Years ago, as a teenager, I became disillusioned with the Orthodox Church and decided to stop attending. When certain events led me back to the church as a young mother, I was hungry to learn more about the faith I took for granted. I devoured as many books as I could find. One of them was Father Arseny.
Part of the reason I left the Church was because I couldn’t find that personal connection of what Orthodoxy meant to me. I wanted to do more than just show up on Sunday and go through the motions. I needed something more, and somehow I just wasn’t finding it.
When I came back to the Church, Father Arseny was a comfort to me. Added to the icons and the hymns and sacraments of the Church, the book gave me a sense of the life and sufferings and amazing selflessness of a not-yet-canonized saint. I read in awe about a highly educated man who became a priest and was imprisoned in the Russian labor camps during the Communist regime under Stalin. Somehow, Father Arseny managed to stay alive by the grace of God while dodging starvation, bitter cold temperatures, regular beatings, and an inhuman workload designed to kill prisoners. In the midst of all this, he often gave up his food rations to other prisoners, cared for the sick, and never stopped praying and glorifying God.
Crossing myself openly in church, or anywhere for that matter, took on new meaning. Kissing the icons hanging throughout my house brought me a new sense of gratitude. I didn’t have to worry about Communist prison guards beating me, or about being turned in by someone who I thought was a friend. Instead of skimming a collection of short paragraphs on saints, I was reading about real-life accounts of an amazing man who turned to God under the worst circumstances, and blessed and touched countless other lives. Suddenly, I felt so much more aware of how blessed I was to pray and live freely as an Orthodox Christian in this country.
Reading Father Arseny was a part of my journey back to Orthodoxy. It made everything so much more meaningful for me. Recently, though it had been many years since I had read it, I found myself referring to it often when talking with my children about spiritual miracles. One day, I picked it up off the shelf and started reading it to my thirteen-year-old daughter. Soon, the stories started coming back to me. The hardship, the struggles, and the amazing Christ-like love that Father Arseny shared with so many.
Now, when I go upstairs to kiss my daughter goodnight, she gives me that familiar inquisitive look and asks, “Father Arseny?” which means she wants to read another chapter. And so I read one chapter, and then I find myself turning to the next page and saying, “OK, just one more chapter.”
Christy Pessemier is an award-winning freelance writer who has written numerous articles for South Sound Home | Garden | Life magazine. She also worked as a reporter for the Eatonville Dispatch Newspaper, and continues to work as a copywriter for local businesses as well as 425 Magazine. Christy lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two daughters, and their Beagle-Basset, Scout.