28 November 2009

'His Mind Was Always United with God in Love'—St Paisius Velichkovsky

Today, 15 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Paisius (Velichkovsky) of Moldavia and Mt Athos (1794). Most well known perhaps as the tireless translator of various texts of the Philokalia into Slavonic, St Paisius is famously mentioned by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where the great novelist writes that the institution of monastic eldership ‘was revived again in our country at the end of the last century by one of the great ascetics (as he is known), Paissy Velichkovsky, and his disciples’ (The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Vintage, 1991], p. 27). Fr Sergius Chetverikov describes his greatness thusly (qtd. in Bishop Seraphim [Joantă], Romania: Its Hesychast Culture & Tradition [Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992], p. 101):

In his person were united in an admirable synthesis personal sanctity, devotion to Orthodoxy, a remarkable aptitude for organizing coenobitic communities, the art of attracting to himself and spiritually forming numerous disciples, and thus creating around himself great schools of asceticism, and, finally, a true literary talent.

In his ‘Introduction’ to Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man Behind the Philokalia, by Schemamonk Metrophanes, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), Fr Seraphim observes:

. . . [F]or Orthodox Christians of the 20th century there is no more important Holy Father of recent times than Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky. This is so not merely because of his holy life; not merely because, like another Saint Gregory Palamas, he defended the hesychast practice of the mental Prayer of Jesus; not only because he, through his many disciples, inspired the great monastic revival of the 19th century which flowered most notably in the holy Elders of Optina Monastery; but most of all because he redirected the attention of Orthodox Christians to the sources of Holy Orthodoxy, which are the only foundation of true Orthodox life and thought whether of the past or of the present, whether of monks or of laymen. (p. 13)

St Paisius’s disciple, Schemamonk Metrophanes, produced the most moving encomium of him in the following passage (The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj, trans. J.M.E. Featherstone [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], p. 148):

In his teaching, his maintenance of a community, his spiritual struggles, his labors beyond human endurance, his wisdom and divine understanding, his counsel, his discernment, and his other gifts from God, our blessed father was in every way like the pious fathers of old and all those who have come after them. He was adorned with all virtues, external and internal, even as the holy fathers of old. His face was radiant like that of an angel of God, his appearance gentle, his speech humble and without boldness. He greeted all with love; he answered with piety; he was filled with goodness; he was always inclined to mercy; he attracted all to himself even as a magnet attracts iron. His humility and meekness were profound. He was forbearing in all things. In every way was this great man godly and full of grace. His mind was always united with God in love, to which his tears bore witness. Whenever he spoke of theology, his heart was flooded with love, his face shone with gladness, and tears poured forth from his eyes in confirmation of the truth. Whenever we stood before him our eyes never tired of the sight of him: we desired insatiably to look upon him; nor were our ears ever stopped with displeasure or tedium at his speech, for as I have already said, in the joy of our hearts we forgot ourselves. When we looked upon his face, we kept our ears always near his mouth, even as the Athenian philosophers of old did. For whenever they saw someone who excelled in wisdom, they desired to talk with him, and the eyes and ears of all were fixed upon him in their desire to hear some new bit of wisdom. How much more were our eyes fixed upon our blessed philosopher! For from his mouth we always heard new things concerning spiritual mysteries or the moral precepts of the God-bearing fathers.

Of course, not the least of his accomplishments were the many translations St Paisius and his disciples produced. As I have noted here, Dostoevsky was acquainted with the Saint through his translation of the homilies of St Isaac of Syria. Speaking of the importance of St Paisius’s work, Fr Georges Florovsky writes in Part 1 of his magnum opus, Ways of Russian Theology, trans. Robert L. Nichols (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979), p. 161:

Under Paisii’s guidance, Niamets monastery became a great literary center and a source of theological-ascetical enlightenment. This literary activity was organically link with spiritual and ‘intellectual construction’. . . . The message of spiritual concentration and wholeness possessed particular significance for that age of spiritual dualism and cleavage. Publication of the Slavonic-Russian edition of the Philokalia constituted a major event not only in the history of Russian monasticism but generally in the history of Russian culture. It was both an accomplishment and a catalyst.

Fr Florovsky also notes that St Paisius ‘did not retreat from or reject knowledge. His actions mark a return to the living sources of patristic theology and thinking about God’ (p. 160). Ultimately, while the Philokalia was published in Greek no later than Slavonic, it was the Slavophone hesychast revival under St Paisius that led to the discovery of the Fathers among Russian intellectuals and theologians, who in turn eventually influenced theologians in Greece beginning in the 1960s, leading to a boom of interest in the Fathers there and the repopulation of the Holy Mountain (Chrestos Yannaras, Orthodoxy & the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas & Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2006], pp. 126-8).

Finally, I would like to offer a few words from the great Elder himself. First, here are two passages from his autobiography:

Within a little more than two years, with God’s assistance, I learned the Primer, the Book of Hours, and the Psalter, and straightway I began, with God’s help, to read other books with great facility; and from my elder brother, mentioned above, I learned to write after a short time of study at home. Between lessons, whenever I found free time, I read assiduously the books of the holy Scripture, the Old and the New Testaments, the Lives of the saints, the writings of St Ephrem and St Dorotheus, the Pearl of St John Chrysostom, and as many other books as were to be found in the aforementioned holy church; and from the reading of such holy books, especially the Lives of our pious fathers who pleased God in the holy and angelic monastic state, there began to grow in my soul a longing for withdrawal from the world and assumption of the holy monastic habit. (Featherstone, p. 5)

At the appropriate season the venerable superior of the hermitage, Father Dometij, assigned me the obedience of tending the hermitage’s vineyard, which was on level ground above the hermitage, at a distance of nearly one verst. He commanded me in no wise to dare eat any grapes until I had eaten at least a small piece of bread; but provided I ate the bread, he gave me his permission and blessing to eat as many grapes as I wished, before or after the daily meal. He did this for two reasons, firstly because grapes were few in the country where I was born, and I had scarcely ever had the chance to taste them, and secondly, out of indulgence to my weakness, for he realized that I had a great desire to eat grapes and that I could not get my fill of them. Having received his command and blessing, then, after eating a bit of bread, I ate grapes often, both before and after the meal, choosing the ones which grew sparsely, that is, not close together, for these were sweeter than the others. My passion for eating grapes came to such a pitch that I wanted no other food. When I went to the meal in the hermitage, I ate very little of anything else, but I ate grapes in abundance and with great relish. Having partaken of almost no other food that whole season until the harvest, I suffered no small illness of body, and my face grew thin as if from some disease. But after the harvest, when I ceased eating grapes and partook of the usual food with the brethren, I began to feel stronger day and night; and in a short time I was restored to my previous state of health. (Featherstone, pp. 82-3)

Finally, here is a passage taken from the Saint’s writings on the spiritual life (here):

Have you heard, my beloved soul, how the Holy Fathers spent their lives? O my soul! Imitate them at least a little.

Did they not have tears? O woe, my soul.

Were they not sorrowful, thin and worn out in body? O woe, my soul.

Did they not have bodily illnesses, great wounds and lamentation of soul with tears? O woe, my soul.

Were they not clothed in the same infirm body that we have? O woe, my soul!

Did they not have the desire for splendid, sweet and light repose in this world and every bodily repose?

Yes, they desired these things, and their bodies in truth were afflicted, but they exchanged their desires for patience and their grief for future joy. They cut off everything once and for all. They considered themselves as dead men, and tormented themselves mercilessly in spiritual labors. Do you see, my soul, how the Holy Fathers labored, having no repose and suffering every kind of evil? They subjected the flesh to the spirit and fulfilled all the other commandments of God, and were saved.

But you, O pitiful soul, do not at all wish to force yourself, and you grow faint from small labors, grow despondent and do not at all remember the hour of death and weep over your sins but you have become accustomed, my wretched soul, to eat to the fill, to drink to the fill and to be slothful. Do you not know that you are called voluntarily to torment? And yet you endure nothing. How then do you wish to be saved?

At least from this time forth, then: Arise, my beloved soul, and do what I shall tell you.

If you cannot labor as the Holy Fathers did, then at least begin according to your strength.

Serve everyone with humility and simplicity of heart; acknowledging your infirmity and belittling yourself, say: ‘Woe to thee, my wretched soul; woe to thee, vile one; woe to thee, O all-defiled one, slothful, careless, sleepy, cruel; woe to thee, who hast perished!’ And so, little by little it will come to tender-feeling, will shed tears, will come to itself and repent.

For more on St Paisius, see this brief article by the great Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory.


orrologion said...

I always think of the fact that St. Paisius was forced to read his way into the hesychastic tradition. I especially think of this when people denigrate converts reading their way into Orthodoxy, or mistaking book Orthodoxy for 'real Orthodoxy', which usually has quite a lot to do with folk traditions around the Church and not always with the Church - not that there is not a great deal of value to be had there, too. In fact, I think this sort of Paisian monasticism has had a great deal of influence on convert Orthodoxy - both in its initial reliance on books rather than elders and on its focus on the heights of spirituality rather than just the day to day tradition of a village/city for time immemorial.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The difference, Chris, is that St Paisius was born and raised in a traditional Orthodox household. He didn't "convert" himself in the same way that some people today come to Orthodoxy through books.

One simply does not become Orthodox through reading books, though one may certainly come to learn of Orthodoxy that way. One becomes Orthodox through a life in the Church, beginning with baptism (for which chrismation is a economical stand-in) and continuing in participation in the life of the Church in every way possible, without reserve. Reading is optional.