Seek First the Kingdom of God - The Life of Fr. Arseny
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“Fr. Arseny helped so many people that we, looking at him, began helping others. How did I become a believer?” noted a former communist atheist, “After watching Fr. Arseny for a long time, how could I NOT become what he was! He was a light in unbearable darkness!”
This testimony came from a former Communist and die-heart atheist from the Soviet Union, a political prisoner who suffered in the worst prison camps of Siberia back in the 1940s and 50s. In this unimaginable camp of hell and utter darkness, this proud intellectual came to faith through the witness and life of Fr. Arseny. Today, I want to share with you as my sermon one of the most inspiring biographies I’ve ever read, about a man who proved that divine love is greater than the worst evil of history. In fact, Fr. Arseny offers a concrete example of how love can transform the world around him; how a person open to the grace and presence of God can bring about a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth!
“Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven” Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel lesson. Fr. Arseny epitomizes this desire to prioritize God and His Kingdom at the center of one’s life. He was a Russian intellectual, a famous art historian and a prolific writer, who during the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, when the communists martyred more than 600 bishops, 40,000 clergy and 120,000 monastics, along with threatening and persecuting all believers, during this dangerous and difficult time, Arseny the art historian and intellectual decided to become a priest.
Why would a famous and prolific writer endanger not only his career, but moreso his life, by becoming a priest during this insane period of history? The answer is quite simple – Fr. Arseny was “seeking first the kingdom of God.” He longed to fulfill the will of God, no matter what the cost. He discovered the “pearl of great price” which Jesus describes in the Gospels, and willing sold everything he had in order to buy the field possessing the hidden treasure of faith!
Thus, Fr. Arseny became a priest at this most dangerous time in history, and after a few years, a KGB spy who posed as his spiritual child, reported him and sent him to the Siberian gulag for the next 25 years of his life. Imagine, 25 years of unbearable, tortuous suffering. Most prisoners never survived 10 years in the Siberian prisons, no less 25 years. The prison guards made life miserable for the prisoners, demanding backbreaking and endless labor, torturing them, humiliating them, taking away their dignity and squashing any hope they had to survive. Basically, the purpose of these camps was to kill people, but in a gradual, demonic way. And in the end, millions and millions of people died in the Siberian camps.
Fr. Arseny, however, allowed his suffering to strengthen and forge his faith. He became a blazing fire of divine love shining in the midst of hell’s deepest darkness. His love and faith gave hope to others, transforming the lives of so many who crossed his path. Over the years, die-heart communists, ardent atheists, hardened criminals and murderers, prison guards, and even the lieutenant of the prison camp, came to faith and some even became spiritual children of Fr. Arseny. The most amazing conversion, however, was the KGB spy herself who turned Fr. Arseny in and led to his arrest. Years later, after his release from prison, this spy repented and turned back to God, actually becoming a favorite spiritual child of his!
How did these radical conversions occur? Fr. Arseny led people to a living and dynamic relationship with God through the power and example of his life. Fr. Arseny was first and foremost a man of unceasing prayer and communion with God. Day and night he was praying the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner. After a typical 14 hour day of tortuous labor in the Siberian wasteland, when all others would try to get a few hours of sleep, he would stand by his bunk praying and regaining his strength from Almighty God. This deep communion with our Lord led him to live a life of sacrificial and divine love for others. He believed that the most important thing in life was to be kind to others by alleviating their pain and suffering.
We can see one small example of his love when he witnessed a fierce fight between two groups of prisoners, the hardened criminals and the political prisoners. The criminals had already killed two political prisoners, and were beating to death a third one, a young student. Now, the prison camps had an understood law that no prisoner should ever enter into another’s fight, for if they did so, the warring prisoners had the right to kill the intruder. But as Fr. Arseny watched this horrible scene, praying constantly, he felt impelled by God to jump into the middle of the fight and shout, “In the name of God stop fighting.” He then pulled the half-dead student away from the criminals, as the perpetrators of the fight surprisingly walked away without a word. This was a scene the prisoners had never witnessed before.
Fr. Arseny exemplified the power of prayer and union with God! This is what happens when one seeks first the kingdom of God above all else.
Following that incident and false testimonies from the criminals, prison guards took Fr. Arseny and the young student he saved, and placed them in solitary confinement. Both men were placed in an outside six feet by three feet box, whose walls and floor were made of metal sheets. The weather outside was -22 degrees F, and the prison guards knew that no one could survive in this metal box for more than 10-20 hours without literally freezing to death. When the guards left them in this solitary confinement of death, the student prisoner was sure they would die. Fr. Arseny, however, began fervently praying, and even teaching the young student, who was an atheist himself, how to pray. As they prayed, a bright light and warmth surrounded them, so that when the guards returned 48 hours later, sure that the two corpses would be frozen stiff, they were shocked to discover Fr. Arseny and the student alive and warm!
Seek first the Kingdom of God! This is the power of prayer and union with God!
Fr. Arseny’s life of extreme asceticism through suffering led him to love others unconditionally. He always tried to help the most desperate of prisoners. He gave his ration of food at times, cared for the sick during his few hours of rest, and never expected anything in return. His theology was to be gentle and loving to others, while always firm with himself!
Despite the inhumane conditions of the camps, where death and hopelessness abounded, Fr. Arseny learned to accept that wherever one is, that is the will of God. He would say, “God gave us this portion of suffering for now, so we must learn to see God’s will in the midst of it, and learn to make the most of it!” By the end of his 25 years in prison, Fr. Arseny could honestly admit that he was grateful for the camp experience, because he understood it as his path of salvation, his spiritual self-emptying through which he grew closer to Christ!
Fr Arseny also learned through various experiences that all people have goodness deep within themselves. He understood that the call and challenge for every Christian was to find the good in others, no matter how little existed, and then to fan that spark of goodness and faith until it grew into a burning fire.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us “To seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” The life and witness of Fr. Arseny, a modern-day saint who lived in a hell unimaginable to most of is, testifies to the treasure of this Kingdom. When we seek first the Kingdom of God, we may suffer and we may face daunting challenges, but we will experience the presence of God, the power of faith, the force of divine love, and the joy of God’s Kingdom like never before!
Fr. Arseny sought the Kingdom of God, and then brought the Kingdom of God to the world around him. The divine love he possessed acted as a light that gave people hope in humanity and hope in the future, even when they faced the darkest hell full of suffering, evil and death! May we each allow the life of Fr. Arseny to inspire us in our own journey’s toward seeking the Kingdom of God!