Vladyka Knew Everything
Recollections of a spiritual daughter of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco
Nun Theodosia (Tikhonovich) was born in Paris, raised in a Russian émigré community, received her tonsure in the Holy Land and now lives in the Kiev Lavra of the Caves. She literally grew up in the Church and knew ascetics who would remain in her heart forever. Mother Theodosia told us about how St John (Maximovich) taught his flock to be merciful, and why it is impossible to explain in words the Holy Paschal Fire.
– How did a girl from Paris end up in Kievo-Pechersk Lavra?
– I was born in France in 1954. My mother hailed from Poltava, but found herself in a German concentration camp. My sister and I were later born in Paris. We were hungry, lived poorly, and our mother was often ill. It was hard for her to bear to see us in such destitution, so we were placed in an orphanage. During weekends and holidays we went to Lesna Convent, 100 km from Paris. Unfortunately, they are now in schism from the Church.
After graduating in 1970, I went on my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land and fell in love with Jerusalem, as so many others have. Two years later I entered Ascension of the Lord Convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. A little later I met Vladyka Paul, the Prior of Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, who was baptizing many people in Ukraine, and with God’s help, I returned to my historic homeland in 1999.
– What do you remember from your first years as a monastic?
– When I was a girl, I once asked Abbess Theodora who the holiest saint of Kiev was. She answered “Holy Prince Vladimir. Why do you ask?” I responded: “Because I want to find my relatives.” I was only six years old at the time. “Well, then, on his feast day, have a moleben performed in his honor, take Holy Communion, and you will find your relatives.”
And so it happened. In 1976, I found my relatives when I was a novice in the Holy Land.
Another thing I can boast is that St John of Shanghai was my godfather. I was born at 6 ½ months, weighted a kilogram and a half and barely survived, and a week later, St John baptized me. I’ve always considered him my heavenly protector.
– What do you remember about him?
– I only remember him from my childhood. He really loved orphans and took great care of them. He taught us to love prayer and to be merciful.
For example, he often took us with him to visit the sick in hospitals. There were three of us girls: Lyalya, Lyolya and Lyulya. I was called Lyolya. There was also a boy named Philipp. Vladyka once took us to a store and said “Each of you pick out a toy.” We didn’t have any toys of our own, we were very poor.
Then he said to me: “Lyolya, you take two toys.”
I was little, but I already knew that if a price tag had a number before the comma, it was expensive, but if the number was after a comma, it was cheap. I kept examining all the toys. Vladyka came up to me and said: “Don’t look at the price, just pick what you like.”
I loved stuffed bunny rabbits, so I picked a big one and a small one. I hid the smaller one behind my back.
Then we went to the children’s hospital. The kids burst into tears as soon as they saw him. He was ugly in appearance, hunched over, with strange hair, he often walked barefoot, in a word, he was a “fool for Christ.” As we approached one little girl, he said: “Lyolya, give your toy to this girl.”
I thought to myself “I didn’t get to play with it yet.” I look at Vladyka, then at the girl, and he said: “This girl is sick, but you are healthy, but later you will be sick, too.” Well, I really loved Vladyka John, how could I not obey? I gave her the big rabbit, and kept the little one behind my back. Ever since then he called me “Bunny.”
When we left the hospital, he said to my friend Lyalya: “You will be a matushka.” She cried out: “I don’t want to live in a monastery!” “Never mind that, you will be a matushka.”
She is now the wife of a priest, a “matushka,” in Geneva.
Vladyka John told me: “Where you take your first steps will be where you take your last.”
Vladyka John often spoke in symbols, so we understood that if our first steps are taken in a monastery, then our last will always be in a monastery.
Only the boy, Philipp, refused to give his toy to the sick children. Philipp stood with him at the foot of a bed; the sick child was crying because he was afraid of strangers, and Philipp was crying because he didn’t want to give up his toy. Vladyka later told him: “You won’t end up well.”
Sadly, when Philipp grew up, he became a drug addict and died young.
When I was eleven years old, St John was already serving in San Francisco, and came to visit Paris one last time. When we met, he told me I will live in Russia. I thought, well, Vladyka has really gotten old. How am I to even see Russia if I am being raised in the Russian diaspora, which was 500% against the Soviet Union? As it turned out, by Divine Providence, I ended up here.
We really loved our dear Vladyka John and were ready to go with him wherever he went, even though he was very strict. I held his staff when he served at Lesna Convent, and I wasn’t supposed to shift my weight from one foot to another—I had to stand at attention. He demanded this of everyone. One could not talk in church. He never omitted anything from divine services, his services were always very long, and sometimes we would moan “How much longer?”
We were very little, but we loved him enormously, and this love has stayed with us ever since. I know that if I pray to him, I will receive what I want. The same thing happens to people who come to Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra and pray to the saints’ relics in the caves, and I’m sure they get what they seek.
– If he was so strict, so unattractive and sometimes acted strangely, why was he so beloved?
– Vladyka knew everything. I cannot explain it. I had a child-like love and attachment to him. But even now I understand that he knew everything.
– Are you saying that Archbishop John had the gift of prophecy?
Yes, he did. For instance, once we were standing in church. It was time to approach the cross, and behind me were two quarrelling women. One said to the other: “I’m not going to kiss his hand, I don’t feel comfortable.” The other responded: “But this is a bishop, you must.” But she refused. The other woman approached, and Vladyka said to her: “Tell your friend that she needs to kiss the cross, but she doesn’t have to kiss my hand.”
Another instance happened when I was very little. I may have been small, but I was stubborn. I was given the duty to lay down the orlets [bishop’s eagle rug] in the proper place during service. Once a bishop picked up an orlets and said that he wouldn’t stand on it after Vladyka John did. But I loved my bishop so much, I said to myself: “Oh, really? I’ll teach you a lesson!” But I didn’t say a word. I usually told Mother Theodora everything, but this time I didn’t. The next day there was a meeting of the Synod of Bishops at the convent, and five bishops celebrated Liturgy. I lay down orletsy for four of them, but not the fifth. Mother Abbess said to me: “Lyolya, another orlets!”
I just shook my head. Again, she said “Lyolya, an orlets!” Again I shook my head. After Liturgy, everyone asked me: “Lyolya, why didn’t you put down another orlets?” Vladyka John approached and said: “Maybe someone didn’t want to stand on it?” I was only five and a half, and I gazed at Vladyka and thought: “Oh, no, now he’s going to tell everyone about how silly I am.” And even before he finished removing his vestments, I said: “Oh, Vladyka, please forgive me, I stole some cucumbers from the garden yesterday. I just really wanted them.”
He loved kids. His love remained in my heart forever.
– We know that St John miraculously healed people; did you ever witness that?
– I remember that he often visited the sick, he brought people to Church and gave them Communion. If a doctor diagnosed someone as being without hope, Vladyka might object: “No, this person will survive.”
If he was in a hurry, he would still console them: “Don’t worry, everything will be alright.” And later they would recover.
One woman had cancer, they operated, and on the third day a doctor told her: “You don’t have cancer.” “What do you mean?” she said in surprise. “I don’t know, but your grandfather came and made the sign of the cross over you, I think he sprinkled some water on you.” “I don’t have a grandfather,” she replied. “That’s him in that photograph on your table.” It was Vladyka John.
Some remarkable things have happened in my personal life. If I do something bad, Vladyka John comes to me in my dreams, pointing a figure and threatening me: “Be careful, make sure your candle doesn’t go out.” Then I know I was wrong. I don’t believe in the significance of dreams, but this is special.
– What was life like in the Russian émigré community of Paris?
– The Russian diaspora in Paris was very strong. Everyone was a believer. I lived in an orphanage, but on Saturdays and Sundays we went to church, and never missed a service. It was unimaginable for us to miss church. Kids were always given something to do in church. I was charged with extinguishing candles, place the icon stands. We constantly went to confession and Communion—I couldn’t image life without it.
Vladyka Laurus later became my spiritual father. He tonsured me a nun in 1986 in Jerusalem. Remembering him always brings a tear to my eye. This was a man who also loved us all, he was very meek and prayerful. Thank God, it was under his reign that canonical communion was reestablished between the Russian Church Abroad and the Russian Orthodox Church.
I knew him since the age of ten. I was allowed to ring the lunch bell at Lesna. I’d run up to the third floor, then slide down the bannisters. Once I flew right into Vladyka Laurus—that was our first encounter. Then I would go to him for confession. He would say to us all: “The most important thing is to pray and humble yourself.”
– What was life like in the Holy Land?
– It was good, though it’s very strict at the Convent of the Ascension. We even refused to take in pilgrims. I entered the monastery under Abbess Tamara, who was a daughter of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and the great-granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I. She went to church before any of us and taught us all that we should arrive ten minutes before service began to collect our thoughts from the fuss of our daily chores. We would approach the icon of the Mother of God “Quick to Hear,” then to the Abbess for her blessing. She would often give a nun a book to read, such as Philokalia, or the Life of St Ignatius (Bryanchaninov). A few weeks later she would ask what we thought about the book.
– You have lived in Jerusalem for 27 years, and you’ve probably witnessed the Holy Fire appear on more than one occasion. Now you often hear that this is no miracle at all, just a symbolic thing, that it happens from natural causes. What do you say about it?
– I was able to witness it 20 times. It is impossible to explain away, you can either believe it or not. But I’ll tell you about one time. Once, after the Holy Fire descended, after the Patriarch emerged from the Kuvuklia [Sepulcher], one other curious nun and I immediately entered it. How we did it I don’t know, because there were so many people there. Some Greek man berated us, but we didn’t care, we didn’t understand Greek anyway. We stood in the Kuvuklia for four hours during the procession of the cross. And the walls of the Kuvuklia became covered with moisture of some kind. The Holy Fire is both fire and water. And there was a remarkable aroma there. It is indescribable. The Holy Fire sometimes ignites on other people’s candles. So you should certainly believe.
– Do you ever regret leaving the Holy Land?
– No, I never regretted it. Well, during Great Saturday it is hard, because all I do is think about the Holy Fire. But life is good here. How can you not love Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra?
November 13, 2017