We continue to acquaint you with the everyday saints of the 20th century. Our narrative today will centre on Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly (Sidorenko). Already as a child, he had a greater affinity for the Kingdom in Heaven than his abode on earth. For his numerous ascetic feats, the Lord endowed him with numerous priceless gifts. He took on the feat of a fool-for-Christ. He conquered every evil with humility, thanked all his enemies and always loved his neighbour more than himself. He personified the untold depth and breadth of the Gospel and inspired others to perform impressive feats in the service of Christ.
Starting the ascent to sanctity
Vitaly Sidorenko was born in 1928 to a poor peasant family from Russia’s Krasnodarsky Kray. Already as an infant, he revealed himself as God’s chosen. Throughout his baptism, he never stopped smiling, and the priest who baptised him was overwhelmed with grace. When the sacrament was over, he said to the boy’s parents, “He will become a great man when he grows up.” Yet, from infancy, he also suffered much torment from the devil who acted through his paternal grandmother and sisters. Sometimes, they did not let his mother leave the garden to breastfeed the infant. The boy’s patience made them even more wrathful. They scolded the boy and threw him on the floor.
Vitaly always remembered his parents with great love. His father, a kind and merciful man died young in the war. His ascetic exploits angered his mother, and she beat him harshly until he bled. But he always forgave.
He fasted from five years of age. He ate no meat and did not take any milk on Wednesdays and Fridays. He learned to read at eight, but he had no interest in reading anything except the Gospel. He often read it aloud to the other children and silently at night. He grew to love prayer and church worship as a small child. At first, He walked on long walks in the field to pray alone. Eventually, he built himself a secret hiding place in the garden. On weekends and public holidays, he always ran away from his work at the collective farm, and he never received any pay for his work because of this habit. His prayers once gave healing to a herd of cows; and on another occasion, helped pull a tractor out of an abandoned well. He continued to preach Christ to his teachers and peers until he was expelled at grade 7 for making a critical remark about Stalin.
Disciple of the elders of Glinskaya Pustyn
At age 14, Vitaly took upon himself the feat of pilgrimage. He tore up his newly issued passport, consciously choosing a life of trials. After a brief stay at the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius Lavra, he received the blessing to join the brethren of Glinskaya Pustyn. There, he ascetised from 1948 as a disciple of three elders: Schema-Archimandrite Seraphim (Amelin), schema-Hegumen Andronik (Lukash) and Hieroschemamonk Seraphim, who became his spiritual father for many years to come. Living among strict ascetics, he quickly learned to practise the feat of obedience. At times, Hieroschemamonk Seraphim asked him to answer letters from his spiritual children on his behalf. Little by little, he also began to ascetise as a fool-for-Christ, eating pig wash on occasion or giving away to the poor things from the hegumen’s cell. One winter day, as he was kneeling in forgetfulness on a frozen lake, Father Andronik came to rescue him after the Mother of God called him out in a vision. The young man’s legs froze into the ice so deeply that the brethren had to use pickaxes to put him on his knees.
The feat of pilgrimage in Taganrog
Without a passport or registration, Vitaly had a hassle everywhere. To escape the close control from the Soviet authorities, he moved to Taganrog in 1961. There, he travelled around the holy sites staying at the houses of the faithful. His lay sister, Seraphima Dyachenko, remembers, “We travelled with no money or a change of clothes. Sometimes, we would spend the night in the field, prayed and walked on.”
Vitaly always wore his inner cassock, and the police often stopped him. One night, several policemen confronted Vitaly and asked for his passport. He bowed to them, kissed them on their shoulders and said to them, warmly, “You are our guardian angels, our protectors.” Surprised, the officers let him go asking him to pray for them. Vitaly spoke of his other encounters with the police as if they were visitations from the angels: “They took me, taught me a lesson, and then patted me on my head and back so I would become a good Christian.” In reality, however, the encounters were not as peaceful as he described. At the police, he often suffered serious beatings, and on one occasion he almost lost his wife. After that memorable brush with the law, he ended up on a hospital bed. The doctors pronounced him dead, but the next morning he came around and chanted the paschal canon from the mortuary.
In the hospital, he was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis. The doctors believed it was from spending too many nights sleeping outside in the winter. The doctors gave him no chances, but by the miracle of God, he recovered. In the hospital, Vitaly also prayed for other patients who were seriously ill, and they recovered also.
Ascetising in the highlands of Abhasia
When the authorities closed down Glinskaya Pustyn, its elders continued to ascetise in the mountains of Abkhazia. Father Vitaly, who by that time had received tonsure to a rasophore, followed them to the mountains. He had taken on the exploit of fool-for-Christ and was the target of derisive jokes from the other brethren who took him for mad. Yet Father Vitaly accepted all his trials with humility and used every opportunity to make peace.
Sometimes, the devil seduced the local hunters to attack the monks, and the authorities never prosecuted those who did. Father Vitaly narrowly escaped his death at the hands of a forest ranger. He fired his gun at him twice, but the gun misfired both times. When he pulled the trigger for the third time, he missed. The ranger left the scene puzzled, but monk Vitaly found him later to give him a bag of sweets.
Soon, Father Vitaly was tonsured as a Stavrophore with the name Benedict, and then, secretly, to the schema with the name Vitaly.
When the KGB began to hunt down the ascetics in the mountains, Father Vitaly’s spiritual father gave him the blessing to move to Tbilisi.
Overcoming trials in Tbilisi
Father Vitaly lived in Georgia from 1969, along with many other elders from Glinskaya Pustyn. One of them, Metropolitan Zinovy (Mazhuga) became his close friend. He supplied him with new clothes and put him up in the flat of a monastic sister. Because the police had resumed the persecution of Vitaly, he had to get himself a passport to avoid imprisonment. The passport gave Father Vitaly greater freedom to meet his spiritual children whom he had been mentoring since his days in Taganrog.
In 1976, he received ordination as a hieromonk and began his service at the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Tbilisi.
His ascetic years in the highlands impacted his health. The pains in his stomach became so intense that he had to jump and run around outside the church to conceal his torment. Finally, Metropolitan Zinovy sent Father Vitaly to hospital. There, he had a difficult surgery. During the surgery, he recalled seeing a vision of St. Theodore Stratelates and Martyr Irina who came to the aid of the doctors. He also related to his confessor that he had been to heaven and seen the Holy Virgin, who commanded him to go back to earth to answer the tearful prayers of thousands of believers. After his miraculous recovery, Elder Vitaly resumed his service at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Father Vitaly took heart in serving church offices and the Liturgy. He spent hours reading the commemoration and prayer notes for Russian and Georgian statesmen, patriarchs and other prominent people from the beginning of Christianity. The devil must have found his reading hateful. He came to Schimandrite Vitaly and promised to take revenge. Afterwards, he had much slander and numerous false accusations levelled against him and was nearly defrocked. He was accused of sorcery, heresy, fornication, baptism of the dead and other indecent acts, and many believed the accusations. But Father Zinovy always prayed for him and gave him his protection. For his part, Father Vitaly forgave all his accusers and prayed on his knees to the Holy Virgin, “O Most Holy Theotokos, you see that I am not a heretic!”
His intercessions delivered many from spiritual and physical death and gave strength and reassurance in the faith to all who came. When someone praised him for his far-sightedness, he became shy and began to scold himself for his voracious appetite. On one occasion, he explained his shyness as follows: “How easy do you think it is to be far-sighted, seeing someone going full speed to their destruction? How must you feel when you know how to help him, but also see him turn down your offer? Far-sightedness causes me great pain”. Father Vitaly had a great love for others. He liked to say, “Where there is love, the walls will come apart.”
One example of his intercessions stands out among a host of his other feats of asceticism and prayer. In 1991, Father Vitaly was living in Didube, a small village around a railway station. A military train full of ammunition was parked at the station. Suddenly, its cargo began to explode. At the first sound of the explosion, Father Vitaly raised the Fedorov Icon of the Mother of God and carried it to an open space at the top of the hill overlooking the station. He asked his companions, a priest and two nuns, to say Jesus’ prayer, and nothing else. He raised the icon high above his head and made the sign of the cross over the exploding ammunition. The exploding rounds did not hit the village, and no one was hurt.
Departure and afterlife
Father Vitaly knew the day and hour of his departure to the Lord. Several days before his death, he had partial paralysis. He could not speak, but he was glowing with inner grace and joy. The elder prayed incessantly, crossed himself frequently and took communion each day. On the day before his death, the Mother of God appeared to him in a vision. Schimandrite Vitaly was in great pain, but he remained calm and did not complain. He departed on 1 December 1992.
Several years before his death, he made this promise, “For the tears of the sisters I will hold our my hand from my grave.” When they were putting the book with the prayer of forgiveness in his hand, his great finger opened and closed. It happened on the eve of the departure of Saint Alexander Nevsky, whom the elder revered with great ardour. The same miraculous event accompanied the death of Saint Alexander Nevsky.
The body of Schimandrite Vitaly was laid to rest inside the fence of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral opposite the altar. The stream of visitors to his grave has not stopped to this day. The people keep coming to ask the elder for reassurance and healing, and he always responds to their pleas. By the prayers of Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly, Lord have mercy on us!