An Account of Celebrating Liturgy with St. John of Kronstadt
Every Orthodox Christian priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy at least weekly. The celebration of Liturgy is the supreme act of the Christian priesthood, and brings us closer to Christ, more grace and mercy, than any other act of the spiritual life on this earth. A good example of this reality – standing in the fire – is the celebration of liturgy by our father in the faith, St. John of Kronstadt.
The Proskomedia. St. John begins it with calm concentration. For freedom of movement he does not put on the chasuble. He always performs it himself, surrounded by clergy. He is full of triumphant joy. With what thoroughness, assiduity, loving attention does he prepare the Host — straightens and reverently places It, measures It a few times, making sure It stands well on the patten.
he would suddenly remark to his fellow priests…
“Father Paul, Father Nicholas!.. Where else is there anything to compare with what we have! … Look! There He is — Christ! Here, amidst us — and we are next to Him, like the Apostles…”
All in the altar are filled with reverent awe and fear: as though angels are hovering here with their wings….
Attentively, without haste, the priest takes pieces out of the other prosforas as well. St. John mentions the living and the dead, sometimes saying the names in full, with patronymics. Prosforas are carried in by the basketful — out of each one St. John himself takes out at least a few, reading only a few of the great number of notes and books present. He prays with the prayer of the spirit. Pieces from the prosforas are also taken out by the other priests around him — there are a great many prosforas.
Finally, St. John’s voice rings out:
The deacon presents it — always “not smothered,” i.e., with coals burning and a sufficient amount of incense. In this regard St. John would sometimes say to the deacon:
‘This censer is an image of our hearts. They, too, are sometimes “smothered,” cold and unfeeling… Warm up out hearts, O Lord, so that they may burn with love for you…”
In finishing the Proskomedia, St. John did not pronounce the set prayers aloud, but prayed silently, while asking the deacon to make his exclamations aloud.
Divine Liturgy is beginning. St. John is heading a whole sobor of priests. He is miraculously transformed — in chasuble, miter, with a gleaming cross on his breast.
“Let us pray, my brother priests,” he is saying, “for Our Lord to grant us to perform the God-saving and soul-saving Divine Liturgy in a God-pleasing manner.”
The Royal Gates are opened. The first exclamation. Firmly, acutely, from the bottom of the heart, sound the words:
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.”
The accent is on the words “blessed” and “ages.” St. John goes deeper within himself. Seldom does he open his eyes — he is already in another world, and he does not resemble anyone on earth at this moment. He does not open his service book — reads the prayers by heart, often in a low voice. He loved services to flow smoothly — not to drag, either in the singing or in the deacon’s exclamations.
During the last period of his life this was also dictated by the poor state of his health. Distinctly, loudly, “heartily, “but without dragging, did he himself make his exclamations — and expected the same from others. During the prayer:
“O only-begotten Son,”
at the words:
he would determinedly grasp the cross from the altar-table and kiss it, and remain with it until the end of the singing. It happened that at other moments he would also suddenly grasp it, covering the crucifix with kisses, as if embracing it in his arms, look at it in exaltation, press it to his forehead, to his mouth, murmuring prayers… He would listen to the reading of the Apostle and the Gospel in rapt attention — sometimes nodding his head… He demanded that the reading be accessible not only to the ears of the body, but also of the heart.
“The gospel,” he was wont to say to the deacons, “is not read merely to beat upon the air with a thunderous voice, but to beat upon hearts also.”
In this part of the whole liturgy, up to the Great Entry, St. John is absorbed in prayer for mankind. How many have been entrusted to him! “Lord,” he prays, “many of those presently standing in Thy church have empty hearts, like empty vessels, and do not know for what to pray: fill their hearts now, in this day of salvation, with the grace of Thine All-Holy Spirit, grant them to me, to my prayer, imbued with the knowledge of Thy Holy Spirit, Which Itself make the intercession for them with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
How many have been entrusted to him! How many eyes are directed in prayer toward him, with hope of receiving assistance, comfort, deliverance from grief and sickness. St. John carries all of them in his heart — the well-being of their bodies, the well-being of their souls, their salvation; and he is as if in a hurry to present their needs to Our Lord, Who is listening to him; he is as if hurrying to beseech mercy and aid on their behalf… He is praying in outbursts, insistently, demandingly even — at times it seems as if he is not even asking, but wresting from the Lord, is grasping the edge of the Lord’s robe with all the authority which he, as a priest, has vested in him.
The other priests serving with him are taken in by this all-conquering prayer; it is transmitted to everyone in church as well. What is now being experienced by the people is quite indescribable … And yet this is far from the peak of enthusiasm!
But now begins the singing of the Cherubic Hymn.
Extending his arms toward the Divine Sufferer, depicted on the opened communion cloth, St. John retreats further within himself. Tears flow down his cheeks — he wipes them off with his handkerchief… With sorrowing solemnity (in the expression of deacon Father M. Antonov) the Great Entry is performed — the setting out of Our Lord Jesus Christ to His agony on the Cross.
Beginning with the Great Entry, St. John is wholly absorbed in prayerful contemplation of Our Lord’s last days on earth. He introduces himself to this round of thought by pronouncing the following words during the transferring of the Chalice:
“And they cast Him out of the vineyard and there slew Him.”
In general during this part of the Liturgy, St. John begins to introduce many of his own prayers, sometimes saying them aloud. To the silent prayer before the Litany of Supplication, after the Great Entry, he would add:
“Make us worthy of obtaining grace before Thee that our sacrifice may be favorable unto Thee and that the Spirit of Thy grace may dwell within us and upon these present Offerings — and upon all students, and upon all monastic spiritual nurseries… upon all who have entrusted me, unworthy one, to pray for them and upon all Thy people, for all are Thine own. For Thou hast created them in Thine own image and likeness. Thou hast restored them to life with water and the Spirit; Thou hast granted them the grace of being Thy sons; Thou hast placed the pledge of the Spirit within their hearts, and nothing is more valuable, more blessed, more perfect, than Him. Thou feedest them with the Body and Blood of Thy Son, and nothing is sweeter than that: Thou givest them all that is good by nature and by grace, and of Thy gifts there is no end. At last attach all of us to Thee, being alienated from Thee by sins and the enemies who fight us, so that none of us becomes an acquisition and food for the alien (devil). Save us Thou Thyself, O Father of bounteous-ness and God of every comfort.”
To the words:
“Christ is amongst us,”
during the exchange of kisses between priests in the altar, St. John would add:
“Living and acting…”
By this he would fill the hearts of those who served with him with trepidation. “I was on the verge of falling in front of the holy table” — recalls one of them.
Having read the Symbol of Faith, St. John would add the following extensive prayer:
“Confirm in this faith my own heart and the hearts of all Orthodox Christians; enlighten us to live worthily of this faith and this hope; unite in this faith all the great Christian bodies which have disastrously fallen away from the unity of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, which is Thy Body and whose Head art Thou and Savior of the Body; subdue the p ride and opposition of their teachers and their followers; grant that they may comprehend with their hearts the truth and salutariness of Thy Church and unite with Her without laziness; join also to Thy Holy Church those ailing from ignorance, error and stubbornness of the schism, breaking their obstinacy and standing up against Thy Truth with the power of Thy Spirit’s grace, that they may not perish in their resistance as did Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who opposed Moses and Aaron, Thy servants. To this faith attract all the nations which inhabit the earth, so that with one heart and one mouth all nations will glorify Thee, the One God and Provider of all; unite all of us as well in this faith with the spirit of humility, piety, meekness, simplicity, impassibility, patience, forbearance, mercy, compassion, and the sharing of joyfulness.”
“Let us lift up our hearts!”
to these words St. John would add the following prayer:
‘Thyself, O Lord, lift up our earth-bound hearts.”
As witnessed by himself, he would also say the following words silently:
“Lift up all those who are here standing before Thee, O God of our lives, and cast out of our hearts all physical and spiritual passions.”
St. John added a great deal to the silent prayers as well during the Canon of the Eucharist. Thus in the prayer: “It is meet and right to hymn Thee…,” to the words: ‘Thou hast brought us out of non-existence into being,” St. John, continuing the thought in this prayer, would add these words: “into intelligent being and with an immortal soul.”
To the words:
“Us fallen hast Thou raised up again,”
St. John would also carry on the thought of the prayers and add:
“and Thou raisest us up a hundredfold each day as we sin and repent.”
After the words:
“until Thou hast raised us up into heaven and hast granted us the future Kingdom,”
— he would also say:
“Even in our very Communion of Thy Holy and life-endowing Mysteries, Thou art already raising us up into heaven: for where Thou art, there is heaven and the heaven of heavens, and having granted Thou Thyself to the faithful, Thou hast also already with Thyself granted the Kingdom of Heaven — the future Kingdom, in the pledge of Thy Precious Body and Blood.”
During the next silent prayer:
“And we also with these blessed hosts …”
at the words:
“He Himself for the life of the world,” St. John would add: “Above all, myself, a sinner, so that I may be rid of mortal sin and live forever.”
Repeating the words of Our Savior, spoken by Him during the Last Supper, St. John experiences a holy rapture:
“How can such words be hidden!”
… He turns to face the people and loudly proclaims:
He touches the chalice a few times and proclaims with special force and expressiveness:
“which is shed for You and for many…”
Now trepidation fills all and each one in the church! St. John appears to place into each heart the penitent awareness:
“For You was the Divine Blood shed. You have rejected God and forgotten Him — and it was for You that the Most Holy Blood was shed! For your sins, for all here present, did Christ suffer — and You, how do you repay Him?!”
‘Thine own of Thine own.”
St. John stands before his Heavenly Father in all the indescribable majesty of his priestly calling, offering up to Him the propitiatory sacrifice of the Son of God, the Only thing worthy to redeem the world and to obtain for the faithful the remission of sins and blessings, while for those who are departed in faith and with hope of resurrection, eternal rest with the saints…
“On behalf of all and for all.”
These words also embrace all those present… O! How strongly do they feel this!
St. John touches the patten with his lips. He can already hear the winnowing of approaching grace, he is awaiting it, calling it… the most important point in the Liturgy is approaching: triumph and victory! And in this rapture of triumph St. John is once again transformed. Awe envelops those who are serving with him with renewed strength: through St. John they, too, come into communion with the Heaven of Heavens …
“O Lord, Who didst send down Thy Most Holy Spirit…”
— begins St. John this prayer for the first time, solemnly, confidently, victoriously, but in a relatively calm voice. The voice rises during the second repetition of that same prayer, it begins to tremble — St. John is anticipating the Miracle of the Consecration. A triumphant authoritativeness grows in the sound of the voice… Now his eyes are widely opened: what do these eyes see? This is not known to those who serve with him: with shuddering and trepidation, shaken and pale, they listen to St. John…
The world-saving mystery has been completed… On the altar table — the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ…
‘There were days,”
recalled Bishop Seraphim (who knew Batiushka well) soon after St. John’s death,
“when he would turn into some motionless shadow during these moments, as one dead on his feet, and his face gradually turned from being alive to pale, and then even dark. As soon as the time came for him to make an exclamation, he immediately came back to earth, and large tears would roll down his already lively features. During such moments in his services those present would be filled with dread and fear.”
St. John had Holy Communion — he draws life from the Source of Life Eternal, is filling himself with It. During these moments he says to himself:
“The Lord is within me personally, purifyingly, blessedly, victory-creating, God-endowing, miracle-working (which I feel within myself).”
As witnessed by himself, he would add nothing further of his own words to this.
The strength which, it seemed, was exhausted to the end, has been returned. No longer is there even the faintest trace of fatigue, of exhaustion. The mark of sorrow which lay upon St. John when he was seen entering the church has vanished. He is filled with childlike happiness — imperceptibly, he softly clasps his hands!
“Prayer is the constant, grateful frame of mind”
— he would say. Never will it be capable of reaching such soaring strength as at this moment: his heart is bursting from the grace which fills it! Spiritual happiness, peace, rest, tranquility — those around him can only guess at the felicity they bring; all this is written on St. John’s face, on his entire being. He is glowing, shining…