I will now attempt to implement Fr. Seraphim's advice here. In speaking about how to make use of the Lives of the Saints, I will give the example of a Saint who made use of them to an astounding degree. This is Fr. Seraphim's mentor, a friend of St. Justin Popovic, and the Bishop who blessed the establishment of our Brotherhood: St. John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco.
Archbishop John was born Michael Maximovitch in the city of Kharkov in southern Russia in 1896. As a boy he collected religious and historical books, and loved above all to read the Lives of the Saints. Being the oldest child, he had a great influence on his four brothers and one sister, who knew the Lives of the Saints through him.
When he was eleven years old, Michael was sent to the Poltava Cadet Corps (military academy). When he graduated in 1914, he wished to attend the Kiev Theological Academy. His parents insisted, however, that he attend Law School in Kharkov, and out of obedience to them he put away his own desire and began to prepare for a career in law.
It was during his university years that the Orthodox education and outlook which Michael had received in his childhood came to maturity. Young Michael saw the point of this upbringing. He saw that the Lives of the Saints, in particular, contain a profound wisdom which is not seen by those who read them superficially, and that the proper knowledge of the Lives of the Saints is more important than any university course. And so it was, as his classmates noticed, that Michael spent more time reading the Lives of the Saints than attending academic lectures, although he did very well in his university studies also. One could say that he studied the Orthodox Saints precisely "on the university level": he assimilated their world-outlook and their orientation toward life, and studied the variety of their activity and ascetic labors and practice of prayer. He came to love them with all his heart, was thoroughly penetrated by their spirit-and began to live like them.
Many years later, during the sermon he gave on the eve of his consecration to the episcopacy, he said: "While studying the worldly sciences, I went all the more deeply into the study of the science of sciences, into the study of the spiritual life."
In 1921, as the Russian Civil War was raging, Michael—then twenty-four years old—was evacuated with his entire family to Belgrade. There he entered the University of Belgrade, from which he graduated in 1925 in the faculty of theology. A year later he was tonsured a monk in Serbia and was given the name John, after his own distant relative, St. John Maximovitch of Tobolsk. During the same year he was ordained a hieromonk.
For five years Hieromonk John was a teacher and tutor at the Seminary of St. John the Theologian in Bitola, Serbia. Both his fellow seminary teacher, the future St. Justin Popovic, and the ruling hierarch of the diocese, the future St. Nikolai Velimirovic, perceived that Hieromonk John—the future St. John Maximovitch—was an entirely extraordinary man. More than once Bishop Nikolai was heard to say, "If you wish to see a living Saint, go to Bitola to Father John."
One of the seminarians who was at the Bitola Seminary at that time recalls: "Bishop Nikolai often visited the seminary and spoke with the teachers and students. For us his meeting with Fr. John was unusual. After mutual prostrations, there was an unusually cordial, loving conversation. Once, before parting, Bishop Nikolai turned to a small group of students (of whom I was one) with these words: `Children, listen to Fr. John; he is an angel of God in human form.' We ourselves became convinced that this was the correct characterization of him. His life was angelic. One can rightly say that he belonged more to Heaven than to earth. His meekness and humility were like that recorded in the Lives of the greatest ascetics and desert-dwellers."
It was Fr. John's own students who first discovered what was perhaps his greatest feat of asceticism. They noticed at first that he stayed up long after everyone else had gone to bed; he would go through the dormitories at night and pick up blankets that had fallen down and cover the unsuspecting sleepers, making the sign of the Cross over them. Finally it was discovered that he scarcely slept at all, and never in a bed, allowing himself only an hour or two each night of uncomfortable rest in a sitting position, or bent over on the floor praying before icons. Years afterward he himself admitted that since taking the monastic vows he had not slept lying in a bed. Such an ascetic practice is a very rare one; yet it is not unknown in the Orthodox tradition of the Lives of the Saints. In the fourth century, St. Pachomius the Great of Egypt was told by an angel to have his monks follow this practice.
In 1934, Fr. John was consecrated a bishop in the Russian Church in Belgrade, and he was assigned to the diocese of Shanghai in China. The first thing he did in Shanghai was to restore Church unity, establishing contact with the Serbs, Greeks, and Ukrainians. He paid special attention to religious education. He actively participated in charitable activities, especially after seeing the needy circumstances in which the majority of his flock, refugees from the Soviet Union, were placed. He organized a home for orphans and the children of needy parents. He himself gathered sick and starving children off the streets and dark alleys of Shanghai's slums: Russian children, Chinese children, and others. The orphanage housed up to a hundred children at a time, and some 3,500 in all.
It soon became apparent to his new flock that Archbishop John was a great ascetic. The core of his asceticism was prayer and fasting. He ate once a day at 11:00 p.m. During the first and last weeks of Great Lent he did not eat at all, and for the rest of this and the Nativity Fast he ate only bread from the altar. His nights he spent usually in prayer, and when he finally became exhausted he would put his head on the floor and steal a few hours of sleep near dawn.
Then it became known that Archbishop John not only was a righteous man and an ascetic, but was also so close to God that he was endowed with the gift of clairvoyance, and was a great miracle-worker. There are many, many firsthand accounts of both his clairvoyance and his miracle-working, which show him to be equal to the great Saints of ancient times. On more than one occasion, he was seen surrounded in the Uncreated Light of deification while praying.
In 1949, the Communists took over China. Archbishop John was forced to evacuate his flock, including his entire orphanage. He brought 5,000 refugees to camps in the Philippines. He himself went to Washington, D.C. to get his people to America. Legislation was changed and almost the whole camp came to the New World-thanks
to St. John. Later he was assigned to Western Europe, and then to San Francisco, where he reposed in 1966. (See Blessed John the Wonderworker (Platina, Calif: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1987), pp. 39-73.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about St. John's life is that he manifested in himself so many different kinds of sanctity. It was as if, through the intense study of the Lives of the Saints that he had undertaken in his early years, he had internalized and made his own the whole realm of Orthodox sanctity, in all its varied forms. He was a true student of the Saints, one who sought to follow in their footsteps, and thus to follow in the footsteps of Christ. By living like the Saints, he became one of them.
Let's look at some of the varied forms of sanctity that could be seen in Archbishop John:
1. He was first of all a great ascetic in the tradition of the monastic Saints of old, such as St. Macarius the Great, St. Pachomius the Great, and others.
2. He was a clairvoyant reader of hearts, and one who could identify and name people he had never seen before. Enlightened by the Grace of God, he could hear and answer people's thoughts before they expressed them. He also foretold the future, including the time of his own death. In this way, he was very much in the tradition of the great monastic elders of the past, especially the clairvoyant Russian elders such as those of Optina Monastery.
3. He was an almsgiver in the tradition of St. Philaret the Almsgiver, St. John the Almsgiver, etc. We have seen how he sacrificed himself for orphaned children, going himself into dangerous slums and houses of prostitution in order to rescue children from starvation or unhealthy environments. He was constantly giving to and working to help the needy. He himself wore clothing of the cheapest Chinese fabric. He often went barefoot, sometimes after having given away his sandals to some poor man.
4. He was a hierarch and theologian, a Church writer and apologist who defended the Church against error, much in the tradition of St. Athanasius the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and others. Besides his many published sermons, rich in theological content, he wrote valuable theological treatises in order to defend traditional Orthodox teachings which were being undermined in modern times. One of these works, in which he presents the Orthodox teaching on the Mother of God in contrast to Protestant and Roman Catholic distortions, has been published in English. (St. John Maximovitch, The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiuer of God (Plating, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996). He also wrote an extensive essay pointing out the fallacies of the modern teaching of Sophiology.
5. He was an apostle, evangelist and missionary to new lands, in the tradition of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, St. Nahum of Ohrid, and others. When he was in Western Europe, he worked hard to establish indigenous Orthodox Churches in France and the Netherlands: churches made up of the native peoples of these lands who had converted to the Orthodox Faith. He understood that the Orthodox Church is universal, and he said that the Orthodox Gospel of Christ must be spread throughout the world. Later, when he came to America, he instituted English Liturgies in addition to Slavonic Liturgies, in a Cathedral that had only known Slavonic Liturgies. He blessed and supported our newly begun St. Herman Brotherhood, which was dedicated to bringing Orthodoxy to the English-speaking world.
6. He was a healer and miracle-worker, in the tradition of St. Martin of Tours, St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, and others. Through his prayers, he healed people of almost every imaginable malady; and he continues to do so after his repose.
7. He was a loving and self-sacrificing pastor, in the tradition of St. John of Kronstadt and all the other hierarch and priest Saints of ages past. So great was his love that everyone felt that he or she was his "favorite." He was overflowing with self-sacrificing love for his flock, and for those outside of his flock as well, such as a dying Jewish woman whom he suddenly healed with the words "Christ is Risen."
8. He was a deliverer of people from captivity, in the tradition of St. Moses the God-seer and St. Paulinus of Nola. As we have seen, he brought 5,000 Orthodox believers out of Communist China and into freedom in America.
9. Finally, he was to a limited degree a fool-for-Christ in the tradition of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ and others. He could not be a fool-for-Christ in the full sense of the term, since this would compromise the dignity of his hierarchical office. And yet at many times he did things which were at odds with the ideas of the world, and thus he evoked censure from people who did not see him for what he was: a man of God. He was criticized, for example, for going about barefoot, and for wearing a collapsible cardboard mitre that had been lovingly made for him by his orphans.
We have now looked at nine different types of sanctity manifested in this one Saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Nine types which he had learned about through his study of the Lives of the Saints.
What the contemporary hagiographer Constantine Cavarnos says of modern Saints in general applies perfectly to St. John: "Modern Saints admire and imitate the older ones: they follow closely their example, study their teaching carefully, and-what is extremely significant-they confirm it. Those of the modern Saints who write or preach amplify and illustrate the teaching of the older Saints, and relate it to modern realities." (Constantine Cavarnos, Holiness: Man's Supreme Destiny, p. 24.)
Copyright © 2002 by the St. Herman of Alaska
Used with permission.