By Sr. Beatriz Liaño, SHM
John’s Gospel practically comes to a close with the well-known question that the Lord asks Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Jn 21:16). Peter, confused, confesses that yes, he does love Him, although his love is very poor. The Lord then announces to him with veiled words the violent death that he would endure for love of Him. Indeed, it is he, Peter, the same one that once denied Him three times, swearing that he did not even know Him. He, the fisherman from Galilee, would die one day on the cross for love of his crucified teacher. The Lord ends the conversation by saying, “Follow me.”
The Lord asks each one of us the same question at some point during our life: “Do you love me?” It is not enough to answer with a “yes.” Our life must be transformed in a “yes,” just like the life of Fr. Joann Krestiankin, Russian Orthodox priest, whose testimony has been published in the 48th issue of the magazine “Trionfo del Cuore”.
Fr. Joann Krestiankin was born in 1910 in Orel, Russia. Shortly afterwards, in 1917, the communist revolution broke out, accompanied by the persecution against the Church. The number of deaths in this brutal attempt to impose communism upon the world has been calculated to be one hundred million. The suffering of so many people who did not reach death, but whose dignity, liberty and fundamental rights were systematically crushed is incalculable. Fr. Joann was aware of the danger that he assumed when he was ordained a priest in 1945.
Every morning before opening the Church, this young priest spent much time in prayer. In 1948, while kneeling in prayer one day with his head resting upon the feet of the Crucifix, he heard these words from the Cross: “Can you love me as they do?” The frightened priest jumped to his feet and looked around. The Church was empty. Suddenly he saw many crosses of different sizes in a semicircle around Christ Crucified. He did not understand what was happening and he lifted his gaze to Jesus’ face, but Jesus kept silent.
That evening, he went to see his spiritual director to tell him what had happened. This priest was what the orthodox call a “starez,” a spiritual guide with a reputation of holiness, clearly gifted with discernment of souls. Fr. Joann began to tell him about his experience, but the man of God—without doubting that his experience was supernatural— interrupted him, asking, “And what did your heart respond to the Lord?” Only in that moment did Fr. Joann understand that what he had experienced was neither a dream nor a deception of the enemy..
Shortly thereafter the vision repeated itself. This time the priest recognized upon the crosses several people very dear to him, but these same people had either suffered martyrdom already at the hands of the communist regime or had disappeared after being imprisoned or deported to Siberia. The priest’s heart winced; full of compassion, but also fear. What did this strange experience mean? What was it that the Lord was going to ask of him? He flinched when he heard once again the voice of Christ Crucified asking him, “Do you love me as they do?” Once again he remained silent, unable to answer the question.
Time passed by and Joann suffered interiorly because of his lack of generosity. He saw himself as a traitor and the Evil One took advantage of those moments of spiritual weakness to tempt him fiercely. One day, while he was praying in the Church on the verge of despair, he saw once more the crosses of the Russian martyrs surrounding him. This time, however, he was unable to recognize their faces because the abundance of light coming from them. He only saw their arms, outstretched towards him as if to embrace him and he experienced the strength of the grace of God invade him. He ran to the feet of Christ Crucified and in tears, he said to the Lord, “You know and you see that I love you. Cover my weakness.” Just like Saint Peter, Fr. Joann accepted the humiliation of discovering just how weak his love was, allowing the Lord to carry out a miracle of interior transformation. This transformation gave him new strength to love, and he made the firm decision to no longer think about himself, but rather to love God and all mankind so that God’s will would be fulfilled in all things.
Scarcely two years after this episode, the moment came for P. Joanne to follow Christ Crucified in a more profound way. In 1950, after five years of fruitful labor in the a parish in Moscow, he was handed over by his parish priest (out of jealousy) and condemned to seven years of prison in a forced labor camp. A condemnation of this kind, in times of such ruthlessness in the persecution against the Christians, was very serious. Yet, within this horrific world, Fr. Joann Krestiankin was a witness of love that forgives and perseveres until the end . Once released, he joined a monastery, and purified both by pain and by forgiveness, he became a “starez,” or spiritual guide, sought after by many people burdened by all types of suffering. With his gaze fixed on Christ Crucified, he was able to guide them on the path of love, giving consolation and showing fortitude to walk through the “valley of tears” proper to each soul.
Whenever someone reminded him of what he suffered in prison, of the betrayal of his brother in the priesthood, or of the humiliations and hardships he underwent, he always responded, “I do not have enough time to love. How could I waste it remembering these offenses?”.
Fr. Joann Krestiankin providentially died on February 5, 2006, the same day the Russian church celebrated the memory of the new Russian martyrs and confessors, those who achieved for him the grace of being fortified in order to love as they did.
©HM Magazine; nº204 September-October 2018