Orthodox America

Anchored on Athos - Schema-hieromonk Theodosius of Karoulia  

+October 2/15, 1938

The following is not a biography in the full sense of the term but a personal recollection which imparts the spiritual fragrance that permeated the life of this grace-filled elder. 

     In the summer of 1926, during my second pilgrimage to Athos, I spent four unforgettable days with the great Elder, Schema-hieromonk [1] Theodosy, in that most austere Athonite wilderness, Karoulia. The life of this Elder is extremely remarkable, but as it is not possible for me to give his full biography, I shall tell what has been preserved in my memory from the stories told about him on Athos in that wonderful time of the twenties.

      Father Theodosy came from a religious family. He graduated from one of the seminaries in the region of the Volga, and later from the Kazan Theological Academy. As a government scholarship student, he was then obliged to serve for an appointed number of years as a seminary teacher. Where he became a monk, I do not recall. I know that after serving for several years as a hieromonk, he was awarded a gold pectoral cross. He was also an inspector of the seminary for some time. When it was about time for his obligatory service to come to an end, he was offered the rectorship of a seminary with the rank of archimandrite. In a short time he would have become a hierarch, but this Father Theodosy decisively refused. He was drawn by the desert and its inner spiritual activity. In the 1880's, as soon as his obligatory service had ended, he handed in his resignation and went off to Athos.

    On Athos he found himself in a rather difficult position. No Russian monastic community wanted to receive into the number of its brethren a learned hieromonk, and one with a gold pectoral cross at that! On Athos in those days they were opposed to accepting even simple monks from outside, and if they did, they would place them on a lesser standing than the most junior monk of their own community. And here was not only an educated monk, but one with a gold cross ! According to his rank, he should have been made senior to the tried local hieromonks who had labored on Athos for 25 or 30 years.

     In a word, there was no place for the newcomer, either in the monasteries or in the sketes. Fr. Theodosy then turned to the kelliots and solitaries who lived in twos and threes in small cells scattered over the Holy Mountain. On Athos there were more than a hundred of these.[2] But the kelliots were also reluctant to accept such an educated and experienced monk.

    Finally, one hermit, an iconographer, agreed to accept Father Theodosy in the capacity of a simple novice. The latter humbly consented and became the Elder's obedient servant. He cooked food for him, collected firewood and tidied up their dwelling. The Elder, by testing him severely, humbled him. In the presence of visitors, people who had come to buy icons, he would often shout at him: "Hey, you learned fool, put on the samovar for the guests," and the like.

    Thus passed several years. By his great humility and patience, Father Theodosy acquired the right to become an Athonite. However, he desired greater solitude and an even stricter ascetic life. Hugging a cliff high above the sea at the tip of Athos lies the area of Karoulia, noted for its severe lifestyle.

There, living for the most part in caves, were some twenty exceptionally strict ascetics, They each lived separately, assembling only on Sundays and the Great Feasts for the divine services in a tiny church. The hermits had no abbot, but they had a spiritual father, an elder who lived near the church.

      The Karoulian ascetics fasted strictly. During all the fasts they ate only bread and water on weekdays. On Saturdays and Sundays they would prepare hot foot, but without oil. They ate fish only on the Great Feasts, and only on Pascha did they eat a small colored egg and a piece of sheep's cheese. Their food supplies, furnished by St. Panteleimon' s Monastery, rarely arrived more than twice a month. To receive these supplies, the hermits let down a basket on a long rope over the rocks.

    Moving about that part of Athos was difficult and dangerous. The paths were narrow, often no more than two feet wide, with an abyss of several hundred feet below. For safety's sake ropes were stretched along the narrowest paths, especially in the slippery winter season. In this century the ropes were replaced by iron chains donated by a certain benefactor. I walked along these paths in 1926. It was frightening to look down; one's breath was taken away at the sight of the void beneath.

     It was in this desert place that Father Theodosy also lived, waiting in turn for the death of one of the inhabitants so that he could take possession of his cave. There also he received the Great Schema, with the name Theodosy, having already been a monk of the small schema for over twenty years.

    After the death of Karoulia's elder, the hermits chose Father Theodosy to replace him as their spiritual father. Gradually other Athonite monks, and even abbots of the Russian monastic houses began to seek out his aid. (Before the First World War there were over a hundred monastic communities, large and small, on Athos. The number of Russian monks there at that time reached ten thousand.)

     Many began to correspond with Father Theodosy, seeking his counsel, and he made all possible efforts to answer them, imitating the renowned Russian recluse of the 19th century, Bishop Theophan of Vysha [with whom he had an active correspondence].

     Father Theodosy led a very strict manner of life. He used to sleep no more than two or three hours a day, and oftentimes--even on feast days--he ate nothing at all.

     In the 1920's the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria brought over their patriarchates to the new-style calendar. All Athos, with the exception of the monastery of Vatopedi, decisively rose up to oppose this illicit innovation. The Athonite fathers, including the Greeks, requested Father Theodosius to compose a well-grounded refutation of the innovation, which he did, Later this booklet was reprinted at Vladimirova in the Carpathian Mountains, and not so long ago it was republished by Holy Trinity Monastery [ Jordanville, N.Y.].

    Now I shall recount my personal meeting with Father Theodosy. I originally heard of him during my first pilgrimage to Athos at Pascha, 1923, but I did not manage to see him then because our pilgrimage of students from the Belgrade department of theology lasted only ten days, and this was too short a time to cover all of Athos.

    In 1924, the famous writer of maritime stories, V.P. Aprelev, a captain cf the second rank, made a prolonged visit to Athos. He gave a talk in Belgrade concerning his pilgrimage, his visit to Karouliaand Father Theodosy. He said that the elders there were in extreme need of clothing and simply wore rags, Several of us, students, were eager to help them. We made a collection and I was entrusted with sending the money to Father Theodosy with a letter explaining that the donors wished this money to be used exclusively for buying warm clothing for the Karoulian ascetics. FatherTheodosy wrote me a letter of thanks, and a correspondence ensued. (To my distress, I lost all his letters during the evacuation from Vladimirova in 1944-45.)

    In those years, after completing university, I began seriously to think about entering the monastic life; it was my wish to be tonsured by Father Theodosy. In 1925 I began teaching catechism in Skopje, in Yugoslavia, The following summer, after finishing teaching in the secondary school, I went to Athos and, with a monk as a guide, I set out for Karoulia.

    We arrived two days before the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Holding onto the chains we climbed up to Father Theodosy's cell. Not long before the First World War, a benefactor had built a small chapel for him on the ledge of the cliff, with a capacity of not more than twenty pilgrims. Near it was a cell for the Elder. Father Theodosy had a guesthouse for those who came to see him: three small caves into which one was able to enter only by bending very low, ln each there was a wooden bed, and nothing else.

    On reaching his cell we found it open, but there was no one in it, nor in the chapel. We sat down and waited. Within an hour or two the Elder appeared in an old cassock, with a small bunch of dry twigs that he had gathered on the steep slope of the mountain. My guide left, and the two of us remained. Father Theodosy "treated" me to some dry bread and a mug of water; the Apostles' Fast had not yet ended.

    I told the Elder of my desire to receive the tonsure from him. He smiled and answered that he would not tonsure anyone who was going to leave, but that if I wanted to be tonsured by him I would have to promise to remain forever on Karoulia. I was not prepared for this and asked for time to think and pray. Thus, I lived with the Elder for four unforgettable days, cooped up in a tiny cave, the “guesthouse”. The greater part of the night we spent in prayer in the church. I remember the All-night Vigil for the feast. It lasted literally all night, from sunset to sunrise. I stood mostly on the small wrought iron balcony with a chasm of perhaps a thousand feet under me and a marvelous view of the calm sea illumined by the brilliance cf the moon and stars.

      On the morning of the feast itself, after confession with Father Theodosy, I partook of the Holy Mysteries. The next day Father Theodosy said to me: "Let's do this. I'll send you to my spiritual father, Ignaty. He is 105 years old and blind, but a real clairvoyant elder. I'll never come anywhere near his state. Tell him all about yourself and if he decides, so you ought to act. Would you agree to remain in Karoulia if he blesses you for this?" I had taken such a liking to Karoulia that I answered in the affirmative.

     Father Theodosy gave me a guide from among the hermits of Karoulia, the schemamonk Darathens, and together we began to climb the steep mountainous slopes to Schema-hieromonk Ignaty's. He lived about two miles above Karoulia, on the most gentle slope of the mountain. He had a 90 year-old Greek cell-attendant who, upon learning that I had come from Father Theodosy, silently pointed out to me a separate little cell where the Elder lived. I went in. The main corner was covered with icons. Beneath the icons on a narrow wooden bed sat the comely, blind Elder, fingering a prayer-rope. I made a prostration before him and said that Father Theodosy had sent me. I took his blessing. Then Father Ignaty put on his epitrachelion [priestly stole] and gave the blessing for beginning the order of confession. I recited the small doxology and through to the Lord's Prayer, and stopped because at that time, to my shame, I didn't know the 50th psalm.

    The Elder said: "Say 'Have mercy on me, O God...'" I answered that I did not know it by heart. "How is it that you don't know it? You're a monk and you don't know it!"

    "I am not a monk," I replied, "but a pilgrim visiting from Serbia."

    "And I tell you that you are a monk," he retorted.

    · Then he pointed to a piece of cardboard hanging on the wall, on which was written the whole order of the rite of confession. I read it. Afterwards the Elder made me kneel before the icons near him, and he covered me with his epitrachelion and said: "First confess all your sins and then say what it is you want from me."

    My confession covered virtually my whole life. I then told the Elder that I was a teacher of catechism in a secondary school in the city of Skopje, that I wanted to become a monk and would like to have Father Theodosy tonsure me, but that he had given as a condition of tonsure that I stay with him forever in Karoulia, and that he had sent me to him to decide my fate. "As you say, so shall I do," I added.

    I spoke, of course, in more detail. The Elder patiently heard me out, and said: "Let us pray to God!"

    For some time we prayed silently, during which time the Elder held his hands on my head. Then he performed the absolution of sins; with his hiessing right hand he made the sign of the cross on my head, quite hard, almost hitting it. And he said: “Go back to where you came from; you are needed there. Pray to Great-martyr Panteleimon. You will find an Elder in another country.

       With these parting words from the great Elder, I returned to Father Theodosy accompanied by Father Darathens who had waited for me at the cell-attendant's.

     After listening to me attentively, Father Theodosy explained the Elder's words: the fact that he twice insistently called me a monk showed that he blessed my intention to be tonsured; the counsel to return to Yugoslavia and to pray to the Holy Great-martyr Panteleiman signified that he ought not to tonsure me himself but that I would be tonsured in St. Panteleiman's Monastery; that I would find an elder in another country indicated that I would not long remain in Yugoslavia, but that I would go off to work in some other country...

      Everything came to pass as the Elders had foretold: I was tonsured in St. Panteleimen's Monastery, I remained in Skopje for another two years and then went to Carpatho Russia to Vladimirova, to Archimandrite (later Archbishop) Vitaly [first abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY (+May 8/21, 1960)] in whom I also found myself an elder.

      I used to remember several accounts of his clairvoyance which I had heard on Athos, but, unfortunately, I have forgotten them. There remains in my memory only that which affected me personally, and this I have written.

     Grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of Thy righteous and ever-memorable servant, Schema-hieromonk Theodosius, one of the last clairvoyants of our afflicted times. 

Archbishop Seraphlm of Chicago and the Midwest
Vladimirova near Chicago, June 1970 

(From a translation that appeared in "The Shepherd," July, 1986; Saint Edward Brotherhood, England; Russian original published in Vera I Zhizn, No. 8, 1974)

The Elder's Last Days 

    An incident from the Dialogues of Saint Gregory, cited by Savonarola in his sermon on "The Art of Dying Well," provides a soul profiting example of how the deathbed often serves as a battle-ground for the final contest between the forces of good and evil over the possession of a man's soul. From the Lives of Saints we know that at death's door the righteous are often subject to even more frightful torments than sinners, for the demons, knowing that a soul has run well the race and is about to be received into the heavens from which they were cast out, wage with envy and employ all their cunning in a last ditch effort to draw the virtuous soul Into their nets. This fact is well illustrated by the life of Elder Theodosy of Karoulia, whose struggle for perfection was rewarded by the gift of clairvoyance and unceasing prayer of the heart. His disciple and fellow-struggler of many years, Schema-monk Nikodim (+ 1984) wrote a uniquely detailed account of the Elder's last days before his departure into the next world.

     The Elder's constitution was already weak when a draft in his cell brought on a chill which quickly developed into a fever. This was complicated by a painful attack of colic, and on September 19 (o.s.) the Elder took to his bed where he lay for two weeks until his death. Father Nikodim writes... 

   A week before he himself became ill, the Elder performed the service of Holy Unction for one of his disciples, Schemamonk Alipy, to whom he had said: “I shall die on Protection and you shall die three days after  me." And so it was.

In preparing himself for death, the Elder communed of the Body and Blood of Christ daily for the last ten days of his life. As he was no longer able to go to church, I, as a " subdeacon, brought to his cell the reserved Holy Gifts. All alone in serving the Elder, I became exhausted from lack of sleep and, the week before he died, I was obliged to ask others to come to my aid; taking turns, we were at his bedside day and night. He began to have chest pains and developed a steady cough; at night he would break into a feverish sweat. His pulse rate climbed to 110 beats per minute. We often had to change his bedding as well as his position on the bed, for he could not tolerate lying more than 10 minutes on any one side; we would also prop him up with his head leaning upon the table. He scarcely slept at all.

     The night of September 28 he had a feverish nightmare. He finally dozed off and slept until morning. When he awoke he drank three cups of plain tea and was calm. His spiritual father arrived. After talking with him briefly he said he was too tired to continue the conversation. The spiritual father had already left when the Elder remembered that he had forgotten to tell him about having clearly seen the malice of the Enemy. He asked that later I relate to him the following:

     "There appeared before me the malice of the Evil One in the semblance of a savage animal, a lion or dog with burning eyes. With seething fury it wanted to throw itself at me and devour me, but God's grace would not allow it. This lasted for about a minute or half a minute." I asked: '.'How, batiushka, did you see this evil, with your bodily eyes or with your mind?" He said: "With the eyes of the mind."

     Towards evening he again began to hiccup; this went on for three hours. Addressing me, the Elder said: "I am losing my mind." And, as though hallucinating, he began analyzing his father-confessor, expressing some dislike as he did so. He asked me if perhaps this wasn't a good thing to do. I replied, "Yes, Batiushka, it's not good. In your present state you shouldn't be deliberating over anything, but simply praying; otherwise, the enemy will confuse you." He was obedient, calmed down, stopped hiccuping, and listened intently as I prayed; he didn't even move, as if he had frozen. Throughout the duration of his illness, I would sit by him and recite aloud--each word separately--the short form of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," helping him to mentally repeat it after me. When I asked if he was able to sustain the prayer, he replied, "Just."

    On another occasion the demon presented the Elder with a prideful thought, wishing to capture him by means of high-mindedness. "It seems to me," said Fr. Theodosy, "that in suffering this affliction I am enduring more than Christ on the Cross." Recognizing this to be the result of a weakened mind, I said to him: "What are you saying, Batiushka! Take hold of yourself. It is the enemy that has sent you such a thought. How can you possibly imagine that it is more difficult for you than for the Lord on the Cross; He was forsaken by everyone and had to suffer alone, no one helped Him, but I have been constantly at your side, asking how I might help you." At these words the Elder grew calm and even a little tearful. This was just before Protection, our second patronal feast. Then he lost his speech and began to communicate through the spirit, which I alone could comprehend. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, before his death, likewise conversed in the spirit with his cell attendant, John...

    The night of the Feast the Elder had no more fever, but he was extremely weak. It was asked that the vigil be concluded earlier than usual and that Liturgy be served as soon as possible thereafter so that he could receive the Holy Mysteries before he died. Even so, the Elder sent me to tell them to speed along and to begin the Liturgy at midnight. Several times he sent me to find out if the Liturgy had begun. His request was fulfilled.

     Having received Communion, he lay quietly. He neither ate nor drank anything, After Liturgy all his spiritual children, who had gathered from near and far for the Feast, did not want to depart. They had been told by the sick monk that the Elder said he was going to die on Protection, and stayed to await his death. In the morning the Elder requested that someone read him about the Lord's Passion from St. John's Gospel beginning with the verse: "Now is the Son of man glorified, (13:31). Having listened through to the end, he asked for a candle and that the prayers for the departure of the soul be read. During the reading the Elder lay on his bed, his arms folded crosswise on his chest and a burning candle in his hand. The monks finished the service and sang "With the saints give rest," but the Elder did not die. He handed back the candle: "Take it." Others may interpret this as they will, but my feeling is that he did not die because of the people present. It was his wish to meet death alone, and the Lord granted his desire. The next day, October 2, after everyone had left, he reposed.

     [Early that morning, after a very difficult night, Elder Theodosy partook of the Holy Mysteries for the last time. The priest left and he remained alone with Fr. Nikodim.]

' With one hand supporting him, under his left arm, and holding his right hand in mine, I began to say the abbreviated Jesus Prayer, keeping time with his pulse beat which was even and strong, like a healthy man's. I watched his breathing and noticed that it corresponded to my own and that in breathing out he would whisper: "have mercy on me..."

     We continued in this way for about ten minutes. Then his pulse began to markedly weaken. Fr, Joel came into the cell and I asked him to light the vigil lamp which had just gone out. As he did so, I noticed the Elder sigh deeply and I cried out: "Father Joel! The Elder is dying. " There came another sigh and his soul quietly flew out of his body. And thus he died, in my arms, peacefully, without the least shudder.

    Having communed the Elder, the father confessor returned to his cell. He hadn't been there five minutes when he heard the ringing of the bells announcing the Elder's repose. When all had gathered, they began the funeral service at the end of which everyone experienced a kind of feast day joy. Later, in one of Bishop I naty Brianchaninov's books I read that if, on the day of someone's repose, those close to him feel joy in their hearts, it is a sign that his soul has been received by God.

    Schema-hieromonk Theodosy died in his 69th year. May his memory be eternal, and .may the Lord give rest to his soul in a place of blessed repose. And through his prayers may the Lord have mercy on me, the Elder's sinful disciple.

Schemamonk Nikodim

[1] a priestmonk who has been tonsured into the Great Schema

[2] Russian communities alone 

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society