The first letter arrived in 1949, on the Feat Day day of St James. Archbishop John wrote:
“Dear Zhora and Sima!
I am far away and busy, but that does not stop me from thinking about all of you, the children whom I met in Shanghai and who assisted me at the Church.
I think about you often, and my heart is not at peace: I am anxious to know what your present life is like and what you have become. A lot in our life is not in our control, but many things are. Our ability to become and remain righteous is one thing that depends on us. In this, we cannot do without God’s help, of course, but God will only help if we make an effort of our own; if we exert ourselves and as Him for Gis help in our prayers.
In Shanghai, you were all good children; you assisted me with diligence and in good faith. But after coming to Tubabao, I noticed that some of you had lost the habit and slackened up. When I joined you there, you all went back on track. On leaving, I asked you to continue to serve at the church, hoping that you would listen to my advice.
Are you still at church now? Do you still come regularly? Remember that feast days belong to God. The commandment of God does not say: “keep the holiday to yourself and spend it as you wish.” It tells us to dedicate the seventh day of the week to the Lord. As Saint John Chrysostom writes, he who does not give the hours of worship to God steals what rightfully belongs to Him.
God, the creator of things, gives them to us for our enjoyment; in gratitude to Him, we must listen to His Word, and give Him His due, for our benefit. What He commanded us through the Church we must fulfil and keep sacred. By allowing ourselves not to keep His commandments, we may only please our flesh for a while, only to know the bitter fruits of the evil that seems so sweet to us at first. I hope that you will always tread the path of goodness…”
We received the next letter on 23 April 1950. It said:
“I heard that you are no longer serving at church. That saddens me a lot. In your place, Zhora, I would serve as a reader, and you, Sima, could also learn a lot of good things.
I have met many people there whom I got to know as attendants at the Russian church in Belgrade… Are you still reading your daily Gospel? You absolutely should: read the Gospel passages for each day as given in the calendar, or if no calendar is available, settle for about 20 – 30 verses per day until you finish the whole Gospel.”
He was right: I was not doing any of these things anymore, and neither was my brother. We both had moved away from church life. I found a job in Australia. It was in a finance company, and I could look forward to a successful secular career. But Bishop John did not stop writing. He was worried about the shortage of clergy and asked me to consider this career. In one of his letters, I read the words that truly changed my life.
From the letter from Bishop John of Shanghai dated 18 January 1961:
“…You could choose a secular way of life, making good money to support a family and enjoy yourself. That might keep you satisfied for some time, and even make your past spiritual life seem like a childhood dream.
But sooner or later, it will pass. Adverse changes, sorrows and tempests could break you. But even if they did not happen, you would still have an aching in your soul; a regret at having missed something essential that you have always desired. These moments of awakening can be frightening, especially when you are past the point of no return by choice, and can no longer change anything.
The other path, of the spirit, is no bed of roses, either. It is the way of many sorrows. There will be moments (and quite a few) when it will seem that the whole world is up in arms against you. But even as your sorrows multiply beyond imagination, the Grace of God will also multiply in you to give you consolation, strength and even joy. But worldly troubles have no prospect of joy and do not benefit our soul.
As I meet the people whom I knew as children in their advanced years and learn about their lives, I see them breaking under the weight of their life troubles and illnesses. Their lives are dull and monotonous – unless they aspire to something higher.
But people who dedicate themselves to the service of God are joyful in the spirit, despite the frequent hardships that their choice brings them; they sense the hand of God giving them guidance and protection. So whither should you go? Which path should you choose? As I already wrote to you, I think, anyone can choose to live righteously. They can belong to any background, be well-educated or illiterate. Yet the Church today needs people who can guide others in the faith and uphold it in the attacks against her. I would be very glad to have you among my helpers, but I think it would be more useful for you and the Church if you received religious education at the Trinity Seminary…”.
Finally, the great saint’s prayers reached my heart, and I left behind my secular life to enter the Holy Trinity Seminary. One thing he showed me was the truth of the Orthodox wisdom that nothing in our lives happens by chance. Thanks to the good words of Bishop John, it has been more than a century since I have been serving God and the people at the Orthodox Church.
As a child, Vladimir Krasovsky went to a Russian grammar school in the small town of Burlingham outside San Francisco. When he took his final exams there, Bishop John was his examiner.
Teachers travelled from San Francisco to conduct classes in the Russian language, Russian history, geography, literature, and Gospel Studies. Vladyka John had a strong interest in the school, and he visited it frequently. My father drove him from San Francisco. He sat in at the classes to observe the teaching and our answers.
He always came to the final examinations. His first question was, “What do you believe?” The student was expected to recite the Creed without stopping. Then he would ask, “Who is your patron saint?”. He was anxious to know that everyone was familiar with the life of their guardian angel.
Sometimes, Archbishop John organised dance parties for young people at the orphanage of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. Foxtrot and other American dances were forbidden. But when he retreated into his cell right above the dance floor, we would play rock-n-roll. Of course, we had someone stand on guard to hear him come down the stairs in time to stop the music and start playing something else. But we could not always succeed. Then Vladyka would walk between the dancers with a jovial smile. “Do you think I do not know what you are up to?” – he seemed to say. We were all supposed to keep a distance from one another as we were dancing. He even stopped me once, wagged his finger and even pulled my hair. But he did it gently and lovingly. It was his way of telling us he knew and our little secret was out. He was a little harsher on his attendants, but that did not apply to girls.
Archbishop John was a great ascetic, but that did not mean harshness towards those around him. With his look and manners, he reaffirmed that Orthodoxy was not of this world. But he also emphasised its service to the world and every person in it. He has illuminated the light of God’s love on others and has continued to transform people’s lives to this day.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds