Bishop Barnabas (Belyaev) was a monk, bishop, hermit, ascetic writer, candidate of theology, and a fool for Christ. It was as though his life had been split into “before” and “after”. He received an excellent education, became a monk, and was ordained a bishop at a young age. However, he lost his rank, became a fool for Christ, spent time in a mental hospital and served a term of many years in a prison camp. He lived the latter portion of his life alone. Most people knew him as Uncle Kolya, a shortened version of his given name. He worked nearly all his life, and his writings -preserved mostly as diary entries or oral and written testimonies of people who knew him personally – are repositories of insightful ideas and observations about his time, the years gone by, the people and the Christian faith.
Before the feat of foolishness
The Bishop-to-be was born in 1887. He received monastic tonsure and ordination to the priesthood in 1911. He studied at the Moscow Theological Academy, became a Candidate of Theology in 1915, was raised to the bishophood in 1920, and served as the senior vicar of Nizhny Novgorod Diocese and prior of the Ascension monastery of the Caves.
In 1922, his life changed fundamentally and irreversibly. The ruling bishop of Nizhny Novgorod bowed to the authority of the Higher Church Administration, the governing body of the Renewal Church, a schismatic project of the Bolsheviks. Together with the secular authorities, the diocese was putting pressure on the diocesan clergy to submit themselves to the Renewalists. On June 19, 1922, a general assembly of the clergy endorsed a resolution recognising the Higher Church Administration as the only canonical body of the Church. Barnabas was one of its signatories.
He realised his mistake almost immediately. He went to Archbishop Theodore (Pozdeevsky), the Archbishop of Volokolamsk, to repent, but the archbishop refused to see him. Later that year, in September, Hieroschemonk Alexis (Solovyov), a respected elder of Smolensk Zosima Pustyn and a confessor of Saint Elisabeth Romanov later glorified as a venerable saint, agreed to receive the penitent monk. Barnabas understood that he could no longer be the bishop of his diocese because that meant subordination to the Renewalists. With this in mind, he asked the Elder’s blessing for the feat of foolishness for Christ and got it.
Before returning to the Caves Monastery, Vladyka visited a doctor in Moscow, who gave him a certificate saying he was suffering from “acute hysteroneuria”. Already on the next day after his arrival, the parishioners and clergy noticed an unusual change in his behaviour. During services, he would begin to kiss the icons too early or too late, and his sermons sounded somewhat weird. He spoke strangely, too. Outside the services, Barnaba would talk about his forthcoming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, adding that he was going to Jerusalem in Heaven.
A day later, the Vladyka, with a rugged haircut announced with wide-open eyes that he was setting off for Jerusalem that very moment. In his woollen cassock and with a hat under his arm, he walked towards the building of the diocese, and from there he was taken under his arms and delivered to a mental clinic, where he was diagnosed with paranoid dementia. Rumours of his illness quickly spread and even reached the press, much to the delight of the atheists, who always called religion madness and took the bishop’s presumed madness as an example that proved them right.
The Vladyka himself thus explained the reasons for his feat: “Foolishness is a strange, unusual and even an extravagant way of life that people and the world find so incomprehensible that they would rather explicate it based on its external manifestations, which is quite easy to do even without invoking any mysticism. They try to protect themselves and their way of life. Ascetics who left for the desert and joined a monastery did not encounter this temptation. The monastic walls, habits and isolation from society were all keeping it at bay. But those who choose to live an ascetic life in a secular world, what protections do they have?” For him, foolishness for Christ was perhaps his only available choice that would preserve his freedom outside the “red church”, and out of reach of the Soviet secret services, as it seemed then.
The feat of foolishness and after
Vladyka hoped to live as a hermit and recluse, writing texts and offering spiritual guidance to those who asked. In his seventh year as a fool for Christ, he wrote a four-volume work titled “Foundations of the Art of Sainthood: an essay in the Explication of Orthodox Asceticism.” It was a collection of his remarks and comments on the phenomena of modern life as seen through the lens of the Holy Fathers’ teachings. He knew very well that none of these works would bring many people back to church, so he had plans to write fiction stories in which Christ’s gospel could be read between the lines.
Sadly, some of his works remained unfinished, others were never published. He had a relatively short time left to live in relative peace. Eleven years later, in 1933, the bishop was charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda (a common pretext for fake persecutions in those years). He was also accused of establishing a secret monastery (where he lived with his spiritual children). His imprisonment lasted until 1948. While behind the grates, he rarely practised foolishness for Christ. He also kept a distance from the other inmates and confided only in a selected few. After his release, the bishop abandoned his feat to live a quiet life. He continued to write, mainly about the lives of different ascetics. He also kept a diary with remarks about life, the faith and the Church. He collected urban folklore and trivia from the press. When at church, he never disclosed his rank or monasticism. All of his neighbours knew him as Uncle Kolya. He conducted services rarely, and only in a small circle of trusted friends. He died peacefully, anticipating his departure to Jerusalem in Heaven ahead of time. Here are some extracts from Bishop Barnabas’ writings and accounts of several episodes of his life.
From the writings of Bishop Barnabas
“Modern medicine has described the clinical manifestations of mental illness, but little does it know about the terror with which the mentally ill, especially the outwardly fragile women, will bow before a holy relic, or approach the Cup, so much so that ten strong and able-bodied men have trouble holding them back. Not only do they resist, but they also pick up weight and strength. Bringing a frail-looking woman to the Cup would seem like an easy task for a strong physically able man. But when it comes to practice, even a handful of these men will barely manage; they drag her along as if she were a ten-stone monument over a grave. I have seen many scenes like that in many places.
As he observed the patients of a mental hospital, he witnessed some of the ugliest and most violent scenes of epileptic and psychopathic fits and noticed something that doctors could not. When the fits were over, a cloud of steam rose from the patients’ mouths, releasing the evil spirit and the unclean passion.
After his release, the Bishop remembered: “I asked the demon-possessed, especially those with higher education, when they came to their senses, what they had been feeling. Most had the sensation of uncontrollable anger and wrath – not of the presence of the demon as a foreign body, but a fit of intense anger and passion.
Bishop Dimitrius of Rostov wrote a discourse titled, “Are there any wonderworkers left today?” As he observed in this piece, a wrathful person is one who is demon-possessed. Whoever succeeded in taming their passion, and also their own, was a true miracle worker.
Temptations of the monks and laity
“The devil will lead a monk to believe that his life at the monastery is too hard, the food is inadequate, the work is too abundant, and that is taking a toll on his health. Sometimes, the enemy manipulates a monk into thinking that his cell is too damp and cold and that his superior is too demanding and unfair. That way, he keeps the monk from engaging in the work of the spirit, suggesting instead that all he can do is go to sleep or visit someone outside the monastery. The devil comes up with a whole battery of excuses: someone is celebrating a holiday and is expecting the monk’s greetings, others need a visit because they are ill, or a lonely widow is withering away in solitude and waiting to be comforted, or a friend or acquaintance is in sorrow or need. “Visiting them would still be better than sitting alone in a cell,” muses the monk, while the devil continues: “Would you not please God if you visited? Did not He himself say, “I was ill, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). And so this wretched man, himself on the brink of the abyss, leaves to save another from it!…
By appealing to good motives, the devil tempts the pious. As for the laity leading secular lives, he deceives them with promises of pleasure and merry-making, like going to a theatre, watching a film, or inviting some friends for a game of cards.”
Expecting good news to come
In her simplicity, Tatiana Shirokova, a nurse at the prison camp hospital, did not believe in Vladyka’s sanity, but still treated him kindly and shared her food with him.
Before her imprisonment, she was a singer at a church in Vyatka Region. A true child of God, she was loved and respected among the laity for her simplicity and frankness. She was serving a ten-year sentence, a term to which she could reconcile. So she prayed with these words, “O mother of God, ten years is too long, more than I can accept. Please take away two and a half years, and you, Saint Nicholas, do the same. O holy prophet Elijah, I have sung psalms, I have been a reader, will you please take another two and a half years of my term, so I would serve the remaining two and a half years, which I can bear.”
When she was at her lowest point in her silent despair, the bishop found a way to comfort her. He once wondered how long her term was, and when he heard the answer, he replied:
“Who gave you these ten years?” “A man,” he continued, without waiting for an answer. Then he pointed his finger upwards and added:
“You have a whole different time to look forward to. Expect some good news on the feast of the Prophet Elijah.
Two months after that conversation, Tatyana woke up in anticipation of her release. She was overwhelmed with joy.
She came to work early to complete her daily tasks sooner. At the end of the day, she said goodbye to the patients telling them that she was being released early.
“That’s our last tea together,” she said.
“How do you know? Have you filed a request for an amnesty?”
“And have you had an answer?”
“You are daydreaming!” everyone was saying with a laugh.
Unexpectedly, someone called her to the office, where she received an early release notice. Her prayer was heard, and the bishop’s prediction had come true. She was released after serving two and a half years.
“Prisoner Maria Shitova, a spiritual child of Archimandrite Georgy (Lavrov), had not completed her medical education but was still appointed to run the camp hospital. She was sympathetic to Father Barnabas (Belyaev) but still considered him insane. She was convinced he had schizophrenia and sent him to Tomsk. The hospital soon sent him back because it was too full of patients who were far worse and more dangerous than him.
With her strong will and energy, she spared no effort to have the poor man committed to an asylum. But a single incident made her rethink her attitude. “As a doctor, I had full freedom. In my white gown, I could go anywhere I wanted, and nobody ever dared to say a word. So I went to church and took communion (without telling anyone, of course). On my way back, the man meets me at the door and bows to me. “Congratulations on partaking in the Holy Sacraments, Nun Michaela!” he exclaims. I was so terrified, I nearly fainted. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the other women, the spiritual children of Fr. George, who was sentenced with me, must have told him. I was upset. “What business did you have to tell a madman that I was a nun?” I thought to myself.
When I got hold of them in the ambulatory, I pulled no punches. “You blabbermouths! Why did you tell him? Do you want them to add another ten years to my sentence?!” I raged.
“Told him what?”
“That I am Mother Michaela, of course!”
“Are you Mother Michaela? We did not know that!”
In the evening, I asked Bishop Barnabas:
“How did you know I was a nun?”
“Since you have asked, let me tell you,” he replied, humbly. He was a humble person, and there was a blush on his cheek. Many people have asked me about my past. Even you have tried me out – before you sent me to Tomsk. I asked myself who you could be. And I saw long stalks of rye and you coming out of it in a mantle. ‘Oh, she wears a mantle,’ I thought to myself. Michael the Archangel stood behind your back.”
Shortly before her release in 1935, Maria Kuzminichna asked him for forgiveness for treating him as insane, not bowing to him and not honouring him as a bishop. “So let me repay my debt now,” she said as she fell to his feet.