At Pentecost, our Russian Holy Theophany Church in Boston resembles a Paradise garden. Blooming hydrangeas and azaleas on either side of the stairs, the beautiful church itself in an emerald attire behind the doors, in the mysterious flickering of candles, with birch branches bowing to the Mother of God and the air filled with morning dew and joy.
"These are all your fantasies. I see no dew here," our friends’ daughter told me in a hurt tone, waving her hand at the computer monitor. She is too young to understand this.
It is the feast of Pentecost 2020. The service was livestreamed through YouTube. There were around 50 parishioners ‒ the maximum number of persons allowed in the church. Everybody wore a mask, maintaining a two-meter distance from others. We didn’t feel lost or anxious at all, and our rector, Archpriest Victor Boldewskul, was with us throughout this year’s strange spring, consoling, instructing, advising, and encouraging us. "A true pastor," my mom said. Once the quarantine was imposed, we started livestreaming services. At once, some serene and sobering liveliness began to reign, and with the singing of the choir our thoughts, sobered up.
In our choir, we have music stands with carefully spread files with music for each voice part: "Liturgy," "Vigil," "Twelve Great Feasts." In "Liturgy" folder, we have music for about two dozen Cherubic Hymns: the "Serbian," the "Kiev Caves," the "Royal," etc.… Our choir director, Nicholas Ganson, chooses the hymns to be sung at every service.
I recall that once, for the Liturgy of the feast of Righteous John of Kronstadt, the choir director chose the simplest Cherubic Hymn ‒ the Old St. Symeon Monastery melody ‒ which we had last sung some five years before. Astonished, after the service I came up to Nicholas:
"Kolya, did you know that the ‘Old St. Symeon’ melody was St. John of Kronstadt’s favorite Cherubic Hymn?!"
"Was it really?"
"Indeed! I read about this in the reminiscences of Abbess Thaïsia of St. John the Baptist Convent in Leushino."
"That’s amazing! I knew nothing about this…"
Nicholas Ganson is a grandson of the ever-memorable Bishop Mitrophan (Znosko-Borovsky; +2002) of Boston, a distinguished ROCOR hierarch.
I saw Bishop Mitrophan only once, when he was in Boston shortly before his repose. After Liturgy, he stayed for a pastoral talk. While the other parishioners were trying to devour every word of their beloved pastor, I was sitting with my head in the clouds. I wasn’t listening to the hierarch, thinking intensely about a silly problem of mine. "When will this problem finally be resolved?"
"When?" I suddenly heard the loud question of the bishop, who was gazing at me intently with his wise and kind eyes. "When? When the Lord grants it!"
After looking at me for some while in silence, he went on talking. Astonished, I sat with my mouth wide open.
"What’s wrong with you?" our very kind-hearted parishioner, Lilya Finkel, came up to me.
"Lilya… Can our bishop be clairvoyant?"
"Well, perhaps he can. After all, we sadly don’t discern saints and ascetics among the living. On one occasion, I was visiting the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, and Archimandrite Cyprian offered to show me around. After walking for two hours, my legs started to hurt. While trudging along behind the archimandrite, I thought: ‘I’m young, but Fr. Cyprian is in his late eighties. Isn’t he tired?’ Suddenly, he turned around and said, ‘Never mind. I’m used to it.’"
Both Bishop Mitrophan and Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov; +2001), an eminent iconographer of the Russian Diaspora, have since passed away.
Lilya Finkel died of cancer three years ago. She was 52. An indefatigable and compassionate toiler, Lilya helped an orphanage in Moscow, with Bishop Panteleimon (Shatov) and a team of other selfless people paving the way for the establishment of the "Miloserdie" ("Compassion") Orthodox charity organization. And in Boston, where she worked as a babysitter, Lilya would take Matthew ‒ a blind boy under her care ‒ to church. It turned out that he had a perfect pitch and he sang along with our choir with his pure, bright voice. She brailled by hand the instructions for his Lego toy construction set on a Braille typewriter. Lilya devised combinations of dots for each of the thousands of Lego pieces and, together with Matthew, created the "Lego for the Blind" website, on which she posted her Braille instructions for everybody’s use for free.
Matthew wrote to the Lego Company about Lilya’s selfless work and, two years after her death, the company officially published the Braille instructions for the visually impaired. In one of the comments to the article, written by The Washington Post about Lilya and Matthew, a reader said:
"It is inconceivable how time-consuming and labor-intensive the task of producing the first such instruction was. This woman must have been a saint."
These people around us… who are they?
Take Matushka Irina Lukianova (widow of the late rector Archpriest Roman Lukianov; +2007). On seeing her for the first time, I wanted to snuggle close to her, because she radiated so much warmth. Or Leonid Heretz, a university professor, our parish warden and a model of self-possession and prudence. You can call on his wise and tender wife Sarah at any hour of the day or night, and she will always find ways to console and help you out. Or Vera Ganson, Bishop Mitrophan’s daughter, who seems to remember the namesdays of all our parishioners and always has time to say a few kind words to everybody. Her three daughters-in-law, Michelle, Natasha, and Katya, are humble and compassionate.
And what about the ever-memorable Archimandrite Joasaph (McLellan; +2009), Head of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, an American who knew Russian and Church Slavonic very well? A professor at Princeton University, shortly before his death of cancer in 2009 at the early age of 47, he wrote:
"Since the day I was tonsured, the worst day in Jordanville or Jerusalem was for me incomparably better than the best day at Princeton, Brown, or elsewhere..."
At one time, Fr. Joasaph was the choir director in our church. With his light red hair, with his face glowing with joy, whenever we sang the Paschal Stichera: "Why seek ye the Living among the dead? Why do ye mourn the Incorrupt amid corruption?", he would throw up his arms dazedly, sincerely marveling at the Myrrh-bearing Women’s ignorance, even after 2,000 years. Now we do the same in our choir in his memory.
People around us… My memories carry me from Boston to Moscow, to the Church of the Renewal of the Church of the Resurrection at Bryusov Lane, where both my mom and I were baptized, to its rector, the ever-memorable Archpriest Vladimir Romanov, my dearly beloved first spiritual father. The instructions this wonderful pastor gave me still guide me in life:
- "You ask why you should go to confession. Do you wash your clothes and have them dry-cleaned? Likewise, you should ‘wash’ and ‘dry-clean’ your soul."
- "While standing and waiting for your turn for confession, read Psalm 50."
- "Faced with temptations, resentment, disappointments ‒ strength your prayer. Take the Psalter and pray it."
Thanks to Fr. Vladimir, I met Metropolitan Pitirim (Nechayev; +2003). What a noble, wise, and inspiring pastor he was! I remember asking him how I could change my life, and he replied that, if we want the circumstances of our lives to change, we first need to change our inner selves.
One day, I came to Fr. Vladimir after reading too much "modern spiritual literature," with burning and enthusiastic eyes and migraine, caused by my newly acquired "wisdom." He just shook his head:
"You don’t need to read that! Read the talk of St. Seraphim of Sarov on the aim of the Christian life."
I asked my brother Paul to find this talk for me. He was the first member of our family to get baptized and in the 1990s, he took part in the restoration of the Sts. Martha & Mary Convent in Moscow. So, he got the booklet for me.
"Read and consider what you’ve read," Fr. Vladimir said. "Books should be chosen very carefully to keep the soul serene and beautiful, like a clear lake."
And today, my dear pastors are Fr. Victor and Fr. Thomas Reske. Fr. Thomas and his wife Irene once visited me on Pascha when I was sick. All of a sudden, I heard a knock at the door. I opened and saw Fr. Thomas and his matushka on my doorstep, holding a basket full of Paschal treats.
How many marvelous people I met in the churches of Boston and Moscow! Take Eugenia and Vladimir Roudenko (both recently passed away), who by their example showed us how a true Russian Orthodox family can live in our days. Or take Anna Bardova, who once studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, always in very good shape and very composed, and seems to ensure perfect order in church by her gaze alone, though she is in her nineties. Or what about her peer, Tamara Polzik, the kindest soul?...
Looking at this refined lady with a charming smile, you can hardly imagine that she has lived an extraordinary life ‒ a life in which God’s unfathomable and salvific Providence is seen very clearly.
Tamara was only thirteen when, one fine day in June 1941, she was providentially sent from her native Leningrad to stay at her grandparents’ in the Belarusian town of Chausy for the summer. Two weeks later, the war broke out, with shelling and air raids. On July 15, the Germans entered Chausy. The Nazis told her grandparents to sew yellow stars to their clothes. Then they gathered all the Jews and announced that they would be resettled.
"I clung on to granny," Tamara recalled. "But suddenly, a local policeman from the police force set up by the Germans came up to us; I still remember his last name ‒ Kiselyov. He ordered them to leave me there, saying, "She is a Russian." Hearing that I had been allowed to stay in town, granny felt relieved that they would have someone to write and give their new address to. Poor granny… The Nazis took them out of town in a column of 600, old and frightened, and shot them on the bank of the Pronya River that night…”
Tamara was left there alone. Her neighbor, Vera Pertseva-Bogdanova, took pity on the girl and sheltered her. Tamara’s documents were changed to conceal her Jewish identity. Together with several other children, she was baptized in the house next door. Winter set in, but Tamara had no warm clothes. She was taken to the police station and told to select something from a pile of clothes that had belonged to those who had been shot.
"I took a white woolen shawl. It seemed as though it had belonged to granny…"
The girl lived at Vera Bogdanova’s for a year and a half in fear. She expected to be arrested or executed at any moment. And one day she ‒ a little, quiet, thin teenage girl from Leningrad ‒ was taken captive to labor in Germany. Seeing her being escorted to the police headquarters, locals decided that she had been shot by a firing squad; this is precisely what they responded to an inquiry from Leningrad after the liberation of Chausy. In reality, Tamara was first taken to Alsace-Lorraine, and a year later ‒ to neighboring Saarburg.
Tamara has never had a feeling of resentment, neither has she ever held a grudge against anyone. On the contrary, this woman, who has always kept a small paper icon of the Hodegitria ‒ the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God ‒ that she found in her childhood, remembers all good people the Lord sent her throughout her life.
"Anna Ivanovna, a generous middle-aged woman we lived in the same barracks with, shared food with me and took good care of me. And then a miracle occurred and the Lord sent me saviors. One day, when the Germans were driving us to work at the Saarburg Railway Station, a young woman suddenly came up and stealthily slipped me some food. It turned out that her name was Franz and she helped many captives. She somehow managed to obtain the guard’s consent to take me out of the camp, then hid me in a bomb-shelter and later took me to the house where she resided with her sister’s family. The Lonsdorfer family gave me refuge and I lived with them for a year as a member of the family. We would always pray before dinner, and on Sundays the whole family went to the cathedral (the girls always wore their bonnets and gloves at services). Each time it was a solemn occasion. I remember Malou Lonsdorfer telling me that if I prayed, my dream would surely come true. And I dreamed of coming back home, to my mom ‒ this is what I asked for in my prayers…"
It wasn’t easy for her to return to her motherland. Those who survived German captivity and then came back after the war were treated with suspicion and discriminated against by the Soviet authorities. So Tamara was told that there was no place for her in Leningrad and she was dropped off at the Luga Railway Station some 90 miles away from Leningrad. Totally confused, the 17-year-old teen found herself all alone at the station. She had no idea what to do or where to go. Only those who had a passport with the Leningrad registration in it were allowed entry to the city.
"The Lord kept me. A kind-hearted woman who was a perfect stranger to me, whose daughter (the same age as me, who wasn’t with her that day!) was registered in her passport, accompanied me to Leningrad ‒ to Radishchev Street, where my family lived. My meeting with mom was amazing! I don’t remember any tears. The only thing I remember is that once mom (who never believed that I had been shot in Chausy) saw me, she almost fell on the floor by the door."
Soon an anonymous report was filed against Tamara’s mother, that she had a daughter who had been in German captivity. And she was immediately fired from the Military Medical Academy where she worked.
"It’s still a marvel to me that she was only fired. The Lord preserved us both. I began to go to church. I understood nothing and read nothing back then; everything came to me from within."
Thus Tamara’s life in the Church began. Though Tamara never became a Komsomol member, she succeeded in graduating from the Second Leningrad Medical Academy and getting a job at the Pasteur Institute. Soon she got married and gave birth to a boy named Eugene, whom the couple had baptized in secret, without their colleagues and friends’ knowledge.
"It was a dangerous time; and, given my history, I had to be very cautious. Once I ran into our cleaning lady in church. We just looked at each other in silence and then never spoke of it."
Tamara’s son became a big-time scientist. In the late 1980s, the whole family emigrated to America, where Tamara first attended the Antiochian Church and later became a parishioner of the Russian Church.
"I think, my dear, that the Church and the grace of God soften and restrain us ‒ from spite, aggravation, and envy. The main thing is that we should look inside ourselves. Maybe we have hurt someone else without noticing? All we need is to look inside ourselves without accusing anybody. And in our lives, we should be guided by the Holy Hierarch Philaret of Moscow’s advice: ‘Remember the past, trust in God for the future, and use the present for the benefit of all.’"
It is the Pentecost service. Peering into the computer monitor, where the triumphant words, "What God is as great as our God?" resounded beneath the starry blue church-and-sky dome, I remembered everybody ‒ both the living and the departed, those from Boston, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Samara… All of us ‒ both the living and those with the Lord, those who here present and those who are invisible ‒ we are together in the same church and are one family in Christ.
Boston, MA, USA
Translated by Dmitry Lapa
Formatting and corrections by Eastern American Diocesan Media Office.