On St Paisius Velichkovsky
(on the 210th Anniversary of His Death)
Russia adopted Holy Orthodoxy and its world-view with unusual ease,
yet with sincerity and open-heartedness. One can say without reservation
that Byzantium itself, whence we received holy Orthodoxy, did not
suspect that in Russia, in the Russian people, a worthy successor
was being prepared. So it must be that Russia was brought to the
Christian faith through Divine Providence in order to preserve the
truth of correct theology, of genuine Orthodox Christianity. One
can assume that it was through Divine Providence, again, that a
great and mighty Russia arose just when its populace converted to
Christianity, at the very time when Western Christians departed
from true Orthodoxy, falling to heretical falsehoods, when the Eastern
Orthodox world was threatened by Islam; Russia was just then being
prepared by Divine Providence to become the keeper of the true teachings
of divine revelation, becoming the new chosen people for the preservation
on earth of the true Orthodox faith.
In our early Kievan history, through the efforts of Holy Prince
Vladimir and his heirs, Russia began to blossom spiritually, to
gain strength, both politically and administratively. Yet with the
onslaught of the Tatars and the havoc they wrought, one could say
that this blossoming ceased.
Then, despite the heavy losses and sorrows endured by Russia from
heathens and the heterodox, the hearts of the Russian people became
even more closely bound to the Holy Orthodox Church, and the authority
of the Orthodox faith reached a higher level. A new epoch of spiritual
loftiness and renewal came in the centuries that followed—the 14th
and 15th centuries. This is the era of St Sergius of Radonezh and
his ascetic followers who established monasteries throughout northeast
Russia, with settlements growing around them. Thus did "Holy
Russia" expand and grow.
Once again, in the early 16th century, because Russia found itself
separated from the Orthodox East and because Byzantium was under
Turkish control, the character of the spiritual struggle in our
Fatherland gradually began to shift. Troubles and conflicts arose
between the "possessors" and the "non-possessors."
Then our monastics were met with a much worse period, that of the
reign of Emperor Peter I. It reached the point where monastics were
persecuted, especially when foreign figures surrounded our country's
empresses. In the second half of the 18th century, a shift began,
and Russian monasticism enjoyed a renascence. Of great significance
for this rebirth and renewal of Russian monasticism was the Elder
Schema-monk Paisius Velichkovsky.
First we will give a brief outline of his biography, and then touch
upon his works and his spiritual legacy.
The future Elder Paisius, or as we call him now, St Paisius, was
born on December 21, 1722, in the city of Poltava, to a family of
priests: his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all
priests. His mother became a nun later in life, as did his grandmother
and aunt. He was baptized with the name of Peter. His father, Fr.
John, was the rector of Dormition Cathedral. His mother, Irina,
worked with children. Peter grew up a quiet and meek boy; he loved
to read, and at an early age read every spiritual book in his home
and at the cathedral library. Among them were: Holy Scripture, several
works of St John Chrysostom and of St Efrem the Syrian.
His biographer noted that he was "bashful and unassuming,"
so that even his parents almost never heard his voice, and visitors
would often ask: "Is he dumb?"
At the age of 13, Peter entered Kiev Theological School, which later
became the Theological Academy, where Archbishop Simon (Todorsky)
of Pskov taught at the time, along with Metropolitan Arsenii (Matseevich)
of Rostov and others. Hieromonk Ioasaf was still there, the future
Bishop of Belgorod. The education there was on a very high level.
There were some 1200 students at the Academy then. But Peter was
not drawn there for this reason, for his heart was consumed by churches,
holy monasteries, the caves of those who took vows of silence, and
by the conversations he had with friends about the hermit's life.
They often met in secluded spots and spoke about spiritually-beneficial
things. "It is better," they would say to each other,
"to remain in the world than to reject worldly goods just for
show, and live a carefree, easy life in a monastery." They
swore to each other not to be tonsured in a wealthy monastery where
it is impossible to emulate the poverty of Christ.
During his third year of studies, Peter's enthusiasm for his work
waned, and his striving for monasticism grew stronger and stronger.
School vacation came, and Peter went home. His mother, who had learned
of his desire to leave school and join a monastery, categorically
objected. Peter had a friend in Poltava by the name of Dimitrii,
with whom he went to school, and they took an oath to leave the
country together. But their plan failed, because Peter fell ill
and had to delay his trip to Kiev. When he regained his health,
his mother accompanied him, thinking that he was going to continue
to study. But in Kiev, Peter began to rethink his future. He decided
to head to Chernigov, to see Elder Pachomii and ask for his counsel
and instructions, and for his blessing for his future path. After
spending a few days with Fr Pachomii, the latter said to Peter:
"It is best for you to go to a monastery not far from Lubech,
the homeland of St Anthony of the Caves. There you will find a Hieromonk
Ioakim, who will instruct you what to do." Peter did as he
was told. When he approached the monastery, he noticed that there
were turnpikes and guards between the town of Lubech and the monastery.
Peter had no documents with him, and he was afraid that he would
be detained. At the same time, a monk appeared on the other side.
Stopping near the guard, the monk glanced at the approaching Peter,
and remarked to the guard when he called to the boy, "Why do
you ask who he is? Don't you see that he is a novice returning to
the monastery?" And the guard let Peter pass. And so, with
God's help, he was able to settle in the monastery. He was given
the duties of the ekomonos (monastery manager), read the Lives of
the Saints during meals in the refectory and took on various chores.
He lived near Elder Ioakim, who blessed him to wear a cassock, and
he rejoiced in his peaceful life.
But Peter was not to remain in this monastery for long. Three months
after his arrival, a new superior was appointed for the monastery,
and because of certain troubles that followed, Peter left the monastery.
He wandered throughout the right bank of Little Russia, which was
under assault by Poles and Uniates. Hearing of a hermit who lived
on a river island, Peter hastened to see him. His name was Isikhii.
He worked on transcribing the works of the Holy Fathers. Peter asked
to be taken in as a student. Peter's face swelled up from tears
and pleading, but the elder was unmoved: "Child, I am a sinful
man and unworthy, and cannot even direct my own poor soul towards
God," he said to Peter.
Leaving the hermit, Peter soon found a monastery, called Medvedovsky,
which he joined. He had no skills, and the brethren often scoffed
at him. He was given the chore of grinding wheat, but he cut his
fingers. Then he was given the task of carrying water and clay,
cut bread in the refectory, serve food to the monks, and clear and
wash dishes. He was also assigned to the kliros. It was in this
monastery that he was tonsured to the rassa with the name Platon.
His spiritual father went somewhere a few weeks later, and Platon
was left without a pastor: "as a lost sheep." He said
of himself: "My soul in my youth was very conducive to obedience,
but I received no divine gift [of opportunity] because of my unworthiness."
After some time, this monastery was assaulted by Uniates and closed
down. Fr Platon went to the Kiev Lavra and worked in the print shop
there. Burning with the desire for ascetic labor and the life of
a hermit, Fr Platon headed for Moldovlachia, where spiritual life
was blossoming, since the monasteries there were under the influence
of the Holy Mountain of Athos. He was at the monastery of St Nicholas
of Treistch, then went to Cyrkul Monastery. He spent some three
years in the monasteries of Moldovlachia under the direction of
the elders Fr Vasilius, Fr Mikhail and Fr Onouphrius.
Later, Fr Platon undertook a voyage to Holy Mount Athos, hoping
to find spiritual guides and assume ascetic labors. At the time,
Fr Platon was 24 years old. The elder's biographer wrote on his
move to Mt Athos: "Who can divine the ways of the Lord? And
who knows His counsels? By His Divine Providence, He took him from
his homeland, took him through many nations, so that he would gather
for himself through spiritual purchase great treasures for his soul,
and finally brought him to the Holy Mountain of Athos, so that he
would continue to amass his spiritual wealth and then give it to
all those who seek guidance from him. The Lord made him an emulator
of St Anthony of the Caves, also a native of Little Russia. And
like St Anthony, who wandered and finally settled on Mt Athos, where
he assumed the angelic monastic rank, and, after laying down many
years of labor there and earning great spiritual gifts, then returning
to his fatherland to sow and multiply monastic life; so did St Paisius,
gaining heavenly treasures, returned to his home, to Moldavia, to
renew the monastic ranks, to reestablish the fallen common monastic
life and plant within it thrice-blessed obedience, illuminating
through his teaching the darkness of the ignorant, to grant wisdom
through the correction and new translations from the Greek into
his native tongue of the Holy Fathers and theological texts."
Hieromonk Tryphon went to the Holy Mountain with Fr Platon. They
arrived on Mt Athos on July 4, on the eve of the feast day of St
Athanasius of Athos, who lived as a hermit on the Holy Mountain,
and then established the first coenobitic monastery.
Today his monastery on the Holy Mountain is the main one, the first
one among twenty other monasteries. Resting for a few days at the
lavra of St Athanasius, the travelers headed for the Monastery of
the Pantocrator, nearby which Slavic monks lived. The road to Pantocrator
Monastery was long and difficult. The travelers, weary, sat down
to rest, and drank some cold water. From this they caught colds.
Hieromonk Tryphon grew delirious, and died soon after arriving at
Platon remained to live at Pantocrator Monastery. Gradually he came
to know the neighboring monasteries, visiting the local monks and
hermit, seeking a spiritual father. It was difficult for him, since
he lived in poverty for some four years. In 1750, the spiritual
father of Fr Platon from Moldavia, Schema-monk Vasilius, came to
Mt Athos, who tonsured Platon to the mantle with the name Paisius.
Soon Paisius was joined by his first students, Vissarion and Cesarius;
eventually their number grew to 12. In 1758, at the age of 36, Fr
Paisius was ordained a hieromonk. With the growth of the number
of monks, at their request, Fr Hiero-schemamonk Paisius asked that
Pantocrator Monastery give him the cell of Prophet Elias, and began
to establish the Skete of Prophet Elias. So Elder Paisius was one
of the founder of today's Skete of Prophet Elias on the Holy Mountain
of Athos. His skete grew in number. Very soon not only his brotherhood
but monks from throughout the Holy Mountain's monasteries became
the spiritual children of Fr Paisius. Even Patriarch Seraphim, who
lived in retirement in Pantocrator Monastery, came to him for spiritual
discussions. All the brethren did handicrafts, and the elder himself
made spoons, spending his nights reading and rewriting the books
of the Holy Fathers, sleeping no more than three hours a day.
But the enemy of mankind envied the growth of Paisius' brotherhood,
their peaceful life and spiritual success. Problems arose among
the skete's residents, who were summoned by Elder Athanasius, who
lived nearby. This enmity and the ensuing problems disturbed Fr
Paisius and his students.
The brotherhood expanded to 50 people, and there was no more room
to live, so new cells had to be built, but there were no funds.
By the recommendation of several residents of Mt Athos, Fr Paisius,
together with his monks, move to the Monastery of St Simon Peter,
which was empty at the time. They hoped this way to avoid their
conflict with Elder Athanasius. The monastic brethren of St Simon
Peter had left because they owed money to the Turkish authorities
and could not pay it. But in three months, it became necessary for
Fr Paisius and his monks to leave this monastery, too, since the
Turks were demanding the repayment of the old debt, and they had
no funds. Once again they returned to the Skete of Prophet Elias.
But their poverty did not permit them to stay for long, and they
had to find a new home.
Elder Paisius decided to move with his brethren to Moldovlachia.
In 1763, after 17 years on the Holy Mountain, he and 64 monks left
and resettled in Moldavia.
Preparing for his departure, Elder Paisius hired two ships; one
he occupied with his Slavic monks, the other took Fr Vissarion and
the Moldavian brethren. They first went to the Monastery of the
Holy Spirit in Dragomir, Bukovina. The monastery was given to them
with forests and all taxes were suspended. Although it was in a
state of disrepair, soon, through the monks' efforts, the monastery
was brought into good condition. The monastic rule for services
was that of Mt Athos. They served in two languages, on the right
kliros they sang in Slavonic, on the left, in Moldavian.
In the cell-life of the brethren, the Elder demanded of each monk
that he follow his calling with full awareness and earnestness,
to be a monk not only by their clothing but in their spirit.
The Elder would spend entire days with the brethren, the doors to
his cell would sometimes stay open until 9 o'clock in the evening.
Monks would come and go to talk about spiritual and practical matters.
Also, the daily reading by the Elder of the books of the Holy Fathers
and his discussions on them had great significance for the spiritual
life of the monks. But the peaceful life in Dragomir was soon violated
by war between Russia and Turkey. Dragomir fell under Austrian control,
and so they had to evacuate to Sekul. Here the monks began to help
refugees. Problems arose among the monks. Gradually, life in Sekul
settled down. The Elder's studies did not cease here, either. His
translating work began to develop here. Sekul, of course, proved
too small and cramped for his brethren. So through the intercession
of Prince Konstantin, Elder Paisius and his monks, with the blessing
of Metropolitan Gabriel, was offered the opportunity of moving to
Niametz in 1779. But Elder Paisius was not happy with this proposal,
for it introduced many complications, and he was already advancing
After some hesitation, the Elder consented to move, but he left
some of the monks in Sekula, while he himself moved to Niametz with
others. This was the final period of his life, the most difficult
one, but also the most fruitful. The number of brethren gathering
around him now was over 700. Word of the monastery's lofty spiritual
life and that of its Elder spread throughout the Orthodox East.
With the help of the Prince, the Elder set up a hospital at the
monastery, along with a house of mercy and significantly increased
the number of monastic cells. The Elder established the intensive
practice of transcribing and translating the works of the Holy Fathers.
He gathered a large number of assistants and prepared them especially
for his publishing work. He taught them Greek, and for completing
their education, sent them to Bucharest Academy.
Thanks to the hard work of this group of trained monks, a great
number of correct translations of the Holy Fathers appeared, along
with a great many transcriptions of them. According to Prof. A.I.
Yatsimirsky, of the thousands of manuscripts kept in the monastery
library at Niametz, written in different periods in different languages,
including Moldavian, Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Hebrew, Arabic,
Turkish, Syrian, Bulgarian, Polish, French and Slavonic, two hundred
seventy-six of them are from the period of Elder Paisius, and over
40 of them were written by his hand.
Elder Paisius' growing fame as a teacher of spiritual life inspired
many to correspond with him. The Elder responded to these letters,
sometimes voluminously. In them, the Elder touches upon various
questions of monastic and general church life, giving instructions
and offering advice. This correspondence took up a great deal of
his time. In these tasks and cares, many years passed unnoticed,
and gradually he approached the final days of his life.
His last days were overshadowed by dangerous troubles caused by
the war between Russia, Austria and Turkey. Niametz was occupied
by the Turks, but the Austrians gathered all their forces and emancipated
Niametz, and soon Russian troops approached. The Commander-in-Chief
of the Russian Army, Prince Potemkin, came to Jassy along with Archbishop
Ambrosius of Slovenia and Poltava. The latter wished to see the
renowned Elder Paisius, and arrived in Niametz Monastery, where
he was greeted by the monks. This was in 1790. That Sunday, Archbishop
Ambrosius officiated at divine liturgy, during which he elevated
the Elder to the rank of Archimandrite. The Elder was born in Poltava,
and the Archbishop of Poltava performed the elevation.
After the military operations ended, life gradually settled down,
and the Elder continued to work as before: he did translations,
wrote letters, guided the monks, but his strength was weakening,
and he faltered. Not long before his fatal illness, he ceased his
translating work. On November 5, 1794, he felt particularly weak
and took to his bed. On Sunday, he felt better and came to church
to partake of communion. Yet his weakness continued, and on November
15, 1794, at the age of 72, he died peacefully.
News of the repose of Schema-archimandrite Paisius spread rapidly,
and a great many monks and faithful gathered in Niametz, Bishop
Benjamin came, and the funeral was performed at Ascension Cathedral,
followed by his burial.
And so we see that the resettlement of Elder Paisius, through Divine
Providence, to Moldovlachia turned out to be very beneficial for
his work. Had he remained on Mt Athos, first of all, his brotherhood
would not have grown as it did because of a lack of resources and
space, and secondly, he could not have had such a great influence
on the spiritual life of Orthodox monasticism in Moldavia and Russia.
Within Schema-archimandrite Paisius, personal holiness was combined
with love for education, ability to organize monastic coenobitic
life, the ability to attract and teach a great host of students,
the skill in creating a school of spiritual asceticism and finally,
a great literary talent which helped him complete an important,
much-needed task—to correct old translations and also make new translations
of the ascetic literature of the Holy Fathers.
The literary works of Elder Paisius are varied. Finding among the
Slavonic translations of the writings of the Holy Fathers extant
at the time a great number of errors, he realized the importance
of their painstaking review. For this he began to strenuously search
Greek originals on Mt Athos. But these were not easy to come by,
since no one ever offered such books for sale. For this reason he
had to transcribe them himself, and pay others to do it. He found
that by far not all works of the Holy Fathers had been translated
into Slavonic. And the second part of this task, the translations
themselves, he undertook in Moldavia after he moved there with his
In order to stress the conscientiousness with which this work was
performed, we point out that the elder checked and correct the same
text three or more times. At the same time, Fr Paisius recognized
the insufficiency of even this; he wrote: "To my great sorrow,
I see that thisÉis far from perfect and that if the Lord in His
mercy extends my life and grants me, almost blind now, the needed
sight, I will have to work more on these correctionsÉ"
Only near the end of his life did Elder Paisius broaden the transcription
and translation of the books of the Holy Fathers on a wider scale.
From here, these works were disseminated throughout the monasteries
of the Orthodox East and reached Russia, where they played an exceptional
role in the rebirth of Russian monasticism in the 18th and 19th
As during the beginning of Christianity in Russia, the planting
of the seeds of Orthodoxy owed a great deal to Saints Anthony and
Theodosius of the Caves and their students, of whom many became
the first bishops of Russia, so later did St Sergius and his students
work towards the strengthening of Orthodoxy, and finally in the
18th and 19th centuries did the students of St Paisius Velichkovsky
play a leading role in the renascence of Russian monasticism and
the rise of starchestvo [elderhood].
The students of St Paisius were influential among monastics—on the
Holy Mountain, in Moldavia and in Russia. Russia was a source of
a particularly large number of his students, under whom a broad
rebirth of spiritual life occurred, along with interest in and love
for the reading and studying of books; elders and monastic superiors
came to the fore who preserved the legacy of St Paisius. One sees
three main currents: the Northern, Central and Southern branches.
The Northern movement had centers in Solovetsky Monastery, Valaam,
St Alexander Nevsky Lavra and St Alexander Svirsky Monastery. The
Central movement was concentrated in Moscow, Vladimir guberniya,
Optina Hermitage and later in Orlov guberniya. In the South, it
was in Ploshchansky Hermitage and Glinsky Hermitage. The circle
of influence of Elder Paisius was wide. In Russia, it spread throughout
monasteries in 35 dioceses.
Although St Paisius lived abroad and all his activity was outside
of Russia, his work still found its way into Russia and brought
fruit a hundred-fold within Russian monasticism in the Russian Church.
One sees in the labors of St Paisius something akin to our time.
As then, during St Paisius' lifetime, his written work found its
way into Russia, where it was rewritten and published—the Slavonic
Dobrotolyubiye [Philokalia], the Work of St Isaac of Syria and many
other works. Under somewhat different circumstances, the same thing
is happening today. Our Russian Church Abroad is carrying out its
mission abroad among Russian Orthodox people and at the same time,
its fruits are being sent to Russia, in the form of the works of
the Holy Fathers and ecclesiastical literature, where there is a
terrible dearth of the Word of God and of spiritual literature [this
article was written in the early 1990's—ed.].
True, there is a great difference between the time of St Paisius
and our time. St Paisius lived in an Orthodox country, and although
the same publishing possibilities did not exist there, one could
freely transcribe and re-transcribe manuscripts and send them to
Russia, and print and disseminate them there. Today, although we
live in heterodox surroundings, we can freely print large editions,
but disseminating spiritual literature among our brethren in Russia
is virtually impossible. But with God's help, some things can be
sent there, and this small amount, we hope, will bring forth fruit
a hundredfold. May this be, o Lord, by the prayers of St Paisius!
This is the brief biography, struggles, labors and merits of St
Paisius Velichkovsky, the restorer of the strict coenobitic monasticism
and founder of Russian starchestvo of the 19th century.
This is the good that can be done by one person--of course, with
God's help. Maybe among our young people we will find those willing
to serve God, serve the Russian Orthodox Church. Young men and women
are needed, our monasteries are in need of young forces, and if
Russia is born again, she will need experienced, prepared people.
Those who hear this call, respond!
This brief item was based on the book of Protopriest Sergii Chetverikov,
Starets Paisii Velichkovsky, and several other articles.
The glorification of St Paisius was performed in our Russian Orthodox
Church Outside of Russia on the feast day of Holy Prophet Elias
on July 20, 1982 at the Russian Skete of St Elias on Mt Athos, which
was founded by St Paisius.