My head spun from a sharp ascent; then a strong light blinded me. Light and darkness had interchanged so many times, I should have gotten used to it long ago. But this was something strange, though as usual there were spots dancing before my eyes. Could this be sunlight? After so many years under the earth, I couldn’t believe it.
Then I heard that same, monotone voice, “For the last time I ask: so, do you still not accept our system?” And despite the rays of sunlight, again darkness fell around me. Why should I even answer? They know in any case that for me, death is preferable. As always, I braced myself for the worst. They showed me the sun, now they will torture me, then again into darkness, in order to suffer even more, remembering that sunlight. The same thing had happened many years ago, before I began to be only underground. Except back then they didn’t show me the sun; then they had brought my loved ones, showed them to me and said,
“Here you are, take a good look, because you will never see them again, nor will they see you, all because of your stubbornness. How merciless and proud you are! Be humble, and you will save yourself and others.”
To be humble in the face of injustice means to betray Truth Himself – Christ.
“Nonetheless, some people, who were like you, humbled themselves, and now they serve both us and the people and God. Thanks to them, now peace reigns in our land.”
There is such a thing as unrighteous peace which estranges us from God, while there are righteous wars which unite us with the Creator.
While a wave of memories carried me away from reality, a screechy voice, without waiting for me to finish my answer, continued:
“Look, do you see how joyfully the rays of the sun dance, how much warmth they bring, even through this thick glass and heavy bars. What would it cost you to come out and warm yourself in the sun, today, immediately. Just nod your head. You don’t have to sign anything. If you do not wish to do so, you will go down again, into the darkness, cold, and mold.”
Again I was silent, because these were the spiritually blind who didn’t know that there was such a thing as inner light. That light is Christ. He will warm, comfort, and give strength to endure to the end.
“You are silent? Then know that we have prepared for you a torture worse than hell. We will let you out and you will see that the whole world is ours, that everyone has bowed to us. When you are convinced of this, and when everyone has rejected you, you will come back here and beg us to take you back. Now get out! Look at the black numbers on your right hand - you can’t remove them in any way. You will be an outcast everywhere because of this brand and you will not find mercy anywhere, because there is no more on the earth.”
Then there rang out wild laughter, after which the doors opened, and someone pushed me from behind. I found myself outside in freedom, if that could be called freedom, because I knew that every inch of the earth was under their control.
A fresh wind blew which scattered my dark thoughts. For the first time in many years I took in deep breaths of air, and thought,
“You lie, you unrepentant blackguard, that there is no mercy on the earth, because if that were so, the very earth would no longer exist. The Lord’s mercy keeps it in existence. He endures even the godless in His indescribable mercy.”
At the moment the sound of a bell reached me, but the sound seemed to me somehow cold and unfeeling. My heart trembled as if I could sense something heavy and disturbing. A white bell tower rose in the distance. It seemed within hand’s reach, but as you go on and on, you get lost in the effort to reach it. My legs were no longer used to walking because for years they had only made a few steps, from one wall to another. Never mind, I kept trying. Now I was close. The bell tower rose ever higher before me. Such is our path to the Lord: while we are far from Him, we seem to be big, but as we come closer to Him we see how very small we are in comparison to the magnificence of God, as if we have no weight at all, as if we are but a grain of dust being carried by the wind. If Thou, O Lord, did not support us, long ago we would have been trampled into the earth.
At last I saw the entrance of the bell tower, but there were no steps anywhere. How could the bell ringer go up? And who taught him to ring so strangely? I would like to talk to him! I went in and saw an elevator. The doors closed behind me and the elevator went up to the top. In a moment I shot up very high and realized that there was not a living soul there. It was clear to me why the sound of that bell had disturbed me: it was artificial, created by a computer. I hurried to go back down, because I had no desire to look at the surrounding buildings. All looked strange.
Everything had changed; I saw nothing familiar. Not a window anywhere, not a face, not a car, not a garden. Everything seemed somehow artificially decorated and to me, incomprehensible. I wanted to go into the church, but some kind of cold wafted from it. Then people started to come out of the church - apparently the service had ended. I looked at them. Their eyes seemed glassy, their faces without emotion, as if chiseled out of stone. They passed by me, looking emptily into the distance, not looking around themselves. I decided to go up to one of them and strike up a conversation. He glanced at my hand and hastily moved away. I approached a second one and got the same reaction. I didn’t understand, why were they avoiding me? Then one woman passing by snapped,
“Get lost, you with the black mark, you don’t belong here!”
Then I remembered the black numbers on my hand, and how my torturers had mocked me about them, so I asked the woman, “So where should I be? Where do I belong?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, “You just don’t belong here among us, because you have been branded with a specific mark. If you would just look around yourself here it would be clear to you that you don’t belong here.”
Then their priest appeared, and said, “I see by your face that you are not one of us, and I must admit that I have not seen one of your kind for a long time. There is a pain in your eyes which I don’t like. Your eyes are somehow shining.”
Then he saw my hand.
“Ah, now I see. You are an apostate, that is why you are different.”
“How do you pray and who do you commemorate in your prayers?” I asked.
“In the first place we mention our Leader. He is to thank for the good state in which we live. We don’t pray for a higher peace anymore, because the good life is here on earth.”
“Alright, and what God do you pray to, what kind of spiritual teachings do you hold to?”
“We should know a lot of things, but those things would only disturb us and the people. That is why our bishop knows everything. Go over to him, there he is on the west side, giving blessings.”
I approached him and asked, “What kind of faith do you confess?”
“Where did you come from, ignorant one?” the bishop responded. “We all hold to our faith, the only true and generally accepted one.”
Then he saw my mark. “Well well! You are an apostate?! You shouldn’t be here disturbing the people. Though you won’t trouble anyone, these are all our people.”
I looked at the featureless mass. No one even blinked. Everyone was as if spellbound, they only waited for what the bishop was going to say. I tried to explain something to them, but they all repeated the same things, as if they were programmed:
“Our bishop is a holy man, we are all servants of the most holy, his name we all wear not only on our hands but in our hearts. Your words offend us.”
Then the bishop said, “See what a sermon you have made?”
“I am not speaking my own words,” I retorted, “but the truth.”
“What do they need that truth for? It’s too hard for them, and they wouldn’t be able to bear it. That is why we have made it easier for them. We have freed them from that burden. Now they are at peace, well-fed. Our Leader has given them everything that their hearts could desire, and now they bow down to the ground before him.”
“But what about God’s commandment that we should only bow to Him and only He should we serve?”
“That was once upon a time,” answered the bishop, “Now our commandments are different, we don’t teach that old stuff anymore. The old stuff was outdated and created only divisions. Who could understand it, understood, but such people were always few. Now we have taken care of the majority, of everyone. This is a religion that works for everyone. There you go, that is our truth. And our miracles are such as the world has never seen. Look, our Leader flies through the air as if with wings. And what of your faith - what good has it done for you and the people?”
“But is the soul,” I replied, “Created only for this earth? Has it been created to relish, like an animal, only earthly goods? Hell and eternal torments are awaiting those who fall away from the faith!”
“There is no hell. There is only heaven on earth.”
“So. That is your faith – beastly. You, without God, reign on earth.”
My heart ached from sorrow, but I saw that this wasn’t the end. Children started coming out of the church. They were carrying flowers which they lay at the feet of some idol. One vase fell over, and a young man who was standing by the priest, probably his son, rushed over to pick it up and put the flowers back into it.
All at once darkness fell before my eyes and I felt myself falling. I don’t know how long I lay like that, but I realized that no one had approached me, because I woke up in the same place.
Then someone tugged at my sleeve and splashed water on my face. It was night outside, so dark that when I opened my eyes I could still see nothing.
I asked, “Who are you, good man, who has approached me, rejected by everyone?”
“My mother called me John, but my father renamed me Vona in the new faith.”
“And who is your father?”
“Forgive me, God-seeker, but he serves here in this church. You spoke with him.”
“Ah, now I remember. You hurried to pick up the vase by that idol?”
“Forgive me, my father commanded it. I myself would never have gone up to put flowers.”
“And why have you come to me, a sinner, in the night?”
“Forgive me, but I have to hide in order not to betray myself. I have not received the Mark like the other people here.”
“How have you hidden that fact, and who taught you to do so?”
“The Lord, through my mother, who was True Orthodox.”
“And where is your guardian, my child?”
“Ach, God’s wanderer, her heart couldn’t bear it when my own father began to commemorate the Leader in church, to mention his name in the litanies. She fell ill and took to her bed. She told me that soon all will have to receive the Mark. ‘Die, my child, but do not receive it! I believe that the Lord, through some good man, will deliver you out of this wasp’s nest…’ Because of my mother’s testament, I didn’t go where everyone else went, and God forgive me, I lied to my father that I had received the Mark. Because my father is a highly-regarded clergyman with our bishop, I didn’t seem suspicious to anyone. My mother reposed before everyone had to receive the Mark. Now for the most part I stay at home, because everywhere – in stores and in transportation – only those who wear the Mark can go in.”
“So this Mark,” I asked him, “Is it clearly visible?”
“No, it cannot be seen by the human eye. Only the mark which you bear is visible to everyone. Now that I have met you, I hope that you are that very good man of whom my mother spoke.”
I said to him, “I think that there is no way that I could be the person whom your mother spoke, because I can’t take you anywhere, as I myself don’t know where to take shelter.”
“Never mind, I still believe that with God’s help you will take me away from here. But now we have to get away, because every evening the Leader flies to the church and the naked idol, so his servants can report to him.”
After the young man’s words, there was a sudden noise, and I automatically crossed myself. The young man whispered to me,
“Make the sign of the cross on me as well, because there is no cross on me. My mother baptized me in secret from my father and gave me a little cross, but my father took it away from me, and I couldn’t find another.”
We had only managed to make the sign of the cross when before us suddenly appeared this sight: the Leader, as I understood, was sitting on a throne. On his head was a shining pentagram. His servants were reporting to him how many souls had been destroyed, where and how, and how many had been induced to worship him.
The serpent on the throne, however, gnashed his teeth so much that the servants trembled. “How much longer will there be living True Orthodox Christians? My soul burns just thinking of them!”
“They stay in the catacombs, still praying to the One God in Trinity, though we have done all we can that they have nothing to eat and drink. They should have all died off long ago.”
“No!” screeched the Leader. “My heart senses that they are even here, near Our throne. If they go down the dry river bed, they will find those who hid themselves in the caves of the Brothers Mountain.
The servants made excuses that they had searched there, but found no one. If there had been anyone, they would have died of hunger and thirst long ago.
“You don’t know,” hissed the man-snake, “That they are protected by the power of the Nazarene, that Galilean, Mary’s Son. Ach, how hard it is for me to speak of Him, I immediately feel hot. Down in the catacombs they have gotten to the point of taking a handful of earth, making the sign of the cross over it, and eating it like bread. Their water is living – the water of which He spoke to the Samaritan woman, that who drinks of it will never thirst again. That is the wretched matter. Why should I even waste my words, when those people live outside the city, but here there is also a soul which has not received the Mark and which is invisibly protected by the power of the Crucified One. Tell me, then” - the Leader turned to the idol – “How many people bowed to you today and yet you noticed nothing suspicious?”
“Everyone who lay flowers before me,” responded the despicable idol, “are your devoted servants. There was only one case, which is terrible even to speak of.”
“Speak!” ordered the Leader.
“One vase of flowers fell over, the doves knocked it over – I have long told you that you should exterminate them because they have dirtied me all over, even on my upraised hand.”
“Argh, what are the priests of the church and the bishop doing, they will pay for this!” growled the snake from his throne.
“Do not punish them, they are loyal to you, they always bow to me. The bishop cleaned me himself, and the priest washed my hand, and sent his son to pick up the vase.”
“Well what was so terrible then?” asked the Leader.
“Only now am I getting to the point. The priest’s son picked up the flowers – I thought he was bowing to me – when he spit on me and said, “I renounce you, all of your works, and service to you.”
“Ah! That is that soul,” roared the snake, “Which I sensed had not received the Mark. Where is that fool? I look through the walls of his father’s home, but I can see him nowhere. Where is he, who hid him?”
The young man flinched violently and I hugged him firmly.
“Fear not,” I said, “I have heard how Our Lord God Jesus Christ hides His servants. He is more powerful than all of them. Let us now pray to Him to reveal our way to us, His faithful children, so that we may pass through this deep darkness.”
We prayed, made the sign of the cross, and turned to the East, and no one noticed us. We found ourselves in a dry river bed. Long we walked towards the East. On the way we picked up clay, made the sign of the cross over it, and ate it. Our water was the Word of God. I told the young John that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself will appear to us from the East, but beforehand the sign of the Precious Life-giving Cross will appear across the entire sky so that all peoples will see it. Some will weep while others will rejoice.
Thus with God’s help we found the catacombs. How we inexpressibly thanked God when we heard from the depths of the caves, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the heavens, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!”
Immediately I realized - it was the Holy Liturgy. And I truly felt the eternal words of the Lord, “I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Hieromonk Sava Bogdan
Hieromonk Sava Bogdan
Written on the evening of the 14th of May 2009 on which we celebrate the memory of Martyr Isodore, Venerable Nikita of Novgorod, and St. John the Bulgarian