27 December 2009

'The Father of Moldavian Hesychasts'—St Daniel the Hesychast


Today, 14 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Daniel the Hesychast of Voroneţ (†1496). [1] Speaking of St Daniel, Bishop Seraphim (Joantă) tells us that ‘tradition calls this Saint “the Father of Moldavian hesychasts” because of the influence he exercised on the development of the hesychastic life, both in his lifetime and after his death.’ [2] According to Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan):

By the holiness of his life, Saint Daniel the Hesychast showed himself to be a Christ-bearer and a great teacher of silence and the Jesus Prayer or even from his youth. During his lifetime there was no hesychast and spiritual father in Moldavia more renowned than he, nor any doer and teacher of prayer more skilled. For this reason all the abbots and spiritual fathers of northern Moldavia, as well as the high officials of the National Council (the Sfat), had him as their spiritual father. [3]

Here is the brief Life composed by Fr Ioanichie:

Our holy Father Daniel the Hesychast was one of the greatest Saints brought forth by the Moldavian land, a great teacher of the desert and a guide of monks.

This Romanian Saint was born at the beginning of the fifteenth century to a family of poor people who lived on the estates of Saint Nicholas Monastery in Rădăuţi. He was named Demetrius at Baptism. He became a monk at this same monastery when he was sixteen years old and was given the name of David. After some years of severe asceticism, he was granted the grace of the priesthood and went to live at Saint Laurence Monastery in Vicoul de Sus commune. Then being called by the Holy Spirit to the life of the desert, he became a schemamonk with the name of Daniel sometime before 1450. At first he lived the ascetic life alone in unknown spiritual labors in the valley of Secu Brook near Neamţ Monastery, and then in a small cell carved out of rock in the valley of Putna Creek.

After the consecration of Putna Monastery in 1470, Saint Daniel the Hesychast went to live in the vicinity of Voroneţ Monastery, where he carved for himself a cell out of rock under Falcon Cliff. He lived the ascetic life here for twenty years, pleasing God, training many disciples, and performing many miracles of healing.

When the church of Voroneţ Monastery was built in 1488, Saint Daniel the Hesychast—who was then over eighty years old—moved down to the community and became the abbot of this monastery. He lived for a short time longer and was honored by the people as a Saint and miracle-worker. Saint Daniel gave his soul into the hands of God about the year 1496 and was buried in the church, where his relics remain until today. [4]

Fr Ioanichie tells us that as a child, St Daniel ‘was never absent from church, nor did he play with other children, or seek repose and food, but rather he always prayed and was obedient to his parents in all things.’ He continues:

When he was about ten years old, the child Demetrius was given to Saint Nicholas Monastery in R to be educated. Although young in age, he showed himself old in understanding, for he quickly learned the Horologion and the Psalter by heart, as well as the practice of spiritual asceticism. [5]

A spiritual child of the holy hierarch St Leontius of Rădăuţi, as a monk St Daniel ‘loved silence, fasting, and prayer most of all. . . . In his cell he slept a little on a small stool, keeping vigil often and meditating on divine things. He loved the Psalter greatly, knew it by heart, and repeated it daily.’ [6] Later in his account, Fr Ioanichie refers to St Daniel’s life in a cliffside cell in the valley of Viteu Brook:

The asceticism practiced by our holy Father Daniel the Hesychast in his cell was this:

Day and night he kept vigil in unceasing prayer and meditation on divine things, fasting until sunset. He didn’t leave his cell all week. His food was dried bread, roots, and herbs, and for handiwork he wove baskets of withes. On Sunday he celebrated the Divine Liturgy and communed the Body and Blood of Christ. Afterwards he received those who came to him for healing and for a profitable word. During the fasts he would fast for as much as three and sometimes five days. He had the gift of prayer and tears. [7]

There are some interesting references to the variant activities and lifestyles of St Daniel’s disciples. First, Fr Ioanichie tells us:

He soon became the spiritual father of dozens of hesychasts who labored in the forests of Voroneţ, in the Rarău Mountains, and over the length of the Eastern Carpathians. Most of them practiced the Jesus Prayer, fasting, and silence, others read the Psalter daily, others made thousands of prostrations and wove baskets, while others, being good calligraphers, wrote service books for churches and monasteries. [8]

Later on, Fr Ioanichie writes specifically of the Fathers of Voroneţ:

During his abbacy Voroneţ monastery reached the height of its spiritual flourishing, being for a long time considered Moldavia’s lavra of hesychasm. All the monks of the community, over sixty ascetics, practiced the Jesus Prayer. Some were renowned pastors and spiritual fathers for the faithful, others were learned teachers in the monastery school and untiring calligraphers, and most were monks of prayer who glorified God unceasingly and prayed for the whole world. Many parish priests, abbots, bishops, monks, hesychasts, and officials were educated and learned spiritual asceticism at Voroneţ. More than fifty other hesychast disciples of Saint Daniel lived in asceticism out of love for Christ in the age-old forests of the Voroneţ, Rarău, and Stînişoara Mountains. The great Abbot and guide of souls, ‘our holy Elder, Father Daniel the Hesychast’, directed all these men and guided them on the good path to the Kingdom of Heaven. [9]

I have already referred to St Daniel’s relationship with St Stephen the Great of Moldavia in my post on the latter. Although he flubs the holy Prince’s name, calling him ‘Petru Rares’ [10], Fr John McGuckin in what looks to be a fascinating article refers to St Daniel’s counsel to St Stephen during his battles with the Turks as an example of the ambivalent attitude to war and violence in the Eastern Church. Fr McGuckin writes:

The saint commanded the prince to erect monasteries on the site of the great battles, to ensure mourning and prayer for the lost souls whose blood had been shed. This was an act that was seen as a necessary expiation of Petru’s ‘equally necessary’ violence. Both he and his spiritual mentor were heavily burdened by their perceived duty of defending the borders of Christendom. To this day Romania’s most ancient and beautiful churches stand as mute witnesses to a bloody history where Islam and Christianity’s tectonic plates collided (as often they did in the history of the Christian East). [11]

At one point, speaking of St Daniel’s call by the Holy Spirit to the desert-dweller’s life, Fr Ioanichie writes, ‘His soul was wounded by the love of Christ and he desired to glorify Him unceasingly with the angels and with the hesychasts who lived in the Carpathian forests.’ [12] I cannot help but pause and reflect here. I first learned of the Carpathians when I read the words of Jonathan Harker in his journal entry from Bistritz on 1 May: ‘I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.’ [13] Thus, in my imagination the Carpathians took on a dark, superstitious, even Gothic cast from my very first encounter with them. But more importantly, due to the idiosyncracies of my childhood, it was a landscape that stuck with me. The Carpathians were to me something like what Narnia probably is to many other children.

Little did I know then that, as Bishop Seraphim notes, what ‘appears to be the most ancient monastic center in the Romanian land’ consisted ‘of a notable number of sketes and stone cells located in the mountains in the angle of the Carpathians.’ [14] The discovery not only of Orthodoxy, but Orthodoxy in its deepest and most radical form in the midst of that imaginative landscape of my childhood gave me a wonderful sense of fulfillment, of everything being brought full circle by God’s providence. Lewis speaks of the baptism of his imagination. For me it was like discovering that much of what I’d imagined had already been baptised. (For more examples, see this post, and this one.)

The image at the top of the post represents the first depiction of St Daniel ‘as a Saint with a halo’. It was painted by his disciple, Metropolitan Gregory (Roşca) ‘in 1547 on the southern wall of Voroneţ Monastery, to the left of the entrance to the pridvor as can still be seen today. He is holding in his hand an open scroll on which is written, Come, brothers, hearken unto me. I will teach you the fear of the lord. Who is the man . . . (Ps. 33).’ [15]


[1] The Holy Trinity parish calendar site seems to have an error here, listing ‘Venerable Daniel the Hesychast of Voronej (17th c.) (Romania)’. The only Romanian ‘Daniel the Hesychast’ connected with a place-name resembling this one is St Daniel the Hesychast of Voroneţ, who lived in the 15th c., and according to Fr Ioanichie, this St Daniel is commemorated on 14 December. Clearly, Holy Trinity has some typos.

[2] Bishop Seraphim (Joantă), Romania: Its Hesychast Tradition & Culture (Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992), pp. 66-7.

[3] Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan), Romanian Patericon: Saints of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1 (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 190.

[4] Ibid., pp. 182, 184.

[5] Ibid., p. 184.

[6] Ibid., pp. 184, 186.

[7] Ibid., p. 188.

[8] Ibid., pp. 191-2.

[9] Ibid, pp. 192-3.

[10] Petru IV Rareş was a Moldavian voievode of the 16th century.

[11] Fr John McGuckin, ‘Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity.’

[12] Fr Ioanichie, p. 186.

[13] Bram Stoker, The Annotated Dracula, ed. Leonard Wolf, Illust. Stty (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975), p. 2.

[14] Bishop Seraphim, p. 19.

[15] Fr Ioanichie, p. 193.

6 comments:

The Tartski said...

"nor did he play with other children"
I guess the monastic life is not for everyone!

aaronandbrighid said...

Definitely not! If you're interested in this particular subject, you might have a look at this post!

protov said...

Thank you Aaron for this post. The region is indeed a magic one. Prince Dimitri Cantemir wrote in his Descriptio Moldaviae that the mountains of this part of Moldova were teaming with "sihastri" (and still is).
A little correction to a previous post. Ioan Huniady was indeed of the same race as Vlad Tepes i.e. Valachians. Bram Stoker knew something, but he applied the journalistic dictum "don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story".

protov said...

As I was myself involved in the "Dracula Program" run by the Ceausescu's regime for gullible western tourists, I reviewed some of my knowledge in the light of recent research like Jimmie E. Cain,Jr, Bram Stoker and Russophobia, 2006.
It appears that Bram Stoker was not only removing the truth out of the way of a good story, but consciously and maliciously engaged in an operation of "perception management" directed at the British public opinion meant to blacken the Russians and their prospective East European allies (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia). This is the point when the mercurial Arminius Vambery came into the picture and when the Ardeal (the vernacular name of Transylvania) became the "Transylvania of vampires", of revolting and unspeakable superstitions, completely obscuring the national struggle of the Romanians against the Hungarian aristocracy, the darlings of the British aristocrats (at the time when the Brits created regiments of Hussars modeled on the Hungarian ones). A very interesting point is that of the influence of Bram's own brother, George, who has been the Chief of the Red Crescent in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. George wrote a book "With the Unspeakable", a piece of horrible pro-Turkish propaganda, in which he does not spare any effort to whitewash the atrocities of the Turkish bashbuzuks against the Orthodox Christians, blaming them on the Bulgarians, a boorish, corrupt, venal sort of people, whose corruption stems directly from their Orthodox faith. It is revealing that Bram himself gave George "some assistance with the book" (to the point that in fact HE wrote the book!). Bram Stoker was not that innocent! Actually he was chummy with Rudyard Kipling, unashamed propagandists of "the white man burden", the slogan of the British imperialism. Curiously enough, the British imperialism was ready to associate with the Hungarian chauvinism against all the inferior "secret, stealthy, creeping mass, slowly dragging its enormous bulk like some reptile" that, at least since the Crimean War, threatened England.
It is undeniable that England tried always to protect Hungary's integrity, even at the Peace Conference of Versailles (against the declared aims of the Peace Treaties), that sided with Hungary even after she allied herself with the Nazis, even after she was defeated in WWII, claiming that Transylvania rightfully belongs to Hungary (which is against all demonstrable history). One of the reasons might be that the Royal House of England (through its many alliances before it was forced to become "the Windsors") can raise a claim on Transylvania. That's probably why Prince Charles bought properties in Transylvania and sponsors the "Dracula Park" in the same place!

aaronandbrighid said...

Protov> Thank you for your comments. In light of the second one, I plan to clarify a thing or two about my views on Romania vis-a-vis the popular perception of it in the West. I don't quite have time today, but I'm putting it on my to-do list.

aaronandbrighid said...

Protov> By the way, I intend to correct my comment about Hunyadi. I had simply assumed he was a Magyar, and I think an editor that I read (maybe Wolf) thought so too. But it looks like you're right!