Those of us who live and work in the Washington DC area know what it is to have busy schedules – to work 10 and 12 hour days and commute 2 and 3 hours, to work week-ends and holidays and give up any hope of seeing family or enjoying “free” time! What if this kind of “busyness” were devoted to the salvation of man – to fervent prayer, to confession, to the life-giving sacraments of the Church? We have an example of this in one of the saints, and the results of his busy life have been far greater than that which comes from political “workaholics” here.
Fr. John Sergiev was the vehicle for a religious revival among the Russians living in Kronstadt and St. Petersburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He worked from the early hours of the morning until late at night and was met by throngs of people seeking his blessing and pastoral advice wherever he went. By the end of his life, he had given up all personal time and was already considered a saint by those who knew him.
The son of extremely poor but devout parents, John followed their example of piety as a young child. But he was a slow student and had difficulty learning to read. When he pleaded with God in prayer to help with this problem, he suddenly felt as if darkness had fallen away and he could perceive the light. After this, he could easily comprehend what he read and his studies improved greatly.
As a student in the Petersburg Religious Academy, John had hopes of becoming a missionary to China or to the native Americans. But he soon realized that he was surrounded by people in his own country who were ignorant of the faith and in need of spiritual renewal. Graduating in 1855, he was soon ordained to the priesthood. In a recurring childhood dream, he had seen himself serving in a large cathedral, and when he entered St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Kronstadt, where he had been assigned, he was amazed to see that it was the church in his dreams.
Kronstadt was not a prestigious assignment. The city was located on an island in the Gulf of Finland. There was a naval base here and the city was also home to beggars and criminals who had been banished by the authorities from St. Petersburg. But it was to all these people that God had called the priest John and he began his ministry among them with joy and enthusiasm.
Fr. John was always concerned about the welfare of the poor. He visited them in their filthy huts and tried to alleviate their suffering – spiritually through prayer and materially, by often giving them his own clothing, food and money. Eventually he was able to help with the sources of poverty by founding the Home for Constructive Labour, where training was given in several skills, free dinners were offered, a library was formed, and some medical care was provided.
However helpful this endeavor was to the poor people of Kronstadt, Fr. John did not limit his ministry to social welfare. He knew that the people needed to turn to God, so he showed them the love of God through his love for them. He listened to their troubles, comforted them in their sorrows and urged them to avail themselves of the Sacraments.
Contrary to the custom in the Orthodox Church at this time (and in most churches throughout the world), which was that people only received Communion once or twice a year, Fr. John instituted daily Divine Liturgies in the cathedral and encouraged people to receive the Body and Blood of Christ frequently. This required frequent confession and the overwhelming response which the people gave meant that the priest was unable to manage the hours which this would have taken. So he had to institute a form of general confession in which he led the people through the preparatory prayers collectively and they all spoke their confessions at once and received a group absolution. This was a controversial innovation, but it was the only way that Fr. John could offer the healing balm of confession and Communion to his people.
Miracles – primarily of healing – were attributed to Fr. John. There were many cases of extreme illness which came to a happy end through his fervent prayers. He maintained an extremely ascetic life of fasting and continual prayer and this resulted in an intensity of prayer for healing that had a miraculous effect.
As his fame grew and requests for his help spread from the city of Kronstadt to St. Petersburg and further, Fr. John’s time became even more restricted. Eventually, his schedule was such that he rose at 3:00 am to begin his preparatory prayers, then met and talked with the numerous people who were lined up at the door of the cathedral when he arrived. Then he began Matins and Divine Liturgy (preceded by the group confessions). Services took many hours because of the number of communicants and because notes, letters and telegrams were brought to the priest with requests for prayer which were met during the Liturgy. Afternoons and evenings were spent traveling to those who were sick or otherwise in need and his day ended around midnight when he could finally get a few hours’ rest before rising again at 3:00 am!
It is hard to imagine this kind of life but even harder to imagine it for a married man! Another somewhat controversial aspect of Fr. John’s life was that he convinced his wife Elizabeth that they should live virginally as brother and sister (like some of the early saints of the church). She did not agree at first and complained to church authorities, but eventually gave way, and her acquiescence allowed Fr. John to lead a life of complete devotion to his ministry among the people. But the presence of a wife was a sort of protection for this generous priest. All of his salary and all the many donations which came his way were immediately given away to the poor. When it became apparent that money was needed for his own and Elizabeth’s food and clothing, the church authorities began sending his salary to her to manage!
All during this exhausting amount of work, Fr. John kept a spiritual diary. Excerpts from these reflections have been published as My Life in Christ, giving others the benefit of this holy saint’s aid long after his death. Fr. John fell asleep in the Lord on December 20, 1908 and his body was buried at the St. John of Rita Women’s Monastery which he had founded in St. Petersburg. All through the Communist era, when the monastery was closed, flowers were placed by the faithful as near this place as possible. St. John of Kronstadt was formally glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1964, which was recognized by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1988.
In St. John’s own words: The best moments on earth are those during which we meditate upon heavenly things in general, when we recognize or defend the truth, that heavenly dweller and denizen. Only then do we truly live. Therefore, the essential interests of the soul require that we should oftener rise above the earth, upwards to heaven, where is our true life, our true country, which shall have no end.
Holy John of Kronstadt, pray for us!
Sources: The Life of Father John of Kronstadt by Bishop Alexander; The Life of Righteous Father John, Wonderworker of Kronstadt; on-line article by Jane M. deVyver; on-line article from the website of the Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore, MD; My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt.