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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
Recalling St. John Maximovitch
Source: From “Blessed John the Wonderworker,” pp. 303-310.
St. John Maximovich serving in Tunis 1952, surrounded by the Uncreated Light
I am sharing with great joy my personal reminiscences about the Bishop John (Maximovitch), remembering the following words of St. Nestor the Chronicler and praying his prayer: I implore you, my beloved brethren, do not condemn me for my crudeness if, being so filled with love for the saint, I have decided to tell everything I know concerning him, for I feared that our Lord’s words with regard to the wicked and slothful slave might be applied to me… But first of all I turn to God with a prayer: ‘My Lord Omnipotent, giver of grace, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, help me. Illumine my heart, that I may understand Thy commandments and open my mouth for the proclaiming of Thy miracles and the glory of Thy God-pleaser.’
I am also “filled with love for the Saint,” but I fear my crudeness, my incapability in transmitting “the glory of this God-pleaser.” And I don’t know where to begin, how to relate in coherent order the huge multitude of deep, grace-filled impressions of this great Righteous One, which have been cut into my heart forever.
The bishop began his archpastoral service in Shanghai in 1934—the year of my birth—in this large international trade port of China. My family owned a house just three blocks away from the great cathedral dedicated to the Most Holy Mother of God’s icon “Surety of Sinners”; and my parents would walk with us, their children, to this cathedral on Sundays and Holy Days. My brother and I stayed in Shanghai from 1939 until our departure for Tubabao, in January 1949. We attended the Catholic “College de Sainte Jeanne d’Arc,” which was located right next to the cathedral. I remember faintly the solemn occasion of Bishop John blessing the huge golden crosses and the raising of them upon the five domes on top of the beautiful completed cathedral. Next to the cathedral there was a rectory which was several stories high and over the center of which was a bell tower. I recall that behind this rectory there was an empty lot for the unfinished second church; and it was here that Blessed John always celebrated the rite of the Great Agiasmos, the blessing of the water on Epiphany. During summers, when the school was closed, my brother and I would often go to play on the rather large church lot.
I was about eight or nine years old when, on a hot summer day, I went into the huge, always cool cathedral, in order to rest from the heat. It was a weekday, about 7:00 pm, and outside it was still quite light. The evening service was in progress, and the cathedral was almost empty. Bishop John stood at his regular spot, near the massive cathedral column, between the main altar and the right side-altar, before his analogion that had all of the church service books. Later I learned that Blessed John unfailingly attended all nine services (including Liturgy) in the daily cycle of the Orthodox Church, and that he communed every day. After the service I came up to him to receive his blessing. He asked me what my name was and invited me to visit with him “for a chat.” I shall never forget that he, before leaving the temple, made many prostrations to the ground in front of every icon in the cathedral, as if bidding farewell for a time to his close friends, the saints. I followed him, holding his staff in my hands. My young soul at once was drawn to this extraordinary man, subconsciously feeling that deeply Christian love which the good bishop nurtured in people, and especially children.
For the first time in my life I entered his large study on the second floor of the rectory. The entire right side of his office, from the ceiling down to the level of the analogion in the corner, was filled with a multitude of icons of various sizes. For some reason I assumed it was quite natural that when entering his office, he would at once begin to make prostrations before the icons and again pray for a long time. Finally he sat at his desk, which was literally packed with papers, and had a long talk with me. Just like he was to do later on, he talked about the church, about the lives of the ascetics and saints, about martyrs, about Church Feasts. I did not want to go home and leave this unusual man.
It was already dark by the time Bishop John blessed me and ordered me to go home. After Liturgy on weekdays, he would consume the Holy Gifts himself, remaining in deep prayer in the Holy Altar, long after the departure of the serving priest. And again, as always, he would venerate all the icons in the cathedral before leaving for his quarters. While talking to me in his office, Blessed John would sometimes doze off for several seconds. I later on found out that he would never go to sleep in a bed but would instead allow himself only short naps in a chair or on his knees before his beloved icons, where his secretary, a certain Mr. Kantov, would often find him.
I witnessed an incredible incident of this conscious sleep of his. One evening, during a talk with me in his study, the telephone rang on his table and he answered it. I don’t know with whom he talked, but I shall never forget how, continuing the conversation on the telephone, he dropped the telephone receiver and fell asleep. The receiver laid on his cassock by his knees, and he continued while asleep and for the longest time to hear and speak with the person who had called him. It was of course unnatural and completely “impossible” for either the bishop to hear the one who called him or for that person to hear what Blessed John was telling him. However, judging from the length and content of what the hierarch was saying, it was very apparent to me that in this miraculous manner the conversation did indeed continue.
One time, while I was in his office, they brought him his dinner; I clearly recall that it was a bowl of borsht and a cup of kisel (fruit pudding). He was alone as I was in the adjacent room, where they also brought to me this modest meal. And through the open door, I observed how Blessed John poured the sweet kisel into the bowl of borsht and began to eat this un-tasty mixture. As a child at that time, such things seemed to me absolutely natural for a bishop to do… All the children and altar boys loved the bishop, in spite of his strictness. His strictness was exemplified when once he ordered the priest, Fr. Michael, to whip some guilty ones for their mischief.
Blessed John became my role model and I decided to imitate him in everything. Once, during Great Lent, I stopped sleeping on my bed and would lie down to sleep on the floor; among other things, I ceased having dinners with my family as I normally would do, and would eat only bread and water. My parents were quite upset and brought me to the good bishop. After hearing what they had to say, he ordered his deacon to go to the store and bring back some bologna. To my tearful pleas that “after all it is Great Lent now,” the wise Archpastor ordered me to eat up the bologna that was brought and to always remember that obedience to parents is more important than self-imposed fasting. “How should I continue, then, Vladiko?” I asked, still wishing in some “special manner” to continue my podvig (ascetic exploit). To this he answered: “Continue attending church as you do, but at home do what your parents tell you.” I remember how I became resentful that he did not designate for me some “special” ascetic podvig.
I remember still another remarkable occurrence, or rather an incident in the life of Blessed John during which I was personally present. It was an usual weekday and the Liturgy was being celebrated by one of the Shanghai cathedral priests. Blessed John was standing on his usual spot and I was apparently serving in the altar—I am not very certain. But I remember well how that priest during his sermon was scolding the bishop, pointing his finger at him and resorting to such words as these: “a snake, a scorpion, a toad, a hypocrite,” etc. The bishop continued to stand in his place, showing no reaction to these irrational attacks of his priest, but proceeding to read from some book before him on his analogion. Later my father told me how he and many others were indignant at such unacceptable behavior on the part of the priest towards his bishop, and how they asked that the latter punish the scoundrel. The bishop, however, took no measures, stating that it was a personal matter. What saintly lack of malice! And in general, no one ever heard a single word of condemnation towards anybody coming from the lips of this Righteous Bishop. The late archpriest Seraphim Slobodsky told me how he once asked Blessed John a question: “Who is at fault in that sad quarrel that was raging in connection with the cathedral building in San Francisco?” And the Blessed One very simply answered with one word: “the devil.”
The term that could best describe the essential impulse that motivated the whole life and activity of this most righteous and greatest man of prayer is “Care for the human soul.” I humbly believe that his greatness may be compared with that of any of our Church’s saints. Otherwise, how can one explain all that I was a living witness of? I saw how, for example, his face would at times literally become transfigured during Liturgies on great Feast days, shining with unearthly light; and how his eyes, always full of divine love, clearly reflected unutterable joy—unattainable for us sinners—from the presence of the Holy Spirit. I beheld how on the Paschal night he would fly, as if carried by angels, around the whole of the newly built Shanghai cathedral, exclaiming with a fullness of joy the victory-bearing words: “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!” There was no limit, it seemed, to his genuine exultation: his whole being was immersed in the Divine Joy of Christ, Whom he truly and completely loved.
That which was most astonishing was his gift of seeing through the human heart and attracting it to Christ. After all, if it were not for this righteous Archpriest, I would have never thought of ever serving the Church as part of Her clergy. And how amazing was his prediction of what happened to us! In his letter of October 23/November 7, 1949 to my brother and me—we were only thirteen and fifteen years old then—he forewarned us (we had just arrived in Australia from the Philippine Islands and we were already rarely going to church): “When we abandon God’s ways, we can enjoy our bodies only for a short time; then we will feel the bitterness of the evil, which first appears sweet.” Even today I cannot read these prophetic words without bitter tears of gratitude, some thirty-five years later!
He knew that I would write to him on May 19/June 1, 1969: “Oh, how I wish I could talk to you personally, Vladiko! So much has happened to me since I arrived in the Philippines that I now do not recognize myself. The spiritual striving of my childhood has departed and I have sunk into my sinful, materialistic surroundings.” But the great saint saw that not all of my spiritual strivings were “sunken,” and he continued to call me to serve the Church, advising me “to receive a theological education and for this purpose to enroll in Holy Trinity Seminary. May the Lord help you and may He bless you on that path” (letter of January 18/31, 1961).
Of course, I have no adequate words to express my gratitude to and love for the saintly Archpastor. During the earthly life of a bishop we liturgically exclaim: Through the holy prayers of our master, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. But since God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matt 22:32), according to the truthful words of our Savior Himself, I even today continue to call for the help of Saint John with that same prayer. I thus constantly thank God for vouchsafing me to be a witness of His great saint, through whose prayers I have not sunken entirely into the vanity of this world; I have no doubt that the day will come when the earthly Church will also canonize Archbishop John as one of those of whom the world was not worthy (Heb. 11:38)—and we shall all thank God, Who is wondrous in His saints.
Fr. George Larin