By Protpresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas
Saint John was from Ukraine. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1711 he was enslaved by the Tartars, allies of the Turks, who sold him as a slave to a Turkish official in Prokopi of Asia Minor. The life of slavery was very hard for young John, especially in the beginning. The pressure to change his faith was unbearable and his torments indescribable. He lived in miserable conditions, but he found solace in unceasing prayer, through which he drew strength, courage and inspiration in his struggles. Willingly he performed the commands of his master, working diligently and tirelessly, while quietly and unceasingly whispering, sometimes with his lips and sometimes with his nous and heart, the "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."
With the passage of time the Aga began to "soften" seeing John constantly praying, working diligently, and serving him in the best way. Sympathy became admiration when he discovered that through faith and prayer young John worked miracles, not only for the benefit of others, but also for his master's benefit.
Once, while the Aga was in Mecca on pilgrimage, his wife cooked his favorite food and she was sad that he was not there to enjoy it. John, after fervent prayer, sent the food to Mecca from Prokopi in Asia Minor via an angel of the Lord, and the Aga found it warm and ate it. When he returned to his house he showed the officials his plate with the coat of arms and asked John to leave the stable and stay in a comfortable room which he had prepared for him. But that blessed one did not want to abandon his humble stable, which reminded him of the manger of Bethlehem. He preferred to struggle against his passions through asceticism than be comfortable and be well off, in order to "win Christ."
Within slave conditions Saint John experienced true freedom. And truly he was free, since freedom is an internal affair. He managed, through a life in Christ, to be liberated of the tyranny of the passions, sin and the devil, which is the most cruel form of slavery.
On 27 May 1730, at around the age of forty, John delivered his soul into the hands of the living God, after receiving the Immaculate Mysteries. His tomb became a popular site of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims, since he was a benefactor to all without discrimination. In 1924, with the exchange of populations, residents of Prokopi brought as a precious treasure his incorrupt relics to Evia, in the village of Emin Aga, which they renamed New Prokopi. And the beautious sacred temple built in his honor, is visited by thousands of believers every year.
The life and conduct of our Saint gives us the opportunity to highlight the following:
First, the spiritual life is not a life strewn with flowers, but it is a narrow and tight path. For one to be able to find God within they must gain personal communion with Him, they must strive and wrestle against their passions and weaknesses with great patience, because with patience, prayer and love the seemingly unfeasible can be achieved.
When one rests their hope in God and not in people, they will never be disappointed or despair. They may suffer externally, but internally they are free. They are flooded with uncreated divine Grace, which is why they are calm and peaceful. For one can live in externally flawless conditions and still whine and complain, because they experience abandonment and despair within, which essentially is hell. The opposite is also true. One can live and work in a heavy atmosphere that is externally hostile, but inside they may be living in paradise, tasting of the sweetness of divine Grace and truly rejoicing in their life.
Second, the work of the Orthodox Church, as it has been rightly said, is to make people into relics. In other words, to lead them to holiness. Indeed, by the way of life it teaches, it helps people achieve their personal sanctification. Through the sacramental life, asceticism, and unceasing prayer of the heart, people are purified of their passions and are led to illumination and communion with God. They accept the uncreated Grace of the Holy Spirit sensibly in their entire existence, soul and body, even after death. When we venerate holy relics we sense that they are not the bones of dead people, but that they have life in them, which is transfused to pious pilgrims. This indicates that the saints are alive and have personal communion with those who revere them, ask for their help, and struggle to imitate their God-pleasing life.
The Orthodox Church, as emphasized by the late Protopresbyter Fr. John Romanides (whose patron saint was Saint John the Russian and who was baptized in his sacred temple in New Prokopi), is akin to the sciences and especially with medicine, and not philosophy, because it proves and verifies what it teaches. The fragrant relics of saints and their incorrupt bodies, which "gush out healings," are irrefutable evidence of the presence and love of God for the human race and all creation, as well as the resurrection of the dead and existence of eternal divine life.
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ἅγιος Ίωάννης ὁ Ρῶσος", May 2004. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.