Monday, June 14, 2010

Monk George, the Hermit of Mount Athos


by Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi

It is incredibly daring for one to believe that one may describe the life of someone who is a friend of the Lord, who is a spiritual person and who according to the Scriptures “he judges everything but no one can dare judge him” [1 Cor. 2:15]. Therefore we will not describe his life, but we will simply give a minimal account of the way he lived, since as it happens, he had been our acquaintance.

This ‘most holy’ man, as I, without hesitation, describe brother George, was known as ‘Branko’ the Serb. He approached our blessed elder Joseph the Hesychast, when we used to live at New Skete in order to receive some spiritual advice. It was on this ground that we came to meet with him and have known him until the end of his life, when this ended prematurely so that, as the Scriptures say, “vice will not change his prudence nor evil intention deceives his soul”. His brothers in the Holy Monastery of Hilandar know better the reasons behind his return to devoutness. Therefore, we will leave these for them to describe, while we will only refer to what he himself has relayed to us.

We must say that even though he did not speak good Greek initially he also avoided talking about anything which he did not intend to be of any spiritual benefit. Nevertheless, he seemed inflamed with godly zeal, and zealously followed even the most insignificant details of our monastic order. We had a lot to learn from his perfect attitude, especially his introversion, one of his special charisms. One of the initial questions he was asking our Elder was: Why did divine Grace, which visited him initially in order to attract him to goodness, lessened now that he had especially come to its source, the Holy Mountain Athos, to continue his life as a monk? Then our Elder, very patiently and speaking very slowly so that he could make himself understood because George did not speak Greek very well, explained that this is how things are and how grace habitually behaves towards those it beckons to the spiritual stage. Later, blessed George was wondering whether it was necessary to return to France - the place where he used to study when divine Grace visited him and revealed its mysteries - because holy Grace had weakened when he came here once he had acquired more comprehension of it.

“It did not get weaker, my child”, the Elder was explaining, “and it never will, since the holy charisms are fixed. It is the sense of the presence of grace which has been hidden, not its actual presence. Divine Grace usually appears in two ways. One is and is described as the ‘energy’ - theoria - of Grace and the other the ‘sense’ - aisthesis - of Grace, because it is comprehensible to us.

Divine Grace is always present in the faithful because without it no one would remain faithful. However, it appears, or rather it becomes obvious when it decides to console and enlighten the person who is worn-out, or ignorant, or in danger in his bitter trials. Divine Grace presented itself in a more obvious way, ‘as a sense’, in order to help you deny your former ways and attitudes and practice repentance which you had already started. Initially, you had been ignorant and had been questioning the mysteries of Faith and the practical ways of spiritual life. The first degree is 'renouncing the world' and 'parting from the world'. Holy grace has now receded; its obvious presence has been hidden, so that you can begin faithfully and in full obedience to God’s will to work for it by yourself as a result of your own struggle. This is the reason why Grace does not show itself so explicitly now as it did in the beginning when it beckoned you."

It is with these words that the Elder convinced devout George. Since then, not only did he never think about returning to France again, but he never ever parted with the Elder again and regarded him as a spiritual father. He used to stay with us for as long as he wanted and then he would return to the Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon - not actually inside the monastery, because he wanted to avoid the commotion - but on the “Palaiomonastero”, high on the mountains, as a designated guard. Blessed George not only kept silence, but also austere fasting. He would only eat dried bread, “paximadi” with water, unless he had to join other brothers or go to monasteries, where he would sit at the common table and eat in temperance. He also kept severe poverty and had almost nothing except the rags he wore. Even those clothes were very modest and humble. Once he stayed at the Monastery of Saint Paul, but he always preferred silence and went to places where he would live without care and quietly so that he would be able to continuously practice the Jesus Prayer.

He had apathetically endured two wounds on his body, which had always been pestering him, but he never bothered to seek any cure. When he was studying and was working at the same time in Europe, he wounded his knees in a car accident. He had taken care of the wounds at the time, but ever since his knees had remained sensitive. They had been bothering him and were open wounds when as a monk he had been standing for hours and did not seek any therapy. He would bind his legs with any rags he could find, but he was saying that they had been hurting him a lot. His predicament was also very obvious to the others.

The second wound was his tonsils. They had been so sensitive that his throat was swollen and it was difficult for him to speak. He had endured this problem without complaint and without medical care; he would only bind his neck with any rags he could find.

When he was staying at the Palaiomonastero, where the winters were bitterly cold and the temperatures several degrees below zero, he didn’t use any heating nor did he burn any wood fires even though they had been abundant. Neither did he cover himself with proper blankets, even though he could if he had wanted to. Living in such a harsh way was his rule of law and he never let go of this relentless habit till the day he died.

Once he left the Russian monastery and stayed with us in New Skete. I gave him my tiny cell for almost six months. It was situated towards the sea and above the caves. The monks at the Palaiomonastero had been looking for him since he was the guard. They probably needed him because they had also been few in numbers and had so many duties.

Once when I visited him, he told me that the monks had been insisting that he returned to the Russian monastery. Because he refused, they had been calling him “crazy”. Then I told him: "Never mind, brother Georgio, let them call you what they like, don’t be sad. Be obedient to them and you will gain merit from God”. He hugged me and his eyes filled with tears. Afterwards, he did return to the monastery and went on relentlessly in his harsh ways, eating only paximadi and tea, without any other consolation. On top of everything else, he also had his inflamed tonsils and his swollen throat to contend with. He only slept for three hours on his side, while the rest of the time he was standing up. He was steadfast in this. This is the reason why his legs were always swollen and fluid was gushing from his wounds.

This blessed man had another austere habit. He would never take Holy Communion unless he had prepared himself very well and examined his conscious exhaustively. As I have mentioned earlier, we passed by the tomb of our Elder Joseph before he left his tiny cell in New Skete to return to the Palaiomonastero. He kissed the tomb with devotion. “Had our Elder lived”, he said, “I would have always stayed with him”.

His attachment to our Elder was not just a simple acquaintance. It was a connection, a spiritual relationship which is recognized by all students who ever had teachers, or rather by all those obedient to their spiritual fathers. Some of the things which we have seen on this blessed man convinced us of this relationship. Whenever our Elder’s health was deteriorating, Father George would appear without us ever calling for him, or knowing where he was. During the last days of the life of our Elder, while we had been told to go to our cells, he had stayed with him and was holding a large carton and was trying to create some fresh air because our Elder had difficulties breathing. Therefore, he was the only one who bore witness to the last words and the passing away of our Elder. He also devotedly offered his help during the burial. He was also the first to appear from nowhere to help during the exhumation of the body, even though not even the closest to us had known of this event. He preserved our common spiritual relationship and we had loved him as our true spiritual brother. However, we had not been blessed to be present either at his burial or for the last rites. We had been upset to hear of our final separation. But we are pleased because his life ended after he had become a perfect example of a truly zealous, hard working Athonite monk, who had kept our patristic tradition as much as possible and had attested to the triumph of Orthodoxy. He is also the pride of Athos’ customs, which continuously offers witnesses to its tradition.

Indeed, he has become a brilliant case for the faithful people of his wounded and persecuted country, Serbia, to honor. He offers them the certain hope that their freedom is at hand by the grace of our Christ, our true God, his blessed Holy Mother, Mary, and our Great Saint Savva, who is the true protector of this country.

The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, Elder Joseph monk, September 1988.

Source: “Monk George, the Hermit of Mount Athos”, by Monk Moses the Athonite. Published by Mygdonia, translated from Greek by Olga Kokkinos, edited by John Sanidopoulos.

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