I originally ran this post last December. I have watched the film mentioned in it many times. The thoughts in the post came back to me again today.
Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.
This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.
Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.
I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints., I do not know that his kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.
I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.
In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.
Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:
so that my fleeing to You may have no return;
so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;
so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;
so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;
so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;
ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.
Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.
He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.
I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.
Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.
But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.
I haven’t yet read the Prayers by the Lake, but my priest gave me a copy of his catechism, the Faith of the Saints. He is concise in his teaching and so clear, in fact that some of it scares me, as a catechumen. I didn’t think I’d run across much that I had a hard time believing until I started to read some of this book. I am grateful however for his passion for the Church and for his prophet-like desire and focus on the One Holy God.
Thanks for reposting this, i’ll add the movie to my list.
No, they aren’t all Orthodox. My husband is one.
Mind you he had two Phd’s from Western universities, including one in philosophy from France. We need to believe far more than our modern culture has made easy.
Fr Stephen, You wrote: “Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.”
We will become confused and puzzled, tangled in a conundrum when we try to change God’s word to accomodate, compromise with sin and evil, whatever our motivations, (pity, false compassion, judging/discerning after the flesh not spirit) to affirm or excuse a loved one or ourselves.
There need be no hint of compromise with sin to be found in mercy. Mercy and compassion do not need to excuse. Nor need it hinder love. Evil certainly can bring confusion and often does. My statement was to say that evil does not present us with a conundrum – in that we can see where it came from (including from the enemy, wrong choices, etc.). It is a problem and works death in us, but is not a conundrum.
However, the world cannot explain the presence of goodness, unless it acknowledges God, who is the source of all good things.
I hope that is helpful or clarifying.
My point was made in reference to the present Anglican crisis and some examples in my family, myself…that when we/I try to excuse or accomodate sin in our hearts/minds or in the Church, we divide and create a state of unrest, a conundrum-like state in both our hearts/minds and the Church.
Failure to confess sin (confession meanst to return or to be in agreement with God about the evil of sin) creates the state of unrest or a conundrum that cannot be resolved without repentance/return to God.
A Catholic teacher/therapist here says, “Every place of misery (pain, confusion) in our lives is where we have not turned (returned) to God.”
I enjoy all your posts, but this has to be my all time favorite! Thanks for sharing it.
By the way, where can one find the movie about St. Nikolai? I have got to watch it! He is one of my favorite saints, and easily my favorite 20th century saint.
Thank you. That clarifies your statement. I understand.
I hope you don’t mind but in response to Fr. James Early here is link for an online Orthodox bookstore:
Many years ago as an undergraduate I had the privilege of working with one of my professors in his office, as well as taking classes with him. Day after day I watched as he was patient and kind with each person he came in contact with, whether they were freshmen 18 year olds or seasoned professionals in his field of research. He always took time for his wife and children. Indeed he seemed to know how to get more than 24 hours out of a day, and even when he was under pressure he was never unkind. This posting reminded my heart of him.
My Jewish professor showed me the face of Christ.
Hi Father Stephen,
Have you had a chance to read David Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea”? I just finished it and found it possibly the best treatment of the problem of evil I’ve come across. I hadn’t seen anything on your site on it, so I thought I’d ask.
I haven’t read the book, but read his original column that formed the basis for the later book, or so I think. But I have mentioned it on the blog and recommended it. I’ve heard very positive reviews from other Orthodox.
There is also a link to a purchase site embedded in the article. I got busy with Church (wedding, liturgies, etc.) and could not tend the site the last day or so. Glad for the extra help from Fr Milovan.
This prayer is beautiful and true.
Father, it seems that these silent sentinels are formed in the crucible of suffering.
St. Nicholai and many witnesses of Christ report what they themselves see, hear, touch, and feel. I think that St. Nicholai has witnessed that Christ accompanies (intentionally stated in the present tense) him “in and through” grief to release attachments to people, places, and things. Thanks to reflections on this (re-)post by Father Stephen, I can see better how to concentrate on the topic of grief as spiritual detachment from oassions.
What an uplifting post. I’ve been wanting to read lives of saints and now I have one to begin with.
I’m also reminded of my first summer at an overnight camp in Pennsylvania when I was about 11. I remember few people from that time, but two brothers [with problems related to cleft palettes] from New Jersey stand out because they were so kind and patient with everyone regardless of their age, gender or race. I’ve often wondered what happened to them, and your post reminds me to pray for them and thank God for such people.
I wish I had a copy of this prayer in Staroslavyanski, Russian, or Ukrainian. I would hang it in my cubicle as a private prayer to myself.
I would imagine that copies of Prayers by the Lake in Serbian (its original language) should be easily found on the web. Perhaps even Russian translations. Check with the bookstore at Holy Trinity in Jordanville.
Or try contacting these people:
Bishop Nicholai Resource Center,
32377 North Milwaukee Avenue,
Libertyville, IL 60048.