A Spiritual Portrait of Saint John of Kronstadt.
by Archimandrite Constantine (Zaitzev, 1888-1975)
I am all infirmity, all poverty. God is my strength. This conviction is my greatest wisdom, which makes me beatific. St. John of Kronstadt
Let us attempt, first of all, to see St. John from the outside….
We have before us a young man, a follower of Tolstoy. In his search for God, obscured by the blunderings of age, he was led to the feet of Leo Tolstoy. He greedily devours the writings of the new “teacher of life” — but his heart remains cold. He does not see God! He retains boundless admiration for Tolstoy, reverence even. But the soul is empty. And then — a chance encounter….
“At that time, I happened once to be walking along the river bank. At first I did not notice an unusual gathering of people. Then I saw that many people were running toward the docks. I also went. A priest I knew ran past. His looks amazed me. Usually he was deliberately sedate, but this time he was running, pushing and holding up the edges of his cassock. I could not understand what had happened. Finally someone said that Father John had arrived. This was the famous Archpriest of Kronstadt who was passing through our city on his way to his birthplace. Until then I had only seen photographs of him. Now he stood on the ship, on the captain’s bridge — a priest, with a kind, affable face. Everyone’s eyes were on him, and happiness, rapture, deep emotion could be seen in them. Tears were flowing from many eyes. What was this? They had discovered something familiar and dear, which up until then had been hidden in the depths of each one’s soul. They had not found this within themselves, but in another person, but that was all the same.
They felt that man could be beautiful, and there is such a man, and here he is standing in front of them. And all that was beautiful within each one, all this rose up in them, and they drenched their ideal with tears of rapture and joy. The priest began to speak. It is claimed that gospel scenes no longer repeat themselves in our Church. Not so, for this was undoubtedly a scene out of the gospels. He spoke sincerely and simply, that he was happy to see us, that he wished us all the best and was fortunate, seeing that we believed in God and in His Christ. Eyes shone with kind, beatific, happy tears. If the intensity of faith and holy joy were to be weighed on the scale of God’s Truth, I think that this moment would be indicative of the great faith of our city. If at that very moment Father John had told the people to leave all behind and follow him, I am convinced that many would have done so. Such words were not uttered, but it is evident that, having touched the edge, merely the edge, of the holy and the truthful, these people began to come to life….”
This description has been taken by us out of a “leftist” religious magazine, The New Way, for which both Tolstoy and St. John were “religious phenomena” of equal strength. Characteristically, as an epigraph to the article from which the above excerpt was taken, was the announcement that the Council of the University of Juriev had elected as honorary members, simultaneously. Count Leo N. Tolstoy and Archpriest Father John Sergiev of Kronstadt — and the latter, as is known, had demonstratively rejected that honor specifically because of the simultaneity of this election. The actual article was called forth by the fact that, exactly at that time, St. John had, in a special statement to the Press, expressly branded the magazine The New Way, loudly winessing that there is only one sure way to salvation — the old one of Christ, while every new way is the way, not to salvation, but to perdition. Thus, the editors of the journal were attempting to explain St. John’s statement and his decisive rebuke as some “misunderstanding,” demonstrating on their own part the broadness of their religious outlook. The more expressive is this description coming from so far! His final impression of the meeting with St. John was depicted by the young Tolstoyite thus:
‘Together with the others it seemed as if I, too, had found my soul. This was for me exactly that proof in favor of God and Christianity, for which I had searched with such intensity. This was proof of the same strength, alive and mightily active, as the arguments of Tolstoy. There was the genius of artistic strength; here, the genius of moral influence. He showed that the Church can, as nothing else, renew man, for there came a servant of the Church, wrapped in God’s truth, and the beautiful and good spirit of Christ spoke out in people.
Then here is another picture. The scene is in Vologda and is depicted by a deeply religious Church woman, who was deaf…
“On June 8, from 4 PM, people began to flow into the dock area and by 8 PM the entire wharf, docks, balconies, rowboats, boats —all were flooded by a sea of heads. Finally, at 9 PM, Father John also arrived and went straight to the deck cabin of the ship which was ready to sail. Seeing him, the throng of many thousands implored: ‘Father, pray for us sinners!’ To this. Father John replied: ‘I’m praying, I’m praying!’ and, having taken off his hat, began to pray toward a nearby church, then blessed the people on all four sides and bowed to them. All began to bow and to cross themselves, many wept… The picture was truly marvelous…. “When the ship had sailed, and all had calmed down, I came up to Father John, and, kneeling before him, burst into tears from happiness. He joyfully embraced my head, but I was unable to speak from the fullness of joy, and merely said: ‘I’m afraid, Father, that my heart will jump out of my breast from happiness at any moment.’ He smiled and again placed his hand on my head….”
At the other end of Russian, in the south… ‘The whole railway station, the entire platform, the whole square — all was flooded with people … Exactly at 9:53 PM was heard the signal of the approach of the long-awaited train. Everything fell still and became all eyes and ears: hearts beat loudly, but only for a minute. Puffing and rumbling, the train comes into the station’s rays of light … the train conductor says that ‘Father is in the back minister’s carriage.’ Calm until then, the sea of people became agitated and turbulent. The carriage was immediately filled with people; shouts arose: ‘Father dear, bless us!’ To this came the kind reply from the carriage: ‘God will bless you all, my friends. Let me go.’ With difficulty, being supported under his arms, Father John finally came onto the platform, and thus greeted those who were gathered: ‘Welcome, my friends! Welcome, fathers and mothers! Welcome, brothers and sisters! Welcome, children!’ The crowd, as if it were water, finding an opening, burst in all its mass toward the kind priest, pushed out those who were protecting him, and — as if he were a bark-lifted him up into their hands: shouts, screams and sobs of happiness — all was mixed in common: the hands of the pastor were caught, covered with kisses and watered with tears, his garments were kissed; everywhere was heard: ‘Father, you are ours, dear, you are our darling, you pray for us!’“
Everyone thought that immediately, that very evening, the priest would proceed to the church, and services would begin, but it turned out that services were arranged only for the next morning. Those who had come from afar had to work out how to spend the night. “We happened to walk into the churchyard well after midnight and came upon a truly marvelous scene and heard something truly comforting: the whole yard was literally covered with sleeping people Now and again, first here, then there, would be heard a sigh, accompanied by the words: ‘O Lord, find me worthy! O Lord, help me!’ And involuntarily you became plainly convinced of what is dear, and what makes up the life of our Russian nation!” Finally, toward 7 AM, the people saw the priest arrive — his carriage appeared. “Another minute, and we saw and heard what, until then, we had only read about: ‘Good morning, my friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children! Peace to all and God’s blessings!’ — was heard his ringing, kind and purely youthful voice, as if it weren’t coming from the breast of a sixty-four-year-old. The whole throng of many thousands replied as though one man: ‘Our gracious, welcome and dear Father! Pray for us!’ Father John literally did not walk to the altar, but floated upon the waves of people’s hands, now rising, now falling, again rising, then tossing; he was squashed, he was pulled, his hands and robes were caught, while he?.. There was so much love in his look, so much fatherly tenderness in his lovely smile. At last, he is in the altar…” We are omitting what followed. The service came to an end…
“‘He read’ — we said. But this was not reading. It was a conversation by the heart and mouth, as it were, face to face with the Most Pure Mother of God. From his diction, his nervous movements, it could be seen how deeply imbued he was with the reading, and his whole being was, as it were, engulfed by this ‘conversation’ of his spirit with the Most Pure Virgin…
“Matins are ended. The Proskomedia is also completed. Father John has arrayed himself in priestly vestments and is coming up to the table of offerings. But what is this? Is it not a vision — a sweet, fearsome, holy vision? In front of the table of offerings, on bent knees, his head resting upon crossed arms, is Father John. He prays, prays for a long time, but not like us sinners: his face becomes very pale, as if some mysterious light were illuminating him; in this face is seen, as it were, anguish of heart, as if a soul were suffering before the inevitable onslaught of something terrible. Seeing this, all of us in the altar were filled with trembling and washed our faces with tears of holy awe.
There are no words to describe what we beheld, only the heart felt that one was in the presence of a great and powerful prayer, capable of moving even mountains. The Divine Liturgy began… Father John was all in spiritual prayer, performed the entire service with his eyes closed; his exclamations, his whole service, was a wonderful conversation with God, in God and before the face of God. But let us note a special moment. After the litany of fervent supplication, Father John turned to the people, inviting them all to pray together for the sick nobleman Vassily, and then he read the prayer in a ringing voice. We had never read or heard this prayer anywhere, but then it does not exist: it was the fruit of Father John’s praying spirit. What a great deal of faith in God’s mercy, how much hope — unshakable hope — what great love and compassion for weaknesses, for the suffering, was contained in this prayer! It was composed not by the head with pen in hand, but by the heart and soul…”
The district of Hvalyne, Village of Alexeevka. They are waiting for St. John near the church since 4 AM. Many schismatic old believers are among those gathered… At last, the church-bells ring out….
But then the vanguard (a mounted policeman) appeared along the road, followed by a troika… The throng of people became agitated, as if a rumble went through it, from one end to the other, and the word was spread around: ‘He is coming, he is coming!’ Then a death-like quiet descended… all became as though dead, being afraid so as not to miss seeing the dear guest. Those who stood in the front, after greeting Father John, refused to remain in one spot but rushed after him. The closer Father John approached to the church, the greater grew the crowd behind him. None wished to be left behind; honorable old men and women, even they forgot their infirmity; they too were here in the crowd, among their sons and nephews; they ran without falling behind them…”
Again, the reading of the canon produced a shattering impression.
“An indescribably strong impression was produced by Father John with his reading of the canon of the Holy Trinity and the normal Sunday canons before the Royal Gates. This was not a usual reading but a living and triumphant glorification of God, combined with weeping over the sinfulness of human nature. During the reading, the soul of an attentive Christian soul would now be filled with rapture and deep emotion, then fall under the oppressive consciousness of its sinfulness, then once again would be roused and thrown into rapture, then again would be brought to bitter tears over its sins… and such an exalted state in those who were praying would last throughout the entire service….”
A typical day.
Let us turn our minds to Kronstadt, St. John’s place of permanent residence and service. What would be his typical day? He would rise at 3 AM and prepare himself for divine services. He would spend some time walking around his yard, silently saying his prayers. Around 4 AM he would set out for the cathedral, for Matins. A crowd of pilgrims would be waiting at the gates of his house. Batiushka was unable to speak to almost anyone individually — all were limited to receiving his blessings; they were happy even with this; they caught his hand so as to kiss it, they tried to touch his garments, to catch the tender gaze of St. John upon themselves. At the cathedral, Batiushka would be met Saint John with his wife Elizabeth (on the right), surrounded by family and friends by a crowd of beggars, to whom he gave alms in accordance with a procedure he had established. At Matins, St. John read the canon, and then, without leaving the cathedral, began the Liturgy. The cathedral would be full and there would be so many communicants that the services would last until noon. During the services, letters and telegrams received would be brought to Batiushka in the altar, and he would pray for the senders. Surrounded by thousands of the faithful, he would walk out of the cathedral, to set out immediately for Petersburg, in response to countless requests from the sick, returning not before midnight, and having time to rest only on the train from the capital to Oranienbaum — a period of one hour!
Let us recount the personal impressions of a priest who visited Kronstadt not long before the death of St. John.
In the room where he had spent the night was a photograph of St. John with his autograph: “Let men think of us as the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” [I Cor 4:1]. He went to Vespers. About two hundred people were present. St. John was absent. He walked into the altar — St. John’s service book! On the front cover — the image of Our Savior and a few words in the owner’s handwriting. He noticed that at the end of the service, to the cast-iron grating near the ambo, other high, massive wooden barriers were moved out on rollers, being clamped together in sections by locks: preparations for tomorrow’s services! This made him recall how once in Kharkov, the people had occupied the solea, pushed the singers out from their choir places, and stood as a solid wall before the Royal Gates: the “entries” were made in the altar next to the holy table. In the evening there were groups of people near St. John’s house. Suddenly the people rushed forward — St. John’s carriage! The people threw themselves forward, grasping at the carriage’s fenders and back — the gates of the house opened and, having let the carriage through, swung shut. In the morning, the same thing happened to the cathedral: the entrance to the church-yard was opened for a moment to let St. John’s carriage in. He went into the cathedral through the altar-door.
Matins was not served by St. John. He read the canon. He read the lists of names of persons to be commemorated and heard confession. Listening to the reading of the lists of names of persons to be commemorated, the priest noted that foreign names were also read. It was an ordinary day, but at that time the daily services were no longer ordinary. The cathedral, which could accommodate over five thousand worshippers, was always full and services were conducted by many priests at once. This time there were seven priests. This priest noticed St. John’s inclination to face the people This was how he made the exclamations: ‘Take, eat…” He noticed that St. John filled the ciborium with fresh particles of the Holy Gifts. This occurs daily, while the ciborium hangs in a velvet bag, at his right side, and St. John parts with it only during the Liturgy. He noticed that St. John gave Holy Communion in large pieces. All the priests participated in consuming Holy Communion.
Let us stop somewhat in more detail on how St. John performs church services.
First of all — the canon!.. This reading is inimitable, unforgettable… Batiushka did not perform daily Matins, but merely read with the chanters and sang with the choir. Up to the canon he usually prayed in one of the cathedral’s chapels, while for the canon, “with his light but firm step,” came out, so as to read it himself. Only in the last year of his life (1908) did St. John stop doing this because of his extremely weak condition.
“Everyone remembers,” witnesses Fr. Deacon M. Antonov, who served with St. John right up to his death, “the small figure of Batiushka, inbreathing with giant strength of spirit, in the midst of six or seven chanters, with his favorite gesture — closed fist pressed to his chin … Everyone recalls his special, sporadic reading (closer to speaking), which amazed all by its voice intonations — now sharply vocal, then quick and intense, now slow and divided, then tenderly lilting …”
Not one word was read but a special meaning would be imparted to it. He pronounces individual words while facing the people, as if offering them for special attention — and even, at times, accompanying them with short but strongly expressive comments. He is completely absorbed into what he is reading. He happily relives the victories of the saints over evil and sin; grieves over the falls of human frailties; relives with deeply emotional gratitude the signs of God’s benevolence toward people. Much of what he reads he attributes directly to himself! Agitation is written all over him; it is expressed in his intonations, in his gestures. A beatific smile lights up his face when he reads of the heavenly glory of the Mother of God, about the triumphs of the saints. But now a shadow of distress comes over his face — his spirit is directed in entreaty to God’s mercy, penitently reliving sinful falls. Suddenly, holy anger lights up his eyes — the words “satan” or “devil” are on his lips! He is transformed into the depths of emotion and exaltation when he views, spiritually, the victories of martyrs and saints over “the enemy” …
After the sixth song and litany, he exclaims: “Kontakion!” — recalls one pilgrim. He announces it like a victory song, and having finished, runs into the altar and falls before the altar table in deep prayer. Strengthened by it, he returns to the choir …
At times, he also read the hymns of praise (stikhera).
After the canon, St. John usually read alone the “entry prayers” which are appointed before Divine Liturgy, and then would vest himself in priestly vestments.
“I shall never forget,” — recalls one observer, “how, once the hymns of praise (stikhera) were being sung. Father John had by that time almost finished vesting, so as to celebrate Divine Liturgy. Only the chasuble was not on him. Quickly, in a swift movement, more running than walking, he came out of the altar to the choir, joined the singers and began to sing together with them. He sang animatedly, with deep faith, himself acting as choirmaster, again stressing individual words and slowing the tempo where that was required by the logical meaning of what was being sung.
Experienced singers instinctively guessed these words, this tempo and rhythm, and followed him with no small skill and animation. The singing, not very harmonious at first, quickly became melodious, strong, sonorous, mighty, animating, flowing over the whole church, wholly filling the hearts of those who were praying. It was touching to look at the singers at that moment. It was as If some holy early Christian family, with its father at the head, were singing, singing Its victorious, holy and great hymns.”
Celebrating the Liturgy.
The Proskomedia. St. John begins it with calm concentration. For freedom of movement he does not put on the chasuble. He always performs it himself, surrounded by clergy. He is full of triumphant joy. With what thoroughness, assiduity, loving attention does he prepare the Host — straightens and reverently places It, measures It a few times, making sure It stands well on the patten. “Look,” he would suddenly remark to his fellow priests… “Father Paul, Father Nicholas!.. Where else is there anything to compare with what we have! … Look! There He is — Christ! Here, amidst us — and we are next to Him, like the Apostles…” All in the altar are filled with reverent awe and fear: as though angels are hovering here with their wings….
Attentively, without haste, the priest takes pieces out of the other prosforas as well. St. John mentions the living and the dead, sometimes saying the names in full, with patronymics. Prosforas are carried in by the basketful — out of each one St. John himself takes out at least a few, reading only a few of the great number of notes and books present. He prays with the prayer of the spirit. Pieces from the prosforas are also taken out by the other priests around him — there are a great many prosforas. Finally, St. John’s voice rings out: “Censer!” The deacon presents it — always “not smothered,” i.e., with coals burning and a sufficient amount of incense. In this regard St. John would sometimes say to the deacon: ‘This censer is an image of our hearts. They, too, are sometimes “smothered,” cold and unfeeling… Warm up out hearts, O Lord, so that they may burn with love for you…” In finishing the Proskomedia, St. John did not pronounce the set prayers aloud, but prayed silently, while asking the deacon to make his exclamations aloud.
Divine Liturgy is beginning. St. John is heading a whole sobor of priests. He is miraculously transformed — in chasuble, miter, with a gleaming cross on his breast. “Let us pray, my brother priests,” he is saying, “for Our Lord to grant us to perform the God-saving and soul-saving Divine Liturgy in a God-pleasing manner.”
The Royal Gates are opened. The first exclamation. Firmly, acutely, from the bottom of the heart, sound the words: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.” The accent is on the words “blessed” and “ages.” St. John goes deeper within himself. Seldom does he open his eyes — he is already in another world, and he does not resemble anyone on earth at this moment. He does not open his service book — reads the prayers by heart, often in a low voice. He loved services to flow smoothly — not to drag, either in the singing or in the deacon’s exclamations. During the last period of his life this was also dictated by the poor state of his health. Distinctly, loudly, “heartily, “but without dragging, did he himself make his exclamations — and expected the same from others. During the prayer: “O only-begotten Son,” at the words: “wast crucified…” he would determinedly grasp the cross from the altar-table and kiss it, and remain with it until the end of the singing.
It happened that at other moments he would also suddenly grasp it, covering the crucifix with kisses, as if embracing it in his arms, look at it in exaltation, press it to his forehead, to his mouth, murmuring prayers… He would listen to the reading of the Apostle and the Gospel in rapt attention — sometimes nodding his head… He demanded that the reading be accessible not only to the ears of the body, but also of the heart. “The gospel,” he was wont to say to the deacons, “is not read merely to beat upon the air with a thunderous voice, but to beat upon hearts also.”
In this part of the whole liturgy, up to the Great Entry, St. John is absorbed in prayer for mankind. How many have been entrusted to him! “Lord,” he prays, “many of those presently standing in Thy church have empty hearts, like empty vessels, and do not know for what to pray: fill their hearts now, in this day of salvation, with the grace of Thine All-Holy Spirit, grant them to me, to my prayer, imbued with the knowledge of Thy Holy Spirit, Which Itself make the intercession for them with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
How many have been entrusted to him! How many eyes are directed in prayer toward him, with hope of receiving assistance, comfort, deliverance from grief and sickness. St. John carries all of them in his heart — the well-being of their bodies, the well-being of their souls, their salvation; and he is as if in a hurry to present their needs to Our Lord, Who is listening to him; he is as if hurrying to beseech mercy and aid on their behalf… He is praying in outbursts, insistently, demandingly even — at times it seems as if he is not even asking, but wresting from the Lord, is grasping the edge of the Lord’s robe with all the authority which he, as a priest, has vested in him.
The other priests serving with him are taken in by this all-conquering prayer; it is transmitted to everyone in church as well. What is now being experienced by the people is quite indescribable … And yet this is far from the peak of enthusiasm!
But now begins the singing of the Cherubic Hymn. Extending his arms toward the Divine Sufferer, depicted on the opened communion cloth, St. John retreats further within himself. Tears flow down his cheeks — he wipes them off with his handkerchief… With sorrowing solemnity (in the expression of deacon Father M. Antonov) the Great Entry is performed — the setting out of Our Lord Jesus Christ to His agony on the Cross.
Beginning with the Great Entry, St. John is wholly absorbed in prayerful contemplation of Our Lord’s last days on earth. He introduces himself to this round of thought by pronouncing the following words during the transferring of the Chalice:
“And they cast Him out of the vineyard and there slew Him.” In general during this part of the Liturgy, St. John begins to introduce many of his own prayers, sometimes saying them aloud. To the silent prayer before the Litany of Supplication, after the Great Entry, he would add: “Make us worthy of obtaining grace before Thee that our sacrifice may be favorable unto Thee and that the Spirit of Thy grace may dwell within us and upon these present Offerings — and upon all students, and upon all monastic spiritual nurseries… upon all who have entrusted me, unworthy one, to pray for them and upon all Thy people, for all are Thine own. For Thou hast created them in Thine own image and likeness. Thou hast restored them to life with water and the Spirit;
Thou hast granted them the grace of being Thy sons; Thou hast placed the pledge of the Spirit within their hearts, and nothing is more valuable, more blessed, more perfect, than Him. Thou feedest them with the Body and Blood of Thy Son, and nothing is sweeter than that: Thou givest them all that is good by nature and by grace, and of Thy gifts there is no end. At last attach all of us to Thee, being alienated from Thee by sins and the enemies who fight us, so that none of us becomes an acquisition and food for the alien (devil). Save us Thou Thyself, O Father of bounteous-ness and God of every comfort.”
To the words: “Christ is amongst us,” during the exchange of kisses between priests in the altar, St. John would add: “Living and acting…”
By this he would fill the hearts of those who served with him with trepidation. “I was on the verge of falling in front of the holy table” — recalls one of them.
Having read the Symbol of Faith, St. John would add the following extensive prayer:
“Confirm in this faith my own heart and the hearts of all Orthodox Christians; enlighten us to live worthily of this faith and this hope; unite in this faith all the great Christian bodies which have disastrously fallen away from the unity of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, which is Thy Body and whose Head art Thou and Savior of the Body; subdue the p ride and opposition of their teachers and their followers; grant that they may comprehend with their hearts the truth and salutariness of Thy Church and unite with Her without laziness; join also to Thy Holy Church those ailing from ignorance, error and stubbornness of the schism, breaking their obstinacy and standing up against Thy Truth with the power of Thy Spirit’s grace, that they may not perish in their resistance as did Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who opposed Moses and Aaron, Thy servants. To this faith attract all the nations which inhabit the earth, so that with one heart and one mouth all nations will glorify Thee, the One God and Provider of all; unite all of us as well in this faith with the spirit of humility, piety, meekness, simplicity, impassibility, patience, forbearance, mercy, compassion, and the sharing of joyfulness.”
“Let us lift up our hearts!” to these words St. John would add the following prayer: ‘Thyself, O Lord, lift up our earth-bound hearts.”
As witnessed by himself, he would also say the following words silently: “Lift up all those who are here standing before Thee, O God of our lives, and cast out of our hearts all physical and spiritual passions.” St. John added a great deal to the silent prayers as well during the Canon of the Eucharist. Thus in the prayer: “It is meet and right to hymn Thee…,” to the words: ‘Thou hast brought us out of non-existence into being,” St. John, continuing the thought in this prayer, would add these words: “into intelligent being and with an immortal soul.”
To the words: “Us fallen hast Thou raised up again,” St. John would also carry on the thought of the prayers and add: “and Thou raisest us up a hundredfold each day as we sin and repent.” After the words: “until Thou hast raised us up into heaven and hast granted us the future Kingdom,” — he would also say: “Even in our very Communion of Thy Holy and life-endowing Mysteries, Thou art already raising us up into heaven: for where Thou art, there is heaven and the heaven of heavens, and having granted Thou Thyself to the faithful, Thou hast also already with Thyself granted the Kingdom of Heaven — the future Kingdom, in the pledge of Thy Precious Body and Blood.” During the next silent prayer: “And we also with these blessed hosts …” at the words: “He Himself for the life of the world,” St. John would add: “Above all, myself, a sinner, so that I may be rid of mortal sin and live forever.”
Repeating the words of Our Savior, spoken by Him during the Last Supper, St. John experiences a holy rapture: “How can such words be hidden!“… He turns to face the people and loudly proclaims: “Take, eat…” He touches the chalice a few times and proclaims with special force and expressiveness: “which is shed for You and for many…” Now trepidation fills all and each one in the church! St. John appears to place into each heart the penitent awareness: “For You was the Divine Blood shed. You have rejected God and forgotten Him — and it was for You that the Most Holy Blood was shed! For your sins, for all here present, did Christ suffer — and You, how do you repay Him?!”
‘Thine own of Thine own.” St. John stands before his Heavenly Father in all the indescribable majesty of his priestly calling, offering up to Him the propitiatory sacrifice of the Son of God, the Only thing worthy to redeem the world and to obtain for the faithful the remission of sins and blessings, while for those who are departed in faith and with hope of resurrection, eternal rest with the saints…
“For each and every one.” These words also embrace all those present… O! How strongly do they feel this!
St. John touches the patten with his lips. He can already hear the winnowing of approaching grace, he is awaiting it, calling it… the most important point in the Liturgy is approaching: triumph and victory! And in this rapture of triumph St. John is once again transformed. Awe envelops those who are serving with him with renewed strength: through St. John they, too, come into communion with the Heaven of Heavens …
“O Lord, Who didst send down Thy Most Holy Spirit…” — begins St. John this prayer for the first time, solemnly, confidently, victoriously, but in a relatively calm voice. The voice rises during the second repetition of that same prayer, it begins to tremble — St. John is anticipating the Miracle of the Consecration. A triumphant authoritativeness grows in the sound of the voice… Now his eyes are widely opened: what do these eyes see? This is not known to those who serve with him: with shuddering and trepidation, shaken and pale, they listen to St. John…
The world-saving mystery has been completed… On the altar table — the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ…
‘There were days,” recalled Bishop Seraphim (who knew Batiushka well) soon after St. John’s death, “when he would turn into some motionless shadow during these moments, as one dead on his feet, and his face gradually turned from being alive to pale, and then even dark. As soon as the time came for him to make an exclamation, he immediately came back to earth, and large tears would roll down his already lively features. During such moments in his services those present would be filled with dread and fear.” St. John had Holy Communion — he draws life from the Source of Life Eternal, is filling himself with It. During these moments he says to himself: “The Lord is within me personally, purifyingly, blessedly, victory-creating, God-endowing, miracle-working (which I feel within myself).” As witnessed by himself, he would add nothing further of his own words to this.
The strength which, it seemed, was exhausted to the end, has been returned. No longer is there even the faintest trace of fatigue, of exhaustion. The mark of sorrow which lay upon St. John when he was seen entering the church has vanished. He is filled with childlike happiness — imperceptibly, he softly clasps his hands! “Prayer is the constant, grateful frame of mind” — he would say. Never will it be capable of reaching such soaring strength as at this moment: his heart is bursting from the grace which fills it! Spiritual happiness, peace, rest, tranquility — those around him can only guess at the felicity they bring; all this is written on St. John’s face, on his entire being. He is glowing, shining…
Common (or public) confession, which was practiced by St. John with the permission of the church authorities, due to the impossibility of hearing confession individually from the thousands of people who streamed to him, is a special topic all to itself. Descriptions give but a very faint idea of this great miracle of masses of people being penitently renewed by the power of St. John’s prayer and pastoral love.
Before beginning confession, St. John would turn to the penitents with this appeal:
“Sinners, similar to myself! You have come to this church so as to offer to the Lord Jesus Christ, Our Savior, repentance for sins and then to partake of the Mysteries. Have you prepared yourselves sufficiently to partake of so great a Mystery? Do you know that I will answer heavily before the Throne of the Most High if you partake without preparation? Do you know that you are confessing not to me, but to the Lord Himself, Who is visibly present here. Whose Body and Blood are at this very moment present upon the altar table?..”
Having thus prepared the faithful, St. John would himself begin — on behalf of the people and facing them — to read the prayers of penitence — speaking in a slow, lengthened tone, at times dividing words into syllables, and sometimes also extending his arm over the heads of the penitents — as if indicating each one of them separately to the Merciful Judge.
“O God, Our Savior! Forgive these, Thy servants!” — he exclaims in a loud voice. His voice now rises, then falls, passing suddenly from moving prayer to sternly prophetic words. It is as if St. John sees the Just Judge before himself. From reading of the prayer he passes, from time to time, to its interpretation in his own words, striving to drive into the consciousness of the penitents the prayer’s every thought, its every shade of meaning. “O, my God,” — recalls a female participant in such a preparation for confession. “How the penitent soul would be filled with trepidation at the sight of the good pastor, who at that given moment has taken upon himself the task of conciliator and intercessor for God’s mercy to us sinners!”
Having prepared the people in a fitting manner, St. John would announce in a loud voice: “Repent!”
“Now something unbelievable began to happen. Wailing, shouting, spoken confession of hidden sins. Some (especially women) strove to shout as loudly as possible, so that Batiushka might hear them and pray for them.” “Repent, repent, the Lord hears you!” — St. John would cry. “Such an uproar would arise that no words can ever describe. This was something whole, mutual or general, gigantic! Individual voices could not be heard, as also individual people could not be separated from this crowd. This was one mass… None noticed his neighbor, each thought only of himself…” During that time St. John stood, leaning upon the analogion, and prayed. He prayed and wept — wept so much that tears flowed in torrents. Each saw only himself, not noticing anyone else, and fearlessly laid bare the secrets of his sins. Batiushka— saw everyone.
Now from somewhere in a corner is heard the cry of a woman possessed by the devil, beginning to sing some wicked song — she quiets down, joining herself to the common confession… Batiushka is still praying… “Over there in that corner, you must yet repent!” — suddenly, unexpectedly he exclaims, straightening up and pointing with his finger toward the western side of the cathedral. And in reply, wails of repentance begin to flow from there with unusual fervor…
Sometimes St. John would walk away into the altar and pray there, bowing before the holy table and placing his head upon it…
How much time in all passes like this? About fifteen minutes! Finally, Batiushka comes out again to the ambo. Perspiration is pouring from his face. Requests for prayers, wails of penance are still directed at him… But now little by little the packed cathedral quietens down. St. John extends his stole over the people and reads the prayer of absolution. Sometimes he covers those closest to him with it, makes a sweep with it in a semicircle, first on the ambo, then in the altar…
Confession has ended. From all sides may still be heard subdued sighs, sobs and groans — heat lightning after the breaking and passing of the cleansing thunderstorm.
In St. John’s book, “Of God, the Universe and the Human Soul,” the following is mentioned: “Remarkable was the vision seen by one layman in the Church of St. Andrew the First-called; namely, the vision of Our Savior, extending over all present during common confession and the absolution of sins by myself — His Divine Arms embracing all. I thank the Lord for this vision, for this grace, making it known that He is pleased with common confession and that it is being conducted in accordance with His Divine Will.”
In one overseas publication one could read more extensively of this vision. We will quote from it: ‘This was on one of the Fridays of Great Lent in 1903, when Batiushka usually arranged common confession. I had no intention of preparing for the sacrament, did not go to church, but, after feeding the baby, set out to meet my husband. Having left the house, I walked in the direction of the store, but suddenly turned quite automatically toward the cathedral. I walk up and am amazed at why confession is taking so long today… I walked in also somehow automatically…
In the entrance I noticed that the young men and women who stood there were sniggering on account of the penitent cries and were generally conducting themselves improperly, but when they turned their attention on me and began to look under my hat, I hurried forward with bitter and heavy feelings. I stood on the very threshold of the church, as it was higher, and from here it was easier for me to see Batiushka on the ambo. He was just then appealing for penance and kept referring more to the left — it could be seen he was especially calling upon someone over there… Then he faced the icon of Our Savior, prayed silently for some time… Then he faced the crowd again — with the same appeal and again kept looking to the left. I even thought to myself — why is he taking such an unusually long time to hear confession today? Again he turned toward the icon of Our Savior and, it could be seen, was praying fervently, as he kept wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. Suddenly… in front of the closed Royal Gates, closer to the people and standing a little off the ground, I saw, in reality, quite simply — Our Savior… There are no words to describe the beauty of His Most Pure Face, the radiance of His Eyes. He was in a white tunic, barefooted, arms raised to bless the people. I rub my eyes, look around on all sides, tremble completely from fright — and keep seeing the same thing…
“At this time Batiushka goes into the altar, opens the Royal Gates, and only when he comes out through them to give the people remission of sins — Christ the Savior rose upward and disappeared…
“I tremble all over, am afraid of believing myself…
“At this time the people, after receiving remission, are hurrying toward the exit. I catch acquaintances, stop them, ask them — have they by any chance seen anything? — No one has seen anything! I walk out, beside myself, go to my husband at the store. He immediately notices that something is not right with me, wants me to rest there — but I cannot sit for long… He takes me for a walk in the open air — that may possibly calm me. But I cannot calm down, and cannot say anything because of fear, as I do not trust myself… I was in such a state the whole day. Later my aunt came, who had arrived to prepare for the sacrament — I ask her why confession took so long today — she says that never before has there been such a confession, nor was it likely to occur again…
“On the following day, after Liturgy, I hurried to the Working House, as I knew that only there would it be possible to get to Batiushka, to whom I was drawn with my whole soul. I arrived when all were sitting with Batiushka at tea. He did not even raise his head at me… He is told: ‘Olga has arrived; bless her to have tea.’ He pours, sort of unwillingly, evidently; hands it without looking. I am horror-struck, not knowing what to think, begin to doubt myself even more… Batiushka is already leaving, takes the door handle, and only then turns to me: ‘Olga, isn’t there anything you wished to tell me?.. Then he came up to me, placed his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Well, say what you wanted to say.’ I recounted everything as it was… He made me repeat it twice and said: ‘Go the following Friday as well, and stand in the same spot.’
“Come Friday, I went to the cathedral and stood in the same place on the threshold. Batiushka was speaking from the ambo just exactly about how we once again crucify Christ by our sins… This time I looked ahead intently when Batiushka began to pray as previously; as once before I saw, in the very Royal Gates, the living Jesus Christ, crucified on the Cross. I became somewhat nonplussed. I do not know how to understand why Our Lord was now on the Cross, and not blessing, as He did then… On the following day, after Liturgy, I hurried to Batiushka in the Working House. He immediately asked me loudly in front of everyone: ‘Well, what did you see?’ And I said that this time I saw the Savior crucified on the Cross. And Batiushka loudly exclaimed: This means you have truly seen Christ!’ “Later Batiushka told me that evidently through me the Lord is indicating that common confessions were pleasing to Him, when he himself wished to end them for the reason that during the pushing of the crowds, accidents had occurred… And the Mother of God said to him:
“‘John, continue your confessions.’ And Batiushka continued, but already with the Royal Gates opened.”
The gathering of people during common confession was truly frightening. Special preparations were made for it. The cathedral was divided by high balustrades in front of the steps leading to the ambo. The cathedral was divided, both in the center and on both sides, so as to avoid congestion. Common confession would begin at 8:00 AM. But people would gather from 5:00 AM so as to get a closer position. An analogion would be placed on the ambo — as for a sermon. The heat would become terrible. So as to somehow clear the air, guards would bring snow in basins to the choir-places, would make large snowballs and throw them into the crowd. It could be seen how this snow would fly and melt in front of your eyes in the air over the crowd.
St. John’s sermons.
The features of St. John in church would not be complete if nothing were said about his sermons. At the end of Divine Liturgy, during the singing of “Blessed be the Name of the Lord,” or post-communion prayer, St. John, picking up the small altar Gospel, would usually walk out to the ambo, read a few verses, and explain them in simple and clear words, calling all worshippers to a truly virtuous life. Many of St. John’s sermons have been published. They are unpretentious. In them the Word of God speaks by itself, as it were, clothing itself in accompanying explanations, drawing their meaning closer to the understanding of the faithful. Much is to be gained from their reading, but this is far from imparting the force of action of the living word, as it was spoken by St. John himself from the ambo. It literally burnt, turning people to the path of salvation — penetrating the most hardened sinners.
Every preconception would vanish, every hostility was disarmed, every doubt evaporated in front of St. John, opening up the meaning of evangelical simplicity, which (words) found incarnation in him himself and were ready to be transformed into a miraculous force, witnessed by these very words…
Metropolitan Meletius, recalling his visit to St. John in 1901, on the verge of Great Lent, recounted a sermon, delivered by St. John on Final Judgement Sunday. ‘This sermon was unforgettable. In it there was such conviction, such exact knowledge of what he was saying that, when, in describing the Final Judgement, he suddenly said to the people: ‘You know that’s how it is; that is exactly the way it is going to be,’ all were filled with apprehension. That tone of voice, these prophetic words — impossible to forget.”
Similar insertions, involuntarily arising from the very heart, and producing an especially deep impression, at times simply shook his listeners, and at the same time singularly brought the reader or speaker nearer to the worshippers. The same Metropolitan Meletius told of an earlier visit by him to St. John, in May 1899, when he was present during St. John’ services on the feast of SS. Constantine and Helena. At Matins, St. John, naturally, read the canon. “He read so fervently and inspiredly, as though he were speaking on his own and from the bottom of his heart, with conviction pronouncing the written words. He stopped a couple of times, as if lost in thought for a second, and immediately confidently exclaimed: Yes, that’s how it is, that’s how it is.’”
A sea of miracles.
St. John’s miraculous power not infrequently also manifested itself in church — especially when those who were possessed by evil spirits were brought to the Chalice.
“A horrible impression was produced, recalls one dweller of Kronstadt, “by the sick possessed who were brought to Father John in the cathedral. During Father John’s sermon, during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, but especially during the singing in Great Lent of ‘Now the heavenly hosts,’ inhuman cries were emitted, wailings or barks. Some of the sick would fall to the floor; on the floor they were shaken or beaten. Once when Father John was giving Communion, I stood with my mother in the choir-place and saw how a few men led, or, more correctly, carried up, a woman to him. She kept propping her legs against each step. Her appearance was terrible. The handkerchief fell from the head. Her hair became dishevelled. She was waving her arms about and kept repeating all the time: ‘I’ll spit, I’ll spit anyway.’ When she was brought to the Chalice, Batiushka told them to let her go and not to support her. Those who accompanied her cautiously left her. Then Batiushka told the woman to cross herself. She crossed herself, this time correctly. Batiushka asked her what her name was. Father John gave her Holy Communion and, calmed, she walked away from the Chalice, crossing herself and repeating: ‘Glory to Thee, Lord, glory to Thee, Lord …’“
St. John’s miraculous power in all its potency was manifested, however, primarily outside the church — in those varied forms of intercourse with people, in which was passed each one of his days. Insofar as this power radiated from him in church, this remained unnoticed by worshippers — as the miracles were performed at a distance, by letters, telegrams, prayerful requests from all parts of vast Russia, streaking toward him at times without any outward sign.
There is a characteristic witness written down in Harbin by my late wife, recorded then by her among many others for one local publication, devoted to St. John:
‘This was — recalled Gouliaeff in tears — in 1903, in a small place called Emba, in the province of Sihr-Darya. Being a young man, I was working on the Tashkent Railways, engaged in making water pumps. That year we had a serious typhoid epidemic; I became ill and was transported to the contagious barracks, two miles from Emba, beyond the river. My condition was recognized as hopeless. My temperature rose to 42 degrees. I was unconscious almost all the time, became weakened to such an extent that I was quite incapable of lifting my arms from the blanket. In the words of the sick-nurses, I kept singing church songs in delirium, as our entire family was very religious. I was brought up on church singing, not liking worldly music. My father was a simple peasant, but there were also clergymen in our ancestry.
“I remember how I came to and felt that I was dying. I could not move my hands, could not cross myself. Helplessly, I wept, and began in tears to sing ‘Heavenly King’ as best I could … Suddenly, halfway between the bed on which I was lying and the door, a priest in gold vestments appeared as if in a haze. He drew near to me, and I then saw perfectly clearly, lightly-flaxen hair, a ruddy face, and blue, infinitely kind eyes. The priest leant over to me …
“ — There is no need to cry; let’s pray.’ “And there and then he began to serve a molieben. He served neither quietly nor loudly, with great concentration, earnestly and heartfelt. I was looking at his kind face, examined, like a child, the patterns on his vestments, listened to his voice, and understood that it was Father John of Kronstadt who had come to me. With his coming my arm rose for the sign of the cross. Father John blessed me. I clung to his hand. The hand was warm and very soft. I remember this hand, as though it were with me now. Father John told me that I would recover, but that I should never forget to pray and thank God. Withdrawing, Batiushka also stepped away as it were to the door, into a white haze…
“From this moment my quick recovery began, incomprehensible to all. When my father came to visit me, I told him about the miracle I had seen, described the priest to him, and my father, who knew Batiushka personally, was amazed that I had described in such detail the entire person of Batiushka, having never seen him in real life. Even the barely noticeable wart near his eye, even the sound of his voice, the pattern on his vestments I described without a flaw. But the very fact of Batiushka’s appearance to me was there and then explained to me by my father: at the most hopeless moment, he had sent a telegram to Father John in Kronstadt, asking him for his prayers. On the very day that Father John had appeared to me, he had served a molieben for my recovery.”
Here there was a telegram. But St. John had no need of physical means to communicate with people. Archimandrite Raphael, father-superior of Our Lady of Zadonsk Monastery (Voronezh diocese), who became a monk with St. John’s blessing and who died a martyr under the Bolsheviks in 1922 on the first day of Pascha in the seventy-eighth year of his life, witnessed that when he became a priest, St. John called him to himself in Kronstadt four times, appearing to him in his sleep and summoning him to appear for joint prayer with him. Father Raphael would come, remaining the whole week. The prayerful consolation which he received from jointly concelebrating the Divine Liturgy was such that, as he later put it, he did not know whether he was in his body or outside it.
Thus, now, during a discussion once with Father Raphael, St. John disclosed to him that he knew by whom and where his name was mentioned, and that this prayerful proximity with him would remain active beyond the grave — thus would he beseech God! While here is another of the many occasions when also during his life was his mysterious miraculous assistance manifested — without any physical association:
‘The sister of the Russian consul in the town of Kiahta (on the Chinese border) was suffering there for a long time and very gravely from a serious ailment, from which, apparently, there was no hope of ever recovering. The malady was so severe that the sufferer was even thinking of poisoning herself, and so, under the influence of this terrible thought, she sees a dream. She sees herself on the edge of a dark and horrible abyss, would have liked to step away from it, but some fateful force pushes her forward and drags her into the chasm, from which there is no escape and where death inevitably awaits her. Horror envelops the sufferer, a cold sweat stands out on her face, her heart palpitates from mortal fear, the ground shakes under her, she feels her feet slipping to the very edge of the bottomless pit, over which is spread an evil darkness, while in its depths an entire hell is bubbling and boiling.
Finally, she loses the ground from under her feet and her body hangs in space, ready to plunge into death’s embrace, which has widely opened its extended jaws… There appears to be no salvation; the last thought which flashed through her consciousness was of the Savior, crucified on the Cross… At the same time, as if in the clouds, a priest appeared in front of her, with the stamp of meekness and mercy on his brow… ‘In the name of the Savior life is being granted to you,’ he said, and, grabbing her with a mighty and firm hand, again put her on firm ground. He then showed her to a hitherto unnoticeable path, by which she could get away from the chasm, and guided her with these parting words: ‘Go and give thanks to God for the salvation you have been granted!’ Upon awakening, the sufferer told her brother and all her near ones about her marvelous dream, during which she described in detail the priest she had seen in her dream, whose appearance had become strongly impressed upon her imagination; as to who the priest she had seen might be, to this question no one was able to provide an answer.
“Some time elapsed after this dream; all who heard about it had forgotten it, but then even the sufferer herself thought less and less of it, although she did keep hidden in her heart the conviction that her prophetic dream had to have some special significance, And suddenly, completely by accident, she came to see a picture of Father John of Kronstadt, about whose outward appearance she had no idea to that time, although she had heard much about him, for the whole of Russia was filled with news about him. Just imagine her amazement and that of her relatives when she recognized in the picture of Father John the very same priest who had saved her from peril in her dream. She immediately wired Father John in Kronstadt, asking his prayers and intercessions before the throne of the King of kings. Father John did not delay in carrying out her request, served a molieben for her health, of which he advised her in due course. From that time, the incurable sickness, which threatened the sufferer with inevitable death, took a turn for the better, and in a short time the patient completely recovered. She was so grateful that, upon recovering, she was not afraid to undertake a distant, long and difficult journey and, together with her brother, came from Kiahta to Kronstadt so as to personally thank the kind pastor, who had besought a cure for her with his prayers.”
Miracles were not exceptional phenomena in the life of St. John: he lived by a miracle and in a miracle. His very existence was a complete miracle — this constant movement, this restless activity with an almost total absence of rest and sleep for a man of exceptionally frail health, and this all the way up to an extremely old age! And his actual relations with people — this was a type of uninterrupted clairvoyance, constantly manifesting itself with people, miraculous by its very nature, and on top of that constantly and evidently surpassing “the order of nature!” And it is difficult to say in what the “miraculousness” was more marvelous: in the strikingly obvious, powerful, terrifying and shattering phenomena of healing miracles, or in manifestations of spiritual vision which were barely noticeable to the outward eye — in the finest and deepest influences on man’s soul, of each individual person from the great mass of people who everywhere surrounded St. John. A word, a gesture, material aid, hiding behind its outward (at times literally lifesaving) sustenance a deep, inner meaning as well, so that it appeared to have fallen from heaven after being prepared precisely to fulfill a certain need all of a sudden, even down to the most minute details; everything in St. John’s activity was bestowed by grace. He lived and conducted himself among people like everyone else, without separating himself from them in any way and remaining in the most intimate contact with them, but he saw something different from what all around him could see — he looked upon earthly things with spiritual eyes… He saw the past and the future, read in the hearts of people, as in an open book, the most hidden thoughts… He also saw the forces of darkness which fill the element of the air… He even revealed this at times to people close to him… He saw, for example, demons, swirling near funeral processions, accompanying the bodies of unrepentant sinners to their final resting place…
The descriptions of miracles performed by St. John are countless. I will reproduce but the smallest number of them from those which were recorded by my late wife in Harbin, from interviews with living witnesses of these miracles. By this we will see St. John in another plane as well — in his activities outside the church building, and in this way his portrait will be made more complete, which until now we have seen mainly either from afar, at a distance, or inside the walls of a church.
“My first recollection of Father John of Kronstadt,” says Mrs. X emotionally, “was the day of the baptism of my younger sister. I was then four years and five months old. I remember how, after the baptism, Father John was sitting in the dining room and was pouring tea for everyone, while each one of us children he fondled, and called one of us ‘Red Ribbon,’ another ‘Bright Sun.’ Father John called my younger brother ‘Little Lamb’ — he was curly-haired. Mother later recounted that when she asked Batiushka to baptize my younger sister, Father John replied that he would no longer baptize in his capacity of a priest, but would only be godfather. He had too many godchildren by that time. But for my mother, for whom he had baptized all her children, he agreed to make an exception and baptize her last child also.
‘The second clear recollection of Father John’s visit remained with me when I was six years old. Father John was sitting at our home in the dining room. He called me to him. “Mother, passing by, says:
“‘Batiushka, she is not worth fondling, she’s lazy, does not pray to God.’ Father John asked me: ‘Are you really lazy?’ I replied: Yes.’ ‘And which prayers do you know?’ I counted off the ones that I knew. Batiushka said: There is no need for so many; say only one — “Our Father”— but do not hurry.’ I was elated at not having appeared such a lazybones in his eyes. “Shortly I was a witness to a miracle, performed by Batiushka in our house. A sick boy of our acquaintance was brought in from Petersburg. His leg was in splints! Batiushka served a molieben at our place, after the molieben took of the splints, instructed the leg to be bound up only by a bandage, and that very evening the boy was already playing with us, completely well. When Batiushka was asked what had been the matter with the child. Father John replied: ‘It is necessary for the father to drink less, then the boy will recover.’ It is true; the boy’s father was a drunkard.
“And here is a second miraculous event also in our home. It happened one evening that Batiushka was saying a molieben in the sitting room. The room was illuminated by a lampada before an icon of the Mother of God, and by three candles lit up next to a water-filled vase, prepared to be blessed, and also by a lamp under a lampshade. I often happened to be present during Father John’s moliebens, but this particular molieben remained in my memory for the rest of my life. Batiushka prayed with special fervor and confidently said: ‘Queen of Heaven, we beseech you and you will help us.’ There was no doubt that everything would be as Batiushka had requested. This evening he was serving at the request of students, friends of my elder brother. One of the students, looking sad, stood near the door. None of us knew the reason for his sorrow. When Batiushka had finished the molieben, he passed next to him into the front room, blessed him, and unnoticeably slipped him some money. When Batiushka left, the deeply moved student said that Batiushka had given him exactly the amount of money with which he had to pay his tuition fees. Were it not for his help, he would have had to leave the university. He had never spoken about this fact — the more remarkable was Father John’s gesture.
“While here is a third occurrence, which did not take place in our house this time, but which also happened in front of my eyes. My sister and I were often in the Working House, playing with the children of those who worked there. But Mother did not permit us to enter the rooms of the visitors. Two ladies arrived from Siberia, or from the Urals, both very wealthy. They owned some sort of factories over there, but I cannot remember now. The ladies took a liking to my sister and me at our encounter with them in the garden and hallway, and they dragged us into their room. Soon the ringing of bells announced Father John’s arrival. At the request of the newly arrived ladies, Batiushka said a molieben; one of the ladies gave Batiushka a parcel of money. Batiushka declined to accept it: Take it back,’ he says, ‘you will find it useful yourselves.’ The lady began to assure him that to her the amount was so insignificant, there was no need even to discuss it. Batiushka did not take the money anyway. That very evening a telegram was received, announcing that all the factories and house had burnt down, and this parcel of money was useful to the bankrupt wealthy ladies for their return journey…”
Let us restrict ourselves by reproducing just one more account from this series, made by Mr. Am: “My father had friends in his regiment, the two Eropkin brothers: Nicholas, an aide-de-camp at court, and Ipplit, a regiment commander (His Majesty’s Cuirassier Guards). Once the elder brother, Nicholas, was visiting us, and suddenly had a strange and cruel attack — of what character, I am now unable to explain. But his condition was so serious that the doctor who was called did not allow him to be taken home, but made arrangements for the patient to remain lying in our house, without moving, in complete rest. A separate room was made available to the patient, a consultation of the very best and well-known doctors was called. The patient’s condition was diagnosed as very serious. “A few days passed and Doctor Botkin warned my mother that within two or three days the officer would die and, probably, in a state of very stormy and violent agony, for which reason it was desirable to have some male nurses with him, who were physically very strong. Indeed the patient’s fits kept becoming more turbulent. Just in case. Father called out a few cuirassier soldiers who had to remain in the kitchen.
“Mother suggested to my father to call upon Father John, requesting him to give the patient Holy Communion. This disconcerted my father, who knew Eropkin as a man who was not only an unbeliever, but who even made fun of believers. He was afraid the patient might be disrespectful toward Batiushka. But Mother reasoned thus: ‘Father John must be pre-warned about everything, and then he will act as he sees fit.’
“Father John arrived the following day. Without inquiring about anything of my father, he immediately said: ‘Well, show me to the patient; as for those who are sitting in the kitchen — send them home in peace…’ This straight away astounded us, as we couldn’t understand how he could have known about the cuirassiers, called out by Father just in case… Father John was led to the patient. Batiushka, upon entering, said:
“‘Hello, Captain!’ “‘Hello, Batiushka,’ very calmly and respectfully replied the patient. “You’re gravely ill. Are you receiving proper attention?’ “‘Certainly, by the grace of His Majesty I am attended by the best doctors. I am not refused anything.’
“‘Well, but the main medicine you have not yet taken! Christ’s Holy Mysteries! Would you like to take Holy Communion?’ “The patient replied that he had not been to Communion for over twenty years and considered this to be, for him, impossible. “The more reason for confession and Communion,’ said Batiushka. “‘All right,’ agreed the cavalry captain. “Batiushka stood near the patient’s bed. “Unforgettable is his conversation with God, flaming intensity, demanding intercession. After this, all of us left the room. “After about half an hour, the door of the room opened and Batiushka loudly said, calling out to us: “‘Well, and now all of you come in and congratulate the patient… He has been honored to accept the Lord.’ “‘All of us entered the room. The face of the cavalry captain was unrecognizable: it was radiant and peaceful. “Mother invited Father John into the dining room for tea. Father John accepted and even promised to eat something. “‘And you, Captain, now go to sleep quite calmly and peacefully, like a child.’ Tenderly he turned to the patient, looked at him even more tenderly, and silently went out.
“We walked through to the dining room. “‘Well, and now he will silently fall asleep forever,’ Batiushka told us. By morning, the cavalry captain was no more.” In conclusion, a piece out of the recollection of that woman who saw a vision in church, reproducing a picture of the already departing Batiushka: “In the beginning of September 1908 I became ill with cholera, and Prof. Chistovich, at the request of his friend, Doctor Shverdloff, placed me in the Military Academy of Medicine, where, apart from myself, there were only military cadets. I was in a very bad way. Then Daria Iakovlevna — also a soul close to Batiushka — rushed to him in Kronstadt to ask for his prayers.
Batiushka, when he heard, just kept sighing: ‘Oh, the poor thing, the poor thing!’ But his wife said to him: ‘John, Nicky will remain an orphan… You are able to do it. Pray!’ Then he went into his study. A couple of hours later he returned, radiant, and said: ‘She will remain! The Lord has returned her to life! And she already had one foot in the grave!’ “At that very time I had already been removed over there to die in another building. But the nurse, who came to love me, in desperation injected me with a tremendous dose of camphor, and I revived and remained…
Batushka’s last days.
“…On December 9, I went to Kronstadt to my husband’s grave and after that got ready to go to Batiushka to thank him for this cure. From the cemetery I went to Elizabeth, and she said to me: ‘Olenka, you have to go to Batiushka. They’ll let you in, although he is already so weak that he served his last Liturgy on the fourth, while he now partakes of Holy Communion— in such a bad state is he…’ I asked Vera Pertsov to find out whether I could come. Batiushka said: ‘If she wants to receive my blessing, then let her come now, but if she wants to have a talk, then at 6 o’clock.’ So I had to remain overnight in Kronstadt, which I had no intention at all of doing. When I came to him at 6 o’clock, I stopped on the porch, not expecting such a change… He sat in an armchair covered by a robe, all skin and bones.
“‘Hello, my white angel, hello, my happiness! How pleased I am to see you! Thank you for your faith! Why, you rose up from the dead! And you were already one foot in the grave! I say now that I am not what I was, that I have become worse.’
“And he says: ‘If you lose faith, then who will there be to believe!’ and asked me strongly to maintain my faith…
“Only one single little lamp was burning in the room, before an icon of St. Seraphim, which I had brought to him from the Sarov monastery. He conversed with me for a long time. Then he said, seeing my tears: ‘Don’t imagine that if I leave, then all is over! Over there, before the Throne, I will pray in the same way and you must continue to tell me everything. I will be even closer, standing before the Throne of the Most High; and I will hear you and will fulfill your request… While now, we must thank the Lord for your cure! Tomorrow I will celebrate my last Liturgy. Only I am very weak, so you come running. Don’t be late!’
“As a parting gesture, Batiushka rose and even sat me down to sit awhile in his armchair…
“When I told them at the Working House that Batiushka would serve tomorrow, no one wanted to believe me, and even convinced me that I did not understand as I should have, that this couldn’t be possible. But anyway, in the morning, albeit with doubts, we went with Grandma Liza to church, not hurrying especially… and suddenly, coming abreast to the house where Batiushka lived, we saw the gates swinging open, and from there, covered in pillows, he rode out… And we were indeed forced to run…
“And so, on December 10, 1908, Batiushka served his last Liturgy and even delivered a sermon. During celebration of the Mystery, he pierced himself with the spear and later, standing on the solea, turned to those standing close to him and said, pointing to the oozing blood: There, I have stabbed myself!’ He was given a handkerchief to use as a bandage…
As he was giving me Communion, Batiushka uttered: ‘God’s servant Olga is receiving Communion of healing and salvation.’ These were the last words of dear Batiushka which I heard from him here on earth.” St. John passed away, as is known, on December 20, 1908.
St. John’s fame.
Exactly twenty-five years before, on December 20, 1883, a “grateful announcement” from a group of people had appeared in the Novoye Vremia, people who had received a cure through St. John’s prayers with the testament from him “to live by God’s truth and to partake of Holy Communion as often as possible.” On the very following day, this announcement, signed by sixteen people of various callings, was read by the Oberprocurer in the Synod. Its members were surprised by such a sudden announcement, while Metropolitan Isidore expressed dissatisfaction over the fact that these announcements were published in a lay paper without permission from the church censorship…
Thus was the foundation laid for St. John’s fame throughout Russia. This phenomenon could not be measured by any standard of everyday life, and there is no need to be surprised by the perplexity, replete with doubts, displayed by members of the Synod. Even such a person as Theofan the Vishensky hermit deemed it his duty to raise his voice of warning, addressing St. John with a letter of love and guidance. He pointed out to St. John that he was taking on an ascetic life while in the world, amidst life’s temptations and misfortunes, and that this must lead to a terrible fall, or else would end in nothing, since no one, from the time of adopting Christianity, not only in Russia, but also in the East, had yet dared to venture upon such a path while being not a monk, but a priest, living beyond the walls and rules of a monastery.
Bishop Theofan was afraid that this would inevitably give rise to a very great temptation for the clergy and people… Time was required before Bishop Theofan’s heart became calm again and he was capable of trusting St. John: “A man of God,” he called him now, “whose prayer reaches God through his great faith,” while he called his thoughts “a fragrant breeze of a spring morning.” However, St. John’s anointment to perform great miracles was not hidden from the spiritual gaze of other holy men. Thus, the venerable Paraskeva Kovrighina, who, as repeatedly testified by St. John himself, directly moved him to dare invoke miracles in prayer daily and everywhere, did this not by her own volition: it was willed to her by Ilarion, the favorite disciple of St. Seraphim of Sarov (who lived as a hermit in the Rieshminsky Monastery). He had told her: ‘The time has come for you to follow the noble path, leaving your home. Go to Kronstadt; a new star in Christ’s Church has risen over there — Father John! Go and serve him! My blessing be with you!”
“My Life in Christ.”
What was St. John really like? We have seen him from different sides, as he appeared on the outside. To delve into his “inner man,” while, at the same time, to catch the growth of his personality, to comprehend the external facts of his life, it is not essential for us to examine a mountain of documents and attestations — as is usually required and which represents a task of enormous difficulty, which may be done only gradually, after intense labor by investigators over a period of decades and, sometimes, centuries. St. John represents in himself the only individual in the world who has himself said everything necessary to reveal his personality, and that to the very end.
All are familiar with the diary of his heart. My Life in Christ— a work which has no “precedent” not only in lay, but also in religious, literature. His confession, in which there is nothing “personal”! A life — truly “in Christ,” for what do the daily entries reveal? Rejection of oneself — a voluntary, willing, reasonable laying of the cross upon oneself — following after Christ — being joined to Him… There is not a trace of “selfness,” not a whit of “self-pity” or self-justification! There is no glancing aside at people, at society and its opinion — in the sense of seeking approval, sympathy, acceptance. There is no looking back upon oneself — that terrible “devil’s mirror” (in the words of Hieromonk Methodius, a remarkable servant of the Church who died quite young in Harbin), so common to our divided consciousness, deprived of “chastity”! A confession — in the exact sense of the word, i.e., opening the soul to God, total, complete, forgetful of self, full of hatred toward sin and lovingly directed toward God.
And simultaneously — a confession of faith, merging inseparably with praise of God, bursting from the heart. A humble revelation of one’s weakness and sinfulness — but only in the light of ceaseless battle against them, a battle which was unfailingly victorious — through the strength of unshakeable faith in God’s aid. Thus it is a way for all to partake of the saving depths of the spiritual experience which transforms human weakness into the power of God. Thus, it becomes, then, a proclamation of salvation, not abstract, but set forth as experienced: by showing what? The ladder of ascent from the depths of sin to communion with God, by showing the whole natural weakness of human nature — not only in the light of constantly overcoming this weakness, by showing the whole blessed “simplicity” of such overcoming, by showing the fragrant “simplicity” of holiness coming to full bloom — literally in front of one’s eyes — out of the depths of the human heart, should it only submit itself to the influence of the grace that acts within the Church, voluntarily following Christ… And at the same time here, finally, is all the unspeakable power of the grace of priesthood, the full majesty of God’s performer of Mysteries, revealing in his person Christ-God to people and becoming a participant with Him in the Holy Mysteries, a daily participant in the awe-inspiring Eucharistic sacrament…
‘This is a man who tells God and people only what his heart tells him: in his voice he reveals as much emotion, to people he gives as much attention and kindness, as he feels in his heart, and will never let his lips say more than what he has within his soul. This is the highest form of spiritual truth, which brings man closer to God.”
The above, witnesses Vladyka Anthony, was said by Bishop Michael Gribanovsky. This is a weighty statement, and to appreciate the full weightiness of it, it is necessary to supplement it by pointing out that this was not merely a formal truthfulness, which was in evidence here, but something greater, something different. True, St. John speaks this alone, and only to the degree that it was alive in his own heart, but at the same time, what is it that defines the nature of his personality? The concern of his whole life — all-determining, all-enveloping, solely — for what? Only that his heart be totally filled with Christ-God, so that the life of his heart be always and completely a life in Christ. Life in Christ — not an aim, reached at certain moments, but an everyday reality, which is achieved by life-long and ceaseless labor, by ceaseless struggle. It is only small traces of this great labor that we find in St. John’s blessed diary, but this labor lies in its foundation. These “tribulations and labors,” which reach a tension of utter martyrdom, are mentioned by hints and short comments: we guess at them rather than know anything definite. St. John does not hide them, nor does he reveal them. One thing we do know for certain, however: he does not rest, does not lay down his arms, does not cease his labors — the force of which we are barely able even to imagine! — until for every given moment he does not cease that spiritual “simplicity” of his “inner man,” that God-like beauty and purity of him, which allows the human heart to be an abode of Christ-God and which creates conditions under which man — alike within himself, in people, in nature, in everything and everywhere — sees God!
And from this, what is it that arises and forms a blessed and fragrant mystery in St. John’s personality? What arises is that there is no need for him to search for measures of his feelings toward men and God, for all human measures already refuse to serve! It is in the spirit that St. John abides — remaining at the same time completely ordinary in his appearance, completely ordinary in his dealings with people, in the midst of all the worldliness of his relations with people! This is the very thing, the impossibility and unattainability of which was asserted by Bishop Theofan, but which was revealed, however, to the world by the phenomenon of St. John!
Here there is but one comparison, one confrontation, one likening which arises naturally and inevitably. And it is only in relation to St. John that this does not sound sacrilegious: the events of the Gospels. But not only does St. John “confess” himself, carrying Christ’s Gospel to the world. Sometimes, just as “simply” as he speaks about everything, he speaks also about himself, tells people about himself, reveals himself to them, acquaints them with how he sees himself!
To see oneself! To whom is this given? Usually, a person sees himself differently from what he actually is, and consequently every self-portrait has to be interpreted, by removing the “author’s” stylization — no matter where it may be directed, in the direction of light, or darkness. To see oneself! The holy fathers profess that this ability is the very peak of what man can achieve! It exceeds the ability to see angels and to resurrect the dead, for the presence of this ability evidences that verily a person’s spiritual eyes have been opened…
But this precisely was St. John’s blessed achievement!
How did St. John speak of himself?
There exists his short autobiographical sketch — the only one! — composed by him for some reason and appearing in 1888 in the magazine Sever (North). We will reproduce it in full:
“I am the son of a churchman from the village of Soursk, district of Pinezhsk, province of Archangelsk. From very early childhood, as early as I can remember, at the age of four or five, perhaps even earlier, my parents taught me to pray and by their religious frame of mind made me a religiously-minded boy. At home, in my sixth year, Father brought be a primer, and Mother began to teach me the alphabet; but reading and writing came to me with great difficulty, which was the cause of no little sorrow to me. I just couldn’t master the identity between our speech and writing; in my time reading and writing were not taught as it is now: we were all taught ‘Az’ (for ‘A’), ‘Boukee’ (for ‘B’), Vedi,’ etc., as if ‘A’ were one thing and ‘Az’ a different thing. For a long time did this wisdom elude me, but having been taught by Father and Mother to pray, grieving over my failures in studies, I prayed heatedly to God, so that He would grant me understanding — and I remember how, suddenly, it was as if a veil were lifted from my mind, and I began to comprehend studies well. When I was ten I was taken to the Archangelsk parish school. My father, naturally, received a very small salary, so that it must have been terribly difficult to live. I already understood the real position of my parents, and for this reason my inability at school was indeed a calamity. I thought little of the significance my studies would have on my future, and grieved especially over how Father was needlessly spending his last means to support me.
“Left in Archangelsk completely alone, I was deprived of my parents and had to arrive at everything myself. Among the boys of my age group in class, I did not find, nor did I seek, support or assistance; they were all more able than I, and I was the last pupil. Anguish took hold of me. Then it was that I turned for help to the Almighty, and a change took place in me. In a short time I moved forward to such an extent that I ceased to be the last pupil. The further I went, the better and better I became in my studies, and by the end of the courses was among the first transferred to the seminary, which I finished first in 1851 and was sent to the Petersburg Academy on a full scholarship. While still in the seminary, I lost my dearly beloved father, and my old mother remained without any means of support. Right after seminary I wanted to take up the position of deacon or psalmist so as to have the means of supporting her, but she heatedly opposed this, and I set out for the Academy. In the Academy’s board of administration, the position of clerks was then filled by students for the most insignificant salary (about ten roubles a month), and I gladly agreed to accept the offer of the Academy’s secretary to take this position, so as to send this money to Mother. Having completed my course of studies as a candidate in theology in 1855,1 went as a priest to Kronstadt, having married Elizabeth, the daughter of Archpriest K.N. Nesvitsky, who is alive even to this day; I do not have and have never had any children. From the very first day of my high service to the Church, I set myself the rule: to regard my task of pastorship and priesthood as conscientiously as possible, to pay strict attention to myself and to my inner life. With this aim I, first of all, began to read the Holy Writ of the Old and New Testaments, extracting from it all that was edifying to myself, as a man generally and as a priest in particular. Later I began to keep a diary, where I wrote down my battle with thoughts, with passions, my penitent feelings, my silent prayers to God and my grateful emotions for having been delivered from temptations, woes and tribulations. Every Sunday and Holy Day I would deliver sermons and discourses in church, either prepared by myself, or from the sermons of Metropolitan Gregory. Some of my discourses have been published: ‘On the Blessed Trinity,” ‘On the Creation of the World,’ and ‘On the Gospel’s Beatitudes.’ Apart from preaching I came to take care of the poor like myself and -about twenty years ago, in 1874 — conceived the idea of setting up in Kronstadt a “Working House for the poor,’ and which the Lord helped to bring about fifteen years ago. — That’s all.”
That’s all! All of St. John is in this concluding exclamation — similar to those with which he would, now and again, express the “simplicity” of his heart during reading in church, wholly engrossing himself into what became the subject of his attention. St. John does not see himself as separate and apart from his life’s vocation — he is wholly in it, and for this reason he is able to regard himself “simply” even from the outside and to speak about himself: he is an obedient tool, and it is the Lord’s business to employ this tool for this or that, himself being nothing more than a most ordinary servant.
Let us look at another document which will show how St. John sees himself — precisely in the image of a priest. This — his first sermon, delivered by him at his first Liturgy in St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Kronstadt on the Savior’s words: “Feed my lambs.”
‘These words of the supreme Chief Pastor Christ are familiar to all of us, my brethren, because you have not infrequently heard them during the reading of the Gospel at all-night vigils on Saturday evenings; you also know to whom they were said: I will repeat them as they were said to the Apostle Peter, and were said thrice, as a sign of the threefold reinstatement of the Apostle, who had thrice renounced his Lord. The Lord mystically addresses these same words to us also, unworthy pastors of His spiritual flock, when He calls us, through the medium of a bishop, to the pastoral service. The Lord’s words reached also the ears of my own heart: ‘Feed my lambs,’ commanding me to feed you, His spiritual lambs.
“I am aware of the exaltedness of the office and the responsibilities attached to it; I can feel my frailty and unworthiness in carrying out the highest calling on earth, that of a priest; but I am relying on the grace and mercy of God, healing the weak and replenishing the failing. I know what is capable of making me more or less worthy of this office and able to carry out this calling: it is love toward Christ and you, my beloved brethren. This is why the Lord also, in reinstating the disciple who had renounced Him in the rank of Apostle, thrice asked him: ‘Lowest thou Me?’ and after each one of his answers: ‘I love Thee,’ repeated to him: ‘Feed My lambs, feed My sheep.’
“Love is a great force: it makes even the weak strong, and the small great, and the insignificant worthy of deep respect, and the hitherto unknown and strange, it soon makes close and amiable. Such is the nature of pure, evangelical love. May the Lord Who is full of love toward all grant also to me a spark of that love; may he inflame it in me with His Holy Spirit.
“Exalted, I said, is the calling of a priest. For whose office is it? It is Christ’s office. He is the only High Priest, the first and the last, offering a sacrifice and being brought in sacrifice for all; He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last; we are arrayed with the grace of His priesthood, He Himself officiates in us and through us. Consequently, we ourselves must also deeply honor our office, and you, brethren, must for your own worthiness and salvation deeply honor this office and summit to the bearers of it, being indulgent towards their frailties and deficiencies. For although we are exalted by our office, our nature is the same as yours, weak and subject to stumbling. And what mortal human can fully measure up to the height and holiness of the office of priesthood? If we are to take into consideration only one thing, that a priest, standing before the very throne of God in an earthly church, must so often perform the life-endowing awesome Mysteries of Christ, must intercede for the instruction and guidance of the Church, on behalf of the whole world, for the welfare of God’s churches in the whole universe and the unification of all dissenters; to bring an offering of gratitude for all the saints: forefathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, the ascetics and for all blessed souls; to pray for the living and the dead — then what an angelic worthiness is required for that? Is this a task for our frailty, when we, on account of our sins, would not dare open our mouths even for ourselves, so as to implore heavenly justice and mercy for our own sins? No: this is the work of the highest grace, this is the work of the countless good things which Christ has done for us. He is the Interceder and the One Who accepts intercessions. While if we are to take into consideration also the performance of the rest of the mysteries, particularly baptism, confession, marriage, extreme unction: what holiness is required, what a wealth of Christ’s love, from the priest performing these sacraments. For in all prayers and officiations, belonging to the content of the sacraments, there breathes the spirit of God’s infinite love toward the human race, (the spirit) of mercy, extreme condescension, sanctity and incorruptibility.
“Yet again, there is the preaching of God’s Word, the proclaiming of the eternal truths of the Gospel in a language readily understandable by all, imbued with the spirit of evangelical love, so as to teach, enlighten, correct, confirm, guide along the path leading to eternity: what a lofty and difficult duty this is! Without a doubt, the grace of God will help us in everything, if we will be worthy of it, and if you will try to walk in, or to live worthily of, your lofty Christian calling. And so, here, brothers and sisters, is my first word to you in church, with which I make your acquaintance. Accept it with an open, straightforward and kind heart, accept me into your love, and remember me before the Lord in your prayers, which you daily raise up to Him. I will conclude it with an apostolic blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.’“ After twenty-five years, St. John was greeted in the same church, when a precious cross was given to him. He replied to his flock thus:
‘Thank you for having regarded my frailties with benevolence. Yes, I am replete with frailties; I know my frailties, but the power of God is perfected in weakness, and it was wonderfully perfected in me during my twenty-five years’ service in the priesthood, and, I dare say — for I’ll be telling the truth — through me it was perfected in many simple believers in an evident, palpable manner. Glory be to grace! Glory be to the Lord Jesus Christ, Who has granted us grace upon grace! I am telling you about this power of God in me so that you will, together with me, praise our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Whose grace and mercy has not grown weaker even now, as it will not grow weaker until the end of time, which was performed within me every day and many times a day by Christ’s grace. I cannot estimate the countless multitude of snares of the prince of the world and attacks of passions, destroyed by the grace and power of Christ within me, by my silent prayer of faith, on account of heartfelt confession and especially through the power of Divine Communion!
What angelic, all-embracing mind will count all of God’s mysterious gifts to my soul — the blessed gifts of mercy, cleanliness, blessedness, enlightenment, peace, tender emotion, freedom and spiritual breadth, joy in the Holy Spirit, the audacity and strength and multifarious aid, which I invisibly received throughout all the days of my service. I cannot count the innumerable blessed healings — spiritual and physical, performed by the Lord within me through the heartfelt calling of His wonderful name. Glory be to God our Savior! He sees that I am not falsely sending up to Him this glory. Only by Him and of His Name am I glorious, while without Him — dishonorable; only by Him powerful, while without Him — infirm; with Him holy, without Him — replete with sins; with Him I dare, without Him I am cowardly; with Him I am meek and humble, without Him I am irritable and not blessed. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His Name together…”
Considerably later, on his seventieth birthday on October 19, 1899, St. John, casting his mind back and again recalling the words of the Apostle that the power of God is perfected in weakness, said:
“Who of those who knew me in childhood could have thought that I would live to be over seventy, which (age), according to the Prophet, represents the extreme limit of the life of man, this earthly wanderer? I grew up sickly, weak, and in my very infancy a severe illness, smallpox, almost brought me to the grave — I was a hair’s breadth away from death, to use the apt expression. The Lord preserved my life — I recovered and began to grow. When the time was ripe for me to begin my schooling — I was brought to school, studies were unintelligible to me — I had not been prepared for them at home; I had to arrive at understanding and learning by myself; I was aware of and felt my helplessness, jealousy regarding the successes of my classmates — and began to ask for help and understanding from God, Who gives to all men liberally and upbraideth not (James 1:5), in the words of St. James the Apostle — and the Lord opened my mind: I was enlightened by Divine Light, reading and writing became clear to me, and I began to advance in my studies in proportion to my age and the educational aim. But even then, during studies, how many illnesses I had to experience! “In poor physical health, I completed three educational and instructional schools: lower, middle and high, gradually forming and developing three spiritual forces: the mind, heart and will, as the image of a tripartite soul, created in the image of the Holy, Life-creating Trinity.
The highest Church school, which is known as the Theological Academy, had a salutary influence upon me. Theological, philosophical, historical and various other studies, widely and deeply taught, clarified and widened my contemplation of the world, and I, by the grace of God, began to delve into the depths of theological contemplation, coming to know more and more the depth of God’s grace, which has created all things wisely, beautifully, beneficently, having subjected all creatures to firm, vital harmonic laws; my mind and heart were especially captivated by the wise and wonderful plan for the salvation of the perishing human race through the Divine Lamb of Jesus Christ, which toketh away the sin of the world (St. John 1:29); the religious feeling, which was instilled within me by my devout parents, developed and grew stronger. Having read the Bible with the Gospel and many works of Chrysostom and other ancient Fathers, as well as the Russian Chrysostom, Philaret of Moscow, and other Church orators, I felt a special attraction to the calling of a priest and began to implore the Lord that He would grant me the grace of priesthood and pastorship of His human flock. Contemplating the wonderful plan of God for the salvation of the human race, so full of love, I wept ample and hot tears, burning with the desire to assist in the salvation of perishing humanity. And the Lord fulfilled my desire. Soon after completing my formal education I was elevated to the height of the priesthood.
“And thus I have passed forty years in this calling, offering up to God supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks for all men, for kings, and for all that are in authority (II Timothy 2:1-2) and offering, almost daily, the bloodless Sacrifice, reconciling creatures with their Creator, for the Lord has given priests the ministry of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:18),through which I also reconcile myself daily with the Just Judge Who is daily angered by me, and reconcile people, averting His just anger, which moves against us as a result of our sins, turning men away from crooked, pernicious ways and indicating the true paths. I thank the Lord for having given me the opportunity and faculty, through frequent Divine Services, to learn the whole round of Church service-books, to master their wise contents and richness of subject, their images of the greatest, saving confession of sinners and God’s mercy toward penitents, the whole depth of theology, the full sweetness of the hymns of praise to God and wonderful praises to the Mother of God, love toward God and various feats of countless saints. “I thank the Lord for having favored me with being born and raised in, and being a priest of, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to be Her member, though an unworthy one, and to have been favored with intercession for Her before God, for I do not depend upon my own works, which I do not have, but upon all that the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us, redeeming me from sin, the curse and death with His Blood, upon the prayers of the Mother of God, the Holy Angels and all the saints. They will entreat the Lord for me, and He will lead me into His heavenly kingdom.
St. John on Priesthood.
“Dear brethren, priests and co-pastors of Christ’s flock! The greatest of callings has been entrusted to us from God. We are clothed with the grace of priesthood, we are empowered by the grace of God’s ever-acting and all-sanctifying Spirit to perform God’s greatest Mysteries in the Church — the rebirth and sanctification of sinful humanity, the renewing reconciliation of ourselves and humanity with God, we stand before the Throne of the Almighty face to Face, we converse with Him, we beseech and thank Him, we constantly refer to Him as His closest Ministers and Stewards of His mysteries (I Corinthians 4:1). What faith is required of us — what reverence, what never-ending attention to ourselves, what purity of heart, what passionlessness, what trust in God, what love toward God and neighbor, what audacity, what wisdom and simplicity, what revocation from every evil, what mercy and compassion toward people, sinking in a mire of sins!
“A priest, while living on earth, should be of heaven, setting his affection on things above, not on things on earth (Colossians 3:2) and completely devoted to God and to the salvation of men! Where are we to obtain all this, from where are we to draw upon such abundant grace? God has given us every grace. We must constantly test ourselves, to awaken ourselves from sleepiness, with which the enemy is constantly trying to rob us: we must stir up the gift of God (II Timothy 1:6) granted during the laying on of hands — clothed in the grace of the priesthood, with the grace to intercede for the people and for the whole world, with the grace to perform the great Christian Mysteries, which can greatly assist in our salvation as well, in making us wise, in strengthening the spirit and body, and in the salvation of our neighbors. The saints were people akin to us in their passions, but they found their salvation and that of many, many people obedient to them. We will also find our own salvation and that of others if we shall be zealous: But the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26).” Later still, in 1901, upon the initiative of His Grace, Bishop Nazary of Nizhny Novgorod, St. John’s meeting with the city’s priests was held. St. John said, approximately, the following:
“Highly honored fathers and brothers, co-pastors! You yourselves, I see, are people decorated with gray hairs, which means you are yourselves rich with life’s experiences. I have no thing to teach you. But since you are asking me how I happen to attain a beneficial effect upon the hearts of people, then I will tell you. I try to be a sincere pastor, not only in words, but also in deeds — in life. Consequently, I watch myself closely, after my spiritual world, over my inner workings. I even keep a diary, where I put down my deviations from God’s Law, test myself and try to reform. I am busy the whole day, from morning until late night. I perform my pastoral calling not only in Kronstadt; it often requires me to travel to different parts of Russia. Each day I am beset with pleas, so that at times it becomes painful to me and I do not wish to do it, but I do, I try to satisfy all petitioners. No matter where I might be, and especially in Kronstadt, I myself daily perform the Liturgy and that sincerely, with all my heart — earnestly and devoutly offer the holy, bloodless sacrifice to God. for my sins and those of all Orthodox Christians. Worshippers see and feel my earnest, devout serving and themselves become imbued with holy emotions and pray earnestly.
At every Sunday Liturgy I preach the living Word of God. My inner life, my soul, is represented in my sermons; I mercilessly chastise human sins, vices and passions, reveal the errors of sectarians and schismatics. Thanks be to God — I myself can see the fruits of my pastoral labors. In St. Andrew’s Cathedral (and it is large) there are at times up to five thousand people, and all this multitude listens to me, as one man; there is no noise, no jostling: all eyes are directed at me. As I leave the church, the people surround me with love, all with shining faces; all may be seen to be in a blessed joyful mood. All this — the fruits of my prayer and preaching. Forgive me, most reverend pastors, for speaking thus about myself. God forbid that I should say this for the sake of self-praise, God forbid. No, it isn’t I who am doing all this, but the grace of God, reposing upon me — a priest…”
Another similar conversation took place somewhat later, in Sarapul, initiated by Bishop Micah in 1904. This is what St. John said: “All know that I was born in the district of Archangelsk, and completed the Petersburg Theological Academy. Immediately upon graduating from the Academy I occupied my present position in the city of Kronstadt— as a priest of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. This city is a military one: here at every step one meets military men, sailors, bay workers, etc. The sailors, who spend most of their time at sea on board their ships, upon coming ashore try to spend their free time in the grandest way possible, to get as much enjoyment as possible. For this reason one can always meet drunkards in the streets here and hear of many foul deeds. From the very first days of my ministry my heart began to bleed at the sight of such a wicked and sinful life and naturally a firm determination appeared to straighten out somehow these drunken but good-hearted people. It was especially painful to see drunks on my way home after the Liturgy.
Consequently I began to address them with words of accusation, admonitions and explanation as often as possible, persuading them to fight their weakness and so to attend God’s Church as often as possible, so as to spend the morning at least sober. At first, of course, I had to undergo a great deal of sorrow and unpleasantness, but this did not cause my spirit to flag. On the contrary, it strengthened it even more and hardened it for new battle with evil. At this time I fought against evil with the usual methods used in pastorship, and not only did I not step out as a general intercessor and petitioner before God, but did not even have such a wish and intention in the bottom of my heart. The Lord chose to place me on another path. This happened as follows. There lived in Kronstadt a pious woman with a most beautiful soul, called Paraskeva Kovrigina, a Kostromite by birth, who had devoted herself to the service of others. She began to press me earnestly to pray for one or another sufferer, assuring me that the prayer on their behalf would be effective and beneficial to them. But I continually refused, considering myself to be unworthy to be a special mediator between people in need of God’s aid, and God.
However, the constant requests and assurances of Paraskeva of God’s help finally convinced me, and, with firm expectation and hope, I began to appeal to God to heal the sick and debilitated of soul and body. The Lord heard my prayers, though unworthy, and answered them: the sick and infirm were healed. This encouraged and strengthened me. I began, more and more frequently, to appeal to God upon the pleas of various people, and the Lord has worked, and does work to the present, many wondrous deeds upon our common prayers. Many obvious miracles have occurred and even now occur. In this I see God’s instructions to me, a special assignment from God to pray for all who ask for God’s mercy. For this reason I do not refuse anyone my prayers, and, to visit the sick, travel at their request all over Russia. There were times when I was asked to cast out evil spirits, and the evil spirits have submitted and gone out of people by my prayer. But there were also those occasions when my attempts were not crowned with success — the evil spirits would not leave. It is true, these evil spirits would proclaim themselves to be the most cruel, the most tenacious… And my efforts in these cases were not crowned with success because I myself was not sufficiently prepared, did not maintain a strict fast, for in the words of Jesus Christ Himself, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting,’ or else I did not devote sufficient time to that particular person. With all my varied and numerous tasks it wasn’t possible for me to devote much time to one person, as there were always many waiting for my prayer and blessing. And as in my present life I had to be constantly in the outside world, visiting the homes of people of every rank and fortune, where food was offered, which I often had to accept, so as not to offend those who offered it with love, so, naturally, I found it impossible to keep a strict fast. On the whole, in my life I did not take upon myself any special fasts, not, of course, because I do not consider them necessary, but because conditions in my life did not permit me to do so, and I have never shown myself to be a faster, nor an ascetic, etc., although I eat and drink in moderation and live temperately.
As regards to how my present popularity came about, I must say that for this, I, on my part, did not take any measures nor efforts: everything just came about by itself, without me. From the time that cases of cures through me came to multiply, the witnesses and observers of them, or else those persons who had themselves experienced God’s grace upon themselves, not wishing to remain ungrateful before God, would announce what had happened in the daily press, through which cases of cures became known to the reading public and attracted new masses of people, thirsting for Christ’s comfort and God’s grace.
“Needless to say, all cases of miraculous cures have been publicized not by myself, but by those affected, and not only do I not consider myself to be in any way better than other priests, but justly reckon myself to be the worst, the last among you and all the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church in general, because all that is imperfect and bad is all mine, and if the wealth of God’s grace, given to me by God, was with someone else, worthier than I, then he would perform more good than I.
The inner battle.
‘The enemy of the human race began to subject me to various temptations from the very first days of my pastoral service. First of all, he began to instill in me a sort of unaccountable fear during the performance of the sacrament of baptism and the Divine Liturgy, and later began to make me waver through mental conflict. Then I understood that only through constant and never-ending vigilance over myself and never-ending prayer could I fight against this hidden and unremitting foe; I began to try, as deeply as possible, to know myself, i.e., my soul, my nature, my infirmities and failings. So that this vigilance after myself should be constant, I began to keep a diary from the very first days of my service.
To the present time I set myself as a rule to write down everything (outstanding in my spiritual life) — and that inner battle, which I wage with myself— and the bitterness of defeat from the side of the prince of darkness, and the sweetness of victory, and that blessed aid which the Lord gives me in the battle. At times, as I read through my diary and, as it were, look back upon myself, I can clearly see whether I am moving forward, have stopped in my advance, or have even retreated. Consequently, I consider the keeping of the diary of such importance, that I try not to miss even a single day without making at least the briefest of remarks. By always watching after myself and coming to know myself more and more, I also come to realize my own helplessness in all respects without the aid of God’s grace, especially in the defeat of evil, and through this you arrive at humility, at submission to God’s will, which is blessed and perfect always and in everything, and you also learn to regard other people as well with love, with sympathy, with a readiness to help them always and in everything.
“In order to quell everything unclean and injurious within myself and to be always ready to appeal to God, I always try to keep a double watch over my heart and to quell all unclean desires immediately as soon as I notice them. The main thing here is not to permit the sinful thought or desire to take hold (fasten) in the soul, to take possession of the mind, heart and all your being, and to put them on the rock of faith and God’s commandments. When the unclean desire or emotion is but arising, then it is much easier to extirpate it and to subdue it within you, than later, when it becomes deeply rooted. The task of ceaseless inner battle with oneself is at first extremely difficult, because this battle is with a cunning, perfidious and experienced foe — the devil. He employs all possible means to subjugate man; defeated in one case, he immediately employs another way, finer yet. That is why one must keep a vigil over oneself without fail…”
Here St. John’s speech was interrupted by one of the listeners: ‘Teach us, most honored Batiushka, how to behave in those cases when all efforts to repulse the enemy from oneself, to defeat him within oneself, come to nothing. Then despondency sets in involuntarily, the will becomes weakened and one loses heart during work. Would it be the correct method of battle in this case if one tries not to pay attention to the suggestions of the enemy, to spit upon him, so to speak?”
St. John animatedly replied: “Yes, quite so, that is exactly how you should act: you must, by diligently calling the name of Jesus Christ, with hidden, deep repentance, overthrow the hidden enemies; do not pay them any attention, do not concern yourselves with them, and you must consider everything they suggest to be a harmful dream. You must never become despondent during strong temptations. The Lord is always close to help us and is ready at the first call of His Name to protect and repulse our invisible foes. ‘And call upon Me in the day of trouble,’ says He through the Prophet, ‘I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.’“
“Allow me to ask you again, Batiushka: often one is forced to experience an extremely heavy feeling at the sight of victorious evil. How and with what can one defeat this type of despondency within oneself?” “Indeed, one experiences an extremely heavy feeling at the sight of victorious evil; I also have to experience a similar state often. Moreover, there is the awareness that even pastoral fervor is helpless here — one often has to concede. In these cases one can find comfort in the knowledge that this phenomenon is but temporary, permitted by God’s Providence with special aims, known only to God, and that sooner or later evil will be defeated and goodness will be victorious. Also in these cases one must strengthen oneself by prayer. But do not for a single moment forget how merciful the Lord is, and how quick to hear, that He always bends His ear to our prayer and very swiftly fulfills our requests and helps us, if we completely surrender ourselves to His holy and perfect will.”
On the power of prayer.
Addressing his listeners, St. John continued his speech.
“I will tell all of you, beloved fathers, that prayer must be our constant companion. And I always keep up within me a constant prayerful frame of mind: I thank, praise and glorify God the Benefactor in all places of His dominion. Prayer — it is the life of my soul; without prayer I cannot exist. To keep up within myself a constant prayerful frame of mind and intercourse with God’s grace, I try to serve as often as possible, daily if possible, and to partake of Christ’s Holy Body and Blood, each time drawing from this most holy source rich and powerful strength for the different pastoral labors. During my prayerful appeals to God I use the prayers laid down in the service book. This book represents such wealth, from which a man can draw everything required for his multifarious needs and prayerful sighs to God. Here the Holy Church, like a loving mother, has painstakingly gathered all that is essential for us in different occasions in life.
At times which are free from church services and pastoral activities, I read the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, especially the holy Gospels — these most precious and good tidings for us about our salvation. When reading, I try to delve into each verse, into each phrase, even into separate words and expressions. And then, with such an attentive regard to the Holy Book, such a wealth of ideas arises, as it were, a wealth of basic material for sermons, that no preacher could ever exhaust this depth of God. And when I have to deliver a sermon, for example, on the daily reading of Holy Writ, then at times I do not know which thought to choose, which one to prefer, so edifying are they. And how marvelously is the soul of man revealed in the Scriptures; it seems there isn’t a single state of the soul which would not find itself an answer here. But if reading of the Holy Scriptures is cursory and insufficiently thoughtful, their boundless wealth slips away.
“So as not to fall behind current events, I read contemporary periodicals by choice during my spare minutes.”
One of those present addressed St. John with this question: “You, Batiushka, with your constant travels all over Russia and at home, have to almost constantly serve with new people; when mistakes are often made, and confusion occurs among your co-servers, it appears as if you do not notice them; see, within a minute you are again in deep and concentrated prayer. Tell us, please, how you came to achieve this.” “Only by habit,” replied St. John, “by the habit of always praying. Whenever any state of mind in a man becomes a habit with him, he is very quick to pass into that state. And the same way I, having formed the habit of being in a constant prayerful frame of mind, am able very quickly to concentrate on prayer.”
His interlocutor continued: “Tell us, Batiushka, what set of prayers do you say before celebrating the Liturgy during your multifarious labors, demanding from you both time and great effort?”
“In this case I perform the usual rule of prayers laid down by the Church for those preparing to partake of Holy Communion; but in case it is totally impossible to perform this rule, either as a result of insufficient time or for other reasons, I reduce the number of prayers, but the prayers before Holy Communion I always read without fail. In this I am guided by the consideration that God needs from us and finds pleasing, not numerous prayers, but attentive supplication, offered from the whole heart. For this reason it is better to read a small number of prayers with complete attention and heartfelt, deep emotion, than many hurriedly and absent-mindedly. But I am especially strongly elevated and put into a prayerful frame of mind before celebrating Divine Liturgy by the reading of the canons at Matins. I always read the canons at Matins myself. What wealth is contained here, what deep meaning, what marvelous examples of burning faith in God, patience in afflictions, and faithfulness to duty amid the most savage tortures is here offered to us daily by the Church. Through the reading of canons the soul is little by little imbued with the high feelings and emotions of these saints which are glorified by the Church; it lives among Church recollections and through that becomes accustomed to Church life.
And I, one might say, was brought up in Church life upon this reading, which is why I advise others also, who sincerely wish to obtain spiritual wealth, to pay serious attention to the reading of the canons out of the Octoechos, Menaion, or Triodion… So, dear fathers and brothers, I have bared my soul before you; I have, so to speak, revealed the countenance of my soul, so that you would see by which method I attained what you see in me. My life — is a lengthy, stubborn and constant battle with myself, a battle which I am waging at present being constantly fortified by God’s grace. And each one of you can achieve the same results, if he will keep a constant vigil over himself with the aim of battling with his ‘old man’ and the spirits of wickedness, so as to be, with the aid of God’s grace, a candle, burning not under a bushel, but on a candlestick…”
St. John’s final words.
We will conclude with a few words spoken later still, extracted from St. John’s diary: “Owing to my old age (79 years) each day represents God’s special grace, each hour and every minute: my physical strength has become exhausted, but in compensation my spirit is brisk and burns toward my beloved Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ. How many pledges of grace from God have I received and am receiving; I trust this will also be in the future life, after death; while death is a birth unto life everlasting, but God’s mercy and love of mankind. God be praised! Fifty-two years of my priesthood have passed by God’s grace and mercy; I am still alive, although ailing. For so many years of blessed priesthood I shall be unable to thank the Lord, One in the Trinity. I served as I could, as I was able, and tried to do my best, but I made mistakes, was unwell, was strongly attracted by the enemy.
Cover up, O Lord, all my sins with Thy mercy! What shall I render unto Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast granted me the mercy to have been born and brought up in the Orthodox Faith and Church and in our dear, priceless homeland, Russia, in which the Orthodox Church has been implanted from remotest times. I thank and praise Thee, the best I can, by Thy grace! Lord, there are no words in the human tongue worthy to thank Thee for all those countless blessings, revealed by Thy goodness to me, a sinner, throughout the course of my life, which has passed before Thy Face, Gracious Father! Even until now, already the seventy-ninth year hast Thou protected and saved me daily, and now especially, because of my enemies, seeking to swallow me up for the reason that I am Thy servant, though an unworthy one. But grant unto me, O Lord, the grace to thank Thee perfectly and to achieve a pure life, created for me through penance; grant that I may avoid the deceptive attractions of multifarious sin, which battles against me and wants to steal me away from Thee. Grant me to glorify Thee, loudly, loudly in this godless world.”
This, then, is “Batiushka” John before us— revealed before the whole world. One may with certainty say that like that, none has ever spoken or written of himself. There is nothing personal, which has not been purified by the cleansing fire of repentance, in these confessions. In the pure — like a tear — heart of St. John, only Christ is reflected. “Batiushka” St. John of Kronstadt is our Russian Orthodox “imitation of Christ.” But this “imitation of Christ” was expressed not only in statements, but in deeds as well! And St. John remains the same simple Russian “batiushka” in his miracles as he looks upon us from the pages of his writings. The whole originality of St. John is in his ordinariness! He is the first among equals, a type of embodiment of the best features of the Russian priest, peculiar to him for centuries, and now, in the image of St. John, condensed into some sort of radiant phenomenon, which, however, retails all its inborn individuality.
A village lad from a northern out-of-the-way settlement, the son of a poor sexton, who with painful effort was barely able to complete primary school — such was the initial beginning! Yet where was the peak? It is at a dizzy height — it is even simply unimaginable, it disappears into the heights of the third heaven! And at the same time, what an inner logic there is in this ascent. No legendary transformations to stagger our imagination. Everything is “ordinary”! Miracles, from the first accompanying St. John, as if on purpose are enveloped in commonplace forms, as though but assisting the organic fruit to blossom, which in this natural growth is obtaining the fullness of its meaning.
How significant is the “career” of St. John! How significant is it especially against the background of his genealogy! For he is an offshoot of a whole “dynasty” of priests and churchmen, in the course of three hundred years serving one and the same village church! O how thick is the “levite” blood that flowed in the veins of St. John! And he remains rooted to the end in this ageless virgin soil, just as in every step of his way he remains in patriarchal dependence upon his family home, even if it be personified in the form of a humble wife of a village churchman, to whom he, while a student, sends his clerk’s wages.
It is well known how he, being already a priest, becoming mortally ill, referred the problem of breaking Lent (which was demanded by the doctors) up to the decision of his mother — who did not give her blessing for such a deviation from the regulations of piety. He chased away the dreams of missionary exploits — as bearing the stamp of something exceptional; he went along the well-trodden path: He married a priest’s daughter, a bride “with a position,” the daughter of the archpriest of Kronstadt Cathedral — and what was his amazement when, having first set foot in the Cathedral, he recognized the church, revealed to him long ago in a dream, and in that dream shown to him to be precisely “just as if he were at home here!” And as a priest he remained in this church for the entire span of his long life.
He remained a “batiushka” — merely filling up with juices, expanding, raising his initial activities, but in no way altering them nor betraying them in anything. He became All-Russian — but “batiushka” just the same! Close, dear, one’s own! This was partially understood by the well-known publicist M.O. Menshikoff, a man who was far removed from the Church but sensitive to life, when he wrote in the Novoye Vremia under the fresh impression of St. John’s death. Dostoievsky, Turgenev, Tchaikovsky had died — a comparatively small circle, against the background of the whole of Russia, was touched by these deaths. Suvurov, Skobelev— the circle was already far wider! But all this is not what has occurred now! Tolstoy naturally comes to Menshikoff s mind, but even with his name are not connected the mysterious cherished emotions which bind with “St. Ivan” every peasant woman, every shepherd, every convict in the mines of Siberia…
St. John, more than anyone else, occupied the psychological center of Russian national life. “Only a ‘saint’ embraces the entire imagination of a people, all its love” — thus does Menshikoff interpret this fact. Let it be so — but Metropolitan Philaret had also died, the Optina elders had passed away into the next world, Bishop Theofan had ended his days in seclusion — I am naming personalities whom the epithet set aside by Menshikoff will suit most easily. The response then did not even bear a remote semblance to what was revealed at St. John’s death! There was an affinity to him, not simply as to a saint and miracle-worker, but as to that person who, no matter where he may appear and no matter where pious reports about him may reach, was accepted as one’s own, close, dear, “batiushka.”
“Now he has been led into the church to conduct services. He comes out to the solea to read and sing at Matins or to read the entrance prayers before Liturgy. He emerges always happy, radiant as the dear bright sun. ‘Good morning, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I congratulate you with the feast’ — he greets them. And immediately some sort of spiritual current, similar to electricity, pierces the crowd from this heartfelt welcome; the whole crowd sways, and from it speed joyful exclamations in reply, expressing both delight before him and joy from contact with him: ‘Oh, our beloved, our dear,’ etc. But the most expressive was this exclamation directed at him from the crowd: ‘Oh, our darling.’ And it was heard more frequently than the others, always in an indescribably sincere tone of voice.” (From a speech delivered on the fortieth day after his death.)
Only one phenomenon of Russian life, a later one, may, to a certain extent, be compared with the “popularity” of St. John: Patriarch Tikhon, upon whom Russian churchgoers had concentrated all their hopes, all their love, all their thirst for the Church. And this comparison is capable of determining, better than anything else, the full enormity of the image of “Batiushka” John! And only after having understood that St. John is totally and only a “batiushka,” will we understand the secret of St. John’s miraculous influence over people.
“That icon is miracle-working, which has the power to stir up faith in its power to work miracles.” This statement by ninety-three-year-old Metropolitan Isidor was recalled in connection with St. John by Archbishop Nikanor, who applied it to the miracles of St. John. Yes, faith was alive in Russia — and it was revitalized by St. John: it found its embodiment, as it were, in him. But his strength rested precisely in the fact that he contributed to the image of “batiushka” (an image so close to the people and, to the highest degree, capable of becoming the point of contact for a national thirst toward sainthood) a genuine saintliness preserved in its everyday authenticity — and that of such height, that in order to comprehend it one must go through the entire Church calendar in one’s inner eye!
Let us recall the initial barrenness from which the ascent began! Let us recall the slowness of the ascent, along well-worn, beaten tracks, the limit of achievement, the crown of all ideas, the end of which could only be what? — priesthood! An entire cycle of concepts is present here, secured by the heritage of ages. And so — the limit has been reached by him, so as to lock within himself his mental outlook. And here the ascent begins — not in breadth, but inwardly and upwards! The life of a parish batiushka blossoms, in all the inner grandeur of his calling; and, at the same time, this life is gradually invested with outward stateliness as well, is combined with the school of the loftiest pastoral asceticism. Suddenly the chain of parish seclusion is broken and, as we know, by call from Above, St. John is placed on top of the mountain, so as to be turned into that psychological center for the whole of Russia about which Menshikoff spoke — still remaining the same parish batiushka! Miracles flow out all around him in seas — but a miracle, exceeding everything imaginable on the paths of miracle-working, is what his life itself remains.
Indeed, let us think deeply! A quarter of a century spent among people in the position of common Church property, having nothing to himself except a few hours of solitude by night, and appearing as an inexhaustible source of the Church’s grace, given out in every form of goodness and good, work imaginable!
Charity on the grandest scale, not only in the form of publicly organized labor, but also in the form of personal giving, on a mass scale and wielding large sums, handed out in the name of Christ, clairvoyantly measured and blessedly individualized!
And his activity as a confessor on an unheard-of scale and of unseen forms, flowing into the shattering phenomenon of common confession by a crowd of many thousands, seen right through by the inner eyes of the confessor and guided by him to the feet of Christ in His presence, seen only by certain eyes, blessing this multitudinous, but at the same time for each one personal, reconciliation with Him of the faithful! The spiritual guidance of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of believers — and that in the twinkling of an eye, in transit, in prayer meetings, in passing comments and gestures, in unexpected “chance” conversations, and at times also in mystic visions, surmounting space! Also some type of unheard-of and unseen All-Russian starchestvo (spiritual guidance) — the guidance of souls, when, in the spark of a short current, by one mysterious touch the soul is renewed and guided for the rest of its life! All that is good and radiant in the heart of every Russian, no matter how clogged up it may be by the refuse of life, by the evil of this world, rushes, as if to a powerful magnet, to meet the manifestation of the conscience of the Church in the form of “batiushka.” The eucharistic miracle, daily celebrated also with unseen and unheard-of prayerful enthusiasm, heated-by the personal prayerful lifting upwards of the heart by St. John, is inexplicable in any words — when people, captured by it, did not know whether they were in their bodies or outside of them!
The blessedness of the eucharistic table, daily on a mass scale and concluded by the moving joint consumption of the Holy Gifts, to which were sometimes drawn also chosen communicants from the laity! A new form of early Christian agape — majestic in its mass character, but continuing to be pierced by the spiritual eyes of St. John, who did not admit to the chalice those who were not prepared for it, who had not cleansed their hearts, who were blemishing it with blasphemous thoughts! Incessant sermons — and these not only in the form of Church precepts delivered from the pulpit, moving in their evangelical simplicity and burning hearts with the power of faith placed in them, capable of burning out any doubt and vacillation in worshippers! No — each word, flying forth from the lips of St. John, each line written by him was a sermon, was good tidings, was a lesson, which, when accepted by the heart, unswervingly led a man to reconciliation with God!
Miracles — a sea, an ocean of miracles! Both directly performed and at a distance — after prayers at a “molieben,” after prayers at any moment of Church services, at any hour of the day, during any encounter, after prayers, aroused by someone’s prayerful call from afar! And all this, as in some shining point, was concentrated in the image of Batiushka John!
That which was pictured by St. John Chrysostom as an inaccessible ideal — being at the same time a priest’s compulsory ideal! — namely, the blending of asceticism with the world, found full realization in St. John. Family life — transformed into brotherly cohabitation! A thick net of public happenings and opportunities converted into a weapon for the most strenuous and the most effective pastoral work! A golden rainfall, with all its inherent temptations — converted into immediate distribution of what was received, when one hand, not knowing what the other was doing, became, on the spot, by the miracle of insight, also a weapon of guiding pastoral grace! Fame, spreading from all Russia and becoming already worldwide, and power, placing St. John higher than any man — converted into a rostrum for the glorification of God and the preaching of Orthodoxy, and at the same time also into a means of attracting people to the ways of salvation — in personal contact with each one! And finally, in the last analysis — the revelation of himself to the whole world, the baring of his soul, making all, all, all participants in the mystery of “life in Christ” and calling for participation in this life with unattainable simplicity of conviction…
The priesthood, in its highest manifestation — revealed in all its fullness and purity, in all its power, reached to the limit, that is what the world was shown by “Batiushka” John of Kronstadt. All that the Orthodox Church has been saying for two thousand years through the mouths of Her best teachers — was revealed to every gaze as a heart-moving, human phenomenon of a humble Russian “batiushka”…
The consciousness of one’s infirmity in Christ — as a source of all-powerful strength! “If Christ is within you through frequent communion of the Holy Mysteries, then be all like Christ: gentle, humble, long-suffering, full of love, impartial to worldly things, contemplating of heaven, obedient, reasonable; have His Spirit within yourselves without fail, do not be proud, impatient, attached to the world, miserly and greedy for money.”
“Be completely like Christ!” Living in Christ, St. John stopped considering his will as his own — being able to subject it to Christ! It is because of this that his prayer became all-powerful: “No matter how many times I might pray with faith, God always heard me and fulfilled my prayers,” he testifies. While once, in conversation with relatives during a journey to Sura in June 1900, he thus explained his proximity to God. “How great is the order of priesthood, how close is it to God! A priest — is God’s friend, minister of the Heavenly King. I turn to Him now as to a Father, and he carries out everything for me. I did not soon attain this, but gradually. Now, for example, there was no water in the Pinega over which I had to travel; I could not reach Sura, and I said: ‘Lord, You can do everything, for You all things are possible. You have given Yourself to us, and we perform the Holy Mysteries; we touch Your Body and Blood, and give them to others as well. What can be greater than this? So everything else is certainly possible for You to perform for us. Fill the rivers with water, to that I may safely reach Sura and return: send a bit of rain.’ And so the Lord heard me, and I am informed that it is all right to travel, much water has flowed in. That’s how willing and quick to listen is He to all those who refer to Him with faith.”
Who could speak so simply of such fearful things — if not a Russian “batiushka!”
In the person of St. John Christ walked through the Russian land. Never had Holy Russia received such an All-Russian incarnation of this encounter of hers with Christ — just before that terrible immersion into darkness, which was prophesied by St. John.
Was this encounter the last?
St. John has not abandoned Holy Russia even now, having moved on to the celestial world. But where is Holy Russia now? She no longer has a national-state embodiment: she lives in our hearts! And in each heart lives St. John. Next to St. Seraphim he has taken his place as our habitual pleader before God. Are there many such hearts? Are their ties with Christ strong? Upon this — only upon this! — depends the future of Russia and of the world! If Holy Russia does not grow again in our hearts into a world-shaping power — the Lord Himself is close, as Stern Judge — as we heard it from St. John.
The glorification of St. John calls us, all of us, in whose hearts Holy Faith has not died, to appeal: Holy St. John, pray unto God for us!
Archimandrite Constantine (Zaitzev)
Troparion to St. John of Kronstadt.
in Tone IV— With the apostles thy sound hath gone forth unto the ends of the world; with the confessors thou didst endure sufferings for Christ; thou didst liken thyself unto the holy hierarchs in thy preaching of the Word; and with the venerable hast thou shone forth in the grace of God. Therefore, the Lord hath exalted the depths of thy humility higher than the heavens, and hath given us thy name as a source of most wondrous miracles. Wherefore, O wonderworker, who livest in Christ forever, lovingly have mercy upon those amid misfortunes, and hearken unto thy children that call upon thee with faith, O righteous John, our beloved pastor.
Another Troparion, in the same tone— O wonderworker who livest in Christ forever, take pity in thy love upon people in misfortunes; hearken unto thy children who with faith call upon thee, expecting compassionate aid from thee, O John of Kronstadt, our beloved pastor.
Kontakion, in the same tone—
O father John, namesake of grace, who wast chosen by God from childhood, who in thy youth miraculously received from Him the gift of learning, and in a dream wast most gloriously called to be a priest: entreat Christ God, that we may all be with thee in the kingdom of heaven.
source: Missionary Leaflet # EA44 Copyright © 2004 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission