From 'Orthodoxy and the World'

Our Faith
Father Ioann (Krestiankin)
Feb 5, 2006, 18:36

The Elder John Krestiankin turns 95.

Well-known Russian elder and a monk at Pskov's Monastery of the Caves, Ioann Krestyankin, died on Sunday at the age of 95.

Archimandrite Ioann enjoyed wide popularity among believers in many countries. In recent years Father Ioann was not able to personally meet people, but received letters from around the world. His answers to some of the letters were published in several languages and serve as a source of solace and support for thousands of people.

He has passed away several minutes afer the Holy Communion.

Father Ioann was born in Oryol on April 11, 1910. He became a monk of the Monastery of the Caves in Pskov in 1967.


Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)
The other day my spiritual father Archimandrite Ioann (Krestiankin) of Pskov Pecherski (Cave) monastery called me and said: ‘I am going to die soon. So please do me a favour, write down what you remember and what you want to tell people about me. Because afterwards you all are going to write something anyway and may come up with stories as ridiculous as they did with poor Father Nikolai, who “resurrected cats” and other fables like that. So I want to check everything myself for my peace of mind.”

Following my spiritual father’s request I start these records/notes hoping that Father himself would separate chaff from the wheat, remind me if I forget anything and as always will correct my mistakes.

Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) and the monks of Pskov Pecherski (Cave) monastery at the 95th anniversary of Dear Elder (2005).

I won’t say much about what Father Ioann means to me. All my monastic life is inseparably connected with him. He has been the ideal of a Christian, monk, and a loving and strict priest-father for me.

It is obviously impossible to tell about everything that has happened during the twenty years of our friendship. His spiritual advice is available to everyone; recently published in the three volumes of his correspondence. In my view these books are the best that has been written in Russia in the past fifty years on spiritual and moral subjects. I would like to share something I know from my personal experience.

For me Father Ioann’s main spiritual quality has always been not only his gift of reasoning, but also his unshakeable faith in the all-merciful and absolute God’s Providence, which leads a Christian to salvation. An epigraph to one of Father Ioann’s books was the words he repeats often: “The most important elements of spiritual life are the faith in God’s Providence and reasoning with guidance”. Once in reply to my questions and doubts Father wrote to me: “Now I am attentively reading the Proverbs, how deep this is: “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps” (Chapter 16, 9) – sapient Solomon discovered how true it was through his own experience. And you will many more times in your life have a chance to see it is exactly so.”

I don’t want to force my opinion on anyone, but I am deeply convinced that Father Ioann is one of the last people living nowadays who have the Lord’s Divine will opened to them. The Lord gives him the knowledge about concrete people and about events, happening within and without the Church. His is probably the highest manifestation of love to God and devotion to His holy will, in response to which the Lord opens the destiny of people to His co-Sacramenter. I would like to repeat that I don’t want my opinion forced on anyone, but I was driven to it by many real life episodes concerning Father Ioann. And it is not only my opinion. My closest friends, now deceased Father Raphael and Hegumen Nikita, through whom I met Father Ioann, thanked God first of all for the fact that their spiritual father was the man who had God’s will open to him, and each of us had a chance to witness it. Though unfortunately, the way it often happens in life, even when we know God’s will we cannot find the strength and determination to obey it. But I will talk about this later.

I met Father Ioann in autumn of 1982, when immediately after my baptism I arrived at the Pskov Pecherski monastery. Back then he didn’t particularly impress me: a very kind old man, quite robust (he was only 72 then), always in a hurry, always surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims. Other denizens of the monastery looked much more ascetic and monastic. But not much time passed when I realized that this old man is what in old Rus [old name for Russia] they call ‘Elder’ since old times. It is the rarest and incredibly precious Church phenomenon.

Trust and obedience are the main rule of communication between a Christian and his spiritual Father. Of course you cannot exercise total obedience to any spiritual father. Such guides are singular. It is a very delicate question. Horrible tragedies often happen, when unwise priests think of themselves as ‘Elders’, and their hapless spiritual children take on the overcommitment of total obedience, which is strange to our times. Surely, Father Ioann never ordered and didn’t force anyone listen to his spiritual advice. People would come to free, unfeigned obedience to him through experience and time. He never called himself an Elder. When he was told he was an Elder, he would smile and say that there are no Elders nowadays, only experienced old men. He is still convinced in that. Equally I am convinced that the Lord sent me a true Elder, who knows God’s will about me and all that is needed for my salvation.

I recall, when I was still a young novice in the monastery one of the Moscow pilgrims came up to me and told me what he had just witnessed. Father Ioann, surrounded by pilgrims, was hurrying towards the church. Suddenly a tear-stained woman with a baby about three years old in her arms rushed to him: “Father, could I have your blessing for the surgery, doctors say it is urgent, in Moscow”. And then something followed, which stunned both the pilgrim who told me the story, and myself. Father Ioann stopped and firmly told her: “Don’t even think about it. He will die on the operating table. Pray, and take good care of him, but by no means agree to have the surgery. He will recover”. And crossed the baby.

The pilgrim and I were terrified by our own speculations: what if Father Ioann made a mistake? What if the baby dies? What would the mother do with Father Ioann if that happens? We couldn’t suspect that Father Ioann simply demonstrated a vulgar denial of medicine, which, however seldom, still is not unheard of in some Church circles. We knew about lots of cases where Father Ioann would bless for surgery or even insist on it. There were many famous doctors among his spiritual children. We were anticipating the future events with horror. Would the broken-hearted mother show up in the monastery and raise hell? Or nothing of the kind would happen, the way Father Ioann predicted?

Looks like that is what happened, because Father Ioann went on with his daily walk between the church and his cell, surrounded by the hopeful and grateful pilgrims. It remained for us to suggest that Father Ioann foresaw God’s plan about that infant, and took on himself the great responsibility for his life, and the Lord didn’t shame the faith and hope of his faithful servant.

I remembered that incident ten years later, in 1993. A very similar story ended, on the one hand, tragically in a human respect, on the other hand, due to Father Ioann’s prayers, served for the eternal salvation of a Christian soul and as a meaningful lesson for those who witnessed it.

Usually if Father knows for sure that doing or not doing something is vital for someone who turned to him, he tries to persuade, convince, even beg and plead with the person to carry out the necessary. If that person stubbornly insists to have his/her will, then Father usually sighs and says: “Well, then, do as you please”. And as far as I know about cases like that, those who didn’t follow Father Ioann’s wise spiritual advice finally would bitterly regret it. Next time, as a rule, they would come to him with a firm intention to do as he says. Father Ioann always received them with love and compassion, never grudged the time for them and tried to correct their mistakes as hard as he could.

A very interesting and extraordinary woman lived in Moscow. Her name was Valentina Pavlovna Konovalova…She was a kind of real Moscow kupchikha (the merchants in pre-revolutionary Russia), looked as if she came off a canvass by Kustodiev. In the 90s she was in her sixties. She was a head of a big supply depot. Plump and boxy, she would sit regally at the table in her office, where even in the most difficult Soviet times big icons were hanging on the walls. On the floor by her desk she had a big plastic sack of money. She would solely decide how to spend that money, whether to buy another container of vegetables or give it away to beggars and tramps who would flock to her depot in abundance. Her employers were in awe of her. During Lent she’d hold a Sacrament of Extreme Unction right in her office. The Tatars, who worked at the depot would also attend with reverence. In the years of total deficit many Moscow priests and sometimes bishops would call on her. She would be respectful with some, and curt and nearly rude with others, who she didn’t like for their ‘ecumenism’.

Many times, as part of my monastic duty of obedience, I would arrive in Moscow on a big truck to get provisions for the monastery for Easter and Christmas. Valentina Pavlovna received us, novitiates, very warmly and motherly, and we became friends with her; especially since we had a favourite topic of our conversations – our mutual spiritual Father Ioann. He was probably the only man in the world who Valentina Pavlovna feared, infinitely respected and loved. Twice a year, together with her closest colleagues she went to the Pecherski monastery, fasted and confessed there. It was impossible to recognise her those days, she was so quiet, shy and meek, nothing like the “Moscow queen”.

At the end of 1993 I was appointed the prior of the Pskov Pecherski monastery representation in Moscow. I often made trips to Pechory, and Valentina Pavlovna, who had an eye cataract, asked me to ask Father Ioann to bless her to have a surgery to remove the cataract at the ophthalmic Feodorov Institute. Father Ioann’s reply surprised me a little: “No, no, by no means now. In a while, maybe’. The next day I passed his words on to her, and Valentina Pavlovna was very disappointed, everything had been already arranged at the Feodorov Institute. So she wrote Father Ioann a detailed letter, explaining to him that it was a very simple surgery not worth any attention, and asking for his blessing again.

Father Ioann knew himself what kind of surgery it was and that it didn’t pose any serious threat to one’s health. But having read her letter he became terribly anxious. We sat together for a long time and he was persuading me to talk Vaentina Pavlovna out of having a surgery at that time. He wrote to her again, asked her, begged and even ordered her as her spiritual father to put off the surgery. I had two free weeks forthcoming, I hadn’t had a vacation for over ten years, so Father Ioann blessed me to go to Crimea for a holiday for two weeks, and take Valentina Pavlovna with me. He told her about that in the letter as well, having added that she was to have her surgery in a month after the vacation was over. ‘If she has her surgery now, she will die’, - he told me sadly when we were saying good-bye to each other.

In Moscow I realized that diamond was cutting diamond. All of a sudden, Valentina Pavlovna probably the first time in her life went against the will of her spiritual father. At first, she firmly refused to go to Crimea, then looked like she gave up. But she was quite indignant that Father Ioann made so much fuss around such an unworthy matter as her surgery. I told her that I was going to get our tours anyway and we were going to Crimea in the near future.

In several days which followed I ordered two tours which were not difficult to get at that time of year, got His Holiness’ blessing for my vacation, and rang up the depot to tell Valentina Pavlovna about our departure.

—She is in hospital, being operated, - her assistant told me.

— How is that? – I cried. – Father Ioann strictly prohibited her to have it!

Turned out that a couple of days before, some nun, formerly a doctor, had called on her and having found out about her cataract problem didn’t agree with Father Ioann’s verdict either. So she said she would get a blessing from one of spiritual fathers of the St. Trinity Lavra. She got the blessing, and Valentina Pavlovna went straight to the Feodorov Institute, hoping that after a short and simple surgery she would go with me to Crimea. Right during the operation, on the table, she had a powerful blood-stroke and was completely paralyzed. As soon as I learnt about it I rushed to call Father Filaret, Father Ioann’s old cell-keeper. In extraordinary cases Father Ioann would go down to Father Filaret’s and use his phone.

— How can you do it, why don’t you listen to me? –cried Father Ioann,almost in tears – If I insist on something I know what I am saying!

What could I tell him? I asked Father Ioann what I was to do, Valentina Pavlovna was still unconscious. Father Ioann said I should take spare Eucharist into my cell, and as soon as Valentina Pavlovna would become conscious I should go to her and give her Holy Communion.

Thanks to Father Ioann’s prayers, Valentina Pavlovna became conscious the next day. Her relatives immediately informed me, and I was at the hospital in half in hour. She was wheeled out to me into one of intensive care wards. She was lying, so tiny, under a white sheet. She couldn’t talk, and on seeing me started crying. Her confession of giving in to the Enemy’s temptation and distrust in her spiritual Father was clear without any words. I read the absolutory prayer over her and gave her Holy Communion. We bid farewell to each other. Next day Father Vladimir Chuvikin gave her Holy Communion again, and soon afterwards she died. According to the Church writings, the person who was honoured to take Communion on the day they die, goes to the Lord’s throne skipping all the ordeals. This happens either to saints, or people with very pure hearts. Or to those, who have very strong spiritual patrons.The history of the rebirth of the Sretensky monastery is also closely connected with Father Ioann. In 1993 I came to Father Ioann to discuss a load of problems. After a long talk in his cell Father Ioann didn’t say anything definite to me, and we hurried to the All-night Vigil, the next day was the feast of Saint Archangel Michael. I was praying at the choir, and Father Ioann was praying by the altar. I was going to put my vestments on and come out to say Akathist when Father Ioann literally ran out of the altar and, taking me by the hand, said happily

— You are going to create a representation of the Pskov Pecherski monastery in Moscow.

— Father, said I, - but His Holiness the Patriarch doesn’t bless opening representation in Moscow, unless it is a stavropigialni monastery (a monastery directed by the Patriarch or Synod and not by a Diocesan Head). Just recently one monastery turned to the Patriarch with the same request, and His Holiness said that if we give away churches to representations of all the monasteries which are opening now there wouldn’t be any local parishes left in Moscow.

But Father Ioann wouldn’t listen to me.

— Don’t you fear! Just go straight to His Holiness and ask him to open a representation of the Pskov Pecherski monastery.

He eagerly, as he usually does, blessed me, and all I had left was to kiss his hand and rely on the will of God and his prayers.

Everything happened the way Father Ioann said. Not without fear, of course, I voiced my request about opening a representation of the diocesan Pskov Pecherski monastery to His Holiness the Patriarch. But his Holiness suddenly took this request very kindly, blessed this decision and immediately charged Bishop Arcini and Father Vladimir Divakov with supervising this mission. Thus the first and only representation of a non-stavropigialnymonastery was opened in Moscow. Later it became an independent monastery, the way Father Ioann predicted. And it has never lost its connection with the Pskov Pecherski monastery or Father Ioann. Needless to say that Father Ioann’s blessings and advice on how to lead our monastic life are the most precious and wanted. Though I must say sometimes I received not only warm but such harsh letters that I couldn’t regain my senses for a few days.

Usually when anyone starts remembering Father Ioann they write about how kind-hearted, tender, warm and loving he is. There is no doubt I have never in my life met a man who can show his fatherly, Christian love better than him. But I must add that Father Ioann, if need be, can evenly upbraid somebody in such a way that would make you cringe vicariously. I remember, when I was still a novice in the Pecherski monastery, I overheard Father Ioann telling two young priests-monks ‘Who are you kidding [that you are monks], you are just nice fellows’.

Father Ioann is never afraid to say the truth regardless of ranks, whether he is talking to a Bishop or an ordinary novice. He does it first of all for the improvement and salvation of the soul of the person he is talking to. The base for this firmness and spiritual integrity was formed in Father Ioann’s childhood, when he got to know great zealots and martyrs. He witnessed all those manifestation of true Christian love to God and people, and expressions of the true religious consciousness. In one of his letters of 1997 he wrote: “Here is another example out of my memory’s treasury. I was about twelve back then, but the impression was so strong that to this day I can see everything which happened then and remember all people involved by their names. We had a remarkable Bishop in Orlov, Seraphim Ostroumov, most clever, kind, loving person, you couldn’t praise him enough. It was as if with his life he was preparing to the vestments of a Holy Martyr, which eventually happened. So, on Forgiving Sunday (last Sunday before Great Lent, the day of forgiveness in the Eastern Orthodox Church) this Lord’s Archbishop expelled two denizens, Hegumen Kallist and hierodean Tikhon, for their misdemeanour. He expelled them from the monastery in public, so authoritatively, guarding others from temptation. And right afterwards said a word about Forgiving Sunday and asked everyone for forgiveness.

I with my child’s outlook was stunned because such opposite things were put together – the expulsion, i.e. nonappearance of forgiveness, and a humble appeal for forgiveness from everyone, and forgiving everyone. I only realized that a punishment can serve as a beginning of forgiveness, and there could be no forgiveness without it.

Now I can do justice to the Bishop’s courage and wisdom, since the lesson he gave stayed in the memory of all who were present back then for the rest of their lives”.

What else is essentially important to note down, so that Father Ioann himself could read and confirm the accuracy of this evidence?

In the years of our friendship I have noticed that Father Ioann has certain principles regarding spiritual advice. Of course he doesn’t apply them mechanically. For me his attitude towards marriage was particularly interesting. He can bless a marriage only if a bride and bridegroom have known each other at least for three years. With the impatience of modern young people it seems terribly long. But many cases have proved, how Father Ioann’s experience and his insistence that the future spouses get to know each other well can be family and souls-saving. I have witness more than one occasion where priests out of pity would shorten the period of time before marriage fixed by Father Ioann and it would end lamentably.

Father Ioann also usually demands a long time test for those who are willing to become monastics. And he attaches huge importance to the parents’ blessing. For instance, I had to wait for ten years before taking my monastic vows, until my mother blessed me to become a monk. All those years were in response to my impatient requests to bless me for taking monastic vows Father Ioann was just persuading me to wait for my mother’s blessing. And he assured me that the Lord would not forget about my patience and obedience. I recalled those words when I was taking my monastic vows in Donskoy monastery, it happened on my birthday, I turned thirty three, and I was named after my favourite Saint – Saint Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow.

Father Ioann treats Bishops and other Church leaders with great reverence. He is truly a man of the Church. Lots of times he has blessed to act as His Holiness would bless, how a bishop would bless or how a prior would bless. His awareness that the Truth on earth is only in the Church is heartfelt and can be sensed by his spiritual children. Father Ioann never tolerated any schisms or rebellions, and always fearlessly and formidably opposed them, knowing how much libel, and sometimes even hatred he would have to take. But he would bear anything as long as he himself and his spiritual flock could follow the Church’s, King’s way.

The same goes for the trials that our Church underwent in the last decade: on the one hand – “modernisation” tendencies, on the other – unhealthy eschatological attitudes. In both cases Father Ioann never stopped loving the people, who got confused in the spiritual life due to their injudiciousness and the enemy’s plots, but he could clearly see the harm which they actively and even violently were ready to inflict on the Church. Father Ioann’s enormous, nearly a hundred years worth experience of the Church life gives him significant advantages in telling where some or other new introductions or excessive ill-advised zealousness can lead to. Truly there is nothing new under the Sun. “I will not take part in the campaign which you are promoting, - writes Father Ioann to a young and very sincere hieromonk, who wants him to participate in the movement called “Life without Identifying Tax Numbers” – The spirit of such activity, where there is a lot of noise, vanity and reliance not on the Lord but on man, especially with disrespectful criticism of the Church leaders, which is abundant in your statements, forbids me from being involved. I saw something similar in the actions and spirit of the Church modernists(A Church movement which started soon after the Civil war of 1917) who were rebelling against Saint Patriarch Tikhon, but actually against the Lord Himself and His Church”.

In his letters and statements Father Ioann has talked often about his sober and well consideredattitude towards the problem of global computer registration. It has been published many times, and for some served for spiritual peace and trust towards the Russian Orthodox Church, for others – provided the ground for attacking Father Ioann, or even blatant libel.

I think that this test of libel and hatred in the late years of his life was sent by the Lord for a reason. If I am not mistaken, Venerable Varsonophius of Optina wrote somewhere, that the Lord sends His true servants in the last period of their lives temptations similar to Christ’s Golgotha.

Several years before those events Father Ioann also without hesitation drew the fire of the enemy so that to warn the Church’s people against neo ‘modernists’. He met and talked with popular and supported advocates of modernisation of the Church. And only having tried all means of persuasion in the extreme danger of this path, he said openly and publicly, with whole responsibility for his words: If we don’t destroy this movement, it will destroy the Church”.

I witnessed how Father Ioann stood through hatred and lies pouring over him while he was defending Christ’s Truth. I could see his pain, but also his good humour, when he was suffering betrayal and misunderstanding. But Father never lost his infinite love and Christian forgiveness for his offenders. The words he said in his sermon of 1985 in the St. Michael’s cathedral of the Pskov Pecherski monastery are imprinted in my memory: “The Lord gave us a Commandment of love for people, our neighbours. But we should not bother whether they love us or not. We should only try to love them ourselves”.

One Moscow priest, Father Ioann’s former spiritual son, turned to me with a fearsome request, to take back the orarion, which Father Ioann blessed him with for priesthood. This priest told me that he was disappointed in Father Ioann after he didn’t support his politically dissident views. It was at the end of the 80s. This priest said a lot, but he wouldn’t listen that Father Ioann himself spent many years in camps, that he was tortured and wasn’t broken, and that of all people you cannot suspect him in conformism. I passed the orarion to the Father with a heavy heart. To my surprise, Father Ioann crossed himself, kissed the priest’s vestment and said: “Passed with love, accept with love”. Later that priest went under a different Church jurisdiction, then changed another one…

I must not forget to state the fact which may cause a contradictory reaction, but needs to be provided to complete the picture. Yes, Father Ioann holds Church hierarchy with absolute reverence, but it doesn’t mean automatic, thoughtless subordination. I witnessed how once one of the priors of the monastery and the local bishop tried to persuade Father to bless their decision which he didn’t agree with. It was necessary for adding the Elder’s authority to the outcome they wanted. They seriously took him in hand, pressed him real hard. Monks and priest would understand what it is to resist the pressure from a head bishop and your monastery prior. But Father Ioann calmly stood through this harassment which went through many days. He respectfully, patiently and gently explained, that he could not say “I bless” to something he doesn’t agree, and if his superiors thought it necessary for things to be the way they wanted, he would take their decision humbly. They were responsible for their decision before God and the brethren, but he thought the decision was passion-driven, so he could not bless it.

I could write much more, first of all about how the souls of people who got to know Father Ioann went through blessed transfiguration and resurrection, how they found their faith and salvation. But it would involve the people who are in good health, so far it is impossible to tell their stories without their assent.

In conclusion I would like to say just this: I thank the Lord that He so kindly gave me, a sinner, a chance to meet such a Christian in my life and get to know him. I think I have not and will not encounter anything more prominent in my life.


© Copyright 2004 by 'Orthodoxy and the World'