On the feast day of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, December 10, 2008, a consecration was held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York: Archimandrite John (Shaw) was made Bishop of Manhattan, Vicar of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The new Vladyka is known to many Americans of Russian descent: since 1976, Fr John served at Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral in Chicago, and for the last 17 years, at Holy Trinity Church in Milwaukee, WI. Educated as a Slavicist and theologian, he did a great many translations, including texts to and from Church Slavonic.
– Your Grace, did you ever imagine that you would become a bishop?
No, but this once more proves that the Lord has His plan for each one of us.
– You were tonsured to monasticism not long at all before your consecration. For which saint were you given your monastic name?
– In honor of Blessed Jerome. Until very recently, I believed that I would remain “John,” this was the name I was given during my baptism. It was the idea of Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York to give me this monastic name.
– That was a good idea, Vladyka! Blessed Jerome, of course, is not well-known in Russia… but it was he who translated the Bible into Latin, and it was his translation that remains even today the official Latin text of the Holy Scriptures. He had a general proclivity for languages: during his long seclusion in the wilderness, he learned Hebrew and Chaldean. In fact, not many know that Blessed Jerome is also the patron saint of translators, and of librarians and archivists. Have you yourself ever taken up the author’s pen?
– I have, but, like my heavenly patron, mostly I translate. I translated Archbishop Alypy’s (Gamanovich) textbook on Church Slavonic into English. This guide is very useful for Americans who speak little Russian or don’t know it at all.
I also translated two wonderful books by Protodeacon Nikita Chakirov—Russian Churches and Russian Palaces, published some 40 years ago. Today these books are rarities. Also translated by me were the Liturgy of Apostle Mark and the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy of Apostle James, from Greek to Church Slavonic. I also translated many other works of the widest range of topics.
– So you have long been interested in linguistics and literature?
– I was always fascinated by languages and history. During my life I began to study 41 languages—this doesn’t mean that I became fluent in all of them. I speak Russian, Greek, German and French. I read Latin well, the Slavic languages, of course, because if you know Russian, for instance, you can read Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Serbian, Slovak…
Of the esoteric tongues, I learned Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Egyptian, but in order to have a complete knowledge of these languages, one must really use them constantly.
– Which writers do you particularly like?
– I read Dostoevsky and Shmelyov with relish. In Russian, of course.
– Don’t you think that the Russian language in the emigre community, including America’s, is gradually dying?
In order to avoid this, it is very important to work with the youth in this area. The new generation of the bearers of Russian culture is the future of our Church. Of course, in order to be an Orthodox Christian, it is not necessary to have a command of Russian, but it helps plumb the depths of the Russian soul: one can read the Russian classics in their original language. As a translator, I can state that no translation can possibly give the shades of meaning of the original.
– But you yourself are American. And, as far as we know, you have no Slavs in your ancestry.
– I was born in Connecticut, but my roots are from the British Isles: Scotland and Ireland. At the age of 12, I was baptized in the Anglican Church, but at age14, I already began studying Russian; at 16, I spent a few months with Orthodox Christians in Greece, and in 1963, at the age of 17, I converted to Orthodoxy.
– How did your path towards Orthodoxy begin?
– I was born in Waterbury, an hour and a half from the village of Churaevka, a unique Russian settlement in America. The land was purchased and houses built by Russians, and it was founded by Count Ilya Lvovich Tolstoy and his friend, George Grebenshchikoff, a writer who fled the Bolsheviks in 1917. His roots were in Siberia, in a village of the same name.
A great many interesting people lived and visited Churaevka—artists, writers, actors and architects. Sergei Rachmaninoff visited Tolstoy there: he loved to rest there after his concerts. The chapel is built according to the design of the philosopher and artist Nikolai Roerich, who lived in the village for a time and financed its construction, as did the renowned pioneer of aviation, Igor Sikorsky.
The firm “Alatas,” which published Russian books, was based in Churaevka. I actually helped typeset Grebenshchikoff’s biography on a linotype machine.
The priest who served there, Fr Dimitry Alexandrov, was special, too. He was highly-educated, well-read, from a well-known family. He would tell me a great deal about Orthodoxy, and became my de facto spiritual guide. Today, he is Bishop Daniel of Erie, spiritually nourishing the Old Believers in America.
So I have felt and continue to feel myself quite at home with the Russian people. Very recently, I learned that in the 18th century, I had ancestors in Russia and Ukraine.
– Vladyka, have you had occasion to visit Russia?
– Yes. The first time was in 1967, as a student of Pittsburgh University, where I was studying Russian. Two years later, during the Brezhnev era, I again visited the Soviet Union. The third time was for the celebrations on the reunification of the two branches of our Church. And soon I will be going there for the Council of Bishops and Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.
– Did you know His Holiness Patriarch Alexy?
– I had three conversations with him: the first time in 1967 in Tallinn, and twice more in 2007. There is even a documentary which includes an incidental conversation I had with Patriarch Alexy in the altar.
– What was your position on the discussions of the reestablishment of canonical unity of the Russian Orthodox Church?
– I was always of the opinion that we had neither theological nor canonical reasons for division, only political ones. Now we have a single Eucharistic life, we commune of one chalice, though in daily life we may have our own viewpoints.
– What places in Russia have made a special impression on you?
– Moscow has changed completely since the 1960’s. It is hard to believe that the churches that were once destroyed, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Kazan Church on Red Square, Resurrection Gates, have now been rebuilt. The Church of Basil the Blessed, probably the most famous one in the world, now holds divine services on Sundays.
But it is the people who have made the greatest impression on me. One time, I was heading for divine service in Moscow’s Danilov Monastery, and a group of young people was just in front of me. I couldn’t even imagine that they were also going to church. Suddenly, they crossed themselves, bowed, and entered the monastery gates. One young man—his name was Maxim—stopped me at the entrance and asked that I pray that he find a good, Orthodox wife.
– And do you?
– Of course, how could I not?!
Interview conducted by Tatyana Veselkina, New York