02 July 2018

Archbishop Saint John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco

Archbishop Saint John (Maksimovich)

At Saint Herman’s in Minneapolis (my beloved OCA parish here in the Twin Cities), the southeast corner of the sanctuary by the ikonostasis is occupied by the images of our church’s patron, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Seraphim (Moshnin) of Sarov and Saint John (Maksimovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco. Somehow one is drawn to this corner, as I am after every Liturgy. I ask for strength and endurance from Saint Mary of Egypt; to Saint Seraphim (the patron of Russia’s nuclear arsenal) I naturally address my prayers for peace. I don’t believe I’ve ever particularly asked of Saint John the Wonderworker anything in particular, but I’ve always venerated his icon in any event, never quite knowing why. It’s never even been the China connexion, which would appear obvious, or the fact that we are both ‘peregrinators’.

Saint John, born Michael Maksimovich to a landed Serbian family (which had settled in the governorship of Khar’kov and to which had also belonged the unmercenary friend to the poor Saint John of Tobolsk), was a sickly and quiet youth who nonetheless found a source of consolation and awe in the Church and the lives of the saints. He was taken under the wing of Metropolitan Antoniy (Khrapovitsky), who saw to his education. When the civil war came between the Communists and the Whites, the Maksimovich family fled to Serbia. One of his brothers became an engineer; the other joined the military under the Serbian Tsar Aleksandr Karađorđević. Young Michael studied at seminary, and there picked up a number of ascetic habits; however, he did not use asceticism as an excuse for self-display. Instead, his asceticism took the form of devotion to his fellows: he rarely slept, instead watching over his students and making the sign of the cross over them as they slept. The rest of his night hours he spent in prayer or at rest before icons.

He did not wish to be made bishop; indeed, when his superiors selected him as a young priest-monk to be made a bishop, he at first thought there was some mistake, and thus told a lady on a Beograd autobus that the hierarchs must have confused him with another monk named John. When the same lady saw him the next day, he told her sadly that it was indeed him they wished to make bishop. He had objected, claiming a speech impediment; to this they answered that Holy Prophet Moses had suffered from the same.

He was made bishop of the Orthodox Church in Shanghai, and made it his personal task to orient that church (no pun intended) to being a haven for refugees, orphans, the poor and disenfranchised. Vladika John began catechesis classes and established a parish school for young people, as well as supporting various orphanages and shelters. One of these, he dedicated to another great friend of the poor and advocate for œconomic justice, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk! In the orphanages under his care, he made no distinctions between Russian, Greek, Serbian or Chinese; all were welcome and all were considered as children of God. Vladika John was not apolitical; his sympathies were strongly engaged on behalf of Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the revolutionaries. But his was not a call to political violence or reaction, but instead to moral and spiritual renewal: the repentance of the entire Russian people.

Vladika John served as a bishop of the churches of the Russian diaspora in Paris and in San Francisco as well as in Beograd and Shanghai. He was remarkable not only for his inspired insights into ‘hidden things’ (a mark of wonderworking saints) nor for the miracles which manifested to those in his flock, nor even for the well-known rebuke which he issued to the slightly-wayward ‘intelligentsia’ of Paris (in particular Fr Sergei Bulgakov). But further: he was remarkable for his gentleness and calm, for his humour, for his simplicity of spirit and his (dare I say it?) here-hood, reflecting that of the Holy Theotokos. Indeed, it is precisely expression that I see on his icon every week at Church. He is gentle; he is smiling; he is simple (which is not by any means to say ‘stupid’, but rather single in his eye, trained on Christ). Somehow he managed this simplicity and ‘here-hood’, despite having been schooled at seminary, despite having been evacuated multiple times from the ravages of war, despite having survived upheavals of Communist revolutions in two countries. He never responded nor requited these misfortunes of his life with bitterness, nor did he meet the questions of it with empty abstraction; he was simply here.

Again, I see this face upon the icon with all its patience and gentleness and warmth. That gentleness itself is a stinging rebuke to my own double-mindedness and preoccupation with worldly cares, but somehow the rebuke itself is not a hard one to bear. Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco was known for his foreknowledge of his parishioners’ needs without them even needing to ask. Is it the case that, even though I didn’t know what to ask or even that I needed to ask, he saw my need and answered it before I uttered a word? Holy Father John (Maksimovich), pray to God for us sinners.
Lo, Thy care for thy flock in its sojourn
Prefigured the supplication which thou dost ever offer up for the whole world.
Thus do we believe, having come to know thy love, O holy hierarch and wonderworker John.
Wholly sanctified by God through the ministry of the all-pure Mysteries
And thyself ever strengthened thereby,
Thou didst hasten to the suffering, O most gladsome Healer,
Hasten now also to the aid of us who honor thee with all our heart.

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