by Nadieszda Kizenko
A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People is a very thorough presentation. This is not a hagiography, but a scholarly biography, as unbiased as possible, based on many contemporary documents, including letters received by the saint. Each chapter is nicely summarized in the last paragraphs of each section.
The strength of the book is how it situates John (1829-1908) in the context of his time, his country and his people, as is highlighted in the title itself.
John’s political stance has of course been judged both positively and negatively, depending on one’s own perspective. Reconsidered in the political context of his time, his actions and thoughts made sense to me.
I am struggling more with some of his earlier and psychological behavior. John and his Matushka certainly do not appear as an inspiring couple!
It seems Father John was extreme in everything, which eventually led to what seems clear burn out. But again, the line is fine between burn out and a passionate behavior, and I am not sure one can become a saint without being passionate.
Saint John appears as someone very human, with many flaws, and in a terrible marriage.
At the same time, at least at the beginning, he appeared unusually (for the time) close to the people and he definitely helped renew the devotion life of Orthodox (however with liturgically dubious practices, such as mass public confessions). Some time ago, I shared a couple of passages from this book.
As a personal lesson, I take from the reading of this book an encouragement to walk the fine line between passion and moderation.
I also feel inspired by the faith of the people who met Father John and who relied so much on his prayers. Their faith actually led him to pray even more boldly (see for instance on page 98), and to remember prayer was his duty to his people.
As a priest or as a lay person, prayer is for all a communal duty to our brothers and sisters.
As for boldness, I’d like to conclude with the Theotokion of Compline:
Since we have no boldness (parrhesia) because of our many sins, urgently plead with Him who was born of you, O Virgin Theotokos; for the pleadings of a Mother have much weight toward the favor of the Master; do not overlook the pleas of us sinners, O most venerable one, for He who condescended to suffer for us in the flesh is merciful and has the power to save us.