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Fr. John (Krestiankin)

Recollections of a spiritual son

Fr. John Krestiankin on his 95th birthday.
Fr. John Krestiankin on his 95th birthday.
One day my spiritual father, Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, called me and said: "I am going to die soon. So please do me a favour, write down what you remember and what you want to tell people about me. Because afterwards you all are going to write something anyway, and you might come up with stories as ridiculous as they did with poor Father Nikolai, who “resurrected cats” and other fables like that. So I want to check everything myself for my peace of mind.”[1]

Thus, fulfilling my spiritual father's obedience, I began this task in the hope that Batiushka himself would separate the wheat from the chaff, perhaps suggest some things that I might have forgotten, and, as always, correct any mistakes I might have made.

I will not write very much about what Fr. John meant to me. My whole monastic life was inseparably connected with him. He has been and remains for me the ideal of an Orthodox Christian, a monk, and a loving and demanding priest and father.

It would be impossible, of course, to re-tell everything that happened over the course of our relationship. His spiritual counsels can be read in his published letters. In my opinion, they are the best that have been written in the area of spiritual and moral literature in Russia for the last fifty years. I would like to relate something else, known to me personally.

For me, Fr. John's main spiritual quality was not only his gift of discernment, but also his unshakeable faith in the all-good and perfect Providence of God, which leads a Christian to salvation. An epigraph to one of Fr. John's books is something he often repeated: "The main things in spiritual life are faith in God's Providence and discernment with guidance." Once, in answer to my perplexity, Batiushka wrote: "At the moment I am reading a passage from the Old Testament, and what depth [I find in it]: A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps (Prov. 16:9). The wise Solomon bore this out. You, also, in your own life must be convinced that it can be no other way."

I don't want to force my opinion on anyone, but I am deeply convinced that Fr. John was one of the very few people living in our times to whom the Lord revealed His Divine will-about specific people and about events taking place in the Church and the world. This is probably due to the highest manifestation of love for God and devotion to His holy will, in response to which the Lord reveals the destiny of people to the Christian ascetic, making such a man a sharer in His mysteries. I repeat that I don't want to force my opinion on anyone, but I have been led to this feeling by many real-life stories connected with Fr. John. And it is not only my opinion. My closest spiritual friends, the now deceased Fr. Raphael and Abbot Nikita, who introduced me to Fr. John, thanked God first of all for the fact that their spiritual father was a man to whom God's will was revealed, and each of us experienced this personally. Unfortunately, though, as often happens in life, even when we know God's will we cannot find the strength and determination to fulfill it. But I will speak about this later.

I met Fr. John in the autumn of 1982, when immediately after my Baptism I arrived at the Pskov-Caves Monastery. Back then he did not particularly impress me: a very kind old man, quite robust (he was only seventy-two then), always in a hurry, always surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims. Other residents of the monastery looked much more severely ascetic and monastic. But not much time at all passed before I began to understand that this old man was what in old Russia had been called an 'elder' since ancient times. This is the rarest and most precious phenomenon in the Church.

Trust and obedience are the main rule of the relationship between a Christian and his spiritual father. Of course, one cannot manifest absolute obedience to every spiritual father. Such spiritual directors are a rarity. This is quite a delicate matter. Very serious spiritual and life tragedies often happen when unreasoning priests imagine themselves to be elders, and their unfortunate spiritual children take upon themselves a form of absolute obedience which is beyond their strength and entirely inappropriate in our times. Fr. John never ordered or forced anyone to listen to his spiritual advice. People would come to free, unfeigned obedience to him through experience and time. He never called himself an elder. When he was told he was, he would smile and say that there are no elders nowadays, only experienced old men. He remained convinced of that. However, I am convinced that in his person the Lord sent me a true elder, who knew God's will for me and all that is needed for my salvation.

I recall, when I was still a young novice in the monastery, a Moscow pilgrim came up to me and told me what he had just witnessed: Fr. John, surrounded by pilgrims, was hurrying through the monastery courtyard towards the church. Suddenly a tear-stained woman with a three-year-old child in her arms rushed up to him: "Batiushka, bless me to go ahead with his surgery-the doctors say it must be done immediately, in Moscow." And then something happened which stunned both me and the pilgrim who told me the story. Fr. John stopped and firmly told her: "Under no circumstances. He'll die on the operating table. Pray and give him medical treatment, but by no means have the surgery. He'll recover." And he made the sign of the Cross over the child.

The pilgrim and I sat down and were terrified by our own speculations: What if Fr. John is mistaken? What if the baby dies? What would the mother do to Fr. John if that happens? Of course, we couldn't believe that Fr. John had displayed a crude denial of medicine, something which, however rare, still is not unheard of in some Church circles. We knew of many cases when Fr. John would bless surgery and even insist on it. There were many well-known doctors among his spiritual children. With dread we awaited what would happen. Would the broken-hearted mother show up in the monastery and raise a monstrous scandal? Or would nothing of the kind happen, as Fr. John had predicted?

Apparently nothing happened, because Fr. John went on as before with his daily walk between the church and his cell, surrounded by pilgrims filled with hope and gratitude. It remained for us to assume that Fr. John foresaw God's Providence for that infant, and took upon himself the great responsibility for his life. And the Lord did not put the faith and hope of his faithful servant to shame.

I remembered that incident ten years later, in 1993. A very similar story ended, on the one hand, tragically from a human perspective, but on the other, due to Fr. John's prayers, it served for the eternal salvation of a Christian soul and as a profound lesson for those who witnessed it.

Usually, when he was firmly convinced of the correctness and necessity of his counsels for someone who had turned to him, Batiushka tried to persuade, convince, or even beg and plead with the person to carry out what was necessary. If that person stubbornly insisted on his own will, Batiushka usually sighed and said, 'Well, then, try it. Do what you think is right.' And always, as far as I know about such cases, those who did not follow Fr. John's wise spiritual advice would bitterly repent of it in the end. As a rule, the next time they came to him it would be with the firm intention of doing as he said. Fr. John always received such people with true love and compassion, and never begrudged them his time, trying with all his might to correct their mistake.

There lived in Moscow a very interesting and unique woman, Valentina Pavlovna Konovalova.& She was a kind of real Moscow kupchikha (of the merchant class), and looked as though she had walked out of a canvas by Kustodiev. At the beginning of the 1990s she was sixty years old. She was the director of a large grocery depot on Prospect Mira. Plump and stocky, she would sit regally at the desk in her office, where behind her, even in the most difficult Soviet times, large icons hung on the walls. On the floor by her desk there lay a huge plastic sack of money. She herself, at her own discretion, would decide how to spend that money-whether to send her subordinates to buy a consignment of fresh vegetables, or to give it away to the poor and vagrants who flocked to her store in large numbers. Her employees feared her, but loved her. During Lent she would arrange for an Unction service right in her office, which even the Tartars who worked at the depot would reverently attend. During the years of deficiency, Moscow priests and sometimes even bishops would drop in on her. With some she would be respectful, while with others, whose "ecumenism" she did not approve of, she would be curt and even rather rude.

Many times, as part of my obedience, I would drive from [the Pskov-Caves Monastery in] Pechory to Moscow in a large truck to purchase provisions for the monastery for Pascha and Nativity. Valentina Pavlovna would receive us novices in a very warm and motherly way, and we became friends with her, especially since we had a favorite topic for our conversations: our common confessor, Fr. John. Batiushka was perhaps the only man in the world whom Valentina Pavlovna feared, infinitely respected, and loved. Twice a year, with her closest colleagues she would go to the monastery in Pechory, and would fast and confess there. It would be impossible to recognize her then. She would be so meek, quiet and shy-in no way reminiscent of the "Moscow queen."

At the end of 1993 several changes took place in my life. I was appointed as Superior of the metochion of the Pskov-Caves Monastery in Moscow, the present-day Sretensky Monastery, and I often made trips to Pechory. Valentina Pavlovna, who had a cataract in her eye, once requested that I ask Fr. John's blessing for her to have the cataract removed at the Feodorov Ophthalmic Institute. Fr. John's reply surprised me a little: 'No, no, by no means. Not now, let some time go by.' The next day I passed his exact words on to her, and Valentina Pavlovna was very distressed-everything had been already arranged at the Feodorov Institute. So she wrote Fr. John a detailed letter, explaining to him that it was a very simple operation, not worth any attention, and asking for his blessing again.

Fr. John, of course, knew as well as she did what kind of surgery it was, and that it didn't pose any serious threat. But, having read her letter, he became terribly anxious. We sat together for a long time, and he kept persuading me that it was essential to talk Valentina Pavlovna out of having the surgery at that time. He wrote to her again. He asked, begged, and even ordered her, as her spiritual father, to put off the surgery. I had two free weeks coming up. I hadn't had a vacation for over ten years, so Fr. John blessed me to go to a sanatorium in the Crimea for two weeks, and to take Valentina Pavlovna with me. He told her about that in the letter as well, adding that she was to have her surgery a month after the vacation. "If she has her surgery now, she'll die," he sadly told me when we were saying goodbye to each other.

However, in Moscow I realized that we had run into a brick wall. All of a sudden, Valentina Pavlovna, probably for the first time in her life, rose up against the will of her spiritual father. She at first firmly refused to go to the Crimea, but then it seemed as though she was humbling herself. But she was quite indignant that Fr. John was making so much fuss about such a trifle. I told her that no matter what, I was going to work on making our arrangements, and we would soon be going to the Crimea.

A few days later I received the Patriarch's blessing for the trip, after which I ordered two reservations, which were not difficult to obtain at that time of year. Then I called the store to tell Valentina Pavlovna about our departure. "She's in the hospital, in surgery," her assistant told me.

"What?!" I cried. "But Fr. John strictly forbade her!"

It turned out that a couple of days earlier some nun, formerly a doctor, had called on her, and having found out about her cataract problem, didn't agree with Fr. John's decision, either. So she took it upon herself to get a blessing from one of the spiritual fathers of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. A blessing was received, and Valentina Pavlovna went straight to the Feodorov Institute, hoping that after a short and simple operation she would go with me to the Crimea. However, during the surgery, right on the operating table, she had a serious stroke and was totally paralyzed. As soon as I learned about it I rushed to call Fr. Philaret, Fr. John's long-time cell-attendant. In exceptional cases Fr. John would go down to Fr. Philaret's cell and use his phone.

"How could you! Why didn't you listen to me?" cried Fr. John, almost in tears. "If I insist on something, that means I know what I'm doing!"

What could I tell him? I asked Fr. John what I was to do. Valentina Pavlovna was still unconscious. Fr. John said I should take the Reserved Gifts from the church to my cell, and as soon as Valentina Pavlovna regained consciousness I was to immediately go and confess her and give her Holy Communion.

By Fr. John's prayers, Valentina Pavlovna became conscious the next day. Her relatives immediately informed me, and I was at the hospital in half an hour. She was wheeled out to me in one of the intensive care wards. She was lying, so tiny, under a white sheet. She could not speak, and upon seeing me started crying. Her confession, that she had given in to the enemy's temptation in her disobedience to and distrust of her spiritual father, was clear without any words. I read the prayer of absolution over her and gave her Communion. We bade farewell to each other. The next day Fr. Vladimir Chuvikin communed her again, and soon afterwards she died. According to an ancient Church tradition, the soul of a person who has been vouchsafed to receive Communion on the day of his death goes to the Lord's throne, escaping the tollhouses. This happens either to great ascetics, or people with exceptionally pure hearts. Or to those who have very powerful intercessors.&

The history of the restoration of Sretensky Monastery has also been continually connected with Archimandrite John. In that year, 1993, I came to Fr. John with a whole mass of problems. After a long conversation in Fr. John's cell, he did not give me any direct answers, and we were in a hurry to attend the Vigil service to Archangel Michael. I prayed in the cliros, and Fr. John prayed in the altar. I was preparing to vest in order to pray the Akathist, when Fr. John literally ran out of the altar, and taking me by the hand, said joyfully, "You will found a metochion of the Pskov-Caves Monastery in Moscow."

"Batiushka," I said, "His Holiness the Patriarch does not bless the founding of metochions in Moscow, unless they be of stavropegic monasteries. Another monastery made such a request to the Patriarch not long ago, and His Holiness answered that if we were to give churches to all the monasteries desiring metochions, there would be no parishes left in Moscow.

[He said,] "Have no fear! Go straight to His Holiness and ask to open a metochion of the Pskov-Caves Monastery."

He gave me a heartfelt blessing, according to his custom, and there was nothing left for me to do but to kiss his hand and place all hope in God's hands, and in his prayers.

Everything turned out just as Fr. John said. I made my request, albeit not without fear, to His Holiness the Patriarch about the opening of a metochion of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. But the Patriarch replied very mercifully to this request, blessed this resolution, and immediately delegated the matter to [Vicar Bishop] Arseny and [Dean] Fr. Vladimir Divakov. Thus was the first and only diocesan metochion opened in Moscow, which, as Fr. John also had foretold, would later become an independent monastery, never losing its spiritual connection with either Pechory or Fr. John. It is superfluous to say that Fr. John's blessing and counsel in the monastery's life was most precious and desirable for us. I must confess, though, that not all the letters I received were affectionate. Sometimes his letters were so stern that I could not regain my composure for several days.

Usually when someone begins to reminisce about Fr. John, they write about how good, kind, and loving he was. Yes, this is undoubtedly true; I never knew a man more able to express fatherly, Christian love. However, it must be added that Fr. John could be truly tough when necessary. He could at times find such words of reproach that one would not envy the recipient afterwards. I recall when I was a novice in Pechory, I happened to hear what Fr. John said to two young hieromonks: "What kind of monks are you? You are only jolly fellows." Fr. John was never afraid to speak the truth without respect of persons, and he did so first of all in order to correct and save the soul of the one with whom he spoke, be he a hierarch or a simple novice. This firmness and spiritual integrity was of course placed in Fr. John's soul from early childhood, when he knew those great ascetics and New Martyrs. This was all an expression of true Christian love for God and people. It was also, of course, an expression of a true Christian consciousness. Here is one reply to a letter from me in 1997: "Here is another example of an analogous situation from my memory's archives. I was twelve years old at the time, but the impression was so earth-shakingly strong, that to this day I can still see everything that happened, and remember each participant by name.

"A remarkable Vladyka served in Orel-Archbishop Seraphim Ostroymov-an exceedingly intelligent, kind and ­loving man, about whom there could be no end of eulogy. He prepared himself by his life for a crown of martyrdom, which did in fact come to pass. So, on Forgiveness Sunday this godly hierarch banished two monks from the monastery, Igumen Callistos and Hierodeacon Tikhon, for some transgression. He banished them authoritatively, in front of other people, thereby preserving others from temptation, and then immediately preached a homily about Forgiveness Sunday and asked forgiveness of all.

"My childish consciousness was quite shaken by what had taken place, precisely because the one thing occurred right after the other: first banishment, that is, the absence of forgiveness, and then the humble asking of forgiveness for himself, and his own forgiveness of everyone. I only understood one thing: that punishment can serve as the beginning of forgiveness, and without it, there can be no forgiveness.

"Now I bow down before Vladyka's courage and wisdom, for the lesson he taught remained as a living example for all present then, as you see-for a whole lifetime."

What else can I write of essential importance, so that Fr. John himself could read these lines and confirm the veracity of this testimony?

During the years of our relationship I noticed that Fr. John had particular principles regarding spiritual counsel. Of course, he did not apply them automatically. Interesting to me was his advice about marriage. He blessed marriage only after the bride and bridegroom had known each other for at least three years. This seems a very long term to today's impetuous youth. However, many cases have shown how Fr. John's ­experience and insistence on this time of testing could save the souls of the husband and wife, and of their family. I know many instances when priests out of pity shortened this term before marriage given by Fr. John, with woeful consequences for the young families.

With regard to monastic tonsure, Fr. John as a rule also demanded a significant time of testing. He likewise placed great emphasis upon parental blessing. For example, I waited ten years for Fr. John's decision about my tonsure, until my mother blessed me to be a monk. In response to all of my impatient requests for the tonsure, Fr. John always persuaded me to wait for my mother's blessing. He assured me that the Lord would not forget this patience and obedience. I remembered these words when they tonsured me in Donskoy Monastery. It turned out that I was tonsured on my very birthday, when I turned thirty-three, and was named after my favorite saint-Holy Hierarch Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow.

Fr. John related to hierarchs and archpastors of the Church with enormous reverence, love, and obedience. He was truly a man of the Church. Many times did he bless people to do exactly as His Holiness [the Patriarch] would decide, or as the bishop or the abbot would bless. This was based upon faith that on earth truth abides only in the Church, is deeply felt there, and is brought to Her spiritual children. Fr. John did not countenance any schisms or revolts; he always fearlessly and fearsomely spoke out against them, although he knew what slanders and even hatred he would have to drink for this. But he endured it all, lest he himself or his spiritual flock stray from the royal path of the Church.

This applies also to the trials our Church has experienced over the recent decades: reformist tendencies on the one hand, and on the other, morbid eschatological moods. In both cases, Fr. John exercised discernment, showing love for those who were confused spiritually due to faulty reasoning and the enemy's snares, yet warning of the harm which they were actively and even viciously ready to bring to the Church. Nearly a century of Church life gave Fr. John a serious advantage in the discernment of spirits, in determining what one or another distraction, renovation, or "zeal not according to knowledge" (cf. Rom. 10:2) might bring. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. "I will not participate in your campaign," he wrote to one young and very sincere hieromonk, who was proposing that Fr. John participate in the movement "Life without the Social Security Number." He wrote, "The very spirit of such activity, with its abundant selfishness, noise, and hope in man rather than in God, yes, and especially with its criticism of the Church hierarchy, which springs out like a fountain in your words, forbids me to do so. I have already seen such things in the activities of the renovationists, who rose up against the most gentle Patriarch Tikon, in fact, against the Lord Himself and His Church."

Fr. John many times expressed his sober and deeply considered reaction to the problems of the global computer accounting system and other similar tendencies of the modern world. This has all been published in many places and has served for many as a cause of spiritual peace, calming of the spirit of revolt, and trust in the Russian Orthodox Church. For others it unfortunately served as a reason to attack Fr. John, and even to slander him outright.

I think that this experience of slander and hatred coming during the last years of his life was sent by the Lord providentially. St. Barsanuphius of Optina, it seems, wrote somewhere that the Lord sends such trials to his servants precisely at the end of their lives, as an image of the Savior's Golgotha.

Several years before these events, Fr. John also stood firm under fire in order to preserve the people of the Church from the temptation of a new renovationism. He often met and conversed with currently popular supporters of modernization and renovation in the Church. Only after exhausting every means of convincing them of the extreme danger of this path, did he pronounce clearly, precisely, for all to hear, and with full responsibility for his words: "If we do not destroy this movement, it will destroy the Church."

I was a witness to how Fr. John endured the hatred and false accusations poured out upon him for standing in the Truth of Christ. I saw all his pain, but also his good nature, when he endured misunderstanding and betrayal. Batiushka never lost his infinite love for his offenders, or his Christian forgiveness. I will always remember the words of his sermon in the St. Michael Cathedral of the Pskov-Caves Monastery in 1985. "The Lord has given us a commandment to love our neighbors. But we mustn't worry about whether or not they love us. We must only take care that we love them."

One Moscow priest, a spiritual son of Fr. John, came to me with a terrible request: to return the epitrachelion with which Fr. John had blessed him for the priesthood. This priest, as he said, was disappointed with Fr. John for not supporting his dissident political views. This was in the late eighties. What didn't this priest say? But he was deaf to my arguments: that Fr. John had himself spent many years in prison camps; that he was tortured but not broken; that he was the last person who could be suspected of conformism. With a heavy heart I gave this epitrachelion to Batiushka. His reaction stunned me. He crossed himself, kissed the priestly vestment reverently, and said, "I gave it to him with love, and I accept it again with love." Later, this priest joined another jurisdiction. He did not like it there either, and joined another.&

Neither can I hide the following fact, which might evoke varying responses, but for the sake of truth I cannot keep silent about it. Yes, Fr. John certainly did revere and submit to the Church hierarchy, but this did not mean automatic, unthinking submission. I witnessed an occasion when one of the monastery's abbots and the ruling hierarch tried to persuade Batiushka to give his blessing on their decision, with which Fr. John did not agree. They needed the elder's authority to support their decision. They approached Batiushka seriously, as they say, "with a knife to the throat." Monks and priests can imagine what it means to stand up to pressure from their ruling hierarch or abbot. But Fr. John withstood this prolonged pressure quite calmly. He respectfully, patiently, and meekly explained that he could not say "I bless" to something that did not agree with his soul, but should his superiors consider it necessary to take this action, then he would unmurmuringly accept their decision-they would answer for it before God and the brothers. He said, however, that he considered that this decision was being taken out of passion, and he could not give his "good word" on it.

Much more could be written, chiefly about how the souls of people who met Fr. John were transformed and resurrected, how people obtained faith and salvation. But this is bound up with people who are still alive, and therefore I cannot relate these stories without their permission.

In conclusion I would like to say just one thing: I thank the Lord that by His great mercy He gave me, a sinner, the chance to meet such a Christian in my life and to get to know him. I think there has never been anything more astounding in my life so far, nor is there ever likely to be in its remainder.

Fr. John on his 95th birthday with brothers of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, 2005.
Fr. John on his 95th birthday with brothers of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, 2005.
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Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)

04 / 02 / 2012

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