From Irina Rusanov's recollections

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When we set out on a pilgrimage to holy sites or to meet people who are living a holy life, to elders of all-Russia, we prepare, whether we want to or not, for such meetings. We try to remember and deposit in our souls their every word as it is being said, and then later make sense of it, understand it, and strive to live by it.

Yet, here there is someone living among us, right next to us, a person with whom we associate, with whom we talk, with whom we share current events. And even knowing that it was to him that the Most-holy Theotokos revealed her miraculous Icon, even understanding that this man was chosen by God, we nonetheless cannot fully appreciate those moments, that great mercy shown to us; in all likelihood he was an example given for us to follow, to simplify the muddle of our lives.

Time passes, life goes on, one by one our loved ones depart, and little by little our memory of their dear faces become muffled.

It is especially difficult to retain memories of those who have left suddenly and unexpectedly. It seemed that they would always be with us, that there would still be time to talk with them, there would still be the opportunity to just be near them, and surely there would always be time to say goodbye…

It seems to me that each time they depart, they take with them a little piece of our hearts; that is why it hurts for so long… For reasons unknown, some invisible thread connects and ties people to one another, and sometimes that tie is stronger than time or family ties.

Contact with holiness does not happen without leaving its mark. To the contrary, it leaves a deep mark on our soul, and each time we think about it, we have an opportunity to clearly apply that holiness to ourselves like a template, and once again confirm that our way of thinking and acting, our behavior, is distorted.

Brother Joseph, our dear Jose... His ever tender, welcoming smile when we would meet, his words, spoken with a great Spanish accent, "I pray for you and your family every day, Irina!" - continue to sound in my ears. I believe that even now, he still remembers to mention us sinners before the Throne of God …

It was 1983. We got a call informing us that at the Synod in New York, they were going to serve an Akathist to the newly-revealed Miraculous Icon of the Mother of God. In such cases, there was no question: we would get ready, put the children in the car, and rush to New York. Then life was on automatic: Two moody little children, a husband with a difficult job, a new country with which I had practically no contact, the church of the Kazan Mother of God near which we lived… and no help, everything beyond our power, and us on our last legs.

The Akathist was served in the little church of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the lower church at the Synod, where daily services were held. We arrived at the very beginning of the service, and so had no time to look around. Yet, everything was quite familiar. It was there that I was baptized; my husband lived at the Synod for over a year, and it was there that we baptized our first- born Nikolai. The few people who came to that Akathist spent the entire service on their knees, and everyone was weeping… When the service ended, people approached the Icon and examined it for a long time. Streams of Myrrh could be seen running down the Icon, and to us, to those who had never before been eyewitnesses to God's miracles, it was strange, and curious, and even somewhat frightening…

They anointed our two-month old Olya from head to toe, and Nikolai as well. The next day, our 1½-year-old Nikolai, still in ecstasy from yesterday's prayerful state, scraped his whole nose raw on a cheap rough rug - [bowing before an icon of] the Kazan Theotokos.

I do not even remember seeing Jose; he did not draw any attention to himself.

Some time later he came to our church with the Icon. To my good fortune, he stood in the corner where I would usually be. It was thanks to this that I could notice that unfamiliar, large man of Spanish ancestry. On that occasion, and as always since then, he was dressed simply and in black: trousers, shirt, and jacket. A face with coarse features, large hands. However, despite his imposing size, everything about him was very soft and even tender. His appearance, his mannerisms, his voice were always smooth and measured, without any shrillness or stridency. Most of all, I remember a slightly puffy face, enormous dark eyes, and large, soft, tender hands which he sometimes folded, palm to palm, in a child-like attitude of prayer. In him there was no affectation, no showy intensity of prayer. He was just there, focused, neither diverted nor amused, but honest and natural.

Afterwards the rector took the Icon to visit the sick. Jose stayed at our home. We had other guests from Jordanville, a family with four children. I had to concern myself with the details of domestic chores, with over entertaining all our guests and helping them get settled. After dinner, and after sleeping quarters for our guests had been arranged, they brought the Icon, and Jose carried it into our apartment. It is quite large, and we could not immediately find a proper place for it; we first had to rearrange the furniture.

Andrei read the Akathist. Jose stood to my right and, silently moving his lips, also read the Akathist by heart. He spoke no Russian, but knew the Akathist by heart. Then, I had to address other concerns: children, guests, the dishes, and the kitchen… But Andrei had a chance to sit down with Jose and quietly talk with him, one on one. By the way, our dear guest was in no way a reticent person of little words. Each time he spoke, it was as if a warm little light would go on, a light that warmed and caressed those with whom he was conversing. I never saw in his eyes any sign that he was not paying attention, no glazed expression. To the contrary, he was completely involved in you, and if someone distracted him, his companion could see in his eyes some kind of sadness over having had the conversation interrupted.

That very same visit, I promised myself to order a new shrine for the Icon… However, I never fulfilled that promise.

After that visit, something mysterious created a bond between us. I was simply attracted to this man, as one is attracted to good itself. It was just a joy and a comfort to be near him. Whenever the Icon would come, we would always go to the services, and thus be able to see and talk to Jose. His words of greeting were always, “I pray for you and your family every day, Irina!” And now I know that he prayed for many, that his daily prayer rule took him up to nine hours.

My children would cling to him, would hug and kiss him, completely forgetting their natural shyness. They were simply attached to him. I had never seen my children show such tenderness to anyone else, not even family. At the same time, it was completely natural, for he always called them by name, even though by the end of his life he had fifty godchildren. When he played with them, he was like a little child, beaming and joyous. They sincerely loved him. Little Nikolai, at 10 years of age, always dreamt of earning enough money to buy Jose a diver’s watch. It was probably because he madly wanted one for himself; I could not imagine where it would be of use to Jose.

He was persecuted, and sometimes openly driven away, and like a child he would share his sorrows with us. He was also someone seriously ill with diabetes mellitus. However, he never spared himself, and never refused anyone. He would say that he was not his own master, that he went where the Icon led him, and that he had not had a will of his own for quite some time. He greatly revered the Icon, as if he saw the Theotokos herself in it. It is no coincidence that he was baptized Joseph, and that his Heavenly patron was Joseph the Betrothed. Just as St. Joseph cared for and protected the Most-holy Virgin herself, so Jose cared for protected her Miraculous Icon.

I remember quite well something that happened in the early ‘90s. The country was experiencing a total economic collapse. My husband, together with many thousands of other specialists, completed work on one contract, and could not find another job. A month went by, then two, then three, and there was nothing… By then we did not know to whom we should pray… We would read Akathists, request Molebens, but there was no work. Another 2 ½ to three months went by. Suddenly, the Iveron Icon came to Nyack. In the church, I was standing right next to Jose. … Suddenly I remembered my promise to make a shrine for the Iveron Theotokos. I was incredibly ashamed. I also knew that Jose was always short of money, as his travels with the Theotokos deprived him of any opportunity to earn a living. And I did not have a penny… I quietly removed a diamond ring from my finger, a ring my husband had given me just before he became unemployed, and put it in Jose’s hand. “Forgive me, but right now we have no money at all; here, take this, it may be of some use.”

Somehow, quite soon thereafter my husband found work. Yet what surprise and joy I felt when I saw my ring on the Icon, right above the head of the Theotokos… Knowing that I was giving it to him personally, Jose did not dare accept even that much....

Later, they would write that they killed Jose for the Icon, decorated with precious stones…

I remember our last two or three encounters in 1995-1997.

Nyack. The Icon arrived. I came up to Jose, and he told me about a woman from France who dreamed of making a pilgrimage to Jordanville. He, however, tried to talk her out of it, telling her instead to go to Russia, where there was sanctity, where there were elders… Elders…(…) I cannot fail to believe him. He was the ultimate authority, the only person in his milieu without a personal political line, without personal interests… The only one to whom the Theotokos Herself appeared, and he was devoted to Her until his last breath.

There was one more encounter, at the Tolstoy farm. It was summer. It was hot and humid. The church was small – almost a chapel. A great number of people, about seventy or eighty. But for the Diaspora, this was quite a lot. It was crowded in the church, and talking would have been awkward; there was a service going on. The three of us went out onto the street. We talked for a long time – mostly it was my husband and Jose talking. He greatly encouraged us to come visit him in Canada; I still have a scrap of paper somewhere, with his handwritten address.

The last time was in Novo Diveevo. He almost never went there – they would not invite him to come. This was probably the second time in 15 years. After the service, some friends, almost leading him by the hand, escorted him to their place. He obediently went with them. I remember how sorry I felt for him… I remember the service, with him, as always somewhere toward the back. Then somehow apart, on the steps of the Monastery house church. It was summer. He appeared tired, aging, clearly ill. We talked about what was transpiring in the Church. To us, it was a sensitive subject. He told us of his problems. As before, he was being openly persecuted. Vladyka Vitaly (at the time, First-hierarch of the Church Abroad, now – in schism) and those with him were close to going to court in their desire to take away the Icon. In the course of the conversation, Jose related the story of how he was with the Metropolitan in San Francisco, and Vladyka Vitaly, then already eccentric, asked him to do his laundry, as he was afraid of being poisoned. We had known for a long time that he would not eat in certain places, out of the same fear. But Jose gave him a worthy reply, “Vladyka, but after all, if they poison you and you die, you will become a MARTYR…” The Metropolitan did not understand that. …

And it was Jose who soon became a martyr.

The call came in about 7:00 AM: “They’ve killed Jose in Greece,” my friend screamed into the phone. “You’re being hysterical! Such a thing is impossible!” I could not believe it. How could I have believed it?!

The funeral services were in Jordanville. I still could not believe it. We did not even take our older children with us, as if there was no one for them to bid farewell, as if it were all some sort of game…

We were early. We went into the church just after his body had been brought in. It was in a plastic bag. For eleven days it had been shipped from place to place, and no one wanted to bury him. On the internet, something that at the time I did not peruse, you could see all manner of incredible filth, each article describing Jose worse than the last. By the way, it was from the internet that it all began. Some clever person had caused Jose great sorrow by posting a photograph of the Icon to the Web. I remember that in the church, several people had already gathered: Mark and Fr. Victor Potapov, and his Matushka, Masha. Apparently we had arrived during the Panikhida. Then, while they were all considering how he was to be buried, a monk began to chant from the Psalter.

When we arrived, the seal on the clear plastic bag was already broken, and we could see his disfigured face. It was decided to open [the bag] some more, but they were afraid of the stench – after all it had been eleven days. Ultimately, they got rid of the plastic and buried him as befits a Christian. It was our turn to kiss his body, and in all the hubbub we did not even notice that there was no aroma whatsoever. The body, which had been held up for eleven days and spurned everywhere by everyone, had remained incorrupt and undecayed.

The funeral was served the following morning. A great number of people gathered, filling up the church. There were ten to twelve priests, and two bishops. Vladykas Mitrophan from Long Island and Laurus, our current Metropolitan, then Prior of the Monastery. Other than that, mostly lay people… No other bishop of the Church Abroad came - as if Jose had not laid down fifteen years of his life for all of us, had not sacrificed his own personal life, his work, his health, and ultimately his very life, so that we might be able to fall down before the Miraculous Icon of the Theotokos?!

* * *

We stood only 1½ meters from the coffin, but in front of us there rose up a solid wall of backs, and throughout the entire service people would come up to say goodbye to someone who held a special place in their lives. We also went up. But I felt neither pain nor sorrow. Either I was disconcerted by events to such an extent that I did not understand what was going on, or he covered us all with the blessedness his soul felt.

Andrei whispered in my ear that he had removed both his and Nikolka’s diver’s watches, and had quietly put them in the coffin. Meanwhile, I was agonizing over not having allowed the older children to come.

Jose’s dear face had been severely wounded in several places. On his wrist, there was a deep scar from the ropes with which he had been bound. From behind the people’s backs I could see his arm, and my heart turned cold.… Little Petya absolutely refused to go up to say goodbye. “That’s not him,” cried the child, “That’s not him!!!” We did not try to force him. Let him remember a living, loving, joyous Jose…

While they were carrying the coffin out of the church, I was standing next to Fr. George, the Monastery photographer. Suddenly he said to me, “Look, it’s joyous, like on Pascha.”

Just as on Pascha, we went in a long procession up the hill to the Monastery cemetery.

I was standing at the very edge of the grave as they were lowering the coffin into it. I remember that it was cold and windy. Next to me, some woman was sobbing her heart out. She was the only one loudly sobbing; the rest of us were weeping silently; our tears flowed quietly and we did not even notice. The woman turned out to be Jose’s sister…. They had nonetheless come to bury him. They said goodbye to him.

Throughout the funeral I had the persistent thought that in many ways, he was like unto Christ. He was also killed in a shameful manner (even in our day), and then was slandered…

May his memory be eternal!

After that, we did not go to Jordanville for several years – until the year 2000.

However, we would not think of moving to California without saying goodbye to Jose.

It was springtime. April. There was already a black granite memorial cross on his grave. It was very windy; there, on that hill, it was always windy. …

While we waited for Fr. Flor, everyone was amazed by the fact that in such a cold place, a black stone Cross on the grave could be so palpably warm, even very warm in spots.

Sonia Potapov and iconographer Popkov’s widow came with us.

By then we had already seen the film in which Masha Potapov told of the miracle at Jose’s grave – when on that windy site the candles lit themselves at night and continued to burn [until they had completely burned away]… We also brought candles to the grave and lit them with great difficulty at the Panikhida Service. At the end, Sonia and I began to gather up our candles, which had already blown out. Suddenly, I don’t know how, a large candle in my hand lit up; it was as though he were saying as he had so often said before, “I pray for you and your family every day, Irina!”

Address of our Cathedral

  • 4001 17th St. N.W.,
  • Washington, D.C., 20011

Phone  (202) 726-3000




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