My cancer journey and prayers for the intercession of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II

PHOTO: the miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II and the Order of the Holy Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II

On 22nd April, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. No one ever wants to hear their doctor utter the words “tumour” or “cancer” – each word inflicting both shock and fear into a person – I was no exception. I recall that the first thing that popped into my head at that moment, was whether the cancer had spread? I would not know for sure until a C-Scan was performed, for which I had to wait another 3+ weeks. Until then, the waiting and uncertainty only fanned the flames of my fears.

In the days leading up to my C-Scan and surgery, I filled my time with the “best medicine”: prayers, positive thoughts, and laughter. I reached out to my family, friends, and to the many people who follow me on my blog and Facebook pages. I was simply overwhelmed by the love and support I received from thousands of people – many of them from people whom I have never met – from all over the world.

In addition, prayers were being said for me by Orthodox and non-Orthodox clergy in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and Russia.

One of the most inspiring messages I received, one which had a very profound effect on me, was the following, sent by a friend:

“You must remember that you have your work on Nicholas II to complete and it is YOU who have been chosen from above by His Majesty. May God be with you, dear Paul!”

On 14th May, I had my C-Scan, and 3 days later, the doctor called me with the results. I was so relieved to learn that the cancer had not spread to any of my vital organs or my bones. Glory to God for all things!

PHOTO: Paul Gilbert poses in front of his lithograph copy of the original miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, gifted by Ija Schmit(1936-2018) in 1996

The intercession of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II

Just two days before my admission to hospital, I was doing some spring cleaning – simply to keep my mind occupied – when I discovered a large firm envelope hidden behind some boxes in the back of my closet. I discovered that the envelope contained a large 12″ x 15″ colour lithograph copy of the miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II (seen in photo above).

This icon had been gifted to me back in 2000 by a friend in California. I could not believe that it lay hidden and forgotten alI these years! I was quite overcome with emotion, because I knew that this was an exact lithograph copy of the miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, the same miracle-working icon which has been venerated by Orthodox Christians for more than two decades.

I placed the icon in a frame and hung it on a wall in my home. I then began to pray to God through the intercession of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, to help me get through my surgery and healing. I prayed for strength and courage, and I prayed for good health. Not only do I want to live to a ripe old age, I want to return to my beloved Russia, and I also want to continue my work in clearing the name of Russia’s much slandered Emperor and Tsar.

As some of you may already be aware, I have been considering entering the Russian Orthodox Church for several years now, and during that time have spent many hours in prayer and solitude in Orthodox churches, praying to God and venerating icons of Orthodox saints. In my home, I have icons of the Holy Royal Martyrs and Russian saints, which I venerate on a daily basis.

On the morning of Friday, 20th May, I arrived at Oshawa General Hospital for my surgery. My blood pressure and blood sugars went through the roof! Prior to surgery, my blood pressure exceeded 200!!, that is how stressed I was. When I was taken into the operating room, I repeatedly made the sign of the Orthodox Cross over myself, recited the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and Psalm 23. Just before the anaesthesiologist administered the medication, I was filled with calm and peace . . .  

The next thing I knew, I was coming out of the anesthetic in the hospital recovery room. The following morning, the surgeon came to see me and informed me that “the surgery went very well”, that the tumour had been successfully removed, and that I would NOT require ANY chemotherapy. “Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” (Psalm 30:2).

I have nothing but praise for the doctors and nurses at the hospital, all of whom went over and above the call of duty to ensure that I received the best possible care. After spending a few days in Oshawa General, I was sent home. I spent much of my recovery in bed sleeping or resting in my favourite armchair with a cup of tea and a good book. I still have some minor pain, and limited mobilty, however, my health continues to improve with each new day.

My post-surgery care now requires me to have blood work done and a C-Scan every six months and an annual colonoscopy over the next two years.

While my cancer was not life-threatening, the surgeon informed me that he had also removed three pre-cancerous [changes to cells that make them more likely to develop into cancer] polyps, noting that if I had I left it another year, that my situation would be much worse. I was one of the lucky ones, as the cancer was detected in its early stages.

I am the first to admit that my cancer journey pales in comparison to those of many others, it was a journey which nevertheless has had a profound impact on me, one which God willing, will add many more years to my life, and lead me to fulfill my heartfelt aspiration to enter the Russian Orthodox Church.

PHOTO: Oleg Ivanovich Belchenko, holding the miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, at the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs in Ganina Yama

The miraculous Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II

The Icon of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas was commissioned by Ija Schmit (1936-2018), a Russian émigré in the United States, who used money inherited from her mother to have the icon painted in 1996.

I first met Ija in October 2000, when she joined my annual Romanov Tour to Russia, which that year included Moscow and Crimea. Ija was accompanied by her husband Harvey and their daughter Nina. It was during this visit that she told me about this icon, a copy of which she later gifted me.

The icon would be dedicated to the future canonization of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas in Russia[1], and in memory of her mother. After Ija’s initial inspiration to have the icon painted, she contacted iconographer Paul Tikhomirov, himself a Russian immigrant, to see if he was interested in her project. Tikhomirov’s response was, “I will make the icon shine!” They decided to depict Nicholas II in coronation robes [1996 was the 100th anniversary of his coronation in Moscow], with St. Nicholas, his patron saint, and St. Job, on whose feast day Nicholas was born, in the upper right and left hand corners. Below the figures would be printed in Russian, “This Holy Icon is for the Canonization of the Tsar-Martyr in Russia.”

Ija received the finished icon on 12th May 1996 and then traveled to Texas, where it was blessed by Bishop Constantine (Yesensky), an old family friend, who had served as Bishop of Great Britain. The icon, however, was not intended solely for family veneration. Ija and her husband, Harvey Schmit, had already arranged to have paper copies of the icon printed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II on 27th May (O.S. 14th) 1996.

Forty-four thousand copies of the icon were printed. The distribution of the icons [printed in three sizes], was handled by Ija’s own non-profit organization, the Society Honoring Russian Nobility, and income from the icons sold in the West purchased food and medicine for needy pensioners and orphans in Russia. A fourth, smaller version of the icon was printed by the thousands and given away in Russia without charge.

As word of the icon spread, Christians from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and even Serbia, began writing and requesting copies. The Society has met all these requests and distributed more than twenty thousand icons in Russia alone.

On a visit to Russia in late 1996, Father Herman [Ija Schmit’s brother] presented a number of prints to Fr. Juvenaly, the priest at the St. Nicholas Almshouse in Ryazan. On 16th (O.S. 2nd) March 1998 (the anniversary of Tsar Nicholas II’ abdication and the miraculous appearance of the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God. Fr. Juvenaly blessed Dr. Oleg Belchenko with one of the prints, which the doctor took with him back to Moscow. The paper icon had been given to him in a glassfronted, three-dimensional wooden icon-case (a kiot) and Dr. Belchenko set it in a prominent place in his Moscow apartment. On 5th September, Dr. Belchenko noticed that a red spot had appeared over the right eyelid of the Tsar. The following day a second red spot appeared over the left eye. Dr. Belchenko first compared the icon with a smaller print to be sure that he had simply overlooked the distinctive marks. The smaller icon did not match. Dr. Belchenko then called Sretensky Monastery of the Meeting of the Lord to ask what he should do. The monks asked him to bring the icon of Tsar Nicholas to the monastery the following morning. Dr.Belchenko arrived early and stood through the liturgy holding the icon in a plastic bag at his side. At the end of the liturgy a moleben and blessing of the waters was held. The officiating priest recognized Dr. Belchenko, and knowing that he had come with the icon, had the choir sing a troparion for Tsar-Martyr Nicholas. Following the troparion, Dr. Belchenko noticed one of the parishioners staring at him. Finally, the man approached and asked, “What is that fragrance?” Dr. Belchenko replied: “You are probably smelling incense – I am sorry, I can’t smell anything myself because I have a cold.” The man persisted: “No. I tell you, the fragrance is coming from somewhere around you… the smell is much more refined than incense.” Dr. Belchenko replied impatiently, “You should be ashamed of talking such nonsense while the service is going on!” The man moved away embarrassed, but within a few moments other worshippers filtered over, curious about the fragrance and asking what was in the package. “Nothing, only an icon,” he replied. “Show it to us.” As Dr. Belchenko opened the package and took out the icon, the remarkable scent filled the church.

The icon of Tsar Nicholas II was displayed for veneration in the monastery church for three weeks. After Dr. Belchenko took it home, the fragrance continued to a lesser degree, and as word began to spread, Muscovites increasingly asked to come to his apartment to venerate the icon. Dr. Belchenko felt that his home was too small to accommodate many visitors, so he asked an Orthodox friend, Alla Dyakova, to keep the icon in her flat, where those who wished could venerate it. When asked how he was able relinquish such a treasure, Dr. Belchenko answered, “The icon is not mine. It belongs to all Russians.”

On 19th October, Alla Dyakova and Fr. Peter Vlashchenko, a married priest from the Ivanovo region, took the icon to Elder Kyril of St. Sergius Lavra, who was in Peredelkino, outside Moscow. Elder Kyril venerated the icon and blessed Fr. Peter and Alla with the words, “Go. Take the icon to whomever asks for it.”

On 1st November, the icon was brought to the Martha-Mary Convent in Moscow, founded by Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the sister- in-law of Tsar Nicholas II and herself a new-martyr. The day not only marked the birthday of Elizabeth, but the anniversary of Tsar Nicholas’ assuming the throne at his father’s death in 1894. The icon of Tsar Nicholas was placed on the analogion next to an icon of Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Throughout the Divine Liturgy the icon of the Tsar poured forth waves of fragrance, filling the chapel.

It is worth mentioning that the popular veneration of the Tsar-Martyr played an important role in the canonization of the Imperial Family at the Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 among the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.

In August 2000, the Russian Church met at a synod in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow. Amongst the things discussed was the issue of canonization. The eagerly-awaited news finally escaped the cathedral’s walls to the faithful gathered outside: Tsar Nicholas II and his family were now recognized as Saints! The date of their martyrdom was now recorded in Orthodox calendars around the world as their feast day. It is certain that influential in this decision were two paper icons of the martyrs, both of which exuded sweet-smelling myrrh and so revealed those Saints to be themselves “a sweet aroma of Christ unto God” (2 Cor 2:15).

The keeper of the miraculous image, the Moscow surgeon Oleg Ivanovich Belchenko, has travelled around Russia for many years, bringing the icon to to churches and monasteries arousing veneration of the Holy Royal Martyrs wherever it went through its aromatic myrrh. Many Orthodox Christians believe that their prayers have been answered by God through the intercession of the Tsar and his family.

Lately, due to his age, Oleg has handed over this honourary mission to Alexander Fedorovich Chernavsky, a publicist, head of the Orthodox Mission for the Revival of the Spiritual Values of the Russian People. The Myrrh-Streaming Icon of Tsar Nicholas II, appears with the same unpretentious simplicity with which the late Tsar laid down his throne and bore his final months of house arrest before his death and martyrdom.

Holy Tsar Martyr Nicholas II, pray to God for us!

NOTES:

[1] The desire of many Russian Orthodox Christians for the canonization of Tsar Nicholas and his family does not stem from a belief that their personal lives were blameless, although from historical accounts and the family’s own letters it is obvious that they were Christians of great integrity. The widespread desire for the family’s canonization is based on the fact that Tsar Nicholas and his family were murdered as a result of his position as the sacramentally anointed Orthodox monarch of Russia.

© Paul Gilbert. 14 June 2022