02 January 2016

Remembering Righteous Father John the Wonderworker of Kronstadt

Righteous Father John the Wonderworker, one of my favourite Russian saints and spiritual authors, is commemorated today on the Old Calendar – I missed his feast day on the New Calendar; mea maxima culpa! Born into the poor family of a Church reader, Ilya Sergiyev, in Archangelsk, Father John’s ascetic endeavours never diminisheded but rather increased his solidarity with and devotion to serving the poor in remote and destitute parishes. He was blessed with a monumental wisdom and vast reserves of personal and political fortitude, which he also exercised on behalf of God’s beloved poor – yet though he possessed all of the natural virtues, his writing and his life are marked by a gentle and meek humility, and a firm and utterly unshakeable faith. Father John may have lived his earthly life even as the Russian Empire was waning and dwindling in its influence, and even as its political power was unravelling from below, but his demeanour and his service mark him clearly as a latter-day Father of our Holy Orthodox Church.

In his youth he was very sickly and a bit slow, but he attended Liturgy regularly, served at the altar and loved to study the Gospel. Also, though young John worked very diligently at school, he did not make much progress at first. However, through the power of his fervent prayers, one night he felt a sudden shiver all through his body, a curtain fell away from his eyes, his mind ‘opened up in his head’, and his heart was filled with light and joy. Thereafter, reading and retaining what he studied came with much greater ease to him, and he graduated at the top of his class. The Church was his calling, and he went to seminary in S. Petersburg with an eye to doing missionary work among the Tungusic and Turkic tribes of Siberia or the Inuits and Aleuts of Alaska, which had long been his dream and aspiration. But he saw that his own countrymen were poorly catechised, and in dreams the vision came repeatedly to him, of his service at a cathedral in Russia; this he took as a sign from God, and he acquiesced to be sent, upon becoming a priest, to the S. Andrew Cathedral in Kronstadt. When he arrived, Father John was stunned to find that this was the very same cathedral that had appeared to him in his dreams! From then on, he referred to himself not by his natural surname, but as John Kronstadskiy.

Father John was married, to Matyushka Elizabeta Konstantinovna, but their relationship was a purely ascetic one, virginal and dedicated, as Father John willed it and as Elizabeta agreed, to God. John’s considerable energies were bent, rather, upon caring for the many poor and the destitute of Kronstadt, always helping them, according to the Gospel mandate, in secret, and ‘let not his left hand know what’ his ‘right hand doeth’. At that time, Kronstadt was a remote outpost – a place where the government sent debtors, vagrants, murderers, thieves and other low-class criminals; conditions there were utterly horrible, and even the children would turn to crime to stay alive. Into such a place Father John came to serve as priest. He spent hours every day ministering to, listening to and helping the poor, the beggars and the sick with whatever he had to hand; and he would often return home without his cassock or even his boots, having given them away. The parishioners of S. Andrew would often give boots to Elizabeta, saying to her that her husband would be coming home barefoot. For this habit of his he was often chastised and mocked; even his hierarchical superiors in the diocese eventually refused to pay him his salary directly, knowing that as soon as he got it, Father John would give every kopek of it away.

His total faith in God and his meek services to the poor gave him great spiritual gifts. He became known very quickly for miracles of healing, when he visited the sick and infirm, even the deathly-ill; but all of these miracles occurred quietly, anonymously, to the people that Father John visited, without any great pomp or showmanship. He even reached out to Muslims and Jews, who would approach him and ask for his aid. One story tells of a Tatar woman who brought to him her ailing husband, who was so ill he could not rise – she had to drag him along in a cart. Father John asked the woman if she believed in God, and the Tatar woman replied that she did. ‘Let us pray together,’ Father John then said. ‘You pray in your way and I shall pray in mine.’ Father John blessed the Tatar woman and left; when she got back to her cart she was startled, and wondered to find her husband not only standing but walking to meet her! At another time, in Kharkiv, a Jewish lawyer sought out Father John to beg him to save his eight-year-old daughter, who was suffering from scarlet fever – the doctors had told the lawyer that her case was terminal, and that there was nothing they could do. The lawyer fought his way through the crowds and throwing himself at his feet cried out to Father John, ‘Holy Father, I am a Jew, but I beg of you — help me! My only daughter is dying; pray to God to save her!’ Father John placed his hand on the lawyer’s head and began to pray, before sending him home to his wife and daughter, who was well and speaking with the same doctors who had pronounced her as good as dead. Because of this miracle, the girl would later be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity and enter the Orthodox Church under the name of Valentina.

His charitable deeds and his healing became renowned, but Father John was troubled in part because he began to realise that his own individual efforts were not enough to help the poor of Kronstadt, and in fact might have been contributing to a worse condition. He began organising. He set up a charitable House of Industry through the Cathedral, funded by the wealthier parishioners. This House was set up with its own chapel; with workshops for the able-bodied; with an orphanage; with a free elementary school for poor children; with a boarding-house and a homeless shelter that housed 40,000 each year; with a cheap public canteen which could serve 800 free dinners on feast-days; and with a free public library. Even though he defended with rigour the monarchy of Russia and condemned the revolutionary and anti-clerical mood that was sweeping the nation, and even though he was a (non-active) member of the Black Hundreds, he actually shared many of the sentiments of the socialists, about the problems they hoped to address. He began to preach against the political and economic causes of poverty, often addressing both the wealthy and the government in his sermons. At one point he preached:
The greatest injustices on earth are committed by people who are wealthy or by those who want to become wealthy, who rake up riches in their paws using all possible measures, regardless of the suffering of the poor.
And on another occasion:
The question of poverty in our city and in Russia must be posed directly to the Church and to the government. Poverty has greatly multiplied, it has nowhere to go, there is no demand for its labours—and we do not know what to do with it. It is overcoming us; it strikes us in the eye on streets and at intersections, on the roads and highways. What can be done with it? We have a Duma, and the Duma needs to think about it, all the more so given that our poverty is its adopted child. A positive resolution of this matter is required by the Gospel, by the Church—by the Lord Himself; the Head of the Church and the Sovereign, the Head of the government, must act on this… O, if only we had more Zaccheuses in our midst!
Father John’s sermons were always expressed in a simple and clear language, understandable even to children. He even taught the Gospel in the public schools, and spoke out about the need to preach it in such a way that the schoolchildren would be drawn to it, not as something like a lecture. His daily journal, My life in Christ, is also a great treasure of the Church. It is among the finest of Orthodox writings I’ve yet read; at once profoundly wise and deeply personal. Father John’s self-effacement and his revelation of the need to be hard and unsparing on one’s own sin, yet instantly merciful and forgiving of others’, come through with crystal clarity – again in clear and simple language. Here are several excerpts from his diary:
Christian! you must absolutely be humble, meek and long-suffering, remembering that you are clay, dust, nothingness; that you are impure; that everything good that you have is from God; that your life, your breath and everything you possess are God’s gifts; that for your sins of disobedience and intemperance you ought now to redeem your future blessedness in Paradise by the long-suffering which is indispensable in this world of imperfections and innumerable transgressions of the fallen men living together with us, and forming the numerous members of the one sin-sullied human race. “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”

Love every man in spite of his falling into sin. Never mind the sins, but remember that the foundation of the man is the same – the image of God.

As the particles of the body of an animal, of a tree, of grass, of stone are held together by cohesion, so all the worlds are held together by the powers and laws laid in them. As the soul carries the body and gives life to it, so also God carries the world, giving life to it through His Holy Spirit; it is not without reason that a man is called a little world.
Father John lived a very long and spiritually-fruitful life. He was witness to the repose of Tsar Aleksandr III, and he lived through one of the great upheavals of Russia’s history – the revolution of 1905; he went to his repose at the age of seventy-nine, on the 20th of December, 1908. As a worker of miraculous healing and as an incessant advocate for Russian society’s most vulnerable, he was one of the most beloved religious leaders of his time, particularly amongst the poorest and most wretched members of his home parish, for whom he embodied the virtues of kindness and justice.

This day the pastor of Kronstadt
Appears before the throne of God
Praying fervently on behalf of the faithful
To the chief pastor Christ, who has promised:
“I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it!”

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