When Icons Renew Themselves and Prophesies Come True
Mitred Protopriest Stefan Pavlenko
Fr Stefan Pavlenko, a Russian, was born in post-War Europe, and when still a child found himself in America, studied at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, and now serves at the Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame, CA. Fr Stefan met many wonderful ascetics of the 20th century: Metropolitan Laurus, Archbishop Averky (Taushev), Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) and many others. He spoke with a great holy man of God: St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, received his blessing and bore witness to his sagacity. He also saw icons renewing themselves and how prophesies of the holy elders come true.
The great in the small.
I would like to share some stories, one could call miraculous. As they say, “the great in the small.” At one time there was a Russian Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir in San Francisco, one of the first monastic communities in America. The sisters established it in Russia, then they fled the Bolsheviks, going first to Harbin, China, then to Shanghai, and then joined St John of Shanghai in Tubabao, (Philippines), and finally went to San Francisco.
The founder of the convent, Abbess Rufina (Kokoreva, 1872-1937), was a genuine ascetic. In 1925, the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God literally renewed itself (brightened) in her hands. After Mother Rufina departed in the Lord in Shanghai, her spiritual daughter, Mother Ariadna (Michurina, 1900-1996) succeeded her as abbess.
I would visit the convent, help the nuns, sometimes I would serve during weekdays, substituting for ailing or absent priests, so Mother Ariadna knew me well.
Icons frequently renewed themselves in the convent: an icon of the Savior, the Mother of God, Apostle Luke…
Once she called me: “Fr Stefan, please come here, I need to show you something.” I arrived, and instead of greeting me in the customary pilgrim’s refectory, she took me to the small monastic dining room on the second floor, where I had never been before. It was a fairly small space, a fireplace on one side, on the other windows looking out into the street. Matushka then said: “Fr Stefan, I want to tell you something. An icon of St Nicholas the Miracle-worker is renewing itself.”
I must say that I love ancient iconography, the old Byzantine-Russian style, but this icon was in the Western manner, something like a portrait. I looked at it and was unmoved. So I responded, “Oh, really, Hm…” Then I was stunned: “Oh, Lord, what did I just see?! In an instant, it became brighter!”
The abbess left the room for a moment, I don’t remember why, maybe to make some tea, and I am looking at the icon, gazing at it… and right before my eyes, it became brighter. As though someone peeled a layer of darkness from it. I was amazed: “Lord, what did I just see?! It just became brighter! I thought, maybe a cloud passed by, a ray of sunlight hit it? I approached the window, and all I saw was the famous fog of San Francisco, no sunlight anywhere.
I came right up to the icon, staring at it, and in an instant, it became even brighter. The abbess came back, and I almost cried out: “Mother Ariadna! Mother Ariadna! It’s brightening! It’s brightening!”
The abbess calmly replied: “See, Fr Stefan, that’s why we invited you, to witness how our icons are renewing themselves.”Again I cried out: “Yes, yes, Mother, yes!”
“What Does That Mean: It’s Holy?”
Once a wealthy American woman called me and said that she wanted to show me her art collection. She turned out to be a real collector and showed me some Russian porcelain, magnificent silver vessels and a collection of silver spoons. I asked if she had any icons, and she replied: “Only one. But I don’t know whom it depicts. No one’s been able to tell me.”
She took me to a room and showed me an utterly blackened icon. I saw two figures, but couldn’t make out who it was. I said: “You know, you own a lot of things: a beautiful collection of porcelain and vessels. But bear in mind: this icon is something special. It’s holy.”
“What does that mean, it’s holy?”
“Believers pray before them, they are healed… and remember, that icons sometimes renew themselves. Yes, just such icons as this, sometimes they brighten by themselves….”
And I looked at the icon, and clearly see that it is brightening, right before my eyes, right after I spoke those words. I couldn’t believe it myself. I thought, maybe I’m imagining it? If I said anything to her, she’d think I lost my mind! Meanwhile, the icon kept getting brighter and brighter, and I see that it depicts two monks. I thought: Should I say something or not? And suddenly I couldn’t help myself and I said: “Look, two monks!”
Her eyes grew wide, and she exclaimed: “The icon is brightening!”
I said: “That’s what I just told you…”
The icon kept getting brighter and brighter, and it turned out to be an image of St Sergius and St German, Miracle-workers of Valaam Monastery. The American woman asked, “What do I do now?”
“Well, if you were an Orthodox Christian, then you would probably bring it to a church, and the priest would perform a moleben service before it.”
“Can you do that now?”
We took the icon to church, I performed a service of supplication, and she took the icon home. I hoped that she would leave the icon in my church, but that didn’t happen. I also hoped that Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, would buy her collection, as it was establishing its own museum, but her collection was valued at 3-4 million dollars, and they could not afford that.
About a year and a half later, someone sent me a package. I opened it and discovered that very same icon!
A Third Instance
I was serving as the rector in a church where there were two elderly sister parishioners. I lived in an apartment above the church, and one day I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, I saw the two of them there. They said: “Fr Stefan, we don’t know what to do, our icon is brightening! Here it is.”
They gave me a completely dark paper icon glued to a plank of wood. It looked like an image of the feast of the Entrance Into the Temple of the Most-Holy Mother of God, because there were two large figures and a small person next to them. I replied:
I took the icon and placed it on an analogion in the church. It was winter, and dark. That evening we had vigil—I don’t remember if it was a Saturday or a holiday, but we turned the lights on. I started censing the church, and approached the icon, and indeed, it appeared to grow brighter, but maybe that was because of the lights that were turned on… I looked, and the blackness seemed to be melting away right before my eyes.
The next time I censed the church, it was during the laudation. The lights came on again, and I see: yes, the icon is brighter. The third time I censed the church during the singing of “More honorable than the Cherubim,” I look, and the blackness is melting away before my eyes. Then I realize that the icon depicts the appearance of the Most-Holy Mother of God to St Sergius of Radonezh. St Sergius was on his knees, and around the Most-Holy Theotokos were angels and saints. All the black disappeared from the icon, only one dark spot remained, like a reminder of how dark the icon had been.
When my father was young, his relatives gave him an icon of St Seraphim of Sarov, which he cherished, and at one time it renewed itself… So these are my experiences with brightening icons.
You ask how I came to the faith… You know, I could never answer that question: I can’t remember a moment when I didn’t believe in God. I was reared an Orthodox Christian and can’t imagine anything else. Of course, there are moments in a person’s life when you are faced with thinking about your faith, but, thank God, I have never had any doubts.
My family was always close to the Church. My father, Vladimir Stepanovich Pavlenko, was the son of a priest, and served as a Psalm-reader in one church or another his whole life. He also worked as the secretary of St Nicholas Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, under Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev), who was recently canonized as a saint.
My mother, Maria Dmitrievna, nee ffly Trinity Church there, and knew Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky) well, along with many other hierarchs.
She knew St John of Shanghai, whose parents emigrated to Yugoslavia after the Revolution in 1917. In Belgrade, he studied theology at university. My mother knew him before he even became a monk: the Maximoviches and Shatiloffs were friends. Mama knew Vladyka John even when he was already a bishop. She would call him, endearingly, “Vladychka.” Later he was sent to Shanghai, and they corresponded for a while.
After World War II, in 1949, my parents moved to America with me, my brother Paul and sister Maria; my other sister, Olga, was born in America. We settled in Vineland, NJ, and our whole family became active parishioners of Holy Trinity Church.
I don’t even remember when I began serving as an altar boy, I was so young. There is still a small stichar (acolyte’s vestment) at the church that I wore; I even held the staff of Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) of Eastern America. He founded many parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in the 1950’s, when many Russians left post-war Europe and moved to America. Thanks to his efforts, by the spring of 1953, there were 110 Orthodox parishes in North America (including Canada), and Holy Trinity Church was among them.
The sagacity of St John of Shanghai.
When I was 12, St John of Shanghai came to a ROCOR conference in New York, and was to serve at the church in Cassville (now Jackson), NJ. We lived in Vineland at the time, some 70 miles away. The rector of our parish, Fr Nicholas Martsishevsky, took me with him, because my mother really wanted Bishop John to bless me. Their correspondence had long lapsed by then, and Bishop John knew nothing of our family.
And so it happened that Fr Nicholas was occupied with something, and so I took his valise with his vestments into the church. At the time, only the lower church was completed, and the remarkable upper church was not yet built. It was almost evening, and I descended the dark staircase; no one had seen me yet. I entered the altar to leave the vestments there, and St John was there. When my mother sent me to get Bishop John’s blessing, I asked her: “How do I know which bishop is Vladyka John?” Mama responded: “Vladyka has messy hair, his klobuk is tilted on one ear, he wears sandals with no socks, and can’t roll the Russian letter R.”
“Go to the one who least looks like a bishop.”
In general, Mama gave me a colorful and humorous description of him: she had known St John since childhood, and she was not someone you messed with. She added: “Go to the one who least looks like a bishop.” I always remembered that.
When I entered the altar and saw someone there, I immediately realized that that was Vladyka John, based on my mother’s description. He never spoke much in the altar, so he led me into the side room and called me by my name. I had never met him before, but he knew who I was. He said to me with kindness: “Hello, Stepa, how is your mother? How are your sister Maria and brother Pavel?”
I replied, and he suddenly looked at me deeply, smiled, and asked: “How did you know who I was?”
I was taken aback, remembering what Mama told me, and muttered something in response.
Many years later, having learned what saintliness and sagacity are, I understood that it was not so surprising that I recognized Vladyka John, but that he knew me and called my name, having never set eyes on me before.
A lesson on monastic love.
My parents often traveled to the monastery in Jordanville and took me along when I was still very little. From about the age of nine I started spending summers there. Fr Nicholas Martsishevsky, our parish priest, would drive me there; he was my first spiritual father (I would make confession to him).
I remember a certain episode in the spiritual life of Jordanville. Once, during summer vacation, I was at the camp the monastery ran, and wandered into the kitchen. At the moment, two monks, Fr Nikodim and Fr Gury, began to argue. The argument became so heated the pots and pans started flying. I was still a boy, so I huddled near the wall.
The monastery’s ekonom (manager), Fr Sergii, who later became an archimandrite, came in. He took each by the arm and said: “Brothers, we will not treat each other this way!”
And so they settled down. During the evening meal, they stood, as punishment. At the end of trapeza, Vladyka Averky (Taushev), said: “Brothers, you know the monastic rule: before the sun sets, you must ask each other’s forgiveness. There was a misunderstanding between our brothers, and now Fr Nikodim and Fr Gury will ask each other’s forgiveness before us all.”
They sank to their knees and asked each other’s forgiveness, each one refusing to rise but continued to ask forgiveness.
I can’t hold back tears when I remember that. This was such a blessed and edifying scene, it showed living monastic love. Then they both stood up and began their own meal. Afterwards, I noticed that they treated each other with love.
I’d like to add that Fr Nikodim was renowned in the monastery not only for his many obediences, but the fact that he baked the monastery’s bread. He died in the bakery, dying while performing his task—that is the lofty labor of a monk!
The most joyous part of serving as a priest.
After I graduated high school it was completely natural for me to enroll in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville.
In American school, each graduating student would be given a guidance counselor who would advise us on our future plans. When my teacher asked what I wanted to do after graduation, I replied that I am enrolling in seminary and then hoped to become a priest. He laughed and was completely baffled. I don’t know what religion he was, but he was very surprised and asked why I don’t want to be an engineer, lawyer or a doctor.
I graduated high school in 1966, and that fall I entered Holy Trinity Seminary. That year, St John of Shanghai departed in the Lord.
I spent five years in the seminary. The last two years I would travel to San Francisco with a group of seminarians to help the eminent icon-painter of the Russian diaspora, Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), to paint the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.”
When I graduated in 1971, I got married and ordained to the diaconate. On September 30, 1973, Bishop Laurus of Manhattan (the future First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), ordained me, a 26-year-old deacon, to the priesthood.
For me, the main joy of serving as a priest is the opportunity to be in church all the time, live a church life, attend all the divine services. That is probably one of the reasons I went to seminary. I wanted to be in church for all the holidays, but that’s impossible if you have a day job. Actually, since childhood I had no other occupation outside of church, though now that I think of it, I did wash dishes in a nearby restaurant as a boy.
You have to choose just one thing.
True, in my first years as a deacon and priest, it was difficult to support my family on only what the church paid me, and I had to get outside work. This continued until I realized that you have to choose just one thing: either have a lay job, or serve as a priest.
This is what happened: I was already a young priest, and so I got an evening job to support my family. One of my parishioners had a very sick daughter, with serious problems after birth. I baptized her. Soon after performing that rite of baptism, I went to work as usual. I sat in a small drive-through bank office which cashed checks.
Suddenly the mother of the sick girl called me, weeping: the child died. I tried to console her sorrow, meanwhile, cars were lining up, people were getting upset that I was on the phone, and said: “How long are you going to talk to your girlfriend?!”
So I sat down on the floor so no one could see me and continued counseling this poor woman, doing all I could for her. Some customers continued to wait, others drove away. The next day my manager called me, and I expected to be yelled at, since many people called to complain. But she turned out to be very religious, a Catholic, and, hearing my story, said: “Don’t worry, we’ll explain to everyone that you are a priest and consoled a poor mother in her sorrow. We’re very glad to have a person like that working for us.”
But after this incident I could no longer remain at a lay job. I became exclusively a priest, and the Lord sent me the means to support my family. Since 1981, I have been the Rector of the Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame, CA, not far from San Francisco.
How prophesies come true.
Before the canonization of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker in 1994, his remains were kept in a crypt under the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” People went there, lit candles and served pannikhidas. I went there with my mother sometime in 1985. She said to me: “Stefan, I know that Vladyka John is a saint. Yes, he is a saint, but he remains my old friend, too.”
My mother died before the canonization of St John, certain that he was a holy man. She would tell me how in her youth, in Belgrade, she helped the Church in various ways: in the refectory, singing on the kliros. So one day she was helping set the tables and serve tea in the presence of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), as any young ladies do during trapeza meals. She saw how people would approach Vladyka Anthony for his blessing. Mama remembered that standing next to her was an elderly priest from the married clergy. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember his name, but I remember that Mama would talk about him like a sage elder. As people were getting blessings from Vladyka Anthony, the elder priest turned to my mother and said: “Look at him: he is a great man of prayer, he performs the Jesus prayer.”
That man, still a layperson, later became a hierarch of ROCOR: Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky) of Washington and Florida. He was one of the first teachers at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, and wrote the biography of Metropolitan Anthony, in several volumes, published both in Russia and abroad.
Then another layman came for Metropolitan Anthony’s blessing, and the elder told my mother: “This man will bring the Russian Church much evil.” And indeed, this layman became a clergyman in ROCOR, then led a breakaway schismatic group from the Church.
Then the young Hieromonk John approached Metropolitan Anthony, the future St John. The elder said to my mother: “Airplanes will fly across the world to Russia with his relics.”
So my mother learned this when the future Bishop John was a mere hieromonk.
Many years later I joined a group of clergymen accompanying Metropolitan Laurus to Russia. We flew there for the reconciliation of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad. The icon-painter Vladimir Krassovsky painted 28 icons of St John, each containing a portion of his relics. We gave one to a church in St Petersburg, one to a church in Moscow, to Diveevo Convent, everywhere we went we gave gifts of an icon of St John with his relics. I still see it now: I approached Metropolitan Laurus (he knew my mother well), and I told him the story, after which he blessed me: “You tell everyone what you just told me!”
I repeated the story in the presence of His Holiness the Patriarch and other hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate.
This is what I wanted to share with you.
Protopriest Stefan Pavlenko
Interviewed by Olga Rozhneva.