Death in the Church Yard / Christian Life

September 28, 2017
Source: Elena Kucherenko

As the evening service was over and people walked out of the church, they saw Michael lying by the fence. The priest urged someone to call the ambulance and left for an urgent on-call duty. The medical team came, examined him and said: ”He is simply drunk, take care of him yourselves.” And so the people thought: ”Nothing wrong. He will get sober and walk back home.“ And only much later, someone would all of a sudden remember how he has not only called for the priest, but also cried out “Lord! Oh, Lord!” Elena Kucherenko speaks about the tragic fate of a former heretic.

I have met a lot of praise-worthy Orthodox priests, true champions of faith. More so, I’ve got to know many lay people who were aspiring to live a godly life.

I really enjoy writing about those simple and humble people living their rarely spotless lives. I savor the “church” stories with the happy ending, even though a few end otherwise, as their closing lines turn out tragic and bitter. We’ve got to share those, too…

Michael was not among my friends. We just used to greet each other and exchange a few words with one another. Many knew him in his small town where he was from.

He was once a fierce follower of one of the local Pentecostal holiness “churches” and got himself through a rather decent “career” there. His actions were of a classic preacher of a charismatic movement. Michael would “preach” on the streets to the passers by and get creepily thrilled from doing it. He spoke “in tongues”, laughed the “holy laughter” and abhorred Orthodoxy. Until the day he met Fr. Dimitry. Michael fell on preaching to someone from among father’s spiritual kin who eventually sent him over to have a talk with Father: ”We’ll see who takes over there.”

They met frequently. A heretic and a priest. I have no idea what they were talking about but, as a result, Michael became a parishioner and baptized three of his children with Fr. Dimitry. He made the priest very satisfied while his own wife Ira was truly rejoiced since she was about to leave him because of the ill effects his financially draining preaching engagements had on their family.

“Few are aware of the fact how painful it is to live with people like him,” – Ira used to say.
“We brought a carload of pseudo-Christian printed resources from Mishka’s apartment and burned it at the woods nearby,” – said Fr. Dimitry.

Michael grew fond of father, took his whole family to all the services, and would drive with him to the festal church services to other nearby churches so often that Fr. Dimitry got some scolding from his church officials. So to speak, a heretic, his mug well known, quit confusing people. And they were quite confused at first. Some old women would avoid him like plague. When, at one time, a priest blessed Michael to read the Gospels, one of the fiercest of them jumped to tear the book away from his hands screaming: ”Don’t desecrate it!” Another Orthodox mom prohibited her kids from even getting close to Michael’s kids. Just in case.

“He used to have this syndrome of a heretic – overly emotional, forceful and feeling high. At the same time, living in anguish. He knew he will face tough challenges on his path towards God,” – said Fr. Dimitry.

Few could understand and accept it. Having arrived where he hoped to find love, peace and truth, where he sought help, Michael felt terribly lonely there. It is a real miracle he persisted and stayed in church.

Eventually, the church life got easier for Michael. He helped around a lot, volunteering at the church construction site. People got to like him; he was a kind and nice fellow. Soon after, though, Fr. Dimitry was transferred to another town. This particular church had another priest as its rector. He was a good priest, as well, but it took awhile for him to figure out who is who there. He did not have too much time to care for everything and everyone, either. In the evenings, after construction work was over, the parishioners who assisted there would go for a cup of tea or a glass of wine to someone’s house. Occasionally, they had something stronger that tea.

“Michael was not supposed to drink at all,” – Fr. Dimitry recalled. – Long ago, he went cold turkey. The fact that the Orthodox Church does not prohibit moderate drinking was really harmful to him. He had trouble keeping it under control.”

The new rector, unlike Fr. Dimitry, who looked after him closely, was unaware of it. Those among his fellow parishioners who were in the know considered it his own private affair. Gradually, Michael got himself into drinking. Sadly, he knew no measure.

On top of it, he decided to become a priest.

“Fresh converts frequently see themselves as priests, priest’s wives, monks, or elders,” – Fr. Dimitry would share later. – With Michael, it became an obsession, since he was a former “preacher.” He would come for advice in this matter but I tried to talk him out of it.”

A new priest just scolded him as he would a schoolboy – quit falling into delusion etc. etc.

“The enemy sneaked up oh him when everything seemed to be well, when he thought he found God and his own parish, – Fr. Dimitry bitterly recalled. – Drinking, having those obsessive thoughts about priesthood – I guess that’s when he finally broke down. And we failed to notice it at first.”

Initially, Michael would drink “quietly.” Then, he would often come drunk to the services. He was asked to leave at first to be chased away later. He would drink more, often standing and shouting something from behind the churchyard gates. On one occasion, someone called in the police. After this incident, Michael disappeared. He returned a few months later, drunk. He literally crawled into the church. The service was on. He called out a priest loudly saying he is not well. Someone from the parishioners came out saying: ”Go away, take a nap first!” He kept on calling and calling.

Then, as the service was over and people walked out of the church, they saw Michael lying by the fence. The priest urged someone to call the ambulance and left for an urgent on-call duty. The medical team came, examined him and said: ”He is simply drunk, take care of him yourselves.” And so the people thought: ”Nothing wrong. He will get sober and walk back home.“ Michael died a few hours later. Right here, by the church.

He was left there by the ambulance and his parish.

Someone would later recall that he has not only called for the priest, but also cried out “Lord! Oh, Lord!”

A man, dying, even if drunk, crawled with his last strength to the church, to God. And there was no one who would believe him.

Not many were present at Michael’s funeral. Those few who came looked perplexed. They were there too, at that church service, held before Michael’s death. They knew something horrific happened. With them, as well.

Irina sobbed uncontrollably and would not let anyone cover the coffin. At the cemetery later, his three kids – a boy of twelve and two girls of seven and four, would keep on dropping their letters to him: ”Daddy, come back! We love you!” And there were drawings of a blue sky, the sun, and a happy family, with mom and dad and three kids – all smiling and holding hands.

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