Matushka Maria Kotar is the wife of archpriest Serge Kotar, who served for many years in the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral in San Francisco, at the relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Matushka knew St. John from childhood, and it was he who brought the man who was later to become her spiritual father into their home, Hieromonk Seraphim Rose.
St. John of Shanghai was always with us
I remember St. John of Shanghai well; I was almost eight years old when he departed this life. We lived in San Francisco not far from the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral and I remember that St. John always somehow seemed to be with us—whether in church, or at our house when he would come over.
My Godfather was his driver and took St. John everywhere he asked, and would later tell us interesting stories of his miraculous help in hospitals or other difficult situations. I don’t remember exact details because I was a young child, but I do remember the adults surrounding my Godfather and asking him, “Well, tell us about Vladyka John. What wonderful things happened today?” And my godfather would tell about what he saw that particular time; Vladyka John was able to see where he was needed, who was in particular need of his prayers that day.
I would always take Vladyka’s blessing every time I saw him, and he would often pat me on the head. We children didn’t only hear the remarkable stories about him, we also felt the grace surrounding him and in spite of our young years, understood that he was a holy man. Our family would always go to him with questions and problems and he always listened very attentively to all our needs.
Under the protection of St. John’s prayers
How did it happen that our family was so well acquainted with St. John?
In previous articles, I have already told the story of my great-grandfather who was the godson of Alexander II, and my grandfather, who as the chief justice of the Ekaterinburg court, in July 1918 organized the investigation of the murder of Alexander’s grandson, the holy Passion-Bearer Tsar Nicholas II. I talked about how my grandfather fought in World War I, was wounded and cared for by a young nurse who was my future grandmother. Also, I talked about how my grandfather participated in the Great Siberian Ice Trek and how together with the army their families traveled farther and farther east.
My mother was born in 1921 in Vladivostok, and her younger sister was born in Harbin, China. Then my family moved to Shanghai where they lived across the street from the Surety of Sinners Cathedral and were under the spiritual guidance of Vladyka John of Shanghai. My grandmother washed and repaired his vestments, and my grandfather helped Vladyka John in his St. Tikhon of Zadonsk orphanage.
They lived in Shanghai for a long time, but then the Russian refugees had to save themselves from the Chinese communists. Thus, my grandmother found herself together with Vladyka John on the tropical island of Tubabao in the Philippines, and my mother, with a seriously ill husband and three older children, fled to Australia where of course they struggled financially.
Years later they were all united in San Francisco, where I was born in 1958. I am retelling all this in a shortened version for those who did not read my earlier interviews, to explain how my family became so well acquainted with Vladyka John of Shanghai and why I, a Russian girl, was born and grew up in America.
In San Francisco my family continued its spiritual relationship with Vladyka John as they had in Shanghai.
How St. John of Shanghai introduced Eugene, the future Hieromonk Seraphim Rose into our family
I can’t call St. John of Shanghai my spiritual guide because during his life I was still too young for his spiritual talks and lessons, but thanks to St. John my future spiritual father was introduced to us when I was still little. This was Fr. Seraphim Rose, (1934-1982). And it was Vladyka John who brought him to our family. This is how it happened.
The future Hieromonk Seraphim Rose, at that time still just a young American man named Eugene, studied at UC Berkeley (where by the way I also studied, but much later). He lived in San Francisco, as did my family.
Eugene was raised in a Protestant family, but from his youth he sought truth, and one day in a bookstore he saw a book with an image of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Infant Jesus. From the depths of his heart he prayed to the Mother of God: If you have Truth, then please show me the path, so that I may live the rest of my life with meaning!
And the Mother of God answered his sincere prayer; soon after, Eugene entered the old Cathedral of Joy of All Who Sorrow where Vladyka John served, and stayed. He began to attend services regularly and in 1962 became Orthodox, and a dedicated spiritual son of Saint John.
Eugene also began to read spiritual books, learning Russian and Church Slavonic. He was a very erudite and educated man and knew many languages: He read texts of Confucius in ancient Chinese, of the early Christian martyrs in Latin, and was fluent in French before studying Russian and Church Slavonic. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree he stayed on for graduate work, but soon he traded his brilliant academic future and career for the garb of humble monasticism.
When I was still a young child, Eugene was made a reader in the cathedral we attended. When it came time for my older sister’s husband, who was an American, to join the Orthodox Church, Vladyka John brought Eugene Rose to our house to be his godfather. That is how Eugene joined our family.
At that time he was not yet a monk, nor a priest. We knew him as a reader and our very deeply religious, kind and brilliant friend.
The Orthodox Word
With the blessing of St. John, Eugene Rose, together with Holy Trinity seminary graduate Gleb Podmoshenksy (the future Fr. Herman) started a missionary brotherhood and in 1964 opened a bookstore near the new Holy Virgin Cathedral. They started to publish a missionary magazine called “The Orthodox Word”—Vladyka John thought of the name. They also started to republish pre-Revolutionary Russian texts about saints and elders.
“I started to pour out my soul and suddenly noticed—Vladyka John’s eyes were closed and he was snoring lightly”
Fr. Herman later on reminisced about one of his conversations with Vladyka John about their missionary brotherhood. This conversation took place almost at midnight, as Vladyka was always very busy and this is the way it happened:
I started to pour out my soul, thankful that I had this opportunity, when I suddenly noticed—Vladyka’s eyes were closed and he was snoring lightly. I was upset, but understanding very well how tired he must be, I stopped talking.
At that moment he opened his eyes and soberly pronounced: “Continue!” I started again, and he continued to snore. Feeling that my monologue was useless, I began to pray, but he immediately opened his eyes, pulled me so close to himself that we had less than a foot between us, and extremely seriously demanded that I continue. I obeyed and boldly set out all the necessary questions that had to be decided.
While I talked, he slept and snored once in a while. When I finished, he asked me if I was done, then proceeded to answer, point by point, every question I had asked while he slept. I was astonished and understood that he hadn’t been asleep, it just looked like his body was sleeping from utter exhaustion.
This is how I remember Vladyka John
Here is someone’s description of Vladyka John in Shanghai; this is similar to how we saw him and how I remember him:
He was short of stature with messy grey hair, dressed all in black, with his klobuk askew on his head and a rather strict glance… When he was being vested I saw that he was extremely thin, and what looked like a large stomach was in reality a bag filled with relics of saints, which he always carried with him. In that same bag there was also an icon wrapped in purple velvet with relics of his distant relative St. John Maximovitch, Metropolitan of Tobolsk (1785).
His cassock of a bright blue color was made from a thin “material for poor people”. His sakkos also was different. Although it was part of his bishop’s vestments, it was made from white canvas on which small purple and orange crosses had been cross-stitched by the children of his orphanage. His miter… looked more like a large, strangely shaped skufia with small cheap icons sewn on all four sides. All of his vestments were too large for him…
But at the moleben, when he was sprinkling holy water, his whole demeanor was transfigured—his eyes burned with some sort of inner light, and it seemed to me that his soul rejoiced with the children whom he abundantly showered with the just-blessed holy water.
Revering the commonly held Christian saints
St. John taught Eugene Rose to revere the commonly held Christian saints, especially those who lived before the eleventh century. Vladyka even began to translate their lives, and later on Fr. Seraphim continued his work. It was important for both of them that we never forget these saints.
Vladyka John once came into the missionary bookstore to Eugene and brought him an icon of a third century saint—Alban of Britain, the first martyr of the British Isles—along with a photo of the church where he was buried.
That time Vladyka John talked to Eugene for a long time about the ancient saints of Britain and Western Europe; they were so close to him. It was as if he spiritually associated with them. It seemed that the Lord reveal to Vladyka certain details of their lives.
Ten years after the death of St. John, Fr. Seraphim Rose continued to concern himself with helping people remember the lives of the Western saints, translating into English the Latin Vita Patrum of St. Gregory of Tours (538-594). This book had not been translated at all from the time it was written in the sixth century.
My spiritual father—Seraphim Rose
In 1966, Eugene Rose wrote:
We have no new plans for next year. Apparently, the time has not yet come for the establishment of our monastic brotherhood… For now we are all too busy working on establishing the bookstore and the magazine.
When the time comes, God will show us the way, how to best serve Him. Here in San Francisco we have Vladyka John who is spiritually guiding us, and at the given time, that is all we need.
After the blessed death of St. John on July 2, 1966, at the age of seventy, Eugene Rose and Gleb Podmoshensky bought a parcel of forest land in northern California, not far from the tiny town of Platina, where in 1967 they built a skete named after blessed Herman of Alaska. Herman of Alaska was canonized by ROCOR in 1969, and later on the skete was transformed into the St. Herman monastery.
In 1970, Eugene became a monk named after St. Seraphim of Sarov, and in 1977 was ordained to the priesthood becoming Fr. Seraphim Rose. In those years, I was a young college student and in need of spiritual guidance; I didn’t have to look far, as Fr. Seraphim became my spiritual father.
St. Herman of Alaska
Their lives were like those of the early Christian hermits
The monastery was in the middle of the forest, and they built a few cells with no modern comforts, no electricity, no running water. I don’t know how they survived there. Their lives were like those of the early Christian hermits, although those were mostly in warm climates, and here we had cold weather.
It was a very poor, but very blessed place—among the pine trees, at the top of a mountain and all around, beautiful views. The church was a homey wooden structure. Long monastic services were held there, but they were surprisingly easy to stand through—that is how full of grace it was.
Beyond the monastery gates were small wooden huts where we would spend the night. There was no furniture and we took sleeping bags with us, and in the winter slept in our clothes and coats, it would get so cold.
The fathers worked and prayed in their skete. They bought a very old-fashioned printing press, and they printed books in an almost medieval fashion, putting together the metal letters by hand, and we all helped in any way we could. We also cooked and washed dishes.
Some families would bring them food. There was a Russian deli in San Francisco owned by a very pious family, and before driving up the to monastery, we would stop by the deli and they would donate bread, bags of buckwheat, and other foodstuffs. At first I would drive up with my sister who is fifteen years older than I am, later we would go up with friends and other pilgrims.
At the bottom of the mountain, right in the town of Platina, was a small women’s convent. It was a difficult journey from the convent up the mountain, but they also received spiritual guidance from the monastery.
Fr. Seraphim was always joyful
When Fr. Seraphim talked with pilgrims, he didn’t like to sit still; he much preferred to walk in the woods. As he walked he would pray, listen to us and answer our questions.
I remember how he was always joyful. He had that grace that brings a person joy, and he glorifies God as he fulfills His commandments: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (Thess. 5:16–18).
My sister and I would spend hours walking through the forest with Fr. Seraphim; he would pray and answer our questions.
Yes, around the monastery was a dense forest; they had mountain lions—pumas and other wild animals. As soon as the skete was settled, Fr. Seraphim, at that time still Eugene, went to the site to build a foundation for the printing office. He spent a long time digging and setting up concrete blocks and was very tired. After a short rest, he returned, and saw a huge poisonous rattlesnake right in the middle of all his hard work. The snake was looking right at him and was rattling, ready to strike. If he had been bitten in this forsaken area, he would not have been able to find any help. So he took a shovel, crossed himself and with one strike cut off the head of the snake.
All this shook Eugene up very much. Overcome with worry he lay down under a tree and soon fell in to a light sleep in which he saw his spiritual father, St. John, who had by that time already left this earth. He was overjoyed and asked, “Vladyka, will you continue to be near me?” And Vladyka looked at him with love and nodded his head affirmatively. Then Eugene asked him some more questions, which Vladyka answered, and all those answers came to fruition.
The inhabitants of the skete built everything with their own hands, but they were faced with a huge problem: The skete was built on a mountain and there was no running water. Even to drink a cup of water or to boil water for tea, water had to be brought up and it was far to travel for it.
The Fund of Vladyka John offered to bring in a specialist to give an estimate of how much it would cost to drill a well. When they found the specialist, he determined where the best place to drill would be. Then the Fund sent a check for $3,642.60, which was all that they could donate at that time.
The workers came, bored the well, put in a pump and sent a bill for the work, which was exactly the amount donated by the Fund. This was amazing, the amount was exact down to the cents; it seemed that St. John was, as he promised, standing with his spiritual son.
California often has serious fires in the warm months, and one year a fire was burning very close to the monastery. At one point, the fire came right up to the cross, which signaled the beginning of the monastery lands at which point it stopped. All around were thousands of acres of burnt trees as it was a very large fire.
If the fire had not stopped where it miraculously did, the inhabitants of the monastery could have perished—there was nowhere to flee. But the prayers of St. John were with them.
How everyone was waiting for the end of the world, and what Fr. Seraphim said about that
In the 70’s for some reason much of the Orthodox world was talking about the end of the world, thinking that the Apocalypse was nearing, and people were worried and scared about living in the end times.
But Fr. Seraphim told us not to fear the end times. He reminded us that first of all, even the angels don’t know when the end times will be, only the Father knows, and of course we cannot know this information ourselves.
We need to live our lives as if every day were our last, and this is indeed true, for we can’t know exactly what day or night will be our last one. God is merciful and forgives us our sins in which we repent, but never promised any of us that we will live on to the next day.
Fr. Seraphim also calmed the frightened by saying, “Don’t be afraid of the terror of the last days. Look forward! If these are indeed the last days, how will they end? With the coming of Christ in all His glory, which is a great joy to us Christians! So when you think of the last days, don’t be horrified, but have faith and hope that when the time comes, the Lord will shower you will His mercy and love.
He also said, “ Don’t await a horrible end, but await the joy of meeting Christ!”
“Seek the royal path!”
Fr. Seraphim often repeated: “Never fall into extremes! You must live carefully, choosing the middle path, the royal path, avoiding extremes. On the one hand, don’t fall into fanaticism and judgment. On the other hand, don’t allow yourselves to relax too much and become lukewarm. To follow the royal path you must have spiritual discernment, which is considered one of the highest spiritual gifts. It is difficult to achieve this, but we must try not to fall into extremism. His favorite words were: Seek the royal path!”
He lived as an ascetic but didn’t require asceticism from others
Although Fr. Seraphim lived as an ascetic and fasted very strictly, he never required that of others; he always approached everyone with love.
The first week of Great Lent the monks did not eat almost at all except for a few handfuls of nuts and berries. Not many pilgrims would come up for the first week of Great Lent, as it was very difficult. But Fr. Seraphim did not require these spiritual feats from us, his spiritual children.
He cared little about his appearance, walking around in an old, worn cassock, never cutting his beard. Some people were even put off by his outward appearance, especially when he would come into a town from his monastery.
Fr. Seraphim lived for Russia
Fr. Seraphim taught us how to be Orthodox Christians. He, an American, lived for the idea of Holy Russia. For him Orthodoxy in Russia was most important. He learned Russian and Church Slavonic. He understood the significance of Russian Orthodoxy and during the time of religious persecution, awaited the resurrection of Orthodox Russia. One of the letters I have from him he wrote partially in Russian.
Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) and Fr. Seraphim at St. Herman's
We should be with God every minute of our lives
Fr. Seraphim often said that we should always keep the thought of God in our hearts and that every minute of our lives should be connected to Him. As young pilgrims, our eyes were opened to what it meant to be an Orthodox Christian—not only to attend church on weekends, but to have the thought of God always with you.
He also told us of the Jesus Prayer, how important it was. He warned of the dangers of misusing it, of trying to reach some sort of spiritual heights as many novices do. Not to rush to read the Philokalia or to attain the prayer of the heart that the holy fathers talk about. He reminded us to do things gradually, soberly, following the royal path—and of the importance of having spiritual guidance.
How my spiritual father’s advice helped in establishing and Orthodox school
Many of the preparatory meetings for the canonization of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco took place in our house; Fr. Serge and I lived with our children in a parish house around the corner from the cathedral Joy of All Who Sorrow, in San Francisco. For many months we were busy preparing for the canonization and when finally all of our work came to an end on July 2, 1994, when St. John was canonized, I realized that needed to do something else with my time. With a background in history and literature, I, along with Fr. Serge, decided to open an Orthodox school.
It was then that I began to remember all the advice that Fr. Seraphim would give us about how to raise children. He stressed how important good, classical literature was (he loved to read Dickens) as this would soften your heart and teach you to love your neighbor. He also advised to listen to good classical music, to seek beauty, to develop a feeling of appreciation of beautiful things. All of this advice was instrumental in putting together our St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy for grades K-12.
His face was joyous and radiant
My spiritual father went to the Lord after having received Holy Unction and Holy Communion, on September 2, 1982, at the age of 48. He died from an incurable illness that had already been discovered in 1961, and was in terrible pain before he died; but after death, his face was so joyous and radiant that in spite of tradition, his face was not covered. Besides that, those at the funeral noticed that in spite of the heat, there was no odor from the body.
Fr. Seraphim was buried in the St. Herman Monastery and the funeral procession looked like an Orthodox feast day, with many clergy and faithful from all over the U.S.: Russians, Americans, Greeks, and Serbs.
Mitered archpriest Roman Lukianov of ROCOR (1927–2007) wrote: “We laid to eternal rest the first American-born spiritual laborer, ascetic and missionary, the fruit of the labors of the Russian Orthodox Church on the American continent. Memory Eternal to him!”