St. John Didn’t go in for Compromises, Neither With Himself Nor With situations

Metropolitan Philart (left) and St. John (right) serve in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY

This interview is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the canonization of St. John of Shanghai.

Maria Reshetnikova, «People are most important in my documentaries: their souls, pain and faith»

You may watch Maria’s documentary on St. John that is mentioned in the interview here:

You may contact Masha Reshetnikova in order to buy her documentary and support her future film projects:

Deacon Andrei Psarev: The Lord so arranged that you live in a different time from Vladyka John. But it seems to me that you understand him very well. When I read the writings of his contemporaries — documents, declarations — I get an impression that might be difficult for me to be his clergyman. It seems that everything is done according to some sort of order;  everything’s on the surface, so to speak: the service started, the ship was rocked — and in all this time no one ever disagrees with him. It gives an impression of regimentation, of severity. He held monarchist views, which is to say that if someone saw things differently then there might be a problem with him. Such an image is difficult for me. I’m interested in your comments on this impression. It seems to me that you have a feeling for Vladyka.

Well, the first take [of the interview] didn’t record, when I went into detail. So now I’ll answer more concisely. According to everything that I’ve read and that I’ve filmed, I can answer immediately: A man for whom worldwide Orthodoxy has become the most important ideal in his life cannot be inflexible.  He can’t fail to honor the specificities and differences among people. He wasn’t the sort of man who would have nothing to do with you if you weren’t a monarchist — not at all! He had to meet with people from completely different cultures, with different inclinations, with people who hardly new anything about Orthodoxy, or who knew nothing at all, and sometimes even with people who were against it. He succeeded in turning the souls of such people toward Orthodoxy. Even if he didn’t lead them to the Church, they at least began to understand and respect him. Once he convinced the American government to come to the Philippines, to Tubabao, senators among them.

Did that really happen?

Of course it happened! In my film, I … Don’t be like a certain bishop to whom I said: “Look, there is a married couple here who discuss it, who were there in the Phillipines at the time.” A senator from the USA really did come, and he really saw what was going on and was moved by the fact that in such primitive circumstances people were living in a completely civilized manner, and that the first thing they built was a church.

This was a fantastical thing that he did! America didn’t need these refugees, from Communist China and the Soviet Union.  We had a very particular problem: the war had ended and Russia turned away from the allies… To whom would they be given? Our people were immediately abandoned: The English abandoned them and that was that. We all know the story [about Lienz]… This [arrangement with the US] was done by Vladyka.

Here’s the interesting thing: You said the he conducted himself strictly — and here I repeat that in upholding the canons, Orthodoxy, traditions, one mustn’t forget [unintelligible]… He did it especially with such an accent. Why? Because at that time all the traditions had been destroyed in Russia. You see, if he’d weakened and said, “All right, let’s establish traditions according to our own life,” then there wouldn’t have been any such life. The life of the Russian immigration was successful only due to that fact that they upheld the Orthodox traditions.

You know, when I was at the conference called “Russian Diaspora” and they asked me to give a speech before the film about Vladyka John, the first thing I said was, “I’m disappointed that your foundation is not called “Russian Orthodox Diaspora,” because, to a great extent, whatever you have now, all that’s been passed on to you, that you’ve held together, has come to you exclusively from the Orthodox diaspora.” Those people who left the Church have disappeared, they’ve been cut off. Nothing good has come of them. Their children don’t speak Russian; they’ve simply been dissolved in a sea of other cultures. I sincerely believe that 99.9% of what has been preserved and has continued to exist has done so exclusively thanks to the Church, her canons and institutions. Music, culture, literature, history and all the rest have been gathered around the church like a bunch of grapes.

This is why he called people to preserve traditions; because they would have easily been destroyed in that moment. All of Russia would have disintegrated and given up, and what would have been left? So, everything does its part. What’s more, the Orthodox Church wound up among a mixture of different Christian confessions. In such a situation he could not at all have said “Alright, let’s modernize our traditions!”

I’ve made an example of one occasion when he granted a divorce to a married couple in Shanghai. He knew that the husband wanted to go to the Soviet Union and try living there — he’d wind up there soon. But the wife and the children nevertheless wanted to go to the Philippines. He granted them a divorce, not because the husband beat her or cheated on her, but because the wife felt differently, and she was right in this. There was no reason for her to perish.

There are many such situations, you know. I’ve spoken with you before about Olga Gubin, whom he didn’t reproach even with a word. He’d raised her from a child, then he met her ten years later and she had children from two different marriages, and neither marriage was Orthodox, and so on. She didn’t become any less dear to him, you see?

I’d very much like to be able to make confession to Vladyka John. Mikhail Mikhailovich Zarechnjak said that he was afraid of Vladyka, because it was is if he could see, could scan everything about you. But I wish that I could be scanned like that. For one very much wants to be deconstructed; but I can’t deconstruct myself. And it seems to me that we have very few priests who have to the will to deconstruct a person. We have confession of course, but I often hear …

The priests are exhausted as well …

 …You know, I often hear from people that they are afraid, thinking, “Look, now I’ll go to the priest and I’ll tell him about all the salad in my head — but then how will this affect his attitude toward me? How will I help in the church after that, etc.” But a person who can scan you and see inside you will help you pull all of this out of you and bring it into the proper light.

Sometimes you are beginning to confess and you think “I’m telling things,” but at the same time and in the same act you are whitewashing yourself, and at the end you haven’t told anything at all; you want to repent, but you don’t succeed. Lord have mercy! I’d give anything if Vladyka could scan me.

You said that he was inflexible. I was sitting in a cafe in Paris with two Romanian ladies and another Russian lady. The four of us sat in the cafe drinking coffee, getting ready to meet with one other lady, Matushka Adilia. We talked ourselves hoarse over who’d read what about Vladyka John, who’d gone where, who was getting ready to go. And I said, “Look what a wondrous thing Vladyka John is doing: Here sit four young ladies, talking not about things or men or about some stupid thing, but rather sharing amazing stories about Vladyka John.” It’s hard to get people to do this. Maybe with eighty-five year ladies this might happen, and you’d say,”Well, you’re crying about Vladyka John because your youth is bound up with him. All the best things in your life have past, and now you remember that for you symbolizes the years of hunger, when he saved you.” But when four young women sit drinking coffee and Paris and can’t finish talking in five minutes or two hours!

Yes, Vladyka was an ascetic towards himself, but when you see the temples he built — he built temples, not churches — and when you see how he provided for his sisters, what a monastery he found for the Lesna sisterhood in Paris! When these nuns came from Palestine they’d been wandering for a whole year. No one wanted to help them. Although he’d never been to the Holy Land, when he heard about this difficult situation he immediately helped them get to France. They had practically perished. There were nine of them in all, from the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene. What happened later is interesting. They went to Lesna and lived there for some time.

Lesna in Serbia, or in London?

From Palestine they went first to France.

So maybe I left something out.

He settled them there in Lesna because there were sufficient means, and because where else could they get a place right away? And so, of course, two convents where trying to coexist in the same place for a time. They didn’t combine; they existed as distinct sisterhooods, but they were in a single place.

The sisters from the Palestinian region, they were ninety-five years old when I interviewed them, and they “skipped”, so to speak, what didn’t work there, and they simply said “It wasn’t meant to be.” And what did Vladyka John do? He had so much to do and so many responsibilities. He could have said. “Guys, I’m you’re savior. You were living there in the shelter, and now you’re not getting it together here in an Orthodox monastery?” No. He said, “This is where you wound up; it’s not working for you. I’ll try find you your own place.” He understood everything. He didn’t say to them, “You’re being crazy. Don’t you understand that you were feeding the lice there, a few months ago?” No! He understood everything. But how did he settle them? Go sometime to the Annunciation Monastery in London. He settled them as if in the bosom of Christ. It is beautiful there. He wanted them to have a beautiful place. He could have found them some decrepit house where they could live well enough, in sufficiency.  But no, he wanted them to live beautifully.

Masha, you also have made an expedition …

What a solicitous man he was! We don’t have enough like that. Concern, of course, is not some kind of formality. He tried to understand what each one needed. But everyone needs something different.

And how did he give money? Not from a place of superiority: “You’re from the Moscow Patriarchate, but I see that you are praying well.”  He left money in various places. At that time they were already literally starving to death. He left money all over the place so that later they simply found it, according to their needs.

Yes, this is a monastery of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris. On the one hand, he really was a man of the Russian tradition, but at the same time, for some reason no one else among our hierarchs went so far beyond the borders of the Russian Church as he did. About his openness, especially … you reminded me of the future Archimandrite from Belgium. Would you tell us his story?

How [St. John] went beyond the bounds of the Russian Church?!

No, no. How no one did so as he did. How he, being on the one hand both a Russian and a monarchist, and a very conservative man …

But he wasn’t a conservative man! Understand this in fact! He wasn’t such even for a second. When was he conservative? His whole life was utterly, absolutely… A conservative never takes risky steps; rather he goes by the book.

I was thinking of his political views.

When did he have conservative political views? Where is his conservatism? In the view that the murder of Tsar Nicholas II was different from murder of other kings? That the whole nation murdered him? This is simply true. If Emperor Paul I was strangled by a group of confidants from among the royal circles, then the guilt is theirs, the sin is theirs; the peasants didn’t take part in this. The murder of Alexander II was also accomplished by a group of revolutionaries. This also was a result of their publications, of a whole chain of causes.

But they took a long time to kill the Royal Martyrs. They killed them over a year and a half. They started killing them when they were sick, by means of temperature; they came to arrest them behind the Tsar’s back. Look how they started killing them! It wasn’t some despicable peasant who did this, nor a general nor a nobleman. It wasn’t a manly step to arrest four girls with typhus, or whatever else they were sick with… Who does such things? If you don’t consider him the Tsar, then at least he’s still the father of a family, and you can’t take that from him. Let him come back, then do this to his face! Behind his back you arrest his wife and his sick children! Scoundrels!

So wasn’t Vladyka right? Where is the conservatism here? If you like, Vladyka was the boldest of men. No one was saying this at this time. At that time to say, “his blood is on you and your children,” was a huge step. I’ll tell you why. It’s because no on wanted to acknowledge it. They believed that it was “the Jews” who killed him, or someone else. But when they started opening the archives and talking about who signed off on all this, who did it, how the aristocracy pushed him away from them… If you open a pamphlet from the 1918 you’ll see that they remember the death of Kornilov — but a whole family being shot! There’s nothing about that! Read “The Spiritual Quality of the Russian Emigration,” by Vladyka John, written in 1938.

I’ve read it.

What a significant piece! In my film Fr. Sergei [Overt] goes into the debates that followed Vladyka John’s publication: no one supported him. Even Vladyka Anthony said, “Well, here’s brother John” (He wasn’t a bishop yet then) “He’s been threatening and expressed himself very sharply.” You see, many people thought that he had expressed himself inappropriately about the Russian emigration. Even today many people don’t like this presentation. Do you know why? Because it’s all true; and because many people have remained this way.

There’s a place where he writes, “Let’s give their due to those who, having departed from Russia and accepted all the difficulty of this path, without refusing to work at various tasks. All of this deserves praise. But among them are those — and not a few — who live comfortably. They have obtained sufficient capital, but refused to help their countrymen.”

But how often I see, in films about Vladyka that they use the first part of this essay while all the rest is left out. Where did it go? Why don’t they use the whole thing? As an acquaintance of mine has said, “To get it read, but not to read — this is the bane of our times.” To take something and cut out a little piece as one likes. But read to the end what he said! Even when he says that we “might be obliterated from the face of the earth.”

These words are in my film; this is a terrible prediction: if we continue to live without repentance, not to see the mistakes that we’ve made, not repenting for what has happened with Russia, then we might be obliterated from the face of the earth. These words were addressed to the Russian Church Abroad, although, in my opinion, they also relate to Russians in Russia.

I often find myself in this situation: When I speak with someone from the White emigration, they say to me, “Yes, everyone there must repent!” I say “Does this have nothing to do with you?” “No.” “But why?”

In the Soviet Union we also thought up a remarkable phrase, because to us, behind the iron curtain, everything hear seemed heavenly: “The best people have left.” I hate this phrase. But then who remains? The worst? Why do we speak of ourselves this way?

Yes, there is such an attitude: that all the best have either been killed or have left, while only the descendants of the capitulators have remained.

For the first eight years [of my immigration] I was bathed in euphoria in the White emigration. And this was justified, because I’d opened up a new story for myself, which did not exist in the Soviet Union. It took me five more years to understand that my kind of ideology exists on both sides of the barricade, and the true history of what’s come to pass since the 1700’s, or even since the beginning of the [last] century, in the First World War, and of what the betrayal of the Tsar means, etc. —  the true history lies somewhere in the middle. [I realized] that, in the big picture, a White Russian ideology also exists, and this also is a selective history, constructed according to comfort and acceptability.

Yes. That’s reasonable.

But not everything can be packaged into scout-camp format.  There’s a letter of Vladyka John to Reihner, where he addresses some attacks related to the White movement, and he writes one remarkable paragraph — [he says] “Let’s not offend the memory of those who were ready to sacrifice their lives. Let’s honor them all the more since for being people. And let’s also not grieve their relatives who remain among the living. But,” — and after this “but” he goes one for three pages, in which he gives lays down some real talk. He says that he respects everyone, but he nevertheless speaks straightforwardly.

So you say that he’s a conservative. But what kind of conservative is always going against the flow? In our life it’s simply impossible to meet someone who is both kind and active. Many are active, but they are very cruel; and many are kind, but they do nothing. The combination of kindness and activity is simply colossal. When you read about Vladyka John and you see what an active and kind man he was, you realized how fortunate it would have been to be his contemporary; he literally and physically save the lives of so many people. How many children remained alive thanks to him? It would certainly be impossible for anyone to calculate.

Therefore in my view Vladyka John was absolutely not a conservative. He was a man who consistently transcended every situation, whenever such was needed. In a given situation, he wasn’t some sort of serene peace-lover. Of course he loved peace in the sense that he wanted to bring people together, to make peace, and to find a common language. But when a question was posed directly and it was necessary to say how things are — read any of Vladyka’s articles — he unequivocally called things by their own names. He didn’t go in for compromises, neither with himself nor with situations.

One man wrote of his memories of how, when they went to Washington, there were a few meeting set up where Vladyka was supposed to advocate for those who had remained in the Philippines. But Vladyka was always holding them up. As this young man wrote, he was praying. The young man said to him, “Vladyka, we should have been there a half-hour ago. Twelve years later, after Vladyka’s death, this man had matured and become wise. Then he understood. It had seemed to him that they were late to an important appointment. But Vladyka was conversing with God. It wasn’t because he considered himself more important. Rather he understood that at that time Vladyka was coming to the agreement right here [in his prayers,] that whatever happened there at 4:30 or 5:00, was already being decided here, and not there.

But people who lived in Vladyka’s time did not have this kind of foresight. And very few people are able to sincerely rejoice in, or to revere that which they don’t understand. As a rule, whatever is beyond people’s understanding and is greater than they are calls forth opposition, hatred, the desire to pick something into pieces, not to love it, and so on. But the wise understand after a while what it was he was busy with: he was praying. Our prayer, as most of us do it, is hasty and without result. But his prayers always had results. We are still receiving their benefits today. So during these “lost” half-hours he was talking things over with God, as only he knew how to do.

I was also amazed by the story told to you by the rector of the Orthodox Monastery in Belgium, about his first meeting with Vladyka John. Could you tell him us this now?

Yes. Once again, a man who is absolutely closed can’t be so understanding and close to people of completely different cultures. He wasn’t Stalin or Lenin; he didn’t have publicity and didn’t go on television. One can’t fake a reputation for kindness. [The future rector] showed up in the train station in Belgium as a twelve-year-old boy. His father had left his family for another woman, and his mother was left alone with the children, and it was a very depressing situation. He said, literally, “I was very depressed on that day.” But he went to the station and he saw on the platform a short priest talking with the young people. He’d been standing there for a little while and watching, when Vladyka looked at him. This glance made him feel very warm inside. He had a feeling that everything would pass, that it would all be alright. They didn’t have a chance to speak. As he puts it, he always felt some kind of inner voice, the call of God. So he went to study in a Catholic seminary, completed his studies there, and became a monk in a Catholic monastery. Then the Lord led him to Holland — I don’t remember now, but I filmed it. It was in one of the Greek monasteries that he saw a icon-portrait of Vladyka John. I think that he still hadn’t been canonized then; it was only  shortly after his death, but they were already praying to him there. He recognized Vladyka’s face after all those years: “I never forgot those eyes.”

He was already teaching in the Catholic seminary, but he was becoming suspicious that everything was not quite right, and he started studying more about Orthodoxy, understanding that here was the original from which everything else had departed. He started thinking. And when by chance he wound up in an Orthodox monastery, he saw the icon-portrait of Vladyka and recognized him, he starting asking questions and understood that this was the very same man whom he had met. Then he promise to himself that he would build a monastery in honor of Vladyka John; and has indeed done this.

Thank you, Masha. What other stories about Vladyka John have moved you? What else can you share? Or is there something else you’d like to tell about Vladyka, in order to complete his image?

My son calls him “our friend John of Shanghai.” It simply happens that while I’m making a film, I’m always narrating something, then I’m of to do various filmings. We were all living in Washington while I was filming Fr. Victor Potapov. The whole family went together to the new church dedicated to Vladyka John, near Boston. I took Vanechka with me to the shoot, and he heard a lot about Vladyka John.

Of course, there was a moment of crisis in our family when hurricane Sandy came. We were holed-up in our house, and our pine trees started falling down.  At that moment we anointed ourselves with crosses on our foreheads, using oil from the lamps in front of the icons of Vladyka John, the Mother of God, and the Savior. We addressed ourselves to all of them, Vladyka John among them, asking for their help. Vanya, my son, says that I said to my husband, “You anoint me just this once, and I’ll anoint all of you forever,” and he said in English, “In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and at that moment all the pine trees fell. We heard a frightening thunderclap, but we finished anointing ourselves and, in a such a state — in our pajamas with an icon of Vladyka John, we ran looking for shelter, stumbling over six streets with fallen trees. It was a terrible scene, like in a film, really!

Vanya is firmly convinced that Vladyka John saved us. Of course, it was the Lord God; but insofar as it was Christ … He is so great; to feel God to be very near. There are such moments, and one wants to hold onto them. These are very special moments. Vladyka [John] — perhaps I’m speaking primitively, like an uneducated person — Vladyka helps make the Lord God present to us. Do you understand? He helps us to understand that all of this is real. This does so much for us, haven’t finished seminary. It makes Him intelligible, understandable, present. It’s very spiritual.

Those who haven’t completed seminary have many advantages over those who have.

We should trade! Those who have finished seminary have their own advantages, and those who haven’t have theirs. We need a radio broadcast where we could exchange our advantages.

I very much hope that this radio broadcast will come to be, and what we’re doing now is already a step in the direction of what could be discussed on such a radio program. Thank you!

I’d like to say one more thing! You can’t reduce the power and ability of a wondrous spiritual person, one who can change not only your soul but your whole life, to what he can do for you — to make him into a folk healer or a sorceress.  The reason that I like the last book, the one compiled by Fr. Peter Perekrestov, is the it was first of all a biographical hagiography of Vladyka. It’s very important to read about him …

It was compiled by an Orthodox Frenchman.

Yes. Nevertheless, as you see, it’s wasted on our time. It’s finally gotten into people’s heads that it’s enough to drink whatever will make you better. Let’s finally learn what this man lived for! He healed us so that we would understand what sort of infinite power the Lord God has. He didn’t heal by his own power. How was it that the blind began to see when Christ walked on earth? Of course it’s good that he can see now, but I don’t think that it was done just for that end. It was done so that the “doubting Thomas” should see that such things are possible. And, if He can do this, imagine what else he is capable of!

Once Sister Rachael [of Novodiveevo] said something very moving to me. “What’s God’s greatest miracle?” I said, “Certainly, when a person is born.” “No,” she said, “When a person changes.” Vladyka John had this ability: he changed people. I know people who changed themselves and their lives without ever having met him alive, who only became acquainted with him after his death. I want to say that this is precisely his influence. Because all physical healings — from ulcers, healing of the kidneys so forth — this all good, but it’s secondary.

Thank you, Masha. I wish success in the completion of your film, and I’m glad that you take this view.

Vladyka really brings people together. He really can do this. He is a peacemaker!

Particularly, it’s the case, as you’ve said, that even people who did not accept our union with Moscow nevertheless have receive you, as if Vladyka John had sent you. And people who aren’t in communion with our church they’ve shown you love and hospitality in Paris. This is a powerful moment, as they’ve warmly received you and gladly helped you. Thank you.

Conducted by Deacon Andrei

2 thoughts on “St. John Didn’t go in for Compromises, Neither With Himself Nor With situations”

  1. O. Andrei

    There is a serious confusion of terms here. What precisely is meant, conservative, traditional, out of the box, broad
    minded, liberal…

    Such terms are thrown about in the news and popular press where the public applies ready made impressions and or a very nebulous understanding of what exactly is written.

    This is either just ignorance or a very unprofessional attempt to advance some agenda, i.e. Vladyka John was not really as “conservative” as people think he was.

    ” —No, no. How no one did so as he did. How he, being on the one hand both a Russian and a monarchist, and a very conservative man …

    —But he wasn’t a conservative man! Understand this in fact! He wasn’t such even for a second. When was he conservative? His whole life was utterly, absolutely… A conservative never takes risky steps; rather he goes by the book.”

    In anything scholarly or serious journalism one needs to be precise. On the other hand what was written perhaps was precisely what was intended.

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