Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
An excerpt from: Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father (pp. 30-31). Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition:
“The weather outside was ferocious. Many prisoners froze to death and many new prisoners arrived to work in their stead. It was a difficult time for everybody, but the “political” prisoners had it worst of all. For two days in a row their rations were stolen by the prisoners who were criminals. That night, after roll call and the locking of the barracks, a large fight erupted between the two factions over these rations. Avsenkov took the leadership of the “politicals.” The criminals were headed by “Ivan the Brown.” He was a hardened criminal, a good-for-nothing, and a murderer many times over. In camp he had also killed more than once; he liked card games in which the one who lost paid with his life. The battle that evening was over the rations that the criminals had taken laughingly — they said that they were used to taking what did not belong to them. The camp administrators, for reasons of personal safety, were always on the side of the criminals.
The fight started with fists, and then logs, then knives appeared in the hands of the criminals. Knives were, of course, forbidden. The guards searched for them but never seemed to find them. One of the prisoners, a soldier, was cut up; several “politicals” had their heads cracked. The criminals knew how to work together; most of the “politicals” could only shout and were afraid to help their own. The criminals were cruel. They were winning over the “political;” blood was flowing. Father Arseny ran to Sazikov and begged him, “Help! Please help, Ivan Alexandrovich! They are cutting people up. There is blood everywhere. I ask you in the name of God to stop this! The criminals will listen to you!” Sazikov only laughed and said, “Sure, they will listen to me, but why don’t you help with your God? Ivan the Brown has already killed two of your friends, and now he is going to kill Avsenkov. Your God seems not to notice this!”
Father Arseny looked all around him. He saw blood on people, he heard screams, swearing, and moans, and his soul was full of pain for their suffering. He lifted his arms, went into the very midst of the heated fight, and said in a clear and loud voice, “In the name of God, I order you! Stop this!” He blessed them with sign of the cross and said in a whisper, “Now, help the wounded,” and he headed for his bunk. There he stood, as if in a different world, as if surrounded by light. He stood there, having receded into himself, praying. He did not hear the dead being carried to the door, nor did he see the wounded being helped. He stood; his attention focused on prayer. All was quiet in the barracks now. You could only hear people getting into their bunks and the moaning of a seriously wounded man.
Sazikov came near Father Arseny and said, “Forgive me, Father Arseny. I doubted your God. I see now that he exists. It even scares me. A great power is given to one who believes in him. Even I am frightened. Forgive me for making fun of you.” In two days, Avsenkov came to Father Arseny after work and said, “Thank you. You saved my life! You believe in God unconditionally and, looking at you, I’m also beginning to understand that he exists.”
I wonder how I would fare in that situation … but I have to catch myself in that moment of impending discouragement and remind myself that I am not living in wartime concentration camp amid the cruelest situations where the end result is death for most. I have to remind myself that I live in 21st century America, in a democratic country, in a post-modern secular humanist culture, where there are churches almost on every other street block that I can choose to attend, and there is a wide array of ecclesial options to cater to every seeker and believer, where there are online videos available on demand for every catechetical topic imaginable given by experts from all across the globe, where there are mission opportunities to help the poorest of the poor, even those right on the other side of town, where there are appeals regularly for financial aid for a variety of humanitarian projects, where there are donation centers to distribute goods that I no longer use, where books and podcasts are available at my fingertips to sharpen and deepen my faith … With all the conveniences of modern Christianity, I should be an expert at ‘loving my enemies,’ right?
Perhaps, one of the reasons why the Lord called me into the monastic life is to teach me two lessons: “the certainty of being infinitely loved by Love Himself, and the certain ability to love without limits. Nothing but the Cross and Resurrection can give, in a full and definitive way, these two certainties and the freedom they bring.” (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, 1994.) In this lies not only the perfection in the monastic life, but the perfection of all the baptized in their pursuit of Christ in their chosen state of life. For in each lies ample opportunities to choose a virtue over vice, to choose another’s good before my own, to choose sacrifice over comfort, to choose the good over the easy, to choose Jesus’ way over all other seductive options.
—Br. John-Marmion Villa
God of Heaven’s Armies,
my Father, You are near to me.
Even in the valley overshadowed
with the threatening specter of death,
You are beside me giving me my every breath.
In this season of strife and shadow,
I need Your power.
Father, strengthen me by Your Spirit.
Grant me the fortitude to withstand
the slings of the enemy.
I ask this in the name of Your Son,
who, when He was facing the cross,
did not falter in His resolve. Amen.
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