We will acquaint you with excerpts from a book by Hierdeacon Nikon (Murtazov), entitled “The Power of the Cross”.
Hierdeacon Nikon’s secular name is Boris Murtazov. He was born in 1939 in an Orthodox peasants’ family in the village of Novo-Sheshminek, in the basin of the river Kama. In early childhood he suffered from a grave illness, as was described in his autobiographical story.
Upon returning home from the ТВ sanatorium, in his native village Boris Murtazov studied at home. The neighbor’s girl would bring him lessons, and take his homework to the teachers at school.
After completing secondary school, Boris Murtazov entered the extra-mural Krupskaya People’s University in Moscow. Later, he received a religious education, after completing studies in 1979 at the Moscow Theological Seminary. He learned the art of icon painting, too. For a long time he served as deacon at the Piukhtitsi Convent in Estonia. As icon painter he created iconostases in a series of churches all across Russia. In 1999 Boris Murtazov took monastic vows and was given the name of Nikon. Today he resides in St.Petersburg, at the St.John of Kronstadt Monastery.
In the introduction to his book of true stories, Hierdeacon Nikon writes:
“What inspired me to write this book?.. Nothing but an overwhelming love for God and people, a desire to help people learn, through miracles, of the greatness and the power of our Maker, and to help them perceive the Truth that renders man free of all fetters of passions and reconciles us with the Lord.”
The book originated from the diary entries made by Hierdeacon Nikon. It was there he recorded various God’s miracles that he either witnessed personally or was told of by common Russian people, who professed a firm Faith in God and a profound love for Him.
Winding up the introduction, Hierdeacon Nikon addresses his potential readers with the words:
“I hope the reader will not judge too severely my modest effort in the name of God, and it will be a true joy for me if it will be of avail to someone spiritually. The Lord’s hand leads each one of us along our own path to salvation. The Lord’s will be done…”
THE POWER OF THE CROSS
The children’s Tuberculosis sanatorium, where my mother brought me for treatment, was located on a high hill, surrounded by a pine grove. The gravity of the illness required keeping to one’s bed. So we lay there, some for a year or two, others – five, even seven years. I claimed my bed there, too, for long years, my child’s mind as yet refusing to acknowledge what could happen to me. After talking to the doctor, weeping furtively, and silently making the sign of the cross over me, mother departed. My native village was now far away… I was left one-on-one with a totally different life, amidst strangers.
We were fed four times a day, provided with schooling, a good library… In fact, the school ranked first in the region as school progress went. The students lay on wheeled beds. Every morning the solicitous nurses wheeled the pupils to their respective classes, and after lessons took them back to their wards.
I particularly recall a huge red inscription on the wall of the sanatorium: “We thank Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood.” And it was perfectly true. The sick children never felt done out of their share. We listened to radio programs, played the accordion, chess, checquers, sea-fight, sang songs, read, argued and debated. The girls were taught needlework. The older boys released a wall newspaper and compiled crosswords.
One of the high points for all of us was when we could all get together on our wheeled beds at the cinema hall. Thus brought together, despite our diverse nationality, we perceived ourselves as one happy Soviet family. A reminder of one’s nationality was viewed as an insult. Our patrons – the staff of the Kazan museum of History, would bring their exhibits to show us. The Society of the Blind organized concerts for us. On holidays schoolchildren and war veterans visited us. We were brought up on examples of true courage and devotion to one’s Motherland, serving one’s people, an unflagging faith in man’s abilities. And the spirit of proud atheism served as the cornerstone of our upbringing.
I quickly became drawn into the daily routine, was a tireless participant of all the amusements the place and situation afforded: I picked out catchy tunes on the accordion, designed the wall newspaper, read a lot. New impressions totally phased out in my mind recollections of home and family.
Mother came to visit me once a year. After crying her fill, she would gaze at me with sorrow and love, pat me on the head, comfort me and measure my height. She prayed, and I am certain her prayer reached God. After her departure a certain inner anxiety tormented me. At times such as that I dreamt of leaving the place as soon as possible…
The treatment I received relived my suffering somewhat, but the illness only receded, never ceasing to do its evil destructive job, eating away at the bone structure. For a time my illness retreated, and the doctors had me on my feet. A gelatin corset was made for me, crutches handed out, and I was instructed to walk. My head swam, my legs were like jelly, and my joy was boundless. Soon mother arrived to take me home. It was with a great sadness that I bid farewell to my friends and the sanatorium, which was like home to me.
It was autumn, and there was a cold snap in the air… The fallen leaves rustled underfoot…
While we were walking down the hill, mother said to me:
“We shall be living together with two nuns now. They are both very old. One of them has a good voice – she sings in the church choir. The other is a cleaning woman at church. They are very good, kind women.
I was silent, not knowing what to say: the topic was an alien one to me. I could still remember a few prayers learned in early childhood, yet they had no significance whatsoever in my present life.
By the evening we were back in our native village.
Our small house was divided in two: our elderly neighbors occupied one half, while we lived in the other. The room was warm and cozy from the heated stove. The delicate, long-forgotten scent of candles and incense pierced me to the heart. There were a great many icons in the small room, with a large icon-lamp burning in front of them. The clock ticked measuredly, and the autumn rain kept up a tireless patter on the window pane.
Anna, one of the neighbor nuns, gave me a small, time-worn book with yellowed pages to read. It was the Bible. I read it like a fairy tale until I dozed off.
I awoke at midnight. The dull, soft glow of the icon lamp illuminated the room. Suddenly, I saw the dark shadow of someone coming from the kitchen into the room. He sat on the trunk at the foot of my bed. I could clearly see the head, shoulders and arms. “Who is it?” I wondered. I wanted to reach out and touch the intruder. I sat up and extended my arm — my hand felt nothing but air. Yet, the phantom was still sitting on the trunk, motionless.
I immediately woke up the nuns and mother. We switched on the light. The vision disappeared.
The Nun Anna said with a sigh:
It’s the devil scaring you. You have parted ways with him, so he is angry. We must pray.”
We switched off the light and went to sleep.
All day long I was deep in thought. The unexpected encounter with the evil force of the netherworld brought up the question of Faith: “If the nighttime intruder was the devil, then God does exist?”
On the second night I again woke up around midnight. I lay, covered with my quilt, for a minute or so thinking of nothing in particular. Suddenly, I felt something, no heavier than a cat, jump down on me from above and begin running about on top of me, stopping occasionally. I was terrified, not knowing what to do. I was afraid of peering from under the covers. “What if I try making the sign of the cross?” I thought, and crossed myself under the quilt. That which I though was a cat ran from my feet to my stomach and stopped. The creature did not venture towards my chest. It then occurred to me that whatever it was feared the Holy Cross. I brought my hand up from under the covers and made the sign of the cross over my body: the Satanic creature disappeared. There was no doubt about it: it was Satan. I acquired faith in the power of the Cross.
In the morning I told mother and the Sisters about Satan, whom I had mistaken for a cat. I put a cross around my neck and learned by heart the prayer: “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee from before His face! As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish. As wax melts before the fire, so let demons perish before the face of those who love God and sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say joyfully: rejoice, most precious and life-creating Cross of the Lord, which chases demons away through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was nailed to you, descended into the hell and, having trampled down the power of the devil, gave to us His precious Cross for the routing of all enemies. Help me for ever, most precious and Life-Creating Cross of the Lord, with the Holy Lady Virgin Theotokos and all the Saints. Amen.”
On the third night the devil came to me in my sleep — in satanic beast’s disguise. He stared at me from the window, his eyes glowing with a dreadful fire. The image was terrifying… But I immediately started saying the prayer I had learned that day, and making the sign of the cross. With this I as if scorched him: he grimaced horribly, and at my words: “so let demons perish…” began dissolving as if in a mist, right before my eyes. Thus the Merciful Lord saw fit to show me not only the all-mighty power of the cross, but the power of the prayer “Let God arise…”, which every Orthodox Christian should know as protection against enemies of our salvation. I thanked God for His great grace towards me, and after confessing my sins I began a new, Christian life.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has a special type of service in the name of God – Christ’s Fool. This is granted as a particular grace of God to one who is humble, wise in the Lord’s ways, capable of bearing the cross of self-denial in the name of love for one’s Maker, the Redeemer, Christ our Lord. This is regarded as the ultimate stage of purity of the heart, devotion and love.
The soul of Christ’s Fool loves the Heavenly Kingdom and disregards the earthly laws. Often, God’s Fool laughs like a madman at all that our sinful heart sets so much store by: fame, wealth, vain pride, physical beauty, the comforts of life, pleasures of the flesh, love of money and tranquility. He subjects his flesh to physical tests of endurance, and his soul – to public condemnation and ridicule. Achieving the highest level of beatitude, these people look on with consternation and profound sympathy at the world, wallowing in sin, and pray for it. They see the world through eyes of the spirit, and wage a tireless war with the forces of darkness, summoning the help of the Lord. In our day, this is truly a rare gift.
In our village, in the 1930-ies, there lived a brother and sister – Misha and Dunya Syrovs, who were both God’s Fools. They were familiar to everyone in our district. Some revered them, some chased them away, still others feared them, and there were those who made fun of them believing they were simply insane.
The church was closed, the local clergyman – in exile, and the only spiritual vanguards in the village were these two God’s Fools – Misha and Dunya. Like the Prophets amidst the people of Israel, they comminated the local morals, predicted the future, grieved for all Orthodox Christians.
For all the hardships and insults they were the bane of, they repaid the people with genuine love, displaying patient forbearance in the face of hunger, cold, illness, abuse and jeering.
Once, one of the peasants decided to follow Misha, to find out where the latter went to every night. He saw Misha go uphill, to where the church stood, fall to his knees and stay like that, deep in prayer, for a long time. The man stole up to him and overheard that Misha was praying for the entire village, for all those who fed him and kept him warm, those, who abused him, those who asked for his prayers, those who were on their sickbed… His loving heart had room enough for all…
THE PARACLETE ELDER
Russia is strong in its love for God – the Trinity. The Holy Trinity lives in the hearts of common people, unafflicted by pride and disbelief. For this, God loved Russia and glorified in His Heavenly Kingdom so many of her Orthodox Christians. The west-Russian Pskov land was likewise, famed for its Saints.
The Pskov-Pechery Monastery is one of the spiritual vanguards in the Pskov land. In the 1960-ies several blessed Elders lived there. They were very popular among the people. Among them – Skhima-Hegumen Savva Ostapenko, with whom I was fortunate to maintain close contact throughout five years in the distant time of my youth. The grey-haired Elder was noted for simplicity, modesty, good-natured mien and general genial attitude towards people. Sanctified by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, the Elder welcomed all those who came to him for help, advice, blessing and prayer. He comforted and consoled everyone, finding ready words of encouragement, a prayer, blessing people with small gifts of icons, crosses, books, rosary, holy oil and prosphora.
In those years there were no holy books except for the Bible, and Father Savva, risking being convicted of religious propaganda, zealously took upon himself the compilation of prayer books, instructions and rules of Christian Orthodox life. The Lord guarded the Father and all those who helped him in his spiritual endeavors. Some typed out his books, others photographed the icons, still others were binding books, while I colored the icons with aniline dye. This was one of my obediences.
Once, for some reason I cannot recall, perhaps I was feeling idle or simply was too busy with other matters, I didn’t fulfill my obedience and failed to bring the colored icon on time. Noticing me in the choir-place (I sang with the monastery choir at the time), the Elder refrained from saying anything to me before the others. Later, sighing with reproof, he said: “An obedience is a more important responsibility than fasting or prayer. If you do not show up to sing at the choir-place, it will have no impact on the actual service, while if you do not bring me the icon on time, the people coming here ‘specially for it will leave empty handed, unconsoled. Out of two duties, always choose the one that is of principal importance.” From that day on I always tried my best to carry out my obligations fully on time.
The walls of the Elder’s tiny cell were all covered with icons. In the middle there was a wardrobe, where the vestments intended for burial were prepared well in advance. In this cell Father Savva read letters and written confessions, and replied to them. He lived not for his own sake, but for the people. Everything he received from the grateful parishioners and pilgrims of the Monastery, he sent to his spiritual children as a blessing.
Father Savva’s sermons were always very inspired and tugged on the heartstrings of all who listened. He was similarly never indifferent at confession, various church services, particularly when conducting the Liturgy. After communion his face would become transformed. At that moment he closely resembled the Holy Saint John of Kronstadt, whom he deeply loved and respected. The Elder prayed fervently, and through his prayers the Lord worked His miracles.
Once, the Elder told me how he saw his Guardian Angel:
“When I was a layman,” said Father Savva, “I used to visit a Nun, whom I once asked if there was a way for me to see my Guardian Angel. “There is,” she replied. “You will see him if you pray to him morning and evening and ask him for this.” The Nun taught me a brief prayer.
I patiently prayed for a whole year, never losing hope. Suddenly, early one morning, I saw him. He was standing at the head of my bed and watching me silently and tenderly. There was a bright ribbon around his chest. We observed each other for some 5 minutes, and I never did ask him anything, while he never said anything to me. Afterwards, the Angel just disappeared, leaving me with a sense of joy and tender emotion welling up inside me.”
Once the Elder asked me to touch up with paints a small icon of St.John the Baptist, holding his honest head on a platter. And narrated the following miraculous story.
“In my youth,” said Father Savva, “I often suffered from headaches. So I began praying to St.John the Baptist for a cure. Soon after, I saw the Saint in my dreams. He placed my poor head under his armpit and began pressing on it so hard that I thought it would burst. Suffering dreadful pain, I begged him: “Crush it completely, Father John. Better die than to live in suffering.”
I survived, and through God’s grace was never plagued by those headaches anymore. Some time later I once came to visit some elderly folk and saw an icon of St.John the Baptist. I asked them if they could let me have it. They presented it to me with the words: “We are old, time for us to die soon. You can pray for us!” I have revered this image ever since.”
Father Savva was extremely kind. Many brothers at the Monastery revered and loved him. Once two novices wanted some red wine, so they went to Father Savva to ask if they could have some before supper. The Elder poured each some red wine and off they went. The following day the two once again showed up with the same request. “I shall give you some wine,” said the Elder, “but let us first pray together, read an akathist to the Holy Mother of God.” Quickly reading the Akathist and receiving what they had come for, the two brothers left and never troubled Father Savva again – they were thus discouraged from hankering for wine. In this manner the Lord enlightened the Elder as to how to best redeem the two novices.
Father Savva had tremendous pity for people who suffered from spiritual affliction, people possessed, and blessed them almost daily to take communion…
The Beatific Skhima-Hegumen Savva has long since passed away. Yet every year at the same time, the bells of the Monastery peal out, summoning his spiritual children to pray for the deceased Elder. People remember him and love him, and all pray heartily as one.
People pray to the Elder not only on days when he is remembered by the church, but whenever they feel a need for his guidance and help. The elder’s prayers reach the Lord, and He extends His help to all who requested prayed to Father Savva.
This story was narrated to Father Nikon by one Orthodox woman.
“I had a twin-sister Alexandra. However, she died when she was just ten months old. I missed her very much…
With the passing of years I missed my sister more and more. I longed to see what she was like… Did she resemble me? So I kept praying to the Lord to let me see my sister, if for just one moment.
Once an Angel visited me: he was just as they depict them in icons – with a ribbon, wrapped criss-cross, beautiful wings, pure white, and long, silky hair.
He approached me and said: “Why are you crying? Do you want to see your sister? All right, let us go, only call your Mother – she is coming with us.”
I called Mother and with the Angel’s help we found ourselves in Heaven.
Words cannot describe the vision of sheer beauty that opened up before us…
What remarkable trees and blooms, what a wondrous light! The Angel led us across the Garden of Eden, and soon we found ourselves in my sister Alexandra’s room. She was sweet and beautiful as an angel, dressed in pretty clothes and for some reason the same age as I was.
Mother and I kissed her and started to question her. She told us how happy she was living there, and how she wove beautiful wreaths together with the Angel.
I thought to myself: while Alexandra is talking to Mother, I will avail myself of this opportunity to take a look around Heaven. I realized that the walls of the room were transparent, and glowing with light. One could see that there were gardens all around…
I tilted my head upwards: there was no ceiling! Only tall trees, with birds flitting through the branches and singing in sweet voices.
After I had looked and admired my fill, I returned to my sister. At this moment the Angel appeared again and said it was time we got back: the time allotted by God had passed. It was so sad to part with my sister… Mother and I kissed her tenderly and… with the Angel’s help we miraculously found ourselves back at home.
For a long time I recalled that encounter, and I could visualize my sister as if she were standing there before me…
This incident set me thinking: I longed to live my life in such a manner that the Lord would love me and take me again to the wonderful place where my sister lived.”