Orthodox America

  A Special Friend

      As a teenager growing up in Shanghai, China, in the early 40s, I experienced my share of problems and frustrations, both real and imaginary: these may have been triggered by the betrayal of a close and trusted girlfriend, by not having received an invitation to a special party to which all my friends had been invited, being ignored by my current "dream boy," or, worst of all, having been singled out by a popular boy only to be crushed on learning that the boy wanted to be introduced to my older sister or a pretty girlfriend. I was rather plain, on the chubby side--and acutely aware of it. It wasn't that I didn't have friends among the boys, the problem was that they regarded me as their "pal", one of them, rather than a dainty creature of the opposite sex.

      I was not alone in my frustrations; girls, boys, all of us teenagers had our special problems. How did we deal with them? To whom did we confide our fears, Our hurts and disappointments? With whom did we share our innermost feelings, our deeply personal thoughts and beliefs? While I cannot speak for all my peers, a group of us considered ourselves fortunate to have a very special friend, someone who genuinely loved and cared for us, someone who truly understood us. This friend was none other than Archbishop John.

      Yes, indeed! His Eminence Bishop John of Shanghai, founder of St. Tikhon's Orphanage, shepherd of Shanghai's Russian Orthodox community, ascetic, wonderworker. He was our friend, our beloved Vladika, or "Vladikochka" as I used to call him.

      As busy as he was, with the many problems, pressures and responsibilities attendent upon his position, not once did he turn any of us away. We could always count on him to spend a few moments (frequently more) to hear us out, and only if he was occupied with very pressing matters would he decline, in which case he would apologize and insist that we come back at a later time. If, for some reason, we did not, Vladika would pursue the matter, satisfied only when the problem had been resolved.

       As I look back on those days, I marvel that Vladika did not turn me away for my trivial and insignificant problems; never did he make light of them or chide me for wasting his time. He understood that, imaginary or not, these "problems" were very real to a teenager. Years later, I can still vividly recall walking up to the second floor of the building which housed his quarters, knocking on his door and, in a slightly shakey voice, saying the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," waiting with trepidation and hope for the "Amen" which signaled admittance. Opening the door, I could tell by the way Vladika was dressed whether 'or not he would have time for a talk: if he was dressed in a dark gray cassock (podriasnik) with black leather belt, it meant he was at home for a while; if he was dressed in a black outer cassock (riasea), it usually meant he was on the go and one had to be quick about one's business. I can still see Vladika approaching to bless me, always with that special look that he had for his youngsters, his children. In his presence we felt so loved, so secure; unlike many adults, he gave us the feeling that we "mattered".

       Vladika was very hospitable, and always made sure that his visitor was comfortable and at ease. He would then sit down behind his desk and I would begin to pour out my heart. Vladika had a habit of slightly cocking his head to the right; he held his right hand to his face, stroking his moustache with his index finger, as he also did when he was deep in thought. As I talked l watched his face. There's that twinkle in his eyes---my problem can't be too serious. Vladika had a keen sense of humor and often teased me in a way only he was able without adding to my hurt. Not infrequently, by the time I'd finished pouring out my heart, whatever had been bothering ma had either disappeared or melted down to something quite manageable, which could be resolved by a slight change in my attitude. Sometimes Vladika would direct me to a certain passage in the Bible which he would ask me to relate to him in my own words, or, if he saw there was something I didn't understand, he would explain it to me. I wish now that I had kept a diary of all my talks with him, some of which were quite lengthy. There were occasions when he chided mc not because my problem was silly but because I had reacted to someone's words or actions in a way that was not Christian. However he responded, whatever he said, by the time I left I was sure to have the answer to my problem, to feel the relief and comfort that only a true friend can give.

      Years later, in 1953, when I was married and living in England, I was fortunate to have Vladika visit me and my son. As we reminisced about the days in China and the Philippines, I apologized to Vladika for having taken so much of his precious time with my trivial problems. His reply only confirmed that which we had felt so deeply: that he truly cared for each one of us and wanted to be our much needed friend, After a short pause he added, with his customary twinkle, "I worried about you when I didn't hear from you with your problems."

      The above is nothing of stunning importance, just a sharing of one girl's experience as an adolescent growing up in exile in troubled times, who was helped by a very special Friend. And yet, there was more. That relationship, that bond of friendship carried me through many trying times in the years that followed. To this day, in the hour of sorrow, I remember, and fall back on Vladika's guidance. In spending his time with a young girl, in addressing her needs, Vladika gave a gift for life. This, too, was part of his greatness.

      Dearest, beloved Vladika; he was so much to so many of us: a spiritual father, a teacher, a healer, a loving and patient friend. How much we miss him!

      Holy Vladika John, pray to God for me, your loving child, Valentina. 

Mrs. Valentina Harvey, Redding California