Once I Knew A Saint
Once Knew a Saint...His name is Father Vladimir Borichevsky.
The Arena is a brilliant book on the spiritual life, written by a Russian bishop named Ignatius Brianchaninov, at the end of the Nineteenth Century. What I remember most from that book is a comment that, if we are really lucky, we will meet one person in this life who we could really call 'holy.' What makes someone holy?
Is it the ability to go sixty days without eating? Is it the ability to have us shaking in our boots with the prospect of going to hell? Is it the ability to chant like an angel? I don't think so. I have met my holy person, and I would like to tell you a little about him.
His name is Father Vladimir Borichevsky. He was a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, and the Dean of Faculty at St. Tikhon's Seminary, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was married, and had nine children. He lived in an old farmhouse, with an outdoor pump that didn't pump, and a rickety barn that was a breath of a wind away from giving up the ghost. The walls of his house were a lifetime collecting second-hand books. 'It's what he spends all our money on,' was his wife's invariable complaint, always delivered with a little feigned irritation and a lot of pride. 'And he knows exactly where every one of them is!' 'But I never buy new books,' was his invariable defense. He probably never made more than seventy-five hundred dollars a year and he was terminally content with his lot.
In the middle of the 1980's, I spent a year at St. Tikhon's. I first met Father Vladimir early in the year, before the leaves began to turn color and give us a foliage that almost makes up for the brutal winters in that northeast corner of Pennsylvania. I was coming out of church on a Sunday, and he made some remark to me about baseball. I was stunned. This was a seminary! I hadn't come to talk about baseball. I had come here with the intention of learning how to be an ordained servant of God. In fact, the first three times I met him, baseball is what he wanted to talk about. I couldn't believe it. Who was this bozo? That was my exact thought. He didn't introduce himself as a dean, he didn't introduce himself at all, and, while I had heard his name before, no one ever seemed to talk about him.
Three months later, I asked Father Vladimir to become my spiritual father. For the rest of the year, whether it was freezing or the air was thick with flies, every Sunday, I would walk four miles to his house and four miles back, just to sit on his porch and speculate with him about when his leaning barn would finally fall down. Whatever Father Vladimir did, whatever he said, was holy. Even when he talked about baseball. Or the weather. Or animals. God knows we students tried to distract him from our lessons, and we almost always succeeded, but we usually left his class with a sense of wonderment, feeling that, even if it wasn't from a book, we had learned all we had come to learn.
Time seemed to be particularly gracious to this man. It stretched to allow him to have time for everyone - and not just time, but to make you feel like if you wanted to talk for a week, he would listen and his other appointments could wait. I don't know how many times during Great Lent, his wife would come out of the church, feigning anger, to interrupt the two of us in our walk and tell us to 'Get inside, Father! He's terrible, isn't he, John?' This 'terrible' man was interested in everyone and everything. He was like a magnet. If anything in you - or in the community - was out of alignment, he set it right. His simple presence gave order to chaos, and dispelled any lingering bitterness with the gentle touch of his ever-present love. If people were arguing, and Father Vladimir walked past, the rough places were made straight, and the disputants forgot why they were arguing in the first place. If you had a problem, or if you came to him for confession, his calm voice and what he told you would make you feel healed before you said even a word. Father Vladimir almost made confession irrelevant.
Father Vladimir wasn't a Pollyanna. He was a refuge of constant caring in the midst of confusing and sometimes-violent change - what the Church should be, but too often isn't. Like was Kipling's hero, he kept his head while those about him were losing theirs. He was exactly what Seraphim of Sarov had in mind when he said, 'Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls will be saved around you.' My favorite picture of the priest is a photo he posed for with the bishop and the rest of the seminary staff. The bishop is standing front row center, in full regalia, holding his rod of office, and staring straight at the camera. The faculty, all clearly aware of the bishop, have arranged themselves on either side and behind him. Father Vladimir is next to the bishop. His head is on his chest, and he appears to be asleep!
On Palm Sunday that year, I made about a hundred palm crosses to pass out after church. Palm crosses are Greek. Russians use sprigs of pussy willow, since in Russia there are no palms. As I entered the church with my crosses, a priest stopped me, and forbade me from bringing them inside. We cocked our guns in our holsters. At that moment, Father Vladimir appeared at the entrance the church. He strode inside and said 'Good morning' to both of us in an everyday baritone that flowed as 'softly as the waters of Siloam.' On the breast of his black robe was not one, but two, palm crosses!
The man was just too good. I had to find his weakness, to make him more like me, so that I would not have to try to be more like him. I found one. When he talked about abortion, he got angry. Aha! I had him! Imagine if that were your only weakness.
The year after I left the seminary, I drove up to St. Tikhon's from New York to visit Father Vladimir. With me was my Jewish girlfriend. Father Vladimir and his wife greeted me as if it was Sunday, and I had just walked over from the seminary. The four of us sat in his living room for about an hour, eating lunch among all the objects that had once aroused Father Vladimir's curiosity, and which he had just never thrown away - just like he never threw out any person who came to see him. Finally, he asked me if I wanted to make my confession. I nodded and we went upstairs. He put his epitrakhelion over my head, and spoke whatever he felt in his heart. He finished and, as usual, I had almost nothing to say. I just felt grateful and humble and forgiven. On the way downstairs, I stopped. I turned and asked him if he would hear my friend's confession. (I had raised the possibility with her on the drive up.)
'She's Jewish,' he said. I nodded. 'I've been a priest for fifty years,' he laughed, ' and I've never heard a Jew's confession. But why not? I can't give her absolution, but I can say a general prayer over her.' They went upstairs. It was an hour and a quarter later before they came down. It was clear that in that brief time together they had become great friends.
As we drove away, with an invitation to return any time, I asked my friend how 'it' had been. 'He is incredible,' she answered. 'But, you know, in a way, it was really unnecessary. He answered every question I had before we went upstairs - while we were all sitting in the living room.' She paused. 'And, you know what else he told me?' she continued. 'What?' 'He said to me, Thank you for making John - human.'
Father Vladimir died after I had been in California for a few years, on September 4, 1991. He was seventy years old. At 9 o'clock on the night of September 5th, I picked up my phone and heard the voice of Father Mark, who had been my best friend at seminary and was now the priest in at St. Demetrius, in Scranton. As soon as he said hello, I replied, 'Father Vladimir's dead, isn't he?' He had died of cancer in a hospital in Scranton. He refused medication even though he was in terrible pain. The doctor said he had never seen anything like it - that he died 'like he was watching television.' He was completely lucid to the end. A few minutes before he passed away, Father Vladimir released his wife's hand. He took Father Mark's hand, and placed it on his heart. 'Find John,' he calmly told him. 'He needs you.'
Father Mark didn't have my phone number, he didn't know where I was, and he didn't even know where to start looking. He still doesn't know how he managed to find me. But I know. He found me because Father Vladimir has never died.
Editor's Note: Richard John Friedlander is the ecclesiarch of the Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, California, a professional mediator and arbitrator, and a contributor to Orthodox Christian News Service. He has been a tonsured Reader in the Orthodox Church for seventeen years. His spiritual travel book, "The Techno-Monks of Mount Athos," will be released by the Creative Arts Publishing Company in the Spring of 2003.