This is a draft of a story. Please comment with your suggestions or corrections. Thank you for taking the time to read my little tale. Glory to Jesus Christ.
In my grandmother’s village they tell this story. Please sit while I tell it to you.
A young novice stared at the food given by the guards. The bread was gray and spotted with mold. Maggots wriggled atop it. The water had the stench of staleness and promised illness in it’s cloudy depths.
He and the elder monk, Ivan, had been picked up as they traveled from Moscow, returning to their monastery. Many had fled under the communist persecution, hiding in caves, or leaving Russia altogether. But Ivan had stayed, and young Grigori had stayed as well. Brother Ivan had openly worn his cassock and his pectoral cross, so Grigori had worn his cassock as well.
In most places, this accorded them some level of respect and charity, though people had been noticeably wary of being seen to help them as they traveled.
Grigori had asked if they should travel more discreetly, but Brother Ivan had simply said, “God is merciful.” It was an answer which gave no answer, like a lot of things Brother Ivan said. When the police had grabbed them, Grigori began to fight, but Ivan held up a hand, smiled, and said, “Peace, brother,” and with those simple words, Grigori ceased all resistance.
The camp was a horror. The two had been stripped of their cassocks, the elder monks cross taken from him and thrown on the ground, whereupon the elderly man had thrown himself on the ground and kissed it in reverence as the guards laughed and kicked dirt upon him, throwing Grigori to the ground as well beside the esteemed monk.
The tattered garb of a prisoner was given to them. The elder monk bowed to the guard who gave it to them and thanked them, blessing him with the sign of the cross. Despite being naked, the man retained enormous dignity. Grigori felt tears spring to his eyes at the sight and was ashamed of his own fear.
Grigori had been afraid nearly every moment since their arrival. The guards had cut off Brother Ivan’s beard and cut his hair. He looked more naked without his hair and beard while clothed than unclothed with them. Grigori’s own shaving was a less momentous affair as he’d never had much of a beard anyway. When Grigori lamented, the elder monk said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The other prisoners somehow recognized this man as a man of God, even with no outward sign of his calling. The sick called from their beds, “Father bless.” Brother Ivan was a confessor monk, and so had heard the confessions of those who had them, blessed those who asked, and prayed over the sick. This continued for hours after their arrival.
The brothers were near falling from exhaustion and hunger. Their rations had been sparse on the road, and Brother Ivan shared them with any they came across. Even so, Grigori looked at the food provided and turned to Ivan with a look of horror.
“Let us pray,” the elder monk said, a look of joy on his face.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, both now and forever. Amen.”
Brother Ivan and Grigori crossed themselves and made their prostrations, as was their custom. Then Ivan picked up the bread, held it aloft and in a loud voice thanked God for it and for the hands which had prepared it. His face glowed as if in the light of a summer sun. Grigori nearly threw up at the sight of the spoiled bread entering the mouth of the elder. But the elder simply ate with a look of satisfaction on his face.
Brother Ivan looked at the plate in front of him and no longer saw the maggoty, moldy bread on a battered tin plate, but before him a small feast. A plate of fine silver held a small loaf of rye bread, dark and rich and pungent, slathered in fresh butter. Beside it, a small fish, grilled to perfection, beside a glass of wine. Each morsel that went into his mouth was better than the one before. “Eat. Eat!” he told his young helper, wondering that he could wait after the privations of the road.
As the elder put a piece of fish to his mouth, Grigori watched the maggot twist and turn in his fingers. He gagged down his bread and nearly vomited from the taste of the water. It was no wonder the people were sick if this is what they were eating. He feared for the elder monk, whose had been sick for months earlier in the year.
As they finished their meager portions, Grigori was thankful it was over. Ivan, however, prostrated himself and said prayers of thanksgiving for the meal. Grigori then wept. The other men turned their faces away. The unspoken rule was to give each man privacy when he inevitably broke down.
As Grigori wept, Ivan looked at his plate, and realizing there was some left, took pieces of the bread and fish to the sick men who had not risen from their beds. The men later swore, when asked, that he had brought them fish and “good Russian bread.”
Returning to Grigori, Brother Ivan put a hand on his arm. “Be of good courage.”
Grigori’s tears turned from those of self-pity to those of repentance. Silently he prayed, “Oh God, help me be like Brother Ivan and to bear this captivity well.” He prostrated himself and prayed for some time.
When he arose, Ivan called to him, “Come brother, it is time to sleep. We must rest for whatever comes tomorrow.”
Brother Ivan swore that in the three years, five months, and fourteen days they were in the prison camp that he never ate moldy bread. He claimed that on all days that weren’t fast days, he ate fish. On fast days, he gave his entire fish ration to the sick. When Grigori fell ill, Brother Ivan gave to him a portion of the fish and bread and shared his drink. Grigori was convinced. He was indeed eating fine bread, fine fish, and wine.
The food from his own plate never varied. Moldy, maggoty bread, and foul water. He learned from Brother Ivan, however, to give thanks with a grateful heart for whatever he was given.
The guards noted that the men in this particular barrack were considerably healthier than the others, and were convinced that someone was stealing food, but their raids never turned up anything. They seemed unable to see the dark bread, the fish, or the wine, or even to smell them. They took to raiding the barrack three times a day, and sometimes at night as well. They would walk right past men eating their fish and stomp back out, angry not to have found what they were looking for. Brother Ivan and Grigori with other men from their barracks were questioned often, with beatings and torture. Grigori wept bitter tears and could no longer walk uprightly when a broken leg healed improperly. Brother Ivan’s prayers often resulted in healing miracles for other men in the camp, but not for Grigori.
Grigori could not understand why the elder monk’s food was transformed, but that his remained unchanged. The other men came and asked Ivan to bless their food and walked away with joy, staring at their plates in wonder. They all began to join in prayers, at meals, and at other times. He could not understand why his leg remained crippled while another was healed. Grigori pondered all these things, but there was little time to talk, and many ears.
“Why does your food change, Brother Ivan?” Grigori asked.
“God is merciful,” Ivan replied.
“Why does mine remain unchanged?” Grigori asked.
“God knows,” Ivan replied, crossing himself.
“Why does my leg remain deformed?” Grigori asked.
“God knows,” Ivan said again.
The replies did nothing to answer the disquiet in his heart. Nightly, with his face turned to the wall, he muffled his cries with his thin pillow. Daily, as they worked at cruel labor meant to break them, he called silently to God, begging for an end to his suffering.
As often as he could, Brother Ivan held liturgy, reciting the service from memory, with bread and wine from his own meal. He tried to keep the church calendar as much as possible, given the days rolling into one another. Occasionally during liturgy, Grigori was almost certain that he saw Brother Ivan vested properly, helped by men with bright, shining faces. On those occasions, he looked around their barrack and saw visions of icons. Icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, of Saint Nicholas, and others lined the walls. He went to them, weeping and praying. He took the Eucharist with joy, tears running down his face. He spent the rest of the day, on his face in prayer before the Lord, only rising when called by the guards or by Brother Ivan.
Those occasions were rare for Grigori, but he became convinced that this was a regular occurrence for Brother Ivan. Brother Ivan seemed to be in an entirely other place than Grigori, even when they were side-by-side. Ivan held conversations with people Grigori could not see.
One evening, Brother Ivan asked Grigori to take a walk with him. Unable to leave their barracks, this meant that they walked in circles, Grigory limping to keep up, through the room. “I have sad news for you, Grigori,” the elder monk began, “Your father is ill. We must pray.”
Grigori did not doubt his word for a moment, and the two men fell to their knees, praying for God’s mercy on his father. When Grigori would have ended his prayers and crawled into bed, the elder monk continued praying, so Grigori stayed on. The two men prayed throughout the night. When the light of dawn hit the first window, it shone first on Ivan’s face. He rose with a smile. “Your father will recover. Slava Isusu Kristu!” (Glory to Jesus Christ!)
“Slava na Veeky!” (Glory forever!) Grigori responded.
After fourteen months imprisonment, Grigori noticed Brother Ivan growing increasingly thin. Puzzling over why that would be after all this time, he took to watching him closely. He noticed Ivan slipping food into the pockets of his tunic and slipping it to men from other barracks as they worked in the fields together.
Often, right in front of the guards, a man would fall to his knees in gratitude before the elder monk, “Bless me, Father,” he would say, and the elder monk would bless him. The guards seemed blind to this. On one occasion, however, the guards took note and beat the two men, both the prisoner on his knees and Brother Ivan.
The next morning, however, that guard entered the barracks quietly, before dawn, kneeled before Brother Ivan, and with tears, begged his forgiveness. “I have been haunted by bad dreams all night long. My mother came to me, telling me of my sins. She was weeping over what I had done to you. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”
Brother Ivan had the man sit next to him on his bunk. The two talked quietly for some time, the guard, wiping tears on his sleeve, and Brother Ivan pronouncing a blessing on him. After that, the guard publicly ignored both Brother Ivan and Grigori, but came to them many nights to talk, to pray, and bringing them treats, such as he was able. One Sunday, he slipped in before dawn, and passed a piece of prosphora to Brother Ivan, whispering, “My wife made it.”
Brother Ivan’s face glowed with gratitude, thanking him over and over, until the guard, embarrassed, slipped away. Liturgy that morning was very special. Brother Ivan was in tears through much of the service. The night before, when Grigori lamented that there was no bread left for the morning service, Brother Ivan crossed himself and said in the words of Abraham, “The Lord himself will provide the lamb.”
Years later, in writing to a spiritual son, Abbott Grigori wrote:
I could not begin to tell you all the many wonderous things I saw in that camp, nor the deprivations, the suffering, the inhumanity. We saw much death, many beatings, much sorrow. We saw cruelty I cannot repeat. But I also saw God’s mercy, and the many wonders he wrought for and through Brother Ivan have given me much to think about over the years. We never missed a liturgy, never missed a feast day. We said our prayers morning and evening, as we were going to the fields, as we worked, and as we returned from the fields. Many a night I awoke and saw Brother Ivan kneeling by his bed in prayer. Many a man is alive who would have died were it not for him. Some guards were saved from damnation through his kindness.
But you asked me why my food and water remained unchanged. I have thought on this long and hard, and for many years now. I am no closer to learning the truth of that, except to say that God goes where He will and works as He wills. I have no doubt it was for my salvation. I am content with that. But I am glad that Brother Ivan was blessed with good food and wine to cheer the heart. With it, he blessed many others and through that, God’s name was praised in that horrible place. Glory to Jesus Christ.
Brother Ivan and Grigori were released eventually, but were threatened to tell no one of their imprisonment. How they were to explain having been missing for so long, is anyone’s guess, but they did not keep silent, for there were many left in those prison camps, and Brother Ivan asked Christians everywhere to pray for them without ceasing.
He longed to go back, to minister to those men, but in obedience, he returned to the monastery. Over the years, the monastery received five of those prisoners as monks. Those men told many stories of the wonders there, until instructed by Brother Ivan to say no more.
Upon their return, Brother Ivan asked Grigori if he still wished to be tonsured a monk. “I do.”
Grigori was tonsured a monk the following week.
A year later, the guard Alexi, came and took vows to serve Ivan and Grigori for the rest of their lives. Fifteen years later, upon the repose of Brother Ivan, and the transfer of the current Abbott, Brother Grigori was made Abbott Michael. Alexi remained at the monastery, serving Abbott Michael until his repose in the Lord, on the seventeenth anniversary of the repose of Brother Ivan. Alexei then left the monastery, having fulfilled his vow, and returned to his family.
Not much is said of these two men, but it should be noted that they were buried next to each other on monastery grounds. It is said by the local women that those who suffer should come and pray at their graves on the anniversary of Brother Ivan and Abbott Michael’s deaths. If the roses planted above their graves are in bloom, they should pluck a flower and place it in front of an icon of the Holy Mother, and their suffering bodies will find relief.
Many make gifts of bread, fish, and wine to the poor and to prisoners in honor of these revered men.
My grandmother used to tell me this story, telling me how she prayed for my leg to be restored, plucking a red rose and placing it in front of the holy icon at the chapel. It sounded like one of the fairy tales told by the old women, but today I found a photograph of me as a boy of two or three with a badly healed leg which stuck out to the side. I had a tiny crutch and was clearly crippled. I am not crippled now. I do not know what the truth is, but I have made you this meal of bread, fish, and wine. I ask that you come inside my home and eat it with me in honor of Ivan and Grigori. And of my grandmother, may God rest her soul. Slava Isusu Kristu!