surmount the tenacity of ego in ourselves. His progressiveness of thought speaks to our modern hearts that will not ultimately be satisfied by a spirituality that seeks only to turn back the wheels of time to the idea of a “more pure” ancient age. The contemporary soul knows the incessant churning of evolution, and the inescapable demand to, somehow, keep pace and answer its call.
Father Arseny once responded to a criticism he received from a devout bishop, who pronounced, “The faithful one needs only the Gospel, only the Bible, and the works of the Holy Fathers. All the rest isn’t worth his attention.” “You are right Your Holiness,” Father Arseny replied, “the most important things are in those books, but we must remember that man as he develops nowadays is very different from man in the fourth century. The horizon of knowledge has become wider and science can now explain what couldn’t be understood then.”
Yet Father Arseny hardly lost himself in the temporal world. He would pray with a fervor that transported him to the feet of the Lord. One time in the camps he received punishment for helping a young fellow prisoner. The sentence for both was harsh, harsher than expected even in this place of cruelty and death. They were to spend two days outside, in an unheated tin shack, with no food or water, in the winter temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit. No man could survive more than a few hours in this cold. The rest of the prisoners were helpless before the guards, and as the two were led to their fate, the others hung back, grieving at heart, for none of them, even the most hardened criminals, were untouched by Father Arseny’s spirit and kindness. When the thin tin door closed, Father Arseny steadily said, “We are here all alone Alexei; for two days no one will come. For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp with our full voice. We will pray, the rest is God’s will.” And he began. The Mother’s prayer. The Jesus prayer. With only enough room for one to lie down at a time, Father Arseny stood and kept watch—eyes on the Lord.
After the full sentence was spent, the guards went to retrieve the bodies. Opening the door, they jumped back, shocked, as if before an apparition. Inside were the two prisoners, in their flimsy cotton prison-issue clothes, miraculously alive, faces flushed, radiant with an inner heat.
In this anthology of over fifty memories, those whose lives were transformed by their contact with Father Arseny penned account after account of the power of his constant immersion in prayer. “Whether he was thinking about someone or walking,” they described, “you could perceive the slight movement of his lips …‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” A flicker of pride, a flash of arrogance, a posture of superiority towards others brought the priest immediately to prayer—to purify, to repent. He would not avoid the arrogance of his own mind, the lack of fundamental trust that reliance on himself rather than on the will of God revealed. Tested under the harshest of circumstances, the state of his own soul and the spots of pride on his heart were his only concern, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of those whose confession he was privileged to hear, who sought him for refuge and spiritual guidance. “There is sometimes a duality within me. The man and the priest go different ways and this must not be. If the spiritual father makes a mistake,” Father Arseny once explained, “the person is lost, and his soul is lost. To reason or to trust in his own judgment is detrimental to the spiritual father; it is not permissible. He has to trust only the will of God, which he can find in prayer and only in prayer.”
Father Arseny’s generosity, compassion, and humility before his fellow men moved even the most jaded heart and blackened conscience. But unlike modern expressions of pseudo-egalitarianism, hypo-allergenic reactions to hierarchy, indiscriminate acceptance of narcissistic indulgence and petty emotionality, or a violent response to any system or individual who dares discriminate between good and bad, while Father Arseny never reached to balance God’s scales, he wouldn’t hesitate to judge right from wrong, and take extreme action when necessary.
“Sin,” said Father Arseny, “is unavoidable for the great majority of people because we live on earth. But the main thing in life is the person’s relationship with God. We have to turn toward Him in prayer, a sincere and informal prayer—repentance, confession, the awareness of our sinfulness, the doing of good deeds, love for others, for animals, for nature!” In one powerful account, a disciple described the betrayal of Father Arseny and his community by one of his spiritual children. Informing on their whereabouts to the secret police, this student jeopardized the lives and future of many. Without drama or emotion, with no vindictiveness and no pity, Father Arseny sent his disciple out from the community. Severed from his guidance and from her spiritual sisters and brothers is an exile the severity of which is perhaps hard to fathom unless one has committed oneself to a spiritual master and community for life. But while he sent her from the fold, he left the future open and final judgment to God; some crimes are greater than can be helped by man, some spiritual sins only rectified in the mysterious reckoning between one’s soul and the Divine.
Without palliatives or promises, Father Arseny’s guidance bolsters the spirit, strengthens one’s faith, and reveals the path of purification to be both more exacting and simpler than we often perceive it to be. As his disciples did, before Father Arseny, I saw the state of my own soul, the inextinguishable forward moving pulse of life beating to break through the crusted layers of pride. I found living faith in a trying time and no placebos for my narcissistic ego. Father Arseny left me strangely alone with myself, his presence tangible, living, breathing, comforting. Not the comfort of a protector, not the comfort of a false reprieve. The comfort of austerity, the comfort of the hard way, the comfort of the reflection of what the soul knows. Absolution is God’s, there are no shortcuts to escape from the sins on our souls. Father Arseny never made his devotee’s battles any easier, he never took the karma of their sins on his own shoulders, his utter refusal to interfere in terrain belonging only to God is all the more empowering to the heart. In Father Arseny, I knew him, as the accounts described, to be closer than close and simultaneously, what made him so close left me utterly alone.

As my spiritual sisters and brothers encouraged me to do, I encourage you to read Father Arseny. Find in it a message more germane, more spiritually challenging than my words are conveying. When you finally pick up a copy of this simple gray and black covered book, you may also find yourself exclaiming, “Why didn’t they say!”

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