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.


A relic of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco

This relic of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco comes from The Dormition of the Theotokos Russian Orthodox Church in Singapore. One of the priests there crossed the border this weekend for a visit, so I got to snag a photo. I believe this is a piece of his priestly garment, and a lock of hair.

Saint John, pray to God for us!

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Today, July 2 (June 19 in the old calendar) is the feast day of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

This post is a little tribute to him. But first I would like to explain the role of the patron saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox church places a lot of importance on the idea that the spiritually mature Christians should help out the Christians who are just beginning their journey. This emphasis on mentorship manifests itself in several different ways. For example, instead of the best man and maid of honor in Western weddings, in the Eastern rite the bride and groom have a “sponsor couple”, an older married couple who are supposed to help, support, and pray for the newlyweds and they work through the struggles and joys of marriage.

The patron saint is another way where the church gives us guides for our spiritual journey. Each Orthodox Christian has a patron saint, whom we are supposed to have this mentor-mentee relationship with as well. They are our role models, guides, intercessors (we believe the saints pray for us even in death) and friends.

Brief biography

St. John was born in Kharkov, Russia (currently Kharkiv, Ukraine) in 1896. He served in his early life as a monk, priest, and a teacher in a Serbian high school, before being consecrated as bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Shanghai in 1934, a very tumultuous time in China.

There are remarkable accounts of his 15 or so years in Shanghai. He lived an extremely simple life, for instance walking through the streets barefoot in the winter during the Japanese occupation. He was extraordinarily dedicated to prayer, to the point that he barely slept. He performed great deeds of mercy and compassion during a time where there was a great deal of suffering. He founded an orphanage and frequently visited those in hospital and in prison. There are also many accounts of his gifts of clairvoyance and miracle-working from this time in his life.

Ultimately, with the communist takeover of China St. John was forced to flee with his church. Five thousand of them were refugees for a while in the Philippines, until St. John managed to lobby successfully for the right for them to settle in the United States.

In 1951, St. John was assigned to be Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Western Europe, headquartered in Paris, and then in 1962 to the Diocese of San Francisco. He passed away in Seattle on July 2, 1966, and his miraculously incorrupt remains lie in Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco.

A modern saint

The first thing that struck me when I first heard about St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco was how strange his appellation was- Shanghai and San Francisco are two cities 10,000 kilometers apart! His life was an interesting juxtaposition. He was in some ways thoroughly immersed in our modern, globalized age, with a ministry spanning three continents and a proficiency in several different languages. But in other ways he seems as if you had picked up a man from the 2nd century A.D. and plopped him in the 1950s.

Very often Christians in our age make the excuse that the challenges and distractions of modernity make it impossible to surrender our lives as completely to God as the early Christians did. St. John shows us that this excuse is weak, by living a life of uncompromising simplicity, faithful prayer and joyous love in the 20th century, even while facing many thoroughly modern hardships. And we see all these wonders, healings and miracles appear in response to his prayers, as they did in the church of Acts!

With faith and love do we all honor thy memory today, O heavenly man and earthly angel; for thou was a true desert-dweller amid this greatly turbulent world. Having mortified all the passions, thou didst attain spiritual heights hard to see, and wast truly a most splendid miracle in the midst of the darkness of this age. Wherefore, we marvel at thy great glory in heaven, and with compunction we celebrate thy glorification.