HOLY CONFESSOR SCHEMA-ABBESS JOANNA OF SUZDAL
Schema-Abbess Joanna, in the world Lydia Afanasievna Sanina, was born into a pious Ukrainian family in the village of Novaya Mayachka, Kherson province, in 1917. Matushka lived a long life replete with suffering. The would-be nun received training to be a teacher in Nalchik, in the Caucasus, where her family had moved from the Ukraine. She was able to teach Russian language and literature, but left her post as teacher because her programme included antireligious propaganda.
When the heretical renovationists came to power, Lydia and her parents stopped going to the renovationist churches. Nor did they go to the churches when the sergianists took the place of the renovationists. “We knew,” she said, “that they were all working with the God-fighters. Our parish priest constantly ran to the NKVD.”
During collectivization Lydia’s parents, Athanasius and Anastasia (in monasticism Agnia) were arrested. Before the arrest their property was seized. On returning from school the young Lydia saw a cart loaded with their property. Even their warm clothes had been taken (“dekulakization” took place in late autumn). For some time the whole family hid in neighbouring villages.
During one of these nights, Lydia saw in her sleep the Mother of God, who calmed her and promised her help. And truly, the next morning a passer-by put them into his cart and took them out of danger. However, this was only a brief respite: soon her parents were arrested.
“My parents were persecuted and oppressed for being true to Holy Orthodoxy,” reminisced Mother Joanna. The godless authorities made her father, Athanasius Sanin, choose between recognizing Metropolitan Sergius’ ‘declaration of apostasy’, or face punishment. Athanasius Sanin, a man of great Christian conscience and human dignity, chose to go to prison rather than betray his Church. He died in prison years later after suffering bestial tortures. Mother Joanna’s mother, Anastasia, spent a quarter of a century in Soviet jails, but emerged unbroken.
Deprived of their parents, Lydia and her younger sister Maria now began a life on the run, constantly changing their place of residence and suffering great need. She never acceded to Sergius’ declaration. Together with other True Orthodox Christians she has to go underground, into the catacombs, to survive.
In 1947 (or 1948) she was arrested. It happened as follows. One day a man came to her house pretending to be a believer. He had a penetrating, heavy glance and a dark, unkind face. “Oh how terrible,” muttered Lydia Afanasyevna quietly. She repeated this many times, forcing the embarrassed man to depart from her. After this she expected arrest every day. Two weeks after the visit of this “Judas” she was arrested.
“What have you arrested me for?” she asked her interrogator. “I’m not a thief, I’m not a bandit, I’m not some kind of trickster, I’ve never done anyone any harm.”
In reply one of the chekists laughed and said: “If you were, we would not have touched you.”
“Do you recognize the Soviet church?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Lydia Afanasyevna.
“Because Soviet power does not recognize God, which means its church doesn’t either. The only Church I recognize is the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
She was not beaten or tortured, as they did to many other prisoners, but was subjected to more refined torments. Having confined her to a narrow solitary cell, they did not allow her to sleep. Every time she collapsed from exhaustion onto the floor (there was no bed), they loudly clanged the door bolts. They summoned her to interrogations in the middle of the night. Her sister, who was arrested with her and who had a nine-year-old son in freedom, was given a tape to listen to. It was the voices of playing children; the name of her son was shouted out loud. These were the moral torments with which the executioners sought to break their faith, forcing them to recognize sergianism. One of the investigators tried to apply hypnosis, but did not attain his aim. Another began loudly to blaspheme the Mother of God – and was immediately paralyzed. A sharp pain pierced him, and for several weeks he was taken to hospital.
At the trial, as during the interrogations, the sisters replied that they could not recognize the sergianist church insofar as it was supported by the God-fighters.
“Yes, it is our church,” confirmed the judges.
The trial took place on Holy Wednesday, the very day on which Judas betrayed Christ. The judges decreed that they were guilty of “affiliation with the highly dangerous sect of the TOC” (i.e. True Orthodox Christians) and were sentenced to be shot.
Don’t weep,” said Lydia Afanasyevna to her saddened sister. “They’re only doing this to frighten us. They won’t shoot us. But if they do shoot us… what a light death… for God.” She was right. After pausing for the news of the verdict to shake the condemned women, the judges declared that the sentence of capital punishment was commuted to 25 years’ forced labour.
“No, God will not allow it,” said Lydia Afanasyevna to her sister. “For what?”
For two “Glory”s from the 17th kathisma written on a scrap of paper, which the judges declared constituted the spreading of religious literature and betrayal of the Homeland? In fact, their term of imprisonment was later reduced to seven years.
In her Last Spiritual Will and Testament, written about a year before her death, Matushka wrote that the judge’s words “execution by a firing squad” did not frighten her at all. She was actually exhilarated that her suffering would soon be coming to an end, and that she would, at last, go to the bosom of the Lord, having suffered for her faith and the True Church.
However, at the last minute her inhuman pain and unbearable suffering resumed. They were sent to the building sites on the Volga-Don canal. In the rain and the cold, under a biting wind, they had to endure the unbearable burdens of camp life.
“There, on the Don,” said Matushka, “the winds are strong. We walk in the wet. It’s pouring off us. And we didn’t fall ill.”
Only with God’s help was Matushka able to bear the full measure of suffering and live. Even in the labour camps with their miserly food and hard living conditions, she tried to observe the fasts times as best she could. During Lent, prison guards would intentionally give her nothing but meat to eat. She would remove meat from her soup and eat only the broth.
In 1955 Lydia Afanasyevna was released. Soon her sister Maria was also released. Together with their mother, who had returned from prison still earlier, they lived a quiet life, secretly praying and waiting for the regeneration of Orthodoxy. Around them a small catacomb community was formed. God sent them a faithful priest – Fr. Mark, and in 1960 Lydia Afanasievna received the first monastic tonsure. In 1974, she took the monastic vows of the small schema and the monastic name Seraphima.
Once several of her neighbours had dreams which they could not understand, and they went to her for explanations. One woman had dreamed of a large and beautiful iconostasis standing as it were in the middle of Matushka Seraphima’s room, and priest celebrating the Divine Liturgy. Another man saw in the yard of the Sanins an old well full of clean, transparent water. But in the well he saw some terrible threatening monsters which disturbed the water and filled it with all kinds of rubbish (he was an unbeliever at the time). From all these stories the penetrating mind of the nun understood that the Lord wanted to show her something significant connected with the destinies of Orthodoxy.
In 1990, they heard of a legally established local parish canonically subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and having no relations with the Moscow Patriarchate. Matushka Seraphima hesitated for a long time, fearing lest this was yet another trap. At one moment she decided to go, then she put off her trip. But immediately she left her home in Vyatka for Suzdal her fears fell away
On seeing Suzdal, she fell in love with the place. “Your will live with us,” said Vladyka Valentine to her. And so it turned out. By this time he sister had died, and as had the other members of her community, and she decided to spend the rest of her days in Suzdal. Here she lived for seven years (in which it is impossible not to see a reward sent to matushka from the Lord for the seven years she suffered in the camps).
A monastic community was formed around her. In 1994, the community was formally organized as the Convent of the Holy Hierarch John (Maximovich). Shortly before her death, Mother Seraphima took the vows of the great schema and received the name of that great archpastor of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. After a long and painful illness from cancer, she reposed in the Lord on Sunday, August 8, 1999, at the age of 82. She was buried on August 10, the day of the Smolensk icon of the Mother of God.
On Sunday, August 15, on the eve of the ninth day of the repose of Mother Joanna, following a liturgy at the St. Constantine Cathedral in Suzdal, Bishop Theodore of Borisovsk of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church read out the autobiographical Last Will and Testament of Mother Joanna from the pulpit:-
“Being in sober recollection and healthy mind, albeit physically weak, I ask my cell-attendant, Novice Elena (Novosilova), to write down my oral spiritual testament.
“I, the unworthy Schema-Abbess Joanna (Sanina), witness to the ineffable blessings of God revealed through His goodness to me. I recognize that my life has drawn to its end and it is difficult to say what was greater in the path I have trodden in life: joy or sorrow.
“I can only witness that the Lord has always been with me and I can only repeat again and again the word of the Hierarch John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for all things”, for the Lord strengthened me in prison and during the days that I was free from imprisonment; the Lord surrounded me with the care of those who served Him with all their heart and bore their most laborious cross in life with Christian patience. These people led me along the path of Christian and monastic good works.
“It was first of all my pious parents Athanasius and Anastasia (Nun Agnia) Sanin who taught me the first steps of Christian piety, opened Christ to my child’s heart, and led me into the enclosure of the Holy Orthodox Church.
“My parents were persecuted and oppressed by the godless authorities for being true to Holy Orthodoxy. My father, Athanasius, was placed under guard and given the choice: recognize the declaration of apostasy or not. His Christian conscience and human decency did not allow him to betray the Church and Orthodoxy. He was not destined to leave prison, where he reposed in God, amidst the sufferings and horrors of incarceration. My mother Anastasia (Nun Agnia) spent 25 years in prison. She left it unbroken and without having succumbed to the violence of those who wanted to force her to betray the Holy Church and Holy Orthodoxy.
I, too, Schema-Abbess Joanna, was not spared the godless court and the terrible interrogations in which the interrogators not only humiliated a man’s dignity but also suppressed his personality, disfiguring him and desolating his soul. Only God’s help, deep faith and burning prayer supported the weak strength of a man.
“Shooting!” – the word pronounced at the trial brought me the joy of the end of suffering for Christ and the attaining of the crown of martyrdom. How I then wanted to receive it! The Providence of God judged otherwise, execution by shooting was commuted to 25 years in prison.
“Exhausting days of heavy, anguished labour. Terrible nights of interrogations, the screeching of opening doors, the crashing of bolts and the fear of saying a word that might cast a shadow on anyone near or distant, whether relatives or acquaintances, or even a completely unknown person. The fear of speaking.
“Now all that is behind me – a long, long life.
“Our community, headed by our confessor, Hieromonk Seraphim (Goloshchanov), former member of the Drand Monastery, preserved the traditions and ordinances of the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon religiously. We never became part of the sergianist patriarchate, never bowed our head to accept the spiritual yoke of the leaders of that organization. The Truth of Orthodoxy – this was always the chief thing for us.
“It is a great pity that so many people failed to see in Sergius’ teaching the seeds of a renovationist heresy, a subtle spiritual delusion akin to that which St. Nicetas of Novgorod and the Venerable Isaac, the Hermit of the Caves Monastery, once fell prey to. The fruit of that heresy has led its believers to spiritual insensitivity, to tepidness. Only a fire burning bright can warm you and dry your clothes. A smouldering fire has none of these qualities; it gives only acrid smoke and the stench of burning.
“Founded by Stalin’s henchman, Metropolitan Sergius, his Moscow Patriarchate can only repress and spiritually mutilate, making lawlessness the law. Its mutilation is not immediately noticeable; its spiritual venom penetrates the minds of Orthodox people drop by drop. The psychological objective in this is to break down their spiritual immune system to make them ready to accept the Antichrist. The internal is replaced by the external. Remember: belief in lies and demonic allurements destroys your soul (said Holy Hierarch Ignatius Brianchaninov). Recall these words of the Holy Apostle Paul as often as you can: “… [they perished] because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. And for this reason God shall send them a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie… “ (II Thessalonians 2.10-12). Let not these words ever come true for us!
Eternal memory to our spiritual mentors who rest in God – Hieromonk Seraphim, Hieromonk Tikhon, Monk Mark, Priest Michael, Schema-Abbess Laurentia and her sisters. They bequeathed their conviction and devotion to the truth of Orthodoxy to me. Our community consisted of about 200 people. Hard as it was to find true pastors after Hieromonk Seraphim passed away, the Lord always sent them our way. Verily did His words come true for us: ‘Seek and you will find; knock and the door will open.” I cannot help but admit that it was with the greatest circumspection and wariness that I came to Suzdal in search of a confessor for our community. Then our sisters and all those of one mind with us also came to visit. Those were the first unforgettable hours of wholesome prayer in a real church adorned with holy icons. By the iconostasis and the Holy Royal Gates, by the tombs of the holy saints and miracle-workers of Suzdal. What bliss has the Lord granted to our community and to me at the end of my earthly life! Sixty-seven long years we did not dare to step inside a church for fear that we become part of sergianist delusion. Not only did the Merciful God dispose that I visited the blessed city of Suzdal; he disposed that I stay here and fulfill my sacred mission as Mother Superior of the monastery of the Holy Hierarch and Wonderworker John Maximovich. With great fear and trembling I entered on this walk of life, trying in every way to justify the trust placed in me. I undoubtedly made many mistakes, witting and unwitting. I was bold and irritable, but I sincerely loved and love God and the truth of our Holy Orthodox Church. I was always zealous and am zealous now for the glory of God, for the prosperity of our holy community of the Hierarch and Wonderworker John Maximovich.
“I ask the forgiveness and blessing of the builder of our community, his Eminence Archbishop Valentine, their Graces Vladykas [Theodore and Seraphim], our clergy and all those with whom I have had communion.
“I am grateful to the worshippers and dwellers of Suzdal for their attentiveness and kindness. May the Lord show His mercy to all of you and may He order your life for the good in all piety and purity, may he strengthen your hearts in the holy truth of our Orthodoxy.
“Do not abandon your rule of prayer, be zealous in Orthodoxy; treasure the memory of our Holy New Martyrs, and keep our abode safe. Turn neither to the right nor to the left. Follow the path bequeathed to us by our Lord; it will lead you to eternal life in the Kingdom He pledged to us.
“Schema-Abbess Joanna Sanin, Lydia Afanasievna. 14 September, 1998.”
(Sources: “Repose of Mother Joanna of the Catacomb Church” and “Quotes from Her Will”, Vertograd-Inform, N 12, October, 1999, pp. 4-5; Tserkovniye Novosti, N 5 (81), August-October, 1999, pp. 2-3; A. Paryaev, “Skhiigumeniya Ioanna (Sanina)”, Suzdal’skiye Eparkhial’niye Vedomosti, N 8, June-September, 1999, pp. 29-31)
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