"LOVE IS GREATER THAN ALL ELSE"
'"I am still alive"
Schema-Archimandrite Zosima after death
In accordance with human nature, all human organizations on earth have hierarchies. However, in the Church, which is both human and divine, there are two hierarchies. The first is an outer hierarchy, corresponding to the human aspect of the Church, the second is an inner hierarchy, corresponding to its divine aspect. This second hierarchy is in fact a hierarchy of grace, corresponding to our closeness to, or distance from, the Kingdom of God. Its upper part is composed of those who have become holy, the communion of the saints. Its lower part is composed of the righteous still on earth, of whom some of the most visible are the Elders and Eldresses of the Church, with their gifts of prayer, discernment, wonder-working, healing, and inner sight into the past and the future, the latter known as prophecy. One contemporary such Elder is the recently reposed Schema-Archimandrite Zosima of the Ukraine (+ 2002), whose favorite saying was: "Love is greater than all else." Let us learn something of his life.
John—the Grace of the Lord
Schema-Archimandrite Zosima was born Ivan Alekseevich Sokur on 3 September 1944. He never saw his father, a Don Cossack, who was killed at the front. His mother, Maria, came from Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, but the future Elder was born in a Siberian prison hospital in the region of Sverdlov. A devout woman, his mother had been imprisoned for practicing her Faith. Her child was baptized Ioann (John), on the advice of the future saint, the holy Elder Kuksha. The Elder was at that time in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and he predicted that the infant would grow in "the grace of the Lord," which is the meaning of the name "John." At his baptism the baby took firm hold of the cross and the beard of the priest. This was deeply symbolic for his future life, for it was by the cross and as a priest that he would live.
The child grew up in a small mining town in the Donbass in the Ukraine. In this industrial desert was to be found a group of exiled nuns and spiritual children of St John of Kronstadt, among them Sister Antonina, his mother's sister, who helped bring him up. The nuns often secretly gathered in the Sokurs' house. John's aunt prophesied that he would live to see the canonization and worldwide veneration of St John of Kronstadt, which of course came about when the Church Outside Russia canonized him. From the life of St John related to him by his disciples, the child John learnt of the courage that Orthodox must have to survive in this world. He often said that we must not be, "slaves to fear." Later he also said: "Read the lives of the martyrs and confessors of the twentieth century—there you will find the true sacred history of the twentieth century." The Elder also predicted that the relics of St John, his favorite saint, would, one day, at a most difficult time in Russian history, be uncovered as a blessing to the whole world and that there would be many miracles and healings.
Thus John was brought up in the church and, by the age of seven, he could read Church Slavonic fluently. In those post-war years the family lived in great poverty and John often came close to death from starvation, from illness, or from being crushed by trains, for he would often go to the railway-line, searching for lumps of coal to cook with. Despite their poverty, the family kept the Church fasts strictly. The nuns, who had all suffered imprisonment for the Faith, one for 25 years, taught John to recite the psalms and the Jesus Prayer as he worked. John's mother also later became a nun, under the name Mariamna.
School and Persecution
From the age of seven onwards, John had to go to school. Here he never took part in anything relating to the atheist Communist Party. Later he would say that he only had one Party: Mother Church. The teachers and the other children mocked him and called him "father" or "priest"—words of insult in Soviet times. Despite the bullying and the beatings, John always triumphed through his love and meekness. Even when the head-teacher tried to persuade the young child, in a six-hour interview, of the correctness of Communism, John remained firm. The authorities even threatened to close the local church if John went there. In fact, the more they persecuted him, the stronger his faith became. The child was saved because he was an excellent pupil. Later the Elder was to show interest in all sorts of things and spoke of the importance of knowledge.
Indeed, he considered that knowledge was vital. His favorite reading was the twelve volumes of St Dimitri's Lives of the Saints and the Diary of St John of Kronstadt. Later he would recommend this Diary to Orthodox, in it the Elder said you could find the answers to all your questions. When the militia raided the house and took away all the icons and books, miraculously they left this Diary. In this John saw a sign. Another influence was when Fr. Dimitri Peskov, a man of prayer with the gift of discernment, came to serve in the local church after many years of imprisonment. John served there and learned much. Another influence was the pilgrimages the family made. One was to Pochaev, where they now met the holy Elder Kuksha, who prophesied the future life of John, as a priest, a monk, and a schemamonk—a man of prayer for the whole world.
The Way of the Cross
When Khrushchov came to power in the Soviet Union in 1959, new trials started as persecution increased. John, whom everyone including himself, knew was destined for the priesthood, was to suffer. In 1961 he finished school, an outstanding pupil, but the Communists would not let him study at seminary. With the blessing of the local priest, who wished to test him, John went to study veterinary science. It seemed suitable, since he suffered with all living things. After one year of these studies, his spiritual father blessed him to enter the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. Here his spiritual father became the clairvoyant Elder, Schema-Abbot Valentine. It was he who warned the young John of the temptations that he would face in the future. In particular, he said: "They will ask you to be a bishop thirteen times and once to be bishop in Japan. Refuse, this is not your path." All of this came to pass. Being obedient to his spiritual father, Fr. Zosima always refused the offer of the episcopate.
John stayed at the Monastery in Kiev until it was closed by the atheists. At that time the future Soviet Metropolitan of Kiev, the infamous Philaret, who was to be defrocked when freedom came to the Church in the 1990s, came with KGB agents to close the Monastery. Elder Zosima later recalled how Abbot Valentine, ever clairvoyant, said to him: "For your impiety you will forsake God and be an enemy of the Church, the time will come, you will be a traitor to the Church. And remember: for your impiety, that you closed the monastery, God will not give you a normal death, you will die like Judas the Traitor." This prophecy remains to this day, for Philaret is still alive. At the closure of the Monastery, the monks buried the icons to save them and, though weeping, had faith that the monastery would one day reopen, as indeed it did.
After this John became a novice at a dependency of the Pochaev monastery in the Ukraine. When this in its turn was closed, John received a recommendation from a priest to go to seminary—for this recommendation the priest was retired. John easily passed all the exams to enter the Trinity-St. Sergius seminary, but the KGB would not allow him in. He was also refused entry at the St Petersburg seminary. He was taken in by the ascetically-minded Bishop Paul of Novosibirsk, with whom he lived for one year as a novice. From Bishop Paul the novice John learned much about the services of the Church and also decided that he would never marry. This was a fruitful time.
After one year the novice was finally accepted for studies in St Petersburg (then still called Leningrad) with the help of the controversial Metropolitan Nikodim. The Elder, who was completely Orthodox in his rejection of the heresies of ecumenism and modernism, was later to defend the reputation of Metropolitan Nikodim, whose cell-attendant he became for a time. According to the Elder, the Metropolitan was a pious man and did what he did only in order to defend the Church from Communist persecution. At seminary the young John spent much time in the library and was given the nickname of "bookman." Knowledge and self-education were extremely important in his life. In particular, he loved Church history and used to say: "History means spiritual roots. Can there be a tree without roots? So without history there can be no spirituality."
In 1975 John finished seminary brilliantly, having specialized in the history of the Monastery of Valaam. On 3 June of that year he was tonsured a monk, taking the name of Savvaty (Sabbatius), after one of the two founders of the Monastery of Valaam. As he was tonsured, the Metropolitan predicted that he would die under the name of Zosima, after the other founder of Valaam. Six days later he was ordained hieromonk and, exceptionally, at once awarded a gold cross. It seemed as though Fr. Sabbatius would be destined to teach, but the young priest wanted to serve others in churches. For he had no intellectual pretentiousness and often repeated the well-known words of St Ambrose of Optina: "Where it is simple, there are a hundred angels, where it is complicated there is not a single one." The young priest did not want to teach, but to put his knowledge into the services of the Church. For example, having come to know Russian Church history, whenever he read the intercession at vigil services, he would spend half an hour going through the full list of the saints of Holy Russia in chronological order. He knew every saint, for he was in their succession.
The Cross of the Good Shepherd
As a new priest Fr. Sabbatius was sent to Odessa in the Ukraine, to the Monastery of the Dormition. Providentially, he was given the cell of the future St Kuksha, who had reposed at this very monastery. The young priest already venerated the Elder Kuksha as a saint, for he had twice played an important role in his life. Working in the monastery garden, the priest learnt to flee all temptations through patience and humility. However, his time here was to be very short. At the end of 1975, Father was transferred to another diocese and became a simple village priest, as had also been prophesied of him. Here he was to serve for ten years, raising up the parish, renewing it completely, continually suffering the persecution of the Red Baal. His work of restoration and rebuilding was a miracle, for elsewhere in the Soviet Empire at that time churches were being closed.
Fr. Sabbatius' services were daily and monastic. They began at five or six o' clock in the morning and lasted until midday or one o' clock. The evening service began at four or five o' clock and finished at ten. In between, there were other services—baptisms, weddings, funerals, blessings, for which he never took any money. People, who came all over, for this was the only church in the region, cried at his moving services and Fr. Sabbatius soon gained a reputation for his sincerity and knowing the secrets of hearts. Once, for instance, a man came asking about his son in Afghanistan. Fr. Sabbatius replied: "It is a Golgotha for them there. You son is alive … Go home you will have news." The prediction was correct in all details. There were a great many such cases and also cases of the healing of demoniacs. A single word from him was enough to send a demon scuttling out of the sick and out of the church. Tall, thin, very poorly dressed, he expelled many demons in this way. Here he spent nothing on himself, but would always spend his last penny on beautifying the church.
Given the title of Abbot in 1980, he was to suffer much from the Communists at this time. He was arrested, interrogated, beaten, and forced to stand barefoot on concrete floors, which was how he started to have sores on his feet, developing erysipelas. One KGB colonel persecuted him in particular. The priest predicted: "You are unfortunate, for through your godlessness you will go mad and in your old age you will eat your own excrement." Enraged, the colonel tried to beat him, but he was restrained by St Nicholas, to whom Fr. Sabbatius prayed. Some fifteen years later, in conditions of freedom, the colonel's wife was to come to the Elder with her demented husband, and ask for his prayers, for the Elder's terrible prophecy had turned out to be exactly true ...
The KGB arrested Fr. Sabbatius, beat him, and tortured him. One terrible torture was "the music box." This was to shut up a prisoner in a small, dark, windowless chamber and play depressing music into it. Of this the Elder said, "There I learned the Jesus Prayer, without it I would have gone mad." Although the KGB failed in their tortures, they left the Elder with full-blown erysipelas, lung problems and a hump back—medals for his victory. Once when talk turned to criticism of the Patriarchal Church by certain ill-informed members of the Church Outside Russia, the Elder said, touching his hump: "We are accused of co-operating with the KGB, well, here is the sign of my co-operation with them." Clearly, the Elder was referring to politically-minded or simply ignorant members of the Church Outside Russia, who without discernment, lumped all members of the Patriarchal Church, people like Elder Zosima and Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev and modernists and ecumenists, together. These were the very people whom Metropolitan Philaret of the Church Outside Russia, who canonized the New Martyrs and Confessors who finally freed Russia, rebuked in 1981, in the resolution concerning the holy Elder Tavrion of Riga.
Seeing their failure, the KGB next tried a familiar tactic, tried so often in other parts of the Russian Church and at other points in its history. This was to send Fr. Sabbatius off to different parishes in out of the way places, in fact exiling him. Thus, in 1985 and 1986 he served in three different parishes. But those faithful to him always sought him out and found him, as is the way of things.
A few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 22 November 1989, Fr. Sabbatius was appointed rector of St Basil's church in Nikolskoye. It was the most out of the way place of all. The church was half-ruined, without an iconostasis, and the priest's house was a tumbledown shed infested by rats and mice. Yet here, after the Revolution, nuns had lived in exile, and before the Revolution the Mother of God had appeared on the feast-day of the Kursk Root Icon. A spring of miraculous water had appeared on the site of the appearance, which again and again had broken through the cement that the atheists sealed it with. At one time, a holy Elder called Michael had lived here and he had prophesied that when a monk came to serve at the church, two monasteries would be founded here and that they would stand until the Second Coming.
In the winter it was so cold in the unheated church here that Fr. Sabbatius' hands would freeze to the chalice. His erysipelas became worse. Yet by the autumn of 1990 the church had been restored. A hundred people came to help. They helped the Elder rebuild, and as they worked they prayed. “Say the Jesus prayer, otherwise there will be no grace,” said the Elder to them. Everything was built on grace. However, once Fr. Sabbatius had restored life here, the Patriarch in Moscow decided to make him a bishop and send him to Japan. As usual, Fr. Sabbatius refused, but he was not heeded. Then, at the last moment, nothing came of this Japanese plan, for Fr. Sabbatius caught pneumonia. Another monk went to Japan in his place. In 1990 Fr. Sabbatius was made Archimandrite, and in 1992 he took the great schema and the name Zosima.
At that time, with fall of the idols of communism, Holy Russia was in as much need of the Elder as idolatrous Japan. People came from everywhere to consult the Elder, his reputation now established. There were many healings and miracles. Those afflicted in body and spirit were healed. There were also many cases of the Elder's clairvoyance, as he had the ability to read the thoughts of those who came to him. But the Elder was not carried away by miracles and he remained sober, warning: “Mysticism is harmful to the soul. Our main miracle is the liturgy, repentance and prayer.”
He talked to everyone, the peasant and the professor, the old and the young, finding the right words for them all, treating them all as equals. He would say: “Avoid extremes—extremes are not from God. Take the middle path. Do not despair—there is no sin that is not healed by repentance. God is merciful.” Everybody who approached him felt his love and mercy. Often he helped people with material things, money and food. In every parish he served in, he always set up a place to eat, a refectory. Later he set up a “House of Mercy,” alms-houses, where some sixty elderly and ill people, abandoned by the State, were taken care of. “The Lord walks here,” he would say, predicting that his House of Mercy would last until the end of the world.
Until 1998, the Elder had never thought of starting a monastery or a convent. He would send candidates to be novices in other monasteries and convents, he would direct benefactors to build churches elsewhere. Thus, with his blessing and help, altogether some ten churches were built in the Donbass. However, in 1998, the Elder went into hospital with kidney failure. A remarkable event took place. Here, he underwent a clinical death, his soul leaving his body but then returning. On waking after this event, he was to recall how he had seen the heavenly habitations and heard the most exquisite angelic singing. He was called back to life—“the whole earth is weeping for you,” he was told afterwards.
We do not know what happened exactly, but after coming back from death, but in a wheelchair, the Elder set about building the Dormition Convent in Nikolskoye, with churches dedicated to St Basil and to All the Saints of the Russian Land. From his wheelchair the Elder surveyed the building operations. And when he was not in hospital, he served the liturgy and received pilgrims. Within two or three years all was built, not only walls, but above all nuns and also monks. His main labor was not building, but praying. Here, for instance, he gathered together parts of the relics of over 200 saints from all over the Orthodox world.
The Cross and the Resurrection
However, the sufferings of the Elder were enormous. His doctors said that he suffered for ten people. And yet, with all this, he served and helped others. Following the tortures of the KGB, his feet now bled with sores, and yet he still stood and served. From 1995 the sores in his feet reached the bones and he had an almost permanent temperature of thirty-nine to forty-one degrees. Yet he spent his nights in prayer, hardly sleeping. “Let us thank the Lord for every good thing and every bad thing in our life” he said. At this time his benefactors enabled him to go on pilgrimages to the holy places in Russia, and also to Greece, Mt Athos and the Holy Land.
These journeys were a great consolation to Father. From the year 2000 on, his health worsened. 2001 was spent in hospital, except for brief intervals, for example at Easter 2001, when apparently dying fifteen minutes previously, yet he managed to serve the liturgy at midnight. The doctors who treated him were illumined by the light of his faith, one was converted from total atheism. Dying and in intolerable pain, he yet gave them hope and encouragement. At the end he lived only through the Holy Spirit, and the Lord was to reveal to him the day and time of his end.
On August 14, 2002 Father became very ill. Calling out in pain to the Mother of God, he announced that he still had two weeks to live. On his feast-day, August 23, he announced to his bishop that he would die at Dormition, August 28. But then he added that this would spoil the feast and that he was unworthy to be buried with the Mother of God. For he loved the Mother of God and the Dormition was his favorite feast. On August 28 the Elder was taken to hospital in great pain. He remained in prayer the whole time. And the Elder reposed, as he had prophesied, at a quarter to midnight on August 29. At church they were celebrating the service of the burial of the Mother of God.
When the faithful were told the news at the end of the service, their grief was enormous. Wailing and tears broke out. It seemed as though all Russia was weeping as an orphan. The next day the body of the Elder was brought to the church. It was the morning of August 30. The monks read the Psalter and did services constantly. At the funeral, on August 31, there was no room for the people in the church. There was space only for the clergy and monastics. The people stood in a crowd of some ten thousand outside. The monastic choir, going in procession around the convent with the coffin, began to sing Easter hymns. Those who kissed the Elder's hand noticed that it was still soft and very warm. The atmosphere was that of Easter—of the Resurrection
The main lesson of the Elder was that the greatest joy is the joy of living with God, which nothing can ever take away. He taught this in his life, he taught this also in his death. Those who saw the Elder's face in death, saw joy and an unearthly rejoicing on it. After his holy repose, many saw the Elder in dreams, announcing: “I am still alive” and “Zosima is risen.” In particular he left in his will instructions regarding the Church. He prophesied difficult times for the Ukraine, instructing all to follow and be faithful to the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the end of 2004 those times are now upon us and will continue. But we are to follow the Elder's instructions. As the Elder said, Holy Russia is not some narrow national country, not only Russia, but also the Ukraine and Belarus. And for those of us who live outside this threefold territory, but belong to Her Church, whatever our nationality and language, we also belong to the same idea and spiritual reality of Holy Russia. Spiritually, we all belong to Holy Russia. Therefore the holy Elder is calling us to follow the same instructions.
Although we have been persecuted by modernists, although we have been slandered by masons, although we have been sent out by those lacking discernment, although we have been hated by those we love, we are all to keep faith with the Russian Orthodox Church, in the difficult times that are now upon us.
Father Zosima, Pray to God for us!