13 July 2018

A practical peasant martyr-monk

Part 2 of my Here-hood Saints series

I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church by chrismation on 17 February 2014, by Fr Sergiy Voronin, the rector of Holy Dormition Church in Beijing. Fr Sergiy asked me before I was chrismated there if there was anyone I wanted to have witness the ceremony – I wanted two of my friends from Beijing to be there, but unfortunately both of them were out of town that day. When I was chrismated, then, it was just me, Fr Sergiy and an empty sanctuary. But: no Orthodox sanctuary is ever truly empty; the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit are all very much present there. In addition, there truly was someone witnessing my chrismation that day, though his presence was at that time unbeknownst to me. At the foot of the altar before which I was anointed and before which I made my profession of faith and renunciation of the Evil One, there lay the relics of Saint John (Pommers) of Riga.

I’ve suffered from convertitis myself, and quite badly, as I’ve explained before (and likely demonstrated, on this same blog). But if I’ve been spared the excesses of it at all, I feel as though that would be owing to the prayers of my priests, and also to Saint John’s prayers. Saint John was, after all, a steady and level-headed Latvian peasant. As a young man he herded sheep, and worked on his parents’ farm during the summers even after he started going to school. He loved the Church – what hagiography of a saint of the Russian Church would say otherwise? – but he always had his eye on what was close at hand: he was doyiker (after my ‘spiritual’ usage of the word). He attended to the needs of his parents, and he lived a very frugal and practical life. He kept an eye on local public matters: he advocated for literacy and sobriety among the peasants, helped the unemployed, and worked as a peasant organiser even as he began his monastic life.

And he found himself being drawn into politics. He was ordained a bishop by Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin), with whom he had a close and friendly relationship, and regardless of where he went he gained the trust of the common people, both the peasants and the workers. He didn’t hesitate to speak on their behalf, and he was willing to do the hard grassroots work, building labour unions among the peasantry. Most of Latvia’s Orthodox population were, in fact, poor peasants who had been landless. In the late 1830’s there was a great mass conversion of Latvian peasants and agricultural labourers to the Orthodox Church, and most of these peasants belonged to the lowest rung of the ladder. The Pommers family to which Saint John belonged, however, had been Orthodox long before that.

After Latvia gained its independence and the Latvian Orthodox Church was granted a certain degree of autonomy, Saint John joined the Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) representing an Orthodox populist party together with his Russian colleague, teacher and labour unionist EM Tikhonitsky. The programme of the Party of the Orthodox may sound familiar: land reform and peasant self-organisation; mass education and literacy; religious and cultural rights for Latvia’s Russian minority. Though it broadly fit into the agrarian politics of interwar Eastern Europe, the Party of the Orthodox didn’t map neatly into the contemporary political landscape. Latvian left-wingers distrusted Saint John of Riga as a Tsarist; rightists distrusted him as a peasant rabble-rouser. Ultimately, in all likelihood, it was a Soviet agent who killed him on account of his political efforts.

Saint John’s holiness has a certain worldly quality – I say that meaning, ‘free from illusions’. Again, I don’t trust coincidences in the church – I don’t think it was an accident, therefore, that Fr Sergiy gave me as a baptismal gift the book Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov). Saint John was not a typical monk, not a typical bishop – he had been a hard-working and practical peasant, a filial son and an activist in his sæcular life, and he remained very much himself even as he became a monk and a bishop later in life. There are many kinds of holiness. Each must choose to carry her own cross. Sudden transformations of spirit are not the universal rule. If I came to realise that in any fragmentary form, backing away from a rigid hyperdox zealotry, again I wonder if I oughtn’t to attribute that to the prayers and efforts of Fr Sergiy and Saint John of Riga alongside him. The martyr of Riga, his relics at rest in a small Chinese mission church, was here, at my baptism; he is here still.

Holy New Hieromartyr John, I know you’ve been praying for me these past four and a half years, and I thank you. Pray for me still, an unworthy sinner, and bless my hands and heart to the work before me.

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