Death is a mystery. It is our third birthday. I will be honest—a day does not go by when I don’t think about death. But it is impossible to fathom the depths of that word’s meaning and the experience of the event itself. I can think about how I will lie in the grave, but what the soul will experience simply doesn’t fit into my awareness. Any funeral rite—for a layperson or an infant—is simply unfathomable in its meaning. But there is a special funeral rite for monastics—it is extraordinarily profound in essence, significant for the soul and at the same time so joyful that I would compare it with the Paschal canon. If people knew how grace-filled this is, probably the whole world would want to receive the monastic tonsure if only just before death, just for the sake of this rite.
You could call the funeral of one of our monastery’s brothers, Schema-Archimandrite Stephen, a confirmation of this. He died at age twenty-five. As we were travelling back to the Lavra after my father’s burial he suddenly said, “Well who will be next after your father?” I answered, “Maybe me?” I have to add that Fr. Stephen was always very happy for people who had cancer. He would say, “What a lucky man! He can prepare himself, and give away all of his things himself.” The month of May arrived, and I could see that he was barely eating anything. I always tell the brothers, “If some one gets sick, make sure you tell me.” Illness is a natural thing, like death. We do not know God’s ways. I do not try to get into what is impossible for us to know; it is enough for me that the Lord allows me to live. His good will extends to everyone, if only we would be true Christians and stand firm in our holy Orthodox faith.
So Fr. Stephen admitted, “Vladyka, I have a lot pain just below my stomach.” I said, “Why didn’t you say anything?!” Whenever it’s necessary I can call my friend Alexander Yurievich Usenko, the director of the Shalimov Institute of Surgery. Fr. Stephen was taken there the very next day. They operated on him a day after the examination. The doctor let us know what he found: “There is dropsy here, but let’s hope there isn’t something else… We will do a tissue study and then I can say.” After the operation we took Fr. Stephen home, and few days later Usenko gives me a call. “He already has a metastasis in his bones below the waist, at the level of the kidneys.” I asked, “What can we do?” “Now, nothing”, he replied.
I had to visit the patient, but it’s not easy to bring such news. I went in, sat down, and said, “Shall I tell you the truth?” He nodded, “Go ahead”. “You have cancer.” He crossed himself and said, “Glory to God!”
Our young archdeacon received this news very calmly. He said that his aunt and his grandmother also had cancer. When the brothers asked me to tonsure him into the schema, we started thinking about what name to give him. Fr. Polycarp said, “Stephen—in honor of the protomartyr Archdeacon Stephen.” He did not agree to the tonsure immediately, but then accepted the offer. And so we performed his tonsure into the highest angelic image, in the caves. Of course I was in tears—I knew that a youth of holy life was dying. But what could I do? At the end of the tonsure I said, “Usually this is a moment when everyone congratulates you… but you know the reason for your tonsure. And I can’t say a thing to you.” But he just smiled, “Vladyka, you don’t have to say anything. You have already said and done everything.” I blessed him: “Fr. Stephen, while you still can, go to the services and sit in my place.” And he came every day, and intoned the litany of peace. Then he would sit down on the chair where the abbot sits, and at the end the brothers would help him to his cell.
I tell you that he did not have the slightest fear, complaint, or grievance. Only when his mother came and took his hand—he weighed no more than 35 kilograms by then—she simply wailed, and he took a stick and threw it at her. His mother complained about it to me, and I went in to him and said, “Stephen, you are not behaving decently.” He asked her to leave and then he said to me, “Vladyka, I feel bad enough as it is, and here she is wailing for everyone to hear. It’s too late to cry. I am my parents’ only child and it’s hard enough as it is when I think about who will take care of them…” His mother was a ballerina, an awarded artist of the Crimea, and his father was a first tenor, an awarded artist of the Soviet Union. “I know that they’ll be left all alone. I feel so sorry for her that I can’t tell you. But I know that the Lord will not abandon them.” (His mother has died already—the Lord took her on Pascha.) Then I reasoned with her, “Nina, stop tormenting yourself. Don’t cry in his presence.” “How?!” she sobbed. “I carried him as a baby in my arms…” I said, “The Mother of God also held her Son in her arms when He was taken down from the Cross. Emulate her.”
Stephen’s name day was approaching. When I came to him beforehand he suddenly said, “Vladyka, on my name day they’ll carry me into the church with the words, “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree…” and all the people will ask whose relics they brought. That will be my first and last name day.” That is how it all happened. On January 8 he received Communion, and after the Liturgy ended he began to depart. I read the canon for the departure of the soul. Then I leaned toward him and asked, “Fr. Stephen, do you hear me? Give me some sort of sign.” And a tear fell from his eyes. He always firmly grasped his tonsure cross on his chest.
At the evening service the casket with the reliquary holding the finger of the protomartyr Archdeacon Stephen was placed in the center of the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. And when the choir sang the prokeminon: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, like a cedar in Lebanon shall he be multiplied” (Ps. 91:3), the brothers carried the coffin with Fr. Stephen in it through the side doors of the church and placed it next to the reliquary of Archdeacon Stephen. All the people started asking, “Whose relics are those?” And when they went up to them they venerated both caskets. We served his funeral rite after midnight. At 2:30 we began the Midnight Office, and then Matins, Liturgy, the funeral rite by seven, and finished while it was still dark out. And here is another paradox: Throughout the whole time, all night, seagulls were flying over the church up until the moment he was lowered into the grave. This was in January, over the Lavra… He died on the eve of his own name day and was buried on his name day—the feast day of his patron saint.
Once when we were walkeing through the monastery cemetery, His Beatitude Vladimir [(Sabodan) then head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church] showed me where we should bury him when the time comes, and where I should be buried. So after Fr. Stephen’s death I came to the cemetery when the gravediggers had already dug the grave, and it occupied practically half of my own gravesite. I murmured a little, but Fr. Vasily said to me, “Vladyka, don’t worry! We’ll canonize Stephen, and put you in that place.” There was another significant moment. The fortieth day from the schema-archdeacons’ repose was approaching and His Beatitude called on me. “Tell me, Vladyka, what did Stephen look like?” I showed him a photograph. He looked at it and said with amazement, “Listen, today I went into the Dormition Cathedral and saw a reliquary in the center. On the lid of the reliquary there was an icon depicted, and on the icon was… him. And then he and a multitude of monks went into the altar.
In reply I told His Beatitude another amazing story. When our schema-archdeacon was still of sound mind, we were talking and I asked him, “Fr. Stephen, come to me in a dream after you die and tell me how you are.” And so on January 8 I went to my cell after the service, having visited him just before. And a few minutes before 11:00 I lay down to rest. At ten till twelve, Fr. Vasily knocked on my door, and said, “Fr. Stephen’s father has arrived.” I asked, “Has Stephen died?” “How did you know?” “I just saw him.” “How?!” Fr. Vasily asked, astonished. Here’s how it was. I was sleeping, but it was as if I had already woken up, was sitting on my bed and saw Fr. Stephen coming in. Next to him were two beautiful youths in the garments of schemamonks with kukols (monastic rounded caps) and it was simply inexpressible. He said to me, “Vladyka, I’m well, I’m healthy.” I was surprised. “Stephen,” I said, “you couldn’t even get up. I was just in your cell and you were lying there unable to move.” He smiled every so slightly and said, “I’m healthy, Vladyka, and nothing hurts.” He turned and became invisible. I had only just seen this with they came to me to tell me that Fr. Stephan had died. That is how monks inform the abbot and brothers about their end. We should not believe in dreams, but there are cases when the Lord informs a person through a dream.
I really loved Fr. Stephen. He was an obedient monk and full of zeal. We talked often. He had a beautiful voice, and he sang on the cliros with Fr. Polycarp. If you listen to the recording of the Akathist to the Dormition of the Theotokos you’ll hear his angelic voice.
I think that these are very edifying stories. They show that our reposed close ones are always with us. Only we often do not understand this. But by God’s will, eternity is hidden from us by a veil of temporality.