Back story: Father Arseny, a Russian Orthodox priest imprisoned in a Soviet work camp, intervenes in a fight to help a young prisoner named Alexei. For "troublemaking," he and Alexei are sentenced to 48 hours in an unheated cell.
Punishment cell No. 1 was a tiny house that stood by the entrance of thecamp. In this house was a room for two people where the floor and walls werecovered withsheets of metal. The whole room was not wider than three quarters of a yardand two yards long. Outside it was -22ºF and windy, so that it was hard tobreathe. You had only to step outside to become immediately numb.
Theoccupants of the barracks understood what this meant: certain death. FatherArseny and Alexei would be frozen within two hours. Occasionally, someonewas sent to it whenthe temperature reached -21º or -22ºF, but this only for 24 hours. The onlyones who stayed alive were those who could jump up and down the whole 24hours to keep their blood from freezing. If you stopped jumping, you froze.And here it was -22ºF, Father Arseny was an old man, Alexei had just beenbeaten up, and both men were exhausted.
Father Arseny and Alexei were dragged to the punishment cell and shovedinside. They both fell, cracking their heads against the wall. Father Arseny stood up and said, "So, here we are. God hasbrought us together. It is cold, Alyosha, and there is metal all around."
They heard the outer door close, the locks click, the voices and the stepsof the guards fade away. The cold seized them and constricted their chests.Through the small window with iron bars the moon shone its milky light intothe cell.
"We are going to freeze, Father Arseny," moaned Alexei. "We are both goingto die. We need to keepmoving, to jump up and down, but it is impossible to keep that up for 48hours. Why don't you say anything, Father Arseny?"
As if from somewhere very far away Father Arseny's voice answered, "I ampraying to God, Alexei!"
"What's there to pray about when we are going to freeze?" Alexei muttered.
"We are here all alone, Alexei; for two days no one will come. We will pray.For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp, with ourfull voice. We will pray and the rest is God's will!"
Suddenly Alexei heard Father Arseny'swords clearly, and understood that this was a prayer. Alexei had been inchurch only once, out of curiosity. Although his grandmother had baptizedhim when he was a child, his family did not believe in God. They simply hadno interest in religious matters. Alexei himself was a member of theKomsomol. How could hebelieve?
But Alexei could clearly hear the words that Father Arseny was saying: "OLord God,have mercy on us sinners! Through Thine unspeakable mercy saveus, have mercy on us and lead us away from this cruel death, because we dobelieve in Thee, Thou our God." And so the words of prayerpoured forth, and in each of these words lay the deepest love and trust inGod's mercy, and unconditional faith in Him.
Alexei started listening to the words of the prayer. At first he wasperplexed, but gradually he began to comprehend.
"O, Lord our God, Jesus Christ! Thou didst say with Thy purest lips that iftwo or three agree to ask for the same thing, then Thy Heavenly Father willgrant their prayer because, as Thou didst say, 'When two or three aregathered in my name, I am among them.'" Alexei was repeating these wordsafterFather Arseny.
The cold had taken Alexei completely; his entire body was numb. But suddenlythe cell,the cold, the numbness of his whole body, his pain, and his fear haddisappeared. Father Arseny's voice filled thecell, but was it a cell? Alexei turned to Father Arseny and was stunned.Everything around had been transformed. An awful thought came: "I am losingmy mind, this is the end, I am dying."
The cell had grown wider, the ray of moonlight had disappeared. There was abright light and Father Arseny, dressed in brilliant white vestments, hishands lifted up, was praying aloud. The clothing on Father Arseny was thesame as on the priest Alexei had once seen in church.
The words Father Arseny spoke were now easy to understand, they had becomefamiliar--they entered directly into Alexei's soul.
Alexei saw with surprise thatthere were two men assisting Father Arseny. Both were dressed in the samebright vestments and both shone with an indefinable white light. Alexei didnot see their faces, but sensed that they were beautiful.