Father Arseny

[Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2001]

Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997)
Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001)
translated by Vera Bouteneff

Orthodox Christians like to tell each other that their church is the “best kept secret” in America. That’s one way to make sense of the puzzling fact that, though membership estimates range from three to six million (record-keeping is not the faith’s strong suit), the church is mostly invisible. Other Americans might recall going to a Greek wedding once, or seeing Russians troop around their church with candles at midnight, but otherwise have little awareness of this non-Protestant, non-Catholic, Christian body.

Thus, when something big happens in the world of Orthodox publishing, it’s mostly unknown outside church circles. Something big happened four years ago, with the publication of “Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father.” This was a translation of a book that had already sold 400,000 copies in Russia, the first open publication of a battered manuscript which had previously circulated only in carbon copy, underground.

American Orthodox immediately recognized “Father Arseny” as a spiritual treasure. The book is a collection of memoirs assembled by someone who calls himself “the servant of God Alexander.” The essays describe a Russian priest through the eyes of many who knew him, both during his years in a communist concentration camp, and in the town where he lived till his death in 1975. Father Arseny’s radical compassion and humility embody the distinctive flavor of Orthodox spirituality, and as such his story struck an immediate chord.

For example, the book opens with dawn in the sub-freezing gulag, as the feeble, aging priest struggles to light a fire for the barracks. Clergy were despised by everyone, even other prisoners; Christians were believed to be stupid. Yet in the course of this typical day Fr. Arseny endures beatings and abuse with patience, while caring for two sick prisoners and sharing with them his rations. One invalid is a criminal, and the other a deposed official who had signed Fr. Arseny’s own sentence. Through the course of succeeding chapters both become converts, and take the priest as their spiritual father.

The character of this kindly, long-suffering priest contrasts with the American expectation of what a successful Christian leader would be like: glib, brisk, upbeat, forceful. Fr. Arseny represents a different kind of Christian spirituality, one associated more with the Desert Fathers and early Christian spirituality.

Fr. Arseny differs in another way: he has contact with the supernatural. American Christian spokesmen live in an orderly, corporate sort of world, but Fr. Arseny is frequently shown at crux of miraculous events. In one incident, he and a young man are thrown into a punishment cell, a small metal cubicle exposed to -22 degree temperatures. The guards expected to find both dead when they unlocked the door 48 hours later. Instead, they found the prisoners rested and radiant, with a thick coat of frost on their clothing. As the young man described it later, when he collapsed in despair he saw the dark cell flooded with light, and Fr. Arseny praying in priestly garments. The young man, like most others who knew Fr. Arseny, was transformed by his encounter.

These distinctively Orthodox elements, of humble compassion and spiritual power, are what made the first “Father Arseny” volume so beloved, and why the new volume has been eagerly awaited. “Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses” continues the story with essays by people who knew him in the years after prison, and like the first includes many tales of personal transformation and miracles.

When asked if other, similar samizdat works are waiting to be published, translator Vera Bouteneff says, “I wish, I wish. Everything I’ve found so far was much too sweet.” Her own parents fled Russia soon after the Revolution; her father had been sentenced to be shot, but the order was commuted to exile. Her practical turn of mind is evident in the straightforwardness of the translation. Many other holy women and men lived during the communist era, but Bouteneff has found those accounts to be overstated and saccharine. “Fr. Arseny,” which was written by many different people of different educational levels, preserves a winning directness. Those who would like to know more about Orthodox Christian spirituality can see it enacted in these books, worked out in human lives rather than in theory.

Soon after the publication of the first volume a story went around the internet: an Orthodox nun who had been reading the book one night turned out her light to go to sleep, looked back toward the book — and it was glowing. Though she hadn’t heard the story, “I won’t deny it,” says Bouteneff. “I believe in miracles.”

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.