Our foundress Mother Ioanna (Pomazansky) reposed On January 6th (19th), the feast of Theophany, 2011.
Mother Ioanna passed on right after the matins for the Synaxis of St John the Baptist — the guardian of monastics, the Angel of the desert dwellers.
She lived a long life which might have been called typical for the so-called “first wave” of the Russian emigration had it not been for except for the last stage of her life, that of a nun, which is uncommon in any event and is even rarer and more remarkable among Russian intelligentsia in emigration.
How can one comprehend and render, in a short report, the story of a person’s soul — his strivings, his struggles, his suffering, his only true yet concealed inner life? Whilst we do not presume to set ourselves such a great task — yet not abandoning it completely — we shall try to give an outline of Mother Ioanna’s life journey.
Natalia Sergeevna Markov was born in Kiev, on September 24th, in the turbulent year 1918, into the family of a military officer, one of the first pilots in the Russian Air Force. Soon after her mother had to take her out of Russia. They found themselves in Egypt, in a refugee camp near Alexandria, where she spent her earliest years. Mother Ioanna did not speak much of that time, but even the driest of her stories made it easy to imagine the hardships the Russian refugees endured in that exotic, scorching land. In the late 1920s the Markovs moved to Yugoslavia and settled in Belgrade where Natalia finished a Russian school, then entered the university. Her doctor of medicine diploma was of much use to her later in Germany where she treated TB sufferers brought in from concentration camps. This is how she recalls that time in a slim book of memoirs:
“…I received employment in Halle, in a hospital for patients with tuberculosis from various camps. In January of 1945, when the Soviet troops drew up close to Berlin, I managed to get to the Russian labour camp Nordhausen, and in late summer of that year our camp was transferred to the American occupation sector, in the Menchehoff camp, near Kassel.”
It was for her children, Mark and Olga, that Mother Ioanna was writing her recollections, but later they were published in one of the monthly issues of Orthodox Life. These are short sketches, written vividly with the directness of an eyewitness. The reader is transported into the horror of those years and marvels at the care with which the Lord led the young Natalia through the truly hellish sites of human suffering. As another entry in her journal has it, she “waded through hell without fully realizing it… It was hell because human madness reached the extremes. Millions were murdered. And what is hell? Hell is madness, a hopeless perversion of the soul.”
She gives a wonderful description of the refugee camp in Menchehoff, the last station on her route from camp to camp: this is the departure point on her long journey here, to the monastery of the Holy Trinity. There was a grammar school set up in Menchehoff, in which Priest Michael Pomazanski (the father of Natalia’s husband Dimitri) taught. A snapshot survived which captured the young Fr Michael and Fr Mitrophan Znosko, the future bishop, holding the miracle-working icon of the Theotokos of Kursk over the Orthodox Russian inhabitants of the camp. Life was gradually shedding its camp features: Menchehoff even had its own church put up in short order. One could sense the coming of liberation and the beginning of new life. “It was an intermission, as it were, between two acts. The curtain had already fallen over the first, horrific and ominous, but not yet risen to start the second.”
The future Mother Ioanna and her husband worked in an American army hospital, and in 1948 the family emigrated to the United States. After four years in New York they moved to Burlington in Vermont. She worked at hospitals and in a bacteriological laboratory until she received an advanced degree and embarked on a new career as a professor of German and Russian at St Michael’s College. She was actively engaged in teaching, research, and translation. It was at that stage of her life that Natalia Sergeevna began to visit regularly the Holy Trinity monastery, near which lived her in-laws, Fr Michael and Véra Pomazanski. Widowed and retired, she accepted an offer from Archbishop Laurus, abbot of the monastery, to teach at the Holy Trinity seminary and in 1984 she made Jordanville her permanent abode, something her soul had yearned for a long time. She had long been spiritually attached to Archimandrite Constantine (Zaitsev), her father confessor for many years; she had known well Archbishop Averky (Taushev), Archimandrite Vladimir (Sukhobok), Archimandrite Sergius (Romberg), Archimandrite Anthony (Iamshchikov). These people were close and dear to her, and no wonder that she had a secret desire to follow in their footsteps.
Here, on the hallowed grounds of the monastery, deeply touched by daily services, immersed in reading spiritual books, and as a result of conversations with Father Michael and of her own private deliberations, Natalia Sergeevna made up her mind to choose monastic life. Archbishop Laurus put at her disposal a small house belonging to the monastery, and she invited to live there a young girl Maria, the present Mother Superior Nun Elisabeth, who had come to Jordanville the same year with a secret intention to become a monastic. On December 5th (18), 1987, on the eve of the feast of St Nicholas, Archbishop Laurus made them novices. In a sense, that day marked the beginning of the womens monastic community, which now bears the name of St Elisabeth’s Skete. Two years later, on that very day, both were tonsured riassophor nuns. By that time, a larger house nearby was vacated, and Archbishop Laurus offered it to sisters Natalia and Maria with the view to evolving the community, to have room to accept future sisters.
Sister Natalia was always intuitively sensitive to spiritual influence; this is how she conceived of the idea to choose Nun-Martyr Elisabeth as the holy intercessor and guardian of the community. Perhaps the choice had something to do with sister Maria’s German origin, or else sister Natalia was particularly touched by the self-sacrificing life of the Grand Duchess and touched by her martyric death, a dread reminder of the fate of her motherland torn to pieces — difficult to say. In any event, Hieromonk Luke, the sisters’ spiritual father (present Archimandrite and Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery) at once painted an icon of the New Martyr Elisabeth; a “heavenly foundation” of the future community was thus laid down.
Sister Natalia, as the senior nun of the monastic abode, put forth much effort to arrange that life, so new and unfamiliar to her herself, in the best possible way. Her first and foremost task was to set up a home chapel in the upper floor of the house of which she was again the only occupant. To this day the skete’s sisters pray in that chapel, dedicated to Nun-Martyr Elisabeth, and Archbishop Laurus gave his blessing to serve here Divine Liturgy from time to time. And it was here that sister Natalia took the veil in 1993, the first such event in the life of the community. Archbishop Laurus tonsured her on November 26th (December 9th), the eve of the feast of the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, known as Kursk-Root, Who was the guiding light for the future nun Ioanna, as well as for thousands of other Russian exiles, Who protected and saved them from perishing under the bombardment in Belgrade, gave solace amidst privations in camps, gave wisdom in their attempts to settle in the new lands. Archbishop Laurus gave Nun Ioanna the name in honor of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a choice that scarcely requires explanation because the faithful Russians in diaspora consider him their heavenly guardian.
Reading always was M. Joanna’s favorite occupation, and the writings of Holy Fathers, teachers of the Church and ascetics, were perhaps pre-eminent. She liked especially collections of the lives of the desert fathers with whom she established personal relations as it were: she would often say “my Anthony… my Ammon…” as if trying to express her strong, unfeigned love for the saints who were dearer and closer to her than her earthly relations. She had a long-acquired habit to write down her thoughts and observations concerning life both around her and inside. When still living in the world she wrote and translated for monastery publications; and when she moved to the monastery, besides teaching, her monastic obedience for many years was writing and translating for monastery publications. Before she became a nun, she made many pilgrimages to holy places. Many times did she go to the Holy Land, to Egypt attracted her with its deserts, where in times long past monastic life was born and flourished and Serbia, was very dear to her from her childhood. So the topics for her essays came to her naturally, from the impressions and recollections stored in her heart. Thematically, Mother Ioanna’s articles and translations may be divided into two categories: one may be called historical; the other reflects her deep-reaching spiritual quest. One of the first large translating projects on which she worked with much enthusiasm was the letters of a 4th century female pilgrim, Towards the Fount of the Living Water. This was followed by a long string of articles about holy sites: “In the Footsteps of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul”, “In the Jerusalem Convent of St Melanie”, “Quiet Waters of the Siloam”. A number of essays appeared after Mother Ioanna’s trips to the Russian Federation, such as “The Village of Kolomenskoe”, “The Chronicle in Stone of the Kievan Cathedral of St Sophia”, “The Place Our Forefathers Inhabited”. On the topic of Serbia: “The Battle of Kosovo As an Emblem of the Spiritual Life of the Serbian People”. As years passed, Mother Ioanna turned more often to purely spiritual subjects. There was a series of articles entitled Thoughts of the Holy Fathers: “What Is Evil?”, “The Purpose of a Christian Life”, and later “What is Love?”, “What is Man?”, “What is a Heart”? In her concise but profound essays one can find reflection of her hidden inner life of which she preferred not to talk, knowing that talk often trivializes a heart’s treasure.
By spiritual disposition Mother Ioanna was inclined towards complete solitude, and her monastic life fulfilled that desire until the last years when, because of the infirmities of her age, she required the assistance of others. Yet even though she tended towards solitary contemplation and brainwork, she was open to people seeking her attention and conversation. Many received even material help from her, but she always did it in secret.
Almost to the last days, when she was already gravely ill, Mother Ioanna attended church services. Having all but lost her memory she still remembered the most important words that defined her entire life: God, prayer, salvation, love, goodness, gratitude. In our age of general dissoluteness, Mother Ioanna’s amazing concentration on the chief meaning of life laid the foundation for the new monastic community — a feat truly wondrous and unfeasible without God’s help. Frail and advanced in years, Mother Ioanna could not take upon herself the practical side of maintaining a coenobitic life, but prayerfully she gave all of herself to that main deed of her life that crowned it worthily.
Early on Nun Ioanna kept a spiritual journal, which later, sensing the advance of incapacitating illness, she gave to her spiritual father. The very first words show that she strived above all to acquire knowledge of self, whilst realizing the enormous difficulty of the task.
“To enter into oneself. To enter inside… A great solitude… awaits. Year after year, hour after hour, minute after minute bring us closer to its threshold. Gradually we shed everything… relatives, friends, then ourselves. But — also gradually — [we are losing command of] one organ after another, one sensation after another, one thought after another. In other words, our “I” becomes ever more denuded. And a moment will come when it will be perfectly sole, having shed even its body. And this will be a complete, absolute solitude. [One ought to] prepare for it… But how? — One must gain knowledge of oneself…”
This is how she will be remembered by the sisterhood and by all those who knew her as a nun — casting a probing eye inwards, sometimes oddly indifferent to the external side of life for the sake the inner, mystical one.
She seemed to have foreseen her last years, for she had to endure the torments of a memory loss. In those terrible trials her soul was going through the final stages of purification, in preparation for the departure from earthly existence.
“The less one loves oneself the happier one is. To reject oneself is all important… Many, many things ceased to engage my mind; without doubt, my soul yearns for something else, for different joys, unearthly ones… This is why it has become hard for me to write, my “I” is vanishing by degrees, it has nothing to say as a person…”