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October 22, 2019

Elder Hieronymos of Simonopetra (1871-1957) - Part 1 of 3

By Alexandros Christodoulou

Childhood Years (1871-1888)

Elder Hieronymos was born in the village of Reïz-Dere in the Krini region of Asia Minor in 1871 to poor yet pious parents, Nicholas and Maria Diakogiorgis.

The village was entirely Christian and was five kilometers northeast of Alatsata [Alaçatı] and two and a half kilometers from the sea. Most of the inhabitants were farmers or vine-growers and had come originally from Crete or the Peloponnese.

At his baptism, he was given the name John. When he went to school he was a good student, surpassing the others in intelligence and maturity. As soon as he completed Primary School, the teacher sent him to the neighboring little town for a short time to work as a teacher.

The village church became the center of his life. It was here that he found what his soul was looking for: joy and God’s blessing, which were poured out upon him through the sacraments, prayers and services. He loved the services, the priests, the singers, the vigils and the chapels. He assisted the singers in the choir and the priests in the altar. He seemed to be older than he actually was because of his silence, seriousness and piety.

As a child of poor parents, he knew hardships from an early age, and later, as a monk, he would undertake these voluntarily and faithfully. We know very little about his childhood, but his mother clearly left the imprint of her love on him. It was from her that he first heard the lives of the saints, that he learned to fast, to pray and to love God. The saints were among his first friends. His family often discovered that he would go missing, but they knew they would find him in the chapels. He was cured by Saint Demetrios on two occasions: once when he had terrible pains in his legs and again when he had chicken-pox. Both times he stayed in the church of the Saint for forty days and fasted.

One evening, he heard his sister saying the Salutations to the Panagia. In the morning, she asked him if he knew the Salutations. When he said that he didn’t she told him: "Now is your chance to learn." "From the age of seven I knew the Salutations by heart," the Elder would later say.

His mother’s great faith became apparent before her death when she donned the monastic schema, which she loved since her childhood. She was renamed Melania. His brother became a monk with the name of Maximos and there were three nuns in the family, Magdalene, Melania and Kassiani, two of whom had previously been married. He also had more distant relatives who entered monasteries on the Holy Mountain or other parts of Greece.

At the age of twelve, he went to Chios with three other young boys to see the famous, discerning Elder, Saint Parthenios. The Elder was bent double and completely covered, so that the flesh on his face and hands wasn’t visible. He lived in great asceticism in a cave next to the monastery of which he was the founder. He welcomed them by name, even though it was the first time he had seen them. He told each of them the path they would follow in life, and was happy to tell John that he would become a monk.

Fr. Hieronymos later wrote: "During my teenage years, I would think about how I could please the Lord. I chose the good and God-pleasing life of the monks because it’s best suited to anyone wanting to follow the Lord with patience and devotion. He Himself says 'Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.' After receiving my father’s blessing and the best wishes of my parents, as well, of course, as the Cross of the Lord as an invincible weapon, I went to the Holy Mountain of Athos, since this this was the most suitable place and in accordance with my God-pleasing aim and decision."

His father told him: "Go and don’t come back." He said this because some would go but would then return home. He wanted his son to be serious.

Simonopetra Monastery

Elder Hieronymos as a Monk on the Holy Mountain (1888-1920)

Young John arrived on the Holy Mountain, made the sign of the cross and thanked the Panagia. Here his love for the Mother of God grew, to such an extent that, to his dying day, he would weep at saying or hearing her name. At the time when he arrived, there were more than 10,000 monks on Athos. Praising God, the seventeen-year-old John entered that holy location and passed through the gates of the Monastery of Simonopetra, in order to imitate the achievements of the saints of God. This was on 3 October 1888 and, on the 28th of the same month, his name was entered in the book of novices.

As he later wrote: "I was received by the Abbot, the venerable Elder, the late Archimandrite Neophytos, who was from Alatsata [close to John's home village], and I was received as a novice, performing regularly any task to which I was assigned."

The life he began there was one which thousands of monks had led before him: a life steeped in the remembrance of God, a mystical life with long daily services, frequent vigils and regular fasts. It consisted of the rule, duties, confession and holy communion. And in the midst of these everyday tasks, he continued where he had left off back home, rejecting anything that was superfluous. He began to study the Scriptures, the ascetic fathers and the lives of the saints, drenching the pages of the books with his tears.

One of his first duties was that of ‘konaktzis’, looking after the ‘konaki’, the house where the monastery’s representative in Karyes [the capital of the Holy Mountain] lived. He returned to the monastery after two and a half years, because of illness. For a short time he was sent to Dafni [the port of the Holy Mountain] and, for a few months to the dependencies on Lemnos as cellarer [These dependencies were vital to the monastery which sent logs from its forests and brought back wine, for which the island was famous]. His obedience to the monastery’s authorities is an indication of his humility.

After four and a half years of testing, on Palm Sunday 1893, he became a Great Schema monk, taking the name Hieronymos [Jerome] and he kept the date of June 15 in high regard, as being date of the commemoration of his patron saint. Once he was tonsured, new and greater struggles awaited him. One of the elders wrote about him: "He burnt more petrol on reading than he drank water" [petrol was used for the lamps]. He was always quiet, because he was internally vigilant. Often, when he was alone, he would shed rivers of tears. He would never go near a fire, even though it was sometimes very cold. He never gave rest to his body, but would only snatch a little sleep sitting in a chair. And no human tongue can describe his abandonment of any personal property. This monk was the support of the monastery. He would be ready with advice on the most insignificant of issues. He was entirely humble and was the pride and joy of the monastery.

Out of respect for his monastic strivings, the brotherhood increasingly turned to him. They sent him the novices to be introduced into the monastic spirit. He spoke to them with great discretion. One late elder, who was then a novice, wrote about what Elder Hieronymos told him: "Have you come here to become a monk? Have you thought about it properly? The monastic life is a little rose for those who are pure. When you finish the duties that have been assigned to you, you go to your room and sit on the stool. There you will voluntarily acquire self-reproach and you will think about the fact that there is no other person for you, only our Lord Jesus Christ, who took away the sins of the whole human race. Then you will begin the invisible warfare. When you say the sweet name of the Lord Christ, protect all the parts of your senses, which are glorifying God, lest a devil from the right should enter and separate you from the Lord’s love through familiarity or pride."

The young monk Hieronymos became the monastery’s secretary, a duty he retained as Abbot. They then appointed him to the difficult task of overseeing all the external affairs of the monastery. He was obliged to leave the Holy Mountain regularly, meet with a variety of people and bring his affairs to a satisfactory conclusion. Early on he was appointed to responsible and difficult tasks involving visits to the monastery’s dependencies. Without reservation, with exemplary obedience, he rose to the challenge of the demands of the monastery’s overseers and spent long periods outside the monastery. He was involved in financial and administrative matters, but never for a moment lost the sense of his monastic calling or the need for inner communication with God.

His courtesy, perfect obedience and respect for the monastery and its overseers continued throughout his long life. His great progress in the monastery, the felicitous conclusion of all the tasks assigned to him and, particularly, his modesty, gentleness and virtue in general made him, on the one hand, well-liked and respected, but on the other, as is often the case, also made him the object of jealousy, envy and pettiness. His answer was always silence and forbearance.

At the monastery they would see his lamp burning all evening long. The older monks used to say they never saw him lying down. Whatever time you went to see him, you would find him on his feet or sitting. He slept in his chair. Too much sleep reduces our love for God. In the morning you would see him at the service, in his prayer-stall, or singing, reading and directing the service. One elder recalls: "He would check up on us. I would go to the stalls at the back, so that he wouldn’t see me, because I was ashamed of myself." And he was very strict with his fasting. He never ate anything except at the appointed meal-times. Whenever he was at the monastery, he never missed a service. Nor did he eat all his ration in the refectory. Usually he would do the reading during the meal and then eat afterwards, so as to hide what he was doing. According to Papa-Euthymios, whenever he returned from outside the Mountain, he would go for days without oil, in order to make up for any infringement of the fasting rules. His spiritual struggles were many and varied, but he kept them to himself.

On his return from his travels, he didn’t stop working. He would write in the secretary’s office and in his cell, organize the library and archives, and study. He served in church and took part in common tasks. No duty was beneath him, which is why God elevated him.

In 1910, he was in Athens for about six months, as steward at the Dependency of the Ascension (Analipsis). In his correspondence with the monastery, he tried to persuade the brotherhood not to sell the dependency. His forecast of a future recovery for the monastery was soon borne out. It was here that he first became acquainted with the congregation at the church and this relationship would later blossom and bear fruit.

In 1911, on his return to the Holy Mountain, he survived a shipwreck, attributing his escape to divine providence.

He found great support in the relationship he developed with the saints of the Church. We’ve already seen his relationship with Saint Demetrios and the cure effected by the latter for him. But he also had special affection for Saint John the Theologian. He had a hernia from an early age, which he took care of himself, though it wasn’t at all easy for him. He later wrote: "I was cured quite painlessly, without medication or an operation." His cure came at the vigil for the feast of Saint John on the 26th of September. "I had made the sign of the Cross and called upon the Saint, then went to the choir stall to start singing 'Lord, I have cried.' Just then I felt the hernia disappear, and it hasn’t bothered me since. I was cured miraculously, by the invocation of the Theologian, whose wonderworking grace and help I gladly confess, praising God who is wondrous in His saints. My cure was effected in 1897." The Saint also visited him at another vigil and freed him of intense impure thoughts. Thereafter he was never again afflicted by this passion and such thoughts.

His love for the saints was so great that it pleased God that he should meet the most ascetic Saint Parthenios of Chios shortly before the latter’s demise. He was connected, in personal friendship, with Saint Nektarios, Saint Savvas the New of Kalymnos, and Saint Nicholas Planas.

This intense love of his for the saints found poetic expression through the gift he had from God of singing and writing hymns. So it was that, immediately after his tonsure, in 1893, at the age of 22, he wrote eight canons, one in each tone, to ‘Our Holy and God-bearing Father Simon, from whose relics myrrh flows,’ as substitutes for those lost in the fire of 1891. In 1896, he composed a supplicatory canon to the monastery’s saints, Simon of the Rock [from whom the monastery takes its name] and Mary Magdalene [her left arm is kept at the monastery]. These he published in 1924, together with musical settings for their services and the eight canons he had composed to Saint Simon.

In 1902, he wrote and set to music a service for Saint Ephraim the Syrian and supplied other missing material, such as services for Saints Neophytos and Ioannikios, after whom his own elders were named, Saint Sophronios, the 99 Saints in Crete, Saint Jerome, and Saint Mary Magdalene. His hymn-writing activities continued with a supplicatory canon to Saint Anthony the Great, Salutations to Saints Menas, Victor and Vikentios, Paul the Patriarch of Constantinople, and Sergius and Bacchus. He made additions to the services of other saints whose holy relics are kept at Simonopetra, and wrote verses of prayer and entreaty to the Lord, the Panagia and various saints. Many of these works remain unknown or are inaccessible. His main contribution, however, was his constant, heart-felt participation in the daily services and his unceasing prayer.

In February 1914, despite his objections, he was honored by being voted Overseer and a member of the Committee of Elders. In all his labours and travels, he never forgot his monastic duties. On the road, on a ship, on a train, he had his prayer rope.

He was the attendant of Abbot Ioannikios during the latter’s serious illness. On 7 December 1919, he closed the eyes of his second Elder, whose last wish was that his beloved and worthy spiritual child, Fr. Hieronymos, should take over the position of Abbot. It’s worth pointing out that never in his life did he seek, much less strive for, anything. He was always patient and refused every honor and distinction. For years he was asked to agree to ordination, but wouldn’t consent.