A pilgrimage to San Francisco

I was in San Francisco recently, to visit the relics of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (the previous link is my blog post about St. John). The relics are located at the Holy Virgin Cathedral at the west side of San Francisco. This is where St. John served as bishop.

The exterior of the Holy Virgin Cathedral


The plaque on the cathedral

The iconography on the church was really beautiful, and my subpar photography skills really don’t do it justice.

The iconostasis


The dome
I found the stained glass windows really interesting. These aren’t that common in Orthodox churches.

I arrived early Wednesday morning during Lent, so I was able to take communion in their pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy. I had emailed one of the priests, Father Peter beforehand, introducing myself. He came out at the start of the service, and I suppose I was the only Malaysian-looking person at the church because he recognized me. We had some brief small talk after confession. He seemed pretty excited to hear that the Orthodox church has a presence in a place like Malaysia.

The entire service was in Slavonic. The choir was small, since this was a midweek service, but it sounded wonderful. A little after the start of the service, about 50 schoolkids in matching green blazers trotted in. They were students in the church school that was next door (named after St. John).

The entrance of the church school next door

In the right side of the church, there was an enclosure with a small box. This box contained the relics of St. John. The design of the enclosure was really nice. On the left side was an icon of St. Michael the Archangel (St. John’s birth name was Michael) and the right was an icon of St. John of Tobolsk (the patron saint of St. John of Shanghai). In the middle was a large icon of St. John of Shanghai himself.

The enclosure where the relics of St. John are kept. Visitors were freely allowed to enter.

This is the first time I had encountered a saints’ relics, and so I did not know what I was supposed to do. Luckily, there was a steady stream of visitors, so I ended up just mimicking the people who seemed to know what they were doing. Some people were just standing contemplatively in the enclosure. Others were kissing the glass cover of the coffin, and still others knelt, with their head against the coffin’s wooden side. All sorts of people came to see the relics. A few of them brought rolling luggage bags. I suppose they were either on the way to the airport or had just arrived in San Francisco, and were making a quick stop.

I had a small prayer book containing prayers and the akathist to St John, so when I was alone in the church I said them. I then spent a lot of that afternoon in silence, just gazing at the relics.

At about 3pm, the church school students went back to the church in their matching green blazers. I suppose this was the end of their school day. They said a short liturgical prayer, and then lined up and one-by-one kissed the top of the coffin, while singing the Megalynarion for St. John:

We magnify Thee, our holy Hierarch John, and we honor Thy holy memory, for Thou dost pray for us to Christ our God.

The sound of 50 school children softly, reverently singing this short hymn was moving and beautiful, and I was grateful for the privilege to have seen it.

St. John was dressed in his bishop’s clothing, including a staff in his hands. His face was covered up, but we could see his hands and parts of his feet. Remarkably well preserved, for someone who had died fifty years ago. When a body refuses to decay like this, Orthodox Christian take this as a sign that the person might have been a saint (this was an important plot point in the novel the Brothers Karamazov).

 This photo was taken by User:TGrain from Wikipedia (Link)

It was really wonderful being able to see the relics in person. St. John is known as “the wonderworker” and for good reason. Throughout his ministry he performed a lot of miracles, as fantastic as those we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. I am really drawn to him, because he feels like a man born in the wrong century-  like a figure from the 1st century church somehow appearing in the 20th. As a protestant I had believed that the church of the apostles had died or faded away, to be revived in the 1500s. But here was the body of a man who performed wonders like Peter and Paul did, and whose life reminds us that this Acts church, the one that Christ commissioned, is alive and still the same today.

Seeing the physical relics- St John himself, his clothes and other belongings- also affirmed to me that the Christian faith is not just about sophisticated theology, abstract ideas, but it is about God making his influence known through real people and real things. The incorrupt body of the Saint is a prefiguring of the Christian promise- that all our bodies will be restored to fullness after we die. May this promise give us the freedom to love others sacrificially, recklessly, without regard for our safety and comfort- just as St John lived, and just as Christ lived before him.

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