Exactly 25 years ago on November 2, 1995, Metropolitan John (Shychev) of St. Petersburg and Ladoga fell asleep in the Lord. He was a wonderful archpastor, a gentle intercessor in prayer, and an outstanding preacher who was able to awaken many thousands of his countrymen from spiritual slumber.
We present the memories about the archpastor of blessed memory by Tatiana Veselkina, our contributor, whose life-transforming meetings with Vladyka John have forever entered the spiritual treasure chambers of her heart.
Meeting Vladyka John became a pivotal moment of my life. In the following years, I visited more than one diocese and many monasteries being restored at the time. The scariest experience (and a trial) was getting around the older women helping around in the men’s monasteries. Without giving them the slightest reason to treat me badly, I intuitively felt their animosity. I humbly resigned to keeping a tactful silence and tried to disregard their rebukes.
It so happened that my mom fell gravely ill. There were days when I had to call the ambulance more than once a day while traveling between two cities, Moscow and Ryazan. Once, I was sent on a work assignment to one of Moscow’s monasteries. I found out that there was a priest from our town there who was going to go back to Ryazan on that day. So, I asked an older woman from the monastery to pass on my request for him to give me a ride back home (if I took an evening commuter train, I would be home no earlier than midnight). In response, the woman started screaming and flinging insults at me. She got so wound up that she was ready to anathematize me. Since I hadn’t slept the night before while waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I couldn’t hold back my tears and left the monastery crying. The tears blurred my vision and I ended up walking in the middle of the road. It was as if I saw nothing around and continued walking towards the passing cars. From that moment, my memory went blank. I stopped crying only when I reached Pogodinskaya Street and stepped inside the Publishing Department of the Russian Patriarchate. All of a sudden, my boss at the time told me, “You had a call from St. Petersburg, from the residence of Metropolitan John.” Soon, Anna Stepanovna, Vladyka’s secretary, called back again. She said that he was in Moscow and asked me to visit him. In one of the most difficult periods of my life, the Lord brought me back to Vladyka John.
Looking back, I realize now that only through Vladyka’s prayers I had survived that incident on a busy Moscow highway. That’s when I felt Vladyka’s ability to foresee and to console.
As soon as I saw Vladyka, I forgot all of my sorrows. He stepped out to greet me, offered his blessing, and invited me into his cell.
“Now, tell me, who hurt you?” he asked.
“No one,” I answered.
Vladyka turned and faced the icon of the Mother of God, “Let’s pray together.”
Vladyka never spoke about the incident again but the subsequent events and his actions convinced me that he knew everything.
Despite his busy schedule and frequent illness, the Lord generously granted me opportunities to see Vladyka in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
One time, he invited me to join him for lunch before my departure from St. .Petersburg and asked me what kind of baggage I was leaving with. Unsure what he meant, I replied that I had bought a lot of books. Later on, I found out that by “baggage,” Vladyka had meant spiritual education and accumulated spiritual knowledge. There was a lot to learn.
Vladyka had collected a priceless library in several languages. This depository of wisdom attracted me as a writer for being a source of inspiration in collecting and protecting the information about the ascetics of the past and recent years. I used to stay there reading till 2 or 3 a.m. My “long reads” didn’t escape Vladyka’s watchful eye. In the mornings, usually before the liturgy, Valentina Sergeevna would bring (despite my protests!) coffee with milk, a sandwich, or wafers as nourishment, because “Vladyka saw that you stayed awake late into the night.”
Vladyka had an amazing memory. He knew exactly where to find an answer to a particular spiritual matter in a book, often even giving an exact page reference.
The works by Vladyka prompted me to gather accounts of the lives of the saints and righteous ascetics from Ryazan from the eleventh century up until modern times, including the martyrs. I had to do a lot of research in the historical depositories and a variety of archives; I was also able to find priceless information in the type-written books from Vladyka’s collection.
Metropolitan John was one of the first archpastors who organized regular publications of Orthodox materials in his diocese. The first publication was an affordable version of the Concise Orthodox Prayer Book printed repeatedly with the print runs reaching hundreds of thousands of copies. At the earliest opportunity, Vladyka also reprinted The Law of God by Very Rev. Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, as well as The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It by the holy hierarch Theophan of Vysha. From St. Petersburg, the books were distributed to other dioceses.
Wise, but extremely easy to communicate with, Vladyka John was able to detect the spiritual disposition of the people who visited him. He valued sincerity and did not accept lies, slyness and hypocrisy. He was strict. He was kind. Famous people and children were equally drawn to him, as well as anyone who sought support and fatherly advice. Dozens of letters from every corner of the country containing written confessions were delivered daily to the official Metropolitan residence on Stone Island. How the hierarch rejoiced deep in his feeble heart for those who were joyful and ached for those who wept, but he never remained indifferent. Foreseeing people’s needs, the elder prayerfully sought God’s help for his numerous spiritual children and for those he didn’t know in person.
Vladyka’s tender heart was intimately attuned to the spiritual life of his flock. He watched out for them vigilantly, but subtly. The elder would tirelessly repeat time after time that in our spiritual life we have to avoid the extreme and choose “the middle way,” for it is “the royal path” and we should hurry to serve God while we are still young.
We should hurry to serve God while we are still young
I will never forget my first confession with Vladyka. It happened on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord in 1992. I was working on a list of my sins deep into the night. In the morning, my head was killing me. I went upstairs to see Vladyka, where he blessed and covered me with his mantle; my headache vanished as if by magic. He read the hand-written scroll of my sins, pointed out some that were real, some that I made up, and then left. Assuming Vladyka simply had no time to read the prayer of absolution before a long service, I stepped outside to read the prayers before Communion. Later on, Fr. Simon arrived (the Diocesan Secretary at the time and later, Archbishop of Murmansk). Next, I hear they are calling me saying that Vladyka is upstairs waiting to read the prayer of absolution over me. Forgetting everything, I ran up the grand staircase, where I bumped right into Vladyka standing in front of me.
“Where are you flying to?” said Vladyka jokingly and led me towards the “It Is Truly Meet” icon of the Mother of God. He covered me with his mantle and asked how I was fighting one of my sins, pinpointed another that I hadn’t recognized yet, and finally began reading the prayer of absolution. Hearing the words, “For I, thy unworthy archpastor, by His power given to me,” I sobbed.
Vladyka blessed me and, glowing with warm kindness, told me, “Well, now you can run off.”
Vladyka Metropolitan John (Snychev). Painted by: Philip Moskvitin I won’t bother comparing Vladyka with other clergymen, but you immediately felt his special concern for your soul. He could softly yet powerfully condemn your sin. At the same time, his words never produced the desire to contradict him or look for excuses. Once, having cried the entire night, I admitted that I was full of vanity. To this, the elder answered, “It is okay that there is vanity. What matters is that we are now aware of the sin we need to fight against.”
Vladyka never forced anyone to do good deeds. He was a good shepherd. His spiritual children had a list of needy residents of the northern capital and Moscow whom he helped from time to time. Vladyka tried to help anyone who needed assistance. He never even saw his pension, as he had blessed Nadezhda Mikhailovna Yakimkina, his former accountant in Samara, to receive it and distribute to whomever needed money at that moment.
I had once told Vladyka that a priest from the Ryazan Region had a house fire. Besides, he wasn’t the first local priest whose house was set on fire. It happened late in the fall so it was cold already. The priest’s kids had escaped the fire in their pajamas. All of their clothing had been destroyed except for their baptismal gowns.
At that time, Germany had sent humanitarian aid to St. Petersburg. Vladyka gave the blessing to send clothing to this priest’s family with three children. There were two large suitcases. The clothing came in quite handy and other clothing of the wrong sizes went to other needy parishioners of churches in the Ryazan area.
It was amazing how Vladyka and his physician Valentina Sergeevna handled the medicine sent from Germany. We used to sort large boxes full of different medications, while I was blessed to translate the instructions and compile a list of available medicine, matching them to specific ailments. Later, every box was supplied with the instructions in Russian with the additional short prescription rules attached to each package.
During one of my trips to St. Petersburg, I witnessed a miracle. Just before I arrived there, they had received a large box of medicine from France. As I had completed the English translation, I disappointedly looked at the French box. I didn’t know the language and the translator was running late. As our waiting dragged on, I decided not to waste time anymore, analyzed the instructions, and tried to sort them by expiration date. Suddenly it was midnight. It was useless to wait for a translator anymore, but tomorrow I was leaving Petersburg. I was quite upset that we had a box full of medicine left and no one could use it. At first, I didn’t even notice, but I began typing up the translations myself! The next morning, an elderly translator finally came, and to my utter surprise, she could read my work because it was correct! Afterward, I never tried to read in French again, and to this very day I do not understand the language except for some basic phrases… The “humanitarian” medical assistance was distributed at the time to a newly founded Orthodox hospital of Blessed St. Xenia of Petersburg as well as to specific needy people in other cities.
However, Vladyka said that not all good deeds are good, that one should first learn to be wise and only then how to be kind. With his life, he showed us example of wise acts of kindness.
When the situation around the country made a turn for the worse and people struggled financially, some devout Christians asked him whether they should give money to every beggar even if they barely have enough to sustain themselves. Vladyka would usually reply that giving alms is good and necessary, but that one shouldn’t do it at the expense of one’s own loved ones. If it makes you uneasy or if you doubt that the alms won’t going to a good cause, it is better to find a needy person or a family and support them directly. “Find someone too ashamed to ask for assistance and help them,” he used to say.
As a journalist, I had a habit of writing down the advice that Vladyka gave or, what he read from the teachings of the Holy Fathers in response to a question. Sometimes, especially at lunch, I used napkins to take notes that I’d later copy onto a notepad. Having seen me doing that, Vladyka said: “Don’t bother writing. When I am no longer alive, you’ll remember everything.” He was right.
Written between October 2005 and October 2020.
To be continued: “What, sleeping?”