November 16, 2013

Saint Paisius Velichkovsky: A Great Hesychast Father (2 of 8)

Continued from part one...

1. His Path To Monasticism

His baptismal name was Peter and he was born in Poltava of Ukraine, or Little Russia as Ukraine was once called, in the year 1722. He was left fatherless at the age of four. At the age of ten he would read the Old and New Testaments, the book Pearls of the Divine Chrysostom, the venerable Ephraim the Syrian, Abba Dorotheos and other books. By reading these the love for monasticism was born within him.

While studying in Kiev he showed more zeal about spiritual matters than the scholastic studies they were teaching then in the Ecclesiastical School. He himself describes a typical dialogue he had with his Scholarch that shows his early zeal for the patristic hesychastic tradition. He would visit the Kiev Caves Lavra and, inspired by the monastic life and the asceticism of the monks, there grew within him a love for monasticism and the desert life.

Reading his narrative one observes his great zeal for the hesychastic monasticism he developed since adolescence. There are some phrases that he uses in his autobiography that show his love for monasticism as well as hesychastic monasticism that captured his soul. He recounts:

"The love for monasticism prevailed in my soul, and I no longer felt pushed to attend my studies; rather, I was compelled to renounce the world, and as quickly as possible to become a monk." 

"I came in the evenings, and not knowing anyone there I was a stranger, and I would spend the night in some cave nearest to the church, or in the large monastery near the bell tower, where I stayed until they called us for the Rule." 

"I would bless thrice-blessed quietude." 

"There burned into my soul such a desire for one thing that was impossible, so that, if possible, I would not want in any way to leave those sacred caves, and by staying there, I would complete my life within them. Seeing that this was impossible, I would leave those sacred caves with sorrows and sighs."

With peers in the School that had the same desire, they promised: "Let us sojourn from our homeland to a deserted and quiet place, and once we find an experienced guide for our souls, we will give ourselves over to him in obedience, and when the time is right we will take from him the monastic tonsure." They decided to live "until our dying breath in monastic poverty" "in distress".

He looked for ascetics, hermits and fathers and was benefited by their presence and words. "I, standing near to them, heard words beneficial to the soul, and they seemed to be words of eternal life."

To accomplish his great desire to become a monk as a foreigner in quietude and distress, he abandoned his studies in Kiev, and at the same time separated from his mother in a moving and emotionally charged atmosphere. His zeal for the monastic life was amazing, as well as his strong will for the fulfillment of his desire.

One would be amazed to read of his tribulations in searching for a suitable place, in visiting the various monastic centers and in meeting hermits whom he wanted to be under obedience for his salvation. A typical example is the hermit Hesychius. He passed through rivers, forests and borders with much difficulty, and unimaginable and indescribable suffering.

When he enlisted in a Monastery as a novice monk, the Abbot suggested he wear, if he so wished, some monastic clothes. He recounts: "I prostrated before him and taking his blessing I went to my cell, took off my secular clothes, and with such great joy I dressed in the clothes given to me by the Abbot, that I kissed his hands many times as if they were something sacred. I continued to wear them until they melted on me, and I thanked God, that instead of the secular clothes I wore up to this point, I was made worthy for that which was needed, the monastic."

In his search for a suitable spot he reached the Sacred Monastery of Saint Nicholas, along the Traisteni River, also called Medvedovski, where he received the Small Monastic Schema and took the name Plato. Due to the persecution that broke out against the Monastery, however, after officials in the region pressured them to join the Unia, he was forced to return to the Kiev Caves Lavra.

Situated there his soul was benefited from the presence of great ascetic Fathers, who were distinguished for their asceticism and virtue. He related to a certain monk: "And only by seeing him would my wretched soul receive benefit." Referring to great ascetics, he wrote: "Seeing these things and thinking about them, I was entirely inflamed with love for this holy place and I thanked God with all my soul, because He made me, the worthless one, worthy to be found in such a holy Lavra."

These ascetics, however, did not usually accept to guide others, though he sought for a spiritual guide for his spiritual life. So he sought this spiritual guide in Moldova, passing through various places in snow that reached up to his knees, facing unexpected difficulties when passing over the borders with fellow travelers. Along the way he met many good ascetics who lived in deep and great asceticism. He writes somewhere: "The monks would gather with the elder in the same place and conversed until midnight. I, the least, sat among them, and carefully listening to what was said, I rejoiced with unspeakable joy and glorified God with tears, because He made me worthy in my youth to hear from the mouth of such a spiritual man similar words full of great benefit, which for all my life were a guide."

At Carnul Skete he met ascetics, hermits and fathers who lived the hesychastic tradition. There Saint Paisius was taught "what is work and theoria and true noetic quietude. There, not only did he learn watchfulness (nipsis) and caution which takes place in the heart through the nous and noetic prayer, but he also enjoyed in his heart the divine energy which moves from it."

Divine Providence, however, wanted the venerable Paisius on Mount Athos "in order to augment the treasure and give abundantly to all who sought benefit from spiritual teaching." There he sought "an experienced spiritual father, who lived in quietude, to give both his body and soul over to in obedience, that he may learn from him the spiritual way of life."

He arrived at Great Lavra, celebrated with the Fathers the feast of the venerable Athanasios, and from there went to the Skete of Pantokrator Monastery. He settled in a hut and sought a suitable spiritual guide. He lived in great asceticism, repentance, abstinence, absolute landlessness, poverty and hardship, and even in bed he had pain of heart, unceasing prayer, love for God and neighbor, the memory of death, psalmody, the reading of Holy Scripture, and continuous tears because he could not find a hesychastic Spiritual Father to be under his obedience. By doing such asceticism "he went from one spiritual power to another, making the ascent of his heart a reality. In this way, inflamed with divine zeal for great feats, he enjoyed the quietude for two and a half years."

During this time he received the Great Angelic Schema around the year 1750. He was then twenty-eight years old and renamed from Plato to Paisius. And not having a proper spiritual guide, he followed the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church as he read in their writings.

Thus, his zeal for the monastic life, which developed in him from a young age, was satisfied with the gift of the Great Angelic Schema, and his love for sacred quietude and the monastic life.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.