Faces and Fates

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Being immersed in the Beauty of Slavonic Church services, especially the awesome beauty of the Eucharist- the Divine Liturgy  has everything we need. Overpoweringly beautiful and haunting. Such Beauty seems to sum up Christianity. We Christians should be first and foremost Eucharistic creatures.

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The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints (Ennismore Gardens, London)

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Coming here has been a dream from my youth.  Metropolitan Anthony’s of Sourozh books, especially Living Prayer, School for Prayer, God and man, and Courage to Pray, have sealed my conversion to Christ:

“I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of him. I was found; I did not find him.

I was a teenager then. Life had been difficult in the early years and now it had of a sudden become easier. All the years when life had been hard I had found it natural, if not easy, to fight; but when life became easy and happy I was faced quite unexpectedly with a problem: I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and suffering had to be overcome, there was something beyond them. Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning. 

As it often happens when you are young and when you act with passion, bent to possess either everything or nothing, I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none I would not live beyond the year…”(continue)

Metropolitan Anthony’s presence is so alive here!   You can feel him still serving, from Heaven, at the Altar, especially during the Divine Liturgy.

So many Russian Saints relics here! St Seraphim Sarov, St Silouan the Athonite, Grand Duchess Elizabeth FeodorovnaIgnatius Bryanchaninov, John of Shanghai and San FranciscoXenia of Saint Petersburg, just to name a few ...

Praise the name of the Lord Byzantine Chant

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At the homily, the priest spoke about the Feast of the day: the Synaxis of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church

More than 1700 names are commemorated in the Synaxis.  Here is just one of them:

Martyr Catherine Arsky, laywoman

Commemoration date December, 17 (December, 4 old calendar)

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Born into a merchant family in St. Petersburg.  In 1920, she survived a tragedy. First, her husband, an officer of the Tsar’s Army and warden of the Smolny cathedral, died of cholera, then all five of their children.  Seeking the Lord’s succour, Catherine joined the brotherhood of St. Alexander Nevsky, founded at the cathedral of the Fedorovskaya Icon in Petrograd, and became the spiritual child of Hieromartyr Leo (Egorov).

Catherine was arrested in 1932 with the other members of the brotherhood (ninety in total).  She was sentenced to three years of labour camp “as a member of a counter-revolutionary organisation.” Upon release, she settled in Borovichi, like Martyr Keira Obolensky.  In 1937, she was arrested and charged with the clergy of Borovichi.  She refused to plead guilty of “counter-revolutionary activity” even under torture.  Was executed by firing squad on the same day as Keira Obolensky.

At the time of execution, she was sixty-two.

 

For other martyrs and confessors commemorated today, go to Pravmir

St. John of Kronstadt: The Circle of Grace (2)

St. John of Kronstadt: The Circle of Grace

How fascinating to see a Saint through the eyes of another!

Who would have thought that St. John of Krostandt had helped finance, all the way from Russia and in very difficult times, the construction of St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York! A Saint worthy to meet St. Seraphim Sarov in a vision in January of 1901, in order to warn him of the impending Russian ‘Golgotha’. A spiritual father to Abbess Thaisia and founder of numerous women monasteries under her godly administration. St. Theophan the Recluse, himself a remarkable ascetic of the faith, spoke of him with wonder: “Father John of Kronstadt is a man of God. His prayer has reached God by virtue of his great faith. May the Lord keep him in humility and devotion to His holy will, and in self-sacrifice.”

The Athonite starets St. Silouan asked for St. John‘s  prayers to become a monk. Having finished his military service, before departing for home, Symeon (his name before tonsure) and the company clerk went to visit Father Ioann of Kronstadt to ask for his prayers and blessing. However, Father Ioann was absent from Kronstadt, so they decided to leave him letters instead. The clerk began to write a long letter in his best handwriting, but Semyon wrote only a few words: “Father, I wish to become a monk. Pray that the world does not detain me.” They returned to their barracks in St. Petersburg and, in the words of the Elder, the very next day he felt that all round him “the flames of hell were burning.” St Silouan recalled later in his life: “I still marvel at the power of his prayer. Almost 40 years have passed, yet I have not seen anyone serve the way he did.”

New martyr Alexander Hotovitzky, a Russian Saint living and serving in the United States from 1895 to 1914, also had the blessing to meet St. John of Krostandt and work together! Specifically, St. Alexander traveled to Russia in 1903, and while there, he paid a visit to Fr. John Sergiev — known even then as the wonderworker John of Kronstadt. After his return to America, St. Alexander spoke with a reporter from the Wilkes-Barre Times.  did the research and reprinted the resulting, fascinating article, one of the best things I have ever read in a newspaper, at Orthodox History. (The original date, incidentally, is April 7, 1904.)

 

*The Circle of Grace

His Life In Christ: Pilgrimage To The Holy Places Of St. John Of Krostandt — Part II

KUREMÄE, ESTONIA Pühtitsa Dormition Convent

Pühtitsa’s Dormition Convent in the Republic of Estonia is situated near the village of Kuremäe (Stork-mount) between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland, not far from the Russian border. It is located on a site known as Puhitsetud, meaning “blessed” or “sacred” in Estonian, and has its own unique story that inspired the monastery’s founding and St. John’s spiritual and material help.

Byzantine-Russian Orthodoxy was probably the earliest form of Christi- anity in Estonia, with the baptisms of native Seto and Rus peoples occurring in the 11th-12th centuries, and the first Christian church constructed around the same time in Yuryev (now Tartu) (1). In Revel (Tallinn) the Russian Church and cemetery of St. Nicholas was established decades before its earliest written documentation in 1371, when it was described as being situated “between the Oleviste (Church of St. Olaf, King of Norway) and the town wall”. Viking-era hoards have been found in the region, as Estonia was not only on a trade route, but the site of frequent wars between the Estonians and their Swedish, Danish and German neighbors. By 1228 Estonia was a principality of the Holy Roman Empire, and over the next centuries found its territory divided and re-divided between the Poles, Swedes and Danes, with much of the population subjected to Lutheranism at the Reformation. Coming again under imperial Russian rule in the 18th century, Estonia declared its independence in 1920, retaining its sovereignty until invaded by the Soviets in 1939-40, when it was incorporated into the USSR. Twenty-five percent of the population was deported or listed as casualties of World War II. The Republic of Estonia finally obtained its sovereignty in 1991.

 

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Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition, Estonia.

 

Pühtitsa Convent was founded on the site of a late 16th-century appearance of the Mother of God to Lutheran shepherds from the nearby village of Kuremäe. The hill where she appeared had been considered a holy place from pre-Christian times, and when they climbed to the summit, the shepherds who had witnessed the appearance found an icon of the Dormition hidden in the fissure of a tree. As Protestants, they no longer venerated icons, but they told their story and gave the icon to local Russian Orthodox, who built a small wooden chapel on the site. The chapel was destroyed several times by Lutheran Swedes, but each time the icon was saved and the chapel rebuilt by native Orthodox who held fast to their miraculous image.

Seventeenth-century Lutheran records preserve the complaints of Protestant pastors about the existence of these Orthodox chapels, and Swedish authorities occasionally resorted to military force to destroy them. Accord- ing to Estonian historian Jaanus Plaat, “In 1699, the Jõhvi pastor reported that people came to the ‘great heretical party’ held in August [the Feast of the Dormition], from several parishes and even from Russia.ii During decades of Lutheran iconoclasm, the icon was intermittently sent to the town of Narva for safekeeping until 1818, when a wooden church dedicated to St. Elijah was built in nearby Vasknarva and the icon was transferred there. Ties between the settlements remained close, however, and an annual thirty-kilometer procession was held on the Feast of the Dormition to carry the icon from Vasknarva to the Pühtitsa chapel. According to Metropolitan Kornelius of the Estonian Church, “The [19th-century] procession was onerous. There was no proper road from the village of Vasknarva to Pühtitsa, only a narrow path that went through marshes and forests. The locals said that people went in single-file and waded through mud up to their knees. They took turns carrying the icon, pressing it to their chests.”

The tradition continues today, with a procession from Vasknarva to Püh- titsa a few days before Dormition, usually on the 26th of August. A later version of the original wooden chapel now stands in the same spot under the great oak outside the monastery gates, and the icon is enshrined a few hundred meters away in Pühtitsa Monastery’s Dormition Church. Petitions continue to be answered and healings occur five hundred years after the icon’s finding, and a second Dormition procession with the icon is held every August 15/28 from the church to the holy healing spring at the bottom of the hill for a moleben, and then back to the church.

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Chapel with old oak where the Pühtitsa Dormition Icon was found.

 

Estonia was remanded to Russian control in 1721 after the Great Northern War, and in 1888 the Russian Orthodox Church sent a nun from Kostroma’s Ipatiev Monastery to found a convent in Kuremäe. Overriding objections from local German Lutheran landowners, Prince Sergei Shakhovskoy, the governor-general of Estonia, sponsored the foundation, which was formally established in 1891 as the Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The convent’s main church was designed and built by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in the Russian Revival style. There are six other churches in the monastery, which today resembles a small village.

After the Russian Revolution the newly independent Estonian government confiscated much of the monastery’s farm land, and at the outset of World War II Estonia was occupied and annexed to the USSR. Although monasteries were closed throughout the Soviet Union, and in World War II a German concentration camp for Russian, Estonian, Jewish and other prisoners was set up on monastery territory, Pühtitsa was not closed. It is nothing short of a miracle that throughout the persecution and vicissitudes of the Russian Revolution, Estonia’s annexation by the USSR, and two world wars, Pühtitsa was one of the very few Russian monasteries to have a continuous monastic presence throughout the 20th century. Thus it is a double treasure for pilgrims, for it is one of a few Russian women’s convents, and the only one associated with St. John of Kronstadt, to have an unbroken tradition from before the Russian Revolution.

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St. John of Kronstadt and the Founding of Pühtitsa Convent

Saint John not only nurtured the convent’s founding, but often came himself to help form the spiritual and community life of the sisters. They in turn trusted him implicitly. As one sister relates, “Even after his repose, when his memory was reviled under a dark cloud of Soviet misinformation, there was not a single cell, or hardly a home in the nearby village where a portrait of “dear Batiushka,” as the sisters called him, did not hang next to the icons.”

 

Saint John’s commemoration days—Oct.19/Nov.1 (his birthday and translation of the relics of his patron saint, St. John of Rila) and Dec. 20/Jan.2 (the day of his repose)—were celebrated as monastery feastdays even before his canonization.(2) Monastery and farm work came to a halt, and after Divine Liturgy and a panikhida (memorial service) for Fr. John, a festive trapeza of baked fish, mushroom and potato piroshky, and sweet rolls baked in the archpastor’s memory was provided for the sisterhood, monastery workers, and guests. Panikhidas for Fr. John and Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg were served at other times as well, and when the monastery experienced sorrows and difficulties, help always arrived through their intercession.

Walking up the hill towards the monastery entrance, there is a tiny wooden chapel under an old oak tree to the right, which Fr. John called the “Oak of Mamre” and next to which he loved to pray. The chapel commemorates the 16th-century finding of the monastery’s great treasure on this site—the miracle-working Dormition Icon of the Mother of God. In the archway (the “Holy Gates”) leading into the monastery, the pilgrim is welcomed with frescoes of the finding of the miraculous Dormition icon and of St. John of Kronstadt.

The view from the Holy Gates opens onto Dormition Church, built with the blessing of Fr. John. Returning from the holy spring one day together with Abbess Barbara, he pointed to the monastery, saying, “Matushka Barbara, look at what a beautiful church we have on top of the hill.” The new church, which he saw as if it already existed, eventually replaced the original small monastery church dedicated to the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.(3)

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The holy treasure of the monastery, the miracle-working icon of the Dormition miraculously found in the 16th century, is given central place in the cathedral. As in the time of St. John of Kronstadt, on the Feast of the Dormition August 15/28, an assembly of hierarchs, clergy, sisters, and thousands of pilgrims still process with the icon from the church to the holy spring at the bottom of the hill.

Another icon in the Dormition church associated with St. John is a beautiful miracle-working Vladimir icon of the Mother of God, painted on Mt. Athos as a gift and blessing for Pühtitsa monastery in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Fr. John’s ordination to the priesthood in 1895. The large icon (175 x 105 cm.) required a decree from Tsar Nicholas II for its transfer from the Holy Mountain. The cathedral is also graced with a second icon painted on Mt. Athos, at the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon in 2000. The icon depicts St. John of Kronstadt and was given by the monastery brotherhood as a blessing for Pühtitsa convent.

 

A fourth highly-prized icon, the Pühtitsa Icon of the Mother of God “At the Spring”, is also connected to the archpastor. In 1894, one of Pühtitsa’s sisters painted the icon as a gift for Father John’s name day, portraying the 16th-century appearance of the Mother of God. The icon was presented by the sisters with the inscription, “To Archpriest Father John (Ilyich) Sergiev, the work of painters from Dormition Convent on the Holy Mount, Estlyand Province, October 19, 1894.” Father John kept the icon until his repose, after which it was cared for by a pious couple in St. Petersburg, and finally by a nun from the then-closed Convent of St. John of Rila in St. Petersburg, also founded by Fr. John. During those dark decades, the nun guarding the icon had a dream in which the Mother of God instructed her to return the image to Pühtitsa. This only became possible after the nun’s death in 1946, when the icon was received with great reverence by the sisters.

In 2006, to commemorate the appearance of the Mother of God and the finding of the icon, His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II established the feast of the Pühtitsa Icon of the Mother of God on June 18/July 1, which is celebrated annually at the monastery with ever-growing numbers of pilgrims. On the eve of the feast, an akathist is sung antiphonally by two choirs and after morning liturgy the icon is carried in procession to the site where the Theotokos appeared in the 16th century.

Remembering Saint John

According to the older generation of nuns, when Fr. John came to the convent the sisters decorated the belfry and the guesthouse with colored lanterns. The train from St. Petersburg would arrive at the nearby station at 2:00 AM, and the entire sisterhood along with pilgrims would wait for their spiritual father at the gate, where he was greeted with the ringing of church bells. As he approached, the sisters would begin the Lenten stichera, “Behold, the Bridegroom Cometh at Midnight”. Always “cheerful, shining and infinitely benevolent,” Fr. John would step out of his carriage and bless each person awaiting him, then accompanied by the sisters he would first go to church to serve a moleben before the Dormition icon, and only then retire to his cell for a short rest. By 4:00 am the sisters had gathered in church for the midnight office, and two hours later Father John would arrive to start Matins, always reading the canon aloud himself. After hearing confessions he would celebrate the liturgy, and give Holy Communion to the sisters.

 

Although Fr. John reposed before the Dormition Church was completed, he did participate in the 1895 hierarchical consecration of the nearby trapeznaya Church of Saints Simeon and Anna and served many liturgies for the sisters. One monastery tradition holds that once as Fr. John was preparing the holy gifts for liturgy during the Proskomedia, he cut his finger. When it bled, he prophesied: “This monastery will stand to the end of the ages; blood will be shed for Christ on this mountain, there will be martyrs.” He later predicted both world wars and everything that would happen to the monastery. “Hold to the grass, the enclosure will save,” he said to the first sisters.

Father John also frequently visited the small church dedicated to St. Sergius of Radonezh, built in 1895 over the tomb of the monastery’s first patron, Prince Sergei Shakhovskoy, where he served panikhidas in the presence of the Duke’s wife, Elizaveta Dmitrievna.

St. John’s Memorial Room

A short walk from Dormition Church and across from the trapeznaya is a hospice housing elderly and ill sisters. On the second floor are three small rooms, dedicated to the history of Pühtitsa Convent and containing a number of Fr. John’s personal belongings. As the pilgrim enters the first of these quiet light-filled rooms, the door creaking on its hinges, a standing wardrobe to the right displays two of Fr. John’s podrazniks, one a blue velvet and the other an off-white linen podraznik for summer. The cabinet is dominated, however, by a large black wool fur-lined winter ryasa, so heavy that it is difficult to lift. Much of Fr. John’s ministry was on foot or in sledges or open horse-drawn cabs, and such warmly-lined ryasas were indispensable to avoid frostbite in the bitter cold of northern Russia. Next to the cabinet is a portrait of Fr. John wearing the same ryasa.

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Gatehouse, Pühtitsa Convent.

 

Other of St. John’s possessions on display include small personal items such as portraits, letters, a cane, icons, and a carefully-kept Gospel. Here also is his archpriest’s mitre, pectoral cross and the Nativity vestments in which he served at Pühtitsa, as well as a cross presented to him by Tsar Nicholas II.

Father John deeply loved Pühtitsa. “Kiss this land,” he would say, “it has been blessed by the appearance of the Theotokos.” Eventually Fr. John sent over fifty of his spiritual daughters to the monastery to live under the guidance of the Mother Superior Varvara and her successor Abbess Alexia. According to the monastery chronicle, he would often send them off with the exhortation, “Go to Pühtitsa, it is just three steps away from the Heavenly Kingdom.” The third Pühtitsa abbess, Rev. Mother Joanna (Korovnikova), was Fr. John’s goddaughter and the daughter of his church warden at St. Andrew’s Cathedral who had come to Pühtitsa as a young girl. One of the museum’s books inscribed by St. John reads: “To the pious maiden Anna Alexeevna Korovnikova with a blessing. Archpriest John Sergiev. October 1, 1890.”

In 2008, for the 100th anniversary of the repose of St. John of Kronstadt, the monastery issued its first in-house Russian publication, Pühtitsa Convent and its Protector, the Righteous Saint John of Kronstadt. Drawn heavily from the monastery Chronicles, the book recounts Fr. John’s visits to the convent, including passages of his letters to the convent’s first two abbesses, and the memoirs of sisters who knew him.

From the first days of the monastery’s existence the sisters provided for themselves and the pilgrims with their own hands by farming and raising animals. They participated in the monastery’s construction, and as the sisterhood grew, Pühtitsa eventually supported a community of lay medical nurses (Sisters of Mercy), a free clinic, pharmacy, an orphanage, and a school where girls could be educated to age eighteen. Father highly appreciated the labor of the sisters, and held them up as an example to others, saying: “The sisters in Pühtitsa are walking towards the Heavenly Kingdom with huge steps”. In later years, walking around the monastery cemetery where the first nuns were already buried, Fr. John would take off his hat and bow first to one side, and then to the other, saying to the sisters: “You have many relics resting here!”

Father John guided, instructed, and healed the sisters through his prayer. He concerned himself with their everyday needs as well as spiritual guidance, and his letters to the first abbesses often ended with such instructions as, “I am sending 500 rubles to buy flour and provisions… and am asking you to take care to provide good nutrition.”

Statue of St. John of Kronstadt in house-museum garden.

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Sister Lyudmila’s Healing

Next to the wardrobe in the memorial room is a small chair on which Fr. John sat one day when he healed a novice close to death, a story that her spiritual daughter, Nun Ioasipha (Malyarova) repeated for sisters and pil- grims until her own repose in 1990:

My eldress, Nun Lyudmila (Kulikova), who entered the monastery at the age of 16 in 1892, used to recall her miraculous healing by Fr. John from a deadly disease. As a young novice, Sister Lyudmila was given the obedience to bring bricks by boat from the village of Skamya two kilometers from the monastery on the Narova River. Once, after loading the bricks, she slipped getting into the rowboat and fell into the icy water of the river. It was October and the water near the shore had already begun to freeze. Wet and chilled through, it took her several hours to get back to the monastery, and from the exposure she developed a consumptive lung condition. She was admitted to the hospital, but soon sent home with the words: “Prepare her for the long journey.” Father John arrived at the monastery shortly after, and Mother Superior Alexia asked him
to bless the sick novice. She was carried to the abbess’ quarters, and Fr. John sorrowfully shook his head: “What a sick girl, what a sick girl”.

Without turning his gaze away, he touched her chest and drew his fingers together as if gathering up the edges of a piece of fabric. Lamenting and praying, he touched another spot on her chest as if he was closing up invisible wounds, and then blessed the novice, saying simply, “Thank God, you will live and live long!” With the blessing of Fr. John, Lyudmilla was carried to church, where she lay behind the harmonium listening to the service. By the end of vigil she was able to sit up, and during the morning liturgy the sisters helped her to approach Holy Communion. After Fr. John gave her Holy Communion, she was able to walk to her cell without help.

 

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St. John of Kronstadt.

 

The following year, the abbess went to Revel (Tallinn), taking Mother Lyudmila to be checked by the doctor who had predicted her death.
He was very surprised to see his patient recovered and after examining her X-rays, shook his head saying: “I do not understand this at all. You were sure to die. Your lungs were laced with holes, but some mighty hand repaired it…. A great miracle was accomplished for you.” Mother Lyudmila lived until 1966, dying peacefully at the age of 90.

Schemanun Sergia: Childhood Healing

Schemanun Sergia (Andreeva), who was born in 1900, also told the story of her wondrous recovery from a severe illness through Fr. John’s prayers: “As a child my family lived in Finland, and when I was five, I broke my leg. It was a complex fracture and although my parents took me to different doctors who did what they could, the leg remained weak. After a year I could hardly move, even with crutches. From Finland we went to Fr. John of Kronstadt, who sat me on a little chair. My mother cried out, ‘Father, heal her leg!’ Father moved his hand three times along my injured leg and said, ‘She will walk, but she will not be completely healthy’. Then he brought a prosphora and gave it to me. I was very glad about Father’s gift of prosphora, and we returned home consoled. On the way back, I hardly needed the crutches, and when we arrived home I began walking slowly by holding to the walls. To the great surprise of my parents, I began walking without the crutches and even running. When I turned eighteen Father John blessed me to join the monastery.”

Sister Sergia spent almost seventy years in the monastery at different obediences including caring for the farm animals and as a choir director for the monastery. Before her repose in 1985 she was tonsured into the Great Schema.

Father John spiritually strengthened the community with each visit, and as he wrote to Mother Alexia, the second abbess, “I pray God that in Pühtitsa, with the protection of the Heavenly Queen, there will be a blossoming of truth, sanctity and piety amongst the sisters.”

That God did protect the monastery was demonstrated during a visit of a local commissar during the years of Soviet occupation. Telling villagers that he was going to arrest the abbess “and drag her out tied to my horse,” he arrived at the monastery hostile and belligerent. The abbess came out and received him calmly, upon which he demanded food and drink. The commissar drank so much that he left without doing anything, and on the way home the unfortunate man fell from his horse in his drunken stupor and was himself dragged on the ground until dead.

Former Abbess Varvara with young pilgrim.

 

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After World War II, the monastery managed to stay afloat through the last difficult decades of the Soviet period. From 1968 to 2011 the sisterhood flourished under the capable hand of Abbess Varvara, who drew many young Russian and Estonian nuns after the fall of Communism. Today, guided by Pühtitsa’s eighth abbess, Rev. Mother Filareta, pilgrims continue to be moved by the legacy and spiritual protection of St. John of Kronstadt, and the sisters apply to him the words of another luminous 20th-century wonderworker, St. John Maximovitch: “Tell the people, even though I died, I am alive!”

DIRECTIONS:

To reach Pühtitsa Monastery by public transport, take a plane or train to Tallinn, Estonia. From Tallinn’s central bus station at Lastekodu 46, there is a direct bus to Kuremäe, the village outside the monastery, once a day on Monday and Friday. On other days you can take a bus from Tallinn to Johvi, and then local bus 116 to Kuremäe, which makes the round trip several times a day. Tell the driver you want to get off as close as possible to Pühtitsa Monastery.

 

(1) Yuryev is illustrative of the multi-cultural history and Orthodox influence in Estonia: the first documented record of the area was made in 1030 by chroniclers of Kievan Rus when Yaroslav I the Wise, Prince of Kiev and son of St. Vladimir the Great, built a fort there and named it Yuryev after his own patron saint, St. George. Yaroslav I had strong ties with Scandinavia as he had been in exile at the court of the first Swedish Christian King, Olof Skötkonung, and had married Olof’s daughter Ingegard. Ingegard in turn became St. Anna of Novgorod.

(2) St. John of Kronstadt was formally canonized by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990. He had previously been recognized as a saint by the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1964. His feast days are Oct.19/Nov.1 (his birthday and translation of the relics of his patron saint, St. John of Rila) and Dec. 20/Jan.2 (the day of St. John of Kronstadt’s repose).

(3) Another famous icon, that of the Pühtitsa icon of the Smolensk Mother of God gave its name to the original convent church and was highly venerated by St. John and the sisterhood. It still occupies a prominent place in the newer Dormition Cathedral. The foundation of Dormition Cathedral was laid by St. John, but he did not live to see its completion.

Source: Road to Emmaus Vol. XV, No. 1 (#56)

 

 [To Be Continued]

His Life In Christ: Pilgrimage To The Holy Places Of St. John Of Krostandt — Part I

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A century after his repose, the great archpriest St. John of Kronstadt remains an iconic figure: a man of ferocious dedication to God who was graced with a deep and miraculous prayer life, yet manifested a radical sympathy for the poor that still astounds with its creative and vigorous solutions. After an impoverished childhood in Russia’s remote Archangelsk region and seminary in St. Petersburg, Fr. John Sergiev was assigned to the tumultuous naval port of Kronstadt, where he not only served daily liturgy and prayed long into the night, but actively worked to alleviate the spiritual and material needs of each person he met. A support for Russia’s tsars, clergy, merchants, students, paupers and monastics, he interceded for and assisted everyone who approached him: Russian or foreigner, Christian, Moslem, Jew, or agnostic.

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Archangelsk and St. Petersburg

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Arkhangelsk, northern pearl of Russia

Saint John’s wisdom comes to us today through his candid written reflections in My Life in Christ (*) and through his intercession, but for the pilgrim fortunate enough to visit Russia and Estonia, there is also a substantial material legacy of his life and ministry, preserved and newly restored through the selfless labors of many contemporary Orthodox. These holy places are an alternative form of iconography, another form of the “stones crying out,” that they, too, have been touched by grace.

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St. Petersburg, The Venice of the North

 

These restored and accessible sites of St. John’s life and labors include the Monastery of St. John the Theologian for women, founded by St. John in his native village of Sura in the Archangelsk region in the far north of Russia; Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition in the Republic of Estonia, which he nurtured and shepherded through its first decades; St. John’s much-venerated relics in the famous women’s monastery of St. John of Rila in St. Petersburg, Russia; the site of his own Church of St. Andrew in nearby Kronstadt where he served throughout his priestly life—along with a second even larger Kronstadt church, the Navy Cathedral of St. Nicholas, for which he initiated the building and laid the foundation; and finally, Fr. John’s own home, a second-floor apartment in Kronstadt where he lived with his wife Elizabeth for a half century until his repose in 1908.

 

 

ARCHANGELSK REGION, RUSSIA

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The village of Sura

Sura Monastery of St. John the Theologian

The village of Sura on the upper reaches of the Pinega River, in the Arch- angelsk region of northern Russia, is the birthplace of St. John of Kronstadt. Sura is one of the most ancient villages of the native Chud people, and even today has both pagan activity and Old Believer influences. In the only autobiographical sketch composed by St. John, and published in an 1888 issue of the magazine Sever (North), he describes his early childhood:

I am the son of a churchman from the village of Soursk, district of Pinezhsk, province of Archangelsk. From very early childhood, as early as I can remember, at the age of four or five, perhaps even earlier, my parents taught me to pray and by their religious frame of mind made me a religiously-minded boy. At home, in my sixth year, Father brought me a primer, and Mother began to teach me the alphabet; but reading and writing came to me with great difficulty, which was the cause of no little sorrow to me. I just couldn’t master the identity between our speech and writing; in my time reading and writing were not taught as it is now: we were all taught ‘Az’ (for ‘A’), ‘Boukee’ (for ‘B’), Vedi,’ etc., as if ‘A’ were one thing and ‘Az’ a different thing. For a long time did this wisdom elude me, but having been taught by Father and Mother to pray, grieving over my failures in studies, I prayed fervently to God, so that He would grant me understanding—and I remember how, suddenly, it was as if a veil were lifted from my mind, and I began to comprehend studies well. When I was ten I was taken to the Archangelsk parish school. My father, naturally, received a very small salary, so that it must have been terribly difficult to live. I already understood the real position of my parents, and for this reason my inability at school was indeed a calamity. I thought little of the significance my studies would have on my future, and grieved especially over how Father was needlessly spending his last means to support me.

 

Left in Archangelsk completely alone, I was deprived of my parents and had to arrive at everything myself. Among the boys of my age group in class, I did not find, nor did I seek, support or assistance; they were all more able than I, and I was the last pupil. Anguish took hold of me. Then it was that I turned for help to the Almighty, and a change took place in me. In a short time I moved forward to such an extent that I ceased to be the last pupil. The further I went, the better and better I became in my studies, and by the end of the courses was among the first transferred to the seminary, which I finished first in 1851 and was sent to the Petersburg Academy on a full scholarship…

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Father John returned to Sura throughout his life, and after his ordination established a six-year grammar school for the village children. In 1899 he founded an informal women’s community, first comprised of a wooden church dedicated to St. John the Theologian and a few monastic cells. This was followed by a beautiful stone church dedicated to St. Nicholas, and after Fr. John’s repose, the Dormition Cathedral, built in 1915, about which he correctly prophesied that the church would be built but that no one would serve in it.

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St. Nicholas wooden church (1687), Zachachie, Archangelsk (Arkhangelsk) region

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Church of St John the Theologian, Plesetsk, Arkhangelsk Region

The monastery began with two nuns: Barbara, the superior, and Riassaphore Nun Angelina with thirty-three novices that Fr. John had blessed to live in the newly opened community. On July 20, 1900, the wooden church was consecrated in Fr. John’s presence and in the fall of the same year the community was officially recognized. Father John instructed the novices through his own teaching and sent them for preparation to the Leushino Convent under the well-known Abbess Thaisia, who directed over 700 nuns! Several letters still survive from Fr. John to Abbess Thaisia about the reception of the novices.(1)

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St. John with Abbess Thaisia, late 19th century.

Settling at the site of the monastery, the sisters assisted in the construction work and gardening; they later recalled the particularly hard labors of those early years and the savagely cold winters. In the early 1900s the monastery opened a podvoriye, a city outpost in Archangelsk and a second in St. Petersburg that would later become the famous Karpovka Ioannavsky Monastery where Fr. John would be buried.
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Mother Superior Taisiia on the Veranda
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Leushinskii Monastery, Leushino, Russian Empire

The convent priest was Fr. Dimitri Fedosikhin, formerly a train engineer who was healed by Fr. John after a revolutionary bombing of his train had left him near death. Father John later encouraged him to accept the priesthood, and Fr. Dimitri became rector of the Archangelsk cathedral and the last spiritual father of the Sura women’s monastery. The Sura convent was closed on Dec. 8, 1920 by the local Soviet and the sisters dispersed, arrested and exiled. The newly built Dormition Church was turned into a club, and St. Nicholas Church destroyed. In 1920 Fr. Dimitri was arrested along with 140 other Orthodox, including a number of the nuns, who protested the closing of the monastery. He was sentenced to five years in the gulag camps and the remaining nuns were dispersed and exiled.

On returning to Arkhangelsk in the spring of 1925, Fr. Dimitri petitioned for the reopening of the cathedral, which had been closed after his departure. His request went unanswered and on Pascha he opened the church and served on his own initiative. He was re-arrested, sentenced to three more years in the camps and a further five-year exile in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, he and his wife were tonsured as monastics and he was secretly consecrated to the episcopate as Schema-bishop Peter. On his return from exile Fr. Dimitri traveled from place to place, confessing and serving liturgy for his spiritual children, until he was arrested for the third time in 1941 and sent to the camps again, from which he never returned.

 

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St. John with Sura relatives, 1890.

 

 

On Oct. 31, 1994, the archbishop of Archangelsk blessed the formation of the revived St. John the Theologian Convent in Archangelsk. The initial attempt to regain the property and buildings was unsuccessful, however, and the community relocated to the village of Yershovka, where they organized a new monastery, also dedicated to St. John the Theologian. A local committee of clergy and laypeople, meanwhile, continued to press for the return of the Sura monastery territory and eventually succeeded. In October 2012, the Holy Synod passed a resolution reopening the Sura convent, and naming Nun Mitrofania (Mikolka) as abbess. A new community of sisters has formed at Sura and begun restoration of the badly damaged buildings.

Future plans include rebuilding the churches and cells, a home for orphaned girls, a domicile for the elderly, a Sunday school, and the revival of local handicrafts. The ruined Dormition church is now being restored, a house-church dedicated to St. John has opened in Sura, and the monastery welcomes pilgrims, most of whom visit from the well-known Monastery of St. Artemy of Verkola, about thirty-five miles away. Pilgrim accommodations will be made available as the monastery is revived.

In the summer of 2013, a cross procession/pilgrimage voyage was held in honor of the 185th anniversary of St. John of Kronstadt’s birth. The aim of the event was not only the restoration of pilgrimage to the shrines of the Russian north, but to attract attention to the Sura Convent of St. John the Theologian. Participants in the cross procession sailed 2,000 kilometers along the Neva River, through Lake Ladoga, the Svir River, Lake Onega, the White Sea to Archangelsk, and further down the North Dvina and Pinega Rivers to the village of Sura. This was the same route that St. John would have taken on his own visits to Sura. Prayer services and processions involving local churches and parishioners were held during the frequent stops.

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Neva River and Lake Ladoga

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Svir River and Lake Onega

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White Sea to Archangelsk

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North Dvina and Pinega Rivers

DIRECTIONS:

Getting to the Sura Ioannovsky Monastery is not terribly difficult if you have the time, but neither is it for the faint-hearted. From Moscow to Archangelsk is about 1200 km (21 hours by train). From St. Petersburg it is 25 hours by train. From Archangelsk, take a second train (running every other day) several hundred kilometers to the town of Karpogory. From Karpogory, there may be an infrequent bus to Sura, but the best option is to hire a taxi or private car. Sadly, the river steamboats that St. John customarily took to Sura from St. Petersburg were discontinued after the Russian Revolution.

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St. John of Kronstadt with wife, Matushka Elizabeth.

Source: HIS LIFE IN CHRIST, Road to Emmaus Vol. XV, No. 1 (#56)

(1 ) Abbess Thaisia’s memoirs of her conversations with St. John of Kronstadt are included as an appendix to: Abbess Thaisia of Leushino: The Autobiography of a Spiritual Daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, St. Herman of Alaska Press, Platina, CA, 1989.The following “Conversations” provide an intimate, realistic glimpse into the life of a magnificent Saint of God, showing us his endearing, human side, and then calling us beyond the earth to the eternal realm in  which his soul constantly abided. We give thanks to God that God that Abbess Thaisia was able to record so precisely these soul-saving talks. It was not in vain that the Lord gifted her with an almost photographic memory! Both her Autobiography and the “Conversations” are fascinating and soul-saving readings!

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My Life in Christ: Extracts from the Diary of Saint John of Kronstadt

 

For the 2nd Part, go to His Life In Christ: Pilgrimage To The Holy Places Of St. John Of Krostandt — Part II