“But I tell you a truly, there are some standing here, who
shall not taste death, till they see the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:27).
One of the most popular Saints among the Greek Orthodox people today is Saint John the Russian whose incorrupt relics are the boast of the Island of Euboea, Greece. The multitudes who visit his shrine are such that there is daily bus service to the shrine from Athens. Countless miracles flow from his relics and icons, and even now when the spirit of the world is having such an oppressive effect on traditional Greek Orthodox piety icons of the Saint are often found in buses and nearly all Orthodox homes. St. John was neither a celebrated hierarch nor an eloquent theologian but a simple young man who spent the better part of his life in a stable.
St. John was born in the Southern part of Russia, in the Ukraine, to pious Orthodox parents. He was still a young man when he was conscripted by the Russian army to fight in a war against the Turks. Sharing the unhappy fate of many other Russian soldiers, the Saint was captured and sold as a slave to a Turkish cavalry commander from the village of Procopi near Caesarea in Asia Minor. Fanatic in their Muslim beliefs, the Turks inflicted cruel tortures upon their Christian slaves in trying to force them to renounce their faith. While some succumbed to this form of persuasion, many preferred to suffer death and a whole multitude of martyrs was thus added to the heavenly choir. In their misguided zeal the Turks would also kidnap the sons of Christians and raise them as fanatical Muslim soldiers. Procopi was the army camp of these Christian hating Janissaries and the new slave of the Turkish Aga became a target of their derisions. But neither their insults nor the beatings of his Turkish master were able to shake the faith of the pious Russian youth who confessed that he would sooner die than lose what he treasured above all, the Holy Orthodox Faith.
The blessed John was assigned to work in the stable where he was also told to sleep. Recalling the lowly Bethlehem cave and the manger where the Savior of the world first laid His head, the Saint rejoiced in his rude dwelling place. In his humility he regarded his dark corner of the stable as a little paradise where he could freely offer prayer and praise to the true God. The unshakable firmness of his faith, his patience, fortitude, and gentleness of spirit, gradually won the hearts of the Aga and his wife who offered the meek stable boy to sleep in a small room near the hayloft. John, however, preferred to remain in the stable where he could toil more assiduously in the ascetic life, bringing his body into subjection to the spirit according to the Apostle’s command. He ate very sparingly and spent long hours in prayer with the Psalms of David continually on his lips. Weekly he prepared himself to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in the nearby Church for he knew that without the strength of Christ he was powerless to persevere on the path of the truth faith. At night he would secretly go and keep vigil in the narthex of the Church. The Lord rewarded the labors of His faithful servant and through him bestowed blessings also upon his Turkish master who became one of the wealthy and powerful men of Procopi. The Aga understood the cause of his new prosperity and did not shrink from telling it to his fellow citizens.
Once, the Aga made a pilgrimage to Mecca a city most sacred to the Muslims. While he was away, his wife invited friends and relatives for a meal and to pray for the Aga’s safe return from such an arduous journey. While they were getting ready to eat the mistress turned to John, who was serving the guests and said, “How much pleasure your master would have if he were here now and ate this pilaf with us!” The pilaf, a common grain dish of the Middle East, was a favorite of the Aga. Wishing the best for his master and firmly believing in the almighty power of God, John asked for a plate full of pilaf from his mistress, saying that he would send it to his master in Mecca. The guests laughed but the mistress asked the cook to comply with the youth’s request thinking that he would take it to some poor Christian family as was his custom.
Those who are familiar with the Gospel should not be astonished at what happened next for did not the Lord say that faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains? Strong in his faith, the blessed one returned with the plate of pilaf to the stable and he petitioned the Lord to help him fulfill his pledge to deliver the pilaf to his master in Mecca. In answer to his prayer the plate of pilaf disappeared. What amazed the entire household of Aga when he returned from Mecca was bringing with him the copper plate which had held the pilaf. The Aga had been equally astonished to discover the steaming plate of pilaf in his locked room when he returned from the Mosque in Mecca. Still greater was his confusion when he realized that the copper plate was engraved with his initials just as all the vessels in his house. “For the sake of Allah, I cannot understand how it was brought to Mecca and who brought it!” When his wife told him of John’s request, they both recognized the strange occurrence to be a miracle of God and henceforth all considered John as a righteous man who had found favor with God.
Once again the Aga and his wife tried to persuade the blessed one to change his dwelling place but the Saint preferred to remain amongst the animals willingly fulfilling his duties and continuing steadfast in his ascetic struggles. He persevered in this manner of life until, after a few years, he became ill. Foreseeing his end, he called for a priest and asked to receive Holy Communion. Fearing the fanaticism of the Turks, the priest did not want to bring Holy Communion to the stable. He received wisdom from above and did the following thing. He hollowed out an apple and lined the cavity with beeswax. He placed the Holy Communion inside it and was thus able to safely bring Holy Communion to the Saint. Upon receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, the blessed one surrendered his holy soul into the hands of God whom he loved so much. He reposed on the 27th day of May, 1730 having spent some forty years in this temporal vale of sin and sorrow.
The Saint was given a Christian burial by order of the Aga who, as a token of his love and great respect for the Saint, gave an expensive cloth to cover his relics. Three years later a light appeared over the tomb of Saint John which was seen by many. At the same time, the Saint appeared in a dream to his father confessor revealing that it was the will of God that his relics be exhumed for his body was incorrupt. Until 1924 the relics were kept in the Church of St. George in Procopi. When, however, the exchange of populations took place between Greece and Turkey and many of the Christian inhabitants of Procopi were resettled on the Island of Euboea, the relics of their beloved Saint John were also moved. They were received with great joy and veneration by the Greeks who built a majestic Church in his honor there in the village of New Procopi. To this day, streams of pious Greek pilgrims make their way to this village on the Island of Euboea where the Saint answers the faith of their earnest petitions with his strong and quick intercessions before the throne of God.
This biography is based on the life of the Saint by Photius Kontoglou the father of the renaissance of Byzantine iconography of the 20th century.
MIRACLES OF SAINT JOHN
The Saint performed many wonders even after his blessed repose. A descendent of the Aga told many of the following miracles: “My children would not live except for a short time and would die while yet infants. Their unfortunate mother, after she had lost hope in the wisdom of medicine, fled without my knowledge to the relics of the slave John so that he might grant her a little child which would not die while yet young so that we also might rejoice to see it as a young man or even a young girl. In truth the righteous John heard the supplications of my wife. God granted us a strong little boy whom we called, as you know, Kole Guwan Oglu (that is, Son of the Slave John) and he lives through the power of God through the prayers of John even until today.”
Several times St. John has appeared in dreams and visions warning of impending dangers. Once he warned some Greek school children that the roof of the school was about to fall; they had time enough to jump underneath their desks and when the roof fell, its beams came down upon the desks without striking even one of the children. More recently we have heard about the miraculous healings of two severe cases of meningitis, one a 19 year old shepherd boy in Southern Greece and the other a 3 year old boy in London. Today a part of the right hand of St. John is enshrined in a special silver reliquary in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston, MA where many people come to venerate it and to ask for the intercessions of this simple Confessor of the Orthodox Christian Faith knowing that the Lord who resists the proud hears speedily the prayers of the meek.
THE CANCER HOSPITAL OF ST. SAVAS IN ATHENS
In the big Athenian hospital of St. Savas a mother had been battling advanced cancer and the doctors had given up treating her and told her children to take her home. The doctors said: “Do not tire yourselves anymore by coming to the hospital to take care of your mother.” The family was from the northern city of Kavala. The doctors said: “There is no hope for her life to be saved. Take her home, for if she dies here you will have the problem of dealing with hospital procedures and regulations.” Her five children, who were gathered around their mother’s bed, began to weep on hearing the news from the doctors. They wept for it was their mother the root of life who was dying and we all have only one mother in this life. As this was going on, an unknown lady was passing by their room where they were gathered. She saw the tragic scene and understood what was happening. She asked the children: “Is this your mother? Listen to me; do not go on like this. Beyond the power of science and doctors there is God and His Saints. Whatever was humanly possible you did. Recently I went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint John the Russian at Prokopi, in Euboea where his holy incorrupt body is preserved. I took a little oil from the oil-lamp hanging over the Saint’s body with which to make the sign of the Cross over someone who is ill here in the hospital. I will do the same for your mother and God will provide.”
How true it is that a few words, a little compassion, a little support, can greatly comfort and help one’s fellow man who is in distress or who is grieving. Even if one sit’s silently next to someone who is ill gives them courage. With a piece of cotton the unknown lady made the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the sick woman and left. It is true that divine energy can be generated not only directly but also through articles and substances used in worship such as relics, holy water and oil for the Church has absolute faith in the therapeutic power of Christ. This humble way of transmitting the powerful and uncreated energies of God to sick bodies by making the sign of the Cross on them using blessed oil or water from the Church is described by the Fathers of the Church as the most beneficial and purist form of cure offered by God (St. John Chrysostom). It can be understood as a profound act of faith that someone should feel unworthy to ask Christ Himself through the intercessions of His Saints to come to the aid of a sick fellow human being. Is this not the essence of the power of Christ transmitted to us human beings through the simple elements of bread and wine in Holy Communion?
But let us now return to our story. A little while after the unknown lady had made the sign of the Cross over the sick woman, she opened her eyes and seeing that her children were weeping, she nodded to one of them to come close to her. Her eldest daughter drew near to her and her mother whispered to her: “Why are you crying, my child?” “Mother, it has been so many days since you have been aware that we are here and have talked to us and you ask us why we are weeping.” “Yes, my child but a little while ago a young soldier came and told me that his name was Saint John the Russian and he made the sign of the Cross on my forehead and told me that I will return to life.” In spite of her incurable disease, the mother recovered completely and now lives with her children and grandchildren as ordained by God and His Saint.
A WALKING STICK
If you enter the Church of Saint John the Russian today you will see amongst many other things hanging before the shrine of the Saint, like the spoils of war, a simple and poor gift, a walking stick. It belongs to Maria Siaka, an old lady from the village of Frenaro near Ammohostos, Cyprus. For eighteen years she had been a hunchback and bent over so double that her face was but a short distance from the ground. On the 11th of August, 1978 relatives of the old lady, together with some one hundred Cypriots brought her to the Church of Saint John. Upon entering the Church they lifted her up to reverence the Saint’s incorrupt body. Looking at the blessed body of Saint John the old lady wept and beseeched him to grant her a little divine help for the remainder of her life. Saint John saw the beauty of her soul, her grief and her deep faith. At that moment, before the eyes of everyone there it seemed that an invisible force seized her shoulders with tremendous power and slowly began to unfold her body. The spine creaked and returned to its original form; the old lady stood upright. Her fellow villagers wept, the bells of the Church rang out in joy, and prayers of thanksgiving were offered by all the Cypriots who could not hold back their tears. Anyone who has had the good fortune to be present when a miracle occurs can understand these expressions of joy. Finally, the voice of the old lady was heard: “What can I give you my young man, my Saint? I am poor. I will give you my walking stick which I will not need for the rest of my life.” The daily papers of Nicosia reported: “Maria Siaka, after her pilgrimage to the Church of Saint John the Russian in Greece can now, after nearly twenty years of being bent over double and seeing only the ground can now see the faces of her fellow villagers. Thanks to the miracle of the Saint she is restored and completely well.”
DO YOU HATE ME MY SAINT
Eight years have passed since the wedding of M. Yiorgos K and his wife Archondoula and all this time they have waited in the hope of having a baby. A deep and incurable sorrow afflicts them. How sad life seems to be when a woman cannot become a mother and does not have children. To give courage to his wife, her husband whispered to her one day, “be patient it is God’s will. Nothing will be changed by tears and grieving. The purpose of marriage is not only to have children; above all it is to enable us to grow spiritually and to become one with God here on earth and in eternity. Mrs. Archondoula continued to pray every day with all her heart and soul. From the time she was a little girl her mother had taught her to pray always because, as she used to tell her, “strong people pray and prayer arms people with patience and endurance during life’s difficulties.”
From her youth to the present day she had come innumerable times with her family here to the Saint. Many were the times she said to Saint John: “My great Saint John, I beg you, I beseech you, to intercede for me with God that I might be worthy of becoming a mother. But I have been told by men and science for eight years now that I am not going to become a mother and that I am not going to clasp a baby in my arms. My house will be empty and my heart full of grief. I will wait, my Saint, for an answer from heaven that God will grant me a child so that my house, my heart and my life will be full of joy and happiness. I will wait, my great Saint.”
After this prayer, It is the evening of December 3rd, 1979. Mrs. Archondoula, gloomy and tearful is trying to concentrate on her prayers. But she is unable to: she is tired, she does not feel well and she has a bad feeling inside of her. She wants to weep, to scream and lash out. She turned to the icon shrine and on seeing the icon of Saint John burst into tears. She said: “What after all have I done to you, my Saint? Do you hate me? Why? Why does not God give me this happiness my Saint, do you hate me?” Later on that night a little after midnight someone was heard climbing the stairs of their house. The couple woke up. “Do not say anything,” whispered her husband. “It is one of our employees who has mistaken the time and has come to get the keys to the office. Do not talk and he will leave.” Then there was a knock on the door of their room, and the door opened. A glow appeared in the darkness clearly revealing the figure of Saint John. Then they heard a voice: “Archondoula, what was that you said in your prayers tonight? Saints do not hate anybody. It is not God’s will for you to have a baby yet. Another two years will go by and then this happiness will be granted to you.” The light then vanished and the voice of the Saint faded. Two years went by and the joy of God came abundantly with the first child, and then with a second and a third. The sweet voices of the children filled the house and the hearts of their parents. “The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers out of all their troubles.”(Psalm 34:17)
HOLY WEEK AND EASTER 1980
It was the afternoon of Palm Sunday at the Shrine of Saint John the Russian. This couple said to the priest there: “Father, my wife and I have come here to attend and celebrate with you the services of Holy Week; the Passion of our Lord. We both want to come to confession and if we are worthy to receive Holy Communion. But before you hear our confession we would like to tell you about our trials and tribulations.” The wife had been on the phone to Thessaloniki. As soon as she put the phone down, the wife and the husband decided to leave for Thessaloniki to find their daughter. They explained: “We live in a small town in the province of Corinth. The owners of the house where our daughter had been staying in Thessaloniki did not hide anything from us. Our daughter had left the house eight days ago and they thought it likely she was being sought by the narcotics division of the police. Lately, she had been returning to the house at dawn and sleeping all day. A lecturer at the university who was a friend of ours cast us into a state of agony and fear with just one sentence: “You must find your daughter at any cost, he said, she must be in great danger.” We searched for her but in vain.
Two months later she telephoned her mother and using vulgar language that she never used before threatened my wife saying that we should not try to find her again and that she was finished with us. She did not want to know us and the university was a waste of time for there were better things in life. For six months now, Father, we have abandoned everything else and used all possible means to find her. She has vanished into thin air. Either she has gone abroad or the drugs have killed her and her body has been disposed of. The security police of Thessaloniki told us that this year more than two hundred girls are missing in Greece and most of them will never be found. Under no circumstances could we stay at home this Easter. We went to Thessaloniki again and were sickened to the depths of our souls by the filthy things we saw at those clubs where we were trying to find our daughter. We returned home but could not bear to stay there. We were at a complete loss as to what to do. You see, we do not have any other children. We are alone in the world. Our last hope is Saint John the Russian whom you serve here. All Greece knows about his miracles. We have decided to spend Holy Week near him in fasting beseeching him to save our child.”
On Holy Saturday they heard the words of the troparion (hymn): “Before the mystery of God let everyone be silent and stand with fear and trembling.” Father, we will be going home tonight which is Holy Saturday. We thought we would attend the resurrection service in our small village.” They left with hope in their hearts. There was joy written all over their faces. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday all the bells of the Church of Saint John the Russian were ringing for the Agape Service. I was wearing my festal priestly vestments and holding the candle of resurrection and was about to start the service when I noticed through the half-opened south door of the altar a couple coming towards me with a young woman.
The couple called out to me: “Father, Father, this is our daughter. Look, this is our Effie, our beloved girl. We found her in our home. She was waiting for us, Father. How can we thank the great Saint? Oh God, God, glory be to you and your Saint.” “Share in your parent’s joy, Effie. I am very joyful too seeing you here at Saint John’s.” “Father, I survived. This week I hovered between life and death. I had chosen death but an invisible power, after a superhuman struggle that took place within me, literally snatched me from the grasp of death and brought me back to life, to my house. I will sing Father; I too will sing Christ is risen from the dead.” Effie dissolved into tears and her father embraced her shaking body in his arms. The Agape Service was delayed twenty minutes and people were waiting but in reality the Agape Service had already begun with Effie’s resurrection.
“..And let us cry and shout, arise O Lord You who resurrect the fallen.” This is taken from the Easter Service.
This article about the life and miracles of Saint John the Russian is taken from the book “Life and Recent Miracles of Saint John the Russian” by Father John Vernezos of the Holy Shrine of Saint John the Russian Prokopi, Euboea, Greece, 1999.
+Fr. Constantine (Charles) J. Simones, January 21, 2014, in Waterford, CT, USA,