Saint John of Shanghai, as Remembered by His Spiritual Children. Part 1

With his God-pleasing life, St. John of Shanghai served as a universal model of patristic Orthodoxy. From China to Western Europe and the United States, he filled the hearts of many with the light of true faith, and his spiritual children kept it burning throughout their lives. He was demanding of himself and projected God’s infinite love on others, and hundreds of thousands recognised a great saint in this short hunchbacked man.

Maria Potapova

Maria Potapova:
“By the grace of God, I grew around a holy man, Bishop John, and I sensed his holiness intuitively. Children have better intuition than adults. I have seen his cell in Lesnensky Convent – my sisters and I spent most of their time there as children. We assisted him at the Liturgy without entering the altar. We stood outside the open Royal Gate – some with his staff, others with a candle – throughout the archbishop’s service. I held a basin and a jug for him to wash his hands and carried a towel on my shoulder. Those were my childhood memories. We had a happy childhood.

A summer camp in the Alps

In summer, Bishop John would visit us at the children’s camp. He would put up a tent and work there. I saw him typing something every time I walked passed his tent. He always brought his typewriter with him when he travelled. And he was always busy. But he never asked me to leave when I approached him, and I always wanted to be around him. He gave me nuts and almonds, and I would sit outside his tent, in the grass, playing with twigs, watching the ants and dragonflies.

I also have this memory of him leaving the camp. I was alone on the platform, and he was on the train. I watched him giving me his archbishop’s blessings through the window. He kept giving me his blessings from the train until it disappeared from sight. I remained on the platform all that time. Now I understood that he was giving me his last blessing for the rest of my life, and he already knew about my future. He was blessing me to strengthen my spirit and endurance. I could not imagine then that I would come to live in America and marry a priest, or that my husband would serve in the same parish that he had founded in America…”

Archpriest Viktor and Matushka Maria Potapov (St John the Baptist Church in Washington, DC), Archpriest Georgy Larin
Archpriest Georgy Larin

Archpriest Georgy Larin:
“ I have a vivid memory of my first meeting with Vladyka John. I was about eight years old. My parents had just bought a house within walking distance from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners”, where Metropolitan John served and lived. It was the summer break, and we often gathered outside the church to play together. Summers in Shanghai can be very hot and humid. One hot day, I decided to hide from the heat inside the church. A service was in progress. It was the middle of the week, and there were few people in attendance. Bishop John was at his usual place – at a small lectern to the left of the door under the dome. He was praying. He noticed me and asked me to come near. I stood next to him. Soon, the service was over and everybody left. I stayed behind. Bishop John asked me to hold his staff while he was venerating the icons. He was walking from one icon to another, and I was following him with his staff. Then he invited me to visit him at his residence. He lived in the bishop’s house next to the church.

Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners”, Shanghai, the 1930s.

After that visit, I came to see him again and again. He was an interesting person, and I enjoyed listening to him. In summer, I would often see him every day. The services ended while it was still light, and there was still time for talking. He learned from him a lot. He gave me answers to many questions that troubled me, and I could listen to him forever. I was troubled, for example, by the biblical story about the slaying of infants by King Herod. A prophet had predicted it, and the Lord knew that it was coming. Why did not He stop this mass murder of the innocents? His Holiness said to me: “Let us think about it this way. What if the Lord had intervened and prevented the massacre, and all these infants would have grown to the same age as Jesus in His earthly life, and they would all be among the crowd in Jerusalem shouting “Crucify Him!” They would not have accepted Christ and they would be in hell. But instead, we commemorate them as saints, and they are in the Kingdom of Heaven. Despite my young age, he brought me to understand that the ways of the Lord are inexplicable. God does not intervene, but He gives everyone – a human being, an angel or the devil – the freedom of choice. He makes them free to decide what they want to become. He continued to be my spiritual guide for many years to come. He was a bishop, but he was always available to answer questions from a little boy like me.

It was interesting to watch him in his everyday life and during the services. At Easter, he was tireless and enthusiastic, greeting everyone who came, “Christ is risen!” He moved around so quickly that his assistants could barely keep up with him.

Once at church, I witnessed this scene. We were preparing to celebrate a great feast, and we the altar boys were in our white habits. The bishop was in the altar, his assistants were helping him with his habits, and I was holding his staff. Then the assistants left, and I stayed.

By then, they had already begun to read the hours, as the people were putting up the candles. A sudden transformation occurred in him. He illuminated a divine light, and his eyes were sparkling with joy. I was looking at him and saw nothing but this divine light. I turned away for a few seconds and looked at him again. There was no more light. Bishop John was proceeding with the service.

Bishop John, Shanghai, the 1930s

I had already known him for years, I became quite attached to him. The Great Lent was approaching, and I resolved to spend the Lenten season modelling his life. He led an ascetic lifestyle: he slept seated and ate no meat. I did the same. My parents noticed. One night, when everyone was asleep, I got out of bed, spread my sheet on the floor and lay down. My mother saw this, and the next morning my parents went with me to the bishop. They told him about my behaviour and said that I was not listening to them.

The bishop was indignant. “Now what do you think you are doing? Do you think you are pleasing God with your behaviour? You should listen to your mother and father, that is the first thing you should do. Why are you not listening? It is a commandment of God to obey your parents. Then he called the church guard Michail and said, “Go to the store and buy some sausage.” Michael brought the sausage. “Eat it,” commanded Bishop John.

“But it is the Great Lent. I cannot!”

“You must first obey your mother and father. Eat!”

I was in tears, but I listened. I did not finish it all up, but I ate quite a bit.

Dinner with St. John of Shanghai

Eventually, we moved to the Philippines and then to Australia. I lived a different life. I finished school and went to work in finance. No longer did I feel the same closeness to the Church. My family believed, and we all went to church every Sunday, but progressively less on other days. At that point, I received my first letter from Bishop John of Shanghai.

To be continued…

Part 2

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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