[Christianity Today, March 1, 1999]
A few decades ago a small paperback appeared titled “Tortured for Christ,” by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand. In it Wurmbrand described his experiences of persecution behind the Iron Curtain. He pled with Americans to remember Russian believers suffering for their faith, invisible behind the fog of disinformation. When confronted with church leaders who counseled peaceful advances toward Communists, Wurmbrand could remove his shirt and show the scars that ran across his back.
During the years of silence after Wurmbrand’s book there was no way for Americans to know how our fellow-believers were faring. It seemed their stories were lost forever. But during those years, Russian Christians were writing and recording in secret. “Samizdat, or ”self-published“ books circulated underground in carbon-copy form, passed hand-to-hand.
One of these has recently been published in English. Titled ”Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father,“ this is a collection of reminiscences by a wide range of people who were drawn to an imprisoned priest. The editor, identified as ”the servant of God Alexander,“ gathered memoirs from ”factory workers, peasants, members of the intelligentsia, criminals, political prisoners, former Communists, and camp administrators of all ranks.“ All of these, he said, were profoundly affected by meeting Father Arseny, becoming believers in Christ and the priest’s spiritual children.
The book opens with a scene of the horror of prison life: a cold, windy night lit with bonfires set to melt the ice so graves can be dug. Father Arseny is gathering fuel for the dormitory woodstove. Numb and exhausted he fumbles with the wedge, praying all the while, ”Have mercy on me, a sinner. Help me. I place my trust in thee, O Lord.“ A malicious prisoner has poured water on his stock of kindling; criminal prisoners hated religious prisoners, and all viewed Christians as idiots. Father Arseny shuffles through the snow under the weight of the logs, praying, ”Do not abandon me, O God.“
Though we didn’t know his name, many of us were praying for him, and God did not abandon him. Persecution drove the love of Christ down into his heart like a wedge into wood, and Fr. Arseny developed a spiritual radiance that melted frozen hearts. This personal transformation was accompanied by supernatural blessings.
Once Fr. Arseny and a young unbeliever, Alexei, were thrown into a metal cubicle in the -22 degree chill. The only way to survive would be to jump up and down continuously for the entire 48 hours of confinement, an impossibility for the old man and the badly-beaten youth. Alexei raged and wailed, then submitted to despair, but at the point of death became aware that the cell was filling with light. He saw that the priest’s prison uniform had been transformed into dazzling garments, and two white-robed figures attended him in prayer.
”Go, Alyosha! Lie down, you are tired,“ the priest told him. ”I will keep praying, you will hear me.“ Alexei discovered that he somehow knew the prayers and could recite them with the priest. At the end of 48 hours authorities came to drag out two frozen cadavers, and instead found the men rested and radiant, with a thick coating of frost on their clothing.
In another incident, a young woman was entrusted with letters to deliver to Fr. Arseny’s spiritual children, but discovered she was being tailed by a KGB agent. Afraid to lead the woman to the Christians’ homes, she wandered aimlessly, praying. Suddenly, as she rounded a corner, a woman stepped out next to her; she was dressed exactly like her, with the same pocketbook and headscarf, a twin—except that her face was full of ”an extraordinary light.“ The agent caught up to them and, momentarily startled, continued to follow. At another corner, the twin whispered to the courier to stand still, and went ahead. The agent followed the twin, and the courier made her escape. At a hearing a year later, the agent demanded to know how they had pulled it off; ten minutes later, she said, the twin had ”disappeared into thin air…like a disappearing act at the circus. “
Stories like this, unknown till now, are wonderfully gratifying to read. It is good to know that our nameless prayers may have helped in times like this. But we also wonder, could I be that strong? If I were tortured for my faith, could I endure?
It seems that, to some extent, persecution brings forth the strength needed to endure it, while too much comfort is debilitating. In comparison to these starving, afflicted Christians, we are surely a sorry sight. We are back-biting and gluttonous and soggy with self-pity; we revel in God’s indulgent love and forget his piercing holiness. We are not Christian soldiers, but Christian babies. What can we do, who are not fortunate enough to be persecuted?
Of course, luck has nothing to do with it. God may well look at this generation, the most well-fed, comfortable generation of Christians in history, and say ”They couldn’t take persecution; they’re too weak.“
A line from Dallas Willard’s ”The Spirit of the Disciplines“ continues to haunt me. ”Faith today is treated as something that only should make us different, not that does or can make us different. In reality we vainly struggle against the evils of this world, waiting to die and go to heaven.“
How can we be transformed, without the benefit of persecution? The answers aren’t new. Train like an athlete for the prize (I Cor 9:24-27); practice self-discipline; repent; fast; in humility prefer others; pray constantly. But with no outside pressure to follow this rigorous path, we can find a hundred reasons to sit down a spell and have some potato chips instead.
Nobody is going to mistake us for the radiant Fr. Arseny. But, in God’s mercy, we can hope that he’s now praying for us.