Being in Communion: The New Nicodemus

What a strange time. We have never been so interconnected, so interdependent, so close to one another. And now, we have never been so incapable of dealing (emotionally, financially, spiritually) with a pandemic. In times like these, it’s especially helpful, I think, to read stories that help us make sense of our reality. We are storytelling creatures, our Savior spoke in stories (parables), and we are singularly incapable of dealing cooly, rationally with facts and figures.

It’s just not how we deal with reality. We make sense of our world with stories.

So I want to share this wonderful story with you, from a collection of short stories by Russian author Olesia Nikolaeva, titled Ordinary Wonders in English, translated by Alexandra Weber (my sister) and published by the Printshop of St Job of Pochaev. I think it’s very telling, and an important reminder of what a treasure we have in the Church: Holy Communion, and why now more than ever we shouldn’t do anything but run toward it and have communion as often as possible.

The New Nicodemus

Painting by Philip Moskvitin

All those licensed officials in religious affairs who were given such power during the Soviet times warrant their own separate story. Sometimes the fate of a priest or parish lay entirely in their hands; they had the authority not to give a godly priest his registration papers at all, or to take them away, leaving him without a church, twixt the heavens and the earth, or to merely blackmail him by threatening to do so.

Most of the time, the experienced priests, proficient in matters of the human soul, knew how to deal with them: they knew that they were easily swayed by money or drink; they were greedy, materialistic, and as a rule, easy to buy off or ply with alcohol. Among the church folk they were called “liquored officials”…

Fr Anatolii, however, a village priest with a large family, the spiritual son of Archimandrite Serafim, who had also suffered much at the hands of his area’s licensed official, converted him to the faith in the end. This is how it happened.

The licensed official that he got stuck with was highly dedicated, aggressive, a true thorn in his side: he would constantly go out of his way to play some dirty trick on priests. And so he established the following pattern: as soon as the godly priest, assigned to a new parish, would settle in to his new place and the parishioners would become comfortable with him; as soon as his children would start attending school, as soon as he would finish remodeling his porch or plant his vegetable garden, the official would immediately transfer him to another village in the very opposite corner of the diocese.

Officially, he would complain that the priest was conducting anti-Soviet agitation in his church. But for such a serious accusation, claiming the priest’s participation in criminal activity, solid evidence was required. And so from the beginning this official would drop by during the sermon, desiring to catch the priest saying something compromising, and then, as if he was himself scared of something, he would send in his secret informants with the same aim.

Giving them instructions during one of his briefings, he uttered a phrase that took on a life of its own: “You must listen carefully to everything around you, but don’t go into the actual church too often or for too long, or it will suck you in!”

In short, having failed to collect any proof against this Fr Anatolii, he still gave him and his nine children their share of troubles, tossing them around from village to village, from one community to another.

Then one day he got another idea: there were new epidemics constantly springing up all over the country – whether of the flu, measles, or cholera. And so he commissioned a local artist to make a descriptive poster depicting an obese priest with a villainous, reddish-purple face standing with the chalice and communing malnourished old women. And on the chalice he ordered the artist to write: “flu epidemic” or “cholera epidemic.” The old women, walking away from the priest, all stumble and fall on top of each other dead.

The licensed official hung these posters all over the place – at the train station, at the clinic, in his own office – and summoned Fr Anatolii to him.

“There, Anatolii Vasilievich, have a look at that,” he spoke to him using the secular form of address of name and patronymic. “There’s a country-wide epidemic, and you’re spreading the disease by putting the same spoon in everyone’s mouth. You can’t do that. It’s not sanitary! I should forbid you to give Communion at this time! I should alert the sanitary epidemiological services!”

“But we give Communion for the healing of soul and body,” Fr Anatolii began, but the licensed official repeated:

“For-bid it!”

Fr Anatolii looked at that vulgar scribble of a poster, sighed, examined the miserable-looking figure of the licensed official and that rotten little face of his, and said sympathetically:

“I think that way sometimes too – I have all sorts come to me for Communion. They have tuberculosis, cancer, hepatitis, who knows what else. And when they’ve all communed, I consume whatever is left in the chalice. Then I lick the spoon clean after them. And so all that – the tuberculosis bacilli, the viruses, the infections – I guess they all end up inside me…

The licensed official happily nodded his head:

“There you go! You are spreaders of infection!”

“All of this is inside me,” mused Fr Anatolii, “and yet look at me!”

With these words he drew himself up to his full height before the licensed official. And what a figure – over six feet tall, his shoulders a full fathom wide, his face smooth, tight, and rosy – the picture of health and beauty. Teeth straight and white like sugar, and his hair – next to the bald licensed official – like a magnificent mane, with large curls waving, and his eyes piercing bright like two falcons… In short, Fr Anatolii was a very handsome man! A bogatyr!

The official representative looked and looked at him from the bottom up, and completely lost heart.

Fr Anatolii left him and busied himself with his affairs: service to God, his flock, his children, his matushka…

Half a year later, the licensed official appeared at his doorstep, all yellow, shriveled, dried up, like grass in the field. He looked at the blooming priest – healthy and attractive – with dull eyes:

“Cancer,” he said, “I’ve been diagnosed. Tumors. Bless me, Fr Anatolii, and then let me have a little bit from that miraculous chalice of yours, out of which you yourself commune. Only do it in secret. I’m a Party member. I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Fr Anatolii blessed him, and the licensed official became a secret Christian, like Nicodemus from the Gospel. Similar to the official, he had been a member of the Sanhedrin. He also had come to Jesus at night, and when the time came, buried Him with his own hands, wrapping Him in linens soaked with sweet-smelling oils: aloes and myrrh.

5 comments:

  1. I was literally just meditating over this as the local catholic diocese here announced they have changed the way they take communion and no longer are to even shake hands. Aside from literally picking up your own ontology and shattering to pieces, I thought…how strange I’ve heard no one even comment about this or talk about it. I asked a few of my friends and they said it’s strange to go to church but oh well.

    ‘Oh well’ (!!??). They asked me what we (Orthodox) are doing. I said. The Liturgy is the Liturgy. And it’s Lent so pre sanctified Gifts are still being served. What is different now?

    But I don’t think people really grasp what i mean by that statement-question; what is different now?

    Thank you for sharing this story. It’s lovely. And so is the painting!

    1. I’m really shocked to see how many people have simply capitulated their standard, history-long practice, and without any especial pushing from the authorities. What about all the martyrs in early 20th century Russia who craved communion like a lifeline? I just don’t understand.

      1. Yes. Yes I agree with you. I make honest to God efforts to avoid debating people (I have enough internal struggle, why mess up someone else 🥴) but one thing I grimace and have to respond to is when people say ‘Christianity failed us’ or ‘Christianity can’t be saved’.

        I think.,yes, I used to think like that as well and thought I was quite clever. But. After catastrophic changes, I changed my tune a bit and thought ‘it is *we* that are constantly failing Christ(ianity). In our hubris we reversed this.

        and Christianity as most people in the West talk about it (mega churches, etc) indeed cannot be saved. But. Christianity as we talk about here doesn’t *need* to be saved.

        Good stuff.
        God bless and thank you for providing content to enrich during these ridiculous times.

  2. Fr. Nicholas,
    Thank you for these words and this upcoming series that you are offering. It is a difficult time and it doesn’t help seeing that the doors of many parishes are closing. I find this hard to fathom. In one sense, I understand taking precautions, but on the other hand, I feel we need the Liturgy more than ever. The Church has always been at the frontlines to support people in their need.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *