Mean Old Fr. Nathaniel

The Sretensky Monastery publishing house is preparing a book by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov). It contains true stories that took place during different years.

The story presented below is about Archimandrite Nathaniel (Pospelov, 1920–2002), a long-time monk of the history-steeped Pskov-Caves Monastery, in the town of Pechory, Pskov Province.

*   *   *

Archimandrite Nathaniel (Pospelov) Archimandrite Nathaniel (Pospelov)
If you were to ask in those days, "Who is the meanest man in Pechory?" you without a doubt would have heard only one name: the treasurer of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, Archimandrite Nathaniel. This would have been the unanimous choice of all the priests, novices, monks, and laity, as well as the communists from the Pechory KGB, and local dissidents. You see, Fr. Nathaniel was not just mean. He was very mean.

At that time, when I met him, he was a gaunt, elderly man with a sharp, penetrating gaze. He wore the same old washed-out ryassa with a ragged hem both winter and summer. He usually carried a canvas bag over his shoulder in which you could find anything in the world—dried bread, an old lady's donation, or a million rubles. Each of these items was extremely valuable in Fr. Nathaniel’s eyes, for they had been sent to the monastery by the Lord God. Fr. Nathaniel dragged this entire inheritance around to his many hiding places in cells and storage rooms.

The monastery's finances were under Fr. Nathaniel's complete control. There was no lack of expenditures—every day up to one hundred monks and four hundred pilgrims would sit down to eat. The monastery needed continual repairs and new buildings; there were also the brothers' daily needs, aide to the poor, receptions for guests, gifts to officials… and much else. How Fr. Nathaniel managed all these financial problems by himself, no one knew. All of the monastery's bookkeeping work also lay on his shoulders. Furthermore, he organized all of the long, daily monastic Church services according to the typicon, was the monastery secretary, answered letters containing a wide range of questions, and finally, he shared the Father Superior's job of making what was, as a rule, rather unpleasant contact with official soviet agencies. All of these responsibilities, the mere quantity of which is enough to make a person gasp, Fr. Nathaniel fulfilled with such inspiration and scrupulousness that at times we even doubted that there could be anything more to him that an ecclesiastical bureaucrat.

Besides all this, Father Treasurer bore the responsibility of watching over us, the novices. Have no doubt that he fulfilled this job with characteristic meticulousness: he spied, investigated, eavesdropped, all to make sure that we did not do anything that was against the typicon, or that could harm the monastery. Although, I have to say honestly that it really was necessary to keep a strict eye upon the novices. We came to the monastery from the world as fairly serious good-for-nothings.

He had one other fantastic peculiarity: He would always show up at the very moment when we expected him the least. The monastery youth would occasionally shirk their obediences and make themselves comfortable somewhere under the eaves of the ancient walls for a rest, to have a talk, and bask in the sun. Suddenly, as if from underground, Fr. Nathaniel would pop up. His beard shivering, he would launch his reproach in that abrasive voice of his, so unbearable during those minutes that the novices would be ready to sink into the ground if only they could end the torture.

In his zeal, Fr. Nathaniel literally neither ate nor slept. He was not just an ascetic. No one, for example ever saw him drink tea—only plain water. Even at the main meal, he barely ate a fifth of what was given to him. Every evening without fail, he would come to dinner at the brothers’ refectory; however, his exclusive aim in attending was to keep unequivocal order as he sat over his empty plate.

Nevertheless, his energy was amazing. We did not know when he slept. Even at night, we could see a light in his cell through the shutters. The old monks would say that when he was in his cell he was either praying, or counting the pile of rubles and coins that had been collected that day. All of this incalculable wealth had to be neatly bound into packets, and change had to be sorted into bags. When he had finished with this, he would begin writing instructions and explanations for tomorrow’s services—no one was able to sort through all the particularities and complexities of the monastery typicon like Fr. Nathaniel.

But although the light in his cell was never switched off, we all knew perfectly well that this did not at all mean we could feel liberated from his observation even temporarily. No, throughout the night, at any moment, Fr. Nathaniel could appear here or there, making sure that no one was walking around the monastery—something which was strictly forbidden.

I remember one winter night; it was one brother's name day, and we had stayed until late in his cell. We were going back to our own cells when suddenly, five steps away from us, out of the darkness arose the figure of Fr. Nathaniel. We froze from fear. But in just a few moments, we understood with amazement that the treasurer did not see us this time. He was acting a little strangely. He could hardly move his legs and even reeled a bit, stooped under his bag. Then we saw him climb over the low fence of the front garden and lie down in the snow, right on the flowerbed.

“He’s died!” the thought came to our heads.

We waited a little, and then holding our breath, carefully approached him. Fr. Nathaniel lay asleep on the snow. He simply slept. He was breathing evenly, with a light snore. Under his head was the bag, which he embraced with both arms.

We decided not to go anywhere until we had seen what would come of it; hiding from the lamp light, in the shadow of the chapel over the well, we began to wait. An hour later, we finally saw Fr. Nathaniel quickly and energetically arise from the flowerbed, shake off the snow, throw the sack over his shoulder, and set off on his way as if nothing at all had happened.

We didn’t understand what was going on. Only later did the monks who had known the treasurer for a long time explain to us that Fr. Nathaniel was just very tired and wanted to sleep comfortably for bit. "Comfortably" meant lying down, because in his cell he only slept sitting. So that he might not luxuriate in a bed, he preferred to sleep in the snow.

As a matter of fact, everything about the Pechory treasurer’s cell life was subject to mere conjecture. Mean Fr. Nathaniel never let anyone into his secret inner world. What could we say—he never even let anyone into his cell! Including the all-powerful Father Superior, although it seemed quite preposterous that there could be a place in the monastery which the Superior, Fr. Gabriel could not enter. Especially since Fr. Nathaniel’s cell was located on the first floor of the house where Fr. Gabriel lived; in fact, right under Fr. Gabriel’s own quarters. Of course, the head of the monastery could not possibly be at peace with such a state of affairs. So, one day, after a festal meal, Father Superior was in a marvelous mood and announced to Fr. Nathaniel that he was going right that minute to his cell to have a cup of tea.

Several of the brothers who were standing nearby at the moment understood then that something earth-shattering, something unimaginable to mortal man was about to happen. It would have been unforgivable to miss the opportunity to behold such an event. Thus, thanks to these witnesses, this history was recorded.

Father Superior triumphantly and inexorably moved along the monastery courtyard towards the cell of Fr. Nathaniel. Fr. Nathaniel, meanwhile, minced along behind him, mournfully trying to convince Father Superior to renounce his intention. He begged him to take up something soul-saving and profitable, and not idle strolls to old, absolutely uninteresting little rooms. He eloquently described to him how disorderly his cell was, how he had not tidied it for twenty-six years, and the air in it was unbearably musty… Finally, in a state of total despair, Fr. Nathaniel’s speech nearly turned to threats. He was thinking quite aloud that that under no circumstances should the Father Superior’s precious life be subjected to the danger which unfinished mounds of work within the treasurer’s cell might involve.

“Well, that’s enough, Father Treasurer!” the Father Superior finally interrupted him with annoyance, standing before the door of his cell. “Open up and show me what you have in there!”

It was obvious that regardless of his angry tone of voice, Father Superior was tormented by true curiosity.

Finally admitting his inescapable situation, Fr. Nathaniel suddenly even cheered up, and sportingly reciting the monastic phrase, “Bless, Father Superior!” he rattled his keys and opened the cherished door that for four decades had been opened only wide enough to admit the wizened Fr. Nathaniel…

Beyond the thrown-open door yawned total, impenetrable darkness: the windows of this mysterious cell were shuttered closed both day and night. Fr. Nathaniel himself slipped first into this black darkness, then immediately disappeared into nowhere. In any case, there was no sound coming from the cell.

Father Superior followed him cautiously over the threshold, and grunting uncertainly, said in his deep voice, “Why is it so dark in here? Is there any electricity? Where do I turn it on?”

“To your right, Father Superior!” came the treasurer’s trembling voice from out of the impenetrable darkness. “Just lift the switch!”

The next moment Fr. Gabriel’s heart-rending cry resounded, and some unseen power carried him out of the darkness of the treasurer’s cell into the monastery corridor. Fr. Nathaniel leapt out after him into the light. Within a split second, he had closed his door and locked it thrice, and was running after the shaken Superior. Gasping, the treasurer began blowing the dust from the Father Superiors’s ryassa and straightening it out, excitedly bewailing, “What bad luck, Lord have mercy! That switch… one has to get used to it. It broke in 1961, on the Protection of the Mother of God, right on the day that they removed Khruschev from office. A sign! In the morning, the switch fell off, and in the evening, they removed Nikita! I haven’t replaced the switch since. And no electricians, no, no—I fixed it myself: two wires stick out of the wall. You join them and the light goes on, pull them apart and it goes out. But it’s true, you have to get used to it! But not all at once, not all at once!... So, Father Superior, you are welcome; I’ll just open the door again, and let us go in peace! Now you know how to use my light switch. And there’s much more of interest in there!”

But by the end of this whacky speech, Father Superior had left without a trace.

However, despite all of this, Fr. Nathaniel really was an example of obedience; he wrote long odes in honor of Father Superior, and in honor of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. He also composed morally edifying sermons in verse, five pages long.

*   *   *

The Pskov-Caves Monastery The Pskov-Caves Monastery
Fr. Nathaniel’s meanness extended also to the mighty Soviet state, especially when it all too unceremoniously intruded upon monastery life. They say that it was Fr. Nathaniel who had so cleverly advised the famous Archimandrite Alypy of Pechory, when the latter was in a state of perplexity over the pressure and crudeness of the authorites.

It happened in the late 1960’s. As everyone knew, all citizens of the Soviet Union were supposed to participate in the elections. They brought a ballot box to the monastery and placed it in the refectory, where the brothers dropped their votes, grumbling, after the mid-day meal, under the Superior’s observation—rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

Well, somehow the first secretary of the Pskov regional committee of the Communist Party found out that some ignorant monks had been allowed the ridiculous privilege of voting for the invincible block of communists and nonpartisans in their very own historically outdated monastery, and not at the polling station. The first secretary of the Pskov regional committee of the Communist Party was full of disdain, and castigated his inferiors mercilessly for such condescension toward a non-laboring element. He then commanded speedily that henceforth and forevermore, the black-robes shall come to vote for the Supreme Soviet of the USSR like all other soviet people—at their local polling station, according to their place of residence!

It was then that Fr. Nathaniel whispered in the ear of the Father Superior that extraordinarily subtle advice.

On election day (and this was on a Sunday), after the festal Liturgy, the monks solemnly processed through the monastery gates.

Two by two, in an extensive line, heartily singing the troparia, the monks processed through the entire town to the polling station. Heavy religious banners furled over their heads, crosses and ancient icons were born at the fore, in the usual ecclesiastical manner. But that was not all. Just as before any important work, the clergy began by serving a moleben, right there in the polling hall. The mortally frightened bureaucrats tried to protest, but Fr. Alipy sternly cut them off, ordering them not to obstruct citizens in the fulfillment of their constitutional duty as their custom dictates. After casting their ballots, the brothers then returned to the monastery in the same solemn procession.

There is no need to explain how the ballot box for the next election was waiting again from early morning for the monks in their refectory.

At the same time, Fr. Nathaniel watched us sternly; he always nipped off any vocal expression of opposition to the government, and particularly any attempts to become a dissident. At first, this seemed almost disgraceful to us. We thought that the treasurer was simply cowing before the authorities. Later, however, we eventually learned that more than once and more than twice, Fr. Nathaniel had run into provocateurs or agents who had been dressed as monks and sent to the monastery. But even knowing that we were sincere, Fr. Nathaniel always cut off any of the freethinking that was so dear to us. He did it not only to protect the monastery. He was also protecting us from our thoughtless arrogance and youthful hotheadedness, inspired by the simplest pride. He did not place much value on words, even the most heroic, and he knew all about the soviet regime and everything that had happened in the country—unlike us, who had learned most of what we knew by hearsay and from books.

It was also because Fr. Nathaniel had a very sober and first-hand relationship with the soviet authorities: his father, Priest Nikolai Pospelov, was shot for his faith in 1937. Having been a soldier throughout the entire war [World War II], Fr. Nathaniel became a novice under the great Father Superior, Archimandrite Alipy, and a spiritual son of the holy elder and wonder-worker of Pechory, Hieroschemamonk Simeon. Both of these men, seeing in Fr. Nathaniel a man of crystal-pure honesty and extraordinarily lively mind, made him the treasurer and secretary of the monastery during the onerous years of Kruschev’s persecutions against the Church, and entrusted him with the monasteries’ deepest secrets.

Here is more about the soviet regime. One summer night, I had the obedience of guarding the area in front of the Dormition Church. The stars twinkled feebly in the northern sky. Quiet, calm. The hours struck thrice, resonantly on the tower… Suddenly I felt that some one had appeared behind my back. I turned around, frightened. It was Fr. Nathaniel. He stood next to me and gazed at the starry sky. Then, he asked me thoughtfully, “Giorgy, what do you think about the main principle of communism?”

The Pskov-Caves Monastery. The Dormition square. 1983. Three o’clock in the morning. Stars…

Not expecting an answer from me, Fr. Nathaniel continued just as thoughtfully, “The main principle of communism is: ‘From everyone according to his ability, to everyone according to his need.’ But after all, ‘ability,’ ‘need’—it is, of course… some sort of commission is supposed to determine it? And what commission?... Most likely a ‘troika’![1] So, they call me in and say, ‘Well, Nathaniel, what are your abilities? You can saw twenty cubic meters of wood per day! And what are your needs? A bowl of pea soup!’… There it is—the whole main principle…”

Although Fr. Nathaniel always carefully emphasized that he is no more than a pedantic administrator and a dry typicon specialist, even we novices began to suspect after a while that he simply hid his spiritual gifts very carefully, as did all the true monks in the monastery. Father Treasurer was not the official monastery confessor. Only a few Pechory old-timers would come to him from the town for confession; someone else came to him from somewhere far away. He would not receive anyone else in the capacity of a spiritual father, citing his incapability to do so.

But one day, for a brief moment, he revealed the hidden part of his soul, although he then immediately hid himself behind his usual sternness and peevishness. Once I had done a wrong on my obedience. It seems I had performed my task very carelessly. For this, the Superior had me shovel snow on the Dormition square for three days in a row. I was deeply hurt at the time, and snow was falling and falling, so that by the third day I was simply tired, barely able to move my feet. I felt so sorry for myself, was so upset with the whole world, that I was seriously making plans for revenge. But what revenge can a novice take against his Superior? The two are operating on completely difference scales. Nevertheless, shoveling away with my last strength, I was cherishing in my heart the following scenario: When the Superior passes by me at the mid-day meal in the refectory, he will most likely ask me spitefully, “Well, how are you doing, Georgy?” I will reply, happy and carefree, as if these three days of dire slavery had not happened, “Better than everyone, Father Superior! By your holy prayers!” Then he’ll understand that he can’t break me so easily!

The scene of this horrific revenge so warmed my heart that even in the midst of an ever-escalating snowfall I felt significantly more cheerful. When Fr. Nathaniel passed by, I even smiled at him as I went to receive his blessing. In response, he also grinned amiably and made the sign of the cross over me. I bent to kiss his hand, when I suddenly heard his grating voice:

“So, you say, ‘Better than everyone, Father Superior! By your holy prayers!’?”

I froze in that bent position, as if I had slipped a disk. When I finally resolved to lift my eyes to the elder, he was looking at me with unguarded spite. But when he saw my horror, he said to me with authentic kindness, “Take care, Georgy, insolence has never led anyone to any good!”

Flinging his sack of millions, or perhaps of dried bread, over his shoulders, he trudged off in the crunching snow towards the brothers’ quarters. I was left with my mouth hanging open, just watching how the sole of his boot flopped at every step.

Well, a real Scrooge! Only saintly.

As one venerable St. Petersburg Archpriest said, “One year of the Pskov-Caves Monastery is like fifty years of Theological Academy.” How we assimilated these lessons is another matter… But that is admittedly another, very bitter question.

By the way, Fr. Nathaniel really was a Scrooge—no joke. Besides trembling over every monastery kopek, he wildly leapt to shut off every idly burning light bulb, and economized on water, gas, and anything else that could be conserved or squeezed.

He was also strictly vigilant over the centuries-old monastery order and ancient monastic rules. For example, he could not abide any of the brothers leaving for a vacation. Although everyone who needed a medical leave was granted it, Fr. Nathaniel never accepted or endured this. Needless to say, he himself never took a leave throughout his fifty years in the monastery. The Superior, Fr. Gabriel, also never took a vacation and frowned upon anyone who would come to him with a request for leave.

I remember once how the Superior did bless one hieromonk to take a summer leave. The monk received a blessing; however, he was supposed to get his travel money from the treasurer.

I was doing guard duty on the Dormition square and witnessed this scene: It began with the hieromonk who wanted the vacation knocking long and vainly on the cell door of Fr. Nathaniel. Already understanding what the question would be, the Treasurer hid in his cell and would not open the door. Then the hieromonk decided to take Fr. Nathaniel by stealth. He sat down on the bench a small distance away and began to wait. About four hours later, Fr. Nathaniel cautiously opened his door, looked around, and went out to the square. The vacationer then caught him up with a written blessing from the Father Superior for the treasurer to give him travel money.

When he saw the paper, Fr. Nathaniel froze, absolutely stricken, and then fell on the ground with a shriek, throwing his hands and feet in the air (at this he revealed his shabby boots and faded blue long johns from under his cassock), and shouted with all his might:

“Help! I’m being robbed!!! Give them money, they say! They want to take a vacation! They’re tired of the monastery! They’re tired of the Mother of God! Robbers! Help!!!”

The poor hieromonk even sat down from horror. The nonplussed foreign tourists who were on the square stood with their mouths hanging open. Clasping his head in his hands, the hieromonk ran headlong to his cell. Meanwhile, the Superior was watching the whole scene from his balcony with great glee.

Seeing that the danger was over, Fr. Nathaniel stood up perfectly calmly, shook the dust from his clothes and went about his business.

It was our particular joy to have the obedience of helping Fr. Nathaniel conduct tours of the monastery. As a rule, he was entrusted with leading especially important persons. The story of President Yeltsin and heads of state being acquainted with the qualities of the holy caves took place, of course, with Fr. Nathaniel’s participation. Our obedience included no more than opening and closing the heavy church doors for the visitors. The rest of the time, we listened attentively to Fr. Nathaniel. And this truly was something worth hearing. Fr. Nathaniel was the continuation of the tradition of his teacher, the great Abbot, Archimandrite Alipy, who had preserved the monastery and faith in God during the worst periods of Khruschev’s persecutions. Fr. Alipy’s gift of wise and at times unbending words passed on to Fr. Nathaniel.

During those atheistic years, soviet workers who came to the monastery expected to find any sort of reactionary, sly money-grubber, ignorant and not quite human; what they did not expect was what they actually saw—slightly peculiar but very interesting, educated and clever, extraordinarily brave and inwardly free people who knew things that the guests had never even guessed. After but a few minutes it would be clear to them that they had never met anyone like these monks in their whole lives.

It was 1986, and the party leaders of Pskov took a highly placed official from the Railroad Ministry to the monastery. He turned out to be a surprisingly calm and well-mannered person: he did not ask idiotic questions like, say, in which building do the monks’ wives live, or inquire about Gagarin’s flight into space, and why he didn’t see God. But in the end, after two hours of his time with Fr. Nathaniel, the official who was stunned by his new acquaintance couldn’t help but say:

“Listen, I am just amazed by our conversation! I have never met such an interesting and unusual person in my whole life! But allow me to ask—how, with a mind like yours, can you believe in… Well, you yourself understand, in what! After all, science reveals newer and newer horizons to mankind. And there is no God there! He is, forgive me, simply not necessary. This year the comet Galileo is approaching the earth from the depths of the universe. The scientists, can you imagine, have precisely calculated its entire route! And its velocity! And trajectory! Forgive me, but no idea of God is needed for this!"

“A comet, you say? Galileo?” Fr. Nathaniel shook his beard. “That means, since they calculated the comet, then the Lord God is unnecessary? Hmm, yes, I see!... Well, just imagine that I was set upon a hill near the railroad track and given a piece of paper and pencil. In a week, I could tell you exactly when and in what direction the trains will travel. But does that mean that that there are no conductors, dispatchers, or engineers?... Or Railway ministers? After all, that’s not what it means, is it? Commanders are needed everywhere!”

Not all such conversations ended peacefully, however. One day a tour group came to the monastery, the identities of whom were revealed to us in a whisper: children of members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I don’t know if this was really the case, but the young people turned out to be quite ill mannered. They were those “golden teenagers” of the mid-eighties who I well knew. The young people giggled, pointed at the monks, and asked the most idiotic questions. But there was nothing to be done, and Fr. Nathaniel took them on the tour of the monastery.

The tour began with the caves, at the beginning of which is a tiny cell with one small window. In this cell, early in the nineteenth century, the recluse Hieroschemamonk Lazarus labored ascetically. Here he was also buried. His heavy cross and chains hang over his grave slab.

“Here, in this cell, without leaving for twenty years, Hieroschemamonk Lazarus labored in asceticism,” Fr. Nathaniel began his tour. “I will now tell you about this amazing ascetic.”

“But where did your Lazarus go to the bathroom?” loudly inquired one of the young tourists. His companions simply rolled with laughter.

Fr. Nathaniel waited patiently until they calmed down; then, unruffled, he said, “Where did he go to the bathroom? Alright, I’ll show you now!”

He took several puzzled tourists out of the caves and led them through the entire monastery to a service area, tucked away from view. Here on the outskirts was nestled an old outhouse. Arranging the tourists a semi-circle in front of this institution, as they usually do in front of an important museum piece, Fr. Nathaniel solemnly made a gesture in its direction and pronounced, “Here, Hieroschemamonk Lazarus went to the bathroom! And now, stand here and look!”

Then, turning his back to the perplexed young people, he left them alone.

When they came to themselves, the group leaders searched for the Father Superior and expressed their displeasure with what had happened, to which the Superior replied, “Archimandrite Nathaniel reported your interest to me. That is precisely what he showed you. We can’t help you with anything else!”

You have to take into consideration that this was the year 1984. Things were not so simple back then. Serious problems could have arisen. But the abbots of the Pskov-Caves Monastery were traditionally strong men.

*   *   *

Mean Fr. Nathaniel died in an unusually quiet and humble way. When the doctors offered to insert a pacemaker, he begged the Father Superior not to do it.

“Fathers, imagine,” he said, “my soul wants to depart to God, and some little electric gadget forcefully stuffs it back into the body! Let my soul depart in its own time!”

I had the good fortune to have visited Fr. Nathaniel not long before his repose, and I was amazed at his endless kindness and love. Instead of preserving what remained of his life’s strength, this unbelievable church miser who economized on everything else, gave his all to a person the Lord had sent to him for no more than a few minutes. In fact, this is what he had done all his life—only back then, we did not understand it.

Translated by Nun Cornelia

Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)

14 сентября 2010 г.


[1] A ‘troika’ was a band of three communists who would pronounce a sentence upon the accused, usually the death sentence, without a trial or jury.

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Nancy Maria Luichinger 1 декабря 2010, 08:00
Please add "Yury Daniel Johnson", Pennsylvania---to prayers? I have given him your article today: _Mean Old Fr. Nathaniel_ in faith believing it will touch his life in a good, good way. Please pray that Daniel Johnson will hunger for God. Thank you with much appreciation! for writing and posting this account of a godly monk and father. Sincerely in Christ, N.M.L.
Храм Новомученников Церкви Русской. Внести лепту