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).