Kizenko, Nadieszda. A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2000. 376 pp. $22.50.
Reviewed by Sharyl Corrado.
Historian Nadieszda Kizenko has done a great favor not only to the academic community but also to believers in her work on Fr. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), a controversial pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox priest canonized in 1990. Unusual for his time, Fr. John’s enthusiastic ministry—social service, charismatic prayer, liturgical revival, and miraculous healings—soon attracted national and international attention, turning Kronstadt into a pilgrimage site and establishing Fr. John as a “religious celebrity.” His unique devotion to asceticism and personal holiness, centered on prayer, fasting, and marital celibacy, combined the spirituality of Russian holy men (startsy) with involvement in every aspect of society.
Unlike the majority of works on Fr. John, many written in connection with his eventual canonization, Kizenko explores not only his successes, but also the controversies associated with his life and ministry. She details the internal struggles Fr. John faced as his popularity grew, and explores what appeared to be hypocrisy in his life as he struggled with temptation. His conservative politics led to statements and actions that many today, as then, would not identify as befitting a Christian. In addition, the cult that has sprung up around him has taken on a life of its own, interpreting and misinterpreting his teachings in ways damaging to his reputation and cause.
Part of the Lived Religious Experience series of the Pennsylvania State University Press, A Prodigal Saint describes not only the events of Fr. John’s unusual life, but through use of diaries and private correspondence, explores the spiritual experiences of both Fr. John and his parishioners. Herself the daughter of an Orthodox priest, Kizenko never disparages the Christian faith, never ridicules what some may describe as fanaticism or naiveté, nor questions the legitimacy of miracles and answered prayer. Yet as a historian, she remains true to her profession, readily acknowledging contradictory sources and interpretations. She does not shy away from modern or post-modern theory insofar as it helps to better understand the experiences of Fr. John and his followers, yet she knows equally well Orthodox theology and liturgy. Her combination of academic expertise with firsthand knowledge of the faith allows insights from multiple perspectives seldom seen in combination.
A Prodigal Saint is valuable to all who seek to understand Russian spirituality, the role of religion in Russian society and culture, and the story of a man extremely influential in Russian Orthodoxy even today. At the same time, the book provides the reader with a role model for personal spirituality and public ministry, as well as important lessons to be learned from Fr. John’s mistakes, failures, and even sin. Kizenko’s refusal to simplify a complex life provides a service to all who face the contradictions and challenges of the Christian life in today’s society.
Sharyl Corrado is a doctoral student in Russian history at the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report