St John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ in English Translation
by Nicolas Mabin
This paper was first published in Sobornost (Vol 37:2, 2015), The editors of Orthodox Life offer our thanks to Sobornost, the journal’s editor Fr Andrew Louth, and the author of this work for their permission to reproduce this informative survey of the history of English-language translations and compilations of St John’s classic spiritual text.
This paper attempts to identify from an historical perspective the various editions of the book, My Life in Christ, which was published first in English in 1897. There have been nine different versions of either all or some of that book, the latest being published in December, 2015. This is not a linguistic analysis of the text, nor a theological exposition of the book. However, it is interesting to look at the eclectic mix of people that have played a part in promoting the readership of My Life in Christ. As a theme, I draw the readers’ attention to a maxim that may be summed up as “beware of translations.” The attentive reader of translated works needs to have in mind the answers to questions such as: Who is the translator? What is their linguistic competence? What is their theological competence? Similarly, ‘“beware of edited selections.’” How do the editors make their choices and what motivations drive these decisions?
Saint John of Kronstadt
Saint John of Kronstadt was born in 1829 and died in 1908. He was glorified in 1964 by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1990. Here is a brief summary of his life.1, which is taken from the Church’s Synaxarion:
Saint John of Kronstadt was a married priest, who lived with his wife in virginity. Through his untiring labors in his priestly duties and love for the poor and sinners, he was granted by our Lord great gifts of clairvoyance and miracle-working, to such a degree that in the last years of his life miracles of healing—both of body and of soul—were performed countless times each day through his prayers, often for people who had only written to him asking his help. During his lifetime, he was known throughout Russia, as well as in the Western world.
Saint John of Kronstadt lived the apostolic life in our times, not in some monastic retreat far from the world
He has left us his diary My Life in Christ as a spiritual treasure for Christians of every age; simple in language, it expounds the deepest mysteries of our faith with that wisdom which is given only to a heart purified by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Foreseeing, as a true prophet, the Revolution of 1917, he unsparingly rebuked the growing apostasy among the people; he foretold that the very name of Russia would be changed. As the darkness of unbelief grew thicker, he shone forth as a beacon of unquenchable piety, comforting the faithful through the many miracles that he worked and the fatherly love and simplicity with which he received all.2
My Life in Christ
For the ordinary reader, My Life in Christ may be difficult to read, partly because of its Victorian style and partly because of its lack of organization, but it is worth persevering for two main reasons. First, Saint John of Kronstadt lived the apostolic life in our times, not in some monastic retreat far from the world but in the heart of a military port with all its associated wickedness.
The Church has given us all the medicine we need to heal our spiritual sickness — particularly in the sacramental prayer life of the Church
The 1897 Goulaeff Translation
The English translation of My Life in Christ was published in London by Cassell in 1897. This volume consists of 558 pages and is divided into two parts. This separation reflects the division into two volumes of the original 1894 Russian publication.3 At the outset, the 1897 book states: “Translated with the Author’s sanction, from the Fourth and Supplemented Edition by E.E. Goulaeff, St. Petersburg.” This is followed by a “Note” in which Father John briefly explains how the book came into being:
“I do not precede my book by any introduction: let it speak for itself. Everything contained in it is but a gracious enlightenment which was bestowed upon my soul by the all-enlightening Holy Ghost during moments of deep self-concentration and of self-examination, especially during prayer. When I had time, I noted down the edifying thoughts and feelings that came to me, and from these notes, continued for many years, this book has now been compiled; the contents are very varied, as will be seen by the readers. Let them judge of them for themselves.” He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. (I Corinthians 2:15)4
There are no subheadings, signposts, etc. There is no index. As the author’s note indicates, this is a collection of random jottings. E. E. Goulaeff made accessible to readers of English, for the first time, the thoughts, insights and prayers of a contemporary Russian Orthodox priest. My Life in Christ is a first-hand account of Orthodox spirituality as experienced in the modern world. My Life in Christ falls into a category of writing which might be described as ‘psychological’ and within Orthodoxy there are but few examples of this genre, since writing about oneself is practically unknown.
In the “Translator’s Preface” Goulaeff makes no reference to receiving help in doing the translation into English. However, in a letter of 24th January, 1900, from Archpriest Eugene Smirnoff, Rector of the Russian Imperial Embassy in London, to an unnamed correspondent, there is a mention of “[N.G.] Kamensky [who] will be able to complete her assignment in the best possible way. Some time ago, she beautifully corrected a translation of My Life in Christ.“5
E. E. Goulaeff 6
Erast Evgenievich Goulaeff was a designer and constructor of ships for the Russian Imperial Navy. He was the author and translator of more than 50 articles on shipbuilding. He was born in 1846 in Peterhof, near St. Petersburg. Goulaeff studied at the Marine Artillery and Engineering School, graduating in 1868. He then joined the Russian Admiralty and began an illustrious 40-year career as an innovative designer and builder of ships. In 1868, at the age of 24, Goulaeff was appointed as aide-de-camp to General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia. In 1870, Admiral A. A. Popov sent Goulaeff to England, where he studied for two years at the Royal Kensington School of Naval Architecture, graduating in 1872. In 1875, Goulaeff returned to Great Britain to oversee the construction in Glasgow of a floating dock for the Black Sea fleet. In 1875, The Times7 published a letter from Goulaeff in which he pointed out that circular iron-clad ships were invented by his boss, Admiral Popov. Then, in 1876, Goulaeff delivered a lecture in English in London to the Institution of Naval Architects8 entitled On Circular Iron-Clads.9 During 1877–8, he was at the Thorneycroft shipyard, which at that time was in Chiswick, London, and at the Yarrow shipyard on the Clyde in Glasgow, overseeing the construction of iron-clad ships. Goulaeff was in Glasgow in 1879 and 1880 during the construction of the imperial yacht, Livadia, the launch of which in 1880 was attended by the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich. Then in 1893, Goulaeff returned to London to deliver another naval architecture lecture. In 1897 (the year in which his English translation of My Life in Christ was published), he represented Russia at the first International Congress of Ship Engineers, which was held in London. In 1908, at the age of 62, Goulaeff retired with the rank of Lieutenant General and was awarded the Order of St Anna (1st degree), which made him a member of the hereditary nobility.
We know nothing about Goulaeff’s personal life, apart from the fact that he was married and had one daughter. Erast Evgenievich Goulaeff died in 1919 at the age of 73. How did Goulaeff first get to know Father John of Kronstadt? The title page of the 1897 book indicates that the translation was published with the personal approbation of Father John. As we shall learn from the introduction to another book, which was published in 1901, Father John visited the home of Goulaeff and cured Goulaeff’s daughter.
Soon after Goulaeff retired, Father John died. One might speculate on Goulaeff’s involvement in preserving the memory of Father John. How did Goulaeff spend his retirement years, which were lived through the horrors of the Great War, the Russian Revolution and the persecution of the Church?
Reaction to the book
In his book, Father John of Kronstadt: a Life, Bishop Alexander Semenoff-Tian-Chansky observes, “The translation into English by Gulaeff published in 1897 was widely mentioned in the English press.“10 The present writer is not convinced that this is an accurate statement.
“My Life in Christ” abounds in most beautiful and suggestive spiritual thoughts, and should be in every priest’s library.’
In fact, there were relatively few contemporary reviews of Goulaeff’s translation, perhaps three or four at most.11
Such reviews might focus on the person of Father John, the diary itself, or the translator. In fact, none of the reviews mention the translator or his competence. The reviews focus on the difficult presentation of the text. The reaction in the English press was articulated most harshly in the Pall Mall Gazette:
“With regard to the arrangement of the book, it is just about the worst possible; indeed, there is no arrangement whatsoever. The paragraphs appear as if they had been rained down from the clouds. There is no connection between the one and the other. There is no index, or the smallest guide as to where to look for any particular topic. You must simply search through the whole of its 558 pages, and gather up as you go what you are in quest of. This is a glaring defect which ought to be remedied, should any further issue ever appear. In some cases the book is greater than the man; in this case the man is, without doubt, greater than his book.“12
1898 — Father John of the Greek Church
The Rev. Dr Alexander Whyte (1836–1921) was a Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.13 He published many books, some of which were ‘Appreciations’ of figures as diverse as Saint Teresa of Avila and Cardinal Newman. In 1898, less than a year after the publication of the Goulaeff translation, Whyte published another ‘Appreciation,’ Father John of the Greek Church. It was 95 pages long: 44 pages are Whyte’s introduction and a further 27 pages are devoted to selected passages, taken from the Goulaeff translation of My Life in Christ (with remaining pages devoted to advertising).
Regarding My Life in Christ, Whyte says, somewhat improbably, he has read it “over and over again.” Whyte suggests that the diary of Father John has particular authenticity because, as Father John writes, ‘ “This is experience; this is my own experience; this is my own daily experience.”’ ‘These great experience passages are the source and measure of the whole book.’14 Nevertheless, Whyte’s praise is not unlimited. “There is far too much about the mother of our Lord, and about His saints, and an extravagant and a superstitious faith in prayer, as well as about icons, and azymes, and such like. There are too many flies in the ointment, I frankly admit.” Whyte finishes his essay by expressing the hope that Father John might become a great ‘reformer’ of the Greek Church in Russia. “And may we not hope one day to read in all our journals, that both Father John’s books, and by his preaching, and by his character, and above all by his prayers, the great Greek Church in Russia has again become all that she was in her Apostolic days…?” Dr Whyte is imposing on Father John’s words a reformatory zeal, which may have surprised their author.
Dr Whyte gained his knowledge about the Orthodox Church from speaking with his friend, Prince Galitzin, to whom Whyte was introduced by General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, when the Prince and the General together visited Whyte in Edinburgh in 1894. Prince Nicholas Galitzin had come to Great Britain to study the social work of the Salvation Army. He remained in Edinburgh for more than two years, living in the same street as Dr Whyte and his family. In a biography of Dr Whyte, we read that in 1898, “Father John himself had sent his greeting and benediction to the General Assembly of the Free Church, over which Dr Whyte was presiding as Moderator.“15 Did E.E. Goulaeff instigate that communication?16
1899 — Thoughts and Counsels of Father John
Then, in January 1899, A. R. Mowbray & Co (Oxford) published another recension of Goulaeff’s translation of My Life in Christ. Edited by the Reverendd Cyril Bickersteth and Mrs Agnes Illingworth, 390 pages long, it was entitled Thoughts and Counsels of Father John: Selected and Arranged from ‘My Life in Christ.’
Fr Cyril Bickersteth (1858–1936), was a founding member of the Community of the Resurrection.17 In 1894, Fr Cyril conducted a mission in Longworth, a remote hamlet some ten miles south-west of Oxford. The vicar of Longworth was John Richardson Illingworth, who between 1872 and 1882 had been a well-known and highly regarded tutor at Keble College, Oxford. However, while at Oxford, he suffered serious illness. Helping him to recover was Nurse Agnes Gutteres, who at the time was actively considering becoming a nun at the Anglican Community at Wantage. In 1883, Agnes married the Revd J. R. Illingworth and the couple moved from Oxford to Longworth.
The biographer of Mrs Illingworth18 recounts: “The name of Longworth is associated with the annual gathering of Church dignitaries and scholars known as the “Holy Party,” or in Longworth itself as the “Lux Party”.“19 Among the ‘dignitaries and scholars’ that gathered for three days at Longworth every year from 1890 to 1915 were some of the most influential Anglican theologians of the period, including Charles Gore (later Bishop of Oxford). One might suppose that it was in this context Fr Cyril and Mrs Illingworth decided to publish an edited version of My Life in Christ.20
There is a tantalizing glimpse of the Lux Party connection to Father John of Kronstadt in The Life and Work of John Richardson Illingworth, M.A., D.D.21 The book comprises chiefly of letters written by Illingworth. In one letter, dated January 1st, 190122 he writes about the difficulties he is experiencing in finishing the manuscript of a book. “The news of the Queen’s death only reached us this morning… The book is sticking in the mud dreadfully, in spite of my having had Father John’s prayers (as I have just heard). Pray for it and me.“23
In their introduction to Thoughts and Counsels, Bickersteth and Illingworth note, “the size of the original volume, and a certain lack of order and arrangement, have prevented it from having the circulation which its conspicuous merits deserve. Colonel Goulaeff and Father John readily gave the required permission… We have added the texts from Holy Scripture.” The Church Times comments, “… it has been the work of the Rev. Cyril Bickersteth… and Mrs Agnes. L. Illingworth carefully to select the passages which seemed most likely to interest and edify members of the English Church.” [emphasis added – ed.]
Their book did not go unnoticed in Russia. With Fr John’s blessing, one of his admirers, S. P. Tservitsky, compiled a similar book, in Russian, entitled “Thoughts of a Christian” that was published in St. Petersburg in 190324
1901 — Truths About God The Church The World And The Human Soul
The work of editing and publishing the 1899 volume necessarily brought Mrs Illingworth into contact with E. E. Goulaeff. Perhaps he was invited to attend a gathering of the “Holy Party” in Longworth? In any event, together they embarked together on yet another edited version of the original volume of 1897.
Truths About God The Church The World And The Human Soul was published in 1901 by John Murray in London. This 108-page volume was translated from the Russian by E. E. Goulaeff “assisted” by Agnes L. Illingworth. The Preface, written by Mrs Illingworth, gives three reasons for publishing the volume. First, so that readers might become acquainted with the exemplary life of Father John; second, to show “how near the highest ideals of the Greek Catholic Church… approach those of our own [i.e. Anglican Church]”; and third, to serve as a manual of devotion. An introduction written by E. E. Goulaeff explains “Mrs. J R Illingworth… has been kind enough to peruse the manuscript and correct the English of my translation of this present book.” However, there is no evidence that Mrs. Illingworth possessed competence in the Russian language, especially in the language of Russian Orthodox spirituality.
1948 — A Treasury of Russian Spirituality
A Treasury of Russian Spirituality by Professor G. P. Fedotov25 was first published in Russian in New York in 1948, and subsequently reprinted regularly up until 1990. The book chronicles the development of Russian Orthodox spirituality from the 11th to the 20th century, including 74 pages which are devoted to Father John of Kronstadt and extracts from Goulaeff’s translation of My Life in Christ. Fedotov introduces My Life in Christ:
During the long term of his priesthood Father John preached a great number of sermons, which were collected in various editions, but more important than these is the spiritual diary which was published under the title My Life in Christ. This consists of a great number of brief entries on a variety of subjects, in no particular order; the theological headings under which the excerpts of our selection are classified are those of the English editors Bickersteth and Illingworth, who abridged the first English translation, by E. E. Goulaeff26
1953 — Jordanville editions
The 1897 Cassell edition of Goulaeff’s translation of My Life in Christ was reprinted and published numerous times in the period 1953 to 2000 by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y., USA, a male monastic community and seminary of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad 27
1966 — Jordanville Pamphlets
In 1966 Jordanville published two pamphlets which contain extracts from the writings of Saint John of Kronstadt. One is called Saint John of Kronstadt On Prayer and is 74 pages in length.
...the Mother of God has been "expressed with great beauty, simplicity and clarity in the writings of St. John of Kronstadt.
1967 — The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt
William Jardine Grisbrooke (1932–2003) was an expert on Anglican liturgy and lectured in liturgical theology at Birmingham University. Having been an Anglican, Grisbrooke with his wife was received into the Greek Orthodox Church. However, as an obituary of Grisbrooke noted,
[After 1965]29… Bill went on by a mysterious dispensation to be both Orthodox by profession but a regular Roman Catholic communicant and Master of Ceremonies for the Roman Rite in Birmingham and in Norfolk. … [When he died] his vigil service, funeral mass and commendation were according to the Roman Rite. His unaccompanied body was by his own instructions cremated without ceremony. Later his ashes were committed at an Orthodox funeral liturgy in the Anglican parish churchyard at Castle Acre30
Grisbrooke published four books, of which two were collections of writings taken from Goulaeff’s translation of My Life in Christ.
In 1967 in London James Clarke & Co. Ltd published The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, edited by Grisbrooke. It is 270 pages long and includes a 23-page introduction, written by Grisbrooke. He records how he put together the selections which he had made[footnote]  All citations in this section are from W. J. Grisbrooke, The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt. (London. James Clarke & Co Ltd. 1967.) xi–xxxiv Noting that My Life in Christ is “a massive volume of some three hundred thousand words,” Grisbrooke says that his extracts are no more than one fifth of the total. “The original work is completely disorganized… and not only is it, inevitably, repetitive, but it is exceedingly verbose: much of it, after all, was written in the age of the three-volume novel.” Grisbrooke modestly says that his extracts give a “reasonably balanced picture of Father John’s teaching.” He notes that “certain elements of the original work have been entirely omitted… a great deal of meditative and reflective matter, and the line had to be drawn somewhere.” Commenting on the valuable work done by the translator, Grisbrooke states that the “Victorian elaboration of Goulaeff’s style is intolerable to modern taste.” Grisbrooke was faced with a choice: an entirely new translation from the Russian, or a “recasting and rewriting of Goulaeff’s text.” Grisbrooke chose the second option (his lack of capability in Russian notwithstanding). Then he sets forth his philosophy regarding language:
I have endeavoured to write clearly and economically, and to avoid two particularly offensive kinds of language — the sickly-sweet terminology favoured by too many writers on spirituality,… and the strange esoteric vocabulary affected by some who write in English about Eastern Christendom. I usually write, for example, of “sacraments”, not “mysteries”, of “vices”, not “passions”, where the latter means the former.
Indeed, with breathtaking aplomb, Grisbrooke claims to know the mind of Father John:
The contents of the present volume have been selected and arranged, first, to give a reasonably balanced picture of Father John’s teaching, and, second to provide a useful manual of spiritual advice for the believer of today. On the rare occasions when these aims have clashed, the former have been sacrificed to the latter, as Father John himself would wish. [emphasis added – ed.]
1994 — Counsels on the Christian Priesthood
27 years later, in 1994 St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, published Grisbrooke’s 134-page Counsels on the Christian Priesthood. The first 30 pages are devoted to another introduction written by Grisbrooke, with extracts from My Life in Christ filling the remaining 100 pages.
1997 — Companion Index
The St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood31 was founded in 1963 with the blessing of Saint John Maximovitch. Its co-founder was Father Seraphim Rose. In 1997, the Brotherhood published a much-needed Companion Index For My Life In Christ to accompany the 1897 Goulaeff translation. The booklet is 32 pages long, of which the index itself is 11 pages.
2015 — New Jordanville edition
In December, 2015, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville published in two volumes My Life In Christ, translated by E. E. Goulaeff and revised by Nicholas Kotar. The publishers write in the pre-publication publicity, “In this new edition, the English translation has been thoroughly revised and freshly typeset to make St John’s own words more accessible to today’s reader. The bite-sized reflections draw the reader in to the author’s profound spiritual experience and love for Jesus Christ and the Church.”
...thanks principally to the efforts of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, Saint John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ has remained in print in English almost continuously for the last seventy years.
The book includes a scriptural index and a subject index. Reader Nicholas Kotar of Jordanville has made the revisions of the Goulaeff translation. Kotar is a recent graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary. He also holds a degree in Russian Literature from Berkeley, California. He has translated from the Russian Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament: The Four Gospels by Archbishop Avery Taushev, which was published at Jordanville in 2015. Currently Kotar is working on translations into English works by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov and Saint John of Tobolsk. The new Jordanville edition of My Life In Christ is not a new translation but a substantial re-working of Goulaeff’s translation, with special regard to theological concepts that are hard to express in English.
Thanks principally to the efforts of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, Saint John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ has remained in print in English almost continuously for the last seventy years. Indeed, for nearly 120 years, the book has been cherished by successive generations of English-language readers who have been inspired by the meditations and teaching of Saint John. However, it has to be said that Goulaeff’s publication has not allowed easy access to this work, principally because of its lack of organization, headings, index, etc.
Subsequent editors have attempted to correct these deficiencies. The editions published successively by Whyte, Bickersteth, Illingworth, Goulaeff, Grisbrooke, as well as some of the Jordanville publications, all attempt to address these structural problems, principally through reducing the quantity of text to manageable amounts, and publishing compendia of extracts. However, selection in itself is an editorial decision, necessarily reflecting the theological bias of the editor. For example, Whyte wanted to present Father John as a potential reformer in the Protestant mould. Bickersteth and Illingworth were quite overt about their desire to show that, in their view, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy are really quite similar, and edited their selections accordingly. Similarly, Grisbrooke, who in spirit was a Uniate, made selections to fit his own ideas.
The problems are compounded by the fact that the Goulaeff edition did not include an index. Subsequent editors have made no attempt to reference their extracts, and so it is almost impossible for the reader to compare the later rendition with the original text and understand for himself the context from which the extract is drawn.
The second issue concerns what Father John actually wrote: how good is the translation, and, in particular, how good is the translation of theological terms? Goulaeff was not expert in Russian theological vocabulary, still less in English theological vocabulary. For dozens of theological terms used by Saint John, a precise translation into English is a real challenge, especially if the translator has no theological background. In his introduction to Spiritual Counsels, Grisbrooke says that he deals with the challenge in a very particular way, ‘The purpose of translation is to convey ideas, not the words which express those ideas in the original language’32 Unfortunately, when using precise theological terms and translating them into a language which does not possess those theological terms, the result can be misleading and even unhelpful.
Fortunately, the new Jordanville edition of My Life in Christ benefits from not being a compendium of extracts, and from being edited by Nicholas Kotar, a linguist with considerable experience of translating theological works from Russian to English, thus resolving at least some of the flaws inherent in the first English edition which was published by Erast Evgenievich Goulaeff.
I am most grateful to Deacon Andrei Psarev, Instructor at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary, Jordanville, both for suggesting the topic of the paper and for providing helpful guidance throughout. I am grateful also to the following people who have made suggestions and helped in many ways: Count Andrei-Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, London & Moscow; Protodeacon Christopher Birchall, Vancouver; Professor Dominic Lieven, Cambridge; Brother Donald, St Herman of Alaska Monastery, California; Mr John Harwood, Surrey; Archpriest Michael Taratouchin, Utica, NY; Professor Nadieszda Kizenko, Albany, NY.; Sister Nazaria, St Paisius Convent, Arizona; Reader Nicholas Chapman, Jordanville, NY.; Reader Nicholas Kotar, Jordanville, NY.; Metropolitan Abba Seraphim of Glastonbury; and Br Steven, Mirfield, Yorkshire. Thanks also to Archpriest Stephen Platt who invited me to present this paper to a meeting of the Oxford branch of St Alban and St Sergius, which was held at the House of St Gregory and St Macrina in November, 2015.
Nicolas Mabin is Subdeacon at the London Cathedral parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. He has a degree in theology (B.A. Hons) from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, and the degree of Diploma in Orthodox Theological Studies, awarded by the Center for Traditionalist Studies, Etna, USA.