One day Sazikov came in, remained standing, seemed at a loss for words, spoke about this and that, and suddenly said, “Father Arseny! If you allow me, I would like you to hear my confession. I can see that my end is near, I will never leave this camp, and I carry a load of sins, a very heavy load.”
It is difficult to have an hour or two to your self in camp. They watch you all the time, which is one reason that his camp is called “special.” But Sazikov still managed to come to Fr. Arseny for confession. They were alone, the two of them. There were about two hours left until the next roll call. If they were found alone together both would be sent to the punishment cell for at least five days. This they both knew.
Seraphim knelt; he was moved, he was lost. Father Arseny put his hand on the man’s head and started to pray. He was entirely absorbed in prayer. A few minutes went by. Seraphim started to speak, at first inconsistently in fits and starts. He was very tense. Father stayed silent. He did not direct Sazikov, did not help him, he listened and prayed, knowing that a man must find himself without help. He had heard the confession of many people during his stay in this camp, but hearing the confession of an experiences and “hopeless” criminal was certainly a rare event.
Most of the criminals who had come with their confession were people who had lost everything, whose soul was desolate, empty. Conscience, love, truth, faith in anything had already been long gone. They were smashed, stained with blood, cruelty and debauchery. Their past gave them no joy, but it scared them. They were unable to tear themselves away from the company of those like themselves and therefore they lived to their final days in cruelty and anger with no hope for anything in this camp. Before them lay only death or a successful escape.
Their confessions, when they occurred, were always alike. While their childhoods were different one from the other, all the rest was similar: robbery, murder, revelry, debauchery, and above all, the fear of being caught. Depending on the person, the depth of his fall did differ. Some understood what they were doing but could not stop, and sank deeper and deeper; others were proud of what they had done and continued living in violence and blood, considering their lives right and heroic; they delighted in making others suffer. Other criminals, as they aged, started to think about their lives, but could not decide what to do. Seraphim had seen the depth of his fall and had tried to stop it, but could not find a way out of the world of criminals.
Father Arseny knew this.
Sazikov spoke, but his confession did not flow. On his way to his confession he had thought about what he would say and how he would say it, but now he forget all of that; he was confused. He wanted to be absolutely sincere, but he could not speak from his soul. His confession lost contact with his soul and became a story. Father Arseny saw this and understood it, but he wanted Seraphim to win the battle himself, through his own effort. He had to win the battle over the past, and by doing so to open a path to the present.
Nervous, agitated, and sobbing openly, Seraphim spoke, but his confession still did not flow from his soul. There was such battle between his past and his present that Father Arseny felt that Seraphim needed help, he needed the proverbial straw, which in spite, being thin and fragile, can save the drowning man who grasps at it. And father Arseny held this “straw” out to him saying, “Remember how this woman was beginning you to take pity on her, and you did not; and remember how later you were ashamed of yourself.”
And in a flash Seraphim understood that Father Arseny saw and knew everything about him. He did not have to choose words to show himself. He simply had to be unafraid to open his soul and father Arseny would see, understand, and weigh everything. He would them say if it was possible to forgive Seraphim.
Seraphim finished his confession, having surrendered his whole soul and his very self into the hands of Father Arseny. He was still kneeling and his face was wet with tears. For the first time in his life he had opened himself up fully, he had shown his whole life, and was awaiting the verdict, the punishment, and the blame. Bending over Seraphim, Father Arseny prayed and could not find the simple words he needed to cleanse and give light and direction to this man in his newly realized life.
The confession had been so sincere and the awareness of his sinfulness so full, yet he had committed so many horrors, his crimes had made so many people suffer and had caused so much misery; of all this was mixed together and Father Arseny had to measure, weigh, separate things one for another, evaluating the weight of it all.
The priest Arseny, who could forgive and absolve this sinner in the name of God, was now at war with the man Arseny who was unable as a human being to accept, acknowledge and forgive all that Seraphim had done. “O Lord, my God! Give me strength to know Thy will. Help me show the way to Seraphim, help him to find himself. O Mother of God! Help both of us sinners. Help us, O Lord!”
As he prayed he understood that he should say nothing, he should weigh and decide nothing. The confession Seraphim, a man who had lost his ties with God, had been so deep and sincere, had bared his soul and had found Him and from now on would walk towards Him. For all his evil deeds, Seraphim would answer directly to God at the last judgment and to himself, in his own conscience.
Father Arseny stood up and, pressing Seraphim’s head to his own chest, said, “I, the unworthy Priest Arseny, by the power bestowed unto me, do forgive and absolve you from all your sins, Seraphim. Do good to people and God will forgive many of your sins. Go and live in peace, and God will show you the way.”
Having finished hearing the confession and having embraced Seraphim, Father Arseny, as if foreseeing the future, pronounced, “I will not leave you as long as you live, Seraphim. God will help us.”
After this, invisible ties united Father Arseny and Seraphim Sazikov forever.
An excerpt from the book, Father Arseny, an account of the Soviet Gulag. Fr. Arseny can be purchased at Saint Vladimir’s Press.