One of the most popular saints among Greeks today is St. John the Russian whose incorrupt relics are the boast of the island of Euboia. The multitudes who visit his shrine are such that there is daily bus service to the shrine from Athens. Countless miracles flow from his relics and icons, and even now-when the spirit of the world is having such an oppressive effect on traditional Greek piety–icons of the Saint are often found in buses and in nearly all Orthodox homes. St. John was neither a celebrated hierarch, nor an eloquent theologian, but a simple young man who spent the better part of his life in a stable.
St. John was born in the south of Russia of pious Orthodox parents. He was still young when, in 1711, he took part in the battle against the Turks. Sharing the unhappy fate of many other Russian soldiers, the Saint was captured and sold as a slave to a Turkish cavalry commander from the village of Procopion near Caesarea in Asia Minor. Fanatic in their Moslem beliefs, the Turks inflicted cruel tortures upon their Christian slaves in trying to force them to renounce their faith. While some succumbed to this form of persuasion, many preferred to suffer death and a whole multitude of martyrs was thus added to the heavenly choir. In their misguided zeal the Turks would also kidnap the sons of Christians and raise them as fanatical Moslem soldiers. Procopion was the army-camp of these Christian-hating Janissaries and the new slave of the Turkish Agha became a target of their derisions. But neither their insults nor the beatings of his Turkish master were able to shake the faith of the pious Russian youth who confessed outright that he would sooner die than lose what he treasured above all–the holy Orthodox faith.
The blessed John was assigned to work in the stable where he was also told to sleep. Recalling the lowly Bethlehem cave and The manger where the Saviour of the world first lay His head, the Saint rejoiced in his rude dwelling place. In his humility he regarded his dark corner of the stable as a little paradise where he could freely offer prayer and praise to the true God. The unshakable firmness of his faith, his patience, fortitude, and gentleness of spirit, gradually won the hearts of the Agha and his wife who offered the meek stable boy to sleep in a small room near the hayloft. John, however, preferred to remain in the stable where he could toil more assiduously in the ascetic life, bringing his body into subjection to the spirit according to the Apostle’s command. He ate very sparingly and spent long hours in prayer with the Psalms of David continually on his lips. Weekly he prepared himself to partake of the Most Holy Mysteries in a nearby church, for he knew that without the strength of Christ he was powerless to persevere on the path of the true Faith. At night he would secretly go and keep vigil in the narthex of the church. The Lord rewarded the labors of His faithful servant and through him bestowed blessings also upon his Turkish master who became one of the wealthy and powerful men of Procopion. The Agha understood the cause of his new prosperity and did not shrink from telling it to his fellow citizens.
Once the Agha undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, the city most sacred to the Moslems. While he was away, his wife invited friends and relatives to pray for the Agha’s safe return from such an arduous journey. As they were getting ready to eat. the mistress turned to John, who was serving at the table, and said, “How much pleasure your master would have, Gavan, if he were here now and ate this pilaff with us!” The pilaff, a common grain dish of the Middle East, was a favorite with the Agha. Wishing the best for his master and firmly believing in the almighty power of God, John asked for a plate full of pilaff from his mistress, saying that he would send it to his master in Mecca. The guests laughed but the mistress asked the cook to comply with the youth’s request, thinking that he would take it to some poor Christian family as was his custom.
Those who are familiar with the Gospel should not be astonished at what happened next, for did the Lord not say that faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains? Strong in his faith, the blessed one returned with the plate of pilaff to the stable and, as he was petitioning the Lord, in answer to his firm entreaty, the plate disappeared. What was the amazement of the entire household when the Agha finally returned from Mecca bringing with him the copper plate which had held the food. He had been equally astonished to discover the steaming plate of pilaff upon his return from the Mosque to the locked room where he was staying. Still greater was his confusion when he realized that the copper plate was engraved with his initials–just as all the vessels in his house. “For the sake of Allah, I cannot understand how it came even unto Mecca and who brought it!” When his wife told him of John’s request, they recognized the strange occurrence to be a miracle of God, and henceforth all considered John as a righteous man who had found favor with God.
Once again the Agha and his wife tried to persuade the blessed one to change his dwelling place, but the Saint preferred to remain among the animals, willingly fulfilling his duties and continuing steadfast in his ascetic struggles.
He persevered in this manner of life until, after a few years, he became ill. Foreseeing his end, he called for a priest and asked to partake of the Holy Mysteries. Fearing the fanaticism of the Turks, the priest did not want to bring the Holy Mysteries openly to the stable, but receiving wisdom from above, he thought to hollow out an apple; lining the cavity with beeswax, he placed the Holy Mysteries inside and was thus able to safely bring Communion to the Saint. Upon receiving the immaculate Body and Blood of the Lord, the blessed one surrendered his holy soul into the hands of God Whom he loved so much. He reposed on the 27 of May, 1730, having spent some forty years in this temporal vale of sin and sorrow.
The Saint was given a Christian burial by order of the Agha who, as a token of his love and great respect for the Saint, gave an expensive cloth to cover his relics. Three years later a light appeared over the tomb which was seen by many. At the same time, the Saint appeared in a dream to his father confessor revealing that it was the will of God that his relics be exhumed, for his body was incorrupt. Until 1924 the relics were kept in the church of St. George there in Procopion. When, however, the exchange of population took place between Greece and Turkey, and many of the Christian inhabitants of Procopion were resettled on the island of Euboia, the relics of their beloved St. John were also moved and were received with great acclaim and veneration by the Greeks who built a majestic temple in his honor there in the village of New Procopion. To this day, streams of pious Greek pilgrims make their way to this village on the island of Euboia, where the Saint answers the faith of their earnest petitions with his strong and quick intercession before the throne of God.
SOME MIRACLES OF SAINT JOHN
The Saint performed many wonders even after his blessed repose. A descendent of the Agha told many of the following miracle: “My children would not live except for a short time, and would die while yet infants. Their unfortunate mother, after she had lost hope in the wisdom of medicine, fled without my knowledge to the relics of the slave John, so that be might grant her a little child which would not die while yet young, so that we also might rejoice to see it as a young man or even a young girl …. In truth the righteous John heard the supplication of my wife. God granted us a strong little boy whom we called, as you know, Kole Guvan Oglu (that is, “Son of the Slave John”), and he lives through the power of God and the prayers of John even until today.”
Several times St. John has appeared in dreams and visions warning of impending dangers. Once he warned some Greek school children that the roof was about to fall; they had time enough to jump underneath their desks and when the roof fell, its beams came down upon the desks without striking even one of the children.
More recently we have heard about the miraculous healings of two severe cases of meningitis – one a 19 year old shepherd boy in southern Greece and the other a 3-year old boy in London.
Today a part of the right hand of St. John is enshrined in a special silver reliquary in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, where many people come to venerate it and to ask the prayers of this simple Confessor of the Christian faith, knowing that the Lord – Who resisteth the proud – hears speedily the prayers of the meek.
(Based on a Life by Photios Kontoglou. The Orthodox Word, June-July, 1967)