The Death of a Repentant Sinner

Source: “On the Banks of God’s River,”

by St. Nilus (translated by the St. Herman Brotherhood, 1969).

From my birthplace where I had been occupied for nearly twenty years, it pleased the Lord to move me first to St. Petersburg and then to that blessed corner of the Novgorod province, to that quiet and God-fearing little town of Valdai, where only recently one could still hear the forlorn tinkling of the bell affixed to the arch of the coachman’s troika, (which has since given way, alas! to a new railroad). There my wife and I developed a close friendship with one of the local priests who also became our spiritual father. Once, during confession with my wife, he had occasion to say to her: “But you know, even in this day and age some people are bestowed the gift of seeing their guardian angel!”

Our dear priest communicated no details and I decided to question him properly at the first opportunity. Here is what I discovered, as I recorded in my notebook.

Today (April 25, 1907) I reminded our spiritual father about my wife’ s confession and asked: “Batiushka, what was it that you told my wife during confession about an angel appearing to one of your spiritual children?”

“Yes,” he replied, “that actually happened, but I learned of it through the confession of one of my parishioners, and confessions are to be kept secret.”

I wasn’t deterred and began to press:

“But,” I asked, “is this parishioner still living?”

“No, he died.”

“In that case,” I said, “what can hinder you from making it known, especially if what you have to tell can serve to benefit us sinners?’’

My spiritual father thought and thought, and then related to me the following:

I had among my parishioners in the village a man by the name of Dimitri. He was a peasant and led a bad life; he stole, he cursed, he was a drunkard and a debauch. In short, he appeared to be at the bottom of the barrel. He had been living this way for a long time and there was no hope for any change. Then one day, as he was preparing to go to the fields to do some tilling, he came into the passage which led out from his dwelling, and suddenly he felt as though someone with tremendous force hit him on the back of the head. The blow was such that one minute he was standing upright and the next minute he was lying with his face smashed flat to the floor. There had been no one in the passageway at the time and Dimitri was perfectly sober. The swiftness of what had happened stunned and terrified him.

“I arrived at the field,” Dimitri later told me in confession, “my face a bloody mess, I washed it in the stream, but couldn’t seem to get down to work; my mind was fixed on puzzling out what had happened. I sat at the edge of the field lost in thought; I recalled my wicked life. For a long time I sat, turning this over in my mind until finally I determined that I was done with my sinful habits and that I will begin a new life as pleases God and befits a Christian. In tears I stood on my knees in the middle of my field. Making the sign of the cross, I loudly cried out to God: ‘In Thy Name I vow to Thee that from henceforth I shall sin no more!’ And since then I have become a different man; I broke loose from my old ways: I stole no more, I stopped drinking, stopped swearing, ceased my wanton behavior…”

“Do you mean to say,” I asked Dimitri, “that since making your vow you haven’t even met with any temptations?

“How could that be! Of course I have, Batiushka. Often times I have felt a strong pull towards my old habits, but God has helped me and I have been able to resist. Once, however, it did happen that I gave in, the neighboring village was celebrating its parish feast and holding a fair. There I was making my way when what should I see lying in the road but someone’s wallet. It was stuffed tight and without thinking twice I snatched it up and into the pocket, l didn’t even stop to count the money—I was afraid someone might be watching. I had time only to see that the wallet contained a lot of bills and a lot of silver. I continued on my way, thinking to myself: Well, I certainly won’t return this wallet, and if I should meet its owner… Hey, but isn’t this a tidy sum that’s come my way! And suddenly… BAM! I was down flat against the stoney surface of the road. And just as before, my whole face was cut and bleeding, and I hadn’t been drinking. Getting to my feet, I saw—where the dickens!—a monstrous rock lying in the middle of the road where it had no business. I must have tripped over it. Here I let out with the blackest, most foul curse, and at that very moment, above me, directly over my head, something suddenly made a noise, like some gigantic bird. I glanced upwards and froze: over me, face to face, hovered an angel beating its wings. “Dimitri,” he said severely, “where is your vow to God? I heard you make it in your field, I saw you pray. And now you’re again back to your old ways?”

My entire body was shaking when suddenly I found courage to cry out to him: “Who are you? One of hell’s demons, or an angel from heaven?”

“I am from those above, not from those below!” replied the angel and became invisible.

“It was awhile before I came to myself. When I did, I took from my pocket the wallet and flung it away from me as far as I could.

I did not continue to the festival but returned home pondering what I had seen.”

“That,” said Batiushka, “is what Dimitri told me in confession. And here is what later happened. To the amazement of all who knew him, reports began to spread of Dimitri’s goodness, his kindness. He became utterly transformed to the good down to the very soles of his feet. Ten years passed since the angel’s appearance. Dimitri remained true to his vow. In the eleventh year I was called to Dimitri’s village. ‘Batiushka! Dimitri has fallen ill; he asks that you come to see him.” I went without delay. Coming into his cottage I found Dimitri in bed, his eyes closed. I called to him and was startled when he suddenly sat bolt upright and thrust his arms towards me. I moved away, frightened, as I was carrying the Holy Gifts.

“’Watch yourself!’ I said, ‘don’t you see, I have the Holy Gifts! I all but dropped them!’

“’Batiushka!’ cried Dimitri gasping excitedly, ‘just now before you came I again saw the angel. He told me to prepare myself as I am to die this very night.’

“What was he like?” I asked.

“I was blinded by his light!” replied Dimitri in a tone of spiritual rapture.

“Did you ask him if God will forgive your sins?”

“God will forgive that which a spiritual father absolves ,” replied Dimitri firmly. “Whatever you loose here will also be loosed there!”

I prepared to hear his confession.

I gave him Holy Communion and, sinner that I am, I didn’t think he looked so very sick. He was still a robust peasant, not yet old. I left him fully persuaded that he would recover. About the angel—I didn’t know what to think.

That night Dimitri reposed…

This is what I was told, according to his priestly conscience, by the kind pastor of one of the churches in the peaceful town of Valdai.

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