Fr. Seraphim (Rose), part 3

Old ROCOR Cathedral, Fulton St., San FranciscoThe old Russian Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco.
It looks like a refurbished Protestant church because it is one;
in those years, the diocese could not afford a new building.

(Continued from part 2.)

Eugene stumbled into Orthodoxy by chance (or “chance”). He heard something about it, attended a service in a small church that served the Russian community in San Francisco at the time, and stayed. Within a year or two, Christian themes had crept into his correspondence and thinking. His growing Orthodox zeal played a major role in his decision not to pursue a doctoral degree (although his resentment at academia’s treatment of Gi-ming Shien also had a lot to do with it).

Old Cathedral (interior)The interior, however, has been “converted.”

During this time, Eugene was slowly drawn into the social circle of Russian emigrants, whom he met in church, at Berkeley, and elsewhere. Most of these people were intellectuals, who had left shortly after the Revolution, for whom Orthodoxy became a way of clinging to the last remaining fragments of pre-Revolutionary Russian culture. Eugene was deeply moved and impressed by their devotion and erudition, but his understanding of their world was somewhat limited. Their religious feeling was sincere and often accompanied by considerable self-sacrifice, but it was part of a greater construction that was driven by resentment, denial, and hatred as much as by Christian struggle and repentance.

The following monologue by one of Eugene’s aging Russian acquaintances is illustrative of these issues:

“Nina Podmoshenskaya, who was then sixty-seven years old, became for Eugene one more link to Russia — as well as a flesh-and-blood witness of his own philosophy… ‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ she would say. ‘Everywhere there were churches, sometimes three on a block! Huge churches of all kinds, of bright colors…All over you would see shining cupolas. In the morning hundreds of bells would be ringing, calling people to prayer and making the whole atmosphere of the city light and joyful. And there were holy shrines all over, too, with lampadas burning all day and night before holy icons. People often stopped in the middle of their daily tasks to venerate them and say a prayer.'”

(Damascene, 256-257)

Fr. Damascene, being even more credulous than his hero, takes this absolutely literally, as a profession of faith and regret over lost opportunities. But somehow I am hearing a note of irony. This person — who, in this case, had belonged to an artistic, cosmopolitan family, “a high-society family of the Russian intelligentsia” in Fr. Damascene’s own words, a family whose most famous representative was the modernist ballet choreographer Mikhail Fokine — may have felt affection for Eugene, but couldn’t help but see him as a simpleton, a foil for her rhetorical skill and artistry. “‘He absorbs it like a sponge!’ she told Gleb.”

Before, she had been taught to view Russian Orthodoxy as the mere ‘religion of maids and cooks.’ Now she recalled how her family cook in Russia had, after putting food in the oven, gone to church every morning. When he returned to serve the meal, Nina said, he emanated a deep spiritual peace that had a calming effect on the entire household: ‘It was like being in the presence of a real saint. And he was just an ordinary layman — people like him were quite common… How great was Holy Russia!’ Nina concluded. ‘But here in America,’ she sighed, ‘everything is based on making money!’ and she pretended to slap a wallet on her hip.”

(Damascene, 257-258)

This statement is sincere, but it is also obliviously hypocritical, toward Podmoshenskaya’s new homeland, obviously, but also toward her old one. She never acknowledges her own free will during this time — none of these nostalgic emigrants ever does, which is especially ironic in light of their embrace of Christianity. But if we follow Fr. Damascene and try to take these rose-coloured reminiscences at their face value, in a way that makes them even worse. “Maids and cooks” cannot really be held responsible for what happens to society, but “high-society families of the intelligentsia” can, and if we choose to believe this account, then their religious indifference can easily be seen as a betrayal of these simple folk who attempted to keep the faith as best they could.

Another one of these pre-Revolutionary remnants was one of Eugene’s professors at Berkeley, a Russian Sinologist named Peter Boodberg. In 1961, Eugene (then in his late twenties) wrote about him in the following exalted words: “My professor, being a Russian (the love of God seems to be more deeply imbedded in the Russians than in other peoples), has not tried to talk me out of leaving the academic world for a year; he knows too well that the love of truth, the love of God, is infinitely more important than the love of security, of money, of fame” (Damascene, 129). Like any aristocratic intellectual of his generation, Boodberg had a first-rate classical education and a sharp understanding of literature. As far as “the love of truth” goes, though…

“Interestingly, this very professor who said that Tolstoy was greater [than Dostoyevsky] also told me, ‘I can understand how you are infatuated with Dostoyevsky, because I too sometimes think that I should go down in the middle of Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and get on my knees and confess my sins to everybody.’ At this his wife said, ‘Oh Petya, if you want to do that, go ahead.’ It was obvious that she was mocking, but I could see that he meant it, that there was something of Dostoyevsky inside of him, and it was all covered over.”

Fr. Seraphim’s recollections in 1975 (Damascene, 117)

Far be it from me to dispute Fr. Seraphim, but it is very easy for me to imagine Boodberg leaning back in a Victorian chair with a wine glass in his hand as he said this. Perhaps that might actually have been his Dostoyevskian quality — nothing says “Russian intellectual” like a total and blatant disconnect between one’s life and one’s declared values (cf. Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Devils), which is also why most great saints of the Russian Orthodox Church were not writers, and why many great Russian writers showed a shocking lack of understanding, often a lack of basic knowledge, of Russian Orthodoxy. A Berkeley professorship represents many things — scholarship, sophistication, professionalism — but the one thing that it does not represent, is the pursuit of “truth” over “security.”

One of the landmark texts of Orthodox emigrant circles — one that is to this day well-liked and recommended by Church writers — is the novel The Summer of the Lord (Лето Господне), written by Ivan Shmelev between 1927 and 1948. Ostensibly autobiographical, this book describes various Orthodox holidays and customs (interspersed with family experiences) from the point of view of a little boy growing up in a provincial patriarchal family in late 19th-century Russia. The chapter titles read like a Church calendar — “Clean Monday,” “Annunciation,” “Easter” and so forth — the intention being to show how these religious events were integrated into family life.

“I am kneeling and I cannot understand what Father is reading. He is also kneeling, on the ambon, reading sadly, and the golden gates are closed. But his little book is on the flowers, on a bench covered with flowers. Is he praying for our sins to be forgiven? But what kind of sin can there be now? I am looking through the grasses. Here’s the fleawort, like a little paw, here’s the nettle, with sweet white flowers, and this one, like a fan, is lady’s mantle…I’m not afraid of anything, now there are no more sins…I’m looking at my father, next to me. He has a small bunch of lilies-of-the-valley on his white jacket, and peonies in his hand. His face is cheerful. He is waving his handkerchief, and I can smell fleur d’orange, even through the lilies. I hold my flowers out to him, so that he can smell them.”

(from Summer, “Saviour of the Apple Feast”)

shmelevAs far as I know, Shmelev’s book has never been translated into English.
However, more than 50 years later, it finally found its audience back home,
and has sustained over a dozen editions in just the past ten years.

If one is so inclined, it is easy to see nothing more than sentimental nostalgia in Shmelev’s lyrical reminiscences. Nonetheless, his child protagonist/mouthpiece reflects a brilliant, possibly unintended meaning: neither the author, nor his audience, is able to see or engage with Orthodoxy as an adult. Now left completely alone, without even any tangible ruins of their world remaining, they are suddenly overcome by a flood of visual and sensory memories that evoke unexpectedly intense feelings, but these images take the form of disconnected fragments from which the content, meaning, and history of Russian Orthodoxy are almost entirely absent. Orthodoxy is present on every page of Summer, but always at a distance.

“I am so happy that I can barely even see the little bird, gray and warm in my hands. I unclasp my fingers and hear the flutter, but I cannot see anything. The second one I can see, it looks like a sparrow. I even kiss it, the smell reminds me of our hens. And now, it’s also flown away, up to the shed, alighted…and it’s gone! They give me another and another. It is great joy! My father and Gorkin are also letting them go…our old carriage driver Antip also comes, and they give him one as well.”

(from Summer, “Annunciation”)

To an outsider, Shmelev’s book might read as a series of pastoral way-of-life vignettes, whose religious content is not much different from just-us-folks religious routine in any other country. To the extent that the book is successful as a literary work, it is due to the author’s implied (and sometimes stated) painful regret for his previous lack of appreciation of the world he describes.

“And even now, in a country that is not your own, when you encounter an inconspicuous apple with a familiar scent, you hold in your hand, you close your eyes — and in its sweet and juicy fragrance you remember it as if it were real — the little garden that once seemed enormous, the best garden that there could possibly be in the world, now gone without a trace…with birches and ashes, with apple trees, with little bushes of raspberries, black, white and red currant, gooseberries, with lush burdock and nettles, the distant garden… And you’ll see the yard, with the great puddle, now drying up, with the dry wheel grooves, with the sunken bricks, with the boards stuck together before the rain, with the supports that have sunk down forevermore…and the gray sheds, with the sunken sheen of time, with the smell of pitch and tar…and the tall stacks of boards, weeping tears of pitch in the sun…”

(from Summer, “Saviour of the Apple Feast”)

Other people’s nostalgia always comes across as childish and maudlin. But try not to sneer too much — the day might come when you, too, will anxiously search for words, trying to explain to an uncaring stranger about some long-gone time and place that now matters only to you.

Unfortunately, the impotence of Shmelev’s regret becomes clear after a quick glance at his life. In brief, he had corresponded with Communist firebrand Maxim Gorky before the Revolution, soliciting the latter’s opinion of his writing and attempting to use this connection to advance his literary career. Despite holding a job as a government officer, he initially welcomed the “February Revolution” that overthrew the czar, and only developed a strong anti-revolutionary position in October 1917, emigrating in 1922.

In the closing chapters of The Summer of the Lord, the little protagonist observes his father’s terminal illness. Through his fixation on reconstructing his childhood memories down to the last detail, Shmelev again achieves a second meaning that verges on genius:

“On my name day, the day of St. John the Theologian, September 26th, my mother, in tears, brought us children into the darkened bedroom, where the lampadas glowed in front of the kiots. We bunched together by the ceramic stove and looked at the green curtains, behind which our father lay. The icons had been taken out of the kiots and placed on the table, which was covered with a fresh cloth. Above the curtains, above the head of the sofa, two burning candles were mounted on the wall…I was still wearing my best clothes from the Liturgy, my maroon velvet suit with amber-coloured glass buttons. In the morning I was still glad to know that my Angel is following me, and at dinner I was the first to be served. There were even some gifts, even though now is not really the time… My mother gave me a set of paints.”

(from Summer, “The Blessing of the Children”)

What the author has captured here is the experience of unwittingly observing events that, much later, will turn out to have had definitive significance for your whole life. Only, while they are happening, you cannot comprehend them. All around you, adults with somber faces go back and forth, talk to strange doctors and priests that come in and out of your house, arrange the memorial services and read the sacred texts, small parts of which drift into your hearing. Eventually you understand that this was the moment when your life completely changed, but even then, these vivid images will never come together into a coherent whole. When you look back, in an effort to make some sense of these events and in the hope of uncovering the Divine grace behind them, instead all that surfaces is your old birthday gift, which ironically is the one part of the picture that still feels completely real.

This walk in life, or something like it, describes many noteworthy emigrants. Thus, Vladimir D. Nabokov, father of the famous author, was a leading member of one of the many anti-monarchist parties in early 20th-century Russia, joined Kerensky’s “provisional government” after February 1917, emigrated in 1919, maintained a flurry of journalistic and “political” activity in England and Germany, and finally got himself assassinated in 1922. One of the best-known liberal Orthodox hierarchs of the Russian diaspora, Bishop Vasily (Rodzianko), was the grandson of Mikhail Rodzianko, a leading figure in the February Revolution who, according to the accepted version of events, “negotiated” the abdication of Nicholas II.

Nabokov Sr. and Nabokov Jr. Maybe the son’s decision to become
an English literary chameleon was a kind of defense mechanism.

Both of these examples are typical; they are not “coincidences,” but the norm. In a sense, every famous emigrant, when asking “why” the Revolution happened, could obtain the answer by looking in the mirror. But few ever did, preferring to accuse of “apostasy” everyone but themselves (sometimes phrasing it in terms of a generic “we,” which is the same thing). So, when the emigrant thinker Ivan Ilyin wrote, “Thus, the Russian people are in need of repentance and purification…And so, those who have cleansed themselves must help those who have not, to restore inside themselves a living Christian conscience,” the more thought-provoking question is not where among these two categories he placed himself, but rather who could possibly have been willing to pay money to publish this all the way in 1956.

Many of these people became historians and theologians and put their lives into their work, the best of which was highly significant; to this day, Lossky’s Mystical Theology and Florovsky’s Byzantine Fathers are required reading for any Russian seminary student, and really for anyone who might be helped to understand Orthodox teaching by seeing a broader historical view of it. But, when looking at someone like the writer and thinker Vasily Rozanov, who stayed in Russia and honestly starved to death in 1919, it is difficult to feel sympathy for the empty drunken tears of his former literary colleagues in Paris and Geneva.

So it was this world, wrapped in layers of bitterness, hypocrisy, and self-justification, into which Eugene Rose had now drifted. His reading of it was exceedingly straightforward: he saw his new friends and mentors as victims of Communism who were forthrightly upholding the Orthodox faith against all odds. But, “every one that asketh receiveth” — Eugene’s eagerness to see “the love of God” in everyone he met was rewarded when he met someone in whom it was actually present.

“A newborn child can do nothing on his own, and even cannot walk to his mother, but nonetheless, looking for his mother, he moves, cries, weeps. And the mother takes pity, she is glad to see that the child searches for her with such effort and tribulation. And since the infant cannot come to her, then the mother, being overcome by love for her child for his long search, comes to him and with great tenderness holds and nurses him. So does God answer the soul that has need for Him.”

St. Macarius the Great
Egypt, 4th century

youngjohnofshanghaiBishop John (Maximovitch), arriving in Shanghai.

Archbishop John (Maximovitch) was born in 1896 in a family that belonged to the provincial petty nobility; two hundred years prior, one branch of this family had produced one famous Orthodox hierarch, St. John of Tobolsk, author of the philosophical and theological text Heliotropion. From 1907-1914, the young Maximovitch attended military school at his parents’ behest, where, by some accounts, he caught a glimpse of Czar Nicholas II during a routine inspection. This occasion may have left a profound impression on him; in any case, throughout the entirety of his life, he deeply respected and venerated the last czar. In his sermons and writing, he described Nicholas II as a saint long before the latter was canonized by ROCOR in 1981 (and by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000).

farewell“Farewell to the guards,” Pavel Ryzhenko, 2004.

The future archbishop left Russia in 1920 and arrived in Serbia in 1921, where he was finally able to study theology as he had wanted from early childhood. He took the monastic tonsure in 1926 and was ordained into the clergy by Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), ROCOR’s founder and first head. In 1934, he was ordained a bishop and sent to Shanghai, where a large Russian refugee community numbering over 20,000 people had gathered.

The dire situation of these refugees, who lacked the basic legal protection of any citizenship status from any existing country, is easily seen from a glance at emigrant newspapers of the time. The most delusional fantasies, completely disconnected from reality, share these pages with equally floridly-written accounts of poverty and degradation. Reading this is like listening to someone’s dying, delirious ramblings:

“Ten years have passed, and the Bolsheviks no longer laugh at the ‘layabouts’ whom they had condemned to death; on the contrary, they constantly warn the Communists about the ‘terrifying bands’ of emigrants, who, by their own admission, control public opinion in Europe and the United States. These states continue to withhold entry visas, but for the opposite reason: they are concerned that these strong and capable people will pose severe competition for their own citizens. How is it that these crowds of sick and impoverished people have turned into a terrifying force against the Bolsheviks? It was done through the individual efforts of the much-despised ‘masses’.”

Shanghai Dawn, #1343, April 1930.

“Far Eastern newspapers frequently report news about ‘the white slave trade’ in the port cities of China, particularly in Tianjin… Recently, a new but familiar ‘ordinary’ story was reported to us by an elderly woman, Mrs. Lapshin, who had made her way with great difficulty to the ‘Coal Mine’ station of the Chinese Eastern Railway in search of her daughter, who had disappeared without a trace… She found her in Tianjin in one of the brothels on Fuzhou Road.”
“…The unfortunate mother, having found her daughter, also found the money for her release. The brothel madam, however, claimed that [the young woman] now owed her $850. It was impossible to determine how the debt had been incurred… After this, the woman was locked inside the house and the mother was no longer able to reach her.”

Shanghai Dawn, #1289, February 1930.

These people may have really believed that their writing was motivating and giving hope to their readers, but I wonder. The more I look at these passages, the more cynical they sound, and the more demoralizing I think they must have been to anybody who, back then, might have read them.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, Bishop John assumed a number of clerical and administrative duties. Much of this work consisted of fundraising, attempting to organize the scattered Russian community and encourage its more fortunate members to help their neighbours. The new bishop quickly noticed the large number of abandoned and homeless children on the streets; one of his most celebrated accomplishments from this period was to establish an orphanage, which existed between 1935-1951. According to his parishioners, between 1000-3500 children passed through it during this time.

“In the slums of Shanghai, it often happened that infant girls were abandoned in trash heaps and devoured by dogs. When the newspapers reported this, Bishop John asked Shakhmatova to go and buy two bottles of Chinese liquor…he demanded that she accompany him into these same slums, in which adults could just as easily be killed… Shakhmatova remembered with horror how they walked in the dark night and encountered only drunkards, suspicious characters and growling dogs and cats. Holding the bottles, she anxiously followed His Grace, and suddenly they heard the muttering of a drunkard in a dark corner, as well as the weak cry of a child from the nearest trash heap. Then…holding up the bottle in one hand, and pointing at the trash heap with the other, His Grace wordlessly offered an exchange. The drunkard was left clutching the bottle, and Shakhmatova was left holding a baby girl. During that same night, His Grace returned to the sanctuary with two other infants in his arms.”

M.A. Shakhmatova, administrator of St. Tikhon’s Orphanage

orphanageSt. Tikhon’s Orphanage, Shanghai.

Already around this time, Bishop John began to evoke the kind of reverence that goes beyond simple respect for someone’s charitable works. The routine of running the parish and orphanage faded into the background, and accounts like this started to multiply:

“His Grace was then already known as a wonderworker, because he prayed for anyone who asked, and often his prayers were heard immediately. At night, His Grace never slept, but only dozed intermittently, sitting on a chair. Once Shakhmatova went up to the belltower at night; it was only possible to access it from the roof of the parish house. Opening the door to the rooftop, she found Blessed John, standing in the wind, deep in prayer, freezing cold but continuing to bless the houses of his parishioners from above… In this way, she discovered what he did during the winter nights, while everyone was asleep.”

Shakhmatova again

“His Grace visited Hong Kong twice. It may seem strange, but before I met His Grace, I wrote to him with a request to help a certain widow with children, and also asked him about several personal spiritual problems, but did not receive a reply. One year later, His Grace arrived in Hong Kong, and I was in the crowd that met him in the temple. His Grace turned to me and said, ‘You are the one that wrote to me!’ I was amazed, because His Grace had never seen me before. After the prayer service, His Grace, standing by the analogion, started reading his sermon. I was standing next to my mother, and we both saw a light that surrounded His Grace and came downward to the analogion — this shining was about a foot in width. It continued for a fairly long time. When the sermon was over, I, overwhelmed by this unusual phenomenon, told R.V.S. about what I saw, whereupon he replied, ‘Yes, many of the faithful have seen this.’ My husband, standing at a distance, also saw this light.”

L. Liu, one of Bishop John’s spiritual children

Trying to research this time period from the present day, it is much easier to find accounts like this than it is to find rational, detailed reports on specific humanitarian tasks completed by the parish administration — of course, with the caveat that many of the sources of these accounts were themselves ‘graduates’ of Bishop John’s orphanage. So, one can ask: how much difference did St. Tikhon’s Orphanage really make? The photograph above shows about 100 children. As long as you are not one of them, is this really ‘enough’ to venerate someone in this way? Would someone else have been able to do this work better, to run things more efficiently, for example by focusing on the work instead of prayer? And, of course, the question that all decent, empowered and informed members of society must be thinking to themselves while they read this — was the Russian emigrant community in Shanghai really the ‘right’ group to help? Did they ‘deserve’ it? I mean, you know, it’s good to help people and all, but there are many other people in this world whose suffering is, let’s face it, much more important…

“A man from Hailai who had come down with the Spanish flu had been placed in a French hospital run by Roman Catholic sisters of mercy. The patient’s condition was so hopeless that he was placed behind a curtain, where no one would disturb his last moments. He was expected to die at any moment. Suddenly he rang the bell, the sister-nurse came in and saw that he was sitting — he asked her: ‘Who was here just now? Who was that priest? I was dying, and he came in to pray for me, and I felt that my health was returning to me.’
…One evening we came to church for the vigil. During the service, we saw a very large man enter the church. He was well-dressed, in a very handsome blue suit and with a big red flower on his lapel…to our amazement, we saw that this giant approached Blessed John and kneeled before him, asking for his holy blessing, and then explained that he had finally found the man who had supernaturally healed him in the hospital. The hierarch softly smiled and blessed him.”

A. Chizhova, one of Bishop John’s spiritual children

For most people who ever met Bishop John, even the ones telling these stories, simply having met him meant much more to them than any specific help that they received from him (even the supernatural healing is often described by them as happening to someone else). I think that, in many situations in life, there are fairly obvious and straightforward things that people can do to help themselves, but they don’t do them, because they feel that their life doesn’t matter; that they are completely alone and abandoned in the world; and that they will still be just as alone even if they do claw their way out. In such situations, it is more important to know that there is at least one real, living man of God — to know this concretely rather than speculatively, to see this person walking among us instead of sitting on a mountain somewhere — than it is to have this person (or any other person) do anything in particular.

johnofshanghai.jpgBishop John in his Shanghai office.

My own faith is weak. When people line up for Communion, there may be a certain unspoken anxiety or distraction. However, once people are walking away from the chalice, they usually appear collected, quiet and untroubled, and these qualities are very similar between them even when they look very different otherwise. I have considerable difficulty imagining this state of mind, to say nothing of attaining it, and the reason must be that, deep down (or not so deep down), I do not really believe to the extent that they do. But that only makes it more important and valuable to meet a Church father who does believe in that way without hesitation, to be blessed by him and in this way to receive a measure of forgiveness for my unbelief.

“The Chinese troops opened fire across the English territory on the warships that were anchored in the Huangpu River. These vessels were standing close to the shore and were covered by a long terrace-like building with 36 rooms. Our Orthodox church was in the middle of the building. The Chinese shelled the building and destroyed every enclosure…Blessed John discovered that every room to the right and left of the church building had been completely destroyed. On the first floor, where our kitchen used to be, the Japanese had placed their medical unit. It had been hit by a shell, all of the glass vessels and furniture had been shattered. However, the room where our church was had been preserved: the walls were untouched, they were not even cracked. No one believed it. His Grace decided to look at the church at night…when he came to the bridge across the canal, he was stopped by the Japanese sentries. Because the Japanese did not understand him, one of them brought an interpreter, who said to His Grace that the streets are off limits because a battle is taking place between the Chinese infantry and Japanese marines. One could clearly hear the sound of gunfire. The interpreter said, ‘You are going to your death.’
Nonetheless, His Grace asked for written permission to proceed to the church. The interpreter brought it from headquarters. Blessed John came down the darkened street and found himself in the line of fire. The shooting stopped for as long as it took him to cross, and resumed as soon as he had left. Blessed John examined the church and took the same road back. Later he told us that even the glass windows had been completely preserved and not a single icon had fallen down. When he was returning across the bridge, the Japanese sentries saluted him; they were amazed, saying that God had carried him there and back.”

Monk Nestor (Levitin), writing in 1969

In 1937, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese military, which also attempted to exert control over the Russian community (among other expatriate groups) by influencing its leadership. In subsequent years, two presidents of the Russian Emigrants’ Council were killed. Bishop John announced to the Japanese that he would now serve as the community’s temporary leader. Toward the end of World War II, he rejected the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, on the grounds that it was under duress from the Soviet authorities, and reaffirmed his commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the only one of six Russian Orthodox hierarchs in the Far East to do so. Largely because of this principled position, he was elevated to the office of Archbishop by ROCOR in 1946.

When the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, it became clear that Archbishop John’s flock would no longer be able to stay in Shanghai. Still without any citizenship status, approximately 5,000 refugees moved to temporary camps on islands in the Philippines. From fragmented reminiscences by some of the people involved, one can see the circumstances in which this move occurred:

“Among the Vorobyev family, only Venya, his mother, and his brother’s wife with her small child reached Tubabao… A great blow was dealt to the family when they lost their father. He survived World War I and the Civil War, but died at the hands of robbers. Once, Venya came back home from school and found his mother lying on the floor and crying. The boy could not understand what happened, and the neighbours explained to him that his father had been killed. He was preparing for the departure to Tubabao, tried to sell some things, and he was robbed and thrown into the river, where he was later found. [Venya’s] brother Alexander survived a similar attack, he was struck on the head, robbed and thrown into the river. When he came to his senses, he realized that he was being carried by the current. Death was near, but a steamboat was coming by, and when he called for help, they noticed and rescued him. He worked for an English steamboat company and ended up in Australia; only later was he able to bring his family there from Tubabao.”

V. Vorobyev, one of Archbishop John’s spiritual children

Refugee camp on Tubabao Island, Philippines. Right: Archbishop John.

The Philippine authorities had originally agreed to shelter the refugees for four months. Due to the temporary character of this agreement, the camps were located in remote areas; the refugees were more or less deposited in the middle of the jungle and left to build the camps on their own. These makeshift shelters then became their home for more than two years. Although the International Refugee Organization had sent representatives to oversee the camp, there was no indication of any progress (or any effort to make progress) to resolve their situation. Fr. Kirill Zaitsev reported in 1949: “At first, it seemed that the relocation to Samar [Island] would not complicate, but rather, would ease the usual process of obtaining departure visas. The opposite turned out to be true. The entire system was paralyzed by the isolation of the camp and the lack of communication with the diplomatic staff — even those who normally would have had every reason to hope for a quick departure to some country or other, were now chained to the camp. Not only were no new doors opening for the Russian refugees, but even those doors that had already been opened (for example, to Argentina) had shut. A prison, from which no way out could be seen.

In these circumstances, Archbishop John spent his time organizing religious life in the camps and going around the islands to visit people who were ill. As in Shanghai, the aid that he provided often consisted of simply being there; most accounts of this time period focus on describing the details of various church services and prayers that had been organized, the clergy that participated in them and so forth. But, for more and more people, this very presence was becoming miraculous:

“Occasionally, I accompanied [Archbishop John] to the hospital in the city of Guiuan, where there were some severely ill Russian refugees. His Grace visited them and handed out pocket Bibles and small icons. Once, upon entering the Russian ward, we heard frightening screams from a distance. When His Grace asked about the cause, the Russian nurse said that this was a terminally ill woman, who had been placed in the former American military hospital building next door because her screams were bothering the other patients. His Grace decided to visit this woman, but the Russian nurse advised him not to do so, because of a sickening stench coming from the patient. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ His Grace said and quickly went to the other building. I followed him; indeed, a foul smell was issuing from the woman. I stepped out. His Grace prayed for a long time, then heard her confession and administered Communion. When we left, she was no longer screaming, but only groaning quietly. Some time later we again went to the hospital, and as soon as our Jeep entered the yard, a woman ran out of the hospital and fell before His Grace’s feet. It was the same ‘hopeless’ patient that he had prayed for.”

Fr. George Larin, former parish administrator on Samar Island

In July of 1949, Archbishop John came to Washington, DC from the Philippines and appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, requesting permission to evacuate the Tubabao community to the United States. After a visit to the island by California Senator William Knowland in November 1949, the US Congress amended the legal refugee quotas with an explicit exception for Russians from Tubabao. About one year later, the first group of refugees left for San Francisco.

Almost immediately afterward, in 1951, Archbishop John was relocated to the ROCOR archbishopric in Paris. However, he returned to San Francisco in 1962, at the request of many of his spiritual children from Shanghai. They were hoping that his moral authority could bring order to conflicts in their congregation, which had paralyzed all normal parish life and halted the construction of the new Russian Orthodox cathedral on Geary Street. Not long after starting services there, the archbishop noticed Eugene Rose standing in the back; this was only a couple of months after Eugene had been received into the church, but as Fr. Damascene tells it, “People who were with Archbishop John during that time noticed that he took a special interest in Eugene, as if seeing in him something extraordinary” (210).

The new cathedral under construction in the early 1960s.

Unfortunately, Archbishop John’s arrival only caused the parish conflict to flare up more sharply. “When Archbishop John had first come to San Francisco at the end of 1962, the existing parish council had refused to let him see its financial records. Upon finally receiving them at a parish council meeting (but not without someone trying to snatch them out of his hands), he found them to have been irregularly kept. Putting them in a publicly accessible place, he called everyone to pay their past debts.” The result that quickly followed was that “he was publicly tried in the Superior Court of the State of California, having been charged…with holding an illegal church election and embezzling church funds.” (Damascene, 229)

Fr. Damascene gives a lengthy account of the proceedings, which ended with the Archbishop’s acquittal of all charges, but which were accompanied by so much vitriol that one can’t help but think that it was never really about financial bookkeeping:

“It was ugly. My parents, unfortunately, were totally against him, being aligned themselves with the bishop in Los Angeles who wanted to have the power and control. My little sister remembers something that was traumatic for her, since she was just a little girl then. ‘I was with Mama,’ she says, ‘and she and this other group of women were running after him, calling him names, and spitting at him. I saw my own mother spit at him right in the face!’ …Why people hated him, I don’t understand.”

Parish member, quoted by Fr. Damascene (234)

“When asked who was to blame for all the church discord that had occurred, he replied simply, ‘The devil.'”

(Damascene, 240)

I think this says everything anyone ever needs to know about the spiritual condition of the Russian emigrant community in the 1960s; it also helps understand exactly what was missing from Orthodox life that would have needed Fr. Seraphim’s help to be restored. However, despite the distress that this petty, vicious squabble caused to the Archbishop (he died just three years later), nonetheless, from the viewpoint of Orthodox philosophy, it transmutes into a kind of gift:

Upon arriving at the Skete, St. Arsenius explained his intention of becoming a monk to the priests. They brought him to an elder, John the Dwarf, who was filled with the Holy Spirit. The elder wished to test the humility of Arsenius, in order to know whether he had truly resolved to renounce the world. When they sat down to their meal, the elder did not invite Arsenius, but let him remain standing. He stood, directing his eyes toward the ground, as if he were standing before God and His Angels. When they began to eat, the elder took a piece of dry bread and threw it to Arsenius. Seeing this, Arsenius thought to himself: ‘The elder, like an Angel of God, has discerned that I resemble a dog and, in fact, am worse than any dog, and for this reason he has given me bread in the way that people throw food to hounds: I will eat it in the way of hounds.’ Arsenius then stood on his hands and knees, approached the bread, picked it up with his mouth, brought it over into the corner and ate it there, lying on the ground. Blessed John, seeing the great humility of St. Arsenius, said to the priests: ‘He will become a true monk.’

from the Life of St. Arsenius the Great (350-445 AD)

After many years, the monk finally learns to overcome fleshly desires, only to be subjected to something even more dangerous — the delusion of “spirituality,” seeing oneself as a holy teacher and mentor, basking in the veneration of one’s followers with barely concealed pride. No spiritual figure, no moral authority can avoid having to struggle with the temptation of “guruism” (as will be seen later, Fr. Seraphim’s mission was no exception). The monk’s only recourse is self-effacement, as advised by the Holy Fathers.

“When good works are done through you, thank the Giver of good as the cause, but reproach yourself, saying: if only I had good in my heart, I could also have contributed to it — and then you will be granted the gift of prayer to God, asking to be made a participant in those good works that may be accomplished through you.”

Sts. Barsanuphius and John, answer to question #408
Palestine, 6th century

Perhaps this might explain why, from the very beginning of his monastic life, Archbishop John chose to present himself in a way that “by worldly standards seemed hardly ‘respectable.’ Archbishop John’s hair was unkempt, his lower lip protruded, and he had a speech impediment that made him barely intelligible. He sometimes went about barefoot, for which he was severely criticized. Instead of the glittering, jeweled mitre worn by other bishops, he wore a collapsible hat pasted with icons embroidered by his orphans.” (Damascene, 208) Misunderstandings, insults and false accusations from histrionic parishioners are a small price to pay to keep from becoming a false prophet.

Of course, the Archbishop was never completely alone during the conflict, and after it ended, the tales continued to multiply:

“When our church in Paris had just opened and blessed John was still with us, an older man named Gregory (I do not remember his last name) came to us from Switzerland…This man often read at the kliros (he especially liked to read hymns to the Most Holy Mother of God). Once he was reading the Hours. Blessed John was conducting the Proskomedia in the altar, and the side door was opened. At that time I was not present, Gregory was alone. Later he told me…having finished the Hours, he wanted to ask Blessed John something and went to the altar. Coming up to the open side door…[he] saw Blessed John surrounded by uncreated, luminous light and standing, not on the ground, but in the air about 30 centimeters above it. Gregory quickly stepped back and was unable to ask him anything, while His Grace continued the service as if nothing had happened.”

Z.V. Yulem, one of Archbishop’s John’s spiritual children

Archbishop John died in 1966; his unembalmed body was interred beneath the new cathedral, which was finished one year later. His sepulchre quickly became the site of religious pilgrimages, and reports of his miraculous intercessions sprang up immediately. Fr. Seraphim played a major role in publicizing them: one of the first tasks undertaken by his mission was to compile and print a book, Blessed John the Wonderworker, cataloguing the many miracles attributed to the Archbishop. The book itself then became a reference point for new accounts in the following years and decades:

“Valentina A. is a member of our parish… Having read…[Blessed John the Wonderworker]…she came to me after church services and asked for oil from the lampada in the sepulchre of Archbishop John, as her daughter was seriously sick… The diagnosis was a frightful one, cancer of the breast. I had Unction served over the daughter and later gave her cotton saturated with oil from Archbishop John’s lampada. She anointed the ailing spot several times by making the Sign of the Cross. The doctors insisted on surgery, but when she came to the hospital for observation, the doctors and the sick woman herself were amazed: the swelling had disappeared and there remained only a scar.”

Hieromonk Kirill (Osipov), Astrakhan, Russia, 1994

Archbishop John has a way of inspiring this kind of fervour among Orthodox believers, and the passage of time only seems to amplify it. In 1993, it reached its logical conclusion — his tomb was opened by the cathedral clergy, one of whom reported: “The lid opened, and we glimpsed St. John’s vestments… When a priest is buried, his face is covered with an aer: the one that is used to cover the Holy Gifts at the Liturgy. …Archbishop Anthony crossed himself and raised up the aer covering Vladika John’s face. This was the moment when I saw Archbishop John’s face for the first time. His face and body were intact — they were incorrupt — and we were laying eyes on true relics.” Soon after, he was glorified as a saint by ROCOR, and his body was moved into a shrine inside the cathedral itself. In 2008, the Russian Orthodox Church affirmed his canonization. Nothing earthly remained — from this moment, he would be known as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

I have been here several times (photo from 2017).
I always start with a different reason for coming,
but I always end as a supplicant.

Explaining all this to someone who is not already steeped in Orthodox mysticism, however, is a difficult task. I wonder if many Orthodox believers have had this experience — trying to describe St. John in a way that would allow others to understand why he is venerated to such a degree, and suddenly finding that what comes out sounds quite underwhelming: he prayed a lot, he never ate meat, he was kind to children… Your interlocutor will listen and nod politely, and walk away with the satisfyingly lightweight conclusion that all great spiritual figures are very “inspirational” and thus interchangeable and more or less devoid of content.

“If you ask anyone who knew Archbishop John what it was that drew people to him — and still draws people who never knew him — the answer is always the same: he was overflowing with love; he sacrificed himself for his fellow men out of absolutely unselfish love for God and for them. That is why things were revealed to him which could not get through to other people and which he never could have known by natural means.”

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) in 1981

Ultimately, sainthood is a word that has no definition and cannot have one. It certainly should not be reduced to a list of charitable works — such a list will never be “long enough,” and in any case this substitutes something else in place of the real meaning of the idea. Indeed, St. John visited the sick and cared for orphans; but a specialized charitable organization, with a dedicated administration and full-time staff, can do these things much more efficiently and in much greater volume. It was never St. John’s goal to form or lead any such administrative body. In fact, during his life, he was criticized for being a poor administrator even within his archbishopric.

St. John’s good works, in and of themselves, had little impact outside the small group of people that had the good fortune to see and speak to him. He led his flock out of China — but from a certain point of view (not that anyone who thinks this has ever actually helped a single orphan), these people were all inconsequential, with no broader “societal” significance. What little he did manage to accomplish seems to have been hardly worth the effort, unless, of course, you were one of those people. In that sense, one could answer Fr. Seraphim above with the question of what exactly constituted St. John’s “sacrifice,” and what was achieved by it.

sfsoborinteriorInterior of the cathedral.
In the apse, the Mother of God raises her hands in prayer and greeting;

this is likely to be what you first see when you enter.

Nonetheless, in a certain sense, Fr. Seraphim is absolutely right — even if St. John had accomplished nothing else, his sacrifice consisted simply of the way in which his total devotion to God turned into total disregard for himself and his own life. People loved him just because they knew that he wanted nothing for himself. Among those who knew him from Shanghai, no one had any trouble believing this, including people who may have never received any material (or supernatural) assistance from him. Now that there is practically no one left with first-hand experience of that time, people tend to notice and emphasize his extensive ascetic practice as a demonstration of this quality:

“Archbishop John was a severe ascetic. Ever vigilant before God, he was in a constant state of prayer. He ate only once a day, at midnight, and never lay down in a bed. His nights he usually spent in prayer, and when he finally became exhausted he would catch a few hours of sleep before dawn, either bent over in a chair or huddled on the floor in the icon-corner. Upon waking, he would splash cold water on his face and begin the Divine Liturgy, which he served every day without fail.”

(Damascene, 209)

“To sever your own will means never to think about bodily comfort in any form; the fleshly will seeks to comfort the body in all cases, and therefore, if you give it no comfort, you may know that, there in your cell, your will is being severed. To sever your will, being among people, means to die for them, to be with them as one who does not exist. To follow the will of God, as the Apostle says, means to sever the will of the flesh (Ephesians 2, 3). On the other hand, the will that is insinuated by the demons is manifested in self-justification and belief in oneself, and such is the man who will be entrapped by them. Pray for me, brother, and forgive me!”

Sts. Barsanuphius and John, answer to question #124

The Byzantine Fathers wrote thousands of pages of theological and pastoral texts, many of which were integrated into centuries of Church rituals and are still looked upon by believers as direct spiritual manuals. But St. John of Shanghai never wrote a single major work; his written legacy consists of a handful of sermons and a few expository theological articles in obscure emigrant publications. Even his explanation of the Church teaching on the afterlife, which was republished by Fr. Seraphim in The Soul After Death, is very brief; Fr. Seraphim’s notes on it are longer than the original text.

But, in another way, St. John’s silent asceticism might mean even more. Centuries separate us from the Byzantine Fathers, and the path of least resistance is to aestheticize their books, to view these tales of extreme self-abnegation as metaphors and literary techniques — whether beautiful or “inspirational” or perhaps just terrifying, but not meant to be taken literally in any of these cases. (In our defense, the Byzantines had already turned Lives of Saints into a kind of literary genre.) But St. John’s life is sufficiently well-documented to know that he really did live in this way, which proves that these 7th-century tracts are describing something that is possible. And, if one can believe them in this one respect, then maybe one can also believe them about everything else — their miracles, their dialogue with God, their assuredness of resurrection, their adamant promise of His love.

“And when God sees this will in you, that you have entrusted yourself to God more than to your own self, with complete purity in your thoughts, and that you have forced yourself to rely on God more than on your own soul, then shall a great power dwell within you, and you will tangibly feel that it is with you — that same power, which having felt in themselves, many could cast themselves into the fire and have no fear, and, walking upon the water, would not waver in their thoughts with anxiety of drowning; because faith strengthens the feeling of the spirit, and one feels in oneself that something invisible compels one to pay no heed to fightening things, and to have no sight of terrors that overwhelm the senses.”

St. Isaac of Syria
Nineveh, 7th century

sfsobortombSt. John sleeps here, awaiting the end of time.

St. John’s posthumous influence on Orthodox church life is considerable and easily noticed. In 2007, ROCOR reunited with the Russian Orthodox Church. This reconciliation was preceded by a lengthy debate, as a vocal faction within ROCOR continued to regard the Moscow Patriarchate with suspicion, seeing the movement toward reunification as an attempt at Communist infiltration (over 15 years after the fall of Communism). The decision to move forward was made in 2006, at a council of senior ROCOR clergy in San Francisco. Fr. Victor Potapov, who was present at this event, later recalled, “At one point, it was proposed that a resolution on Eucharistic communion with the Moscow Patriarchate be drafted…the process was difficult and at one point they reached an impasse. Then they decided to have a recess, and to go to the cathedral and pray to St John of Shanghai before his very relics. A draft resolution was placed on his chest, along with a list of names of the delegates of the Council. Fervent prayer then instilled in us the confidence that everything will happen according to God’s will. After the moleben, the drafting of the resolution went smoothly.” In order to grasp St. John’s impact on the Church, it should first be understood that, to an Orthodox believer, communication with the saints is, not merely a ritual, but a dialogue, thus naturally leading to Fr. Victor’s conclusion, “I believe that the reunification of the Church was the result of the prayers of St. John of Shanghai. ”

Although Eugene Rose converted to Orthodoxy before he had met St. John, that meeting became a central event in his life: it not only strengthened his resolve to become a monk, but also defined the way in which he viewed monasticism. For the rest of his life, St. John was his first, greatest role model and authority. Writing about himself in the third person as “a young Western convert,” he recounted that “the heart of this convert…longed to know how to believe, which means also whom to believe….it was also obvious that there was something very much lacking in the ‘theologians’ of our day, who for all their logic and their knowledge of Patristic texts, did not convey the feeling or savor of Orthodoxy as well as a simple, theologically uneducated Abbess. Our convert found the end of his search — the search for contact with the true and living tradition of Orthodoxy — in Archbishop John Maximovitch. For here he found someone who was a learned theologian in the ‘old’ school and at the same time was very much aware of all the criticisms of that theology which have been made by the theological critics of our century… But he also possessed something which none of the wise ‘theologians’ of our time seem to possess: the same simplicity and authority which the pious Abbess had conveyed to the heart of the young God-seeker.” (Damascene, 212-213) Long after Eugene became a monk, the foremost concern in his mind continued to be, not simply being Orthodox, but rather what exactly it means to be Orthodox, and to him, St. John not only provided guidance in the form of words or writings left over from his life on earth, but continued on as an active participant in events — an intercessor who would answer prayers, as long as they came from “a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart.”


“Grace has been poured out in the last days upon us all. Beholding this grace come forth from a holy hierarch who once did walk among us, let us receive it with reverence and thanksgiving, crying to God: Alleluia.”

Hymn to St. John, Kontakion 12

(Continuation: part 4.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s