An important personality in the Church, outstanding Hierarch, great ascetic, God-inspired poet, educator, missionary, friend of the poor, the last Saint to be glorified in Imperial Russia, St. John of Tobolsk was the distant ancestor, heavenly patron, model, and guide of the newly-revealed Saint John (Maximovitch), Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, the Wonder-worker.
His most important work, Iliotropion, was begun by St John while he was still a teacher in the Academy of Peter Mogila. He published it in Latin, and only later, in Tobolsk, when he had completed it in its final form, did he publish it in Slavonic. The title is the Greek word for helianthus (sunflower). The image of the sunflower, dear to the Saint even from his youth, was for him an analogy which helps to explain the agreement of the human will with the will of God. The sunflower has the particular characteristic of daily turning its face from one side to the other following the movement of the sun. Sunflowers are a common sight in the rural landscape of southern Russia, and St. John could not but be attracted by the natural symbolism they afford. The book Iliotropion, in fact, treats of the Divine and human wills:
The only true means for attaining our happiness in this life and in the next is the constant turning of our attention within ourselves, to our own conscience, to our thoughts, words, and deeds, so as to raise them to passionlessness: this will reveal to us our mistakes in life and indicate the only path to salvation. This path is the entire devotion of our whole being, of our whole self with all the circumstances of our life, to the will of God. As a symbol of this our turning to God we may take the growth of the sunflower; let it be ever before our eyes.
Christian! Observe once and for all how the sunflower even on gloomy days pursues its circular course, following the sun with the unchanging love and attraction natural to it. Our sun, illuminating our path through this world, is the will of God; it does not always illuminate our path in life without clouds; often clear days are followed by gloomy ones: rain, wind, storms arise… But let our love for our Sun, the will of God, be so strong that we may continue, inseparably from it, even in days of misfortune and sorrow, like the sunflower on gloomy days, to navigate faultlessly on the sea of life, following theindications of the ‘barometer’ and ‘compass’ of the will of God, which leads us into the safe harbor of eternity.
In the words of this ascetic of faith there is placed before us the spiritually transfigured man, filled with the determination to accept in all things the will, good and perfect, of the Heavenly Father.
It will seem to us that we are deprived of everything; even if we have a great abundance in everything, we will always be in fear, despondent, agitated, faint-hearted, every hour full of cares and various anxieties, sorrow and vain sighing, until we sincerely return to God and devote ourselves and each other completely to the will of God, as the sunflower strives toward the sun. Let us begin diligently to examine the visible signs of God’s will in events and conform our will to them. Let the will of God be for us the guiding star in life, and let each of us engrave and hold forever in his heart this one thing: ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord!’ (Job, ch. 1.)
As I have always loved Sunflowers, they will always bring on new meaning to me now, as taught by St. John.