Sermon on the Feast Day of All Russian Saints:
St John of Shanghai and San Francisco
Today is the feast day of All Russian Saints, that is, all the saints of the Russian Church, of the Russian land. Today is the holiday of the spiritual heaven over Russia. That heaven opens broadly, beginning from Prince Vladimir and Blessed Princess Olga. They were like the roots of all the saintliness in Russia. A great host of saints arose, a great tree of sanctity. True, there were saints even before St Vladimir in the land now called Russia. The holy people of God also existed in lands which now comprise part of Russia.
The city of Cherson boasts seven bishops from its early days, later visited by SS Cyril and Methodius. Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized there, and he brought the Orthodox Faith along with the relics of the ancient Hieromartyr Clement of Rome to Kiev, and lay down the foundations of the Russian Church. Today we also celebrate SS Anthony and Theodosius and the many other miracle-workers of the Kievan Caves, the saints who shone in Russia, all the hierarchs who established Christianity in Russia, acquired Christianity in Russia, who strengthened faith and piety in the people, those saints who feigned madness but in truth were wise, and with their seemingly-foolish actions humbled themselves, taught children to venerate holiness and to follow the Gospel. We glorify the many saints of God who shone in various corners of the Russian land: the passion-bearers who patiently endured sufferings, and finally, the martyrs who were few in number in ancient days, but now bountifully irrigated all the soil of Russia with their blood. The land was sanctified by their blood, the air was made holy by the ascent of their souls. The heavens above Rus became divine by the host of the righteous, who shine above her today. Their number is countless.
There is a wonderful book recently published—“Holy Rus.” The cross of Russian holiness is detailed in this book. It shows us how sainthood took root and grew in Russia, how saints were born spiritually of others, how they were connected, all of which forms a holy chain of gold in Russia. Today we all celebrate saints whose number we cannot even count. We see wondrous bishops who bolstered the Russian idea through their pastoral work. We see how the Russian land was made glorious not only by the spiritual struggles of Tsars, boyars, warriors, but how its various regions were bound together by this holiness. That is why Russia was called Holy Russia—not because there was no sin there, or lawlessness, oh no, wherever mortals live, there will be sin and lawlessness.
With the great fall of our ancestors, evil entered the world, but evil was never made the ideal or tolerated in the Russian land. There was sin, but there was repentance afterwards. Even thieves repented; a majority of those whose lives ended on the executioner’s block remembered the Lord Jesus Christ before their death, prostrated themselves before the people, asking forgiveness of their transgressions and asked for prayers for the repose of their souls. It was this way in ancient times in Russian history, and this holiness is preserved in Russia to this day. And we praise all the saints whose podvigi served as an example in the Russian land. We see Great Prince Vladimir and Blessed Princess Olga, the history of royalty as saints. Why were they saints? Because although they had held power from days of old, they controlled vast wealth in their hands, yet they were not imprisoned by this wealth, they were not enslaved by it. The wealth and power served them in giving others the opportunity to live by Divine commandments. Other saints went to live in caves, in deep forests, in deserted locales, yet there they became like magnets who attracted those seeking spiritual strength. These holy monastics who sought solitude and anonymity—their very anonymity became renowned and people strove to find them. They shine out of the depths of the centuries even in our age. The Lord glorified their deeds, sanctified the relics of these saints through miracles, and even now they preach the glory of God. St Seraphim of Sarov, for instance: how many years did he live alone in a dense forest, where he had no companions except for the beasts. To this day, Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra draws believers from all over—not only from Russia, but from all over the world. And it boasts nothing but the podvigi of St Sergius and the saints who found salvation in his teachings. Now it is the very heart of the Russian Land, together with our capital city of Moscow, which boasts not only great wealth and ancient edifices, but the holiness of those saints who led their spiritual struggle there and whose relics now reside there.
We glorify all those who established Christianity in various corners of the Russian Land, preaching to those who did not yet know Christ. Rus united all under one roof, not so much within civil borders as by the spiritual call towards the sanctity of the Russian saints. Many of their names have become part of the Russian people, and though the people of Russia are mostly Slavic, they still possess many various names, and no one who accepted Orthodox Christianity is deemed alien. The Orthodox faith saved Russia. The Orthodox faith sanctified her. The Orthodox faith strengthened her. And what saved the Russian people during the terrible years of the Tatar yoke? Only faith in God, and it was during those difficult times that most of the churches were built, and most monasteries were established. It was during those harsh times that the Russian people especially turned to God and it was then that Russia arose spiritually.
Long before our troubles, far outside the borders of Russia there were saints who belong to the Russian people, who illuminated Russia yet were glorified in other lands. In Greece, one of the glorious saints was John the Russian, who was a prisoner during the times of Peter the Great, who lived among the Turks and was so staunch in his Christian faith that Muslims venerated him, beholding his righteousness. They tried to convert him to Isalm, but he remained firm—they insisted and were amazed at the piety of this Russian man who was both a slave and yet ruled over them spiritually. And when the Greeks were forced out of Asia Minor, they brought his relics to the island of Euboea, near Athens. Now it is a place where Greek, and now Russian, refugee pilgrims flock.
St Paisius Velichkovsky carried out his spiritual struggle outside of Russia [St Paisius was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in St Elias Skete on Mt Athos, and then together with the Optina Elders in 1990—ed.], but he became the spiritual father of many saints who became spiritual leaders in Russia in recent times. We celebrate them all together. And how broad is the scope of their lives! Some were princes, others commoners. Some occupied positions of authority, others wandered the streets, barely clothed, yet whose words were heard by monarchs! Ivan the Terrible, before whom everyone trembled, including members of his own family, and who exiled Metropolitan Philipp, a man of God who denounced him, still harkened to the half-naked Basil the Blessed. Once Tsar Ivan, leaving a church service, saw Basil the Blessed, and said “Basil, I didn’t notice you, but I saw everyone else here.” “But I saw you, Tsar, but not here in church, but I saw you wandering the Vorobiev Hills.” This troubled Tsar Ivan, “Yes,” he said, “During Liturgy I was thinking about building a palace in Vorobiev Hills.”
He razed Great Novgorod. As he approached Pskov, another fool-for-Christ, Blessed Nikolai, offered him some meat. “I will not eat meat now. It is Friday,” said Tsar Ivan. “But you are doing worse—you are drinking the blood of man,” said Blessed Nikolai, “Leave here quickly. If you delay, you will have nothing to flee on.” Tsar Ivan then left the courtyard, having heard the words of the holy man. The latter’s words began to be fulfilled, as the Tsar’s favorite stallion died. The monarch abandoned Pskov without doing any harm. Sanctity proved victorious everywhere.
Much closer to our times, Tsar Nicholas I came to Kiev. There, seated on the floor, another as-yet-unglorified saint of the Russian land, Blessed Theophilus, greeted him. He offered him all sorts of advice, and the reigning sovereign before whom all of Europe trembled, listened carefully to his words. There were such righteous people in Russia up until very recent times. Many of them have been glorified, renowned throughout the world, many of them are still unknown yet will shine, should God deem fit, when the time comes. St Germogen, for instance, was unglorified for three hundred years after his repose. Divine Providence draws our attention so that we do not simply glorify those of our times and then quickly forget them. No, the saints must be our great leaders, so that we always behold them.
Here in the diaspora, we have our own righteous Christians, though yet uncanonized, but who showed us wondrous signs. For instance, there is Bishop Jonah of Manchuria. When he sensed his approaching death, he called upon a priest and began to read the prayer for the departed, and the very hour his soul departed the earth, a boy who was suffering from terrible ailments in his legs, who could not walk for years, leaped out of bed and cries “Mama, mama, Bishop Jonah just came to me and said ‘My legs are of no use to me anymore. Here, take them.’” The boy who lay immobile in bed for so long can now run! And news of the death of Vladyka Jonah just then began to spread.
A few years ago in France, when a cemetery was being moved to another location, the workers recoiled after opening a grave. An Orthodox priest in full vestments lay in the coffin, but it turned out he had died sixteen years earlier. He died of cancer, a disease which causes the decay of a person while still alive, and here he lay uncorrupt for over sixteen years, and his relics were since moved near Paris.
The saints shine even in our day. How many of them live now in our poor, tortured Motherland! How many clergymen-martyrs there are! How many lay martyrs! There number is countless. How many of our bishops are imprisoned, how many have died who were like those saints who were persecuted during the iconoclastic period and the times of other heresies. Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsa, Kyrill of Kazan and many others who died unbeknownst to anyone, whose relics may never be found, but who shine like the ineffable light before our spiritual gaze in the Russian heavens. All of these saintly people of God, both glorified and unglorified, pray for us, and serve as an example for us.
I repeat, there was always sin and lawlessness in Russia. They existed from the earliest times, when sin filled the world, and from the hour when our ancestors sinned in the Garden of Eden. But sin cannot remain sin, and when someone repents, a sinner becomes a saint. How sinful was Mary of Egypt, and still others were thieves, but then became holy monks. Let us pray now that the Lord sends their spirit into our hearts. So that those of us living abroad, following their example, remembered that we do not bear the name of the children of Russia for naught. That the Lord did not idly grant us our roots, He gave some of us life in the Homeland, and others to be born of Russian parents. Whatever nations boasts, the Russian land boasts holiness more than anything. “The beauty of France,” they say. Different countries merit various adjectives. But Russia is most often called “Holy Russia.” Only one other land shares this description—the Holy Land, where our Lord shone forth.
No other country claims such a description. Why not? Because the most important thing for us, the most treasured, is holiness. This is the ideal, the end goal of the Russian people. We have forgotten to turn to the spiritual heaven, but I hope not forever. We must be like travelers in the wilderness at night, looking to the stars for direction, looking towards our Russian heaven, so that the Lord points the way and brings us to peace and unity here in the diaspora, so that the Loard transforms the hearts of the Russian people abroad, for then the chains of separation will fall away. And Russia will rise again in all its glory and might.
May the Lord bless you all.