Today, June 1st on the Old Calendar, is the commemoration of St John of Kronstadt. A number of things stand out for me about St John. I remember visiting the St John of Rila convent in St Petersburg which he founded and venerating his tomb in the basement there.
In the article by Bishop KALLISTOS entitled JOHN OF KRONSTADT: SAINT OF COMMUNION, SAINT OF CONFESSION he discusses the power of love, as shown in the life of St John of Kronstadt himself. But this is not a sentimental or emotional feeling he is talking about, it is much more profound. Bishop Kallistos writes,”The kind of love that they envisage [that is, St. John in his Epistle and our Savior in the Gospel] , a universal all-embracing love, a love without limits, can only be a result of prayer, of ascetic effort.” He asks, what is the deeper basis for this love? “It is … the service of the Holy Eucharist, which is indeed a sacrament of mutual love. Our love has its foundation and inspiration in the Divine Liturgy.” But,
“If we are to show more vividly the kind of love of which the apostle John and our Lord speak, that can only come first and foremost through a deeper experience of Holy Communion, through frequent Communion received after profound and searching preparation.”
And how should we prepare he asks? “We are to prepare above all through the use of the sacrament of Confession.” And then he goes on to enumerate three compelling reasons why frequent confession should accompany frequent communion. He concludes :
“St. John of Kronstadt was above all a Eucharistic Priest. He put The Holy Liturgy at the center of his life, and this was the source that enabled him to show such a dynamic and universal love.”
Sometimes we can take the most important aspects of our lives for granted because they are so familiar to us. But when they are taken away from us we can either yearn to experience again the joy of being with a person or we may become resentful that we are inconvenienced. So it is with Holy Communion. For some weeks at the beginning of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ period our churches were closed and we were unable to receive communion. Then, slowly, more people have been able to attend. This last week I was privileged to attend Divine Liturgy twice and to receive communion both times. It was a profound joy to participate in the communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour with the assembled throng, 20 strong including children. I think that the weeks of enforced abstention from church had indeed deepened my experience of the Eucharist. So I can thank the Lord for His inscrutable wisdom and bountiful love for us in all things.
Back in the day when my father-in-law lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan the family used to visit him over a weekend. Whenever possible on Sunday morning I would visit the ROCOR church nearby in Dexter, St Vladmir’s. One Saturday evening after Vespers there I made a confession with the priest, Fr Gregory (Joyce). He asked me what spiritual books I was reading. I had never been asked this before in my life and I told him that I was trying to wade through the “Syrian Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life”. He commented that this must be rather indigestible and suggested that instead I read “Father Arseny; Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father“. I took his sage advice, got hooked on the ‘Russian way’, and never looked back since.
All this is by way of introducing a priest from the ROCOR church of whom I have the highest opinion. Fr Gregory has a blog called Blogtushka where he urges his parishioners to “Read. Think. Pray. Question. Repeat.”! What follows are a few comments on a blog posting he made on March 31st 2020 on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic. The arresting title of the post is :
He starts with a quotation (also employed in the Father Arseny book) from Galatians 6:2 :
Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
He asks “Whose burdens are we bearing when we absent ourselves from the Divine Services?”, and gives the answer, “The weak, the infirm, the elderly, and all those who would otherwise die” if they were exposed to the disease. He points out that a single young person unknowingly carrying the disease (ie, asymptomatic) can easily infect another young person at church who then goes to visit his grandmother: and she dies. He states baldly “That is how it works.”
[And from bitter experience we know that this is exactly what happened when the Monastery Holy Trinity / St Sergius was forced to open for Holy Week and Pascha by an angry mob, cursing, swearing and demanding that the Lavra be opened – see LESSONS OF A PANDEMIC by Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) which also lists a host of clergy who got sick and died as a consequence. According to newspaper reports from Russia itself “as of 1 May symptoms of coronavirus infection have been manifested in 150 of the approximately 170 residents of the lavra, many of whom are in extremely serious condition” RUSSIA RELIGION NEWS : Senior monk dies in pandemic on 76th birthday ]
Fr Gregory asserts that we are ‘social distancing’ because we are Pro Life. He follows up with “We cannot just be against killing children in the womb. We have to be against killing old people too. And sick people. And people with underlying conditions.” And then the shocking but reasonable conclusion: if we infect a person who ends up infecting a vulnerable person and she dies then everyone in that chain killed her. “It is not a question of ignorance anymore. It is a question of hubris.” “The virus is real. People are dying in droves from this disease. Your hubris, conspiracy, or delusion do not change that.”
And then, the point :
“If we aren’t fighting this scourge we should be praying for those who are. If we are fighting this scourge we should know that others are praying for us. THIS IS A SPIRITUAL OBLIGATION! No one is blessed to be on vacation now.”
He goes on to write :
“NO VACATION. War is work. We are at war. Embrace that paradigm. There is no other paradigm that gets us to the mindset that we need here: we are fighting for our lives and the lives of others. For most of us that fight will be fought at home in the greatest isolation we can manage so that we do not spread the virus, but for some: on the front lines.”
He draws a comparison with the effort that people made together during World War II (or the ‘great Patriotic War’ as they call it in Russia) :
“But we aren’t being asked to build bombers now. We are being asked to stay home. To pray for those who are fighting and to work on our spiritual lives. Probably staying home is harder than building bombers. We want to DO something. But prayer IS SOMETHING! We have to do away with the evil paradigm of the world that prayer is nothing. Prayer is work! Prayer is effort! Prayer is the path to victory.
And then :
“THIS is how we show the world that we are really Pro Life. This is how we show the world that faith and wisdom go together, not faith and ignorance (or hubris, or pride, or whatever you want to call it).”
And finally, commenting on the closure of a cathedral church in order to protect everyone he writes :
“when we have no control over a situation, we should give this situation and our life to God, knowing that He desires our salvation even more than we do. To be at peace. To know that when we lose control the Lord will reign, if we do not oppose Him.”
He points out that we need to entreat the Lord to strengthen us in the work of marriage and bringing up children; “acting through prayer and tending and harvesting the spiritual fruit can can be found in our desert.” And “Just as the farmer sows with faith and labors in hope of a crop that will appear only in the future, so too do we sow the seeds of prayer in our desert, trusting in the spiritual fruit that will flower and mature in time.” And to conclude, he urges us to “be good children of the Church in this extraordinary time when we are being asked to labor with zeal by staying at home!”
Consider the image of sowing seeds of prayer in our own personal desert of soul, entreating the Lord to water them with Divine blessings and then trusting that spiritual fruit will indeed flower and mature; what a profound and encouraging image this is!
Rejoice, O Queen, glory of mothers and virgins. No tongue, however sweet or fluent is eloquent enough to praise you worthily. Every mind is overawed by your childbearing. Therefore with one voice we glorify you
Archimandrite Ephrem (from Greek) :
Hail Queen, glorious virgin mother; For every fluent, every eloquent mouth With oratory has not the strength to sing you worthily; But every mind is dizzy when it seeks to understand Your giving birth; therefore with one accord we glorify you
Generally with different translations the sense is the same but in this case there are differences.
“Hail Queen, glorious virgin mother”
‘We hymn you O Mother of God who are both glorious, mother and virgin’
“Rejoice, O Queen, glory of mothers and virgins.”
‘Rejoice thou Queen, who art the glory of both mothers and virgins’
I wonder whether this is another case of the Slavonic having a different reading to the Greek?
You watered my parched and barren soul with the rich crimson streams of Your precious blood. You made me bear fruits of righteousness; You bade all to come to You, all-holy Word of God: Draw the water of immortality! It is living water; it cleanses sins away! Cleanse us who offer praise to Your glorious Resurrection, Good One; who sing of Your Ascension from the mount before Your disciples. Send the strength of the Spirit to those who confess You as God, FOR YOU ARE THE FOUNTAIN OF OUR LIFE!
You watered my parched and barren soul with the rich crimson streams of Your precious blood.
You bade all to come to You, all-holy Word of God: Draw the water of immortality! It is living water; it cleanses sins away!
Cleanse us who offer praise to Your glorious Resurrection, O Good One
who sing of Your Ascension from the mount before Your disciples.
Send the strength of the Spirit to those who confess You as God
“With Your pure hand, you created mankind; You came to heal the sick, compassionate Christ! You raised the paralytic at the Sheep’s Pool by Your word, You cured the woman of her painful haemorrhage. You had mercy on the Canaanite woman’s daughter. You did not reject the centurion’s request.”
MONDAY VESPERS : LORD I CALL (tone 1)
You raised the paralytic at the Sheep’s Pool by Your word
The focus here is on the unfathomable depth of compassion that Christ shows. He singles out one paralytic among many at the Sheep’s Pool who has no human helper and who has been waiting patiently for 38 years for a miracle. Thirty eight years — imagine that! Christ singles him out and does not even expect him to have faith in Him. Indeed, when asked if he wants to be healed the man refers to the only source of healing he knows about — being lowered into the water after an angelic stirring. No-one has seen fit to show him mercy and help him into the pool he laments. Christ says, “Go, pick up your mat”, and then later, “sin no more”. Wow!
You cured the woman of her painful haemorrhage.
The woman with the flow of blood sneaks into the crowd . She thinks, “I only need to touch the hem of his cloak to be healed”. She is right. Christ’s power transcends material nature — this is why the relics of saints are so grace filled. She touches his coat with such faith as this and then she realises that, yes, she has been healed. Christ, knowing what has really happened still says, “who touched me?” even with the press of the crowd around Him. She comes forward to confess her boldness and presumption and hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you, go in peace”.
You had mercy on the Canaanite woman’s daughter
The Canaanite woman is not even an Israelite — she is goyim, an outsider. But like the dogs at the Master’s table she begs a crumb of comfort for her daughter from the philanthropos (lover of man). She passes the test of faith, and Christ rewards her insistent faith by healing her daughter. What love is this!
You did not reject the centurion’s request
The Centurion — a symbol of Rome’s tyranny over the Jewish people — intuits Christ’s status as ‘Pantocrator’ — Lord Almighty. He realises in his gut that Christ can do all things. And he is sure that Christ can heal his beloved servant by just a word without even seeing him.
I have just returned from my yearly ‘wellness checkup’ at my local GP (ie doctor). I didn’t actually talk to a doctor neither did I undergo a physical exam, instead, the checkup consisted of a nurse administering a questionnaire which comprised questions about general life habits – eating well, sleeping, medications etc – and also questions about ‘mental health’ – depression, is life worth living, etc. Invariably absent was any reference to spiritual well being, in my opinion the most important aspect of our lives.
The Pukhtitsa Dormition Convent is one of the most beloved monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church, bearing the special distinction of having never been closed during the godless Soviet years. “It is largely thanks to the labors of Schema-Abbess Barbara [reposed in 2011] that Pukhtitsa Monastery became a true outpost of Orthodoxy in Estonia.” How does a monastery that was never closed in the Soviet years and that has raised up abbesses for many convents in various dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church live today?
Tell us, please, a bit about how you became a nun. Who did you learn monasticism from; who was your example in the monastic life?
My path to monasticism wasn’t anything special or unusual. During my summer breaks from school, I would visit Pukhtitsa Monastery with the blessing of my spiritual father, working together with the sisters in the “hot” time of haymaking, and I saw the monastic life with my own eyes and was so imbued with the blessed atmosphere, the prayer life, the spiritual work of obediences, the feeling of a united monastic life, that by the end of the summer I didn’t want to leave. When it came time to leave, I found no place for myself anywhere, and as soon as I graduated and received my diploma, I immediately came to the monastery for permanent residence, and any other kind of life was simply impossible for me. I attribute all of this to the work of grace —- only Divine grace can wrest a man from his environment and lead him to monasticism.
The abbess asserts that her path to monasticism was not special or
unusual; perhaps not, but I can’t help thinking that the experience of
Divine grace that drove her to embrace the monastic life –”the blessed atmosphere, the prayer life, the spiritual work of obediences, the feeling of a united monastic life” –
was indeed an unusual gift from God. “When it came time to leave, I
found no place for myself anywhere”, “any other kind of life was simply
impossible for me” – what a blessing to have this conviction so
strongly. And surely she is wholly right in asserting that “only Divine
grace can wrest a man from his environment and lead him to monasticism”.
How would you advise a girl desiring monasticism to choose a monastery?
What is necessary to consider, in your view (perhaps climate,
obediences, the spirit of the monastery), and what must you know about
yourself and about the monastery, having decided to leave the world?
There is only one case in which someone can become a monastic: If there is a calling from God. It is expressed in a strong, irresistible desire for the monastic life. All that was dear and sweet for your heart in the world becomes unbearably oppressive. The sisters have said, “All is well; you have your mama, papa, brother, and sister at home; everyone loves you; but it is impossible for you to be there, just as you choke without air.” As for choosing a monastery, I think the heart will tell you, it won’t deceive you, and you will feel that precisely here is your place. Then you should consult about it and receive a blessing from your spiritual father.
A “calling from God”, “expressed in a strong, irresistible desire for the monastic life” – how wonderfully put. And choosing a monastery – “I think the heart will tell you, it won’t deceive you, and you will feel that precisely here is your place”; yes indeed, like choosing a marriage partner for life. And of course the importance of obtaining a blessing from one’s spiritual father.
But there is more:
For those desiring to enter a monastery, it’s important to know what they are searching for when they go to a monastery, and what they expect when they turn to Christ. Then, they either go to find the wholeness and fullness of the inner life, or for Christ to resolve this or that theoretical question for them which concerned them. It’s very important. Will you go to Christ as to your Deliverer from spiritual sorrow, from weakness of will, which each of us bears within ourselves, that the Lord might give us strength to labor, or as to a philosopher for resolving our doubts? It’s necessary to understand, because in this or that case you receive different results. One of the greats said that the realm of doubt is just as endless as the realm of thoughts. Now it is one of the reasons to advise those desiring to enter a monastery again and again to test themselves and make sure that the path of your spiritual life is going not from theory to life, but from life to theory, not from doubts to Christ, but from Christ to the resolution of doubts, not from the mind to the heart, but from the heart to the mind. The logic of those desiring it is strange: “I love the Lord and I want to go to a monastery, but I’m afraid and I have doubts!” This cannot be. If you love Christ, then you believe firmly, and if you believe, then you trust, and if it is so, then there can be no doubts!
Here we have a nub. If, for “monastery” we substitute “seminary” or “diaconate course” or some other professional qualification with an apparent spiritual element associated with it, what do we arrive at? What are people searching for by entering upon an academic course of study and what do they expect if they turn to Christ? Are we going to find “wholeness and fullness of inner life”? Are we even going to discover a resolution of our theological questions through Christ? Can we expect from the academy resolution of doubts or is it more likely that we’ll end up burdened with more and deeper doubts? “The realm of doubt is just as endless as the realm of thoughts”. Can we ever find spiritual health in the academy devoted to the inflation of the ego — publish, lecture, advise etc. To gain spiritual health we need to acknowledge our weaknesses, we need to admit our inconstancy of faith, we need to call upon Christ our Lord as did blind Bartimaeus regardless of obstacles, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. As the abbess counsels, in order to grasp hold of spiritual health we need to ensure that our path of spiritual life proceeds from [faith in] Christ to the resolution of doubts, from the heart to the mind. And with firm belief that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will provide the right spiritual path for us we should cry out to the Lord with persistence, patience and heartfelt sincerity, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” until the end of our days on earth.