Orthodox America

In Pursuit of Wisdom - Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky  

O God-guided Paisius, thou didst...gather like a wise bee the nectar of patristic teaching from blossoms both near and far, making of it a most sweet honey of divine instruction, whereby to nourish and fill thy native Russia and all who venerate thy memory. (Vespers Stichera)

"Arise, my beloved soul, and do what I shall tell you. If you cannot labor as the Holy Fathers did, then ~t least begin according to your strength." These simple but deep words from the "Field Flowers" of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) formed, as it were , the entire theme of Elder Paisius' life-and ought to be the motive of our lives today. By always acting according to his strength and never pampering himself, and by paying heed to the following instruction he gave. to his own brethren, he attained both the heights of virtue in this life, and un- ending paradise in the next:

"Thus, brethren, having come to see the shortness of our life and the vanity of this age, let us take care for the hour of death, leaving off the tumult of this world."

Since his youth, the blessed Elder had acted upon this wise counsel. Born into a pious clergy family of 18th century Russia, it is not surprising that the young Paisius' education. began in learning to read from the Psalter and other church service books; It was not long before he was assiduously read- reading the Divine Scriptures, the Lives of Saints, the instructions of St. Ephraim and St. Dorotheus, and others. Above all, he loved the Lives of the monastic Holy Fathers. They kindled in him not only a passing interest, but a firm determination to follow their ex ample. He had a few. friends who shared his dream of becoming a true monk~ From his Life we see clearly the power of a firm re- solve made in one's youth as Elder Theophan the Recluse teaches:

"After much consultation and diligent study, they made in their souls an absolute and unchangeable covenant that their .renunciation from the world, their tonsure and their monastic life would not be in those monasteries where there is a great abundance of food and drink and every kind of bodily convenience, glory and ease." Further, the young Paisius "resolved in no way t9 judge his neighbor, even if he saw him sin with his own eyes," and likewise "to forgive his neighbor with his whole heart and soul for any kind of offense .... And this covenant Paisius kept in act for his whole life, God's grace giving him strength."

His path, however, was not an easy one. Clinging firmly to the monastic ideal as described by the Holy Fathers, he went in search of an experienced instructor; he was well aware of the need for an experienced guide in the spiritual life, else the precious seed of faith and holy desire would grow into an untamed weed. unfortunately, the general spiritual level of monasticism in Russia at that time was low, particularly in respect to the inward activity of the heart.

"When I left the world, desiring with warm zeal to serve the Lord fervently in monasticism, I was unable at the beginning of my monasticism to see even a trace from anyone of sound and correct understanding, instruction and advice in accordance with the teaching of the Holy Fathers..." .I was left like a sheep wandering without a. shepherd

But God was merciful towards his zealous young servant and finally brought him to the wilderness sketes of Vlachia. There the Blessed one found some worthy elders and there he was able to lay a firm foundation to his monastic life. He remained there three years, gathering "from those Holy Fathers the spiritual honey that came forth from their lips which he delighted in even to satiety."

Nothing, however, could quench his longing to see the Holy Mountain of Athos . Receiving a blessing for his journey, he departed for that bastion of monastic sanctity, arriving at the age of 25 to that "garden.... .of the Most Holy Mother of God " Once again he was brought to the verge of despair. The Holy Mountain was overrun by Turks and no where could he find any experienced elder. With great sadness he was forced to acknowledge the truth of the words of St ~ Simeon the New Theologian:. "Rare are they in truth, and especially now, who know how to shepherd and skillfully treat rational souls."

"Not finding; for many good reasons, a place where I might be in obedience, I thought of undertaking the life according to the royal path, with a single like-minded and like-souled brother, and in place of a father to have God as instructor and the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and to be in obedience to each, other and to serve each other.. .

And so it was that he began to collect and painstakingly td copy out the writings of the ancient Holy Fathers using them as a guide in the spiritual life. He endured all manner of deprivation for the sake of acquiring these precious manuscripts. However, he soon discovered that the Slavonic texts were very obscure in places and contained numerous errors. With God's help he was able to obtain the original Greek texts, which had all but fallen into obscurity. there on the Holy Mountain ; and, having settled with a growing number of brethren in the abandoned Skete of the Holy Prophet Elias , he began to fervently work "on the translation of the patristic and theological books from ancient Greek into the Slavonic language, that he might leave behind benefit and nourishment for the souls of those who wish even now to struggle, to be zealous, and to pay heed to the teaching of our God-bearing Fathers."

The author of his Life has left a vivid portrait of Blessed Paisius at work on his translation of patristic texts:

"One can only be astonished at- how he wrote, for he was most infirm in body and had wounds on his whole tight side. On the bed where he lay, he surrounded himself with books: here there were placed dictionaries in various languages, the Bible in.Greek and Slavonic; Greek and Slavonic grammars, the book from which he was making translations and a candle in the middle;' and he, sitting bent over like a small child, would write the whole night long, forgetting both the infirmity of his body and his severe pains and labor. O most dispassionate and holy man! O pure soul united to God! He was entirely attached to God with love, and entirely poured out himself for his neighbor with love as well."

So great were the treasures he received from these writings, and so immense was his desire to share these with others, that he urged others to partake of them, being convinced that they are "in all respects in agreement with the Divine Scriptures."

With great spiritual insight, this collector and translator of the writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church became himself both a vessel and a transmitter of these golden teachings, as we see from his Life:

"Of miracles and healings (worked by the Elder) there is no need to write; for it is not from miracles alone that the sanctity of men who are truly holy is known. It is rather from true Orthodox faith, and careful know ledge of the dogmas according to God, and the keeping of all the canons and traditions of the Apostles and Councils of the Orthodox Eastern Church and an irreproachable life."

All of this was in keeping with the teaching he had received from the great Elder Michael, who said: "Let us not heed the condition of these fierce times and the weakness of men who live without fear, but let us keep what has been handed down by the Holy Apostles and by the Holy Fathers at the councils."

Indeed, this is the standard of true Orthodoxy today; but it was also from these same Holy Fathers that Elder Paisius learned how to avoid the pitfalls of legalism and the obsessive attention to the letter of the law which is so often a temptation for converts to Orthodoxy in today's world. He came to know with certainty that "solely by Orthodoxy of faith it is not at all possible to be saved." As he wrote t6 an Abbess: "Christ our true God says: I am come to send fire on the earth. . (Luke 12:49).... All the Saints received this Divine fire of God's grace, keeping with all diligence the soul-saving commandments of the Gospel, without doing which, by the Orthodox Faith alone, it is not possible to be saved."

The intense sobriety of his writings is surely a result of the merging of patristic knowl edge and practice that is the fruit of his most difficult, most wonderful life. And it was his exemplary life as well as his teachings which attracted to him a great multitude of disciples desiring not only outward monastic discipline, but guidance in the in- ward activity of unceasing prayer.

God glorified His servant with many gifts and his fame as an Elder spread about the entire Holy Mountain. Even many great fathers there desired to have him for their confessor. The constant increase of brethren in the Skete resulted in very over-crowded conditions. Seeing no chance of improving the situation there, the Elder took counsel and, through God's Providence, he left Mt. Athos where he had labored for almost 20 years, and came with his brethren to settle in the Dragomirna Monastery in Moldavia. It was here, and in the nearby monasteries of Sekoul and Niamets, that Blessed Paisius continued his labors on the patristic texts and raised up an army of disciples who carried the Paisian tradition to Russia.

Thus it was that, having realized at the age of 17 that pure Orthodoxy was not avail able to him in the Russia of his time, he wandered in search of the unadulterated sources of truth and, finding them, "he himself became a source and seedbed for the great monastic and patristic revival of Holy Russia." This revival blossomed like a field of flowers which, to this day, yield a sweet nectar to all those who, like Blessed Paisius, hunger to be nourished by the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

Quotations taken from Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky by Schema-monk Metronhanes (see p. 12); and "Field Flowers," in The Orthodox Word, nos. 60 and 61.