Feast of Venerable Onuphrius the Great
IT IS EXTRAORDINARILY difficult to describe the extraordinary events we four who took care of Father Sergius witnessed during his illness, and the inner experience that we received during the “forty days” of his illness. But to us what we saw—this gift, undeserved like all of God’s gifts—shines for us in all the difficult moments of our lives. How can we be dejected, how can we lack faith after what has been shown to us? And it is necessary to bear witness to this to the glory of God.
The stroke occurred on the night from the 5th to the 6th of June, Monday to Tuesday, after the feast day of the Spirit. On the eve of this feast day, as always on this day which was the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, Father Sergius performed the liturgy in an especially inspired manner.
After the liturgy, Father Sergius invited everyone to tea in his quarters. Several tables were placed in his study, and traditional refreshment was set out. He wished to do this very well, inasmuch there was always something holy in this, a continuation of the “common task” of the liturgy, in ordinary life, in the everyday human community. As always, he shared his thoughts, and to some extent his reminiscences, with his friends. In the evening he came to my quarters to say goodnight. Could I have known that this was to be our final conversation!
At six in the morning his son Seryozha had to go to work, and I went down to make him coffee. I met him in the anteroom; he was in tears. He was coming out of his father’s study, and in response to my question, he waved in the direction of the study. I entered—Father Sergius was lying unconscious across the bed. We thought he was dead. The doctor assured us that neither his consciousness nor his speech center was affected by the stroke.
It is difficult to convey what we experienced the first week after his stroke. The intense life that was going on in him was mysteriously conveyed to us. We were literally transported together with him to planes of being that had been unknown to us. And this was not the personal experience of one or another of us, but an objective spiritual fact, which we shared with one another in practically identical words. If someone had asked us then whether we believe in the other life, the other world, or the immortality of the soul, we would have answered that we almost “know” them. These realities were of the same magnitude as the reality of the visible world, and perhaps one should rather have asked whether we believe in the visible world.
From early morning on Saturday, I sat by his bed and was struck by how his face constantly kept changing expression, as if some mysterious conversation was being carried on. The expression of his face reflected an intense inner life. Not only did his face keep changing, but it was becoming more luminous and joyous. The expressions of agonizing concentration that would previously occur from time to time were now completely replaced by a childlike expression. I did not at once notice a new phenomenon on his face: an amazing illuminatedness. But when I turned to one of the others standing around him in order to share some impressions of mine, one of the others suddenly said: “Look, look!” We were witnesses to an amazing spectacle: Father Sergius’ face had become completely illuminated. It was a single mass of real light. One would not have been able to say what the features of his face were like at this time: his face was a mass of light. But, at the same time, this light did not erase or obliterate the features of his face.
The stirring contemplation of mountains illuminated in the rays of the setting sun… It appears that, of all the phenomena of nature, this one provoked the greatest joy in Father Sergius. It was as if (and it was so in fact) in this light he sought the unfading Light. And so, “it is finished.” The elements of flesh and spirit, which had been separated by man’s sin and limitedness, by his blindness, merged in the final tremulous shining of the Light on Father Sergius’ face. And not as a reflection (for the weather was cloudy and rainy) but from within, spirit and flesh shined out together.
—Sister Joanna Reitlinger, The Final Days of Father Sergius Bulgakov