There exists a short autobiographical sketch — the only one — composed by St. John of Kronstadt which appeared in 1888 in the magazine Sever (North). We will reproduce it in full:
“I am the son of a churchman from the village of Soursk, district of Pinezhsk, province of Archangelsk. From very early childhood, as early as I can remember, at the age of four or five, perhaps even earlier, my parents taught me to pray and by their religious frame of mind made me a religiously-minded boy. At home, in my sixth year, Father brought be a primer, and Mother began to teach me the alphabet; but reading and writing came to me with great difficulty, which was the cause of no little sorrow to me. I just couldn’t master the identity between our speech and writing; in my time reading and writing were not taught as it is now: we were all taught ‘Az’ (for ‘A’), ‘Boukee’ (for ‘B’), Vedi,’ etc., as if ‘A’ were one thing and ‘Az’ a different thing. For a long time did this wisdom elude me, but having been taught by Father and Mother to pray, grieving over my failures in studies, I prayed fervently to God, so that He would grant me understanding — and I remember how, suddenly, it was as if a veil were lifted from my mind, and I began to comprehend studies well. When I was ten I was taken to the Archangelsk parish school. My father, naturally, received a very small salary, so that it must have been terribly difficult to live. I already understood the real position of my parents, and for this reason my inability at school was indeed a calamity. I thought little of the significance my studies would have on my future, and grieved especially over how Father was needlessly spending his last means to support me.
“Left in Archangelsk completely alone, I was deprived of my parents and had to arrive at everything myself. Among the boys of my age group in class, I did not find, nor did I seek, support or assistance; they were all more able than I, and I was the last pupil. Anguish took hold of me. Then it was that I turned for help to the Almighty, and a change took place in me. In a short time I moved forward to such an extent that I ceased to be the last pupil. The further I went, the better and better I became in my studies, and by the end of the courses was among the first transferred to the seminary, which I finished first in 1851 and was sent to the Petersburg Academy on a full scholarship. While still in the seminary, I lost my dearly beloved father, and my old mother remained without any means of support. Right after seminary I wanted to take up the position of deacon or psalmist so as to have the means of supporting her, but she passionately opposed this, and I set out for the Academy. In the Academy’s board of administration, the position of clerks was then filled by students for the most insignificant salary (about ten roubles a month), and I gladly agreed to accept the offer of the Academy’s secretary to take this position, so as to send this money to Mother. Having completed my course of studies as a candidate in theology in 1855, I went as a priest to Kronstadt, having married Elizabeth, the daughter of Archpriest K.N. Nesvitsky, who is alive even to this day; I do not have and have never had any children. From the very first day of my high service to the Church, I set myself the rule: to regard my task of pastorship and priesthood as conscientiously as possible, to pay strict attention to myself and to my inner life. With this aim I, first of all, began to read the Holy Writ of the Old and New Testaments, extracting from it all that was edifying to myself, as a man generally and as a priest in particular. Later I began to keep a diary, where I wrote down my battle with thoughts, with passions, my penitent feelings, my silent prayers to God and my grateful emotions for having been delivered from temptations, woes and tribulations. Every Sunday and Holy Day I would deliver sermons and discourses in church, either prepared by myself, or from the sermons of Metropolitan Gregory. Some of my discourses have been published: On the Blessed Trinity, On the Creation of the World, and On the Gospel’s Beatitudes. Apart from preaching I came to take care of the poor like myself and – about twenty years ago, in 1874 — conceived the idea of setting up in Kronstadt a ‘Working House for the poor’, and which the Lord helped to bring about fifteen years ago. — That’s all.”
That’s all! All of St. John is in this concluding exclamation — similar to those with which he would, now and again, express the “simplicity” of his heart during reading in church, wholly engrossing himself into what became the subject of his attention. St. John does not see himself as separate and apart from his life’s vocation — he is wholly in it, and for this reason he is able to regard himself “simply” even from the outside and to speak about himself: he is an obedient tool, and it is the Lord’s business to employ this tool for this or that, himself being nothing more than a most ordinary servant.
Let us look at another document which will show how St. John sees himself — precisely in the image of a priest. This is his first sermon, delivered by him at his first Liturgy in St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Kronstadt on the Savior’s words: “Feed my lambs.”
“These words of the supreme Chief Pastor Christ are familiar to all of us, my brethren, because you have not infrequently heard them during the reading of the Gospel at all-night vigils on Saturday evenings; you also know to whom they were said: I will repeat them as they were said to the Apostle Peter, and were said thrice, as a sign of the threefold reinstatement of the Apostle, who had thrice renounced his Lord. The Lord mystically addresses these same words to us also, unworthy pastors of His spiritual flock, when He calls us, through the medium of a bishop, to the pastoral service. The Lord’s words reached also the ears of my own heart: ‘Feed my lambs,’ commanding me to feed you, His spiritual lambs.
“I am aware of the exaltedness of the office and the responsibilities attached to it; I can feel my frailty and unworthiness in carrying out the highest calling on earth, that of a priest; but I am relying on the grace and mercy of God, healing the weak and replenishing the failing. I know what is capable of making me more or less worthy of this office and able to carry out this calling: it is love toward Christ and you, my beloved brethren. This is why the Lord also, in reinstating the disciple who had renounced Him in the rank of Apostle, thrice asked him: ‘Lovest thou Me?’ and after each one of his answers: ‘I love Thee,’ repeated to him: ‘Feed My lambs, feed My sheep.’
“Love is a great force: it makes even the weak strong, and the small great, and the insignificant worthy of deep respect, and the hitherto unknown and strange, it soon makes close and amiable. Such is the nature of pure, evangelical love. May the Lord Who is full of love toward all grant also to me a spark of that love; may he inflame it in me with His Holy Spirit.
“Exalted, I said, is the calling of a priest. For whose office is it? It is Christ’s office. He is the only High Priest, the first and the last, offering a sacrifice and being brought in sacrifice for all; He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last; we are arrayed with the grace of His priesthood, He Himself officiates in us and through us. Consequently, we ourselves must also deeply honor our office, and you, brethren, must for your own worthiness and salvation deeply honor this office and submit to the bearers of it, being indulgent towards their frailties and deficiencies. For although we are exalted by our office, our nature is the same as yours, weak and subject to stumbling. And what mortal human can fully measure up to the height and holiness of the office of priesthood? If we are to take into consideration only one thing, that a priest, standing before the very throne of God in an earthly church, must so often perform the life-endowing awesome Mysteries of Christ, must intercede for the instruction and guidance of the Church, on behalf of the whole world, for the welfare of God’s churches in the whole universe and the unification of all dissenters; to bring an offering of gratitude for all the saints: forefathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, the ascetics and for all blessed souls; to pray for the living and the dead — then what an angelic worthiness is required for that? Is this a task for our frailty, when we, on account of our sins, would not dare open our mouths even for ourselves, so as to implore heavenly justice and mercy for our own sins? No, this is the work of the highest grace, this is the work of the countless good things which Christ has done for us. He is the Interceder and the One Who accepts intercessions. While if we are to take into consideration also the performance of the rest of the mysteries, particularly baptism, confession, marriage, extreme unction: what holiness is required, what a wealth of Christ’s love, from the priest performing these sacraments. For in all prayers and officiations, belonging to the content of the sacraments, there breathes the spirit of God’s infinite love toward the human race, (the spirit) of mercy, extreme condescension, sanctity and incorruptibility.
“Yet again, there is the preaching of God’s Word, the proclaiming of the eternal truths of the Gospel in a language readily understandable by all, imbued with the spirit of evangelical love, so as to teach, enlighten, correct, confirm, guide along the path leading to eternity: what a lofty and difficult duty this is! Without a doubt, the grace of God will help us in everything, if we will be worthy of it, and if you will try to walk in, or to live worthily of, your lofty Christian calling. And so, here, brothers and sisters, is my first word to you in church, with which I make your acquaintance. Accept it with an open, straightforward and kind heart, accept me into your love, and remember me before the Lord in your prayers, which you daily raise up to Him. I will conclude it with an apostolic blessing: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.’”
After twenty-five years, St. John was greeted in the same church, when a precious cross was given to him. He replied to his flock thus:
“Thank you for having regarded my frailties with benevolence. Yes, I am replete with frailties; I know my frailties, but the power of God is perfected in weakness, and it was wonderfully perfected in me during my twenty-five years service in the priesthood, and, I dare say — for I’ll be telling the truth — through me it was perfected in many simple believers in an evident, palpable manner. Glory be to grace! Glory be to the Lord Jesus Christ, Who has granted us grace upon grace! I am telling you about this power of God in me so that you will, together with me, praise our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Whose grace and mercy has not grown weaker even now, as it will not grow weaker until the end of time, which was performed within me every day and many times a day by Christ’s grace. I cannot estimate the countless multitude of snares of the prince of the world and attacks of passions, destroyed by the grace and power of Christ within me, by my silent prayer of faith, on account of heartfelt confession and especially through the power of Divine Communion! What angelic, all-embracing mind will count all of God’s mysterious gifts to my soul — the blessed gifts of mercy, cleanliness, blessedness, enlightenment, peace, tender emotion, freedom and spiritual breadth, joy in the Holy Spirit, the audacity and strength and multifarious aid, which I invisibly received throughout all the days of my service. I cannot count the innumerable blessed healings — spiritual and physical, performed by the Lord within me through the heartfelt calling of His wonderful name. Glory be to God our Savior! He sees that I am not falsely sending up to Him this glory. Only by Him and of His Name am I glorious, while without Him — dishonorable; only by Him powerful, while without Him — infirm; with Him holy, without Him — replete with sins; with Him I dare, without Him I am cowardly; with Him I am meek and humble, without Him I am irritable and not blessed. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His Name together…”
Considerably later, on his seventieth birthday on October 19, 1899, St. John, casting his mind back and again recalling the words of the Apostle that the power of God is perfected in weakness, said:
“Who of those who knew me in childhood could have thought that I would live to be over seventy, which (age), according to the Prophet, represents the extreme limit of the life of man, this earthly wanderer? I grew up sickly, weak, and in my very infancy a severe illness, smallpox, almost brought me to the grave — I was a hair’s breadth away from death, to use the apt expression. The Lord preserved my life — I recovered and began to grow. When the time was ripe for me to begin my schooling — I was brought to school, studies were unintelligible to me — I had not been prepared for them at home; I had to arrive at understanding and learning by myself; I was aware of and felt my helplessness, jealousy regarding the successes of my classmates — and began to ask for help and understanding from God, Who gives to all men liberally and upbraideth not (James 1:5), in the words of St. James the Apostle — and the Lord opened my mind: I was enlightened by Divine Light, reading and writing became clear to me, and I began to advance in my studies in proportion to my age and the educational aim. But even then, during studies, how many illnesses I had to experience!
“In poor physical health, I completed three educational and instructional schools: lower, middle and high, gradually forming and developing three spiritual forces: the mind, heart and will, as the image of a tripartite soul, created in the image of the Holy, Life-creating Trinity. The highest Church school, which is known as the Theological Academy, had a salutary influence upon me. Theological, philosophical, historical and various other studies, widely and deeply taught, clarified and widened my contemplation of the world, and I, by the grace of God, began to delve into the depths of theological contemplation, coming to know more and more the depth of God’s grace, which has created all things wisely, beautifully, beneficently, having subjected all creatures to firm, vital harmonic laws; my mind and heart were especially captivated by the wise and wonderful plan for the salvation of the perishing human race through the Divine Lamb of Jesus Christ, which toketh away the sin of the world (St. John 1:29); the religious feeling, which was instilled within me by my devout parents, developed and grew stronger. Having read the Bible with the Gospel and many works of Chrysostom and other ancient Fathers, as well as the Russian Chrysostom, Philaret of Moscow, and other Church orators, I felt a special attraction to the calling of a priest and began to implore the Lord that He would grant me the grace of priesthood and pastorship of His human flock. Contemplating the wonderful plan of God for the salvation of the human race, so full of love, I wept ample and hot tears, burning with the desire to assist in the salvation of perishing humanity. And the Lord fulfilled my desire. Soon after completing my formal education I was elevated to the height of the priesthood.
“And thus I have passed forty years in this calling, offering up to God supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks for all men, for kings, and for all that are in authority (II Timothy 2:1-2) and offering, almost daily, the bloodless Sacrifice, reconciling creatures with their Creator, for the Lord has given priests the ministry of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:18), through which I also reconcile myself daily with the Just Judge Who is daily angered by me, and reconcile people, averting His just anger, which moves against us as a result of our sins, turning men away from crooked, pernicious ways and indicating the true paths. I thank the Lord for having given me the opportunity and faculty, through frequent Divine Services, to learn the whole round of Church service-books, to master their wise contents and richness of subject, their images of the greatest, saving confession of sinners and God’s mercy toward penitents, the whole depth of theology, the full sweetness of the hymns of praise to God and wonderful praises to the Mother of God, love toward God and various feasts of countless saints.
“I thank the Lord for having favored me with being born and raised in, and being a priest of, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to be Her member, though an unworthy one, and to have been favored with intercession for Her before God, for I do not depend upon my own works, which I do not have, but upon all that the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us, redeeming me from sin, the curse and death with His Blood, upon the prayers of the Mother of God, the Holy Angels and all the Saints. They will entreat the Lord for me, and He will lead me into His heavenly kingdom.”