10 August 2009

'To the Heavens He Was Lifted by the Angels of God'—St Paul of Xeropotamou

Today, 28 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Paul of Xeropotamou († 820). I have a special veneration for St Paul because of my many fond memories of Athonite monastery of Xeropotamou, which he founded and at which he laboured. The abbot (a staunch defender of the ROCOR monks expelled from Prophet Elias Skete in the nineties) gave me some counsel of incalculable spiritual benefit on one occasion, there is an American monk there who is a dear friend, I’ve celebrated their feastdays there with my father and various friends. I even got to go up to the bell-tower one time while my friend rang the monastery’s peal of ten bells Russian-style (on the bells, see this article). I recall a conversation with an amazing old monk who had lived with Elder Ephraim (of Arizona) at a skete and whose expressions of simple affection leave one speechless. Another conversation with my friend and his father according to the flesh on the balcony of the ‘bishop’s room’ on the West side of the monastery as the sun set. Hours of deep silence spent in the library. Chanting some of the ‘Kyrie eleisons’ during the Lity at a Vigil. Being excitedly introduced to ‘Fr Moses’ on my first trip (a story I've mentioned here).

But all of this ought not to distract from St Paul. Unfortunately, as I have very little information about him, I shall simply post the brief account by St Nicholas (Velimirović) in the Prologue (The Prologue from Ochrid, Part 3: July, August, September, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 120):

The son of the Emperor Michael Cyropalates, he was endowed with profound learning and a rare wisdom, conjoined with meekness. Procopius, as he was called at first, was, in his early years, a marvel to the whole of Constantinople. The Emperor Romanus the Elder called him ‘the greatest of the philosophers’. But, fearful lest his soul be made proud and fall through the praise of men, this glorious youth clad himself in the garb of a poor man and went off to the Holy Mountain, where he received the monastic habit from the famous hierarch Cosmas. After a long period of solitary asceticism, he re-founded the monastery of Xeropotamou and, shortly after that, built the new monastery of St Paul, where he died in old age. When this monastery was consecrated, Emperor Romanus sent as a gift a large piece of the Precious Cross, which is kept there to this day. It is said of this saint that he preached the Gospel in Macedonia and Serbia. He endured much torment from the wicked Emperor Leo the Armenian, the iconoclast [according to Bulgakov, he was blinded], and entered into rest in 820. At the time of his death, St Paul said to the brethren: ‘Lo, the hour has come that my soul has always desired, and which my body has always dreaded.’

On the refounding of Xeropotamou, the account at the OCA site elabourates somewhat: ‘He exchanged his fine garb for beggar's rags, and he went to the Holy Mountain [Athos], to Xeropotamou. He built a cell there at the ruins of an old monastery founded by the empress Pulcheria in honor of the Forty Martyrs (March 9).’ As for the relic of the Cross, the largest piece was sent to Xeropotamou (where it is still kept, and is now, I believe, the largest piece of the true Cross in Eastern Christendom), and another piece taken subsequently to St Paul’s. Unless you're an ochlophobist, Xeropotamou is now an optimum place to be on the Feast of the Elevation of the Precious Cross, as the relic is brought out into the middle of the nave, and throngs of pilgrims crowd in to venerate it. St Paul’s own relics are now unfortunately in the hands of the Latins. According to the OCA site:

St Paul had instructed in his will to bury his body on the peninsula of Pongosa (opposite the Holy Mountain). But by the will of God the ship was driven to the shores of Constantinople, where the Emperor and Patriarch with the pious took the body of the saint and solemnly placed it in the Great Church (Hagia Sophia). After the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the relics of St Paul were transferred to Venice.

Concerning St Paul’s beard (or lack thereof), I’m not sure what the explanation is. I thought I remembered being told by someone that he was a eunuch or something, but none of the sources I’ve mentioned above makes any mention of it. Anyway, I’m sure certain prominent American primates must be fond of St Paul’s icons.

On the subject of Xeropotamou’s defense of the former Prophet Elias Brotherhood (one of whom is a friend of mine), Graham Speake (of the Friends of Mount Athos society) has written, in his beautiful book, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 2002), which I highly recommend:

In May 1992 the entire brotherhood of the Prophet Elijah skete was brutally expelled by a delegation of bishops from the Patriarchate in Constantinople. Since its foundation in the mid-eighteenth century [by St Paisius Velichkovsky] this had been a [primarily] Russian house, and since 1957 its monks had refused to commemorate the ecumenical patriarch. They were therefore technically in an irregular canonical position, but that is no excuse for the violent manner of their expulsion and the absence of any due process of law. The Patriarchate claimed that this episode was not motivated by anti-Russian sentiments, a claim that is not borne out by the facts. The house has since been repopulated with Greek monks from the skete of Xenophontos.

In February 1994 a similar delegation of bishops arrived unannounced on Athos and expressed its intention of presiding at the meeting of the Holy Community [the decision-making body of the Holy Mountain] planned for the next day. This was opposed by a majority of the representatives, though a minority of six were willing to accept the intervention. The immediate response of the delegation was to depose for no good reason the abbot of Xeropotamou and the representatives of Dionysiou, Philotheou and Simonopetra [to the Holy Community]. As it happens, the deposed fathers were among the most outspoken on the subject of minority rights [and most recently on the expulsion of the Prophet Elias fathers]. The monks saw this as an unacceptable interference on the part of Constantinople in their traditional autonomy. Protests were published in the British and Greek press, and at Easter the depositions were finally retracted by patriarchal fax. But relations between the Mountain and the Patriarchate were badly damaged, and the split in the Holy Community between the majority and ‘the six’ was to fester for some time. (pp. 189-90)

One of the many unfortunate aspects of the expulsion of the fathers from the skete is that among them were scholars capable of studying the rich resources of the library in various Slavic languages (as evidenced by the book on Elder Basil of Poiana Mărului, which I discuss here). To my knowledge none of the Greek monks has any such ability—I sometimes wonder if Anthony-Emil Tachiaos may not be the only Greek scholar familiar with Slavic languages!

At any rate, I’m sure St Paul is proud to know that his monastery is not afraid to stand up for what’s right. In conclusion, here is the 'Hymn of Praise' for St Paul from the Prologue:

The young Paul, the world highly glorified,
Therefore, the young crown-prince abandoned royalty
And royal glow, wealth and power,
And decaying opulence and intrigues of the city,
Fled from everyone, fled from everything,
Into the wilderness, where the saints hide
And their souls to save through austere mortification,
Day and night of praise, God, they glorify,
A place, Paul found on Mt Athos
That from his soul creates he, a new dough,
That as in a child, his soul becomes,
And the essence of himself and the world to discover.
What Paul desired, that he accomplished,
On the laborious path, God helped him
His soul saved from passions destructive,
From the power of the demons, his soul saved;
With the Cross of Christ's Crucifixion, he baptized all
Both body and soul. And as a candle pure
Beautifully lighted from the love of God,
To the heavens he was lifted by the angels of God.
The young Paul because he abandoned the kingdom, God,
Greatly glorified him in the heavenly kingdom.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

But the older icon above shows him with a wispy little beard around the jawline. Some guys just can't grow full and thick beards.

It would be quite extraordinary for the son of an emperor to have been made a eunuch. If it was his choice, he'd've been excommunicated, and if forced, who could possibly have done it? Besides, the wisp of a beard indicates that at least the icon-writer didn't believe the eunuch tale. The second, more modern icon seems simply to have skipped the wispy beard altogether, though it's too small to tell.

I was actually supposed to go with a friend and his father to Xeropotamou in September, to be there for the Elevation of the Holy Cross, but plans have changed, and it may be October, if at all. We may have to cancel altogether, unfortunately.

Brother Juniper said...

Hi Aaron,

I have been a long time lurker, but first time commenter.

I thought it would interest you that the Russian Calendar at days.ru does not mention St. Paul of Xeropotamou for today (July 28/August 10). I cross-checked and saw that he was mentioned by Abbot Tryphon's Morning Offering.

Any possible reason why they would omit him?

God bless,


Brother Juniper said...

I went back to the site and checked. He's there, but they didn't give his life. For shame!