|Homily 2nd Sunday after Pentecost All Sts of North America|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever.
There are two ways (well, probably more than two) in the Orthodox Church that we know something is important, or rather, extra important, in the services of the Church. We say “wisdom, attend…” to make sure everyone is paying attention, or we repeat something, again and again. Today, for example, we sang the Beatitudes as our Third Antiphon as we do every week, and we read them as the Gospel reading for the Saints of North America.
The Beatitudes are important because they are, first of all, teachings that come directly from our Lord and second, because they tell us how to become saints. We are told by our Lord how a person may become blessed. This is why we read the Beatitudes for this Sunday recognizing all the saints of North America. Let us look, then, at the life of one of those saints and see how he compares to the Beatitudes of Our Lord.
I should add that studying the lives of the saints is a good habit and a good spiritual exercise for us. It familiarizes us with genuine holiness and also gives us an example to follow. By their lives we can see how to fulfill the Beatitudes. I am going to look at the life of a wonderworker and saint who lived within most of our lifetimes. I speak of St. John the wonderworker of Shanghai and San Franscisco, who was himself an avid student of the lives of the saints.
“ Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
First, let’s look at how the fathers interpret this verse and see how we can apply it to St. John. Those who are poor in spirit, know their own shortcomings in the eyes of the Lord. They are living embodiments of humility. Blessed Theophylact writes, “Since Adam fell through pride, Christ raises us up by humility.” Adam had tried to become a god without the grace of God, without God’s help and against His word. Christ shows us that when we rid ourselves of our pride, when we rely completely on the power of God, that is when the Lord will raise us up united to Him and we will find ourselves as partakers of the divine nature, as St. Peter writes in his Second Epistle. Our Lord told us to take the lowest place at a feast and the master of the feast will ask us to come and sit at the high place with him. Vladyka John was humility personified. One small example of this is when he was a hieromonk and teacher in Serbia; he met a woman on the bus. He told her that he had been summoned by the exiled hierarchy of the Russian Church by accident. “They have asked for Hieromonk John to come and be consecrated a bishop.” he said, “but they sent the letter to the wrong hieromonk!” He was convinced of this and went to the synod to straighten things out. The next day the saint met the same woman on the bus. “It’s worse than I thought!” He lamented, “They have chosen me as the next bishop!” He had tried to refuse because of his speech impediment which made it hard for him to enunciate clearly. The synod told him, “Moses had the same problem.” For what it’s worth, Moses couldn’t get out of his assignment either.
“4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The fathers see this as those who mourn for their sins and for the sins of others. St. John was an extraordinary ascetic, though one would think he was a frail little man, he was actually as tough as nails….and this mostly on himself. From 1929 – 1934 Fr. John served as a teacher, a beloved teacher, at the Bitol Theological Seminary. It was there that his extreme asceticism first drew notice. Fr. John, from the time of his tonsure, never lay down to sleep, but rather he would catch a few fitful hours of sleep in a chair or prostrated before the icons in his icon corner. He, in fact, barely slept. He ate but one meal a day and that was a Lenten meal near the midnight hour. Whenever possible for the whole period of his priesthood and later episcopacy, St. John would serve the Divine Liturgy daily.
St. John loved his students and they loved him, despite his very strict nature (he was most strict with himself, though he was firm with the students). The school was in the Ochrid diocese of Serbia and so St. Nikolai Velimirovich was the bishop there. He was often heard to say that if one wanted to see a living saint, one should go to Bitol to see Fr. John. One of the seminarians at Bitol reports that St. Nikolai said to them, “Children, listen to Fr. John; he is an angel of God in human form.” He received no argument from the students on that account.
“5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The meek are not, the fathers say, those who never grow angry, that would be unfeeling and apathetic. Rather they are those who have the capacity for anger but control it and become angry only when necessary. Vladyka could be, at times, a fool for Christ. He would use this to correct people when they needed to be corrected. This is a story I was told by my godfather, whose family had been under Vladyka John’s care in China and all the way to San Francisco. At one very “posh” dinner a parishioner was giving someone remarked about how good the soup was. Knowing clairvoyantly that the hostess was overly proud of the high society tone of the gathering, Vladyka John rested his beard in his bowl and ate the soup loudly. Of course the ridicule would be heaped on St. John for this foolish act. The woman’s pride, though, fled from her as she found the attention turned toward the spectacle of the Archbishop.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Just as a greedy man will work for money and spare no effort to gain wealth, so a man must hunger and thirst after the things of God and make all efforts to seek first the kingdom of Heaven. The ascetic endeavors that St. John went through, that I already went over, show that for Vladyka, the kingdom of Heaven was the air he breathed and the water he drank.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy and almsgiving in Greek are almost identical terms and Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid sees mercy as almsgiving as well as what we usually think of as mercy. One of St. John’s nicknames when he was archbishop of Western Europe was St. Jean Nu-pieds or St John the Barefoot. Throughout his long career whether in Asia, Europe, or North America, St. John was known for his charity. He built schools and orphanages through the Churches under his guidance, but he even would take the shoes or sandals from his own feet and give them to others. This is how he gained the name of St. John the barefoot…while still alive. In fact it was the Roman Catholics of France who gave him that name because they considered him to be the living embodiment of a saint when many thought that there were no more saints on the earth…and Vladyka wasn’t even a part of their Church (and this was pre-Vatican II!).
“8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9” The Fathers point out that there are many who are charitable but are not pure in heart. One can give a lot of money to the poor and still be full of all sorts of uncleanness. They likened the pure heart to a mirror that will only reflect light if it is cleaned first. Many times the saints are called a mirror of the divine. I do not know if St. John himself ever saw God in his lifetime (he was too humble to make any claim such as that), but it was reported that many times when he served, Vladyka would be surrounded by a bright white light that was visible to many around him. He was a wonderful mirror of the divine and others saw within him the light of God and they saw within him and his actions our Lord Jesus Christ. We could turn the beatitude around and say, blessed are those in whom others see God, for their hearts must be pure. This of course leads us to:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” This of course does not just mean peace between people or nations but also the peace that Christ gives, spiritual, inner peace. It is this spirit of peace that St. Seraphim of Sarov so famously spoke of when he said, “acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Vladyka John was such a man to inspire that kind of peace as well. He could with prayer and a kind word bring a demoniac back to his right mind and spiritual health. He could take the sorrow from a grieving widow.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
Satan does not like it when sinners begin to turn from their sin and repent. Satan, it can be safely said, does not like holy people. That is an understatement. He likes to stir up trouble for holy people. The fathers tell us that a thief is persecuted but that does not make him blessed. It makes him a wretched creature in need of Christ. A righteous man who is persecuted or reviled or hated for the sake of Christ, though, receives his reward in heaven. In the 1960’s when he arrived in San Francisco to become the new Archbishop there, he found a cathedral community divided and paralyzed in their attempts to complete the construction of their new cathedral. Being a peacemaker, Vladyka healed the wounds for the most part and was able in a short time to complete the construction of the Cathedral Joy of All Who Sorrow. Unfortunately, those he could not pacify attacked Vladyka John with accusations and slander, forcing him to appear in court as a defendant on the charges (false, of course) of concealing financial improprieties. He was cleared of all charges, but his “last years were filled with the bitterness of slander and persecution, to which he unfailingly replied without complaint, without judging anyone, with undisturbed peacefulness.”
As I said before, the lives of the saints were a delight for St. John. He dug deeply into the writings about them and found in them and in the Gospels and Epistles a way to live and a way toward union with God. He was keen to learn about the western saints that pre-dated the schism of East and West as well and he had a missionary spirit. He would serve in French, Dutch, Greek, Slavonic, or English depending where he was and to whom he was preaching or serving. His entire life was an example for us to follow…especially those of us who find ourselves in the western world in small missions or large cathedrals. Vladyka shows us the way to be strict with ourselves and merciful to others, to find peace in any situation and to find God everywhere we go…East, West, North or South. A child of the last of Holy Russia, he found sanctity in China, in France, In Britain and all of Europe, and he found it in America as well. He is also one of the many who brought the light of Orthodoxy to our shores and sanctified us and continues to sanctify us by his prayers and supplications.
St. John also continued to care for his flock and the people of God after his repose. I can attest to one such occurrence in the first parish I belonged to named “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” in Georgia. A young girl of about six years of age was enrolled as a catechumen. There were some concerns from her mother about the family becoming Orthodox and there was a little bit of fear about that transmitted to the child. One Sunday after Church the little girl went to play on the swing set (it was a house Church). She came inside the house and said a nice old man dressed like Father T. pushed her in the swing and said he was very glad that she was joining the Church, and she said he encouraged her to be a good girl. The mother of the child was somewhat concerned as no one who fit that description was around. A short search was made and no one was found. Later, on another day, the parish priest gave her an icon card of Fr. John. She said, “That’s the nice man that I saw the other day.” She had never seen a picture of him before. This occurred during the summer in which St. John was glorified by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, 1994 (I was a fellow catechumen that year). So you see, Vladyka John cares even for the little missions and we can be sure that cares for us as well. Let us ask for his fervent intercession for our mission.
In the Name of the Faher…
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever…
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos