Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father
St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997
Translated by Vera Bouteneff
Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses
St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001
Translated by Vera Bouteneff
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.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a writer and lecturer. Visit her website Frederica.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.