June 8, 2021

Holy Venerable Martyrs Theophanes the Elder and Paisios of Messolonghi (+ 1773) - Two Kollyvades Fathers from the Skete of Saint Anna on Mount Athos

Sts. Theophanes and Paisos the Kollyvades (Feast Day - June 8)

Saint Paisios was born in Messolonghi in the early 18th century. We do not have much information about his early years, but at some point he left the world and went to Mount Athos to become a monk, settling at the Skete of Saint Anna. There he lived in asceticism in the Hut of the Prophet Elias under the guidance of Saint Theophanes the Elder. Elder Theophanes was illiterate, but he had a calm and sweet character with a virtuous soul, whereas Paisios was educated and worked as a calligrapher in his hut, copying the works of the Holy Fathers, and having the entire Psalter memorized.

In the year 1754 the main church of the Skete of Saint Anna was demolished and a new one was going to be built that was much larger. The monks of the Skete went throughout the Ottoman Empire in search of donations to accomplish their task, to which they promised their donors in return to memorialize their names and their deceased loved ones at their vigils. The number of names reached over 12,000, and memorials at vigils at that time was traditionally done on Saturdays. However, on Saturdays some monks were occupied with building the church, while others were at Karyes selling their handiwork which was usually done on Saturday by all the monks of Mount Athos. For these reasons, it was the request of the monks to hold these memorial vigils on Sunday instead of Saturday, breaking ecclesiastical tradition. Many monks protested such a move, since Sunday as a day of Resurrection and joy is unfit for memorials, while Saturday is designated as a day of mourning and praying for the dead. Thus in 1755 the Kollyvades controversy began.

By 1773 the Kollyvades controversy had escalated at Mount Athos, to the point where there was open hostility against the monks who sought to preserve the ecclesiastical traditions, and they were slandered against by their fellow monks. Among the Kollyvades Fathers was Theophanes and Paisios. The Ecumenical Patriarch intervened by trying to restore peace at Mount Athos, but it failed. There was such hatred for the Kollyvades monks that some of the anti-Kollyvades monks sought to murder them. Thus anti-Kollyvades monks, specifically those of the Skete of Saint Anna and New Skete, hired a bandit named Markos, who was the captain of a ship performing robberies for the Russian state, to murder Saints Theophanes and Paisios by drowning them at the beach of New Skete, during the vigil of the Sunday of All Saints in 1773.

By hiring a thief for seven hundred silver coins to do their dirty work, the anti-Kollyvades monks were trying to avoid having blood on their hands and their monastic schemas. These monks had convinced Markos to murder the two monks by telling him that they were sent as Masonic spies and were not in fact monks, and they told him how they had prayed about the matter and God sent him to them to exterminate the disguised monks and thus restore order to Mount Athos. In fact, he was charged to murder four Kollyvades monks - Theophanes, Paisios, Agapios and Gabriel. Markos, thinking that this was God's will, asked for a guide to lead them to the right hut, and Monk Timothy was chosen and he reluctantly accepted. When the bandit arrived at the hut, he made it look like a robbery, and asked Theophanes for all his money and food, to which he obliged. Nonetheless, he took both Theophanes and Paisios captive on his boat. Agapios and Gabriel were not taken captive because the hut of Agapios could not be located and Gabriel was not in his hut at the time.

Just as the Divine Liturgy for the Sunday of All Saints was ending, they saw Markos taking Theophanes and Paisios to the beach to kill them. The two monks were severely beaten and weakened, but the monks showed no sympathy for them. Ropes with heavy stones were hung around the necks of the two monks, and they were cast into the sea, where they drowned to death. Saint Athanasios of Paros, who informs us about their martyrdom, noted that before they were cast into the sea the two monks prayed for the world and asked God to forgive their murderers.

In this way our Venerable Fathers Theophanes and Paisios were martyred by their fellow monks, who preferred Memorials to be done on Sunday rather than on Saturday, as ecclesiastical tradition has dictated for centuries.

Saint Athanasios of Paros informs us what happened following the martyrdom of the two monks. He says that news reached Karyes and the Protos, Nazir, along with the other Elders of the monasteries, composed a letter to Markos the captain asking him why he murdered two monks known for their virtue and holiness. When Captain Markos received the letter, he realized he was deceived by the monks of Saint Anna. In a rage he therefore went to the Skete of Saint Anna while all the monks were gathered in the church, and with his sword in his hand he rebuked the monks for deceiving him and demanded ten purses of silver coins, otherwise he would burn down the Skete with all the monks there. They brought him the money as he rebuked and ridiculed them, calling their monastic schema a demonic schema.

After the murder of the two monks, Theophanes and Paisios, thirty Kollyvades monks gathered and bitterly lamented their fate. All together they decided to leave Mount Athos in order to not be a source of greater sin on their fellow monks who ignorantly resented their faithfulness to ecclesiastical tradition.

The Kollyvades Fathers were finally vindicated by the Holy Community of Mount Athos on 19 May 1807, which restored them and condemned their accusers.