The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the 'Secret Life' of New Martyr Anna Chetverikova
It appears that I’m back where I was a fortnight ago: looking through the saints of the coming week, I found another ‘Virgin-Martyr’ of the twentieth century, this time one by the name of Anna, feast day: 2 March - or maybe 3 March - the Holy Trinity calendar doesn’t seem too sure, having hedged its bets by listing ‘Virgin-Martyr Anna (1940)’ under both dates. A Google search yielded nothing in English, so, once again, I availed myself of the search engine’s translation facility and came upon some scant details of a certain Anna Pavlovna Chetverikova. A pattern is emerging: her life tells of another death in a labour camp, another unmarked grave, and no icon or even picture of New Martyr Anna is to be found online.
How does it all fit in with this Sunday’s feast of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15, 11-32) ? Well, let’s focus on the older brother. On the face of it, he’s a faithful servant of God, not unlike the Pharisee in last week's parable. But the return of his younger brother throws a huge spanner in his works. He doesn’t even acknowledge the returning wanderer as his own kin, referring to him as ‘this son of yours’ when remonstrating with his father. At the beginning of the parable, both he and his younger brother start off in a similar state of immature selfishness – it’s just that this leads them to act in different ways. The Prodigal Son yearns for independence, so he leaves his family - he’s off. He hasn’t thought about budgeting and, as we know, it doesn’t end well. The older brother stays behind, but it turns out that he’s acting out of a sense of duty, not love. Had it been the latter, his service would have been one of joy; he would've rejoiced at his brother’s return – he would've understood that his re-acceptance into the fold was a cause for celebration, as his brother could now enjoy the blessings that he'd been receiving for years. It’s only his brother who’s called ‘prodigal’ – or ‘wasteful’, yet he himself has squandered his chance to live a life truly in God’s love. Ultimately, it’s all been about him and not God. By the end of the parable, his kid brother has grown up, but he hasn’t.
In an atheist state such as the Soviet Union, where Anna Chetverikova lived, the devotion demanded by the Communist government in everyday life also arose from a sense of duty. The Prodigal Son finds himself in a world very much like that created by pure Capitalism: nobody cares when he falls on hard times and he could've died of hunger. In Communist states, you'd toil to support the state and help others - to this extent, it was certainly a lot less selfish – but I witnessed while a student in East Germany that a helpful deed could be performed mechanically, even robotically, as if the person has been pre-programmed. You can’t love Big Brother, as Orwell ironically states at the end of his novel '1984'. You can tell yourself that you do because all of your resistance has been gouged out and you’re in a position of abject submission. Anna Chetverikova realised that a life lived in God was the opposite, Intriguingly, some information that came to light late last year suggests that she may have been a ‘secret monastic’ at the Vysoko-Petrovskaya monastery, although nothing can be definitively proven. All that's known is that she fell asleep in the Lord at the Arlyuk branch of Siblag.labour camp in 1940, at the age of 67, having been sentenced to spend eight years in such an institution in 1937 for keeping the Orthodox faith, apparently accepting a clandestine tonsure and persuading others to do so; and organising material assistance for clergy who'd been punished by the regime, spreading ‘provocative rumours’ about their ‘alleged persecution’. For these reasons she was branded as hostile to the Soviet state. She was glorified as a saint in 2006.
As we’re now entering Lent, we can conduct a little examination our lives. Where do we stand with God? Do we recognise ourselves in the immature selfishness of the Prodigal Son or his brother? Or can we live in selfless love with God, despite any resulting danger to ourselves, as did Anna Chetverikova? Maybe it was the Prodigal Son’s example she followed - like him, finding that nothing else worked - in throwing herself on the infinite mercy of God and seeking the greater prize. I’d like to think so.
Psalm 118 (119)
Guide me in the path of Your commandments,
For I desire it.
Incline my heart to Your testimonies
And not to greediness.
Turn away my eys that I may not see vanity;
Give me life in Your way.
And I walk in a broad space,
For I searched Thy commandments.
I spoke of Your testimonies
Before kings, and I was not ashamed.
And I meditate on Your commandments,
Which I love exceedingly.