This article was written in 2010, the year which marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), the great and revered Elder who changed the lives of many, many people.
Life is short, as the saying goes. This is indeed normally the case. Yet there is another well-known law: every law has its exceptions. One such exceptional case was the life of Archimandrite John (Krestiankin).
Fr. John completed his earthly journey on February 5, 2006, four years short of his 100-year jubilee. But his lifetime did not end, for it is of eternity. The eternity of God’s love, which Batiushka so clearly manifested in his earthly life, continues to manifest itself even now, after his departure to another world.
Fr. John, in one of his sermons, said: “God’s people – luminaries in the world – walk behind God through the valley of the shadow of death, bearing the light of truth into the darkness of a world absorbed by lawlessness. The truth of their prophecies, which have been fulfilled in the world, strengthens the faith of some and engenders faith in others. The truth of their life and death, proclaiming heavenly truths, grants strength and abundant consolation to those who continue to follow God.” Indeed, these words could not be applied more appropriately than to Fr John.
Batiushka was a luminary of faith and love in “the darkness of a world absorbed by lawlessness” during his entire life. Raised in a deeply religious environment, nourished from childhood by the grace-filled illumination of Orthodoxy, he was forced to live in a godless age, when Christ’s Church was destroyed and the last sparks of faith in people’s hearts were extinguished.
Fr. John was arrested in 1950 for his zealous preaching and sentenced to seven years in a corrective-labor camp. Someone who knew Fr. John in prison recalls: “He walked with his light, rapid stride – he did not so much walk as fly – over the wooden footbridge to our barrack in his snug black jacket, with all the buttons buttoned. He had long black hair – the heads of prisoners were shaved, but the administration allowed him to keep it – and a beard, with gray beginning to glisten here and there. His pale, fine face was directed somewhere beyond and upward. His sparkling eyes, the eyes of a prophet, particularly struck me… When he spoke with you, his eyes and entire face radiated love and kindness. There was attention and involvement in what he said; he could pronounce fatherly admonitions that were brightened by a gentle humor. He loved to joke; he had something of the old Russian intelligentsia in his manner.” This verbal sketch very accurately portrays Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) – the greatly beloved and revered Elder of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. Yet in the years in which this portrait was created, Fr. John was a young priest who had just turned forty! This again underscores Fr. John’s remarkable constancy in following Christ and His commandments in all the circumstances of life: in prison, in persecution from parish to parish for eleven years, and in the monastery, where he bore the cross of both monasticism and spiritual fatherhood, which are so difficult to combine. Batiushka was constant on the path he had chosen and unwavering in faith: he believed God and His saving providence, accepting everything from the hands of God and loving his neighbor to the point of self-sacrifice.
Fr. John’s life encompassed three eras: the end of the era of patriarchal Orthodox Russia; the whirlwind, destructive era of theomachy; and the era of the incipient rebirth of Russia and its return to faith.
The Elder’s words sounded with special grief during this last period: “Let us be especially careful, my dears, when now creating and restoring a great number of churches created by hand, not to forget the main New Testament church of God: one’s heart, which is called to serve God in spirit and truth. Do not forget that we are returning from the captivity of strangers and countrymen who are fighting us and our Orthodox faith, we who are sick, crippled, and spiritually impoverished. Do not forget that we were without God for a very, very long time and are only just now standing on the threshold of the church that will sanctify us – but will do so only on one condition: if we ourselves want this.”
Fr. John was simple in his love of God and people; it was therefore particularly difficult for him to live in these overwhelmingly guileful times. It is impossible to forget the inordinate sorrow with which Batiushka shook his head over us, his contemporaries, and how his heart bled almost visibly. This immeasurable pain could be heard in his words: “Yes, my dears, there is a lot of talk, but the admixture of the human with the divine is now simply monstrous. Verbal piety and church-going are combined with cynical perversion in an inconceivable inner harmony. In the conscience of many horrifying vain talk, slander, deceit, lies, falsehood, selfishness, and lawlessness live together happily with sighing, weeping, and the reception of Holy Communion. And yet they imagines they are with God. But no, they imagine this in vain. This is not Christianity; this is its cynical destruction. It has already broken into the Church itself, when many who call themselves Christians adapt God’s lofty truths to fit their needs, obscuring the truth with the filth of their earthly understanding and feelings. This is not the rebirth of the Christian spirit in our world – this is its destruction! What answer will these scorners give, who have mixed truth with lies, doing the devil’s work and therewith trampling on God’s holy things, which they have dared touch? The ax of death already lies at the tree of life. Yet God awaits repentance! God is still waiting!”
Thus did the Elder try to reach out to souls that had departed a long distance not only from the “likeness of God,” but even from the likeness of humanity, from that human dignity – the dignity of the image and likeness of God – that so shone in Fr. John. Batiushka gave all his strength, all his love, to each person in order to return him to God and to return at least a small part of God’s love to him. This ministry of Fr. John was manifest to everyone who even once had the good fortune to communicate with him.
Batiushka believed in God, but he also believed in man – despite the fact that he had to deal with spiritual cripples who were often incapable of making room in their soul for even a single one of his words or the smallest part of his love. Patiently, with great humility, pain, and compassion, Fr. John labored over people’s souls, labored even when it was impossible not to lose all hope. But what is impossible for man is possible for God, Who strengthened Batiushka on this martyric path. “We often hear the phrase ‘man is the image of God’” Fr. John said. “But in order actually to reflect the image of God, one has to some degree to become like God, to resemble Him, to become in His likeness. Jesus Christ left us His image in the Holy Gospel not for us simply to be amazed by or admire Him as unusually lofty, perfect, and inaccessible, but precisely in order that we would seek and strive to imitate Him. From the life experience of anyone who has desired to follow God’s commandments, we know how much intense struggle with oneself is necessary and how much self-sacrifice is demanded in order, with God’s help, to be faithful to God’s voice. This is a difficult path. It requires great effort of will and special love of God. This is a difficult path, but it is possible!” Indeed, Batiushka demonstrated this by his entire life.
How Fr. John served the Divine Liturgy was astonishing. He conversed with the living God. It was in the living presence of God that Batiushka read the commemoration sheets for a long period of time, commemorating the living and the departed – everyone his loving heart had borne throughout his long life. Fr. John commemorated names, and around him murmuring was heard: the service was being delayed. Fr. John preached, and every one of his words rang out with living, heartfelt feeling – and again murmuring was heard: the service was being delayed.
This lack of understanding on the part of the “world absorbed in lawlessness” pursued Batiushka his entire life. There were misunderstandings; there was love to the point of adoration and deification, which was often torturous for the Elder. But he loved in God: he loved everyone, regardless of age, rank, and position, regardless of their falls, overlooking evils and wrongs. He loved and trusted everyone, asking them: “Believe in God, your Creator. Open your heart to Him, which may be suffering and in pain from years of apostasy. You will feel how abundantly God’s grace will flow into your heart. Feel how the Lord gives joy, comfort, and strength to the heart that believes in Him. But know this: God does not need dead faith, but that which lives in man’s innermost being: when all our thoughts are directed to the Lord, when our heart yearns to live with God and not to be separated from Him, when our will desires to fulfill God’s commandments, to follow the Lord until the end of our days. Such a living faith inspires and becomes the driving force behind our entire earthly path, granting us salvation and constituting the happiness of our lives.”
This living faith permeated Fr. John’s entire life; this was the living faith that he sought to breathe into the long-suffering and hardened souls of our contemporaries: “My dears, God is surely looking upon us; the living God awaits our living appeal to Him. Yet God’s gift – mankind’s wonderful freedom – always places a choice before us: throughout all events, all sorrows and joys, either to follow or not to follow God’s truth and love, of which there is no end. The Lord is always with us, but we are not always going out to meet God. That is why a very real danger always remains for us: to be at the source of life, but to remain dead; to be at the source of living water, but to remain thirsty; to be at the source of grace, but to be without grace. No, my dears, there is no special time or circumstance for worship of God and life in Him; but always and everywhere true life in God consists in our care for salvation, which sheds the light of truth onto every moment of life.”
This year  Fr. John turns 100. Not “would have turned,” but really does – because he is alive. He left us to go to God, but he prays for us and loves us as he did before. And the “truth of his life and death, proclaiming heavenly truths” to all further ages confirms once again that “the Lord remains the same, yesterday, today, and forever. There is room at His feet for everyone from the first century after His coming to earth until the last. Equal awards await those who have worked for Him from the first hour to the last.” “Let us fall down, my beloved children of God,” Fr. John asks each one of us, “together before the Lord, falling down with love and supplication, with faith and hope. The Lord will not put our love to shame; He will strengthen our faith and justify our hope. Do not forget, my dears: And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Translated from Russian.