02 July 2009

'Rejoice, New Star of Righteousness'—St John (Maximovitch) the Wonderworker

Today, 19 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St John (Maximovich) the Wonderworker (1896-1966), Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco. Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of blessed memory has justly called St John ‘one of the greatest saints of our time’, and others have said of him that he ‘was like unto the Saints of old’ (Hieromonks Seraphim [Rose] and Herman [Podmoshensky], Blessed John the Wonderworker: A Preliminary Account of the Life and Miracles of Archbishop John [Maximovitch], comp. and ed. St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998], p. 9). When he was still a young monk and a teacher at a seminary in Serbia, St Nicholas (Velimirović) called him ‘an angel of God in human form’ (Fr Seraphim, p. 76). There is a whole webpage devoted to miracles that have occurred through his intercessions, and a wonderful trailer for a forthcoming documentary on St John—featuring among others my own bishop, Vladyka Peter of Cleveland (watch it here, at the lovely blog, Christ is in our midst!). Finally, one can see a video from the 15th anniversary celebration of the glorification among the Saints of St John here (HT: Fr Seraphim Bell).

I confess it is extremely difficult to sort out the materials and my own thoughts enough to compose a coherent post about St John. I learned of him through Fr Seraphim’s writings even before I was received into the Church. When I was 11 or so, I remember passing the Holy Virgin Cathedral, which he built, in San Francisco, and asking my dad ‘what that place was’ (he was just as ignorant as I was!). It was not until years later, when I saw a photo of it in an article about a pilgrimage to St John’s relics that I learned the answer to my question. In 2004, I was able to make my own pilgrimage to his relics—a powerfully moving experience. It seems as though he has been with me constantly throughout my struggles. Even the images of St John’s face, with the slightly asymmetrical mouth, help me feel better about my own slightly asymmetrical mouth.

But my own words and ideas are so inadequate. One can read St John’s Vita Prima here, and I highly recommend that everyone do so. But rather than a full account of his life, I prefer to post just one or two things that strike me as appropriate on this day. First of all, Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen) has written concerning St John’s asceticism (Father Seraphim [Rose]: His Life & Writings [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003], p. 209):

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.

But then Fr Seraphim speaks more of his spiritual qualities per se (from God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, qtd. in Fr Damascene, p. 211):

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. He himself taught that, for all the ‘mysticism’ of our Orthodox Church that is found in the Lives of Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet firmly on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him. It is in accepting given situations, which requires a loving heart, that one encounters God.

Ironically, it was precisely by keeping his ‘feet firmly on the ground’ that St John was lifted up to the heights of direct encounter with God. Thus, Zinaida Julem tells us:

This old gentleman, Gregory, often used to read in the cliros and like to read Akathists to the Most Holy Mother of God. Once he was reading the Hours. Blessed John was doing the proskemedia [sic] in the altar and the side door was open. . . . Having finished reading the Hours, [Gregory] wanted to ask Blessed John something and went to the altar. When he approached the open side door, he became frozen to the spot! He saw Blessed John surrounded in uncreated radiant light and standing not on the ground, but about a foot above it. He quickly withdrew and could not ask him anything. Blessed John continued the service and Gregory did not talk about the incident for a long time. When he told me, he made me take an oath before the Gospel that I would not tell anyone before Blessed John’s death. (Fr Seraphim, pp. 128-9)

So it is interesting to see that St John’s own life illuminates so well everything he taught about the Saints and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Here, for example, is a homily posted on Bishop Alexander’s page dedicated to St John (On Holiness, 18/31 May 1953):

HOLINESS IS THE FRUIT of man's efforts and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is reached by him who wears a cross and in the name of Christ wages warfare against the obstacles to holiness, obstacles to becoming akin to Christ. These obstacles are sins, sinful habits, firmly rooted in the soul. Struggle against them is the major work of a Christian, and in so far as he purifies his soul, so far will he receive of the Holy Spirit.

St Seraphim taught the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and he genuinely acquired it, for the Most Holy Mother of God recognized him as being her own. And the faithful, sincere seekers of the Truth and Light, as was Motovilov, because of their reverence, saw how this great God pleaser shone with the light of holiness.

How varied are the paths of saints! At the throne of God, in front of everyone is the Most Holy Mother of God, more glorious than the seraphim and all the angels and archangels who stood firm, faithful to God through the fearful struggle that was raised against God by the most radiant of them all, Lucifer, which means Light-bearer, who is now the devil, in other words, the one cast down to the deepest darkness. In this struggle the bright angels came so close to God that it is already impossible for them to step back or separate from Him.

All the pleasers of God are like the angels in their love and devotion. They, just as the angels, waged war against the dark forces and became strengthened in love of God. All of the prophets of the Old Testament lived in such a struggle. Godlessness prevailed, the Law of God was forgotten. The world persecuted them because they interfered with its sinful life. They hid in the 'depths of the earth'. The world hated them. The prophet Isaiah was sawed in two by a wood saw, the prophet Jeremiah was trampled in a swamp. And in such surroundings they stood fast in faith and devotion. All of the righteous ones were sorrowful in the world because they were strangers to the sinful world. All of the apostles suffered in one way or another. Righteous men left for the desert. What made them saints? Suffering? Not suffering alone makes saints, but striving towards God, love of God, and the labor of overcoming obstacles to holiness, which is the fruit of man's labor and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, I will just point out that one can find a full cycle of services for St John, including an Akathist, here. Here is Ikos 12 of the latter (with a couple of typographical corrections):

Singing in praise to God, the heavenly choir of saints rejoiceth that He hath not forsaken the fallen and unbelieving world, but hath manifested His almighty power in thee, his meek and humble servant. O blessed John, with all the saints we greet thee and give honour to thee:

Rejoice, new star of righteousness shining in heaven’s firmament.
Rejoice, new prophet who wast sent before the final unleashing of evil.
Rejoice, new Jonah warning all of the wages of sin.
Rejoice, new Baptist drawing all to a life of prayer and repentance.
Rejoice, new Paul suffering to preach the gospel in the spirit of truth,
Rejoice, new apostle whose miracles instill in us faith and awe.
Rejoice, O holy Hierarch John, wonderworker of the latter times.

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