Why people from all over Russia and even from abroad go to the village of Florovskoe in Yaroslavl region to see Priest Sergiy Vishnevsky.
“Tell me…” Sergiy Fedorovich trustingly brought his face near to the priest sitting next to his bed. “I am constantly beset with doubt… You are the only one I can trust… There is something about you—that can only be trusted. Tell me firmly and honestly: Is there a God, or not?” “There is,” Fr. Sergiy answered quietly but firmly and without a shadow of a doubt.
|Fr. Sergiy Vishnevsky. Photo: Vladimir Eshtokin|
“And I was born in ’twenty.”
“And we are both Sergiy”
“Yes, and we have the same name. So, you say, there is… Now I will firmly believe. Like you.”
This conversation took place in 1994 in the home of the great Russian film producer, Sergiy Fedorovich Bondarchuk not long before his death. His wife, actress Irina Konstantinovna Skobsteva, had asked the priest, Fr. Sergiy Vishnevsky to come and talk with her husband. That was the conversation so important for Sergiy Fedorovich’s final days.
Before Bondarchuk’s departure to a better world, Hieromonk Tikhon (Shevkunov) (now Archimandrite), the Father Superior of the what was then the Pskov-Caves Monastery metochion, came to hear his confession. Fr. Tikhon is now the abbot of Sretensky Monastery in Moscow. In his recent book, Everday Saints and Other Stories, he describes this meeting in the story “About one Man’s Christian repose”.
Fr. Sergiy was no longer in Moscow; he had returned to Yaroslavl region, to the village of Florovskoe, where he was restoring his grandfather’s church and living next to it, forever abandoning the safety of Moscow life.
Florovskoe is located somewhere midway between Uglich and Rybinsk, a few kilometers to the east of the right bank of the Volga by the town of Myshkin. Everyone who comes for the first time to these backwaters surrounded by swamps is involuntarily surprised to see this enormous, two-story church—after all, Florovskoe is no more than a few houses, and the neighboring villages are also sparsely inhabited. But that is not how it has always been. In the nineteenth century, life was humming here, and there were more villages. The church of Sts. Florus and Laurus in the Bolsheselsky region of Yaroslavl province was built on the site where an icon of the Mother of God once miraculously appeared. According to local tradition, members of the court of Catherine the Great had come to gather berries in this area famous for its especially flavorful cranberries, and became lost in the swamps. Night fell. In desperation the lost courtiers began to pray, and after a little while saw a light at the top of a tree, radiating from an icon that appeared there. They made their way toward that light, found their carriages, and were saved. In memory of this event a magnificent church with five cupolas and a bell tower was built. A village grew around the church.
Restoration work on the church has been going on for more than twenty years through the efforts of Fr. Sergiy Vishnevsky. During the first years he lived there, Fr. Sergiy dreamed that people would come, settle there, revive the village, build a parish school on the site of the old one, of which only the overgrown foundation remained. His dreamer’s zeal dampened noticeably, but that did not mean that batiushka allowed despair to creep into his soul. At eighty years of age, Fr. Sergiy was still hale and spry, and full of the joy of life. When you come to visit him, you are immediately infected with an amazing joy that radiates from him and fills your soul and body with strength, health, and the desire to carry on.
Fr. Sergiy’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Priest Nicholai Dobronravov, was once the rector of the church of Sts. Florus and Laurus. He is buried there in the churchyard, near the altar.
Sergiy Nicholaevich Vishnevsky was born on January 1, 1926 to a military family. He says of his background: “I am proud to have been born in the Yaroslavl region—in the very heart of Russia—and everything good in me was bestowed upon me by my ancestors and my homeland.”
Despite the fact that both his mother’s and father’s family were of the clergy class, his father considered himself an atheist; he rejected Orthodoxy, and if he had not died early he would certainly have opposed his son’s desire to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps and become a priest. Little Serezha was nevertheless teased in his childhood: “Sergiy is a deacon, Sergiy is a priest, Sergiy is an old felt boot!”
He learned to read at an early age. In the village where his mother worked, there was a huge library in the house were the priest lived, and having read all the books in his own home, Sergiy made use of the books in the library of the kindhearted priest, Fr. John Skvortsov. As “payment”, Fr. John required that the boy learn all the main prayers. When Fr. John died, his children came to his funeral and gave the eager young reader a whole trunk full of books.
After finishing school, Sergiy Nicholaevich studied to be a lathe turner at a trade school in Nizhny Novgorod. During his first years at Florovskoe he always regretted never learning the trades that would have come in handy in restoring the church, such as roofing, stove-building, masonry, and painting.
In 1943 he was conscripted into the army, but was never at the front, although he wrote many requests to go there. He served in the reserves near Vyatka. His recollections of military service were not happy. In the reserves there was unbearable hunger, and the rations were pitiful. Everyone wanted to go to the front—they wanted to fight, and the frontline rations were much better. On February 23, 1944, the medical commission found private Vishnevsky to be dystrophic; he weighed only 32 kilos (70 pounds). He was sent to the recovery battalion for wounded soldiers, where they were better fed.
Right after the war he entered the newly-opened pastoral theological courses at Novodevichy monastery. Soon the courses were renamed a theology school, and then a seminary. The entire class, which was divided into two sections, consisted of twenty men. After seminary, Fr. Sergiy dreamed of returning to Yaroslavl region to be a rural priest in the tradition of his ancestors, but the seminary teachers, persuaded him to enter the theological academy. During his third year at the academy he married a girl from a pious family. Alexandra Alexeyevna became his lifetime faithful friend, and gave him four sons. All of their sons became priests when they grew up, and one of them, also Fr. Sergiy, serves in Yaroslavl province.
After graduating from the academy, Fr. Sergiy was appointed auxiliary priest at the church of the Resurrection in the Sokolniki district of Moscow. The “temporary” appointment continued for fifteen years. They were the most difficult years of his life. One son after another was born—Pavel in 1953, Sergiy in 1954, and Misha in 1957. They lived on very meager means. After the brief thaw toward the Church under Stalin came the rabid atheist Khruschev, who swore he would show the last Russian priest on television. In Moscow the churches were no longer destroyed, but the clergy were always being burdened with new taxes. Sixty percent of all income was supposed to be given to the government. Out of 750 pre-reform rubles, clergymen saw only 300. That would now be like earning 20,000 (665 USD) but receiving only 8,000 (265 USD). Is it possible for a family of five to live on that? The authorities intended to smother faith in Christ with taxes.
“My children received no more than one piece of candy each on Sundays, in order to make that day special and different from the rest.”
Those who were the most steadfast and fortified in their love for the Savior remained in Orthodoxy. Fr. Sergiy recalls how on great feast days Khruschev’s zealots of atheism would come to church and create a crush; during the Liturgy they would start rocking the crowd of parishioners, laughing wildly.
“One time I jumped out and nearly fought with them—that is what it came to!”
The police authorities also watched the priests untiringly. The priests would joke, “Christ had twelve disciples and one of them was a betrayer, but we have about two informers for every twelve.”
“One day,” recalls Fr. Sergiy, “I was called into the district executive committee, taken to a separate room, and seated one on one with a very unpleasant man who said to me, “Sergiy Nicholaevich, either you will write us detailed reports on anti-Soviet conversations among priests, or we will publish an article in the newspapers about how you live a life of luxury and bought a refrigerator; by far not everyone has one.” I answered, “I will not write any reports, and I am not afraid of articles in the papers. My parishioners respect me, they all know how poor I am, and I bought a used refrigerator on the cheap.”
At the end of his “temporary” assignment, batiushka was transferred to the church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Lefortovo with the duties of rector. He studied in graduate school at the same time. Khruschev’s retirement did not bring relief to the Church right away. Recalling the 1960’s, Fr. Sergiy says that he had no more than three rubles per day to feed his entire family. Only in the 70’s and 80’s did the life of a priest get a little better. Servants of the Church were equated with government workers. In 1970, a fourth son, Volodya, arrived in the Vishnevsky family.
From 1967–70, Fr. Sergiy studied in the graduate school of the Moscow Theological Academy. The theme of his dissertation was “Metropolitan Platon (Levshin) as a Preacher.” Graduating with him were the future Metropolitan of Vyatka and Slobodskoy, Chrisanth (Chepel), who died in 2011, and the well known theologian, teacher, publicist, and professor of the Moscow Theological Academy, Alexei Ilych Osipov.
After the church of Sts. Peter and Paul, Fr. Sergiy served three years in the church of St. Nicholas in Khamovniki. Then he became rector of the church of the Resurrection on Nezhdanov St. (now Briusov Lane), where he served for over six years, and then he became rector of the church at the Piatnitsky cemetery.
“With each year, even before Gorbachev came to power, the relationship toward us became better and better,” he recalls about the 70’s and 80’s. Even the KGB agents talked to us in a completely different way. Twice a year, on the eve of May 1 and before November 7, they would summon us only to give us instructions on talking to foreigners and journalists should they ask us about the Soviet government’s relationship to the Church. My last “supervisor” was a KGB agent named Alexander Igorevich Makarov. I gave him an icon; later he became a believer, and now he is a regular parishioner at the church of the Nativity of Christ in Ismailova, a general in the FSB.
In 1983, Fr. Sergiy nearly ended up in San Francisco, where they wanted him to serve at the church of St. Nicholas. The appointment did not take place, however. Metropolitan Philaret (Bachromeyev) of Minsk wanted to console him, asking forgiveness that it turned out that way. Fr. Sergiy replied happily, “Why, Vladyko! I am glad! I would probably have been happy there for a half a year, no more! Then I would have sat down by the Ocean, looked out toward matushka Russia and sobbed.”
In 1984, Fr. Sergiy was transferred to one of the best Moscow parishes—the church of the Mother of God of the Sign, near the Riga train station. This was his final Moscow church. All four of Fr. Sergiy’s sons became priests. Pavel graduated from the seminary, academy, and graduate school; Sergiy wanted to work as a car mechanic when he was a boy and Mikhail wanted to join the military, but in the final analysis they both became priests. Archbishop Christopher (Pulets) of Prague took Vladimir to serve with him, and then ordained him a priest.
At the end of 1990, when all the children were settled, Fr. Sergiy decided to realize the dream of his youth—to become a rural batiushka. Leaving his parish in Moscow, he moved to Florovskoe. He had been to visit his grandfather’s church three years earlier. Seeing the abomination of desolation, he shuddered and understood that he would soon be moving there. He told the parishioners about his dream, and out of love for their priest they donated funds to restore the church of Sts. Florus and Laurus. One of the first to do so was Galina Eliseyevna Struchkova. Now it has been over seventeen years since she herself moved to Florovskoe, helping Fr. Sergiy at home and in church, singing and reading. She has taken on all the work of the garden and animals—chickens, geese, and goats.
Fr. Sergiy and Matushka Alexandra gave all their means to the restoration of the church. He received the church with a ruined roof, the carcasses of cupolas, and a completely looted iconostasis. In those days, when icons became fashionable, they were driven away by the truckload. The lower winter church was filled with water in spring, summer and fall, the condensation of which almost entirely destroyed the wall and ceiling paintings. There was much work to do in the church itself and in the churchyard, which was overgrown with weeds. But Fr. Sergiy rejoiced, because there he felt closer to God.
In 1998, “Radonezh” studios created a video called “Island of Orthodoxy”. There is an annotation on the cover:
“The Ocean roars, the abyss of the passions swallows you up, and destruction is inescapable… But at the last minute you see an Island. Salvation! There you don’t hear the breaking surf, and the sun warms your freezing body. Where is this Island?”
The film contains several scenes from such an Island—the Greek monasteries of Meteora, the Montreal wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, Fr. Nicholai Guryanov of Zalit Island, and the church in Florovskoe, with Fr. Sergiy’s first winter there. You can see church’s the sorrowful condition. But now, compared to 1990, it is an entirely different picture. The church is restored and magnificent.
When people heard that the church of Florus and Laurus was reopened, they began to come more and more often from the neighboring areas; they helped clean up the cemetery and repair the building. Gradually batiushka built two small guesthouses and a bathhouse; he started raising goats, chickens, and geese.
However, not everyone came with good intentions. One would come to ask for drink, another to steal something. In 1994, during Great Lent, two robbers broke into the house during the night with pneumatic pistols, tied up batiushka, searched for a non-existent icon that was supposedly covered with diamonds, and beat Fr. Sergiy on the head with a pistol butt to torture it out of him—where is the icon? Not finding it, they took some old icons and left. Only later did Fr. Sergiy figure it out: Once he was shown on television, and behind him was a reproduction of an icon of the Mother of God in a precious, Fabergé frame with diamonds and rubies. That is what the “icon-lovers” were looking for! But during the robbery a small miracle occurred: When Fr. Sergiy asked one of the robbers his name in order to know who he should he pray for, the thief whispered his name… Perhaps someday he will return and fall to his knees before the iconostasis and that very man who holds the cross in his hands—as one man did on Pascha, 1998, when he came to repent:
“Batiushka! Forgive my sin! When I was little, I misbehaved here, in the church. It was empty then. I broke open some coffin or other… Let me work for the church—to make amends for my sin!”
So much has happened during these twenty odd years Fr. Sergiy has spent in Florovskoe.
There was the Dane, for example, who after hearing about Fr. Sergiy from his son, came to live in Florovskoe for long periods at a time. Young people seeking the light helped the priest with his domestic chores, humbly fulfilling all his requests. They felt that there was more of God in little Florovskoe than in all of Denmark.
One former alcoholic lived in Florovskoe for about ten years; he quit drinking, and began to seek God. He had tried different religions and found Orthodoxy, then came and settled in a small parish house next to Fr. Sergiy’s. He helped the priest in the church. All seemed to be going well, but then one not very fine day he came to batiushka and said, “I should be in charge here in Florovskoe, and you get in my way. At times I get the urge to kill you with an axe and then drown myself!”
Fr. Sergiy grieved, but did not do anything, only prayed. However, when this man lost his reason and burned two houses in Florovskoe, he had to take him to a psychiatric hospital.
“I feel sorry for him. He is a good man, only not in his right mind. Alas, that creature with the horns and tail just does not leave us alone!” Fr. Sergiy sighs.
But mainly those who come to Florovskoe are bright, truly religious people who understand what light comes from the priest of the church of Sts. Florus and Laurus.
Every trip to Fr. Sergiy is a small miracle. The night before, inertia often weighs us down and we just want to stay in Moscow. But as soon as we get to the station and board the train, we feel so light and easy. We fly to Florovskoe as on wings.
Although, it is not so easy to get there. First you have to go to Yaroslavl, then take a bus to Novoe Selo, and from there you can either wait several hours for another bus, or walk twelve kilometers. If you are lucky there will be a car going there, but no matter how you get there, your soul verily sings.
No matter who you ask in Moscow clergy circles, everyone knows about Fr. Sergiy—and not only the clergy. He has baptized many writers and their children. He blessed the offices of one periodical, Our Contemporary, which he loves to read.
Fr. Sergiy also took on the care of a small church in the village of Leontievsky that was built in the nineteenth century with the money of one peasant serf. Apparently, the peasants not only didn’t suffer under serfdom, but were even able to build a church now and then! This little church came alive under the patronage of Fr. Sergiy.
Fr. Sergiy’s sermons are remarkable. “People ask me, ‘How often should we go to church? Can we go once a week, or even once a month?’ I answer them, ‘You can stop going altogether. Just like that! Don’t go at all. Live your life without the Church, die, and you’ll go to hell. Then you’ll find yourself there, next to Hitler. You’ll be forever next to him. But just think about it: eternally! In hell. With Hitler.’”
A deep silence reigns in the church. The quiet continues for a minute. Fr. Sergiy gives the parishioners some time to think about it. His expression is stern, as if he were seeing for the first time how terrible it is for the sinner in hell—especially side-by-side with Hitler… Suddenly, his face is illumined by a ray of joy and hope, and his trembling voice, only a moment ago angry, sounds silvery with this joy.
“But if anyone wants to be forever in paradise, next to Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov, I’ll say to him: welcome to God’s church!”
Fr. Sergiy’s sermon is brief as usual, but it penetrates to the heart. He has already come out of the altar with the cross, for veneration. The parishioners approach and kiss the glittering crucifix he holds in his hands…
When Fr. Sergiy became eighty, he said, “Well, now I am eighty. I feel that old age is coming on.”
The Lord gives him strength, and his stamina is amazing. He sleeps no more than three or four hours a night and an hour in the afternoon—that is all. After all, there is so much in life that needs to be done—to see, read, and most important—to serve God.
At eighty-four, Fr. Sergiy confessed to his parishioners after the Liturgy, “Not long ago I felt very bad. I thought I would die. I asked the heavenly powers, ‘Can’t I have about three or four more years?’ I recounted all the things left on the list. Well, it looks as though my request was granted.”
Original from Столетие.Ru.