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Memories of Saint John of Shanghai from His Spiritual Children

“John of Shanghai, a Saint from My Childhood”

Saint John of Shanghai

Memories of Saint John of Shanghai from his spiritual children

Saint John of Shanghai epitomised the ideal of Patristic Orthodoxy in its universal dimension through his godly life. He kindled the flame of true faith in the hearts of people from diverse nationalities, spanning from China to Western Europe and the United States. His strictness towards himself and boundless love for the hundreds of thousands around him revealed a great saint in this small, stooped figure.

Maria Sergeyevna Potapova

Maria Sergeyevna Potapova

“By God’s grace, I grew up close to a holy man, Bishop John, and felt his sanctity with every fibre of my being. Children perceive these things better than adults. I vividly remember his cell at the Lesna Monastery — my sisters and I practically grew up there. We girls served during the services at the Lesna Convent (girls can serve in a women’s monastery without entering the altar). Throughout the liturgy, we stood — some with a staff, some with a candle — by the open royal doors during the archbishop’s service. During the liturgy, I stood with a basin and jug for washing the bishop’s hands, and a towel was placed over my shoulder. This was my childhood. We were fortunate to grow up with such memories.

Summer camp in the Alps

Summer camp in the Alps

In the summer, Bishop John would come to the children’s camp and live in a tent. I would visit him, and he would be sitting in his tent, working. Wherever he went, he always carried a typewriter with him. He was always busy. And he never turned me away. For some reason, I wanted to be near him. He would treat me to nuts, and almonds, and I would sit by the tent on the grass, playing with twigs, watching ants and dragonflies.

Another vivid memory is saying goodbye to Bishop John. Completely alone, I stood on the platform while he was already on the train. He blessed me with both hands — his archbishop’s blessing. Even when the doors closed and the train started moving, he continued blessing me until the train disappeared from sight. There I stood — a little girl, all alone at the station... Now I understand that he was blessing me for my entire life — which he already knew everything about at that time. He blessed me with strength and support. I could never have imagined then that I would live in America, become a Мatushka, and that my husband would serve in the only parish that Bishop John himself founded in America...”

Archpriest Victor and Matushka Maria Potapova and Archpriest George Larin

Archpriest Victor and Matushka Maria Potapova (Church of St John the Baptist in Washington) and Archpriest George Larin

Archpriest George Larin

Archpriest George Larin:

“I remember very well the first time I met Bishop John. I must have been about eight years old. My parents had bought a house within walking distance of the Cathedral of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners”, where Bishop John served and lived. During holidays, we children often gathered in the cathedral yard to play. Summers in Shanghai can be very hot and humid. One day it was particularly sweltering, and I decided to go inside the cool church. A service was underway, led by a priest.

It was a weekday, so only a few people had come. Bishop John had his place in the cathedral — a small ambo with an analogion to the left of the entrance, under the arches, where he prayed. The bishop beckoned me over, and I stood beside him. After the service, everyone else left. But I stayed. The bishop handed me his staff, and as he venerated the icons, I followed him around with it. Then he invited me to his home. The bishop lived in an episcopal house built next to the cathedral.

Cathedral of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners” in Shanghai

Cathedral of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners” in Shanghai, 1930s

After that day, I often visited him because listening to him was so fascinating. I usually came in the evenings — it got dark late in summer, so even after the service ended, it was still light outside. He would tell me various things, and I could never get enough of his answers to the numerous questions that troubled me at that time. For instance, I was very disturbed by Herod’s massacre of infants. There was a prophecy about it — and God, knowing everything, did not stop it. The bishop explained it to me like this: “Let’s think — if God had intervened and stopped the massacre, all those infants would have grown up and been Christ’s contemporaries during His earthly life. When He was led to be crucified, these young men would have been in Jerusalem shouting ‘Crucify Him!’ They would not have accepted Christ and would have ended up in hell. Now we honour them as martyrs, and they are all in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

banner Luke book

And then I, still just a child, realised that God’s ways are indeed inscrutable. God does not interfere — He grants complete freedom to man, angel, and devil alike. People themselves choose voluntarily what they want to be. From then on, the bishop never ceased his spiritual care for me. He, an archbishop, always found time to answer the questions of a simple boy.

I found it very interesting to observe how he lived and conducted his services.

At Easter, he would literally fly around the entire cathedral greeting everyone: “Christ is Risen!” He moved so quickly that the servers could barely keep up with him.

I witnessed one particular incident. It was some major feast day; we were serving in white vestments. The bishop was in the middle of the altar being vested by servers who then left; as his staff-bearer, I stayed alone with him. At that moment, hours were being read in the church; people were lighting candles. Suddenly I saw that the bishop had completely transformed; an unearthly light emanated from him and his eyes were filled with immense joy. He must have had some vision while I simply watched him and saw nothing but this light. A few seconds passed; I lowered my head thinking it was just my imagination, but when I looked up again — there was no light anymore. The bishop continued serving as usual.

Bishop John, Shanghai

Bishop John, Shanghai, 1930s

A year or two after our acquaintance began, I became very attached to him and loved him dearly. One Lent, I decided to imitate him. He led an ascetic life: slept only while sitting and did not eat meat. So I decided to do the same. I started eating very little; my parents noticed this.

One night after everyone had gone to bed, I climbed out of bed, laid a sheet on the floor and lay down there. My mother saw this and the next day she and my father took me to see the bishop and told him everything. They said that I wasn't listening to them.

The Bishop was visibly upset and exclaimed, “What are you doing? Do you think this pleases God? You must listen to your father and mother; that is the most important thing! Why do you disobey your parents? It is God’s commandment to obey your parents!” He then called the watchman, Michael, and instructed him, “Go and buy some sausage.” Michael returned with the sausage from a delicatessen, and the Bishop ordered me to eat it.

“But it’s Lent, how can I?” I protested.

“No,” he insisted, “obedience is above all else. Eat it now and listen to your mum and dad.”

So, with tears in my eyes, I ate that sausage — not all of it, but I did eat well.

A Meal with Saint John

A Meal with Saint John

Later, we moved from Shanghai to the Philippines, and eventually to Australia. My life took a completely different turn. I finished school and started working for a financial company. The sense of closeness to the Church that I once had began to fade. Yes, we were a devout family, never missing Sunday services, but on other days, my attendance became less frequent. It was during this period that I began receiving letters from Bishop John.

Letter from Bishop John to George and Simon

Letter from Bishop John to George and Simon

In the first letter I received in 1949, on the feast day of St James the Apostle, Bishop John wrote:

“Dear George and Simon,
Though I am far away and burdened with many concerns, I always remember all of you, the children I knew in Shanghai who served in the church.

I often think of you and worry about how you are now.

Much in our lives does not depend on us, but much also does. Becoming and remaining good depends significantly on ourselves. True, without God’s help it is impossible, but God’s help is given when we strive for goodness and pray for it.

You were good children in Shanghai, serving diligently. However, upon arriving in Tubabao, I noticed that you had become somewhat lax. After my arrival, you quickly got back on track and resumed your duties as before. When I left, I entrusted you as servers in the church, hoping you would continue.

How are you fulfilling that role now? Do you always attend services punctually, without missing any feast days? Remember that feast days are God’s days. The commandment regarding them does not say: ‘The seventh day is for fulfilling your desires,’ but ‘The seventh day is for the Lord your God.’ As St John Chrysostom says, those who do not devote these hours of worship to God are like thieves stealing from God what belongs to Him.

Everything created by God is given to us for our use, and in gratitude to Him, we must honour what He has set apart for Himself, for our own benefit. Everything commanded by God through the Church must be sacredly kept by us. Straying from God’s ways may bring temporary bodily pleasure, but eventually, we will feel the bitterness of that evil which seems sweet. I hope you will always follow the good path…”

Letter from Saint John of Shanghai to George Larin

Letter from Saint John of Shanghai to George Larin, 1959

The next letter came on 23 April 1950:

“...It saddens me that you are no longer serving in the church. And George, it’s time you started reading at the kliros; Simon could also begin learning.

I met many here whom I knew as servers at the Russian Church in Belgrade... Do you read the Gospel every day? It is essential to do so — either read the prescribed Gospel for the day (there are indications in the calendar) or (if there is none), read around 20–30 verses in sequence so that you read through the entire Gospel…”

My brother and I had indeed stopped doing all this... we began drifting away from church life. Over time in Australia, I found a good job at a financial company and was planning to build a secular career. Yet the letters kept coming. The Bishop was concerned about the lack of clergy. He hinted that I should consider this path. In one of his letters, I read the words that began to truly change my life.

Another letter from the bishop

Another letter from the bishop

18 January 1961:

“Of course, you could engage in secular life, earn well, have a family, and generally enjoy your current life. For a while, that would satisfy you, and you might consider your previous inclination towards spiritual life a childish fantasy.

But it would only be for a time. When an adverse wind blows, when life’s storms break out, they immediately crush you, and even without them, one day you would feel that everything you have is not what your soul was seeking; that it lacked what it truly needed. Such an awakening is terrifying when there is no longer an opportunity to return to the former path when it is irretrievably lost due to one’s own fault.

Of course, the other path, the spiritual one, is not easy either. There is much sorrow; sometimes it seems (and it happens) that the whole world, including those closest to you, has turned against you. But then, as sorrows increase, so does the grace-filled strength, the help that strengthens and gives consolation, comfort, and even joy in sorrow. Life’s sorrows are bleak and bring us no benefit...

Meeting and observing the lives of those I knew as adolescents, now in their old age, I see how burdened by life’s worries and illnesses they dimly spend their days if they have no higher aspirations. Those who have dedicated themselves to serving God, even if they suffer for it, are spiritually vigorous and feel the Hand of God protecting them. How should you be and where should you go? I think I wrote to you already that although anyone — scholar or illiterate — can serve God and live righteously, the Church now needs servants who can instruct people in faith and defend it from attacks. I would be very glad if you were with me, but I think it would be more beneficial for you and the Church if you received a theological education and enrolled in the Holy Trinity Seminary…”

Finally, the prayers of the great righteous man reached my heart, and I decided to leave secular life and go to Holy Trinity Seminary. The main thing he managed to instil in me is that nothing in life happens by chance; this is a profound Orthodox truth. And so, thanks to Bishop John, for half a century now I have been happy to serve God and people in the Orthodox Church...

Vladimir Vladimirovich Krasovsky

Vladimir Vladimirovich Krasovsky

Vladimir Krasovsky attended a Russian grammar school in the small town of Burlingame, near San Francisco, during his childhood. There, he took exams under the watchful eye of Archbishop John.

“Teachers from San Francisco would come to us and teach Russian language, Russian history, geography, literature, and the Law of God. Archbishop John often visited our classes; he was very interested in how the schools were functioning. My father would bring him from San Francisco, and the saintly bishop would sit and listen to how the lessons were taught and how we responded.

Archbishop John in the house chapel in San Francisco

Archbishop John in the house chapel in San Francisco, with altar server Vladimir Krasovsky on the left

He was always present at exams. The first question he would ask was, “How do you believe?” In response, we had to recite the Creed flawlessly. Then he would ask, “Who is your saint?” as he was very concerned that everyone was familiar with the life of their heavenly patron.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Orphanage for Children

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Orphanage for Children

Several times, Archbishop John organised parties with dances for the youth at St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Orphanage. American dances like the foxtrot were not allowed — only Russian folk dances or the waltz. But when the bishop retired to his cell just above the “dance hall,” we would put on rock ‘n’ roll records. Someone would stand guard, but it wasn’t always possible to hear the creaking stairs in time — “The bishop is coming!” — and change the music. Archbishop John would walk between the pairs and look each of us in the eyes with a mischievous smile as if to say, “Do you think I don’t know what you’re up to?” We had to dance at a distance from each other. Once, he even stopped me, wagged his finger, and tousled my hair. But he did it gently. This was his way of letting us know that our little ruse hadn’t worked. Many of us got this treatment, especially the altar servers whom he knew very well. This didn’t extend to the girls…”

The saint’s strict asceticism never turned into harshness towards those around him. Archbishop John, through his very being, demonstrated the otherworldliness of Orthodoxy while affirming the necessity of serving the world — that is, every individual. His love in Christ continues to transform lives even today.

Material prepared by the editorial team of obitel-minsk.ru

Photos from the internet

Sources used in preparation:

1. Archbishop John (Maximovitch). Archpastor, prayer warrior, ascetic. For the 25th anniversary of his repose. 1961–1991. Published by the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. San Francisco, 1991.
2. Archpriest George Larin: “The joy of speaking with Saint John of Shanghai is something I will remember for my entire life” — Church of Great Martyr Irene.
3. Shepherd. Teacher. Friend. Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco in the memories of contemporaries / compiled by Archpriest Peter Perikrestov. — Tver: Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco Charitable Foundation; Youth Department of Tver Diocese; San Francisco: "Russian Pastor" Publishing House, 2017.
4. The Saint and the Boy — Journal Hall (gorky.media)

 

July 02, 2024
Views: 964
Ratings: 5/5
Votes: 6
23 days ago
Absolutely beautiful. I had tears brimming my eyes reading these wonderful reminiscences. Glory to God! 🙏☦️
22 days ago
Great saint. Glory to God.
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