Miraculous Temple

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

Miraculous Temple
By Pyotr Yershov

Two days later, our friends gathered again at Bezrukovsky’s house.  They exchanged questions about health and news, discussed literature and politics, and then, at the host’s bidding, gathered around the tea table.  As if in unspoken mutual agreement, everybody turned to Lesnyak.

“Gentlemen, I accept your silent request,” Lesnyak said with a melancholic smile, “and will open this evening with a legend, which I happened to hear while wandering in the Siberian wilderness.”

“And the legend, of course, is about the invisible world with all its accessories:  wood-goblins, mermaids and the like,” Taz-bashi commented, smiling mischievously.  

“You are right only about the invisible world.”  

“What!” Taz-bashi cried out.  “Not even a single tiny devil in your story?  That must be something unusual.”

“The world of spirits, my dear friend, is not just about the dark-side dwellers.  There are heavenly inhabitants as well.”

“I see.  This time we’ll hear about the souls of the blessed and winged creatures of Heaven.  Is it a sort of Christian epic?”

“You might say so.  Let’s call it an episode of a Christian epic.”

“Well, I can breathe easy now,” Taz-bahi continued.  “Your stories about gray souls of sinners and black-bodied demons always make my hair stand.  Please, proceed with your les harmonies du ciel.” Lesnyak began.

*          *          *

Passion Week arrived.  Christians of all ages flocked to churches to cleanse their souls by repentance and the Holy Communion; then, in white clothes of purity and innocence, they would be ready to meet the greatest holiday of the Christian world.  By now, they had already approached the altar of reconciliation, and accepted Christ’s terrible mysteries from the hands of their priests.  In the cathedral, the moving ritual of unction was performed.  And then came Good Friday – the day of sorrow and mourning for a Christian soul.  It seemed that during those solemn days not a single worldly intention ought to cloud the thoughts of the Orthodox – but it wasn’t so.  Most people, in the simplicity of their ignorance, believed that inner purification had to be followed by outward cleaning – thus, they would be more worthy of the joyous holiday.  Households bustled with tidying up; markets filled with supplies; overworked craftsmen couldn’t find time to go to church even once.  It’s true that churches were crowded during the hours of service; yet every remaining moment was devoted to earthly haste.

At that time, two brothers heard from passing peasants that a bear had been spotted close to the city.  Both were avid hunters, and this news completely occupied their thoughts.  The place wasn’t too far away, and there were two entire days left before the holiday.  Perhaps they could bag the bear and return home in time for Easter Eve.  No matter how the family pleaded and warned against their ill-judged decision, the brothers were adamant.  Such an opportunity, they reasoned, is extremely rare, and – with luck, or without – they would surely be home for the holiday.  Nothing could be done to change their mind, and the young men were left to their own devices.

Armed with rifles and knives, the brothers set off to find the animal.  Easter was early that year and, although the snow showed no intention of melting, the weather was warm and quiet, promising a good hunt.

Six miles away from the city, they turned into the woods, as the peasants had indicated, and began to follow the animal’s tracks.  Had they not been so occupied with anticipation of meeting their furry rival, the brothers would have stopped to admire the landscape.  The tracks led them through a sparse woodland with open spaces between the trees, revealing spectacular distant views.  Dressed in the velvet clothing of winter, the trees presented such a fanciful array that it was difficult to choose which one was most pleasing to the eye.

I love winter as much as summer.  To me, winter is not the death of nature but its repose.  Outwardly inactive and silent, nature concentrates on its inner work; with the first ray of spring sun, it is ready to turn a concept into a beautiful real-life image.  Winter is the seed of nature’s further development – sometimes dark and gloomy, sometimes cheerful and captivating.    

But the hunters were not here for contemplation.  They saw only snow-covered trees and bear tracks on the ground.  Passing an occasional word to each other – about the path and the hunt – they moved deeper into the forest.  Their desire to face the animal as soon as possible was so great that they forgot basic precautions and paid little attention to the winding trail’s frequent changes.  Darkness fell, and the brothers decided to spend the night in the forest, taking turns as watchman.  They gathered brushwood and started a fire.  A glass of wine and a piece of bread satisfied their humble appetites.  

The younger man covered himself with his fur coat and fell asleep instantly.  His brother moved closer to the fire and placed his rifle alongside.  From time to time he added new branches to the fire to keep it going, and looked around.  Thoughts of the forthcoming hunt dominated all other thoughts.  Sometimes he hummed a song or paced in front of the fire to relax his limbs.  A few hours later, he woke up his brother.

The mind of the latter also circled around the bear at first, but then it took a new, more pleasant direction.  He thought of a little gray house in the city, with a garden in front, and light-filled rooms.  In the house lived a young lady who, every time she looked at him, made his heart beat in a special way.  He remembered their first meeting on the river bank, his awkward questions, and her shy replies.  Then there was the introduction to the girl’s parents, who welcomed him with sincere patriarchal hospitality.  And then one day his mumbling declaration of love was rewarded by her gentle expression of mutual feeling.  Their parents gave them their blessing, and rings were exchanged as a token of eternal devotion.  The young man vividly imagined the future celebration, when – as it is a groom’s right and a Christian tradition – he’ll seal her beautiful lips with an eager kiss for the first time.  His imagination ran faster:  he takes his beloved to the altar; the priest blesses their union; a happy
procession follows him and his wife to their home.  The wedding table is heavy with abundant dishes.  And, among the rooms, there is one, with a beautifully dressed bed, hidden by long, closed curtains – a symbol of mystery and modesty.  At that thought, the young man’s heart took flight, and a tear almost rolled down his cheek.  

“Some guard!” He suddenly heard the voice of his older brother.  “Sleeping on the watch!  You aren’t even looking after the fire.  Only ashes are left now.”

Reality threw the dreamer from the sky back to the ground.  Unwilling to confess his innermost thoughts even to his brother, the younger man readily accepted the unfair accusation.  

“Sorry, Fedya, my fault.  I dozed off a little.”

“I can see how little you slept,” his brother retorted.  “Look east: dawn is kindling its own fire.  Let’s eat something and move on.  If we don’t see the bear before noon, we’ll have to turn back.”

They hastily ate their plain meal and set out again.

The woods were getting thicker and thicker.  Birch trees, awakened and vexed by the disturbance, sprinkled the men with snow dust; long branches, as if trying to stop the travelers, caught their clothes.  But the trail – their deceptive guide – lured them further and promised, with every step, an immediate end.  It was almost noon.  The brothers, exhausted not as much by the trip as by anticipation, pushed forward a few more miles.  Suddenly, the weather, peaceful until then, began to change.  Big lumps of snow came down, fell on the men’s faces, and covered the tracks all around, both animal and human.  As much as the weather allowed, the hunters tried to orient themselves, heading west towards the city.  Only cracking branches and an occasional word interrupted the silence.  The snow now fell faster, and soon even near objects became indistinct.  The brothers’ personalities, under the circumstances, revealed themselves vividly.  The older one, strong-willed and composed, tried to joke about the doomed hunt; the younger man was mad at every snowflake blowing in his face.

“Well, Sasha, we had our chance,” Fyodor said.  “Now it’s Mr. Bear’s turn to hunt us; although, if he really decides to do so, it would be quite nasty.”  

“To tell you the truth, I never wanted to go on this hunt.  I knew that no good would come of it.  I only went along because I couldn’t let you face the danger alone.”

“Thank you, Sasha.  I’m forever obliged and, in appreciation, will drink an extra glass of wine at your wedding.”  

“Don’t talk about the wedding now.  Every step feels like a mile, and, if I could, I would trade all the bears in the world for one skinny horse.  My heart bleeds when I think about Liza.”

“That’s all right, Sasha.  Sometimes you can trust your heart, sometimes it tricks you.  Take mine, for instance.  It raced the minute I heard about the bear, as if I had already laid the animal on the ground with a single shot.  And now, our most respected Mikhail Ivanovich is probably sucking his sweet paw and laughing at us.”

The conversation went on like this for some time.  The short winter day was approaching its end, but the big road to the city was as evasive as ever.  Impatience overcame even the older brother.  They walked on, silent, covered with snow, fighting the tree branches with every step.  It was getting darker, and soon the gloominess of night combined with the misery of the weather.  The younger brother, overwhelmed with despair, threw his rifle on the ground and fell into the snow.  “I don’t have any strength left,” he cried.  

Fyodor tried to comfort him, saying that all the signs indicated the city was within reach.  His words, however, didn’t sound reassuring.  They only intensified the younger man’s torment.

“I don’t want any sympathy from you,” he said irritably.  “Lord knows, sweet words have a bitter taste at times like this.”

“Well, Alexander, I didn’t expect you to get fainthearted.  You used to be so adventurous.  Remember how one night we crossed a roaring river in a boat – full of holes?  Could it be that love weakened your body so much?”

“If you don’t want to insult me, Fyodor, don’t say a single word about love.  Reminding me of her now is like a stab right in the heart.”

“All right, no more about love.  I only mentioned it to lift your spirits.”

“I told you already:  I can’t go on.  You go by yourself, if you want, and leave me to God’s will.”

“Brother!” the older one said with reproach in his voice.

Alexander felt guilty, and, as a peace offering, stretched his hand to his brother.

“That’s better now,” Fyodor said, shaking hands.  “I’ll bet we make it home safe and sound, or I’ll trade my head for a nut.  Let’s take a short rest, have some wine, and be off.”

With those words, he filled a glass and offered it to his brother.  Alexander annoyingly pushed the glass away.

“If you don’t want any, at least don’t spill it.”  Fyodor poured the rest of the wine back into the flask.  “Look there, Sasha.  The snow is letting up.  God willing, it will stop in an hour.  I’m good at guessing sometimes, you’ll see.”

Alexander looked around, and a weak hope glimmered in his heart.  He got up.  “Let’s go.”  

The snow indeed stopped soon thereafter, but the dark of the night advanced quickly covering everything.  After about an hour of wandering, the brothers stumbled upon a shack built by shepherds or hunters.

“Here are some signs of life,” the older brother said. “What do we do now:  wait here until morning, or try to find our way in the dark?”  He looked at his watch.  “Ten o’clock.  We won’t be in time for Matins anyway.”

The younger man didn’t say anything.  He threw his rifle on the floor of the shack and lay down.  Fyodor only shook his head at such despondency and went to gather brushwood.

Then, sitting by the fire at the entrance to their lodging, he immersed himself in thinking.

His thoughts centered on the coming holiday and their predicament.  God was angry with them because, on these holy days, they placed their trifling desires above all else.  And, as punishment, He took from them the joy of celebrating the Savior’s Resurrection in the church of the Lord.  Fyodor became very sad.  He prayed for God’s forgiveness and vowed to attend all the services of Bright Week.  The vow gave him a peaceful feeling, and Fyodor began to recite in his mind all the prayers he knew.  This silent conversation with God consoled him, and he seemed to forget his misfortunes.

Meanwhile, Alexander, wrapped in his coat, surrendered himself to melancholy.  His thoughts were of a more worldly nature.  Dreams about his bride and the exchange of Easter kisses with others took the place of everything that a Christian soul savors during this greatest of holidays.  And, instead of relief, he felt even deeper sadness.  Finally, not able to control himself anymore, he burst into bitter tears.  Although they were tears of resentment, the merciful heavens sent him comfort; and soon he fell into a deep slumber.

Those were the last hours of Great Saturday when God-Man rested from His deeds.  I don’t know if there is a person with any degree of faith in him who during this solemn night doesn’t stop for religious reflection, at least for a moment.  The immensity of the event, for which both Heaven and hell were the stage – as God’s love overcame implacable judgment, and the death of the Immortal One opened the gates of eternity – humbles our flesh and mind,  inspires our soul, and fills our heart with indescribable bliss.  The thought of eternal life is never as clear as in this time of completed redemption.  In the darkness of Golgotha, from the very first moment:  “It is finished!” – the everlasting light of the new life shone.  And, when the apostles grieved the death of their Teacher on earth, Heaven already proclaimed the Resurrection with a triumphant call!  

The night of Great Saturday was coming to an end.  Fyodor pulled his watch out and in the light of the fire followed the movement of its hand.  Only five minutes were left.  

“Soon,” he thought,” the church bells will delight the hearts of the Orthodox.  We alone, by our own fault, deprived ourselves of this joy.  Thy will be done!  For a Christian, the whole world is God’s temple.  We’ll announce the glory of the Resurrection with a hymn and let this cold wilderness hear us!”

Fyodor put more branches into the fire and looked at his watch again.  One minute more.  He kneeled, took off his hat, and raised his right hand to make a cross.  He was about to proclaim, “Christ is Risen!”  Then, suddenly, just as his watch showed twelve, and he started crossing himself, a rich, vibrant chime reached his ears.  Astonished, Fyodor held his hand midair, not believing what he had heard.  The chime repeated; there was no doubt now.  It was a true blagovest – full and jubilant.  Tears came down Fyodor’s face.  He prostrated himself on the ground and stayed in this position for some time saying again and again, “Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen!”

Then he rushed to his brother.  “Sasha! Sasha!  Get up!  The Lord has shown mercy on us!  Do you hear?”

Alexander woke up and, in amazement, stared at his tearful brother.  “What happened to you?  Why are you crying?”

“Yes, I am crying. You too, cry.  Can you hear?”  Alexander listened and soon heard the bell.  “It’s blagovest.  That means a village is near.”

“Yes, yes.  Christ is Risen, Sasha!”

“Christ is Risen, Fedya!”  And the brothers, with tears in their eyes, fell into each other’s arms.

 

At this point, the story teller became silent, overcome with emotion.  It was as if he himself was one of the brothers, or he had witnessed that joyous embrace of two faithful in the name of the Risen Christ.  The listeners were also moved.  A minute later, Lesnyak continued his story.

 

The brothers, of course, hurried in the direction of the church bells.  Their hearts were so filled with happiness that the only thing they were able to say from time to time was, “Christ is Risen!”  Closer and closer drew Blagovest – a resonant silver stream that flowed evenly and solemnly, slightly wafting in the air.  Words couldn’t describe the feeling the chime evoked.  Something special was in that sound; the brothers thought no bell had ever produced such a loving feeling – as if it were the voice of heaven, not of earth.  

Church in WinterIn an hour and a half, on a glade, they saw a church brightly lit inside.  It stood alone, with no sign of a house or lodging nearby.  However, it was full of people, as the brothers could see through the windows.  

A celebratory procession in front of the church welcomed the Risen Savior.  The merry chime blended with joyous singing, “Thy Resurrection, Christ the Savior!”  The brightness of multiple candles in the hands of the faithful lit a large surrounding area.  A stately gray-haired priest with a cross and Easter candle led the procession.  A deacon accompanied him.  Youthful and strikingly handsome, he looked like an embodied angel.   

The brothers put their hunting equipment under a tree and joined the procession as it was entering the church.  A doorman with a happy smile – and the greeting “Christ is Risen!” – handed them candles.  To their surprise, he didn’t take the money they offered; instead, he asked it be given to the first poor who beg in Christ’s name.  Holding their candles, the brothers took a few steps further.  The people made way for them, bowing and saying, “Christ is Risen!”

For the first minutes the brothers looked around the church, which was totally unknown to them.  It was small and decorated in Byzantine style.  The iconostasis didn’t glitter with gold, but its architecture and icons pleased the eye with their magnificent beauty.  The lights of the icon-lamps and candles mixed together, creating a single flow of radiance.  But this radiance seemed only a reflection of the shining brightness of the altar, and especially of the holy table.  It was hard to see where this sea of radiance was coming from – from the icon of the Resurrection, or from the altar dome covered by the iconostasis.  Incense smoke floated above the altar and reminded them of the guiding cloud that led the house of Israel throughout their journeys in the desert.

The choir loft was empty, but all the people formed one harmonious choir.  One could hear the tender voices of children and women, and powerful men’s basses.  Not a single wrong note upset the sweet harmony.  The reverent quietness of the praying people magnified the solemnity of the service.  Nobody moved; no child turned around.  All eyes were on the altar and icons; only the motion of lips during the singing, and pious crossing, indicated they all were real people.  The brothers were so captivated by the purity of devotion that, involuntarily, they imitated the people around them, joining together their voices.  

Soon, Matins was over.  The parishioners kissed the life-giving cross and holy image of the Resurrection, and exchanged Easter greetings with one another.  Not a word was said about the world and its worries.  Not a single name was mentioned but one great Name: Christ.

The doors of the church opened, and everybody started to leave.  The brothers followed.

It was still dark.  They looked around, hoping to find a house where they could wait till morning.  Again, they didn’t see any sign of a dwelling.  Then Fyodor said to one of the men,

“A village must be near.”

“Not only a village, but a city as well,” the man replied with a smile.

“How did we miss it?” asked Fyodor, very surprised.

“You must have gone in a different direction; besides, it’s easy to get lost in the dark.”

“But we’ve been wandering here day and night and didn’t see any city.”

“City folks don’t visit our place too often, although it is so close to them.  Go from here directly to the ravine, and turn towards the bridge.  Then, there will be a path to the big road.  I would take you there myself, but I can’t.  You won’t get lost now; wait by the church till dawn.”

The brothers looked at each other.  They both had the same thought:  why didn’t the villagers invite them to spend the night?  The old man probably guessed what was on their mind and added with a smile, “You can’t be in our village before your time, and coming there will make your return longer.  I think everybody at home is eager to see you.”

The man bowed farewell and started walking towards the nearby forest.  The brothers decided that they, perhaps, had met with Old Believers.  It would be inappropriate to disturb their ways.  So, they settled by the church to wait for dawn.

At last, the east shimmered with light.  Nature, it seemed, was slowly lifting the cover of fog.  The brothers picked up their hunting gear, and started out, following the old man’s directions.

At the entrance to the edge of the woods, they looked back at the church – and froze in their places.  Instead of a beautiful new temple, there was an old half-fallen church with broken windows, darkened by time. Tall weeds covered not only the steps, but the roof as well.  All breathed of desolation.

The brothers gazed at each other.  

“Is that the same church where we were for Matins?” Alexander asked. “I don’t believe my eyes.”

“I too can’t understand this transformation,” Fyodor answered.  “Maybe festive lighting gave the church that special look?  I heard that Old Believers value antiquity as something sacred, and decorate their temples only on the inside.”

“But see for yourself.  All the windows are broken, and it looks like no one has walked through this grass for a hundred years.”

“It’s also strange that I don’t see any tracks but ours,” Fyodor added.  “A crowd, like we saw yesterday, would surely leave a path behind.”

“Unbelievable!  If I didn’t remember yesterday’s service so clearly, I would’ve thought I dreamed it all!  I don’t know about you, but I’m scared.”  

“Me too, I must admit.  Let’s leave this place.  Maybe on the way we’ll think of some explanation.”

After crossing themselves in front of the church, the brothers quietly walked away.  Soon they reached the deep ravine, turned right and saw a half-collapsed bridge.  Everything was exactly as the old man described.  In half an hour they were on the road, right by the mile pole.

They praised the Lord for their safe return, discharged their rifles, and happily walked to the city, arriving in time for the late liturgy.  The household showered them with questions, but the brothers replied, “Later,” and went to change clothes for the service.  After the liturgy, they came to Liza’s parents’ house.  Fyodor told the hosts and guests about their adventures; Alexander told his bride.  

“How unusual,” Liza’s father said.  “If I didn’t know you, I would’ve thought it was a fairy tale.  I have lived here all my life, wandered all around, but never saw this church, or even heard of it.  You, matushka,” addressing an eighty-five-year-old lady, his relative, “have you heard about it?”  

“Indeed, batushka, I have.  My late father once told me there was a church of the Resurrection of Christ, but it burned.  The fire burned the entire village. The peasants left and the church was never rebuilt.”

“But they saw an old church, not a burnt one.”

“True, batushka, true.  But, for our Lord, there is no old or new, whole or burnt.  Besides, my late father said that things happen in the places where a temple of God once stood.  The Lord accepted the repentance of two Christian souls.  That’s all there is to it.”

“There is no other way to explain it,” the host said.  “In the spring, God willing, we’ll go look for the church.  I’m sure the gentlemen remember the way.”

That was the end of the conversation about the miraculous temple.

What else is there to say?  On a good spring day, a search expedition was organized. Among others was Lizonka, now Alexander’s wife.  They walked through the entire forest, but found no sign of the church’s existence.  Even the path, so memorable to the brothers, had completely disappeared.

*          *          *

“Our dear Lesnyak is faithful to the idea of mystery,” Academician said when the story was over.  “But, to tell the truth, I would’ve been very disappointed if the church were real.”

“Besides, it’s folklore.  A different ending would take away all the color from it,” Bezrukovsky said.  “Folklore has its privileges, and every reasonable explanation is pure skeptical nagging.  Let fantasy be fantasy and reality be reality.  But don’t let fantasy disturb the eternal laws of the soul – on which our existence so depends.”

“True,” Academician replied.  “In addition to the accepted order of the material world, there is a higher order.  We belong to it with our immortal soul.  But only death or some exceptional occurrence breaks the barrier between us and the world of the unexplained.  Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with the thought of a miracle.  This thought is enough to warm the soul and stretch the boundaries of the mind.”


Translated by Marina Panina Fry
Edited by James Fry