Icon of St John of Kronshtadt (1829-1908).
The life of the heart is found in love, its death is found in rage and hostility to one’s brother. The Lord keeps us on this earth so that the love of God and the love of neighbour would penetrate our hearts: He awaits this from all of us. This is the purpose of our being in the world.
My Life in Christ
St John of Kronshtadt
A man who is embittered against us is a man with a wound; it is necessary to place a bandage of love over his heart.
My Life in Christ
St John of Kronshtadt
Against the Current
The earthy life of St John of Kronshtadt was spent in an era that saw Russia rapidly lose its sense of historical existence. The crisis of Orthodoxy, autocracy, and national character that reached its apogee in the revolutionary events of 1917 was already visible by the second half of the 19th century. Such diverse observers as Metropolitan St Philaret of Moscow, St Feofan the Recluse, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Konstantin Leontiev spoke about the state of spiritual distress in Russia and predicted an imminent catastrophe. However, the largest part of the pre-revolutionary society had the unshakeable confidence that such calamities could not overtake such a great power as Russia.
Seen against this backdrop, one can discern that the ministry of St John of Kronshtadt was prophetic, indeed. On the one hand, perhaps, we can see the activity of St John as the most ambitious attempt to stop the slide of Russia into revolution and encourage it to perform its true mission, the one appointed to it by God. On the other hand, we cannot help but feel that the way of thinking and modus operandi of the “Father of Kronshtadt” is relevant in contemporary Russia, it is imperative for the present generation of Orthodox faithful.
In the contemporary Orthodox community, there are frequent cases where the revival of liturgical and community life of the Church is opposed to its social service, civil, and political roles. Today, even the words of St Seraphim of Sarov, “Save yourself and thousands shall be saved about you”, are often wrongly understood and are used as a “justification” for self-centred selfishness and social and civic passivity amongst Orthodox believers. But, sometimes, on the contrary, the political and social activity of the laity suppresses or even displaces their desire to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.
St John of Kronshtadt teaches us to overcome all current divisions and shows us a wonderful example of a combination of the many different ministries that Christians are called to carry out. The life and works of St John show us that the conflict between concentrating on the inner world and engaging in social (including political) activity, between the national and universal, as so many Orthodox believers today believe, is a fable.
“Of the Means by which a Christian Maintains His Hope…”
Long before the time of Fr Alexander Schmemann, it was St John of Kronshtadt who raised the question of the necessity of reviving the active Eucharistic life of the Church, and he took steps to practically tackle this in his pastoral ministry. In pre-revolutionary Russia, it is no secret that the tradition of regular and frequent reception of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, as established by the Apostles, was widely and openly neglected. St John wrote, “It pains my heart, when in many churches, at the call of the deacon calling the people to receive the Holy Gifts, ‘With the fear of God and with faith, draw near’, sometimes, no one is willing to come forward and take them”. In his diary, St John taught, “Of the means by which a Christian maintains his hope, including prayer, the frequent and sincere prayerful confession of his sins, and the frequent reading of the Word of God, the most efficacious is the frequent communion of the Holy Life-giving Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ” (from My Life in Christ). Concerning those who argue that they do not often take communion because they feel themselves unworthy, the holy father’s answer is quite strict, “Some people think that it is supposedly sinful for laymen to receive Holy Communion frequently… That is blasphemy, nothing but blasphemy! Do you not wash your face and body in the bath every morning? Do you not need to wash your soul regularly as well, as it is defiled by sin every day?”
“A Bright Ray of God’s Love”
The social activity of St John of Kronshtadt is an unfading exemplar of what people in the Church should do to ameliorate the moral disorders of society. St John began his ministry in Kronshtadt by making visits to the homes of its poorest and most oppressed inhabitants. “Following the command of God, in an environment of gloom, there appeared a bright ray of God’s love. The newly-ordained young priest of St Andrew Cathedral, Ioann Ilyich Sergiev, began to minister to those in these hovels, shacks, and poor flats. He comforted abandoned mothers, nursed children until their mother recovered, helped people with money, and admonished and preached to drunkards. Often, he handed all of his salary to the poor…” wrote a famous biographer of St John, I. K. Sursky.
It is important to note that the attitude of St John towards cases of mercy was far from the so-called “theory of small cases”, so popular today, which affirms the self-sufficiency of individual philanthropy, but, rejects systemic and large-scale social projects. The House of Industry, which was built and opened in 1882 by St John, was by no means a small parish almshouse; rather, it was a large production complex employing several thousand people, which provided them with work and an income. St John of Kronshtadt, being indifferent to money and wealth, was not poor. He rebuked infringement of private property rights and fighting against the Russian state as the most serious crimes, and he ridiculed the ideas of “Christian communism” and socialism, which ideas, even now, some are trying to jumble together with Orthodoxy. By his entire life, St John proved that the Church desires that none should be poor, but, rather, that they should have a sufficiency, that people could manage money as he himself managed money, but, he taught that money must not master man.
Icon of the Mother of God of Port Arthur
“The Threshold of the Heavenly Motherland”
Amazingly, the vigorous political position of the Kronshtadt Pastor complemented his liturgical, pastoral, and social ministry. St John taught, “You must remember that the earthly motherland with its Church is the threshold of the heavenly motherland, therefore, you must love your country zealously and prepare your soul for heaven, in order to inherit eternal life there”. In an era that saw a crisis of Russian statehood and the onslaught of the destructive revolutionary forces, St John of Kronshtadt preached, “Through the medium of our sovereign ruler, the Lord shall bring good to this earthly kingdom, and, particularly, bring blessings and peace to His Church, not allowing godlessness, heresies, and schisms to possess it. The greatest villain of the world, which will appear in due time, the Antichrist, cannot appear amongst us, because of our autocracy, which restrains outrageous decadence and the absurd doctrine of the atheists.
There was another important lesson of St John, who was, amongst other things, a member of the Union of Russian People (!). He attempted to save the Russian national consciousness from those disgraceful sorts who expounded a crass nationalism and anti-Semitism. Let us recall his words concerning the Kishiniev pogrom. “What and whose spirit did the people of Kishinev show to the Jews? It was the spirit of the devil. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His (Romans 8:9). If they lack gentleness, humility, obedience, or respect for authority, they are the slaves of the devil, and they inherit his lot as well. Know this, brother Russians! What spirit should you show? Love your enemies!” (My Thoughts on the Violence by Christians Against the Jews in Kishiniev (1903))
We know that St John, who was utterly convinced that the Orthodox Church is the only true Church, nevertheless, healed not only Orthodox believers, but, also those from the heterodox confessions and sectarians, who, frequently, found not only physical heath, but, also, spiritual healing, leading many of them to convert to Orthodoxy. The attitude of St John to the earthly motherland precluded any sentimentality. “Russia is in rebellion, it suffers cruelly from a bloody internal struggle that is terrible in its cost. It suffers from godlessness, anarchy, and extreme moral degeneration. Its fate appears to be wretched, which leads us into hopeless depression. But, the providence of the Almighty will not abandon Russia, even in this sad and disastrous state. His righteous punishment shall lead to a revival”.
Today, we still base our hopes on the words of the Kronshtadt Pastor, “I foresee the restoration of a powerful Russia, even stronger and more powerful than it is today. Russia shall be erected anew on a firm foundation anchored on the bones of the martyrs; it shall be like the olden days, strong in its faith in our Lord Christ and the Holy Trinity”.
30 December 2008
Editor of the social-science website Sotsialnoe Bogoslovie (Social Theology)
Press Secretary of the Union of Orthodox Citizens (Soyuza Pravoslavnykh Grazhdan (SPG))
Voda Zhivaya: Sankt-Peterburgskiy Tserkovny Vestnik (Living Water: St Petersburg Church Gazette), January 2009
As quoted in Interfax-Religion