January 23 – Gennadius of Kostroma; John the Almsgiver

Icon of Gennadius of Kostroma, 18th centuryGennadius of Kostroma (d. 1565) spent his teenage years visiting monasteries and pining, much to his rich parents’ dismay. Finally, one night he changed into ragged clothes, climbed out onto the roof, shimmied down the drainpipe, and fled from their home, catching the next footpath to Moscow. But although he had spent his whole life dreaming of joining a monastery, when it finally came down to it, he couldn’t find one he liked. This one was too large; that one was too soft—none of them was ju-u-u-ust ri-i-i-ight. A chance encounter (if chance it was—we all know the Lord moves in monasterious ways) (see what I did there?) led him to Vologda, where he was finally tonsured. But Vologda wasn’t just right either, so before long he and his tonsurer ((St.)Cornelius) packed up and moved to Kostroma (about 5 hours northeast of Moscow on the E115 and R600). And the rest, as they say, is monastery. Which is to say, like many a hermit, he attracted a following that grew into a monastery, and he became its first igumen*.

Gennadius the Abbot spent his time humbly[1], chopping wood, making candles, and baking prosphora*. He also painted icons, although my sources do not say if any are still extant. He carried around heavy chains, just in case somebody might needed one, although nobody ever did. Either that or it was one of those hairshirt kind of things. Yeah probably that[2]. It is said he had the gift of clairvoyance, and once, while staying with a nobleman in Moscow, he told the man’s daughter that she would someday become Tsarina. Foolishly she didn’t run screaming, and she ended up being the wife of Ivan the Terrible. True story.

He dictated his life story to his disciple Alexis, in it advising the monks of his monastery to keep the rule, work hard, be at peace with everyone, and keep the monastery library intact. Oh, and also strive to understand the books therein. He was glorified in 1646.

Polyptych of John the Merciful helping an impoverished merchant, circa 1504John the Almsgiver/Almoner/Merciful/etc. (c. 610–621) was born on Cyprus, lived for a while, and then was made Patriarch of Alexandria, where he became known for his works of charity (hence the name). During his tenure the patriarchate cared for over 7,000 poor people a day. He liked to sit among the beggars on the church steps, talk with them, settle their disputes, and maybe even trade sandwiches if he got one he didn’t like. He also visited hospitals three times a week, although even in the seventh century those weren’t great places to eat.

One story is told about a rich man who gave a sumptuous bed covering to the Patriarch, who used it one night, then had it sold, and gave the money to the poor. The rich man bought it back (saw it at the pawnbroker’s?), and gave it to John again. Who again sold it, and gave the money away. This happened several times. When someone asked how long this would go on, John said, “We’ll see who tires first.” My source doesn’t say who that was, but if I were a betting man. . . .

John had his craftsmen start to build a coffin (some say tomb) for him, then ordered them to stop before it was completed. He instructed them to come to him daily and ask, “Should we finish it yet?” By this he reminded himself of his own mortality, and gave the casket (tomb) builders something to look forward to when work was kind of slow (between plagues, say). He left Egypt when the Persians overran it, and having seen a vision saying it was time to go, sailed off to die at home in Cyprus. After his death his body had a few more adventures (as is not uncommon for saints’ bodies), and ended up in Bratislava, Slovakia (as who wouldn’t?), where his coffin (tomb) was finally completed. John is the patron of Casarano, Italy, but I’ll be dinged if I can figure out why. Maybe they just liked him.

[1] Have you ever noticed that when the abbot/abbess joins in the humble work of the monastery, it’s never cleaning the privies? I’ll just leave that there.
[2] I confess that I am a poor hagiographer, because I just don’t understand the hairshirt thing. I can see wearing one as an obedience—my abbot told me to, and I am obeying. But voluntarily? I don’t get it.