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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
The Golden Struggles at the Caves of St. Anne
From “The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959): Strugles, Experiences, Teachings,” by Elder Joseph (of Vatopaidi), Mount Athos: The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi, 1999.
It would be an omission if we were to conceal the full truth in order to please people at large, and thus downplay the reality of how men of God think and act. The Elder knew the inner state of each one of us, and explained to us in detail how and why each thing happened to us, whether it was our own thoughts or the result of our passions or even the gift of grace; and he also revealed the ways to be cured and thus free ourselves of the unwanted things that happened to us. He was full of God’s grace, truly illumined, and gave abundantly his heart, without contrivance or effort or specialized qualifications but out of the treasure of his life experience, and in a way that was simple and convincing. He offered this to each individually according to what was revealed to him about our state; and when some of his advice and teachings exceeded the disciple’s capacity to receive them, he would supplement them with his prayer. The ever-memorable Elder also had the invariable practice never to undertake anything without prayer and the receipt of divine guidance; accordingly, whenever we asked him about something we were considering undertaking, we never received an immediate answer.
As at St Basil, so also there—in the caves of St. Anne—we had difficulties because of the lack of space and also because of the strict rule of our daily life; the Elder took particular care to avoid the introduction of any comfort and ease. The permanent norm in our life was the makeshift, the temporary, the cheap and whatever involved little care and could be done simply. He laid stress and placed value on an orderly life, and for that reason he paid minute attention to rules and insisted that they were kept at all times. Sometimes, when we raised the question of economy for the sake of those who were unable to “accommodate” our life style, he would give a precise answer, both from personal experience as well as from the sayings of the Holy Fathers, which he understood and applied in detail. He was by nature mild, peaceful and extremely sympathetic towards his neighbor; with himself, however, he was uncompromising and harsh to an incredible degree. It was due to this that he persevered along the lines of his initial fervor, right up to the end of his life.
The bitter struggles of his early life, the constant deprivations that he imposed upon himself, the other hardships created by the restricted surroundings in which he liked to live, and his refusal to compromise over the smallest and most simply provided conveniences which could have brought him some solace, all this caused his state of health to deteriorate to such a degree that he looked like a worn-out old man. His legs got even worse so that he could scarcely stand or walk at all, except short distances and with breaks. He suffered from fluctuating swelling throughout his body, and he had glaucoma. When on occasion he cut his hands, particularly on the upper part, water came out instead of blood. Even mild fatigue resulted in breathing difficulties. He maintained a strict dietary rule each and every day, as he had been accustomed to do from the beginning; he would never break it no matter what happened. He would not consume any food outside of the appointed time. We also observed his great exhaustion whenever his body was all worn out, and noted that he could not sleep at his usual hour.
Later, when our brother Ephraim came and then Haralambos, we stopped doing outside jobs and started our handiwork. At that time we set about putting together some sort of household, because if I described what and how I found them when I first went there, today’s generation would never believe me. Every household deficiency would be tolerated on the basis of the Elder’s spirit of frugality which we tried to follow to the extent that we could. But, on the question of shelter there was no leeway for economy, because there was simply no room and we had to build something ourselves. I dare not describe what immense difficulty this presented, for fear that it might happen again! As for the sort of means we had to use and the conditions under which we constructed those dwellings, makeshift as they were, God alone knows. Work like this, under the most difficult of conditions, can be done only by the beginners’ youthful fervor of those in whom divine grace has covered their eyes and made their hearts drunk for God, so that they have become “like deaf men and heard not, and ones that are dumb,” in the words of the Psalm.
In addition to the fasts appointed by the Church, the Elders also had their own rules so as to intensify their struggle. They continued this practice of theirs when they were at the caves, where we lived with them, with the difference that they did not allow us younger monks to follow this stricter fast rule. Haralambos was not there then when my younger brother Ephraim and I put great pressure on the Elder to let us follow their regime as well. It was the beginning of Great Lent, and our rule required strict silence except on Saturday and Sunday and severe fasting, which took a different form each year. At that time the regime was 25 drachms (about 75 grams) of ordinary flour. We would each boil this up with a little water in a tin can, and add a little salt. This would be consumed after Vespers, at about the ninth hour Byzantine time (three hours before sunset). During the weekend there were meals, but again the bread according to measure, not just as much as one wanted. That was the rule for that Lent. When we had persuaded the Elder to agree to our following the same rule with them, we jumped for joy and started off after the Wednesday of the first week of Lent. All went well until about the fifth week, when our exhaustion and loss of strength became very palpable. One morning, towards the end of that week, we failed to wake up at the usual time, despite the fact that Father Arsenios knocked at the window. The Elder asked why we were not stirring as usual, and Father Arsenios told him we were ill and could not get up. “No, Arsenios,: he said to him, “don’t be naive. There’s nothing wrong with them. Just give them a bit of bread and they will be cured immediately, no question about it.” Indeed, when we took this ‘medicine’ we were cured at once! Thus we learnt to stay within our own measure, and not extend ourselves beyond our strength.
I shall never forget those days which were really the golden age of my life. I feel such nostalgia for those heavenly days; and if it were possible, how I would like to relive those calm and untroubled moments! In such a calm and untroubled life our youthful and innocent souls could frolic within the embrace of a truly fatherly love and guardianship. With the Elder’s care, the fruits of stillness and the sense of security which we felt gave us every assurance of an unimpeded continuity, successful in every way. It is one thing to struggle and make an effort with the help of good intentions and knowledge from reading, and quite another to stand near, indeed side by side, with a craftsman and teacher, who in a certain way directs your every move.
It was a marvelous thing about the ever-memorable Elder that, while he had none of the “external competence” afforded by human knowledge, he could readily make himself clear on whatever he wanted to explain. He also fully understood the meaning of the Bible and the Holy Orthodox Fathers. This is also evident from the few letters of his which have been published by our brothers of Philotheou Monastery in the book “Monastic Wisdom.”
When a person explains a problem and answers a question along broad and general lines, what he says is of course true; but he does not readily inform and convince others because the terms in which he is speaking are not entirely specific. But, in the Elder’s case, it would happen that he would give a clarifying explanation, in minute detail and beyond what was asked, even things that the person concerned had been unable to pinpoint for lack of experience. The teacher would then place that person’s finger in the print of the nails, and with living proofs cast light on all the obscure points of his concern or his path. Even where the disciple had difficulty because of lack of faith, the Elder would bring him to full understanding, banishing the slightest hesitation, in the name of grace from his own abundance. Then we would cry out rejoicing, Come, we have found Him who is awaited, of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote. (Jn 1:45).
Neither the austerity of the regime, nor the lack of basic necessities, nor the rugged and impossible terrain, nor the necessity of carrying loads so as to maintain six or seven people could make our purpose lose its drive, since by the mercy of God grace gave us full assurance through the prayers of the Elders. But our nature of clay shrank back, and the Lord’s saying was fulfilled, that the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mt 26:41).
I personally suffered increasingly from coughing up blood and stomach hemorrhages, but my ardent intent and the experience of grace which accompanies the good fight covered all these weaknesses, for we had as our prime model the Elder, who looked at everything through faith and not through reason. In this small experiment of our life and under the care of the Elder, the repeated aid from divine goodness, the continuing mysterious protection of grace, and the constant sense of security in all directions oblige us to believe and proclaim that success in monastic life depends for the most part on the support of a spiritual guide; and he who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mt 11:15). Certainly there is nothing novel in this opinion nor is it some new discovery, but simply a confirmation of the patristic tradition; thus, blessed is the disciple who will keep these things, and will discern the mercies of the Lord. (cf. Hosea 14:9).
With persistent efforts, as I have said, we somewhat improved our surroundings and our life in general, but there were still many things we lacked. Until we were better organized, we also lacked, most of all, our health, while at the same time the Elder was all worn out; any movement caused him difficulty, and his whole life had become an immense trial. The Elder loved working and did not stop at all during the hours when his rule allowed it. Our handiwork was making little carved crosses, which he carved with great facility and speed, while we prepared the wood. He lived alone in the little hut we had built him at some distance from us, and we would go to see him at midday and then leave on our own.
The place where we were living was isolated and quiet but very exposed to the elements. Thus, the cold was more intense, to the point where we persuaded him to let us put in some heating for him with a stove. I measured up and prepared the materials to build it, with iron plate on the outside and clay inside. I got ready for the next day, as I had promised him the evening before, and in the morning I gathered up my tools and the materials and went to a place nearby to build it with a plan to install it later. I made a prostration, as always, and started off in fine weather, because I was working out doors. As soon as I had measured up and cut out the component parts and begun work, the weather broke abruptly. Then I kept finding extraordinary difficulty in whatever I tried to do. There was a curious wind blowing, which did not have any particular direction; it just stirred up everything against me and blew in my face whatever was around—iron plate, boards, waste paper and sand. In a strange way my tools would desert me and roll away for no reason, because the area was not altogether on a slope. Nails went in crooked for no reason, at the slightest touch; drills broke; my plans were altered, when I had measured them up and cut them out with precision.
In the beginning I took no notice, and hurried to put things back in order and get on with the job. After a while, however, it became very obvious that something was afoot. I stopped for a while, because I had literally smashed all my fingers to pieces, and I felt a strange inner disquiet, arousing anger, confusion, and impatience. “it’s a strange thing,” I said to myself; “something’s going on!” In the meantime the weather had worsened as well and that forced me to stop all work and go to the Elder. My little project was a two-hour job, three at the most; yet more than six hours had gone by without achieving anything. Then I remembered something the Elder had said to me in the morning when I started off, but I had not taken much notice. “Let’s see, then,” he had said to me; “will you get anything done today?” I did not pay much attention to the meaning of those words; I thought he had said it to humble me, perhaps, because I was familiar with that sort of work. Indeed, I was eager to have it finished as soon and as successfully as possible so as to make things easier for him, and with the secret joy that he had allowed us to put in heating for him, and I was going to do it all by myself!
So I went and knocked on his door and he opened it. As soon as he saw my state of agitation, he started to laugh.
“What’s going on here, Elder?” I asked. “And why did you say to me this morning, like a prediction, ‘If I finish anything?’ Because you know that this was child’s play for me.”
“What did you conclude it was?” he asked playfully.
“A trial,” I told him; “the work of Satan.”
“That it was,” he replied. “Listen, I’ll explain this mystery, as it appeared to you. In the evening during my prayer, when I had finished and wanted to rest, I saw Satan threatening to put obstacles and trials in the way of my decision and my plans. And I said to our Christ, “Lord, don’t stop him, so that I can show him that I love You and will endure the cold as long as You allow it.” So that was why all this happened, my boy, so that I shouldn’t have heating quickly, as you wanted me to.”
Having been a witness to this drama, when I heard these details and the mysteries of hidden providence by which the spiritual law operates, I was lost in amazement, and silently confessed, Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvellous are Thy works, and no word sufficeth to hymn and glorify Thy wonders! This incident helped me to understand the power of the word of the Elders, who—according to Abba Poimen and Abba Dorotheos—conceal within themselves the power and operation of grace, as a sign of their personal state and experience. Like so many other Elders in the patristic hierarchy, those two luminaries base their advice and instruction on patristic texts rather than the Bible – the patristic tradition being in essence the Bible analyzed.
Despite the austerity of the regime which the Elder adapted to our surroundings, he maintained undiminished his sympathy and love for his neighbor and showed it in practice towards the infirm and poor, be they fathers or lay people. I recall that there were some infirm elders, particularly in Karoulia, whom he looked after more or less permanently, often sending them what they needed and in particular food ready prepared. Sympathy, as the first fruit of a soul that loves God, and faith as a sure stronghold, were the reasons why he left nothing in our modest huts, to the point where it was hard for us to endure, inexperienced as we were in the operation of faith. He gave whatever we had to those who asked, and left us with hopes, as the saying goes. And yet, in this way he helped us to enter quickly into the providence of faith, which gave us so much support in our later life.
When on occasion we came back from some errand and recounted some mishap or trouble which we had heard about or seen happening to someone, he would weep and, if he happened to be eating, would stop his meal. Again, if anyone did him some kindness, directly or indirectly, he would never forget it, but would look for ways and opportunities to repay it, if at all possible, with something more. But the way he expressed his gratitude and sympathy most fully was in prayer. For hours on end he would pray with tears for the world and he truly shared in the pain of all mankind, especially of people known to him who asked him to pray for them. Sometimes I would see him in acute distress and ask what was the matter, and he would reply with anguish that someone of the people we knew was suffering and was asking for help.
When on occasion we asked him out of curiosity about the “law of influence,” how this mystery of contact works so that a soul can communicate with another person far away, he avoided explaining it to us directly because of our curiosity. But on another occasion, when the same subject came up and it was a matter of strengthening us personally, he explained it to us according to the measure of our smallness so that we could understand.
Our brother Athanasios was with us, the Elder’s brother according to the flesh, who more than all the rest of us would travel here and there taking care of the community’s jobs and responsibilities. In order to avoid contact and meetings with too many people and to also forego the heat of the day, since he was almost always carrying a large load, he would travel either very early in the morning or, more usually, late in the afternoon, in which case there was not much time before he would be walking at night. This happened almost always, particularly in the summer. I was amazed on one occasion, when the Elder waited for him with particular interest, until he had arrived, what he was carrying an immense load and had experienced great difficulties getting back to our caves.
On another occasion, I showed particular insistence on finding out how he received his information, and this was what he told me: “It would be better for me to pray for you to experience it, rather than to learn how it happens as a mere piece of knowledge. But since you insist, listen. I was kneeling here at the window on my rags, saying the prayer. At one moment, as I was in deep prayer—which divine grace brings about with its divine illumination—the light increased and my mind began to broaden out and overflow so that everything became luminous for me and I saw the whole of the surrounding area, from Katounakia to the monasteries down below as far as Daphne, and behind me as well, and nothing was invisible or unknown to me. The light was not as much as this natural light from the sun or the artificial, man-made light, but it was a wonderful light, white and immaterial, which is not only external, like the natural light which allows those who have sight to see. This light is also within man and he experiences it like his own breath, and it fills him like nourishment and breathing and relieves him of his natural weight and transfigures him so that he would not know that he had a body or weight or any restriction. Then,” he told us, “I saw Athanasios coming towards us on the road from St Paul’s, carrying his huge load, and I remained observing him until he arrived here. I saw all his movements, where he sat down to rest or put down his load, the spring of St. Anna at the mill where he stopped for a drink of water, up to the point when he reached our door and took the key and opened it and came in and came up to me and made a prostration.
But what is it that amazed you so? When man’s mind is purified and illumined (aside from the fact that even without the addition of divine grace it has its own illumination, with which it sees further than the demons, as the Fathers say), it then receives in addition the illumination of divine grace, so that grace can reside in it permanently, and grace then takes it up into contemplation and visions, in a manner and to a degree known to itself. But it is also possible for the person himself to ask in his prayer when he wants to see or find out something that interests him, and grace will operate to fulfill his request, because he asked it. But I think that devout people avoid asking such a thing except in great need. However, the Lord ‘will do the will of them that fear Him and will hearken to their prayer.’ ”