Orthodox America

  A Lamp in the House of God – Archpriest John Zhuravsky of Latvia

Twenty-six years have passed since the repose of the outstanding pastor of the Riga diocese, the mitred archpriest John Zhuravsky, whose entire life, since childhood, was dedicated to service of the Church. 

     He was born September 12/25, 1867, in the Laudon district of the Madonsk province, to a large family of a parish priest. His father, Peter Zhuravsky (1826-1892), was the son of a Polotsk priest martyred by the raskolniki. Peter Zhuravsky graduated from the St. Petersburg seminary in 1847 and was ordained to the priesthood in the Polotsk diocese. At this time and earlier there was a movement of Latvian and Estonian Lutherans to convert to Orthocloxy, new parishes opened and priests were called to serve them. Fr. Peter, desiring to be of benefit to the Church, was assigned priest at his request first in Kerstenbemsk, then in the parishes of Martsensk, Laudonsk and Golgotha. The last ten years of his life he sewed in the small town of Liubeya. Fr. Peter was revered as a man of prayer; peasants came to him from miles around to pray about their misfortunes, not only Orthodox but also Lutherans. (In this same area, some twenty kilometers from Liubeya, the future New Martyr and archbishop of Riga, Ioann Pommer, was born in 1876. Here; too, the well-known Orthodox priest-missionary David Ballod began his ministry.)

      In his childhood Vanya Zhuravsky saw an angel, and this mystical vision marked his soul for life with a divine stamp. He had no doubts about what path he would choose in life, for the Lord was his Way and Truth and Life (John 14:6). In 1884 he entered the Riga Theological Seminary. In his free time he sang in the cathedral choir under the direction of Kislov, a student of the eminent church composer Alexander Lvov (+1870). Fr. John used to say that church singers are the lamps of God's house. He was very knowledgeable about church singing; in the years before the war he compiled three three voice singing books (Vigil, Liturgy and Great Lent) for uniform singing in Orthodox churches, schools and families. Unfortunately, due to the war the books were never published.

      In 1890, after finishing seminary, John was assigned church reader and instructor in the Church of All Saints in Ventspils, whose rector was the well known archpriest, Basil Aliakritsky. A year later he was transferred to the Ascension parish in Riga where he served in Latvian. (He was fluent in Latvian, French and German.) On February 19, 1892, he was ordained to the diaconate, and three years later to the priesthood. Through his efforts a church school and chapel were built and the St. Alexis church where he served was remodeled. In 1902 Fr. John was appointed rector in the Church of All Saints in Vindava.

      In 1900 Archpriest John Sergiev (of Kronstadt) visited Riga and Vindava. He served Divine Liturgy in the Riga church of "Joy of All Who Sorrow" and in the Church of All Saints in Vindava where an enormous crowd gathered. There he also served a moleben for the blessing of the Vindava children's sanatorium. St. John of Kronstadt met the young priest during this visit or earlier when, as a seminarian, Fr. John Zhuravsky visited the Kronstadt cathedral. Until his death, Fr. John carefully preserved the cassock which St. John had given him, and kept his photograph on the Oblation Table. He emulated St. John in his un-acquisitive, ascetic life, and especially in his deeds of mercy and looking after the poor.

      Fr. John Zhuravsky was gifted with clairvoyance, prophecy and healing. Not infrequently he was able to say what his spiritual children were doing at a given moment, or what was happening in some other place. When they came up to him in the church, he would greet them by telling them what had happened to them. Often the force of his prayers was such that his spiritual son or daughter could almost physically sense Fr. John's presence and could hear in his heart an answer to what was troubling him. Sometimes there was a sense that what Fr. John told his spiritual children possessed a divine affirmation. For example, he once told a girl suffering from an affliction of the eyes, "Go, anoint your eyes with oil from the lamp before the Kazan icon of the Mother of God, and the pain will go away." And so it did, immediately. To another he said, "Your father will get well," and so he did. Fr. John himself experienced a healing of his eyes after praying at the relics of St. Alexis Metropolitan of Moscow. Previously he had worn glasses, but after his healing he was again able to see very clearly. Later Fr. John would say, "In case of eye trouble, turn to Metropolitan Alexis; he is a heavenly eye doctor."

      A member of the "Joy of All Who Sorrow" parish related that once, after Liturgy, Fr. John sat as usual on the ambo while nearly all the faithful lined up to speak to him, to ask his advice; no one thought of leaving directly after the service. Suddenly, two ladies in furs pushed towards him for some counsel and counted out a large number of bills as a donation to the church. Fr. John sensed my astonishment: I was poor and had never seen such a sum. "Come, Peter," he said to me, "come. I don't pray for money." He received me, was kindly affectionate and gave me some advice. That night in a dream I clearly "saw" how Batiushka came to me; he seized me by the hand in such a way that I felt his fingers, and repeated: "It's not for money that I pray, not for money."

      Whatever Fr. John foretold to his parishioners inevitably came to pass. Whether it was the unexpected birth of a child, whose very destiny Batiushka foresaw, or caution not to undertake a trip-something happened to the train or the car which the person was to have taken. He foretold the closure after his death of his parish church, "Joy of All Who Sorrow"--and so it happened. He warned of God's wrath for the destruction in 1925 of the train station chapel and the closing of the Nativity of Christ cathedral in 1961. This, too, came to pass.

      Fr. John served with great reverence. The service was unhurried and unabbreviated, With lengthy and attentive readings of names to be commemorated, both before the table of oblation and before the altar. During the Divine Liturgy Fr. John spent a long time on his knees before the altar. "In the altar," he would say, "there always stand our Lord Jesus Christ and the Theotokos."

     Around 1918 an extraordinary book by Fr. John was published by, it appears, the Kiev Theological Academy, according to the testimony of a monk of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, Alexis. It mirrored the patristic teachings and was full of animating spirit; in grasping the book one could attain a holy life. Here are some excerpts, which Fr. Alexis remembers:

Bodily tears cleanse the sinful soul; from beholding one's sins there is born an inner weeping which frightens the demons.

Welcome grief, give it a holy kiss and it will entrust you with a Heavenly Gift, sent to our poverty by God's great and rich Love.

Prayer is the greatest good deed, and every good deed is a mother of sorrow; to pray without sorrow is to be in a state of deception.

In order for a Christian to receive salvation, pride must give way to humility; for this to occur the Christian must undergo a miracle.

The faces of the Saints are Heavenly Flowers, raised in the soil of sobriety, in the soil of unceasing prayer, enriched by sorrows and watered by hidden tears of repentance. Only such soil will bring forth fruit thirty, sixty and a hundred fold. These are Heavenly Flowers: St. Nicholas, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov---and countless others. They made fragrant the whole world and even now exude fragrance. 

     In 1915, with the approach of the front lines, Fr. John evacuated to the interior of Russia. After the war, in 1920, he began his ministry in Riga's prisons. At this time he was offered a position as rector of the Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Riga. However, the rector of the Vindavsk Church of All Saints appeared to him in a dream and warned him not to accept the post. In refusing such a profitable position Fr. John manifest his humility and love of poverty. In the men's and women's prisons he organized a spiritual library and four church choirs; he gave frequent lectures and discussions. He did not stop here but, following the example of his mentor, St. John of Kronstadt, who had organized in St. Petersburg a center where jobless people could find work, Fr. John ordered from the workshops of Riga's prisons various church utensils; for example, carved covers for altar Gospels. At this time Batiushka also served in the almshouse church dedicated to Martyr Firs, so-called in memory of its benefactor, the Riga merchant, Firs Sadovnikov. Fr. John gained virtually no income from his service in the prisons and almshouse, and donated to the poor all his meager earnings. Many of those aided by Batiushka's merciful kindness recall how, on great feasts, Fr. John, with the help of parishioners, like St. Nicholas, collected enormous bags of presents and distributed them to prisoners to the glory of God.

      In the dark and threatening war years, from September 25, 1940 (providentially, his birthday) and up to the end of his life, Fr. John was rector of the Church of "Joy of All Who Sorrow," the only church in Riga where St. John of Kronstadt had served. "No one ever went away from Batiushka hungry and uncomforted," testified a parishioner from the church, Nadezhda lvanovna Nordquist. "We came to church at eight in the morning, the service ended at three; Batiushka would sit on the ambo, and no one thought of leaving; everyone wanted to hear from him a word of counsel" It seemed that Fr. John embraced everyone with his love. He was a great man of prayer for peace, a gift he had inherited from his father and from his teacher, St. John of Kronstadt. Fr. John spent nights in prayer for the world; he prayed for his parishioners, for all their relatives, for the city, for the land of Latvia, for Russia. Only now are we beginning to fully comprehend Fr. John's ascetic feat of eldership-spiritually nourishing a great multitude of believers. People from all over the country and even beyond its borders wrote and received replies from him. He received several dozen letters a day and none of them were left without answering words of counsel and consolation. At the same time, Fr. John "found time" to be the spiritual father-confessor of the Riga clergy. In 1963 he celebrated seventy-one years of service in the Church. 

    Even now believers come to Batiushka's grave, to the right of the St. John the Baptist cathedral, and find healing and consolation. They pray to dear Batiushka as he himself once told them: "If you have difficulties in life, come to me at my grave and pray."

      Dear and unforgettable Fr. John, meek, wise and full of Christ's love, peacefully departed to the Lord on March 31, 1964. He was buried in the presence of an enormous crowd of people and clergy, headed by Archbishop Nikon, on Great Thursday, April 4.

      Peace be to thine honorable remains! Pray to God for us, Father John!

(Translated from a samizclat manuscript)

Memorial Sketches 

      Where else can the Love of God---so different from human attachment-- manifest itself so well as in prayer for those whose names alone are left here on earth. This is true altruism! It is not by chance that Fr. John's heavenly patron was St. John the Theologian, the Apostle of Love. During Proskomedia, when he commemorated the departed, Fr. John would weep. He actually saw them standing around the Table of Oblation. When he walked through the cemetery, the deceased stood by their graves and greeted him. He told his spiritual children that prayer for the departed must be accompanied by tears. An elderly priest, a friend of Fr. John's, related that once, when Fr. John moved from the altar to the Table of Oblation during the Cherubic Hymn, he saw standing at the Oblation Table a hierarch who had long since reposed; he was removing ,particles from the prosphoras. Fr. John asked meekly "Vladika, shall I ,serve you?" "No," replied the hierarch, "today I am serving you.”

    One of his spiritual children came to ask his blessing to work in the church of St. John the Baptist. She was told: "Go ahead: within a month I'll be there too." And within a month be died and was buried beside that church where the woman became a reader and continues to look after his grave.

      This same woman, Mafia, recalls how, after services, Batiushka would sit on a chair in the church, surrounded by his spiritual children, and talk to them. He told them how once he met on the street a young man whose funeral he had served... '"What are you doing here?! He asked. ' You already died! ....replied the deceased," my sister is very ill. Nobody knows about her. She must be given Holy Communion right away. She is in..." and he named the hospital and ward. Following these directions, the elder went to the sick woman. '"How ever did you find me?" she asked. "I very much want to receive Holy Communion."

      Fr. John was an inspired preacher. According to Priest S., people came to his church as unbelievers and left as believers. He spoke very precisely about the spiritual world, and people came to understand what was going on in their souls. With age, Fr. John became rather frail and it was difficult for him to stand. When he gave his sermon he would support himself by resting his hands on the heads of two small acolytes, brothers, who later both became priests.

     Among those who converted to the Orthodox Faith through Fr. John's inspiration was a Latvian woman, a former Roman Catholic. She began to wonder who these "elders" were in the Orthodox Church. Then she met Fr. John, who made such an impression on her that she very soon converted to Orthodoxy and became his devoted spiritual daughter.

     Fr. John lived in very difficult circumstances, not far from today's Philharmonic. The windows of his apartment faced a wall of an adjacent house. Often there was no light and he read by candlelight. The staircase leading up to his apartment was almost perpendicular and, considering that Fr. John lived to an advanced age, one can imagine how difficult it must have been for him to negotiate this staircase as he daily ascended to his Golgotha. It is said that his wife was mentally ill. They had no children of their own; a foster daughter lived with them, and they were all buried together.

    Everything the elder received, he gave away. His spiritual children took envelopes with money to those whose addresses he indicated. Here he made no distinction between believers and unbelievers; for him all were "misfortunates," and he was their joy.

      Fr. John likewise ministered to prisoners. There still exist two altar Gospels from his church with hand-carved covers depicting the Saviour and the four Evangelists; these were made by prisoners who were Fr. John's spiritual children. In 1939, when the Russian forces came and the prison was opened, the released Political prisoners seized the jailers. Fr. John came as usual and he, too, was seized. But then even the political prisoners said, "Don't touch this man. He helped all of us.”

    Once, in the time of the German occupation, Fr. John came to the diocesan administration without his pectoral cross. "Fr. John," said one priest disapprovingly, "where is your cross? You can't go to the archbishop without your cross." "Matushka took it from me!" replied Fr. John. "What do you mean, she took it?" "I've been giving information to Jews concerning baptism, and she objects: 'What are you doing? You're going to be the deathof us!'"

      After the war Fr. John reunited many Old Believers to the Church. Those who know how exacting Old Believers are and their attitude towards us can appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment.

    At the elder's funeral the archbishop said, "To some people the Lord gives many years in anticipation of their repentance, but Fr. John was given many years for the sake of his righteousness." To this day, in the church of St. John the Baptist, where Fr. John is buried, the priests frequently come across commemorative booklets inscribed by Fr. John: "The righteous shall live by faith..."

      They say that while the elder served in the church of "Joy of All Who Sorrow" some pigeons lived in the belfry. They wanted to chase them away, as they were making a mess on the roof and the porch. But the elder would not allow it. Then he was forbidden to serve. He died. They got rid of the pigeons and blew up the church.



PS: It took me some time before deciding to write about Fr. John. What I know is too sketchy, coming as it does from various conversations; there is a lot I have forgotten, especially names and dates. Mainly, in order to write about elders one must possess something akin to their spirit. After all, we are not making bold to write about them but about the workings of the Holy Spirit, about God, in our human weakness.