Difficult Father Nathaniel

Flickr | camil tulkan

At the First Things blog, Wesley Smith tells the story of Father Nathaniel, an Orthodox monk whose tom-foolery was a thorn in the side of his abbot and the local Soviet authorities alike.

The church in Russia suffered eighty years of violent persecution at the hand of the Soviets, yet survived and is now thriving, thanks to faithful Christians like Nathaniel. The monk’s gift was rebelling even as he was doing the very thing he had been asked:

Fr. Nathaniel repeatedly thwarts attempts by the abbot to inspect his cell. Finally, the dreaded invasion could be prevented no longer. As the abbot enters the room, he asks, “Why is it so dark in here? Don’t you have electricity? Where is the light switch?”

Fr. Nathaniel tells him mildly that it is on the right. “Just turn the handle.” A horrible cry rent the air, as if some unknown force had cast the abbot straight out of the pitch-black darkness of the cell, into the corridor. Speeding out after him into the light came Father Nathaniel. Within one second, he closed and triple-locked the door of his cell once again.”

His domain safely secured, Fr. Nathaniel tells his (literally) shocked superior about how the light switch broke back in 1964 “on the occasion of the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God,” the very day that Khrushchev was removed from power. “That was a sign!” he tells the abbot, explaining why he never repaired the switch. “Come, I’ll just open the door again, and we’ll slip back in!” But the abbot had already fled in ignominious defeat, never to mount another incursion.

But Nathaniel’s gift for obedient rebellion was felt most sharply by the Soviet authorities on an election day:

The First Secretary of the Regional Communist Party insisted that the “black beetles” vote in town rather than at the monastery as a way of teaching “the atavistic deviant non-working-class element of society” a lesson. Before the abbot could protest, Father Nathaniel whispered into his ear “a piece of advice that was both innocent and extremely subtle in its defiance.”

On election day—a Sunday, of course—“from the monastery gates came streaming forth a magnificent procession of the cross, with priests bearing crosses and icons . . . in a long line, singing hymns and in full ceremonial dress towards the polling place.” When horrified bureaucrats protested, the abbot declared that they were just doing their duty as Soviet citizens as required by the First Secretary.

Nathaniel’s story and those of other faithful Russian Christians is told in a little book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, newly translated from Russian. I haven’t read it, but maybe I’ll put some other stories up when I do.

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Difficult Father Nathaniel

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