Once in the hermitage, a woman came with three small children. Emaciated, with eyes full of despair and fear, she could hardly stand on her feet in fatigue. She held in her hands one of the babies, tied to her chest with a kerchief. Two other children — a boy and a girl 6-7 years old, themselves clung to her clothes.
Before the elder Nicholas, she fell to her knees, told the children to do the same. They obediently stood next to the mother. The first baby cried feebly, as if already desperate to cry for something. The woman gave this baby to her daughter. The girl habitually took the baby and, rocking, began to say: “Take it easy, calm down, quietly you…”.
The woman raised her eyes full of fear to the elder and said:
“Baptize us into your faith! Save us! Our confessor, father Kalistrat, will burn everyone, and if he does not, the strelets will burn. Save the children: they are innocent!… I am not learned to speak… We are of the old faith, that of Christ and the Apostles… Forgive me if I say not so… The servants of anti-Christianities came to burn us — as heretics… And our confessor Kalistrat said, that he himself will burn us with his prayers, so that we would not run anymore, but immediately — to the Lord in Heaven… And I went down, not for myself, for children: small ones yet!…”
“Where is your home?”
“Up the river… Half day — out of there we ran…”
The elder suddenly rose abruptly. He came up to Alexey. The voice has changed from the inner tension:
“Do you understand what is happening?”
“So run, stop the madmen! Run there with all your strength! Christ is with you!”
… The elder blessed Alexey.
Already leaving, Alexey heard again the calm and tender voice of the elder:
“And you wait, dear, catch your breath, get up from your knees! You have nothing to fear, you will be saved!”
* * *
Alexey ran off-road, branches lashed his face, his feet stuck in the sand, then in the marshy soil, the wet underside of the monastic clothes hindered, clung to the branches, got tangled in the legs…
Alexey stopped to catch his breath and tied the underside of the cassock with a rope. But breathing could not be recovered. It seemed that everything was burning inside and bursting outward with a hoarse wheezing, and his heart was beating somewhere in the larynx…
He ran again with the last of his strength…
He prayed Jesus — and ran…, ran…, ran…
… And then he saw a huge column of black smoke behind the turn of the river. The singing of prayers came to Alexey with gusts of wind. Then all this grew into screams of horror and pain… The glow of the flaring rose up to the sky… After — the screams began to subside…
Alexey ran out of the corner and realized that he was late…
Far away on the hill the log-house was burning down, in which, apparently, all were already dead….
The strelets, leaving the village of the Old Believers, set fire to the remaining buildings… Everything was enveloped with smoke…
Alexey fell to his knees and prayed.
Desperation, fatigue, unbearable pain from all this horror!
“Jesus, why do You allow this? How to change all this?”
Alexey climbed the hill.
He stared at the hot ashes for a long time, where people have been burned alive:
“Who set it on fire? Their confessor — theirs…, alive…, women…, little children…? Or strelets-punishers — in execution of the decree? What difference does it make — who?… Some people, believers in Jesus, were doomed to the martyrdom by others, in Jesus the believers… How is this possible?!”
… Alexey returned to the hermitage when it was already dark. He was staggering with fatigue. From the emptiness of the inner, it was as if he has blinded by the soul… Emptiness and darkness inside… How to live? How to pray?
“I did not have time…,” — he whispered it in a barely audible voice, and maybe there were no words at all, but only his lips, cracked in blood, moved.
But the elder Nicholas understood everything.
He did not become to console. He said with a caress in his voice:
“Wash! Pour over from the bucket, put on clean! Pray and go to sleep!”
He poured a bucket of water on the body… It was as if water had burned the body with cold. But after that it seemed to be easier… Then he put on a clean…
He could no longer pray, nor sleep too…
Alexey again went to the elder Nicholas, who was sitting in the courtyard near a small fire. In the only common cell where they before slept, the woman and her children, whom the elder had probably already baptized today, were sleeping.
Alexey sat down beside him.
They were silent for a long time.
Alexey looked at the flames and thought about those who died in the bonfire today…
He tried to imagine himself in their place: “Would I be afraid of death for faith — or not? How to know that — until the hour of death has approached, and I passed this test myself — before God?”
Then, all the same, he could not stand it and started to say:
“I knew before that the Old Believers were baptized forcibly, and that from their settlements they were drove out, and that they could be executed by those who accuse them of heresy… But, like that…”
“You, sonny, do not kill yourself, because you did not have time. There is no fear in the death of bodies… Souls are immortal! It’s scary only for those who doom others to death!
“How many martyrs for the faith in Christ — had accepted death!… Now we are worshiping their holiness!…
“And whether it’s a two-fingered crossing oneself or three-fingers crossing — that’s worldly, so I suppose.
“You already no longer had time when all were crossing with a two-finger crossing. And I — did this…
“This schism had brought to people terrible misfortunes! And many more misfortunes will bring the foolishness and cruelty of human beings, in which God’s Will is interpreted in their own way.”
“And God — why does He allow this?”
“I do not know… Maybe God hopes that people, to whom freedom of will is granted, will become wiser… And — that He not for nothing had sent His Son Jesus to the Earth! Perhaps, the Teaching of Jesus — that people are brothers and sisters to each other, that they can live in love of the Heavenly Father and their neighbors — it not for nothing had been given to people… Perhaps, God is waiting for people, seeing such horrors, to fulfill this Teaching of Jesus…
“Okay, it’s enough about that!
“A lot of blood was spilled and much more will be shed!…”
“So have we to do something?!”
“Many had been executed among those who tried…
“And I tried, and you, like, also tried…
“Strelets — they the decree of princess Sophia are performing, and not just because they like this — they are looking for villages of Old Believers in uninhabited forests!…
“You better think about what papers we should write for Efimia with the children, so as not to be touched more…”
* * *
The next morning the elder Nicholas filled Alexey’s shoulder bag with all sorts of provisions. Alexey even watched with some anxiety — how much their bins were emptied, then he as if “jumped to conclusion”, turned away the sinner thoughts and rejoiced at the generosity of elder Nicholas, who did not think about himself and his needs at all…
The elder ordered Alexey to accompany Efimia with the children to the village and to help settle them in some empty house.
There were many such houses there, because people were moved from here to work in mines where iron and copper were mined.
While they were going, Efimia told that she was a widow, that their confessor Kalistrat ordered her husband to be flogged for his disobedience. And they whipped him to death…
She told it calmly, mundane, without tears.
She explained that in their community all lived in fear.
She told afterward that in another community — her own — where she lived until her marriage, this was not. All with faith “escaped”, it was friendly and well between people… And here, at Calistrat, in the community, everyone was afraid. They were afraid of “antichrist”, “the end of the world”, persecutors for the faith, also to be in the disgrace of the confessor…
And when she was left without her husband, who was called “the devil’s servant”, it had become a terrible life for her and her children. She so suffered from this fear that she decided to run.
And then the strelets came, they read some paper. It turned out to them, wherever you look, death is inevitable… So she decided to change the faith and through this save her children.
Then about the new faith she began to ask with caution:
“Will the Lord forgive that I changed the faith of fathers and grandfathers? Will He have mercy on children?”
… Alexey reassured her as best he could.
… In the village, he helped to choose the evacuated house which was stronger…
Then he said to people, who came out to see what was happening here, that, by God’s Grace, now a widow with children will live here. He said that they would help each other in a Christian way. Then he began to speak more words about Jesus, about His commandments of kindness… He recalled how he before uttered the fiery speeches…
All listened to him in silence… But suddenly he had seen their looks… — empty and incomprehensible… And he stopped…
He asked them if they needed anything from him.
He wrote two petitions for those who appealed to him for help…
… Going back, he thought about the people living in this village: beggars, illiterate, and there is no place for God in them!… They want only to survive, to pay taxes, and not die of hunger!… Is such a life necessary? And they all want to live with their last strength, clutch at such grievous existence!…
“Help me to understand, Jesus, how can I help them?” — with this request, Alexey went deep in prayer and walked faster to the hermitage.
There, like the light of a candle in front of an icon, it shone smoothly and calmly all around — the soul of the elder Nicholas. Beside him, it was easier for Alexey to endure all life’s trials, as if the little corner of the “promised land” was created around the elder by his calmness and the depth of his unshakable faith in any trials.