One evening, when Father John had come home at supper time after visiting many sick people, he heard a woman cry by the side of his house. Since he had had no rest since 5 in the morning, Matushka tried to convince him to have his supper first, and a small rest, then go and see what the problem was. But Fr John could not wait: he found out the woman’s husband was dying, and she and her five children had had nothing to eat for two days.
Fr John helped the woman get up: she had been slumped on the ground in the passage by the house. On the way to her house, he gave her what he had in his pocket, a mere 20 kopeks, enough though to buy bread and eggs: probably about two pounds in today’s money.
When they got to her house, he saw the husband seemingly lifeless, and gazing absently. The children were filthy and moaning because of their hunger. Fr John and the lady fed the children, then cleaned them up as well as the one-room flat.Then they knelt in the icon-corner, and Fr John prayed, making the woman repeat after him. Finally, he remained silent a long time, bowing his head. Before returning home, he said: “Come and see me at the church tomorrow.”
The next day, at the end of the Liturgy, the woman was waiting outside the church, and Fr John gave her over a thousand roubles in various envelopes which had been given to him that morning. The lady’s husband recovered, did well in business and some time later sent Fr John 10,000 roubles to give to people in need.
From the time of his ordination, Fr John learned to pray, to fight in prayer, to discipline himself to pray constantly so as to dispel the presence of the devil. This acquired ability to pray taught him a great deal about his own weaknesses and the ways of the devil. The heart of his prayer was the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the heart, through which he kept up his awareness of the Lord’s presence in his heart, and of the availability of God’s help in all situations.
Whether in church, at home or visiting people, he always prayed in the same way. His eyes constantly looked up to God with a childlike trust which communicated itself to all around him.That trusting prayerfulness never left him. He never helped anyone without saying a prayer with them. He often served moliebiens at which he blessed water (but never after the Liturgy: he would not tolerate giving the impression other prayer was needed besides the Liturgy). To the sick or the needy he could not visit personally, he would send blessed apples, blessed roses, or an icon or book.
Above all else, Fr John’s prayer was a real conversation with his real heavenly Father.
Even during his life, he appeared to many sick people in their dreams, blessing them or giving them communion, and many of these were completely healed or greatly improved.
Three days before he died, he announced he had three days to live. On the day of his death, he was put to bed at 1 in the morning, and two priests were sent to his church to serve a Liturgy. They returned at three o’clock with the Holy Gifts and he made his last communion. He was quiet for a while after receiving communion, then he started complaining of breathlessness. The collar of his cassock was opened but he soon became unconscious. The priests read the canon for the parting of the soul and the prayers for the dying. Fr John’s breathing became gradually weaker; he opened his eyes and two tears rolled down his face.
In this way he died at 7.40 on the 20th December 1908.The priests washed his emaciated body with oil and dressed him in white vestments. At nine o’clock the first pannikhida was served. The imperial family and the entire country were given the news by telegram; bells tolled everywhere and pannikhidas were served throughout Russia.
At his prayers, may the Lord grant us to pray, love and work like him.
Ivan Ilich Sergiev was born in the evening of the 18th of October 1829 (Old Style) in the small village of Sura, 300 miles from the White Sea. His parents, Ilia Mikhailovich Sergiev and his wife Feodora Vlasievna had the child baptised that very evening because he was not expected to live. They named him after the Saint of the day: Saint John of Ryla, the Bulgarian monk. As the Orthodox liturgical day begins with vespers and ends the following afternoon, Saint John of Kronstadt’s main feastday falls on the 19th October/1st November. Ivan’s father was a poor parish reader but his grandfather and all his ancestors had been priests for at least 350 years.
The surroundings of Sura are impressive: large hills with white alabaster rocks, the two rivers Sura and Pinega. The villagers lived in wooden huts. The churches of the Meeting of the Lord and of Saint Nicholas were the centre of a life marked from an early age by the rhythm of feasts and fasts. At the age of four, the child was trained in the habit of personal prayer. A spiritual daughter of Saint John of Kronstadt, Abbess Taissia, recounted this childhood incident:
“Once, during the night, Vania saw an extraordinary light in the room. He looked and saw in the light an angel in his heavenly glory. The little boy was troubled, but the angel calmed him by telling him he was his guardian angel.”
Ivan was a very slow learner. When he was five, he was given a reading book, but could not understand the relationship between the spoken and the written letters. Eventually, he prayed fervently about it, and suddenly it was as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes, and he began to understand his letters. When he was ten, he was taken to Arkhangelsk parish school. He was not impressed by the school or the other pupils, and worried a great deal about his family’s near destitution.
When the summer holidays came, he had to do most of the return journey home alone, bare-foot (he carried his shoes so as not to wear out the soles), through magnificent scenery, over hundreds of kilometres.
He began his twelve years of schooling at Arkhangelsk at the bottom of the class. Early on he had a second experience of a break-through in his studies after ardent prayer. Then he slowly rose to the top and came out of seminary first in his year. For some time he led the seminary choir. This was a great trial because the singers were the most undisciplined pupils. The greatest influence on his teenage years was his own copy of the Russian translation of the New Testament. Much later he told Mother Taissia: “This New Testament was my childhood companion, my tutor, guide and comforter.”
In 1851, before Ivan joined the Theological academy in Petersburg, his father Ilia died at 48, leaving his mother and two sisters with no income. He wanted to take a reader’s position in order to cater for his family, but his strong-minded mother would not hear of it. So instead he took a secretarial post at the academy while doing his degree, and for four years sent home the ten roubles he was making each month.
At the Academy, Ivan acquired several life-long habits: praying in the open air, in the garden; reading the Bible; reading Chrysostom’s sermons on the Gospels and the sermons of Philaret of Moscow. His book, “My Life in Christ”, states in its very first paragraph: “ I have learned your word, the Word of God - it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12) And towards the end of the book we read “The Word of God is the same as God Himself.
Therefore undoubtingly believe every word of the Lord.”
The theology of St John of Kronstadt can be summarised very briefly. God the Word, Christ, speaks the Word of God, the Bible. Through his breath, the Holy Spirit, his Word is active in the Church, unifying mankind, bringing about the Kingdom of God. Christians by faith must let the word of God inform their own words - they must live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“What is more steadfast, more immutable and powerful than the Word? The world was created by the Word; nevertheless, we sinners treat words so lightheartedly and negligently. We do not remember that with words we can work life’s miracles. For example, in prayers, when preaching, when performing the sacraments. Remember, Christian, that the Word is the beginning of life.”
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Church had organised considerable missions among the non-Christian populations of Siberia.
Ivan Sergiev seriously considered joining that missionary field as a priest-monk. During the last year of his studies, he was attacked by a severe depression which he overcame through prayer. He became aware of the lack of Christian knowledge and the shallow faith of many people in the capital and around. Then he was invited to take over the parish of St Andrew in the town of Kronstadt on the island of Kotlin, in the gulf of Finland. When he visited the church, he recognised the inside of the building, having seen it vividly in a dream.
In 1855 Ivan Sergiev married Elizaveta, the daughter of Father Konstantin Nesvitsky. Then he was made a deacon on the 11th November and a priest on the 12th November of that year in the church of the Peter and Paul fortress in Petersburg. Bishop Christopher Vinnitsa ordained him.
A few days after his ordination, Father John Sergiev served his first Divine Liturgy in Saint Andrew’s church, and preached on John 21:15 “Jesus said, ‘feed my lambs.’’” After making a parallel between Peter’s need or reinstatement as an apostle after his denying Jesus, and his own unworthiness as a pastor, he said:
“The Lord’s words reached also the ears of my own heart : “Feed my lambs” commanding me to feed you, his spiritual lambs.” Stressing that it was love for God and for people, fanned up by the Holy Spirit, that could make him worthy of the priesthood, he went on to say: “Christ is the only High Priest, the first and the last, offering a sacrifice and being brought in sacrifice for all....he himself officiates in us and through us.....If we are to take into consideration only one