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  The Christian Spiritual Life - Asceticism Rewarded


Elder Hilarion, Recluse of Troekurovo -- + Nov. 5, 1853 

            Rarely since the age of the early desert fathers has God’s grace been so abundantly manifest as in 19th-century Russian through its golden chain of God-bearing elders.  Though far removed in time and space from their spiritual progenitors, they are linked together by the same ascetic fervor, self-renunciation and ceaseless inner toil which purified and shaped their hearts into worthy vessels of the Holy Spirit.  Most elders were father confessors in monasteries – Optina, Sarov, Glinsk, Valaam – but others were hermits and even lay men and women.  Outwardly their paths differed, but they all arrived at the height of spiritual perfection where they were crowned with the gift of discernment, a gift which enabled them to guide thousands of souls in their selfless service to everyone who sought their help.

            One of the most extraordinary of these Spirit-filled elders, so akin to the desert fathers of “long ago,” is the little-known recluse of Troekurovo.  While we cannot think to imitate his severe ascetic feats, we may nourish our souls with his spirit of fervor and determination, and be humbled by the paucity of our own spiritual efforts. 


            Elder Hilarion was born in 1774 into a family of state peasants.  His early disposition to godliness set him apart from his peers and quite worried his parents who feared he would never be able to make his way in life.  And, indeed, Hilarion was very absentminded with regard to practical affairs and suffered no small amount of mockery and reproaches on account of it.  Fortunately, he was spared by his grandfather, a simple and illiterate though deeply pious peasant, who took the boy to live with him in his hut.  At first the grandfather too was concerned by Hilarion’s exceptionally ascetic habits – he prayed for hours on end and ate only two bread rolls a week -- and he tried to temper the boy’s zeal fearing that it might lead to cold indifference later on.  When he realized, however, that it was a sign of God’s special calling, he let the boy follow the dictates of his heart.  Together they went on pilgrimages to holy places in Kiev and elsewhere, availing themselves of the wise counsel of those experienced in the spiritual life.

            At the age of 14 Hilarion lost his grandfather and had to return to his parental home.  By then he had already acquired a firm foundation in his faith and was not easily swayed from his chosen ascetic path.  When his parents insisted that he marry, Hilarion acquiesced out of obedience, but he remained a stranger to his wife.  Stifled by the household atmosphere and the vexations of his wife and parents, Hilarion found consolation in his visits to the kind-hearted priest of the neighboring Golovinshchino village, Fr. Trofim, whose warm hospitality helped to ward off despondency.

            Such a situation could not last long.  Realizing that family ties had shackled him hand and foot, and having reached that point when the desire to serve God takes entire hold of a man and carries him away from all earthly bonds and relations, Hilarion decided to make a clean break with all worldly expectations.  At the age of 20 he left home and became a wanderer.[1]

            After some time he decided to settle in a monastery, but twice he was chased out after his wife wrote appeals to the diocesan administration.  Hilarion then fled into the wilderness, into a ravine where he dug out several caves connected by passages.  The severity of his ascetic exploits there can only be compared to that of the ancient desert fathers.  For six years he survived on radishes which he planted.  Often he would go without water for days on end, waiting for rain.  Summer and winter he walked about barefoot, clad only in a long linen shirt and a robe of white cloth which concealed heavy chains.  His ceaseless prayers and prostrations roused the anger of the evil spirits who would appear in the guise of wild beasts or foul creatures.

            One evening Fr. Trofim came to see the recluse.  While he was there, Hilarion had to go to the village for candles.  He warned his guest not to let anyone in without the Jesus Prayer.  Left alone the priest felt terrified.

            Suddenly he heard urgent knocking on the door.  Thinking that it must be Hilarion he went to open the door, but then he remembered the warning and said:  “Say a prayer!”

            “Open up!”

            “I won’t let you in without a prayer.”

            Fr. Trofim then heard furious noises behind the door.  He made the sign of the Cross over the entrance and prayed.  Terrible laughter and hand-clapping were heard, and then there was silence.  Hilarion found the priest pale with fright.

            Meanwhile, rumors about the struggling ascetic began to spread.  People came to see him, rich and poor, seeking consolation in their sorrows, or asking for good advice in their misfortunes.  Hilarion received everyone; he accepted whatever the rich people gave him and passed their offering on to the poor.  However, the crowds also distressed him.  So as not to be disturbed in his vigils, he would from time to time leave his caves and climb a tree in the depth of the forest where he would spend two or three days without food or sleep.

            While cherishing his solitude, the recluse did not neglect being present at the holy Liturgy in the village church some miles away.  Late one evening he was returning from this village in a terrible snowstorm and lost his way.  Barefoot, wearing only his usual light clothing and fighting the wind, he lost all his strength and fell unconscious into the snow.  He was found by a peasant riding behind him, who brought him to the village on his sled.  It was more than an hour before he gave any sign of life.  In a weak voice he asked the priest to read the supplicatory prayer to the Mother of God, the Healer.  When the priest brought the cross to his lips, he kissed it in all reverence, then bowed to the priest and walked out of the house despite the raging storm.  The next morning people found him in the church where he behaved as if nothing had happened.

 

            Years of Wandering

            The unending stream of visitor not only disturbed Hilarion’s seclusion, but drew the attention of the police.  Again he began wandering – to Yelets, to Kiev, to Zadonsk.  In Kiev, while staying in the Korennoy Monastery near Kursk, Hilarion fell seriously ill; the Abbot who knew him well suggested he should be secretly tonsured a monk.  Hilarion agreed, but kept his name.  After his recovery he returned to his caves where once again he was beseiged by visitors asking his counsel and his prayers.

            The unsleeping adversary of man’s salvation ceased not to stir up trouble for the righteous ascetic.  His caves were on private property and he was threatened with eviction.  Next he became the victim of an atrocious slander:  he was said to be leading a disorderly and immoral life in the caves.  As a result, he was sent off to the Monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul for a six-month penance.

            The years spent in the damp caves impaired his health, and when Fr. Hilarion returned he settled in the village church watch-tower.  At that time the crops of Prince Dolgoruky in the neighboring village were about to be destroyed by drought.  The Prince wrote to Fr. Hilarion and asked for his prayers; that same day heavy rain poured over his crops.  In gratitude the Prince suggested that Fr. Hilarion move to his estate where he was warmly welcomed.  After the Prince’s death, however, the servants began to treat the Elder so harshly that it was impossible for him to stay there any longer.   There followed another period of moving from place to place until at last he was persuaded by a wealthy landowner to move to his estate of Troekurovo.  Fr. Hilarion arrived in early November 1824.  The Elder had asked God to guide him in this move and as he was returning from a pilgrimage to Kiev, he had heard a voice in the forest:  “Enough of wandering around!  Work out your salvation in one place.”

Troekurovo

            Fr. Hilarion was 50 years old when he came to live in Troekurovo, and there he spent the last 29 years of his life.  He was given three small rooms which were kept warm, as the cold with which the ascetic used to subdue his body had now become unbearable to him.  Nevertheless, he continued to fast strictly and to place restrictions on himself.  One lovely spring day he walked out into the sunshine in the garden, but soon returned and said to his cell-attendant, “It is lovely outside, very lovely – one might want to enjoy it longer.”

            No one could overlook the spiritual beauty of Fr. Hilarion’s appearance  Emaciated by fasting, his face was very thin and transparent and unusually fair; his lips would frequently light up with a bright smile.  He had long silver hair and a longish beard.  Someone remarked:  “He looked like an angel of God.  One could not even emagine that the Lord would endow His servants on earth which such beauty.  Already nearly 80 years old, he seemed to be in the prime of his life.”

            In Troekurovo the Elder managed to preserve an awkward equilibrium; he remained a recluse, although he continued to attend church services and receive visitors whom he would greet with the words:  “Let’s make three prostrations and pray to our Heavenly Queen.”  He spoke simply, brielfy, and often in parables.  He was a gentle father to those around him.  People would come to him laden with heavy burdens, but they seemed to fly like birds on wings after having seen him.

            One of his visitors was a young teacher by the name of A.M. Grenkov who felt a desire to renounce the world and went to ask for Fr. Hilarion’s blessing.  The latter told him firmly:  “Go at once to Optina.”  The young man obeyed the Elder’s injunction and subsequently became himself perhaps the most renowned elder of all Russia, Elder Ambrose of Optina.  Throughout the rest of his life he continued to revere Fr. Hilarion whose portrait he kept in his cell.

            Fr. Hilarion’s clairvoyance was testified to by circumstances beyond all doubt.  Anyone seeking his advice and failing to act on it had to suffer heavy consequences.  Very often Fr. Hilarion’s advice served to avert impending misfortunes.  It happened that he would advise someone to go to confession and Holy Communion;  later it would turn out that this person was at the threshold of death, and would have died unrepentant without the Elder’s forewarning.

            Towards the end of his life the Elder made plans for the establishment of a convent.  He consoled the community of sisters which had grown up under his guidance soon after his move to Troekurovo:  “My spirit of prayer will be forever in this blessed place.  In times of sorrows, illnesses, or perplexities – read a molieben and akathist before the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God…then have a memorial service read for me, a sinner.”

            Fr. Hilarion quietly passed away on November 5, 1853.  More than 10,000 people came to his funeral and all bore witness to the fact that the cell of the departed and the church were filled with an unearthly fragrance emanating from the Elder’s coffin.  Even after his repose Fr. Hilarion continued to console the faithful.  “I am alive to those who believe in God,” he said in one of his appearances after his death.  This is a great mystery in that there is nothing corruptible in the spiritual realm; everything in it keeps gaining strength, until the power of inviolable grace is revealed in the Kingdom of eternal and inalienable bliss.

 (Condensed from a translation by Mrs. Olga Oleinikov of Otechestvennye podvizhniki 18 i 19 vekov, pp. 325-351, Jordanville, 1966.)


[1] (Lest the reader be critical of this seemingly cruel behavior towards his spouse, the life of St. Alexis, Man of God, should be brought to mind.)


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