One local Orthodox priest in his sermon said: “In the first centuries of Christianity, in times of persecution, the faithful prayed in the catacombs, hidden in the damp underground. Faithful Christians came to these catacombs to offer prayers despite the darkness, dampness, and frightful cold, away from their persecutors…
Presently, in this church where we are praying it is warm and bright, even when it is dark and freezing outside. We are able to peacefully sing hymns of praise to God, have discussions on lessons of faith, and to partake of the Communion of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ.
However, in these days of peace and quiet our churches are becoming devoid of people.”
This is how Batiushka spoke, and I was struck by the truth and simplicity of his words! Really, what justification can lazy and light-minded Christians possibly have to depart from God the Source of all that is great and beautiful? What can the empty, sinful world give them? There is nothing more beautiful or perfect than God! The Word of Truth is in the Orthodox Church! But outside of it are lies and, at best, futile and deceitful philosophies. In the world outside we find emptiness, a spirit of languor, as well as dissension, hate, and instability.
Here, in the Christian world, we find tenderness, truth, love, joy which is real and stable for all time. The light-mindedness of this Batiushka’s parishioners became more apparent when I compared them to those in other cities. Here in the town of Tobolsk, for twenty thousand residents there are more than ten Orthodox churches. But in Kharkov, where I lived before, for half a million residents there were but two tiny Orthodox churches. In Sverdlovsk, the capital of the Ural provinces, there is also but one Orthodox church. On Feast Days, when I served in Kharkov, crowds of the faithful had to stand outside in the rain and frost, while those inside were fainting from lack of oxygen… and so many believers did not have the good fortune to be able to attend an Orthodox church at all! For a period of seven months I was not able to pray in the temple of God.
For this reason I understand from experience how criminal and terrible it is for those unfortunate light-minded people to neglect this great Sacred House of God, so valuable and easily attainable for them! My thoughts are then transported to people of other faiths, who are still unaware of the beauty of Orthodox services, the truth of Her teachings, and the joy of life in the Grace of the Church, which is freely given to the faithful in the Seven Mysteries of God through the Orthodox Church. And I came to the conclusion that, were they to accept Orthodoxy, people of other faiths would value Orthodoxy much more than we do. The unwitting words of our Saviour come to mind: And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the Kingdom of Heaven: But the children of the Kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping, and gnashing, of teeth (Matt. 8:11-12). There can be no justification for the negligence of these parishioners. Right here in these Orthodox churches that same Christ God proclaims His teachings and offers to partakers His Most Holy Body and Blood.
Here, in the town of Tobolsk, a mere ten years ago people could not help but see true miracles with the revelation of the relics of Saint John, Wonderworker of Tobolsk and all Russia. I hear the echoes of other, frightening words of our God and Saviour to these lazy servants: If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin… If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin (John 15:22,24). The Lord uses all possible means to unite people to His Church and eternal blessedness, but people remove themselves from His Truth, and thus from eternal happiness.
Amid the turmoil and instability of our lives, amid major and minor events, amid human joys and sorrows there occurs, my beloved, an unseen spiritual process by which some people approach God’s Kingdom, and by which others fall away from His Kingdom, according to their own volition; this is the most important activity of our earthly lives. The world exists as long as there are still people who are able to attain eternal life. The word of God clearly tells us that the present world will cease to exist specifically when the number of faithful Christians dwindles to a minimum: When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8). Many people have forgotten God and have become immersed in today’s culture outside the Church. They do not know, poor souls, they do not understand what is most important: the word of God and Christian life. Undoubtedly man’s genius will, with time, produce great achievements in the realm of science and culture. Yet how confused and horrified will all those unbelievers be when, at the very height of man’s culture—Alas!—at a time of total scarcity of faith on the earth, all their achievements will be destroyed and will perish with the rest of the world. They will see the advent and the glory of that Son of man, of Whom they did not want to know, Who is and always was the Master of heaven and earth. His Apostles, while they were alive, as well as the pastors of the Church, perpetually spoke of this: All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18).
Blessed and truly wise is he who, with the eyes of faith, sees this inner process of people joining God and His eternal kingdom, who responds to the call of God, hastens to join His Holy Church and, with Her guidance, with the help of the Grace of God, endeavors with fear and trembling to fulfill Christ’s commandments, who sees the ways of evil and in every way turns away from them (cf. Ps. 1:1-4). In this is true wisdom! But being oblivious to and straying from the path of Christ, becoming immersed only in humanistic thoughts and deeds, is ignorance and eternal death for mankind. That true man of wisdom and ascetic of Christ, the Venerable Anthony the Great says: “People are generally called intelligent through a wrong use of this word. The intelligent are not those who have studied the sayings and writings of the wise men of old, but those whose soul is intelligent, who can judge what is good and what evil; they avoid what is evil and harms the soul and intelligently care for and practice what is good and profits the soul, greatly thanking God. It is these alone who should properly be called intelligent.”
Hieromartyr Onuphry of Kolyma (✝1938) Tobolsk, 1928.
Translated by Alexander Morin