We become aware of God by descending with our mind into our own heart
For Saint John of Kronstadt, God alone is, because, unlike the creation, he is free from the complexity of created entities, he is uncreated, omnipresent and almighty. He is the ocean of life, and the physical and spiritual worlds are in God like a fish in water or a bird in the air. He surrounds, supports, refreshes everything he creates. The Biblical ‘I Am’ is Saint John of Kronstadt’s starting point when he thinks about God. Never does Saint John of Kronstadt write about God as a hypothetical being who might serve as an explanation of the universe around us. Instead, his starting point is his own heart with its sorrows and its joys. Analysing the various states of his heart, he is led to see in them the consequence of his own attitudes towards God. Three quotations describe his approach clearly:
(My Life in Christ, tr. E.E. Goulaeff (1897), page 6:) ‘You wish to comprehend the incomprehensible; but can you understand how the inward sorrows with which your heart is overwhelmed overtake you, and can you find, except in the Lord, the means to drive them away? Learn at first, with your heart, how to free yourself from sorrows, how to ensure peace in your heart, and then, if necessary, philosophise on the incomprehensible, for “if ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?” (Luke 12: 26)
(Goulaeff, page 69:) ‘We possess a true barometer which shows the rise and fall of our spiritual life – that is, our heart. It may also be called a compass, by means of which we are guided in our voyage over the sea of this life. It shows us whither we are going – to the spiritual east, to Christ; or to the spiritual west, the dark power that has the power of death – the Devil. Only watch this compass attentively; it will not deceive, and will show you the true way. “If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God” (1 John 3: 21) – that is, we are drawing nigh to the east.
(Goulaeff, page 11:) ‘Faith in God’s existence is closely connected with faith in the existence of our own souls, as a part of the spiritual world. God’s existence is as evident to the pious mind as its own being, because every thought, good or bad, every desire, every intention, word or act of such a mind is followed by a corresponding change in the state of the heart, peace or trouble, joy or grief, and this is the result of the action upon it of the God of spirits and bodies, Who is reflected in the pious mind as the sun is reflected in a drop of water; the purer the drop is, the better, the clearer will be the reflection; the more turbid the drop, the dimmer will be the reflection; so that in the soul’s state of extreme impurity and darkness, the reflection entirely ceases and the soul is left in a state of spiritual darkness, in a state of insensibility. In this state the man having eyes, sees not, and having ears, hears not. Again, in relation to our souls, God may be likened to the outer air in relation to the mercury of the thermometer – with this difference, that the expansion and rest, rise and fall of the mercury proceed from the change in the state of the atmosphere; whilst, in the first case, God remains unchangeable, everlasting and eternally good and just. Whilst the soul, changeable in its relation to God, suffers changes in itself, thus it unavoidably expands and obtains peace of heart when it draws nearer to God by faith and good works, and unavoidably contracts, becomes restless and wearied, when it withdraws itself from God by unlawful acts, want of faith, and unbelief in God’s truth.
The human heart, according to Saint John of Kronstadt, is a physical, as well as psychological and spiritual entity. Spaciousness and oppression are experienced by every human being at the level of the chest. These feelings are proportionate to each person’s actual, conscious and deliberate relationship with God, ultimate reality and source of all goodness. The self-indulgent and spiritually careless are so used to letting themselves be tossed by passions that they do not see their own heart as the source of their anxiety and unhappiness.
The Clash of Two Worlds
For a long time, and especially in the course of the past fifty years, partly because of centuries of clericalism and misuse of power by religious institutions, the secularist reaction has not merely swept among those who have given up religious practice, but it has infiltrated deeply those who remain attached to their faith. All countries, all religions have lost the sense of the invisible world up to a point. It has done great spiritual harm, but it has awakened us to new and important sensitivities. In the Orthodox Church as elsewhere, there is need of much more calm exchanges on these issues. We need, on the one hand, to rediscover the importance of the invisible world, and on the other hand we must go much further in our positive appreciation of the physical creation. The traditional equation between the passions and the visible, physical universe is a warning that we can be so lured by worldly self-indulgence that we fail to acquire the necessary detachment. The words of Saint John of Kronstadt deserve our prolonged meditation, because few of us can say in all honesty, ‘I am not affected by the secularization of the contemporary mind.’
(Goulaeff, page 230:) ‘ “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11: 12). If we do not daily strive to conquer the passions, which fight against us, and to gain the Kingdom of God in our heart, then the passions will tyrannically, forcibly take possession of us, will invade our soul like robbers; our attachments to earthly things will increase in proportion as our faith in heavenly blessings and love for God and our neighbour will also grow weaker and weaker; we shall enjoy rest of conscience and peace of heart more and more seldom. We must struggle in the matter of the salvation of the soul, which is more precious than anything in the world; we must count everything earthly as dross, or as a phantom, a vision, and everything heavenly, above all, the Lord Himself, as truth itself, eternal, most-blessed, and unchangeable.
The nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia did not have the piety of the merchant and popular classes of society, and tended to pay lip-service only, or even despised the Orthodox Church. Part of the press was viciously anti-religious. All this explains, although it does not entirely excuse, Saint John of Kronstadt’s antagonism to the newspapers, the theatres and the entire educational system. Understandably, he was exasperated by the self-indulgent life style of the wealthy, their social irresponsibility, drawing-room superficiality, and most importantly, the rationalism that marginalizes God, makes God dependent on our patronizing minds. Like C.S. Lewis in ‘The Abolition of Man,’ he saw that godless people destroy their own human nature:
(Goulaeff, page 231:) ‘Evil is accompanied by affliction and straitness of heart, and good, by peace, joy, and expansion of the heart. This law is unchangeable: for it is the law of the unchangeable, all-holy, righteous, most-wise, and eternal God. Those who do good, or who fulfil this moral and Gospel law (which is also a moral law, only the most perfect) shall be infallibly rewarded by eternal life, while its transgressors, and those who have not repented of its transgression shall be punished by eternal torment.’
We can see from what has been said so far, that Saint John of Kronstadt did not have a simplistic idea of heaven and hell. Far from considering heaven and hell as hypothetical doctrines about an after-life taught arbitrarily by religious institutions, he knew them as universal experiences taking place in the heart now as well as after death. Saint John of Kronstadt was an exasperated, anxious prophet clamouring, ‘But do you not see, do you not feel, do you not realize the obvious; how can you be so blind and insensitive that you do not recognize the torment you are inflicting on yourself now!’
The pastoral method he used to wake up both clergy and laity was unlike that of other priests of his time and ours. He was not a mechanical performer of religious ceremonies, and he was not given to denunciations of his fellow-priests as apostates, heretics and servants of the devil. He never alluded to the fact that many of the priests of his day were uneducated and lukewarm. Neither insults, nor indifference, nor resigned depression found a place in his attitude to Church matters. He touched the hearts of some priests by his own awareness of what is taking place during the services. For instance, as he concluded the Proskomidia, he would say to this or that priest present in the altar, ‘Look, Father Michael, Father Paul, what can be like this? Christ himself is in our midst and we stand like the Apostles around Him.’ (Selawry, page 135). Needless to say, the priests were shaken and changed by this experience.
Saint John of Kronstadt was aware of the fact that not every churchgoer has a spiritual life and not every unchurched person suffers from a dead sensitivity to the spiritual realm. We find the explanation in the way each human being treats fellow humans. Those who keep their pride in check, handle times of vexation and irritability wisely, through the maturity of their dealings with others enjoy a genuine spiritual life, which may be missing in self-righteous churchgoers. Because love is God, many who appear not to be religious are in fact more so than self-centred Christians.
(Goulaeff, page 22:) ‘Love calms and agreeably expands the heart and vivifies it, whilst hatred painfully contracts and disturbs it. Those who hate others torture and tyrannise over themselves; therefore they are the most foolish of the foolish ones.’
When we read these lines, we may think that many people who are filled with hatred do not feel any pain in their own heart. Saint John of Kronstadt would say that this is true only of people who have killed their conscience; those who have not destroyed their conscience, whose heart has not turned to stone, are invariably tortured by their hatred towards others. They know they are doing wrong, and they suffer until they repent. Love and hatred always have a physical, psychological and spiritual impact on anyone who fills their heart with the one or the other. Each person who has acquired the reflex of watching his or her heart in this matter knows the symptoms and often finds ways of being decisive in eliminating wrong thoughts, feelings, words and attitudes. People have a conscience, and they know the symptoms. God penetrates everything, he is powerfully at work in all places, including sordid places like prisons, slums, or desperately poor villages like Sura where Saint John was born. There was and is nothing attractive or romantic about Kronstadt. The grace of God does not favour the wealthy and the aesthetically pleasant. Respectability is not a passport to the Kingdom of God. Saint John of Kronstadt used to drill deep below the surface of things; he was anything but socially conformist. His advice about behaviour towards those unlike oneself is rarely heeded.
(Goulaeff, page 45:) ‘The Christian has no reason to have in his heart any ill-feeling whatever against anyone – such ill-feeling, like every other evil, is the work of the Devil; the Christian must only have love in his heart; and as love cannot think of evil, he cannot have any ill-feeling against others. For instance, I must not think that anyone else is evil or proud without having positive reasons to think so, or I must not think that it will make him proud if I show him respect, or that if I forgive him he will again offend me and will mock at me. We must not let evil in any form nestle in our hearts; but evil generally appears in too many forms.’
While his admirable struggle on behalf of the poor and his unique Christian social teaching (for his time) are only recorded in the Russian State Archives, nearly all books written by Saint John of Kronstadt had a polemical nature. He spent his life denouncing a whole catalogue of people: Old Believers and anyone who deviated from the canons or teaching of the Orthodox Church. But this harsh aspect of his personality is entirely absent from ‘My Life in Christ.’ Clearly he knew that when he was really close to God, he could not indulge his more intolerant crusading tendencies. And we need to curb our own crusading tendencies when we judge him, among others, because we cannot experience the full impact of the complex nature of the last decades of Imperial Russia. As with all Saints, we need to select the best from his many activities and teachings. Surely, it is in this respect that God has glorified and deified him. What makes him a great Saint is the determination with which he loved God, and people for the sake of God.
I shall take one after the other his chosen paths to God, in the conviction that all of them remain as valid today as in the late nineteenth century.
Physical light is a path to God
Saint John of Kronstadt used his imagination to help him achieve greater closeness to God. Light in general, the blinding light of the sun and shining eyes were images he kept constantly in his mind. He would frequently imagine Christ looking at him with eyes brighter than the sun, and in that way he would dismiss any bland representation of the Saviour. Next, he saw the sun as an icon of God:
(Goulaeff, page 402:) ‘The sun shines in the universe. The Mental Sun – God – unceasingly shines in the souls of the chosen.’
The sun spoke to him of the many ways used by the Creator to give us life, warmth, sight, a sense of beauty, an awareness of reality around us, as well as the numerous objects that reflect the sun, especially water in all its forms. The fact that God is the Spiritual Sun would also remind him that every soul reflects God, just like a drop of water holds the image of the physical sun. He would notice how the air round the earth is filled with all-penetrating sunlight. He mused on the effect of sunrays on a crystal glass, and compared the deified Saints to the rays of the sun. That made him understand how the Saints relate to us: the sun and its rays are equally omnipresent. This removes any possibility of doubt about the Saints’ ability to hear our prayers, intercede for us, share our joys and our pains. The light of a fire and its flames can be used as similar reminders. He would then move on to contrasts: the sun comes and goes as the earth revolves daily, but God never vanishes from the spiritual sky. From the general pictures of sun and light, he would move to the Biblical text, for instance the Prologue of John, which speaks of Jesus as the ‘True Light, which enlightens everyone’ (John 1: 9) and Luke 2: 32, ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’ The darkness of sin cannot either receive or overcome the light of Christ: John 1: 5, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (English Standard Version), or ‘the darkness could not understand it’ (alternative translation in footnote of New Jerusalem Bible). The glory of the Lord dwells (Psalm 26: 8, ‘O Lord, I love the habitation of your house, and the place where your glory dwells,’ English Standard Version) in every noble science, every noble art, every created thing.
Just as a closed window does not prevent light from filling a room, there are no material or circumstantial obstacles to God’s powerful intervention. Yet only those objects turned towards the source of light benefit by it.
The speed of light shows that spiritual beings can move even faster. Angels, Saints, God, come to our rescue faster than light can travel.
The rising sun reflects gloriously in a lantern hanging from a post. Therefore a human heart purified from sin also reflects God. This brings to mind 2 Corinthians 7: 1, ‘let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.’
The absence of light, that is, physical darkness, is an image of the devil and of all evil forces, as well as of the absence of religious truth. We can deny light, we may not be bothered to open our spiritual eyes.
We too, a hundred years after the death of Saint John of Kronstadt, can make use of the same images to develop our awareness of God, his angels, his saints, and the souls of people, all day long. Frequent repetition of short texts using such picture language, mentally or in writing, and over several weeks, can bring about a permanent change in our outlook on God, our memory of God and the spiritual world. Conscious repetition is very important in the spiritual life. It is not the same as mechanical and mindless repetition.
Although the sun and light are the most frequently recurring images borrowed from nature to speak about God, Saint John of Kronstadt also made use of other aspects of nature:
(Goulaeff, page 403:) ‘Man is a wonderful, grand creation of God, especially a holy man; he is a star of God; he is a splendid flower, wholly beautiful and pure, a sweet-smelling cedar-tree, a priceless pearl, a precious stone, a beautiful, fruitful tree of God’s paradise. Man is truly a wonderful creature of God! Glory be to the Saviour of mankind, Who draws us out of the mire of the passions, from corruption and death, and leads us into the life eternal!’
Later this morning, we shall look at the link between a person’s words and the immortality conferred by the grace of God.
God is the Spiritual Mind
We take for granted that we are the originator of our own thoughts. But for Saint John of Kronstadt, the work of our minds is greatly dependent on the influence upon us of the divine unlimited mind in whom we live, and also of superhuman good and bad spiritual beings:
(Goulaeff, page 5, however I am not quoting from Goulaeff, as the passage needed retranslating:) ‘The reason we are able to think is that there is infinite thought, just as the reason we breathe is that there is no limit to the air space. This is why clear ideas on any subject are called inspirations. The constant flow of our thoughts depends specifically on the existence of the Spirit of thought. This is why the Apostles say, ‘Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to think anything as coming from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God’ (2 Corinthians 3, 5). This is why the Saviour also says, ‘Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour’ (Matthew 10: 19). You see, both the thought, and even the very word (the inspiration) come to us from outside. This happens, however, only in a state of grace and as need arises. But in our ordinary circumstances, all our clear thoughts are from our Guardian Angel and the Spirit of God; whereas, on the contrary, impure, dark ones are from our damaged being and from the devil, who is always lying in wait for us. How then should a Christian behave? It is God who works in us (Philippians 2: 13). In general, everywhere in the world we see the kingdom of thought, as in the structure of the whole visible world, so also in the detail – on earth, in the rotation and the life of the terrestrial globe – in the distribution of the elements of light, air, water, earth, fire (concealed), while other elements are diffused in all animals, – in the birds, the fish, reptiles, wild beasts and people, – in their wise and ingenious physical structures, in their faculties, their way of life and habits, – in plants, their structure, nutrition, etc., in a word – we see everywhere the kingdom of thought, even in an inanimate stone and in a grain of sand.’
Here is another example:
(Goulaeff, page 2: here again, Goulaeff has departed far from the original and this is not his translation) ‘Since God is the creative, living and life-creating Thought, those greatly sin, who, by the thought of their spirit, turn away from that hypostatic Thought and occupy themselves only with material, perishable objects, turning their own spirit into a material object by doing so; particularly sinful are those who, during worship or prayers at home, mentally completely turn away and roam in various places outside the church. This is extremely insulting towards God, on whom our mind must gaze.’
I have added emphasis on ‘only’ and ‘completely,’ because it is clear that Saint John of Kronstadt is not referring to the inevitable short moments of inattention, but to habitually and willfully switching off our attention to God, reducing our religion to an empty formalism. The danger for us is the large grey area between inevitable distractions due to our physical nature, and the irresponsible, lazy sinfulness of not making the effort to concentrate in prayer. We started this journey of discovery with the human heart as the tool by which we discover, not a notion of God, but our first-hand experience of the living God. We can now appreciate that by watching the way our mind works, we find another route to the same God. In this case, sensitivity to the reality of God is more dependent on our ascetical efforts. For most of us, this means that the mind will become a road to God some time after our heart has connected with God, and we have become persuaded that it is worth our while trying out the Church’s ascetical tradition. Sadly, we all know that the distance between realizing theoretically the appropriateness of Christian spiritual training, and actually engaging in it systematically, can measure in light years.
In ‘My Life in Christ,’ we find a substantial body of practical teaching on how to Christianize both our heart and our mind, so that, as they progress in purification, our spiritual eyesight increases, and we too begin to see clearly the Spiritual Sun, and attune our minds to the Spiritual Mind of God.
Since the goal of this paper is to provide spiritual help rather than intellectual entertainment, our next step will be an outline of Saint John of Kronstadt’s spiritual hygiene for the heart and mind.
Simple exercises for those who wish to see God
(Goulaeff, page 2: again, not given in the Goulaeff translation here) ‘Have you learnt to gaze on the Lord in front of you at all times – as the Omnipresent Mind, as the Word living and active, as the life-creating Spirit? Holy Scripture is the realm of the Mind, the Word and the Spirit, God the Trinity: in it, He shows Himself clearly: ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (John 6: 63), said the Lord; the writings of the holy fathers: here again is the expression of the hypostatic Thought, Word and Spirit, with the great participation of the human spirit itself; the writings of ordinary worldly people, these are the expression of the fallen human spirit, with their sinful attachments, habits, passions. In the Word of God we see face to face God and ourselves as we are. In it, recognize yourselves, people, and always walk in the presence of God.’
Saint John of Kronstadt’s diaries for the first five years of his life as a priest consisted almost exclusively of notes on the entire Bible, which he was trying to internalize. In his pastoral ministry, he wanted people to use the books of the Prophets to prepare their confessions.
If we wish to follow in the footsteps of Saint John of Kronstadt, we have the advantage of access to excellent Bible study material and great translations of the Bible. I think in particular of the New RSV, the English Standard Version, the New Jerusalem Bible; for beginners, the People’s Bible Commentaries and other material suggested by the Bible Reading Fellowship. There is no doubt that with a little discipline, within a very few years all of us would know a great deal more about ourselves and about God. This would produce dividends for our own salvation and for the witness of our parishes.
Being a man of his time, Saint John of Kronstadt had a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. This would be entirely inappropriate for us. Biblical scholarship does not lead away from faith, far from it. Today, the Christian community has moved out of the bad alternative between fundamentalism and debunking. The fact is that all great Biblical scholars belong to a Western Church, or occasionally to a Synagogue; it does not mean that their teaching is unreliable. Whatever is true and spiritually profitable deserves being used by us. We only have two problems: ourselves and our ignorance of the Bible.
For forty years or more, I have been puzzled by the fact that the few people who have written about Saint John of Kronstadt do not appear to notice the centrality the Bible had in his own life and in his spiritual teaching. The most likely explanation is that we all have a background and prejudices, and these can distort our reading of a book. This blindness is understandable in readers of ‘My Life in Christ,’ because the author has omitted to organize his book by themes, and simply pours out an avalanche of paragraphs, hoping that we will find our way in his perfectly consistent system that falsely seems to have no clear direction.
In the Bible, God speaks directly to us. God is the starting point and the providential guide of history. While philosophies are elegant tools to understand all of reality in a way that satisfies the human mind, the Bible’s unsystematic nature favours a more humble human role. The Orthodox Church has never been happy with a scholastic attempt at forcing theology into a man-made philosophical system. The Bible refuses to separate the word of God from the action of God, to downgrade God to an object of our musing.
(Goulaeff, page 513:) ‘The word of God is the same as God Himself; therefore undoubtingly believe every word of the Lord. The word of God is deed, and your own word should be deed; therefore also, during prayer our words ought to be deed and truth, and not falsehood, hypocrisy and flattery. Apply this to your whole life.’
Let me take obvious examples of the applicability of the advice just quoted. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7; John chapters 14 to 17; the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians five; Philippians 2; the Old Testament Prophets’ condemnation of corrupt religion, their insistence on social justice; the parallel between Jesus and Moses, with the attendant fact that God liberates from slavery, then provides a framework to our life: none of these present any problem; all ought to be so internalized that these words live in our hearts and guide us in our every thought, word and action. Not one of us can say, ‘I have achieved all this long ago.’ We are not on earth for the next five hundred years. All of us need to take stock and include in our next confession what is lacking in our lives concerning these words of God; then we have to proceed with the appropriate changes of direction in life before the following confession.
I know Saint John of Kronstadt would put it like this. As the parish of Saint John of Kronstadt in this country, we have an obligation not to turn a deaf ear.
Beyond the Biblical teaching, we have noticed the call to make our words be living and active, especially the words of our prayers. Saint John of Kronstadt did not hesitate to point out that we usually say the Lord’s Prayer without meaning a word of it. The will of God, forgiveness, the Kingdom, the Fatherhood of God: the devil has plucked the sense out of the words and we might as well repeat Baa Baa Black Sheep or Frère Jacques. The gravity of the sin of having turned the Lord’s Prayer into Frère Jacques does not keep us awake at night, and yet it should.
Here and there we get glimpses of the horror experienced by Saint John of Kronstadt when he thinks of people’s mindless prayers and religious rituals, the self-satisfied delusion that where God is concerned, we consider that anything is good enough. And at the same time, we see that our Saint only ever reproaches himself, genuinely believes himself to be worse than all others.
He managed to protect himself from anger by putting himself below everyone else, and yet without ever losing his prophetic vocation. Daily, he analyzed the way he had spoken out the prayers he had used. As he interceded for people, he always took care to pronounce their names with felt love. This was his professionalism. Yet beyond and deeper than his professionalism, he was conscious of the great power contained in the Church’s words themselves.
(Goulaeff, page 383:) ‘Every word of Holy Writ, every word of the Divine Liturgy, of the morning and evening services, every word of the Sacramental prayers and of the other prayers, has in itself the power corresponding to it and contained in it, like the sign of the honourable and life-giving cross. Such grace is present in every word of the Church, on account of the Personal Incarnate Word of God, Who is the Head of the Church, dwelling in the Church. Besides this, every truly good word has in itself the power corresponding to it and contained in it, owing to the all-filling simple Word of God. With what attention and reverence, with what faith, must we therefore pronounce each word! For the Word is the Creator Himself, God, and through the Word all things were brought into existence from non-existence.’
The practical implications of this conviction led him to read himself the Canons of Mattins, turning towards the people, bringing out by all possible means the sense contained in the words, departing altogether from the received practice of reading quickly and on a monotone.
Mindfulness in every thought, spoken word or action was his motto. His communions were real. Beyond the outer experience of the bread and wine, he was consciously united with the person of the Saviour, and used those moments of intimacy with the Incarnate God to intercede for specific people most fervently.
We know that mindful communions were not easy for him. ‘My Life in Christ’ is peppered with arguments he had with himself to move beyond treating the Holy Gifts as bread and wine. Each time, he would come back to the truth that God, being Creator of all, could do as He pleases with the bread and wine and transform them by the power of the Holy Spirit at the Epiclesis.
The Name of God
A phrase in ‘My Life in Christ’ led some years later to a major controversy throughout the Orthodox Church, caused the eviction by the Russian Navy of a number of Russian Athonite monks, their exile in Siberia, ill-treatment and even the violent death of several of them. It was a sordid episode that sullies the memory of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky. The phrase had been taken by some Orthodox theologians who had misunderstood the way Saint John of Kronstadt used it.
We are now familiar with the way his relationship with the transcendent, incomprehensible God functioned.
Fully conscious of the fact that God, in His essence, is absolutely and for ever out of our reach, beyond our concepts or reasoning, he decisively turned his back on all idolatrous thoughts, all attempts at holding God in words. Instead, he judiciously focused his attention on the effect God has on us, the energies of God at work in our heart, mind, and all aspects of our human nature and the universe. Unfortunately the unsystematic nature of ‘My Life in Christ’ meant that he omitted to spell out that his immediate experience of God is limited to the energies of God and does not venture into any idolatrous claims to hold the essence of God within our human words.
The contentious phrase was ‘The Name of God is God Himself.’
(Goulaeff, page 477:) ‘The name of God is God Himself. Therefore it is said: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ (Exodus 20: 7; Deuteronomy 5: 11); or “the name of the God of Jacob defend thee” (Psalm 20: 1); or again, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto Thy name” (Psalm 142: 9). As the Lord is the most incomplex Being, the most incomplex Spirit, He is wholly contained in one word, in one thought, being at the same time wholly everywhere – in all creatures. This is why, if you only call upon the name of the Lord, you call upon the Lord Himself, the Saviour of those who believe, and you shall be saved. “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2: 21). “Call upon Me [My Name] in the time of trouble: so will I hear thee, and thou shalt praise Me” (Psalm 50: 15).
In a recent book, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev wrote that ‘My Life in Christ’ contains a synthesis of centuries of Russian theology on the Name of God (‘Le Nom Saint et Glorieux’, Cerf 2007, page 229). In ten pages of his book, the Archbishop explains and defends the position of Saint John of Kronstadt, associates other Saints with his perspective (Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, Saint Philaret of Moscow, Saint Ignaty Brianchaninov, Saint Nil Sorsky). In this brief talk, I do not have the time to mention Archbishop Hilarion’s argument, and I recommend his book, at present available only in Russian and French).
The veneration of the Name of Jesus, like that of the Cross, is based on the experience that both have great power against demonic powers, when used with a living faith. Like all sacramental means, the Name of Jesus and His Cross are not magical talismans because they require faith in Christ, outside of which they have no power and can even become blasphemous.
If we use the Jesus Prayer, ‘My Life in Christ’ is the best manual of instructions I know. It makes us understand that the whole efficacy of the Jesus Prayer, like that of all means of grace, depends on our mindful cooperation. If our mind and our heart wander, we are not connected with the Person of Christ, we are wasting our time and His. The Jesus Prayer has to be part of a life that is generally mindful, enlightened by the Biblical Revelation, nourished by conscious Communions, dedicated to the fulfillment of God’s commandments, free of pride, and majoring on the service of other human beings. Unless our conscience constantly scans those aspects of life in search of failures to rectify, we have replaced metanoia, repentance, with a dilettante’s hobby. God forbid!
The Holy Gifts
Saint John of Kronstadt’s struggle for faith in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Gifts has already been mentioned. This is not the only aspect of our Saint’s Eucharistic asceticism. He had an unusual understanding of the preparation required from the prospective communicant.
(Goulaeff, page 274:) ‘What is your obligation as a communicant of the Holy Mysteries? “You must seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Colossians 3: 1); and not think of earthly things, for “Christ came upon earth to raise us up to heaven” (Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus). “In my Father’s house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14: 2). “Our conversation is in heaven” (Philippians 3: 20). “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 3). “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 20). “Suffer little children to come unto me… for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18: 16). Do you see what the final purpose is for which Christ came upon earth, for which He gives us His divine Mysteries – His Body and Blood? This purpose is to give us the kingdom of heaven. Let us aspire to gain it.’
If you are familiar with Father Alexander Schmemann’s book ‘For the Life of the World,’ you will see the relevance of these stern words concerning all prayer, but especially preparation for communion:
(Goulaeff, page 72:) ‘Outward prayer is often performed at the expense of inward prayer, and inward at the expense of outward; that is, when I pray with my lips or read, then many words do not penetrate into the heart, I become double-minded and hypocritical; with my lips I say one thing, whilst in my heart I feel another. The lips speak truth, while the disposition of the heart does not agree with the words of the prayer. But if I pray inwardly, heartily, then, without paying attention to the pronunciation of the words, I concentrate it upon their contents, their power, gradually accustoming my heart to the truth, and thus entering into the same disposition of spirit in which the words of the prayer were written. In this way I accustom myself, little by little, to pray in spirit and truth in accordance with the words of the Eternal Truth: “They that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4: 24).
(Goulaeff, page 276:) ‘He who is insolent towards men is insolent towards God, as many of us are. Respect in man the grand, inestimable image of God and be forbearing towards the faults and errors of fallen man, so that God may be forbearing towards your own, because the enemy of God and of mankind, being unable to vent his malice upon God, endeavours to vent it upon his image – man, as well as all his impurities, his darkness, pride, envy, etc. Respect, therefore, man and save him; watch yourself also, do not become irritable nor malicious, do not envy, do not offend, do not lie, do not commit adultery, do not steal, and so on.’
Keeping a strict eye on our attitude towards all people is a major part of preparation for receiving the Holy Mysteries, because Communion is not only with God, but with our fellow humans.
(Goulaeff, page 343:) ‘During the oblation, the whole Church, in Heaven and upon earth – the Church of the first-born, inscribed in the heavens, and the Church militant, fighting against the enemies of salvation upon earth – is typically represented assembled around the Lamb, who took upon Himself the sins of the world. What a great spectacle, enrapturing and moving the soul! Is it possible that I too am among the assembly of saints; that I too am redeemed by the Lamb of God; that I too am the joint heir with the saints, if I remain faithful to the Lamb until death? Are not all my brethren too members of this heavenly holy assemblage, and joint heirs of the future kingdom? O, how widely my heart should expand in order to contain all within itself, to love all, to care for all, to care for the salvation of all as for mine own! This is wisdom and the highest wisdom. Let us be simple: let us walk in simplicity of heart with all. Let us remember our high calling and election, and let us continually aspire to the honour of God’s heavenly calling through Christ Jesus. “We are the children of God, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8: 16-17).
The Mother of God
Although we venerate her icons, join in the liturgical texts and feasts in her honour, even ask for her protection, I cannot help think that we, who live in a society where Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority, are lacking in many details, and far more than details, in a relationship with her as it ought to be. Those aspects of Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God are clearly spelt out in ‘My Life in Christ,’ and they cannot be separated from the rest of our relationship with God, because the Mother of God and the other Saints cannot be separated from God.
This prayer by Saint John of Kronstadt explains it well:
(Goulaeff, page 301:) ‘Pray to Our Lady Mother of God, to the holy angels and all the saints as to the Holy Spirit himself, or rather as to the Holy Trinity, who sanctifies them and rests in them. ‘May they be one in us’ (John 17: 21). ‘Holy art Thou, Our God, Who restest in the Saints. Amen’
The Church’s prayers bring out characteristics of the Mother of God, which we hear and yet often fail to assimilate: her role as Queen, Sovereign, Ruler; and her other role as the most terrifying warrior against the powers of evil.
(Goulaeff, page 170:) ‘The Virgin Mary is the most merciful sovereign of all the sons and daughters of men, as the Daughter of God the Father, Who is love; the Mother of God the Word, of our love; the chosen bride of the Holy Spirit, Who is love consubstantial with the Father and the Word. How can we do otherwise than have recourse to such a sovereign and expect to receive all spiritual blessings from Her?’
Another of his prayers to the Mother of God, the one I find most important:
(Goulaeff, page 426, but retranslated:)
Sovereign Lady of all Angels and people,
As the terrible Sovereign
Who drive away and burn
All hostile powers
At thy good pleasure
Thou art able to destroy with the speed of lightning
All the various snares of evil spirits
Free us from all sin
Strengthen us with thy power in every virtue
Make us like thy Son and our God
And like thyself
Most Holy Virgin
Mother of our Lord
For we are called by the Name of Christ
As His members
St Alexander Hotovitsky (1879-1937) on St John of Kronstadt
“His influence reaches from the throne of the Czar to the meanest hovel in Russia. He takes from the abundance of the rich with both hands and scatters it as freely among those that need it. It is only through the remarkable gifts he receives that he has been able to maintain something like twenty-five asylums and institutions in different parts of Russia, of which he is the founder.
“One charm about Father John is his broadness. While orthodox in the essential meaning of that word, he makes no distinction between those that follow his and other beliefs. He bestows his blessing on all alike, for he recognizes as divine every channel through which a devout spirit and a realization of the highest life can flow into the human soul.
“In his study you will find a desk, a bed and some holy pictures. It is as simple as the cell of a monk. He spends little time there, however, for his time is mostly taken up with relieving suffering among the poor, comforting the dying, and on missionary journeys. Were a call to attend a deathbed at the other end of the empire to reach Father John in the middle of the night he would rise and take the first train.
“There are many in Russia who ascribe supernatural powers to Father John. He does not claim any, except the power of prayer. He is a firm believer in that, and the most remarkable thing is that his prayers are very brief.
Saint John of Kronstadt in Russia Today
When I walked into the rebuilt Church of Christ the Saviour near the Moscow Kremlin, to pay my respects to the recently reposed Patriarch Alexis II, I was struck by the fact that this replica of the church completed in 1860 and destroyed by the Soviets in 1931, had one addition: a very large icon of Saint John of Kronstadt, on the right as one faces the iconostasis, and visible from all over the church.
The public image enjoyed by Saint John of Kronstadt is a remarkable feature of today’s Russian Church life. At Optina, there is a large icon of Saint John of Kronstadt over the shrine of one of the elders, although I could not find out the link between them. In the main Church bookshops, his books figure prominently, alongside those of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh and Father Sophrony. His prayers are published in a convenient small hardback prayer book.
Those who know more than his name, who appreciate his teaching, are not numerous. Russia appears to have a tiny minority of people who have a deep religious culture. Those people have spiritual discipline, and a typical set of personal influences, similar to what one would be taught at Tolleshunt Knights in the early seventies: Saint Theophan the Recluse, Saint Ignaty Brianchaninov in particular. Nowadays influential names include Father Ioann Krestiankin, Father Seraphim Tiapochkin, Father Boris Kholchev, Father Valerian Krechetov, Father Gleb Kaleda and one or two others. This is a small and spiritually active group of people, but not one widely known. Russia appears to be a society as secular as the West, with a more visible Church than in the West, a Church seen on television and in the press, a Church much less denigrated than in the West. And then there is a tiny percentage of people with an intense life of prayer and Church culture; those are invariably influenced by Saint John of Kronstadt. I have no doubt that there are remarkably holy people today in the Western Churches, but I am not finding my way to them, whereas the Orthodox ones, in Russia but also in other Orthodox countries, are less hidden by ecclesiastical rubble.
Saint John of Kronstadt had two great disciples: the hieromartyr Seraphim Chichagov and the Elder of Moscow, Saint Alexei Mechov. They are not widely publicized in the way that Saint John of Kronstadt is. Saint Seraphim Chichagov figures prominently in the large church built next to the Butovo Polygon, the Golgotha of Russia, in the very south of Moscow, where the Soviet authorities had approximately 500 people shot daily over a period of thirty years. Only some 7% of those killed were Christian martyrs, yet all were victims of the Soviet terror. Although schools are brought to Butovo Polygon and its churches, and the Church authorities make an effort to make the place known, the population at large seems hardly aware of its existence, and churchgoers do not fare any better. Outside Butovo, Saint Seraphim Chichagov is not frequently mentioned.
Saint Seraphim Chichagov went to confession to Saint John of Kronstadt for thirty years, and is easily the person most influenced by our patron saint. A married army officer before he became a priest, then on being widowed, a monk, he wrote the Chronicles of Divyeevo, took the name of Saint Seraphim of Sarov before the canonization; as a Bishop, he expelled the antisemite Sergei Nilus from Optina and organized the funeral of the hieromartyr Ilarion Troitsky. He shared a very small house with Patriarch Sergei in his old age, until the Soviets dragged him out of his bed of sickness to have him shot at Butovo in 1937. He and his spiritual legacy deserve our attention and devotion alongside Saint John of Kronstadt. It is one of the long-term projects of our Bath parish: long-term because a deep relationship with this great Saint takes a long time to establish in any parish community.
Similarly, Saint Alexei Mechov’s relics are in a shrine in his church on Maroseika Street near Kitai Gorod in Moscow. The low-ceilinged church has been beautifully restored with frescoes of all the great Russian Saints of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Saint John of Kronstadt is quite visible in it, and his icons sell as well as those of Saint Alexei Mechov. This is a vibrant little world, hardly noticed by the secular majority. Saint John of Kronstadt visited and comforted Saint Alexei at the time of the death of his wife, and helped him deepen his pastoral ministry to grieving, sorrowful people. Saint Alexei was also the spiritual father of Nikolai Berdiaiev and encouraged him to take up the role he developed in Paris.
Father Ioann Krestiankin, who died at the age of 95 four years ago at the monastery of the caves, near Pskov, showed by the disposition of his cell, the special relationship he had with Saint John of Kronstadt. One wall is filled with icons, and, opposite, the other wall has a large photograph of Saint John of Kronstadt surrounded by the rogues’ gallery, patriarchs and bishops who compromised with the Soviet regime, for whom he prayed, to whom he remained loyal in spite of having tasted the Gulag for five years. Besides a common Christian name, there are many spiritual similarities between Father Ioann Krestiankin and Saint John of Kronstadt. The same evangelical concentration on Biblical essentials, the same freedom from hollow ritualism, the same compassion for suffering people, the closeness to God and the Mother of God were at work in both men. Like the previous two Saints, Father Ioann is on his way to having a major influence on the Bath parish. All that takes time.
For me personally, however, the most striking legacy of Saint John of Kronstadt in today’s Moscow is Father Nikolai Krechetov and his parish of the Transfiguration on Bolvanovskie. In his early seventies, recently widowed of Ekaterina, the daughter of Father Tikhon Pelikh, a remarkable spiritual giant in her own right, Father Nikolai has built his entire life on ‘My Life in Christ.’ This is immediately perceptible in several ways. The services in his church have intensity, and the congregation is not made up of strangers who happen to worship in the same building. Like other places stamped by the influence of Saint John of Krosntadt, the parish’s dining hall is much used, not merely as a centre of conviviality, but as a place with a spiritual message. The bookshelves around the room display pamphlets as well as a library. They are the writings of holy priests well known to the congregation, whose teaching is constantly referred to at parish gatherings. Father Nikolai’s main assistants are his two children, hieromonk Seraphim and the icon painter Maria, who also painted some of the icons in the new church at Bussy. At feasts, the small girls of the parish in their prettiest dresses hold flowers around the icon at the litia, and find a role alongside their brothers in stikhars. When he heard I would be calling on him, Father Nikolai took the trouble of photocopying several letters written by a priest in 1936 to a university student, advising him on the very lines Saint John of Kronstadt would have done. He was at pains to insist that, with ‘My Life in Christ,’ I needed little more to help our Bath parish flourish spiritually.
There is also Russia outside Russia. The high profile of Saint John of Kronstadt at Bussy and at Tolleshunt Knights, has for forty years been a powerful encouragement to disregard the disfavour poured on Saint John of Kronstadt in much of the Russian emigration. Metropolitan Kallistos’s early devotion to Saint John of Kronstadt, and willingness to refer to him as Saint John of Kronstadt many years before this was respectable among Orthodox in this country, also contributed to strengthen my resolve.
© Yves Dubois 2010