OUR VENERABLE FATHER AMONG THE SAINTS: ST. JOHN OF KRONSTADT
"… the earth is full of men like me."
How wondrously are the ways of the Lord expressed in the life of a man fully yielded to His holiness! Thus can we touch the beautiful lines of the life of our father in the Lord, holy John of Kronstadt, and draw from them edification in our day.
By many, St John is seen as a contemporary, "inner-city" saint: having lived among the derelict and poor of the Russian seaport of Kronstadt, he saw at close range the whole scope of tragic phenomena that can hold man captive. Yet he did not shrink from his difficult environment: rather he embraced the suffering, stood firm in compassionate love, and unceasingly prayed to the Lord. Among men of low and high estate, St John glorified Christ, becoming perhaps best remembered for the gift of special prayerful intercession bestowed on him.
This "victorious-over-the-world" saint is one whose intercession many believers feel drawn to seek today, as well as to read his loving exhortations and insights contained in his spiritual diary, My Life in Chtist. Both his blessed life and words bear gentle approachability combined with lively encouragement in time of need.
Father John, John Iliyich Sergiev, was born on October 19,1829 at Soura, a larger village in the Pineyski district, province of Archangelsk in northern Russia. His father, Elias Sergiev, and mother, Theodora Sergievna, were persons of modest means, his father serving as a reader in the village church. The child John was named after St John, Abbot of Rila; all of his life Father John deeply revered his namesake.
Father John's childhood was not an easy one, stimulating him not to trust in himself or his circumstances, but to pray fervently. Delicate and slow in learning, he implored God's help often, even by night. It was after one of these prayers that the child felt as if violently shaken and a curtain fell from his eyes ". ..and his mind opened up in his head." From that time forth, he could study well, becoming one of the best students at the local parish school, graduating at the top of his class from the Archangelsk Theological Academy and entering that of St Petersburg on a scholarship. During his early years as a student, his father died and his mother fell into extreme poverty. While a theology student, John found work as a copyist, supporting his mother on his ten-rubles-a-month salary.
While still at the Academy, the work of the Alaskan and Siberian missions began to attract the young student.(By this time, Father John Veniaminov, later Bishop Innocent, had served zealously as a priest there for almost two decades and his Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven had appeared in 46 translated Russian editions between 1839 and 1855.)
In the course of seeking what to do, John was granted a holy vision of service in a cathedral. Upon graduating, he married Elizabeth Nesvitskaya, the daughter of an archpriest and was ordained to the "white clergy" on December 12,1855. He was assigned to St Andrew's Cathedral in Kronstadt, and upon entering it, knew it to be the church he had seen in his vision. Over the many decades of his service to the Lord until his repose in 1908, rough Kronstadt was to be the home of this holy wonderworker and man of prayer, Father John.
The seaport in which the young priest served was a centre for deportation for the immoral, vicious and depraved from nearby St Petersburg. Dockworkers, beggars and those ravaged by alcohol lived in its outskirts in hovels and dugouts. They are the ones he nursed and comforted and to whom he gave his material goods, even his clothing. By the strength of his compassionate love, the human likeness and dignity of many were restored as they, too, found life in the Lord.
The poor of Kronstadt were the first to recognize that the Lord had bestowed on this humble servant a blessed gift of healing, described simply by Father John to his fellow priests as "a new duty to GodCto pray for those who will ask for his prayer." And thus began a second period of his service to the Lord: through personal visits, letters or telegrams, requests for his prayers swelled and reached thousands, even from Jews and Moslems, whose needs he met with equal compassion. Among the ones who came to see him in 1892 and sought his prayers, this time in connection with entering the monastic life, was Simeon Ivanovich Antonov of the village of Shovsk near Tambov, whom we know as St Silouan the Athonite.
The life of Father John was full of remarkable blessed labourCand full it was indeed! It is said that he rose at 3 a.m. and by 4 o'clock was at the Cathedral for Matins. The liturgy did not end before noon because of the crowds in attendance, numbering even 5,000, and the multitude of requests. After the service Father John would be off to St Petersburg to visit the sick, arriving home around midnight. For 28 years he found time to instruct youth in religion classes in the local schools. Many gifts of money passed through his hands and were turned for the good of the poor: a thousand destitute souls were fed daily; a work shelter was built, a school, a church, workshops and an orphanage. In St Petersburg a women's monastery was built, Karpovka, which would become his earthly resting place, and still is today.
In 1893 his 3-volume diary was published and shortly thereafter, was translated into several foreign languages, including English. It abounds with practical spiritual advice such as "if enemies surround you and you are in spiritual distress, call immediately upon our Most Holy Lady …" He urged believers to find lively spiritual union with the saints by seeking their prayers and drawing from their lives, and to live in unity with fellow believers now. Because he was from the expanses of the north and relocated in a poor urban setting, it is not surprising that his diary reads:
Lord! I confess to Thee that neither in the country nor in the forest are to be found life, and health, and vigour of the spiritual and material powers, but with Thee in the temple, and above all, during the Liturgy and in Thy Holy Life-giving Mysteries! … O, Divine Mysteries, that are love unspeakable!
Father John rejoiced in the works of the Lord about him, too. A great luminary from the south of Russia, Father Jonah Atamansky, served in Odessa, and as with the Kronstadt man of prayer, people sought his assistance, too. The two men dearly loved each other, and Father John sent to Father Jonah a beautiful set of white vestments trimmed in cornflower blue, which Father Jonah asked to be buried in. "Why have you come to me? You have Father Jonah!" was Father John's response if someone came to him from the south.
Father John went to the Lord on December 20,1908, having foretold the day of his death. Tens of thousands attended his funeral, filled as it was with the brightness of joy, and there were many miracles reported. The chief celebrant was his dear spiritual son, the young Bishop Cyril of Gdov, by the express request of Father John, although many other elder hierarchs were present.(Later, as Metropolitan of Kazan, Cyril would suffer imprisonment, persecution and exile under communism until his martyrdom in 1937.)
Volumes could be written on the life of St John of Kronstadt, and many have been. His faith, the vastness of divine love manifest in him, and his labours touch us, but especially his humility. As he himself wrote, "I am a manCand the grace, the truth and the righteousness of God are continually working within me. It is God Who at one time cherishes and comforts me, and at another punishes and afflicts me with sorrows for any inward motion of the soul adverse to Him. But the earth is full of men like me. Therefore in them also God manifests His mercy, truth and righteousness, as in myself "He worketh al in all."
From Canadian Orthodox Messenger
Archdiocese of Canada
Orthodox Church in America
April 3, 1998