At some stage in their lives, people will encounter disability face to face. They will react differently – some with pity, others with compassion, and even pain. Some will offer their help. But people with disability are often gifted with an exceptional ability for compassion and empathy. As elder Paisios of the Holy Mount has said, whoever sustains their physical afflictions and ills with gratitude to God are equal to saints and martyrs.
Nikolai, or ‘our Kolya’ – as many members of our parish called him – had cerebral palsy. He had great difficulty walking. Yet he would still travel against all odds to the Konstantin-Eleninsky Church, pray at the liturgy, and sometimes stay for the vespers service. He would not miss a single vigil.
The agitated whisper of the female parishioners always accompanied his arrival. “Look! Our Kolya, the darling Kolya! Each would try to give him a small coin, sweet, or a piece of treacle cake.
“Kolya, will you pray for my granddaughter, please? She is back at university.”
“Please say a prayer for Elena, my mother-in-law. She is very ill.”
“Kolya, darling, will you also pray for my son? He is having a drinking spree.”
They would always say this to him in a whisper. He would nod his head in agreement and reply: “May God save you.” In his nod, there was not a trace of inattention, neglect or arrogance; he nodded humbly and with concentration as if sending a message to everyone around him: ‘I will pray for all of you. I will not forget to mention in my prayers all the sinners, sufferers and wanderers. I promise.’ He took the treats and gifts that he was offered without pretence, but nobody ever saw him eat the sweets or munch away it the cake.
Before the liturgy, Nikolai did the rounds of all the church’s icons. He touched them as if they were his bosom friends or closest family. He prayed and crossed himself vehemently, and walked out to rest on a bench outside the church when the service was over. There, he was also approached by many more people with prayer requests, especially if they had not had time to ask him inside the church during the service. He would sit on the bench for hours, and people were coming to him all the time to give him something, ask him to pray or just to shake his hand. Outwardly, he looked unremarkable and frail, yet people were flocking to him; he attracted them like a magnet. It was even more surprising that he would often call a complete stranger by their name as he returned their greeting. “Good day, Kolya darling” “Good day, Marina,” he would reply, endearingly. He seemed to know the names of the people whom he had never met before. Sometimes, he would utter in his musings the few words that would answer a question that had kept someone sleepless for days. Examples were many and surprised none of the parishioners who had become accustomed to hearing God’s will from Nikolai.
The priests also asked Nikolai for is prayers. Why? “He suffered a lot,” they replied.
He also took prayer requests from monks. On the surface, it seems strange why the clergy would approach a common parishioner with their prayer requests, but their explanation was always the same: Nikolai has suffered a lot. They were right.
Nikolai’s life was full of sorrows. His mother died through the fault of her partner. Nikolai had to live with him through no choice of his own. He accepted this necessity as the will of God. Often, he would go to his mother’s grave and pray there. One day, a group of young people who happened to walk past saw him pray, and some of the young men pushed him against the fence. He fell with his face down and lost his eye.
At times, walking would become for Nikolai an almost impossible fear. He would have difficulty keeping his balance and would fall multiple times along his way. People would put him to his feet, he would walk a short distance and fall again. It would take him many falls to reach the church. When finally at church, he would sit down on the bench. He was visibly weak and in pain. After the worship service, Nikolai would rest outside for a while and walk back. Sometimes, he would lose his balance at church as he was kissing the icons. He would grasp the candelabrum as he fell. The burning candles would fall on him, and the oil from the lampion would pour on top. Humbly, he would rise to his feet with the help of the parishioners, tidy his clothes and continue his prayer. Never would he show any bitterness or disdain with his lot.
For years, the church’s parishioners and clergy continued to ask Nikolai for his prayer, which they believed had special value in the eyes of the Lord. One winter day, Nikolai did not come to church. He was absent for many days. Worried parishioners visited him at home. They were told that he had not been around, and his whereabouts were unknown. His relatives reported his disappearance to the police. The people at church prayed fervently for the disappeared Nikolai.
One day, a priest felt his presence in the altar. He had the hunch: Nikolai had been dead for forty days.
Another priest who had been asking Nikolai for his prayers also sensed Nikolai’s presence as he was taking out the fragments of the relics before a liturgy soon after the Feast of Nativity. He also realised that it was forty days since the departure of the righteous Nikolai. The priest shared his intuition with the other priests, and all decided, after some deliberation, to pray for the health of Nikolai, because to God, all are alive.
Nikolai’s body was found in a forest belt not far from the city. The police discovered it in spring when the deep snowbanks outside had melted. Forensic experts reconstructed the events that led to Nikolai’s martyrdom. A car hit him as he was walking on a winter day. He was unconscious but still alive when they dumped him in a forest belt where he died of his injuries and hypothermia. His body lay frozen in a snowbank.
Nikolai’s lived a life full of sorrows and died as a martyr, ” tested them like gold in a furnace, and accepted them as a perfect burnt offering” (Wisdom 3: 6). His life teaches us that for a true lover of God, there are no barriers to pleasing him. No physical infirmity can diminish the love of God in the soul of Christ’s faithful servant. He showed to all of us that when we do not come to church, attend the worship services or pray, our life difficulties are no excuse and that it is only our self-pity that stops us from doing the right thing. “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4: 13), teaches Apostle Paul. Nikolai proved the truth of his words by following God throughout his life in his soul and body.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds