Orthodox America

  Voice from the Sepulchre - What Would Archbishop John Say to Us Today?

Fr. Alexey Young 

    In one of the most cosmopolitan and corrupt cities in the world--San Francisco, CA-a city which shelters both demonism and immorality to such a degree that it has rightly been called a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, rests the earthly remains of the holiest man produced by Orthodoxy in the 20th century.

    The spiritual beauty of this man--Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch (1896-1966) contrasts overwhelmingly with the spirit of vice of which San Francisco is the capital.

Yet from here, in a sepulchre under the majestic cathedral of Our Lady, the Joy of All Who Sorrow (located at 6222 Geary Blvd., between 26th and 27th Avenues), streams forth news of glorious deeds and great wonders worked during his lifetime and since his repose. From this stately tomb issues not just the fragrance of Italy Russia, but the spirit of Apostolic and Evangelical Christianity. It is not surprising, then, that to this sepulchre thousands of pilgrims journey every year from all over the world, and not just members of the Russian Church Abroad. but from all Orthodox jurisdictions (including clergy and even bishops). There are also pilgrims from non-Orthodox churches and backgrounds men and women who, in search of holiness and yet scarcely believing that it may still be found on the earth, are prompted to journey sometimes thousands of miles in order to utter a simple but heartfelt prayer at the sarcophagus of one who hears these prayers, these worries and complaints and, even more, answers them.

In the grace-filled atmosphere of this sepulchre many memorial services are conducted each week. On the sarcophagus itself rests an elaborate and heavy oil vigil lamp. it burns day and night, and from it oil is regularly drawn for the anointing of the sick, the heavy laden, the bereft, the heartbroken, here also incense burns, reminding pilgrims that their prayers, joined to those of Archbishop john, ascend quickly to the throne of God on high; it also reminds them of the sweetness of a life in accordance with the Gospels--for such was the life lived by Archbishop John.

     A preliminary Life of this righteous one has already been disseminated in the English language [ Blessed John, Saint Herman of Alaska Press, 1979] and a chronicle of his miracles is being kept. Here we wish instead to look beneath the surface as we celebrate on July 2 (new style) the twentieth anniversary of this blessed one's death, of whom the late Bishop Says(of Edmonton, Canada) spoke: "You were a priest like unto Aaron; you were a chief-priest like unto Moses; Joseph did you emulate in continence, and Elias in zeal.'

    Were he with us today in the flesh, Archbishop John would also this year celebrate his 90th birthday and the diamond anniversary of his monasticism and priesthood. But he is not with us in the flesh; his successor in the see of San Francisco, Archbishop Antony, wrote ten years ago that "tested by unceasing labor, by self-sacrificing and insistent intercession for those asking help, and by many, so many sorrows, our Vladika John reposed." And yet, his work on our behalf continues, and with each passing year it is as if we no longer see him "through a glass darkly,' but more and more sharply his image is emerging as the Church he loved encounters new trials, new experiences, and new challenges. If he were with us today, what would he say to us?

    Perhaps not many see him as a successor in a long line of exceptional and righteous 19th and 20th century bishops, with many of whom he shared interesting and striking similarities. Some of them bear brief mention because they help us understand what Archbishop John was and is to us.

     One thinks immediately of St. Sophrony of Irkutsk (+1771), the last to be canonized in the Russian land before the Revolution--a sign (particularly to those in the hierarchal rank of our exiled Church) that his life is worthy of emulation in these confusing times. St. Sophrony was especially known for reestablishing church discipline as well as for tremendous missionary activities--two qualities that also stand out in the life of Archbishop John.

     The life of the Righteous Melety, Archbishop of Kharkov (+1820) was written by Archbishop John himself--surely no coincidence, for both were great ascetics, strict fasters, and holy men whose tombs became centers of pilgrimage and sources of miracles. Both were sons of noble families in the Poltava region; both were small and quite frail in health: and both attended every divine service: spending also long and sleepless nights in cell-prayer.  Both were able to inspire others, especially among the young.

     A martyr in the spirit, whose suffering life also foreshadowed that of Archbishop John’s was Archbishop Apollinary (+1933), a confessor of Orthodoxy in America who also by choice lived and died in holy poverty struggling to maintain the unity of the believing mass of Russian Orthodox exiles in the 1920's and '30's in the face of quite overwhelming odds. scandalous disputes, and church politics. And like Archbishop John, he also showed great courage in the face of outright slanders and public disgrace, without murmuring or even accusing his enemies, thus proving the worth of Archbishop John's own words, spoken in a sermon in 1953: "God's grace always assists a struggler, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor; sometimes the beasts did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means did they always not touch them. What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards and devotion to God .... What is important is the state of the soul, the striving towards God, and not the stature of a victor..."

    In these few simple words we see already the moral and spiritual stature of the man and his relevance to us in a much-slandered, much-suffering Church today, for, in the words of another of his "spiritual ancestors", St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (+1783): it is not important whether we suffer much, only that we suffer "generously, for thence, amidst misfortunes, arises a sweet quiet."

    It was this simple, "sweet quiet" that always surrounded Archbishop John, and into which those who knew and loved him were lovingly drawn. And it was this mystical stillness of soul, combined with an astonishing (in our times) single-mindedness, that gave spiritual authority to all he said, all he wrote, and all he did, making him a model of Orthodoxy, a true theologian whose theology proceeded from a holy life and from total rootedness in Orthodox tradition .... When he spoke, his words could be trusted..."

    We can trust his words, and his example, even more so today. Because he was most at home in the Divine Services of the Church, steeping himself in them throughout his life in the same way that the early Church Fathers did, he himself possessed tile "mind of the Fathers" and "he appears in our midst as one of them. And not as a mere commentator on the theology of the past" (ibid.). This enabled him to clear headedly test everything, whether it was the question of “Western influence” in Orthodoxy, the great eccleistical issues of his time and ours (such as the Calendar Question) or petty disputes. Looking at today’s problems, which are not very different from those of his own time and are surely rooted in them, we can hear his advice coming clearly to us from his sepulchre:

     1. Everyone. but especially monastics and clergy, must remain detached as much as possible from public or popular opinion, from pressure groups within the Church, and from "followings." he must cleave to Christ and to Him alone. This means that while bishops and priests must firmly and without compromise lead the flock, they must not manipulate or allow others to manipulate authority in the Church, Leadership must be exercised primarily by example, not by force or manipulation.

    2. A spirit of quarrelsomeness is a sign that it is not the Holy Spirit at work in a situation, but the spirit of the Evil One. Where anger or irritation are present, we must step back without presuming to judge anyone but ourselves. Impatience, annoyance, intolerance--these are signs not of righteousness or "correctness," but of secret self-esteem. When these qualities are found in those who must steer the Ark of Salvation, the Church, great danger awaits the passengers. Thus, even in his apologetical writings, where one might expect a certain tone, Archbishop John remained peaceful and completely non-disputatious. As someone has written: "He did not argue, he simply presented the Orthodox teaching; and when it was necessary to refute false doctrines... his words were convincing not by virtue of logical argumentation, but rather by the power of his presentation."

     3. We must at all times beware two extremes: the passion for returning to the past (often under the guise of "returning to the Fathers" or to one' s ethnic or national past), and the passion for "relevancy.'! Neither of these extremes is spiritual; both are destructive. We cannot return to the past (for our past is always with us), and we do not leap ahead into relevance. We simply receive what has been handed down to us from the immediately preceding generation, not thinking that we "know better" than those that have come just before us. This principle applies not just to theological questions, but to life itself, to everyday situations that arise in all circumstances.

     4. The Russian Church Abroad must strive ever to preserve a most delicate balance between faithfulness to its mandate to be the free voice of an enslaved Mother Church, without sinking into mere ethnism (such as other groups have done), and its divine calling to preach the Gospel to every nation and tribe with which it comes into contact. Thus, Archbishop John unceasingly tried to awaken the Russian Orthodox conscience to an awareness of the universality and absolute truth of Orthodoxy as the historic Church of Christ rather than just an historic expression of Russian culture (as many Russians still believe today). Active missionary work is, therefore, not only a sacred duty of the Church Abroad, but it is an absolute necessity. This "balance ," between faithfulness to its mandate and reaching out to new peoples, found an almost unbelievably perfect marriage in Archbishop John himself.

    5. Certain of his actions indicate that Archbishop John also understood that the Church is not always and irrevocably to be identified solely with the earthly institution or organization of the Church, that while we may not separate ourselves from the visible society of the Church or think ourselves independent of her, the Spirit, like the wind, "bloweth where it listeth" (John 3:8) and we must therefore show initiative and energy even when it is not particularly encouraged by the institution itself. With this attitude, then, we will not be scandalized or discouraged when political crises arise in the Church (as they always have), or when those in high places seem unworthy of their station.

    Throughout Archbishop John's writings, sermons, and letters, the theme of moral rebirth and salvation occurs again and again, and with increasing urgency as his life went by. Quite simply, he saw that mankind is lost, but that the Lord Jesus Christ came precisely in order to "save that which was lost." We, he said, are among those lost ones; we are in need of rebirth and salvation. And it is this idea, finally, which comes to us most strongly from his sepulchre today, and which must form the sobering foundation of all that we do in the days and months ahead.

    "O Lord, O Lord," Archbishop John cried out in a sermon given on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, "we have betrayed Thee and Thy Work, have deprived ourselves of our part in Israel, have betrayed our hope! But, even if to the shame of us and those like us, let Thy Kingdom come! Even if, as we deserve according to our sins, Thy coming will bring us ruin and condemnation, come, O Lord, come quickly! But grant us, at least from afar, to see the triumph of Thy righteousness, even if we cannot be participants in it. And have mercy on us, beyond hope... !"

     This, then is the voice that still speaks to us today, reminding us of our unworthiness, but calling us--with the Lord's blessing--to "behold the ineffable beauty of Thy Name." 

Fr. Alexey Young

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