March 16, 2012

Autobiography of St. Christodoulos of Patmos

From "The Rule" of St. Christodoulos:

Inasmuch as I, being but a man, have been maintained in this present life, by God’s dispensation, a sufficient time and, being far advanced in age, have nothing more to look for, to quote Gregory the great Theologian, but my departure hence, I have deemed it incumbent on me to set down in writing for my pious companions the rules that will, I believe, help them to be perfectly and salvifically pleasing to God, an ordinance for my very dear brothers and children in the Lord, in order that, taking it as a rule and a pointer, and governing their conduct by its precepts, their life may run smoothly (may God hear my words!) in peace, with good conscience, guarded by the grace of the Life-giving and All-holy Trinity, three persons of one nature.

But, O holy community (for here I turn and my words are addressed to you!), elect flock, chosen people,  godly concourse, my blessed children in the Lord, come, hear that which I shall expound to you: “Come, listen to me, I will teach you fear of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 65 [66]:16). For I shall use, when opportune, the words of the sacred psalmist David — “Incline your ears to the words of my mouth” (cf. Ps. 77 [78]:1–2) — let Solomon’s voice mingle with David’s, the son and the father together sing to me, a father addressing my sons: “Hearken to me, for I will speak noble truths and will produce right sayings from my lips” (cf. Prov. 8:6).

At this point it seems to me right and necessary to begin with some personal information, and speak of it at acceptable length, then dealing summarily with essentials of a more practical kind. Indeed, even in Holy Writ we often observe that no reproach attaches to words that have a measure of partiality, or accounts that tend to redound to the praise of the speaker. No one attacked them for talking about themselves, nor was this considered a sin, so long as it was in order to expound and clarify something formerly obscure, and not from some other, merely human motive. Considering this, neither do I, a humble old man, think it reprehensible to take up my history, beginning at the beginning and continuing to the end, and place before you the course taken by my life in this vain world (for this seems to me useful for salvation!), after that laying injunction upon you, that you may be saved in the Lord, observing obedience.

I come from the East. From an early age I was tossed to and fro by conflicting thoughts and, still a small child, I thought of leaving home, parents, and family, and fleeing to refuge with Christ, our true God and Savior. This is exactly what I did — going to a flock of monks to whom I surrendered myself, and finding a teacher and educator in the superior of this holy band. But it was God, and he alone, who, through his ineffable mercy, opened my eyes, at that early, unformed and malleable age, well before my reasoning powers were firm. This was indeed worthy of his great works, for, of old, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings he perfected praise” (cf. Ps.8:2), and “The manifestation of his word enlightens and instructs the simple” (cf. Ps. 118 [119]:130) as David divinely and prophetically sings.

But desire for a more complete isolation possessed me and drove me from place to place. To Palestine I went, desiring to venerate the holy steps of our Lord, but most of all to “flee like a sparrow” (cf. Ps. 10 [11]:3; 54 [55]:7), choosing, like those of old, “to lodge in the wilderness.”(Ps. 54 [55]: 7) So, after worshiping at the holy places to my fill, conversing with none but the luminaries and fathers there — and bearing fruit, though I, perhaps, should not say so, through imitation of their life — I presently moved to the most desolate parts of the country (Palestine, that is) settling there for some time.

But then the Saracen swarm made this impossible. They appeared in all regions of Palestine, and spread like a monstrous hailstorm, with a baneful rattling and gibbering, destroying and annihilating the whole Christian society. As I did not wish to fall into [the sin of] self-will (but for this I would not have been seen clinging to life!) I removed from thence, expelled, as it were, and driven out by the barbarian phalanx, and came to a peaceful mountain in a pleasant site in Asia [Minor], called Latros locally, led there by its ancient reputation, for those blessed fathers who once lived on Raithou and Sinai (if not all of them, at any rate the majority) are said to have moved there because of the continual raids of the savage Blemmyes, except those who suffered martyrdom on the spot.

So, because of my love for these saints, my will too inclined to this mountain, settling me there, with my goal before me. I entered the lists, and perhaps the community I founded there [might be called] spiritual, at least by human standards. The hand of the Lord with us advanced our stay on that mountain to good fame. We practiced asceticism but not as solitaries. Here, two or three gathered in the name of the Lord; there, a slightly larger number settled in one place, choosing the cenobitic life.

Elsewhere, a considerable body could be seen, at once separate and together, maintaining, I may say, a lavra, in the ancient tradition of the fathers: together each Sunday, to perform the liturgy and exchange edifying conversation, thereafter returning to their cells, to devote the six days of the week to solitary contemplation with psalm-singing and handiwork. We were all things to each other, sharpening one another’s resolve to the unadulterated labor of virtue.

The triumphs of cenobitic discipline among those subject to its rule showed abundant and overflowing, unadulterated, undebased. O, how should I remember it without tears! Never a coarse word was heard from those who were with us on Latros. Never was there any disreputable cohabitation. No sign of strife or hatred or envy. Not one of those who lived there in the monastery kept anything earthly to himself, private or secret, but all was dignity, freedom from worldly cares, poverty, virtue, saintliness and the crowning virtue of all, humility.

But O! My ill luck! Upon Asia Minor too and all Ionia falls now the saber of the Lord, slashing without rest or cease, refusing to return to the scabbard. Against these lands too is loosed the glittering sword, the bow drawn, with those deadly weapons, his arrows drunk with the blood of the wounded and of the captives. Here too is lit the fire kindled by the wrath of the Lord, that devoured the land of the Romans and set on fire the foundations of the mountains, in the prophetic words, the revelations made by the Lord through Jeremiah and David and Moses, against Israel when it transgressed.

What do I mean by “saber,” “bow,” “drunken arrows,” and “kindled fire”? The right arm of the Persians, the ferocity of the Turks, that wiped out the whole of the east and devastated it cruelly. That lawless nation, destroyer of towns and countryside alike, attacked that land too, bringing the same destruction upon its inhabitants. Because the multitude of our sins daily increased the successes of the Agarenes, they did not leave us untroubled in that mountain either, where we had taken refuge. For there was not a hole hidden from the godless.

So from this place too I was driven by fear, migrating for the second time, with little regard, I must admit, even for pastoral ordination — which I had not received willingly. How could we have been so bold as of ourselves to have assumed so great a burden? On the contrary, most reluctantly did I shoulder it [yet], making myself responsible, perhaps, in the legal sense, as a guardian, since that mountain of Latros was entrusted to me by his holiness the Patriarch, and I bore the title of protos on it. Well, perhaps I should have faced death there, if the law is to be interpreted rigorously. But human frailty, ever turning to the Lord’s mercy and emboldened thereby, made me confident I was doing no wrong in moving once more because of the great vexation caused by the aforesaid enemies.

So I came in due course to Strobilos, a city on the sea shore. I wished, in a way, to avoid the cruelty of the barbarians, and had with me, too, some of the brothers, who felt that expatriating themselves with me was the answer to their prayer, and what a man could most reasonably wish to do. Well, but God’s grace was not yet pleased to let us be and grant us rest. After all we had been through, not even there did we find peace. The same fear continued to dog us.

There, however, we fell in with a pious man of distinguished birth (for he was of native stock, well born, and all looked up to him); he was godly in his ways, moderate in his opinions, imposing in his person, decorous in character, and a monk. His name was Arsenios, his surname Skenourios. He devoted himself entirely to looking after us. No stranger to us before, he was now bound even closer in the spiritual bonds of affection. He began by offering me his own monastery at Strobilos, but, seeing he could not keep me there, I was sick of the East for good, what with continually being on the move out of fear of the enemy (at Strobilos too a Persian attack was expected any moment!); he begged me to cross over to the island of Kos, go round it, inspect his patrimonial lands there, and found a monastery on them wherever I chose. To it he would consecrate the whole property.

I obey and make haste to visit Kos. I go round Skenourios’ properties, come upon an extensive ridge with no habitation, in a well-exposed site, well-watered besides, and temperate. This hill was called Pelion by the islanders. So, seeing it ringed in and cut off from the surrounding country, and isolated by a ring of ravines and natural gullies (one might think it a fortress!), I was straightway delighted with the site and eager to build a monastery there, for I thought to stay my wanderings in that hill and at last taste peace, until I should bequeath my clay to that same Pelion. But God, apparently, did not approve my plan.

For there again, though I endured on Pelion labors too great to relate, in the end I failed of my aim. God had decided that on Patmos I should find my fate and my grave. However, acceding to the suggestions and appeals of the said brother Arsenios (I shall make room in the relation of my affairs for a short account of my stay on Pelion) I threw myself into the building program. He began by promising to help us and work beside us with all his might, but before long, at the very outset of work, he made up his mind to flee, slipped away by night, and sailed for Jerusalem without a backward glance.

As a result, a maximum was demanded of me. With pain and sweat, in those difficult times, amid a general shortage of necessaries, but with help from on high, I erected from the foundations and brought to completion a quite beautiful, a most elegant church, founding it in the name of the most holy Mother of God. I made a circuit-wall and cells and everything else that characterizes a self-supporting and completely equipped monastery. Delighted with its appearance and reckoning it, quite simply, as a “factory of virtue," the pious and Christ-loving inhabitants of the aforesaid island, each according to his means and inclination, made offerings consisting not only of movables, but of immovables also. For all of them, viz. Skenourios’ little properties and those that accrued to us from offerings, we procured a chrysobull from the then holder of the Romaic scepter, the Lord Nikephoros [III] Botaneiates [(1078–81)], to confirm and establish our possession.

So then for a little I thought we should have peace. But the land all round us was occupied. Next to those given us, and bordering on them, were properties belonging to the inhabitants of the island, and all this was a source of trouble for the brothers with me. They quarreled, differences arose with the neighbors, till the supervening distress for me was indistinguishable from the confusion of a city. Consequently I was in fear, and not, as the proverb has it “Where no fear was”; no indeed! With my brethren involved, from utter necessity, I may say crawling in the promiscuity and confusion, the ferment of worldly concerns, mingling with worldly men, engaged in barter and also, as is generally the case, in disputes, what if it should happen that one of them, besieged by the ambushes of the Evil One, should fall, alas!, a prey to his snares, and then his soul be required of my wretched self, a soul that the whole world, in Christ’s sacred words, is not worthy to purchase? (cf. Matt. 16:26)

This was the fear, the terror that gripped my heart of hearts, that shattered my bones, that drained my marrow, that tore my sinews apart, that divided my flesh, while unceasingly I chanted within myself: “Flee,” poor wretch, “like a sparrow” (Ps. 10 [11]:2) to places wholly uninhabited and deserted, for it is out of the question, utterly out of the question for you to achieve peace and quiet until you find a place whence any inmixtion of worldly men is completely excluded, a tabernacle of peace for yourself and those with you, an habitation devoted to the utmost to the work of salvation.

Being so minded, I discovered that the brothers’ choice in this matter was in harmony with mine. They had discussed it already and suggested an island to the east of the Icarian sea, far removed from the mainland and the prestigious islands (this little island is called Patmos), as being the uttermost wilderness, unknown to man, a place where life flows untroubled, whose harbor is inaccessible to regular shipping. In short, desire for this island completely took possession of me, a desire made more acute because here had dwelt the Apostle that Christ loved, [St.John] the virgin Evangelist. Here he had his famous vision, his all-blessed ecstasy and change, here his exalted and heavenly initiation into theology. Here the Gospel was dictated in the thunder of God’s voice. Taking all this into consideration, when I compare Patmos to Sinai, I set the former as far above the latter, and account it first, as I set grace above the shadow, truth above appearances, the spirit above the letter and the Gospel above the Law of the Tablets.

So, invoking the aid and influence of heaven, I addressed myself to our pious and God-governed monarch, pre-eminent among emperors, the lord Alexios [I Komnenos (1081–1118)]. I am introduced into his presence, he deigns to give me a kind reception. I have speech with his divine Majesty immediately. I acquaint him with what is in my mind, relate my aim, reveal my desire, plead fervently to be given the island of Patmos, beg to have it as an imperial gift, free of all obligations.

But the most powerful emperor, while on the one hand freely and royally extending to us his personal good will, yet begged our miserable self (all but inclining that crowned head to us!) not to persist in our aim, but to accept the government of a mountain called Kellia and Zagora (for it had been given to monks of old). Perhaps I would have yielded to the insistence of his imperial majesty, if I had not found the monks settled on this mountain far from what I hoped in their habits, little to my mind and nothing to my purpose, unsuited to the solitary life (I do not wish to sound tiresome!) for they were entirely lacking in exact instruction. When it became clear, even to the emperor, that these monks were completely unacceptable for my purpose, I again begged and beseeched his imperial majesty to accede to my wish concerning Patmos. This time, with the empress of blessed memory, the emperor’s mother, also interceding for me and urging this course, the most powerful emperor granted the request of our miserable self.

Finally, to make a long story short, I renounced in favor of the fisc all my possessions received from Skenourios and others, on Kos and at Strobilos, retaining only the two estates on the island of Leros given me in full possession by this oft-mentioned Skenourios and by Kaballourios. In exchange I received by imperial chrysobull the whole island of Patmos, forfeited by the fisc for good, as well as the neighboring islets of Narkioi and Leipso, as also the two estates of Leros which I owned before, as already mentioned, viz. Parthenion and Temenion.


Read also: Saint Christodoulos Latrinos of Patmos