The miraculous image of the all-holy Theotokos, “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”, which is enshrined in the Chapel of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, at the headquarters of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, in New York City, is one of many icons which miraculously renewed themselves during and after the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
The Wave of Self-Renewals
The phenomenon of miraculous self-renewal was first noticed in southern Russia, which had of late been drowned in torrents of blood. Moreover, it extended not only to icons, but also to crosses on the domes and roofs of churches. Gradually, the phenomenon spread eastward, across Russia, to Irkutsk (1919) and Vladivostok. In the latter city, an icon with multiple images of the Theotokos, as well as those of several saints, renewed itself on Friday of Cheesefare Week (February 3rd) 1923. It had been so dimmed from age that its subjects could no longer be identified; yet the patina of age, which lay over it like a cataract on an eye, miraculously cleared and revealed the images hidden beneath for so long. Throughout the Great Fast and Paschal period of 1923, the incidents of miraculous renewal increased in number.
In Russia, the renewals made a profound impression on the masses, whose commitment to Holy Orthodoxy was consequently deepened. Indeed, the faithful hastened en masse to any church where an icon was renewed. Agents of the G.P.U. (the organ of state security, forerunner of the K.G.B.) made every effort to conceal the miracles: they appointed committees, gathered the people together, scrubbed unrenewed areas on the icons with soap and lye, and tried to prove that the self-renewal was nothing more than a fraud and charlatanry, a trick of the priests, as a consequence of which the clergy held themselves completely aloof from the matter. Yet the signs of grace-bearing renewals, as if to confound the foes of religion more completely, only increased in frequency; and all the efforts of the enemies of the Truth to reverse the rise in religious devotion were in vain. There were even members of the very committees set up to prove the falsity of the miracles who were shaken by the extraordinary phenomenon. One such was a certain doctor who, having inspected a self-renewed image, said: “Yes, it is very strange!”
Having reached the Pacific coast at Vladivostok, the wave of self-renewals turned south, into Manchuria, and was manifested in the Diocese of Harbin. It came to the city of Harbin itself on November 8th, 1923, when an icon of the holy martyrs George and Alexandra renewed itself.
The Miraculous Renewal of the Icon of the Mother of God “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”
The icon of the Mother of God, “The Joy of All Who Sorrow” was the second icon to be renewed in the city of Harbin. It was kept in the chapel of the “House of Charity”, which Bishop Nestor of Kamchatka had built as a facility for the chronically ill, the elderly and the orphaned. The chapel was dedicated to the Mother of God, in honor of her icon “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”, and one of the bishop’s helpers, the pious Catherine I. Kurmaya, who owned a copy of this icon, donated it to the chapel. The icon was painted in traditional Orthodox style, but was so darkened with age that it was almost impossible to make out the faces of the saints, let alone the various inscriptions on the scrolls they held.
Bishop (later Metropolitan) Methodius (Gerasimov) of Harbin & Manchuria (+1932) had closely inspected the icon, both before its renewal and afterwards. He saw that the gold and pigments of the icon had become bright and vivid, yet spots which evinced the ravages of time and areas which had been repainted were also preserved, as though to bear witness to the miracle.
Witnesses to the renewal, inmates of the “House of Charity”, have left us the following description of the miracle:
“On Thursday, 23 November/6 December , after 9:00 A.M., the image began to change outwardly. Gradually, in a manner completely undetectable to the eye, the brightness of the various colors and the tone of the individual brush-strokes began to grow clearer. The change that was becoming manifest was like the lifting of a fog from the air. As far as one could observe, the change was accomplished in the following order: first, the halos surrounding the faces of the holy ones, which constitute a symbolic representation of the aura of holiness, grew brighter; later, the inscriptions present on the icon grew clearer; and finally, the raiment and the faces of the saints of God, and the all-holy Theotokos and the preëternal Infant, became clear. Somewhat before the lightening of the faces of the Mother of God and the Savior, the depictions of the two angels on the left and right sides of the icon, who hold a banner bearing words of praise in honor of the Theotokos, stood out. Only at the very end did the colors of the roundel at the top of the icon, containing an image of the Lord of Sabaoth, lighten. Over a 24-hour period beginning on 23 November/6 December the changes proceeded in a noticeable yet almost imperceptible way. One must consider the morning of 24 November/7 December, the feast of the Greatmartyr Catherine, to be the main period of alteration, during which outlines of complete clarity, bringing the image to its actual appearance, appeared at about 2:00 P.M.; although, in fact, the process of its renewal continued even longer, until late evening, and even throughout the whole night of 25 November/8 December. Many of the hospice’s employees and inmates noticed the renewal of the icon, as well as the donor of the icon, who arrived at the church in the evening of November 23rd for the vigil service and decorated the church. A number of those who regularly attended services in that church likewise noted the altered appearance of the image, but, fearing ridicule, not all of them shared news of the renewal with others. Only in the morning of 24 November/7 December, before the beginning of the divine liturgy, when the congregants approached to venerate the icon, did they first remark publicly on the genuine changes taking place on the image; and after the liturgy those who worked at the hospice and in the church were openly and spontaneously speaking to one other of this fact, recognizing that the wondrous renewal of the icon was totally beyond dispute.”
The sign of the renewal that occurred becomes even more striking if one adds to what is set forth above the testimony of the former owner of the icon. We cite it here in full:
“27 November/10 December 1923. The image of the all-holy Theotokos, “the Joy of All Who Sorrow”, which I donated to the church at the orphanage, was an heirloom of the Bologov family, from which I am descended. As far as I know from family lore, the icon is about three hundred years old, at least. The icon passed down from generation to generation, and reached me and my sister, Sofia Ivanovna Bologova, through my late mother, who died three years ago in Odessa, where I was living at the time, and from which I traveled, arriving in Harbin on February 27th (N.S.) of last year. For as far back as I can remember, this icon has always been so dark that the faces of the saints and the inscriptions have been illegible. Neither my late parents, nor less myself, knew just which saints were depicted on the icon. Suffice it to say that my late husband always honored the memory of John the Warrior, while I honored the martyr Antipas, who when I was a child saved me from blood poisoning due to a dental abcess. Both my husband and myself, whenever we were in the holy churches, would always try to find the images of these saints, to bow down and light candles before them. Neither of us was aware that these saints appeared on the icon that has now been renewed. Only the miraculous lightening of the icon now enables me to testify that these saints are depicted on the icon. Wondrous are Thy works, O Lord!”
The striking miracle of the grace of God, the renewal of the holy icon, rocked the whole city of Harbin. Believers from all over began to come to the newly-revealed holy object to worship and pray; and the renewed image became one of the principle holy objects, not only of the church, but of all Orthodox Harbin.
There lived in Harbin at that time a pious couple, V. E. and A. I., Krislamov. They had as a servant a young girl named Shura [Alexandra]. Just before the miracle of the renewal of this icon, Shura came down with a fever so serious that the doctors warned her employers that she would surely die very soon. Filled with grief, the pious woman began to pray fervently before the holy image that the life of her young servant be spared; and, contrary to the doctors’ prognosis, the sick girl survived and recovered her health.
Quite some time later, in the 1950s, after the Chinese Communists had established dominion in the Far East, the following incident occurred. After many difficulties and troubles, a certain woman received the documents necessary for her to immigrate abroad; but having received them, she lost them, dropping them in the street. When she realized what had happened, she literally ran to the House of Mercy and began to pray before the holy icon. She then retraced her steps and discovered her documents, safe and sound, right where she had dropped them, even though she had done so on a busy thoroughfare.
When, after much difficulty, the last rector of the House of Mercy, Archimandrite (later Metropolitan) Philaret also emigrated from Harbin to Australia, and from there to the United States, the renewed icon and the other holy objects remained in that church, though it was closed down after the departure of the rector and its treasures and furnishings were deemed the property of the Chinese government. After protracted, lengthy and troublesome difficulties, Z. L. Tauts-Zverëva, who had latterly carried out the duties of church warden, managed to obtain permission to take the icon out of China. Only in the autumn of 1965, when Metropolitan Philaret traveled to Europe, was the renewed icon, after a lengthy stay in Hong Kong, brought to the United States, where it is enshrined in the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh at the headquarters of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, in New York City, to this day.