Orthodox America

Abbot Paul of Mt Athos

Abbot Paul was born into a family of prosperous Russian merchants in the city of Kaluga and in baptism received the name Peter. From his earliest years he dedicated himself to serving God and was constantly reading religious books and the Holy Scriptures as well as attending the divine services in church. When he came of age he began to work as a merchant. He always had a strong desire to become a monk and to labor unhindered for the Lord his God but was restrained by his parents.

When he became an adult his parents forced him to get married. He did not even want to hear about marriage but they used every means possible to persuade him, by threats and pleading and tears inducing him to do their will. Finally, he submitted to his parents and got married. He lived with his wife for three years and had two daughters.

Then one night Peter came to his wife who was already in bed and began to speak to her with many tears. "My dearly beloved and precious companion in life, you know how much I love you and our children also. We have plenty of wealth, but all this is corruptible and will quickly pass away. Death will come and interrupt our love and will separate us forever and our wealth will be left behind. We will have to appear before the righteous Judge with our good deeds alone. We must prepare ourselves and serve Him, work for Him and pray to Him in this world."

She replied, "My dearest friend, work and pray to the Lord God; I will not interfere or hinder you in any way. I myself will imitate what you do." Then he told her, "My dear, let me go to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and worship at the life-bearing Tomb of Christ and the other holy places." "Go with God's blessing," she replied. "I give you my permission." Seeing his wife's favorable disposition, Peter was overjoyed and applied for a passport. His parents tried to stop him, but failed because his wife and the merchant guild had both given their consent. When the governor of the province saw how young Peter was, he called in his wife three times and tried to persuade her not to let him go, sure that he would go overseas and never return. In spite of this warning, she let him go, having entrusted everything to the will of God.

Peter secured a passport and set out; his wife accompanied him for a hundred kilometers. They were both twenty-one years old. When they bade each other farewell he told her, "My dear wife, the Lord said: If any man would come after Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple (Lk. 14:26). I want to be a disciple of my Lord Jesus Christ. I do not know whether I will return or not. I entrust you and our children to God alone. Remember Him, the Creator, and never forget Him. And forgive me and bless me to follow Christ."

As soon as he said this he sat in his wagon and drove off. When his wife heard these last words she fell on the ground as if dead. They put her into another wagon still unconscious and brought her back home. She wept for ten years waiting for her husband to return. Then she heard that he was on Mount Athos and had been tonsured a monk and that he was already a priest-monk. She herself then went to the convent in Kaluga and was tonsured a nun, with the name Paula. Their relatives provided for their daughters and found them husbands.

After leaving his wife and homeland, Peter first went to Jerusalem and worshipped at the life-bearing Tomb of Christ and the other holy places. Then he went to Mount Athos and, after visiting all the various monasteries and sketes on the Holy Mountain, he settled in the Skete of Prophet Elias. He joined the brotherhood and was later tonsured a monk and given the name Paul He was soon ordained a deacon and priest. Cutting off his own will, he lived in the skete in total obedience for eighteen years.

Then troubled times came. Because of the Greek uprising the Turks sent military forces to Mount Athos and afflicted God's wrath on the Holy Mountain. The monks fled wherever they could. At that time the brotherhood of the skete was disbanded. The abbot Parthenius with priest monk Paul and a few of the brothers cleaned out the skete, concealing all its belongings in secret cellars and hiding places and buried them under a layer of soil. They took the portable items and money with them, locked the gates of the skete and set out for Russia.

Reaching St. Petersburg, they asked the Tsar Alexander I to accept the holy relics as a gift and to give them a monastery in Russia where they could live. The Tsar told them to keep the relics and be patient, because they would return to Mount Athos.

The monks wandered homeless for eight long years and endured many sorrows and almost death itself, so that later Fr. Paul could not speak of those days without tears streaming from his eyes. But when the war was over and peace was restored, the brotherhood began to make its way back to Mount Athos.

Fr. Paul and Abbot Parthenius returned, but it took them over two weeks to find their way back to the skete; in eight years everything had grown over and become part of the surrounding forest. For an entire year they worked to clear out the area of the skete and for three more years they labored to clear the garden area. Only God knows all their labors in restoring the skete to proper order.

Fr. Paul was tonsured to the great schema, but his name was not changed. In time some forty monks were gathered in the brotherhood of the skete. In 1837 the Lord sent a new trial for the Skete of Prophet Elias. An epidemic of the bubonic plague broke out among the brotherhood. Abbot Parthenius was among the victims. During that period, Fr. Paul served daily the Divine Liturgy, took the Holy Mysteries to the dying and tonsured them to the great schema. He performed the burial rites for those who died from the plague. He alone did not fumigate his quarters and cared for the sick and dying.

Only about a third of the brotherhood survived. They went through a period of quarantine and then asked that the Holy Cross be brought from the Monastery of Xeropotamou, the largest extant portion of the True Cross of Christ. After a vigil and the blessing of water with the relic of the True Cross, a procession was made with the Holy Cross by the fathers of the skete and many other Athonite monks. After that the epidemic ended. Father Paul was then elected abbot of the skete and once again some forty monks were gathered in the brotherhood where the community rule was established anew.

But the enemy of all good aroused the monks from Little Russia (now called Ukraine) against the monks from Great Russia and especially against Abbot Paul. They heaped many insults on him and three times they drove him out. And three times they asked him to return. Finally they expelled him and all the Great Russian monks forever.

Although Fr. Paul grieved that he had been expelled from the skete where he had labored for thirty-five years, he did not complain against the Little Russians and forbad his disciples to speak ill of them. "The Little Russians are our great benefactors," he told them. "They are beseeching eternal life for us."

Soon the Lord consoled Abbot Paul. Because of his humility and refusal to complain, the Lord granted him in place of a skete and a single floor kellion, a five-story building in a great monastery. In the fall of 1839 the abbot and brotherhood of St. Panteleimon's Monastery invited Fr. Paul and the Russian brotherhood to return to their monastery, which from olden times had been known as "Russikon", the Russian Monastery.

In the 1730's, because of the constant Russo-Turkish wars and policies of the Tsarist government that were unfavorable to monasticism, the Russian brotherhood of this monastery had died out. The monastery was then inhabited by Greeks, who rebuilt it on a new site in the early 1800's. Abbot Paul and the Russian brotherhood took up their places in the Monastery of St. Panteleimon on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in 1839. There they soon completed a church dedicated to St. Mitrophan of Voronezh, where they conducted the daily services in Church Slavonic.

Fr. Paul lived in the monastery eight months and ten days, amazing the Greek monks with his humility, patience and obedience and giving his disciples an example in every way.

Here is an example of his guilelessness. After Fr. Paul was expelled from the Skete of Prophet Elias, priest-monk Akakios became the abbot there. This Fr. Akakios had been Fr. Paul's chief enemy and had persecuted him more than anyone else. After half a year as abbot of the skete and after squandering much of its property, there was another scandal in the skete. Fr. Akakios was arrested. Having lived and worked in the skete for thirty-five years and knowing everything there very well, Fr. Paul was summoned and told to make a list of all that was missing. But Fr. Paul covered up for his former enemy and persecutor, repaying him good for evil. He said everything was in order, the same as before. All of Mount Athos was astounded by this action of his.

On July 28, 1840 Fr. Paul fell ill. He was sick for three days, but he celebrated the Divine Liturgy, even though it was difficult for him. On August 2 he was no longer able to go to church, but asked that the services be read in his cell. After the midnight office, he read the Six Psalms himself, with deep concentration and many tears. He read these verses with special compunction: Forsake me not, O Lord my God, depart not from me. Be attentive to my help, O Lord God of my salvation. O God, my God, unto Thee do I rise early at dawn. My soul hath thirsted for Thee; how often hath my flesh longed after Thee..., and so on. Then he was somewhat consoled and with great exaltation he read: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all that He hath done for thee: and so on. He was unable to say the litany and asked his disciples to say "Lord have mercy" twelve times. Then they began to chant: "God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us; blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord," and he surrendered his soul into the hands of his Lord, Whom he had loved more than his parents and wife and children and for Whom he had labored for thirty-six years as a monk. Truly "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Fr. Paul died without any pain or fear, as if he had fallen into a sweet sleep, seated with his head bowed. When the brothers saw this they ran and told the Abbot. All the brethren of the monastery came and wept over his departure, and monks from all over the Holy Mountain gathered for his funeral and burial.

Three years later his grave was opened and his remains were found to be graced with sanctity. His bones were golden like beeswax and gave off a pleasant fragrance. They were placed in the monastery charnel house and his skull was put in its proper place, bearing the inscription: Priest monk Paul the Russian. A.

This brief account of Abbot Paul's life and struggles is based on Monk Parfeny's Narrative of Travels in Russia, Moldavia, Turkey and the Holy Land, part 4, 161, pages 235-42, which was published in Russian in Moscow, 1856. Monk Parfeny says he heard some of these things from Fr. Paul himself, saw some of them with his own eyes and learned of others from Fr. Paul's disciples.