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, Fr 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.
Two years later, in the summer of 1961, the day after my graduation from seminary, I went on a pilgrimage to St. Herman's home and holy relics in Alaska, having obtained a blessing for this from Metropolitan Anastassy, who said, "God bless you. Go and bow down for us before the righteous apostle Herman, since our old age prevents us from ever going there. Pray for us there, and bring our blessing to the righteous hermit, our brother Archimandrite Gerasim." This memorable pilgrimage gave me a clearer picture of ecclesiastical reality, and set me for the rest of my life on a path blessed by St. Herman. Before I left on the pilgrimage, Fr. Vladimir blessed my trip with a little icon of Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam which was a blessing from his elder, Fr. Philemon the Valaamite. He also blessed me with a prayer rope, which I proceeded to wear into a mere string. Both the icon and the prayer rope were placed on the relics of St. Herman.
On my return trip, I stayed for about a week in the church rectory in Seattle, in a guest room on the second floor, second door on the left. During my stay I lost the prayer rope. Next I went to Canada to visit the forlorn skete of the holy Archbishop Ioasaph. Roaming through the Canadian prairies and visiting the sketes, I lamented that I had lost the prayer rope, and I could not be consoled because a Valaam blessing and St. Herman's blessing rested on that rope. Having given up hope of finding it, I returned via Seattle to San Francisco, where I was scheduled to give a slide-show and talk on my Alaska trip to Archbishop Tikhon, Bishop Nektary, and then to Abbess Ariadna and the sisters of her convent. The Abbess announced my lecture in a newspaper. The slide-show I was to give in her convent was to be the more important one, since that good Abbess had decided to gather all the students of her parochial school and all local youth.
A day or so before the event was to take place, I became exceedingly nervous. The Abbess told me that she hoped I wouldn't mind sharing my lecture stand with Archbishop John, who had just arrived from France. She also told me that she had scheduled a reception in conjunction with my lecture. I was both flattered and petrified to be giving a talk in the presence of such an important man as Archbishop John. But she assured me that Archbishop John was very kind, understanding, and had the heart of a child, and that if I would give my talk on a childish level, it would be a success.
Arriving a bit earlier than expected, I had hardly entered the main door when I was immediately rushed to an urgent telephone call from Seattle, from my friend George Kalfov. George had been Archbishop John's acolyte in Shanghai, and had been healed by him when he had been fourteen years old. Already he had told me many things about Archbishop John, whom he said was a man who was constantly persecuted which I always had difficulty comprehending.
As I walked up the steps to the church, Abbess Ariadna summoned me to hasten to the long-distance telephone which was in her room under the balcony of her large church. As I entered, I saw Archbishop John sitting at the telephone, summoning me to come close to him. He handed me the telephone receiver even before I could take his blessing. As Archbishop John held the receiver, the first thing George said to me was: "Where is your prayer rope?" I admitted that I had lost it and that it was irreplaceable. At this moment Archbishop John, still holding the phone receiver in his hand next to my ear, pulled my prayer rope out of his pocket. George said that Archbishop John had stayed in my room in Seattle and had found the prayer rope there, and that he was returning it to me at this moment. Seeing my prayer rope in the hands of Archbishop John, I automatically reached for it, but Archbishop John, letting me take hold of it, pulled the rope to himself as if not wanting to part with it, pulling me towards him at the same time. He said something to the effect: "Will you come to San Francisco so we can work together?" I nodded and began to pull at the rope, but he, looking straight into my eyes with a smile, pulled the rope back. Meanwhile George, hearing what was going on, told me seriously that with this gesture Archbishop John was calling me to himself. I at once recognized that God's Providence was pulling me, unworthy as I was, to come and be where Archbishop John was. Abbess Ariadna, seeing all this, confirmed that it must have been the will of God that my prayer rope was returned by way of Archbishop John. And she was not mistaken, for the rest of my life was bound up with Archbishop John's blessing.
My lecture was a success. After I finished, Archbishop John concluded with his message. At the reception, the nuns of the convent, being spiritual daughters of Archbishop John from Shanghai, told me many things about him, while I listened and ate sweet pies, happy as a lark. In the course of conversation that day, Archbishop John insisted that I give a talk for his former orphans at his St. Tikhon's Orphanage on Balboa Street, and that I should contact the matron of the orphanage, Maria Alexandrovna Shakhmatova, to set a proper date for the talk. Without lingering, I went there the next day, and my visit and encounter with that righteous woman left a deep impression on me for the rest of my life. First of all, Mrs. Shakhmatova was a mother figure to hundreds of teenagers. She wasted no time with them and had a good psychological approach warm contact with young souls. I immediately liked her because she had a good sense of humor and a keen perception into the soul of a youth.
My concern while traveling was to attempt to recruit new seminarians for Holy Trinity Seminary; and I did not hesitate, at all my stops, to lead the conversation towards that subject. With Mrs. Shakhmatova, however, it was she who wanted to discuss that topic; she spoke, and I listened and answered her questions. She was a dynamic personality; she liked me from the start and wanted me to take part in her world. She saw me as a potential friend to her orphan boys who, she lamented, were losing God in the soulless American atmosphere. I wanted to know more from her about Archbishop John, who by now since he had taken a special interest in my life was in my imagination my future bishop. But before going deeper into stories about Archbishop John, she took my word that I would do the utmost in order to influence one of her boys to go to my seminary. She wanted me to meet him the next day, which I did. The stories which Mrs. Shakhmatova told me opened my eyes to the highest calibre of righteousness, represented by Archbishop John. My study of Archbishop John's life was actually initiated by her vision. She had witnessed his ascetic exploit in Shanghai almost from the very moment of his arrival there, on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in 1934, the year I was born. She had had a difficult marriage, and joined Archbishop John's orphanage in Shanghai almost at the very start. She had children of her own who were also part of the orphanage. She saw Archbishop John crucify himself in both founding and managing the orphanage, which he dedicated to his favorite saint, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, from whom he drew the initial inspiration for it. Living conditions were terrible, and the needs of the children, whose parents had escaped Communism, were overwhelming. The young Bishop, almost from the start, gathered concerned ladies from his parish, asked them to found a committee, rented a house and opened up a hostel for orphans or children whose parents were in need. The chapter of St. Tikhon's Orphanage has never been written. The amazing way in which Blessed John gathered and fed the children requires an able writer to capture it for posterity. The children would be underfed, abused and frightened, until Archbishop John would come and very often take them personally into his orphanage and school. Each child and there were over three thousand who went through the orphanage had a traumatic story.
Mrs. Shakhmatova shared some of these stories with me. There was, for example, a boy named Paul who had witnessed his father and mother being killed and chopped into pieces by the Communists right in front of his eyes. Because of the trauma the boy had become mute and could not even pronounce his own name. He was like a trapped animal, afraid of everyone, and trusted only his fists and spitting. He was brought into the orphanage at a time when it was packed and had no place for him. Due to the fact that Paul was so frightened, the ladies there thought that he was abnormal and refused to accept him lest he scare the other children. When Archbishop John found out about him, he demanded that the boy be admitted. Upon hearing words of refusal, he insisted on immediately dropping everything and going to meet the boy personally. They did not even know that he was a Russian boy and spoke Russian, for he only mumbled and hissed like a caged animal. When Archbishop John arrived, he sat down before the boy, who was still trembling, and said to him the following: "I know that you have lost your father, but now you have found one me," and he hugged him. This was said with such power that the boy burst out in tears and his speech returned to him.
In the slums of Shanghai, there were cases in which dogs would devour baby girls who had been thrown into garbage cans. When the newspapers announced this, Archbishop John told Mrs. Shakhmatova to go and buy two bottles of Chinese vodka-at which she cringed in horror. But her horror increased when he demanded that she accompany him into these very slums, where it was common knowledge that grown-up people would be murdered. Fearless as ever, the young Bishop insisted on going there, walking through dark alleys in the worst neighborhood. She recalled what horror seized her heart when they, in the darkness of night, walked and encountered only drunkards, shady characters, and growling dogs and cats. She held the bottles in her hands, following him with trepidation, when suddenly a growl was heard from a drunken man sitting in a dark doorway and the faint moan of a baby was heard from a nearby garbage can. When the Bishop hastened towards the cry, the drunkard growled in warning. Then the Bishop turned to Mrs. Shakhmatova and said, "Hand me a bottle." Raising the bottle in one hand and pointing to the garbage can with the other, Blessed John, without words, conveyed the message of the proposed sale. The bottle ended up in the hands of the drunkard, and Mrs. Shakhmatova saved the child. They say that that night he returned to the orphanage with two babies under his arms. This fearlessness, however, had not been acquired without a deep inner struggle.
From the very start, Blessed John never ate during the day. He would liturgize or commune every day, after which he would spend an hour in silence in the altar, thoroughly washing the holy vessels. Then, without fail, he would go to each of the city's hospitals and would locate and visit the Orthodox Christians there as well as the many non-Orthodox who also needed him and were eager to see him. He would give Holy Communion, often serving the Holy Gifts to mentally sick ones. Sometimes he even served Divine Liturgy in hospitals, in various languages as the situation demanded: Greek, Arabic, Chinese, and later English. He would eat dinner only after midnight and would never lie down to sleep; he never even allowed himself to lean on the back of a chair. Of course he often dozed off because he wore himself out so much. But in his vigilance he always prayed for whomever would ask him, and often his prayer would be answered immediately. Hence, he was known already as a miracle-worker.
Once Mrs. Shakhmatova, in the middle of the night, chanced for some reason to climb up into the belfry. The door to it led from the top floor of the vicarage. It was cold and windy. As she opened the door, she saw that Blessed John was in deep, concentrated prayer, freezing, shivering in the open air, wind sweeping through his ryassa, and that he was blessing the houses of his parishioners from above. She thought, "While the world is asleep, he keeps watch like Habakkuk of old, guarding his flock with his fervent intercession before God, so that no harm can steal his sheep away." Deeply shaken, she withdrew. Thus she had a clue as to what he was doing during long winter nights when all the people take their normal rest in their comfortable beds. "Why was it needed?" Mrs. Shakhmatova asked me, looking deep into my eyes. "Who asked him to do it? Why such self-sacrifice, when his presence was needed everywhere?" And she answered her own question, to my amazed silence: "He had an unquenchable love for God. He loved God as a Person, as his Father, as his closest Friend. He longed to talk with Him, and God heard him. It was not some conscious self-sacrifice. He just loved God and did not want to be separated from Him."
"Once during the war," she continued, "the poverty of the orphanage reached such immense proportions that there was literally nothing with which to feed the children, and there must have been at least ninety of them at that time. Our staff was indignant because Archbishop John kept bringing new children, some of whom had parents, and we were having to feed someone else's children. Such were his ways. One evening when he came to us worn out, tired, cold and silent-I could not resist telling him off. I said that we women could not tolerate this any longer, that we could not bear to see hungry little mouths and not be able to put anything into them. I could not control myself and raised my voice in indignation. I not only complained, I was full of wrath at him for putting us through this. He looked sadly at me and said, 'What do you really need?' I said, right off the bat, 'Everything, but at least some oatmeal. I have nothing to feed the children with in the morning."
Archbishop John looked at her sadly and went upstairs. Then she heard him making prostrations, so vigorously and loudly that even the neighbors complained. Pangs of conscience bothered her, and that night she couldn't sleep. She dozed off in the morning, only to be awakened by the doorbell. When she opened the door, there stood a gentlemen of English extraction who said that he represented some cereal company and that he had a surplus of oatmeal; and he wanted to know whether they could use it since he heard that there were children here. They began to bring in bags and bags of oatmeal. While this was going on, with the commotion of banging doors, Blessed John began to descend the staircase. Hardly could Mrs. Shakhmatova utter a word to him when she saw his glance. He said no word, but with his eyes, with one single glance, he reproached her for her unbelief. She said she could have fallen on her knees and kissed his feet, but he was already gone to continue his prayer to God, now of thanksgiving.
After telling me this story, Mrs. Shakhmatova talked with me again about the young man whom she wanted me to influence to go to seminary. She asked me to take special care of him. This boy, she said, had had a difficult childhood and had always been a mystically inclined child. He was always quiet, pensive and sad. While other boys would run around playing, this boy would sit resting his head on his hand and look off into the distance. She would ask him, "What are you thinking of?" and the boy would always give the same answer: "About God!" This boy, according to Mrs. Shakhmatova, was destined to be a religious man.
Archbishop John's discovery of this boy is quite a tale. One day, Archbishop John told Mrs. Shakhmatova to get ready to go to a hotel of prostitution. In horror she objected, but he only smiled and said that it must be done. It turned out that there was a Russian woman who had embraced this profession, and who had two children in desperate need living with her in that hotel. The girl was six and the boy was already nine years old, and they had to be taken away from that atmosphere. After vigorous protestation, Mrs. Shakhmatova saw that she was not getting anywhere, and was finally persuaded to go with the righteous Bishop into this institution. Having arrived there, they were conducted to the woman's room. At that time the mother was absent, but the little children were sitting there, without a school to go to or any healthy nourishment. They began to encourage the children to come with them, saying that they had a house for children with food, a playground, and a school. The boy was persuaded, but when the mother arrived she protested with indignation and cursing. The boy was nevertheless able to be rescued, but the little girl remained.
As mentioned above, I met this young man the day after I talked with Mrs. Shakhmatova, according to her request. He reacted positively to my encouragement to go to seminary, and he eventually went there, where he labored as a typesetter and personally set up the complete five volumes of the Philokalia in Russian. Later on he became a priest-monk serving in Greece.
This very young man, upon seeing me, asked me to go with him to visit his friend, an American college graduate who was working on a philosophical book. We agreed to meet on the feast-day of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple; and since I wanted to receive Holy Communion that day, we were to meet in the old San Francisco Cathedral.
It was a typical cold, sunny San Francisco day. After receiving Holy Communion we walked for a long time to a basement apartment, and there I met my future partner Eugene Rose, later Fr. Seraphim. Within less than a year Eugene became an Orthodox Christian, and some months after that he became the spiritual son of Archbishop John, who ordained him to the rank of Reader a year before his (Archbishop John's) repose. I've often wondered if, had Archbishop John and Mrs. Shakhmatova been afraid to stain themselves with the shame of entering a house of sin in order to save lost souls, would I have ever met Fr. Seraphim and thus would the world have ever seen his writings? Of course, Archbishop John, as a true servant of God, knew what he was doing. Through this holy hierarch's selfless love for God and the human race, Fr. Seraphim was able to offer up his talents to God. This is what Fr. Seraphim and I believe.
Archbishop John, according to Mrs. Shakhmatova, was not a narrow ecclesiastical fanatic. He did not believe in jurisdictions. When he arrived in Shanghai, there were many Orthodox ecclesiastical denominations. He united them all, served everywhere, became available to all, loved all, and eventually saved many. During the Second World War, when pro-Soviet ideas were in fashion and all the Russian bishops in the Far East accepted the Moscow Patriarchate, Archbishop John, as true son of the Orthodox Church, also commemorated the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis I, but he did not cease commemorating the Russian Synod to whom he gave vows as a bishop. The Moscow Patriarchate representative, Archbishop Victor, demanded that all the bishops in the Far East cease to commemorate Metropolitan Anastassy, head of the Russian Church Abroad, and in this way insisted on the jurisdictional power of the Patriarchate. All the Russian Church Abroad hierarchs in the Far East capitulated to this demand except for Archbishop John, who said that he would do so only when someone proved to him that it was right for one to abandon vows. In commemorating the heads of both Churches, he showed that he accepted all jurisdictions and would not sow dissension on legalistic grounds. For refusing to cease commemorating Metropolitan Anastassy, he was locked out of his own Cathedral in Shanghai, but he nevertheless served Liturgy on a table in front of the locked Cathedral doors, continuing to pray for the heads of both Churches.
While being unconcerned with matters of jurisdictions, Archbishop John was ruthless and intolerant towards Clergy who were lax and indifferent in matters of spiritual integrity. For this he was hated to such an extent that there was even an attempt to poison him during Pascha, and he barely survived. This intolerance towards Archbishop John stemmed mostly from envy and jealousy. His integrity in matters of the Church, and especially in matters of liturgical precision, indicate that his concern for his flock was not a matter of personal preference, but came out of the whole liturgical realm of Church services and the ecclesiastical philosophy of life, dogmatic and pastoral, which were a part of the apostofic succession preserved in Orthodoxy. He consciously lived in and operated from this otherworldly realm, formed historically by the Church Fathers and thus he had a virtual disdain for the pragmatic expectations placed on one by the times and fashions. He was an enemy of fashion and gossip and pharisaical narrow - mindedness amidst his co-hierarchs, some of whom bear hatred for him up to this day. Without understanding this essential position from which Blessed John operated, it is impossible to explain his 'odd" behavior reminiscent of that of a fool-for- Christ.
Once when I was having a midnight dinner which Archbishop John had invited me to, I was confronted with a scene that boggled my mind and was impossible to accept by "normal" contemporary standards I had to see Archbishop John about the matter of my remaining in San Francisco. I had to talk about the formation of our St. Herman Bootherhood, about the future Fr. Seraphim Rose as a brother, about my sister's fiancÉ who was mentally sick; and I wanted to have confession. He had asked me to stay longer since he was busy till midnight. Mrs. Shakhmatova prepared the usual dinner, which consisted of cabbage borscht and some vegetable dish. At the head of the kitchen table sat Archbishop John. On his left, against the wall, sat Fr. Mitrophan and then myself. Opposite Fr. Mitrophan sat Bishop Savva, who was visiting San Francisco. Behind Bishop Savva, in the kitchen near the stove, was another lady who was wearing heavy makeup and was complaining in a whisper to Mrs. Shakhmatova. As we ate the soup, I noticed that Fr. Mitrophan was chuckling and looking across the shoulder of Bishop Savva to the women. Then, to my horror, I saw that Archbishop John was leaning forward over his plate to such an extent that his beard was soaking in the soup. Instead of putting the spoon into his mouth, he was using it deliberately to pour the soup with strings of cabbage over his mustache. I could not believe my eyes because there was no reasonable explanation for why he was missing his mouth and putting the soup over his mustache. Bishop Savva, who sat across from me and could not see the woman behind him, was very confused, to say the least. He gently pulled his napkin and offered it to Archbishop John, who with a growl pushed it aside. Fr. Mitrophan was obviously enjoying the sight and hit me with his elbow with a wink of his eye. I did not know what to do. I coughed and acted as if I did not notice anything, but the demonstration was quite appalling because Archbishop John kept staring at the woman with the lipstick on. Then suddenly the woman offered a sigh, and Mrs. Shakhmatova whispered something and the show was over. Then Archbishop John took the napkin, put it over his beard and went into the washroom, leaving the door open. He thoroughly washed his beard, and then came back and finished his dinner. Bishop Savva, oblivious to the lesson that Blessed John had given to the woman with the heavy lipstick, remained baffled. Fr. Mitrophan, meanwhile, whispered to me that the woman did learn the lesson.
Why had it been necessary to create such a spectacle in order to teach a lady not to follow worldly fashions, which were just as ridiculous as putting cabbage on a mustache, and by a bishop at that? I understood it and frankly liked it, because it had been done with a total absence of words.
Once when I was serving in church, I entered the altar and Archbishop John pointed to my tie. I did not know what this meant. A boy then took me aside and told me to take off the tie because Archbishop John did not allow servers in the altar to have ties. I noticed that all the subdeacons also had no ties. Later I found out that the real reason why he would not allow ties in the altar was because a tie is a hanging-noose and represents death, while the altar represents heaven and life. Again, this made sense to me, and in later years Fr. Seraphim and myself would always follow this practice with our acolytes in Platina.
Archbishop John never spoke in the altar. When something would go wrong he would only click his tongue as a sign that a correction was due. He would continue doing this until it was done right. Time and again I heard criticism about the fact that Archbishop John walked barefoot, which I myself saw several times during his evening meals. Mostly he was accused of serving barefoot in the altar. To me that was never a cause of scandal; and besides, I had never seen him serve without shoes. One day during the morning Liturgy, however, I chanced to be in San Francisco for the commemoration day of St. Ioasaph of Belgorod, a saint I loved very dearly, who had been the patron saint of Archbishop John's teen group in Shanghai. Since I was in town I decided to go to St. Tikhon's Home. I knew that Fr. Leonid Upshinsky would be serving there unless Archbishop John himself served, in which case Fr. Leonid would be singing in the choir. When I came in, the Liturgy was just about to begin. There were only three of us: Archbishop John serving, Fr. Leonid singing, and I was asked to serve as an acolyte. Archbishop John blessed me to put on a sticharion, and the service began. I was engrossed in prayer and at the same time fearful that I would do something stupid in the altar. Suddenly I noticed that Archbishop John was barefoot; and then all at once it dawned on me that on this same day was the commemoration of Moses the Prophet, who had to take his sandals off when he stood on the holy place, and that the altar was actually the Holy of Holies and I had my shoes on. Then it struck me that it is those who wear shoes who are demonstrating their insensitivity to the holy place, and not the other way around. I remember that my feet began to burn and I began to beg God with tears to forgive me for my crudeness in that holy place.
That Liturgy was almost impossible to understand. Archbishop John almost mumbled through the whole service, which I thought was so natural since Moses had had a speech impediment, too. The service was short and soon was over, but to me, in its depth, it seemed like a glimpse into eternity. There was no one in church except us and the angels and I sometimes wish now that I could pray and cry as I shamelessly did that morning. My companions were engrossed in the service just as I was, and if I made any mistakes no one noticed them or cared, for we were on holy ground. Whenever I hear people now talk about the "oddity" of Archbishop John serving barefoot, I sigh nostalgically for that precious Liturgy, for the humble stuttering utterances, and the indescribable peace of sensing the other world.
They would also judge Archbishop John for being late to church, which would occur because he was out visiting the sick and praying at their bedsides. He was also criticized because he was known to be stubborn in order to maintain spiritual discipline. But the judgment that hurt him most came from his younger bishops who could not tolerate these "excesses."
Mrs. Shakhmatova saw all this as a woman placed by God to take care of the needs of this unearthly man, who still had to operate in an earthly body in order to do good deeds for suffering mankind. Her knowledge of his aspirations gave her a deeper perspective on this prince of the Church who was to pontificate on a spiritual level, inspiring and calling people to a higher realm. During my unforgettable visits with her, she was able to instill in me love for this giant of a human being, a man with a big heart capable of engulfing hundreds of needy people and comforting their consciences with the demanding reality of the living God.
After my final slide-show at St. Tikhon's Home, I went to a crowded basement hall to which a lot of young people had been summoned. Both Archbishops Tikhon and John were present, as well as the future Bishop Nektary. I saw Archbishop John laughing at my stupid jokes, which were directed at the mind of teenagers. At the end of the talk, the elderly Archbishop Tikhon, who with his bent back gave the impression of a man who had risen from the grave, thanked me heartily. Archbishop John smiled and said, "We need more talks like that!" Then he added, "Come back to us," and mumbled something in conclusion that I could not make out. I thanked them all, and felt as if I belonged there, and left California with the resolve to surely come back.
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