St. John Maximovitch

Today is the feast day of St. John Maximovitch.

Last November, while attending the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Francisco, I boarded a bus one rainy evening and took a long ride across the city to visit the Holy Virgin Cathedral, where the saint’s incorrupt relics are on display. I first encountered John Maximovitch in the early-to-mid 1990s, at Brigham Young University of all places. While I was an undergraduate there, I saw a flyer that the BYU religion department had received announcing an essay contest: write away for a free copy of Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, write an essay about it, win $1000 for first prize. I was entering a lot of writing contests in those days. I sent away for the book, which turned out to be exactly 1000 pages long, an adulatory biography of an American convert to Russian Orthodoxy who is now considered a saint by his devotees. My essay won honorable mention, which meant they sent me four more of the man’s books.

Seraphim Rose was a protege of John Maximovitch, who therefore figured prominently in Rose’s biography. During the 1960s, until his death, Maximovitch was archbishop of San Francisco for ROCOR, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which I think of as the “fundamentalist” wing of Russian Orthodoxy in America. He had been born in Russia; his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution; he became archbishop of Shanghai, where he pastored Russian exiles and ran an orphanage; after he and his community fled China’s Communist Revolution, he ended up in France for a while before his final move to the United States. In Shanghai, he developed a reputation as a “fool for Christ” and a wonderworker–he would pray around the clock without sleeping; in response to his prayers, the orphanage’s needs would be miraculously met on a hand-to-mouth basis; that sort of thing.

Maximovitch was solemnly glorified (canonized) in 1994. In celebration, The Orthodox Word, a journal co-founded by Seraphim Rose with Maximovitch’s blessing published a Maximovitch-themed issue, free copies of which were sent to everyone on their mailing list. I’d ended up on that list because of my contest submission. Last fall, I used selections from that issue of the journal for a unit I was teaching on Russian Orthodoxy in America–at which point it occurred to me I was going to be in San Francisco that same month for the AAR. I figured I had to visit.

The Holy Virgin Cathedral is small but lavish, with icons covering every square inch of wall and ceiling. (Topic for a future blog post: why liberal Protestants love Orthodox icons.) I arrived thinking I was going to find the saint’s shrine in a basement crypt, but I discovered that after his glorification, his remains were moved from the basement into the sanctuary itself. I was assured it was fine for me to go take a look, even though a service was going to start soon, so I walked across the sanctuary floor feeling very self-conscious. I had no idea what the normal protocol would be–genuflections, etc.–so as I approached the shrine, I clasped my hands in front of me and tried to look reverential, though in fact I felt like a gawking tourist.

I’m sure there are lengthy theological disquisitions on what counts as “incorrupt” relics. Maximovitch’s body was not what I would have called “incorrupt,” but it was all there, under glass, in what looked like a state of mummification. Actually, the only part of the body you could see were the hands; the rest of the body was covered up with ritual vestments, plus a cloth covering the face. The hands were blackened and shriveled. It was quite a jolt to my Protestant-slash-Mormon sensibilities.

Before leaving, I stood in the doorway to the sanctuary and observed a service venerating the saint: a couple priests and perhaps 6-8 people stood near the reliquary and chanted–I don’t know what, it was Russian. St. John’s akathist, perhaps? I bought a copy of his akathist before I left (a long hymn in his praise), along with an icon of the saint. The akathist had been composed by Seraphim Rose.

The building John is holding in the icon is the Holy Virgin Cathedral, whose completion he oversaw (amid great controversy in the congregation).

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3 thoughts on “St. John Maximovitch

  1. Mike Butler says:

    Wow! Thank you for this peek inside a building I have driven by many times and never had the opportunity or gumption to peek inside of.

    As for the future blog on liberal Protestants and icons, you had better not be joking, because I will be looking forward to hearing the answer. Would appreciate also if you could expand your observations and offer an opinion as to why (or if) various religious groups tend to choose “trappings” like those icons, as if to distinguish themselves, even when these are not necessarily an essential element of a group’s belief (Mormon men in white shirts and ties, Episcopalians with enough silk robes and gilt candlesticks to make the Pope blush, evangelical ministers who seem to sprout pompadour hairstyles and Southern accents even if they’re from Maine).

  2. Hi, Mike–I’m not kidding about wanting to blog a little at some point about the liberal Protestant love affair with Orthodox icons. It’s an intriguing instance of appropriating artifacts across religious traditions. Stay tuned.

  3. Maria Peavy says:

    Christ is Risen!
    I stumbled upon your descriptions and felt I had to contribute a few comments. I am part of ROCOR – the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. I was born and raised Orthodox, and consider myself and my family devout Orthodox Christians. I also have many friends who are evangelical Christians because my children atttended an EVfree preschool. We liberalyy dipped into the resources of that church, simply because most protestant denominations have highly honed programs for evangelizing which draw in youth, seniors, adults, seekers, devout Christians, etc. These are mostly wonderful joyful programs run by devoted and deeply believing Christians, eager to spread the good news of Christ. In the Orthodox church, we rarely have such organized methods for attracting and converting members and teaching the Gospels. I learned alot and shared alot, too. A few things that I discovered was the complete absence of mysticism in the Protestant faith. And this is where our Russian Orthodox icons come in – they are windows into heaven, representaations of the angels and saints and Christ Himself and His mother who are mystically with us, physically next to us always. We don’t actually worship saints or their images but we do ask them, to pray for us – just as we ask our friends on earth to pray for us. Another interesting thing I heard many times from Protestant friends was that they missed having a liturgical year. They observed my family living by the rhythm of our church caldendar. A succession of fast days and non fast days, days of commenorating certain saints (that is remembering their death or martrydom, Holy days and Sundays. Each day has a cycle of prayer and each year has a cycle of prayers and readings and celebrations. After a few years, some of my Protestant friends commented that they liked the idea of a daily, weekly and annual rhythm that is repeated, rather than the “reinvented” sunday services with ever changing musical numbers and displays. Although the music is enjoyable, and certainly creative, having the sameOrthodox cycles repeating year after year bring great stability comfort and peace. God is awsome and there is no place for a mere human to declare that church is “boring” or feel that there needs to be entertainment. We are deeply and humbly worshipping and communing with our Lord, to the point of standing during church services.
    St. John Maximovitch was a person who while alive was already living away from earth and its trappings, its comforts and its frivolities.. He prayed constantly and for everyone, slept little, and even then in a chair, walked barefott everywhere and pandered to no one. His eyes could bore a hole right into your soul and conscience.
    I do hope you have the opportunity to visit many more Orthodox churches and pray that you come eventually to receive the fullness of the anceint, living, original (not new and improved) Church of Christ.
    thank you,

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