By Abbot Herman
Before my seminary days, I knew about Archbishop John only as John of Shanghai. I was not in the circles who knew him, and I did not even know then that he no longer lived in Shanghai. In my family there was much sorrow because of sickness, and I knew that this John of Shanghai heals and helps, but I had no idea how to reach him or even how to address him. Then I did not even know what a bishop was, or that he was one. Finally, having obtained his address, I wrote to him asking for prayers, but I received no answer to both my letters. Only when I was already a seminarian at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, did I have the happiness of meeting him personally. This took place with the help of my true benefactor, Fr. Vladimir, under the following circumstances.
It was in November of 1959. We seminarians were preparing for the nameday and birthday of St. John of Kronstadt. The canonization of this truly righteous man had been postponed, although everything had been prepared for it back in 1952 and people were in constant expectation that at any moment his solemn glorification would take place to everyone's joy.
I was in the habit of coming each morning to the office of Fr. Vladimir and asking his blessing for the day. It was a chilly morning, and right before breakfast I ran to the office. I knocked vigorously at the door, whereupon the door quickly opened and Fr. Vladimir, with his finger to his lips signaling me to be quiet, surprised me by saying that Archbishop John had arrived from Europe the night before. He closed the door behind me, took a deep breath, and told me the following, which put me in a state of awe and spiritual inspiration:
Late the night before he had seen from the window of his cell, which was on the fourth floor facing the church, the arrival of a car, and the familiar, short, bent-over figure of Archbishop John coming out. At first Archbishop John went to the church, accompanied by several of our ruling fathers. A light snow covered the ground, yet Fr. Vladimir could clearly see that the Archbishop was wearing only sandals; and as the wind blew hard, he could see his bare legs in the November cold of our upper New York State weather. Since it was late, Fr. Vladimir assumed that everyone would go to bed and only in the morning would greet the welcomed guest. With a feeling of gratitude to God, he turned to his icon corner and continued his monastic prayer rule. He could not fall asleep because of the inward excitement, when in the stillness of the night he heard someone walking slowly on the lower floor, stopping every five steps or so and then resuming his walk. He could hear those steps ascending the staircase, where the cement stairs made the sound quite loud. Then he heard the footsteps on the fourth floor and nearing his door. He knew that it was Archbishop John, and that he was stopping at each monk's cell door, praying and blessing the inhabitant of that cell. All were asleep. But Fr. Vladimir's heart was beating, when slowly, with heavy steps, the holy hierarch stopped at his door. Fr. Vladimir, holding his breath, standing right there next to the closed door, felt the care and love of that hierarch for each individual member of the monastery and seminary. When the steps stopped just a foot away from the door, Fr. Vladimir took the opportunity to pray for all unfortunate ones and those in need of prayer. Then slowly the steps began again, stopping at each brother's door and slowly fading away, until finally, descending to the lower floor, they were no longer audible.
Watching from his window, FL Vladimir saw the holy hierarch visiting all of the buildings of the monastery proper wherein the brethren abided: the faraway barn house, the seminary building across the road.... And then, to his surprise, the steps again began to ascend the stairs; and again Archbishop John slowly walked the long corridors of the main building, and so continued throughout the whole night. In the morning, the Archbishop attended Liturgy, and blessed whomever came for the blessing.
Hardly had Fr. Vladimir finished telling of his experience of the night before, when he said that at this moment he heard the familiar steps once again, and that now was my chance. If Blessed John should come into the office now, he said, I should ask him for prayers for my sick sister. He told me that upon meeting him I should make a prostration to the ground, ask his blessing, give the name of the sick person on a piece of paper, and give a little donation for the Archbishop's orphanage. When I said that I had no money, Fr. Vladimir pulled out a couple dollars from his desk. Suddenly the door opened up behind me, and Fr. Vladimir called out with a joyful air, "Holy Vladika, bless us!" I turned around, and in front of me stood an extremely short, bent-over monk, with disheveled gray hair, with a black klobuk askew, and with a rather stern facial expression. In fact, his whole appearance was so stern, even fierce, as he stood right in front of me, with the cold winter air still emanating from him, that I shuddered. I knew that before me stood a saint coming from the other world and that here was a living martyr from crucified Russia. Although I knew very little about his life and had no specific knowledge of his miracles or ascetic labors, I felt that something raw and extraordinary was centered upon this frail, bent-over, yet energetic old man.
Remembering the words of Fr. Vladimir about how I should address the holy hierarch, I fell on my knees before him, asking for his blessing, and in fear and haste I asked him to pray for my sister. There was no one else with him, and that made it less frightening, since the first words from him came as a growl of dissatisfaction over the fact that I had prostrated myself before him. Without looking at me he repeated three times that I should write the name of my sister on a piece of paper, and he refused the two dollars I was sticking into his hands. I do not remember what followed, for I was very afraid and began to stutter. Seeing my confusion and feeling the sweat on my hands, he looked up and smiled to reassure me that everything was all right. I understood that Fr. Vladimir's advice about the prostration was not to his liking, and I was overjoyed to hear my sister's name pronounced three times. He pulled from his pocket some notes with prayer requests, and added to them the little note that Fr. Vladimir had quickly jotted down and stuck into my hand. Then he asked a few questions about me, and whether I would join the other seminarians for tomorrow's service at the memorial church in Utica, New York, dedicated to St. John of Kronstadt. After a few words with Fr. Vladimir, who gave him our new publications and after some argument that arose when he attempted to pay for them and Fr. Vladimir insisted that they were gifts the Archbishop shuffled out the door.
Feeling an utter triumph in my soul, that I had spoken to a saint, I turned to Fr. Vladimir for further information about him, Archbishop John. But I heard nothing of what my dear benefactor Fr. Vladimir was telling me then, due to my excitement over having met a man not of this world. It had been through the good will of Fr. Vladimir that I had met my spiritual father from Optina, Fr. Adrian; my Athonite elder, Schemamonk Nikodim of Karoulia; my future Alaska connection with St. Herman, Archimandrite Gerasim; and finally, Archbishop John, who just a few years later would become the founder of the St. Herman Brotherhood. That afternoon, Fr. Joseph, our choirmaster, was selecting the best singers to go to Utica to sing the Divine Liturgy in honor of St. John of Kronstadt's nameday and birthday. Since I was not a possessor of great musical talents, I had little hope that I would be invited to join the best singers, but to my great surprise Fr. Joseph chose me as an "adequate baritone," and I was overwhelmed with joy that I would thereby be taken to see the intriguing figure and hear the sermon of Archbishop John.
We arrived early enough and sang the whole Liturgy nicely, without any blunders. My attention, however, was fixed on the odd-looking figure of Blessed John, who appeared even smaller than when I had seen him in the office. When he was being vested in the middle of the basement church, I saw that he was exceedingly emaciated and bony. There was almost nothing attached to his bones, except for what appeared to be a big stomach but actually turned out to be a pouch with things in it, which he always wore. In this pouch was an icon, about a foot square and enshrined in purple velvet, with relics of his distant relative and patron saint, St. John Maximovitch of Tobolsk; and evidently he had other objects in it, such as his epitrachelion, liturgical cuffs, etc. His undergarment was a bright blue cassock made out of thin, cheap Chinese "paupers' cloth." His outer vestments were also peculiar. Although they were hierarchical vestments, they were made only out of white linen, and had little crosses of purple and orange embroidered all over, apparently done by his orphan children from Shanghai. His mitre, instead of being a glittering, round, balloon-like adornment of pontifical splendor, was only a folding traveling mitre that looked more like an enlarged skufia (simple monk's cap) in a strange shape. To match the vestments, this mitre was also white with little crosses of purple and orange thread; and it had cheap little paper icons glued on all four sides. His staff was taller than his own height, and it appeared that he was hanging onto it. His hair was disheveled, his facial expression utterly angry, his lower lip hanging, and his little black eyes often closed. But the worst was his speech. For the life of me, I could not understand a single sentence of his sermon. I understood that he was combining the significance of St. John of Kronstadt, St. John of Rila, holy Prophet Joel, and Blessed Cleopatra and her little boy John, and was telling how John had spit on the torturer and had thus been killed before the eyes of his mother; and of course he talked also about Christ's Resurrection. I could tell that the sermon was very profound, for he quoted portions of troparions and kontakions; but no matter how much I tried, coming closer to him, I still could not understand his speech.
The biggest surprise, however, came during the procession around the church with the blessing of the water. When he would sprinkle the holy water, he would aim mostly at his altar boys, dousing them. The boys felt themselves to be the center of attention, and were elated to be thus sanctified by their beloved archpastor.
I returned to the seminary in a state of deep satisfaction, as if I had received a certain jolt for my life. Since Archbishop John went back to France, I thought I would probably never see him again, but right after my graduation I was called mysteriously to serve the Church, thanks to his special summoning of me to California.
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