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A Spiritual Portrait of Saint John of Kronstadt
by Archimandrite Constantine (Zaitzev, 1888-1975)


Let us attempt, first of all, to see St. John from the outside....

We have before us a young man, a follower of Tolstoy. In his search for God, obscured by the blunderings of age, he was led to the feet of Leo Tolstoy. He greedily devours the writings of the new "teacher of life" — but his heart remains cold. He does not see God! He retains boundless admiration for Tolstoy, reverence even. But the soul is empty. And then — a chance encounter....

"At that time, I happened once to be walking along the river bank. At first I did not notice an unusual gathering of people. Then I saw that many people were running toward the docks. I also went. A priest I knew ran past. His looks amazed me. Usually he was deliberately sedate, but this time he was running, pushing and holding up the edges of his cassock. I could not understand what had happened. Finally someone said that Father John had arrived. This was the famous Archpriest of Kronstadt who was passing through our city on his way to his birthplace. Until then I had only seen photographs of him. Now he stood on the ship, on the captain’s bridge — a priest, with a kind, affable face. Everyone’s eyes were on him, and happiness, rapture, deep emotion could be seen in them. Tears were flowing from many eyes. What was this? They had discovered something familiar and dear, which up until then had been hidden in the depths of each one’s soul. They had not found this within themselves, but in another person, but that was all the same. They felt that man could be beautiful, and there is such a man, and here he is standing in front of them. And all that was beautiful within each one, all this rose up in them, and they drenched their ideal with tears of rapture and joy. The priest began to speak. It is claimed that gospel scenes no longer repeat themselves in our Church. Not so, for this was undoubtedly a scene out of the gospels. He spoke sincerely and simply, that he was happy to see us, that he wished us all the best and was fortunate, seeing that we believed in God and in His Christ. Eyes shone with kind, beatific, happy tears. If the intensity of faith and holy joy were to be weighed on the scale of God’s Truth, I think that this moment would be indicative of the great faith of our city. If at that very moment Father John had told the people to leave all behind and follow him, I am convinced that many would have done so. Such words were not uttered, but it is evident that, having touched the edge, merely the edge, of the holy and the truthful, these people began to come to life...."

This description has been taken by us out of a "leftist" religious magazine, The New Way, for which both Tolstoy and St. John were "religious phenomena" of equal strength. Characteristically, as an epigraph to the article from which the above excerpt was taken, was the announcement that the Council of the University of Juriev had elected as honorary members, simultaneously. Count Leo N. Tolstoy and Archpriest Father John Sergiev of Kronstadt — and the latter, as is known, had demonstratively rejected that honor specifically because of the simultaneity of this election. The actual article was called forth by the fact that, exactly at that time, St. John had, in a special statement to the Press, expressly branded the magazine The New Way, loudly winessing that there is only one sure way to salvation — the old one of Christ, while every new way is the way, not to salvation, but to perdition. Thus, the editors of the journal were attempting to explain St. John’s statement and his decisive rebuke as some "misunderstanding," demonstrating on their own part the broadness of their religious outlook. The more expressive is this description coming from so far! His final impression of the meeting with St. John was depicted by the young Tolstoyite thus:

‘Together with the others it seemed as if I, too, had found my soul. This was for me exactly that proof in favor of God and Christianity, for which I had searched with such intensity. This was proof of the same strength, alive and mightily active, as the arguments of Tolstoy. There was the genius of artistic strength; here, the genius of moral influence. He showed that the Church can, as nothing else, renew man, for there came a servant of the Church, wrapped in God’s truth, and the beautiful and good spirit of Christ spoke out in people.

St. John of Kronstadt icon

Then here is another picture. The scene is in Vologda and is depicted by a deeply religious Church woman, who was deaf...

"On June 8, from 4 PM, people began to flow into the dock area and by 8 PM the entire wharf, docks, balconies, rowboats, boats —all were flooded by a sea of heads. Finally, at 9 PM, Father John also arrived and went straight to the deck cabin of the ship which was ready to sail. Seeing him, the throng of many thousands implored: ‘Father, pray for us sinners!’ To this. Father John replied: ‘I’m praying, I’m praying!’ and, having taken off his hat, began to pray toward a nearby church, then blessed the people on all four sides and bowed to them. All began to bow and to cross themselves, many wept... The picture was truly marvelous....

"When the ship had sailed, and all had calmed down, I came up to Father John, and, kneeling before him, burst into tears from happiness. He joyfully embraced my head, but I was unable to speak from the fullness of joy, and merely said: ‘I’m afraid, Father, that my heart will jump out of my breast from happiness at any moment.’ He smiled and again placed his hand on my head...."

At the other end of Russian, in the south...

‘The whole railway station, the entire platform, the whole square — all was flooded with people ... Exactly at 9:53 PM was heard the signal of the approach of the long-awaited train. Everything fell still and became all eyes and ears: hearts beat loudly, but only for a minute. Puffing and rumbling, the train comes into the station’s rays of light ... the train conductor says that ‘Father is in the back minister’s carriage.’ Calm until then, the sea of people became agitated and turbulent. The carriage was immediately filled with people; shouts arose: ‘Father dear, bless us!’ To this came the kind reply from the carriage: ‘God will bless you all, my friends. Let me go.’ With difficulty, being supported under his arms, Father John finally came onto the platform, and thus greeted those who were gathered: ‘Welcome, my friends! Welcome, fathers and mothers! Welcome, brothers and sisters! Welcome, children!’ The crowd, as if it were water, finding an opening, burst in all its mass toward the kind priest, pushed out those who were protecting him, and — as if he were a bark-lifted him up into their hands: shouts, screams and sobs of happiness — all was mixed in common: the hands of the pastor were caught, covered with kisses and watered with tears, his garments were kissed; everywhere was heard: ‘Father, you are ours, dear, you are our darling, you pray for us!’"

Everyone thought that immediately, that very evening, the priest would proceed to the church, and services would begin, but it turned out that services were arranged only for the next morning. Those who had come from afar had to work out how to spend the night.

"We happened to walk into the churchyard well after midnight and came upon a truly marvelous scene and heard something truly comforting: the whole yard was literally covered with sleeping people Now and again, first here, then there, would be heard a sigh, accompanied by the words: ‘O Lord, find me worthy! O Lord, help me!’ And involuntarily you became plainly convinced of what is dear, and what makes up the life of our Russian nation!"

Finally, toward 7 AM, the people saw the priest arrive — his carriage appeared.

"Another minute, and we saw and heard what, until then, we had only read about: ‘Good morning, my friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children! Peace to all and God’s blessings!’ — was heard his ringing, kind and purely youthful voice, as if it weren’t coming from the breast of a sixty-four-year-old. The whole throng of many thousands replied as though one man: ‘Our gracious, welcome and dear Father! Pray for us!’ Father John literally did not walk to the altar, but floated upon the waves of people’s hands, now rising, now falling, again rising, then tossing; he was squashed, he was pulled, his hands and robes were caught, while he?.. There was so much love in his look, so much fatherly tenderness in his lovely smile. At last, he is in the altar..."

We are omitting what followed. The service came to an end...

"‘He read’ — we said. But this was not reading. It was a conversation by the heart and mouth, as it were, face to face with the Most Pure Mother of God. From his diction, his nervous movements, it could be seen how deeply imbued he was with the reading, and his whole being was, as it were, engulfed by this ‘conversation’ of his spirit with the Most Pure Virgin...

"Matins are ended. The Proskomedia is also completed. Father John has arrayed himself in priestly vestments and is coming up to the table of offerings. But what is this? Is it not a vision — a sweet, fearsome, holy vision? In front of the table of offerings, on bent knees, his head resting upon crossed arms, is Father John. He prays, prays for a long time, but not like us sinners: his face becomes very pale, as if some mysterious light were illuminating him; in this face is seen, as it were, anguish of heart, as if a soul were suffering before the inevitable onslaught of something terrible. Seeing this, all of us in the altar were filled with trembling and washed our faces with tears of holy awe.

There are no words to describe what we beheld, only the heart felt that one was in the presence of a great and powerful prayer, capable of moving even mountains. The Divine Liturgy began... Father John was all in spiritual prayer, performed the entire service with his eyes closed; his exclamations, his whole service, was a wonderful conversation with God, in God and before the face of God. But let us note a special moment. After the litany of fervent supplication, Father John turned to the people, inviting them all to pray together for the sick nobleman Vassily, and then he read the prayer in a ringing voice. We had never read or heard this prayer anywhere, but then it does not exist: it was the fruit of Father John’s praying spirit. What a great deal of faith in God’s mercy, how much hope — unshakable hope — what great love and compassion for weaknesses, for the suffering, was contained in this prayer! It was composed not by the head with pen in hand, but by the heart and soul..."

The district of Hvalyne, Village of Alexeevka. They are waiting for St. John near the church since 4 AM. Many schismatic "old believers" are among those gathered... At last, the church-bells ring out....

"But then the vanguard (a mounted policeman) appeared along the road, followed by a troika... The throng of people became agitated, as if a rumble went through it, from one end to the other, and the word was spread around: ‘He is coming, he is coming!’ Then a death-like quiet descended... all became as though dead, being afraid so as not to miss seeing the dear guest. Those who stood in the front, after greeting Father John, refused to remain in one spot but rushed after him. The closer Father John approached to the church, the greater grew the crowd behind him. None wished to be left behind; honorable old men and women, even they forgot their infirmity; they too were here in the crowd, among their sons and nephews; they ran without falling behind them..."

Again, the reading of the canon produced a shattering impression.

"An indescribably strong impression was produced by Father John with his reading of the canon of the Holy Trinity and the normal Sunday canons before the Royal Gates. This was not a usual reading but a living and triumphant glorification of God, combined with weeping over the sinfulness of human nature. During the reading, the soul of an attentive Christian soul would now be filled with rapture and deep emotion, then fall under the oppressive consciousness of its sinfulness, then once again would be roused and thrown into rapture, then again would be brought to bitter tears over its sins... and such an exalted state in those who were praying would last throughout the entire service...."

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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