September 10, 2011

The Wondrous and Varied Ways of Athonite Life

Elder Nikodimos (+1867)

Father Nikodimos was born in 1807. He found no satisfaction living in the world with all its vanities, and when he was thirty-two he went to Mount Athos. After spending a short time at New Skete, he followed the advice of his spiritual father and moved to Kavsokalyvia, where he settled in a small cell and began to lead a strict life of prayer. He did not undertake any handiwork until he began to accept disciples, when it became necessary to have some means of support. Then, too, came various responsibilities attendant upon skete life, that bitterly constrain those who are engaged in mental prayer. He ate only bread, not even vegetables.

The envier of our salvation could not tolerate his rapid spiritual progress, and laid out for him various snares: there appeared to him dreadful apparitions, terrifying specters, and radiant visions. But, guided by an experienced elder, he vanquished the enemy and all his hordes.

Once the snow was piled so high around his cell that he was unable to leave it. His supply of rusks gave out and for a long time he was without food, so that he became weak with hunger. At this time a demon appeared to him in dazzling brightness, sitting on a throne, as if in the guise of the Holy Trinity, and said to him: “I am the holy trinity, bow down before me. You will be filled with grace and you will eat!” At that moment the famished elder saw before him tables laden with various dishes, whose aroma tantalized the hungry man’s sense of smell. He fell to the ground and prayed that the Lord preserve him from the derision of the enemy. He prayed for a long time, and the Lord regarded the elder’s humility and banished the demon. Only then did the elder arise when the aroma of the foods had disappeared.

Toward the end of his life, Elder Nikodimos was afflicted by five large open sores, and for three months he was racked by pain. At first he could, although with difficulty, crawl out of his cell, but later he had to lie immobile, and his disciples strained to turn him periodically from one side to the other. His disciple Nilus served the elder day and night, becoming so exhausted as to resemble a dry stick. The elder was unable even to sleep, but in spite of all he maintained a benign humor and continually thanked God, saying nothing about the excruciating pain. During this time one of the skete dwellers came and began to commend the elder for such an illness, which he desired to have himself for the sake of the cleansing of his sins and for future reward. The elder replied, “You do not know what you are saying. If you knew what kind of illness this is and what you have to endure, you would never say such a thing!”

Not long before he died, the elder had a revelation concerning the reward prepared for him and the coming of angels to take his soul. He took the hand of his disciple, Nilus, and, brimming with spiritual joy, said to him firmly, “My son, keep to the path that I have shown you and you will receive that which is now mine!” The elder was in such a state of ineffable joy that he was unable to continue speaking, and his soul flew to the Lord.

But at that very moment his disciple exclaimed sorrowfully: “Father, are you really dying?” and with these words he delayed the elder’s soul just long enough for him to answer: “Yes, I am dying!” and he closed his eyes. This was in 1867.

In instructing his disciple Nilus in the prayer of the heart, the elder told him to engage in it as continuously as possible, and not to believe in any dreams. “Even if Christ Himself should appear to you, do not believe the vision and say: ‘I do not want to see Christ in this life but rather in the life to come!’”

Remembering his elder, Nilus said sorrowfully, “There are no comparable elders left. Not long ago, after his death, I was preparing to receive the Holy Mysteries, and I was saying the preparatory rule with my eyes closed when suddenly the thought came to me: I have been struggling for so many years and I never see anything! At the next instant there appeared before my eyes an image of the icon Not-Made-by-Hands. I opened my eyes and I saw the same thing: before me there was an icon of the Saviour, surrounded by a great light. Thanks to the elder’s teachings, I understood that the vision was from the devil. I closed my eyes and continued to pray, and the vision disappeared!”

Elder Leonty (+1876)

Father Leonty was born in Ukraine. He was a year old when his mother died, and his father gave him into the care of a wealthy, childless Moldavian. At the age of twenty-two Leonty ran away from his guardian and hid away in a monastery some fifteen miles from Bucharest. After sixteen years he made his way to Mount Athos together with his friend the monk Anthony, whom he later tonsured to the great schema, thereby becoming his elder. They settled in the Moldavian skete of Lak, where Father Leonty remained until his death, thirty-five years later.

Concerning his monastic life, Elder Leonty related:

"When I first entered upon the monastic path, my elder instructed me: in addition to the first confession before tonsure concerning what I had done while living in the world, I was to reveal my thoughts daily and to practice absolute obedience. I was to regard all the brethren as angels and to serve them in obedience as God Himself. Thus the elder further instructed me how to guard the senses and the mind from harmful thoughts."

Soon he was ordained to the deaconate. His cell rule was as follows: 300 prostrations with the Jesus Prayer daily, and, in place of bows from the waist, to read the Gospels. He continued the prostrations even unto old age, even though these were superfluous for one who had attained unceasing prayer. The elder, however, while he still found strength, continued his physical acts of ascesis as well.

“One person,” he would say, “can make a thousand prostrations without feeling physically tired, while others can scarcely breathe after fifty, but these latter are equal to those who make many!”

“And here we are,” said his interlocutor, “we drink a lot, we eat a lot, we sleep a lot, and our powers are only moderate.”

“If you do not give your nature what it requires, you will become still weaker. Saint Paisios, who spoke with the Lord Himself, once saw a brother lying on the ground, weak with exhaustion after fasting only two days, and he was surprised, for he had fasted sixty days without growing weak. The Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Do not think thus: you were able to do so thanks to my Grace, but he spent his own strength and fasted with extreme effort.’ ‘And what reward will he receive?’ asked Paisios. ‘The same as you!’ said the Lord.

“Here at the skete we have those who fast two and three days, even a week at a time - they have the help of grace.

“If you desire, says Saint Anthony the Great, to test a man of repute, whether he is spiritual, revile him, humiliate him; if he endures it, he is indeed a spiritual man, but if not, he has nothing. When someone humiliates you and your love for him does not falter, you are on God’s path!”

When the elder had to leave his cell in order to take care of necessities - to the skete, or to the monastery, or elsewhere - he would make several prostrations before an icon of the Mother of God, asking that whatever should befall him, that he would endure it all without experiencing any inner disturbance. Once he came to Karyes, to a Bulgarian acquaintance, who welcomed him with love and invited him to stay in the guest quarters until he had finished his business. The elder entered with a prayer and, as was his custom, said with a bow, “Bless!” There was a monk lying there, and he suddenly threw himself at Father Leonty and began upbraiding him. The perplexed elder said only, “Yes, father, just so. You’re right!” The monk looked around for a stick, but there was nothing of the kind in the room, so he dashed outside.

Awaiting his return, the elder sighed to the Mother of God and said to himself, “Well, Leonty, show how well you have been preparing yourself.” His faith in the Mother of God did not desert him; he hoped that she would strengthen him enough that his patience would not run out before his offender had tired of beating him. The elder expected that the monk would attack him, but when he returned he threw himself at Father Leonty’s feet and began asking his forgiveness. Some Wallachian, who resembled the elder, had offended the monk, and the latter had mistakenly taken the elder for his offender. However, when he ran down in search of a stick he ran into the guest-master, who asked after Father Leonty. Only then did the monk realize his mistake. The meek elder, seeing the monk’s humility and contrition, said, “God forgives; only fulfill the short canon: make a hundred prostrations to the Mother of God.” The monk had just begun to make the prostrations when the elder, seeing the sincerity of his repentance, said, “All right, that’s enough.”

There were many such incidences. “Had I not prepared myself earlier,” said the elder, “for all kinds of humiliations and beatings, what would have happened? I would have retaliated, he would have done likewise, and we would have come to blows. One must always be prepared for everything.” Father Leonty was well read, wise, and kindly. He remedied all those who came to him for confession, and comforted them in such a way that they went away with joy.

Even before coming to Mount Athos, Father Leonid had heard about the renowned Athonite ascetic, Elder Hilarion, the Georgian, and the first thing he did when he arrived was to go, with a translator, to see him. The elder gave Father Leonid a rule for mental prayer and explained how he should conduct himself in following this path. Until this time Father Leonid had not practiced mental prayer, although he had desired it, but he did not dare to undertake it without an experienced teacher. Afterwards he always turned to Elder Hilarion for counsel, and Elder Hilarion sometimes came to him. Father Leonty became adept practitioner of mental prayer, and later trained the Moldavian, Father Antipas, in the art. (Father Antipas later moved to Russia and reposed in the monastery of Valaam.) In a noisy monastery, where there are many monks, all with different characters, it is difficult to maintain inner vigilance, but if one practices absolute obedience and frequent revelation of thoughts, this too can bring salvation.

"Whatever one is doing, wherever one goes - one should always have the Jesus Prayer. Our Saviour Himself, during his 33 years on earth, showed obedience to Joseph and to His Mother. No one saw Him laughing, but several times He was seen to weep, thereby indicating how we should go on the path to salvation. A cleansed conscience itself shows the superiority of the inner life over the external."

In the battle against the passions, the elder advised: “If you should be troubled by envy towards your brother, for example, then go search out in the writings of the holy fathers a text concerning envy and read it. Likewise with other passions: you should look up and read suitable passages. In this way a person becomes accustomed to defend himself and to withstand the passions. A person who possesses obedience and humility progresses imperceptibly in the spiritual life. If it happens that a young monk speaks about the fear of God, or about some other aspect of the path of salvation, one should listen and apply it according to one’s strength.

But if someone teaches what is contrary or doesn’t agree with the Holy Fathers, even if he should have a white beard or even if he should be an elder, as I am, do not listen to him!"

The elder advised to have a constant remembrance of death with tears. This is the way of repentance; there is no other.

Father Leonty had a strong constitution, and a firm trust in God and His Providence. He used to bring a full sack of rusks or other essential supplies from Roussico [St Panteleimon’s Monastery] or some other distant place, carrying it on his back, and would distribute most of it, and whatever was better, to the poor, the sick, and the elderly. For himself he kept only rusks and whatever else could be eaten without cooking. His disciple, Father Athanassy, rarely left the skete; Father Leonty himself took care of obtaining whatever was necessary for their sustenance. The disciple, like a little child, sat at home and ate what was already prepared, whatever the elder set before him.

Father Leonty peacefully departed to the Lord on 25 May, 1876, mourned by all his spiritual children and by all who had profited from his spiritual counsels and comfort.

The Novice James the Bulgarian and the Mysterious Elder

A certain youth, James, a Bulgarian, without asking for the counsel of any experienced spiritual father, attached himself to an elder, a Greek, who lived in the skete of Kavsokalyvia, in a cell below the main church. This particular elder was fond of the broad path of life. At the same time he was severe, obstinate, and altogether unskilled in the spiritual life, as one who did not seek it. James, however, aspired to the life of an ascetic; he wanted to pray and to fast, but the elder would not allow it.

James asked a spiritual father what he should do under such circumstances. The spiritual father said that he should be obedient even to such an elder, and he revealed to him what benefit he would receive if at the same time he guarded his mind and heeded the voice of his conscience. The disciple obeyed, but not without extreme inner constraint. He told his spiritual father about this and asked his blessing to go to another elder, but the spiritual father did not give his blessing and instructed him to obey him in all things. At the same time, he gave him a rule for prayer and fasting which he was to fulfill secretly, in a way that the elder would not notice. James obeyed. At night he prayed, during the day he labored, while practicing self-restraint and vigilance. It was difficult to keep this from the elder, who began to keep an eye on him, compelling him to eat and sleep more.

James made a habit of going every night to the main church, where he would pray before an icon of the Holy Trinity, located above the entrance. He had been doing this for a long time when, one night, as he was praying and sorrowing over the elder’s oppressive demands, he heard footsteps. Concealing himself, he observed an elder noiselessly enter the porch; he had a grey beard and long hair, and he was completely naked. On entering he stood before the doors to the church and, saying a prayer, made the sign of the cross over the doors, which proceeded to open of their own accord. The elder entered the church and, standing in the center, prayed for a long time, uttering the prayers aloud. When he had finished praying, the elder venerated the icons and came out. Again making the sign of the cross over the doors, which closed in the same way they had opened, he left the church.

James wanted to know just who this elder was and to ask him to accept him as a disciple. He left the church and began following the elder at a distance. From Kavsokalyvia they walked up the mountain until Kerasia, where the elder turned aside in the direction of the summit. When dawn cast its first rays they were already nearing the church of Panagia, and James finally decided to catch up with the elder. But just then the elder, who had been walking as though unaware of being followed, turned to James and said, “Where are you going?” James drew nearer and began asking if the elder would accept him. The elder replied, “You cannot live here. Go back to your elder and perform your obedience; this will serve for your salvation. He who has not received Divine Grace cannot live in this place. Your salvation lies with your elder. But know this; that shortly the Lord will call for you.” Continuing his way, the elder added, “There are two of us here.” And he began descending down from the “Panagia.” James related all this to his spiritual father. The latter confirmed what he had been told and instructed James how to prepare for his departure to the next world. Three weeks later James reposed.

After three years his remains were exhumed. They emitted a wondrous fragrance, and his head was full of myrrh. Many who did not know of his life were amazed, as was his elder.