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February 14, 2017

Saint Isaac the Recluse and Fool for Christ of the Kiev Caves (+ 1090)

St. Isaac the Recluse of the Kiev Caves Lavra (Feast Day - February 14)

Saint Isaac was the first person in northern lands to live as a fool for Christ. He died in the year 1090. His relics rest in the Kiev Caves of Saint Anthony, and part of them were transferred to Toropets by the abbot of Kudin Monastery in the year 1711. The Life of the Blessed Isaac was recorded by Saint Nestor in the Chronicles (under the year 1074). The account in the Kiev Caves Paterikon differs somewhat from that of Saint Nestor. Below is the account of Saint Nestor.

By St. Nestor the Chronicler

There was also another monk named Isaac. While still in the world, he was very rich, since in the secular life he was by birth a merchant of Toropets. But he resolved to become a monk, and distributed his fortune to the needy and to the monasteries. He then approached the great Anthony in the crypt, and besought him to receive him into the order. Anthony accepted him, and put upon him the monastic habit, calling him Isaac, for his secular name was Chern. Isaac adopted an ascetic mode of life. He wrapped himself in a hair-shirt, then caused a goat to be brought, flayed it, and put on the skin over his hair-shirt, so that the flesh hide dried upon him. He shut himself up in a lonely gallery of the crypt in a narrow cell only four ells across, and there lamented and prayed to God. His sustenance was one prosphoron, and that only once a day, and he drank but moderately of water. The great Anthony carried it to him, and passed it in to him by a little window through which he inserted his arm. Thus Isaac received his food. He subsisted thus for seven years without seeing the light of day or even lying down upon his side, for he snatched what sleep he could in a sitting posture.

Once, when evening had fallen, he had knelt till midnight singing psalms, as was his custom, and when he was wearied, he sat down upon his stool. As he sat there, and had as usual extinguished his candle, a light suddenly blazed forth in the crypt as if it shone from the sun, and strong enough to take away man's vision. Two fair youths then approached him. Their faces were radiant like the sun, and they said to him, "Isaac, we are angels. Christ is drawing near to you. Fall down and worship him." He did not understand their devilish artifice nor remember to cross himself, but knelt before the work of the demons as if to Christ himself. The demons then cried out and said, "Now, Isaac, you belong to us." They led him back into his cell and set him down. They then seated themselves around him, and both the cell and the aisle of the crypt was filled with them. One of the devils, who called himself Christ, bade them take flutes and lyres and lutes and play, so that Isaac could dance before them. So they struck up with flutes, lutes, and lyres, and began to make sport of him. After they had tormented him, they left him half alive, and went away when they had beaten him.

The next day at dawn, when it was time to break bread, Anthony came to the window according to his custom and said, "May the Lord bless you, Father Isaac." But there was no answer. Then Aritonius said, "He has already passed away," so he sent into the monastery in search of Theodosius and the brethren. After digging out the entrance where it had been walled up, they entered and lifted him up, thinking him dead, and carried him out in front of the crypt. They then perceived that he was still alive, and Theodosius the prior said, "This comes from the devil's artifice." They laid him upon a bier, and Anthony cared for him.

About this same time it happened that Izyaslav returned from Poland, and was angry with Anthony on account of Vseslav, so that Svyatoslav caused Anthony to escape by night to Chernigov. When Anthony arrived there, he was attracted by the Boldiny hills, and after digging another crypt, he settled there. At that spot in the Boldiny hills, there is a monastery dedicated to the Virgin even to this day. When Theodosius learned that Anthony had fled to Chernigov, he came with his brethren, took Isaac, and bore him to his own cell, where he cared for him. For Isaac was so weakened in body that he could not turn from one side to the other, nor rise up, nor sit down, but he lay always upon one side, and relieved himself as he lay, so that numerous worms were caused under his back by his excrement. Theodosius washed and dressed him with his own hands, and for two years cared for him thus. It is wondrous and strange that he lay thus for two years, tasting neither bread nor water nor any other food nor fruit, nor did he speak with his tongue, but lay deaf and dumb for the whole two years.

Theodosius prayed to God in his behalf, and offered supplications over him by day and by night, until in the third year he spoke and heard, rose upon his feet like a babe, and began to walk. He would not go faithfully to church, but the brethren carried him there by force; they also taught him to go to the refectory, but seated him apart from the rest of the brethren. They set bread before him, but he would not take it unless they placed it in his hand. Theodosius then said, "Leave the bread before him, but do not put it in his hand, so that he can eat of his own volition." For a week he ate nothing, but gradually he became aware of the bread and tasted it. Thus he began to eat, and by this means Theodosius freed him from the craft of the devil.

Isaac then assumed severe abstinence. When Theodosius was dead and Stephen was prior in his stead, Isaac said, "Demon, you deceived me once when I sat in a lonely spot. I must not confine myself in the crypt, but must vanquish you while I frequent the monastery." He then clad himself in a hair-shirt, and put on over this a sackcloth coat, and began to act strangely. He undertook to help the cooks in the preparation of food for the brotherhood. He went to matins earlier than the others, and stood firm and immovable. When winter came with its heavy frosts, he stood in shoes so worn that his feet froze to the pavement, but he would not move his feet till matins were over. After matins, he went to the kitchen, and made ready the fire, the water, and the wood before the other cooks came from the brotherhood.

There was one cook who was also named Isaac, who mocked at Isaac and said, "There sits a black crow; go and catch it." Isaac bowed to the ground before him, then went and caught the crow, and brought it back to him in the presence of all the cooks. They were frightened and reported it to the prior and the brotherhood, who began to respect him. But not being desirous of human glory, he began to act strangely, and to play tricks, now on the prior, now on the brethren, and now on laymen, so that the others dealt him blows. Then he began to wander through the country, acting like a fool. He settled in the crypt where he had formerly lived, for Anthony was already dead. He gathered young men about him and laid upon them the monastic habit, so that he suffered blows from the Prior Nikon as well as from the parents of these youths. But he suffered these hardships, and willingly endured blows and nakedness and cold by day and by night.

One night he lit the stove in a cabin by the crypt. When the stove was heated, fire began to issue forth from the crevices, for it was old and cracked. Since he had nothing to put over the stove, he braced his bare feet against the flame till the stove burned out, and then left it. Many other stories were told about him, and I myself witnessed some such occurrences.

Thus he won his victory over the demons, holding their terrors and apparitions of as little account as flies. For he said to them, "You did indeed deceive me the first time in the crypt, since I did not perceive your craft and cunning. But now that I have on my side the Lord Jesus Christ and my God and the prayers of my father Theodosius, I hope to vanquish you." Many times the demons harassed him, and said, "You belong to us, for you have worshiped us and our leader." But he replied, "Your chief is Antichrist and you are demons," and signed his countenance with the Cross. At this they disappeared. Sometimes, however, they came upon him again by night, and frightened him in his dreams, appearing like a great company with mattocks and spades, and saying, "We will undermine the crypt, and bury this man within it," while others exclaimed, "Fly, Isaac, they intend to bury you alive." But he made answer, "If you were men, you would have come by day; but you are darkness and come in darkness, and the darkness shall swallow you up." Then he made the sign of the Cross against them, and they vanished.

On other occasions, they endeavored to terrify him in the form of a bear, sometimes as a wild beast and sometimes as a bull. Now snakes beset him, and now toads, mice, and every other reptile. But they could not harm him, and said to him, "Isaac, you have vanquished us!" He replied, "You conquered me in the image of Jesus Christ and his angels, of whose sight you are unworthy. But now you rightly appear in the guise of beasts and cattle or as the snakes and reptiles that you are, repulsive and evil to behold." Thereupon the demons left him, and he suffered no more evil at their hands. As he himself related, his struggle against them lasted for three years. Then he began to live still more strictly, and to practice abstinence, fasting, and vigil.

After thus living out his life, he finally came to his end. He fell sick in his crypt, and was carried in his illness to the monastery, where he died in the Lord upon the eighth day. The Prior John and the brethren clothed his body and buried him.