Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, St Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, Florence, AZ, 1998; 421 pps., $35.00 hdcv.,
"Angels are a light to monks, and monks are a light to those living in the world." (The Ladder)
When I converted to Orthodoxy almost thirty years ago, there was very little Orthodox literature available in English. One or two standard works, a few lives of saints; that was it. We came across references to monastic life but unless we had access to a monastery, our understanding was necessarily somewhat limited. Wonderful books such as The Way of a Pilgrim introduced us to the Jesus Prayer, but it was years before we understood there are not two separate spiritualities in the Church- one for lay people and another for monastics. It was a happy day when we learned that there is only one spirituality in the Church, and monastics are- or are supposed to be- on the "cutting edge," leading the way for the rest of us, who hobble along in our own spiritual lives, but nonetheless try to follow our older brothers and sisters.
I remember when I first discovered Anchored in God, by Constantine Cavarnos. It was here that I encountered for the first time Elder Joseph the Hesychast (from "hesychia": the way of stillness before God, using the Jesus Prayer), sometimes also called Elder Joseph the Cave-dweller. Before his holy death on the Feast of the Dormition, 1959, the Elder had lived for many decades as a monk on Mount Athos, "giving spiritual guidance to monks and laymen who seek instruction and counsel through visits and correspondence." (Anchored in God) Little did I know that decades later part of the large correspondence of the late Elder would be translated into English and published in the West. If, as another has written, the Elder was "a vital link in the golden chain of Athonite tradition for contemporary Orthodoxy," this collection of extraordinary letters can be compared to spiritual diamonds in that golden chain. (The Shepherd, Nov. 1998)
In the Preface, Archimandrite Ephraim (a spiritual son of the Blessed Elder) remembers being told stories about Mount Athos when he was very young, and that, as a result, he soon "began to feel [his] heart drifting away from the world and cleaving to the Holy Mountain." Whenever he would hear about the Elder Joseph, he writes, he "would burn with the ardent desire for the day I would meet him." Soon he was to discover in person that "it was impossible for a person to come and stay with [the Elder] and not be cured of his passions, regardless of how many and how strong they were, as long as he was obedient to him."
The reader of Monastic Wisdom will receive at least a "taste" of this healing, this purification, for the letters are themselves more than just words: they call the reader to a clear realization and a deep conviction that "a life lived for the sake of external things [is] both a crime and death for the soul. A man must turn within himself, so that his heart can be cleansed of its passions and so that Christ can come into spiritual union with it"- this is in fact the universal and perpetual teaching of authentic Orthodox Christianity. (The Monastic Life, Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili) Monastic Wisdom is divided into two sections, plus a Preface, Prolegomena, and Epilogue. The first section consists of the letters themselves, more than eighty of them, each one deserving of careful reading and study; the second section is a fascinating and edifying "Epistle to an Hesychast Hermit" - probably one of the most unique documents of its kind. The book is also profusely illustrated with black and white and color photographs, including rare views of the Elder's humble cell and grave on the Holy Mountain.
When the late Blessed Elder Philotheos Zervakos (himself a spiritual child of St. Nectarios) wrote the following, he could have been describing the main theme of the Elder Joseph's letters of direction:
"Most people believe that happiness is being wealthy...They wear themselves out, they toil, they travel abroad and they suffer hardships day and night to acquire corruptible wealth - material and temporal wealth- which does not render the people who acquire it happy, but unhappy many times.... My children, real happiness is neither in dignities nor in comforts of the body. True happiness is in virtue. Those who struggle to acquire virtue and fulfill God's commandments are truly happy.... Spiritual fathers are required to take care for the spiritual progress, the good fortune, and the salvation of their spiritual children..." (The Most Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai)
Through these letters, the Elder Joseph is continuing to "take care" of new generations of believers and seekers.
An important and worthwhile companion volume to Monastic Wisdom is Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim, just published by St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery. This new volume is more that 400 pages of valuable excerpts from letters to monastics and laypeople, as well as extracts from sermons, of a monk who was a spiritual son of the rightly famous Elder Joseph the Hesychast. An appreciative Prologue by the renowned spiritual writer, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, and a helpful glossary of spiritual terms, completes this highly recommended companion to Monastic Wisdom.
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