Orthodox America


  The Proud Elder – Abbot Herman of Zozima Hermitage


     It was 1910. My desire to solve an emotional problem which had been troubling me for some time prompted me to visit the Zosima Hermitage. I needed to consult someone who was spiritually experienced and refined. From what I was told by those who knew him personally, it seemed to me that the abbot of the Zosima Hermitage, Father Herman, was just such a person. I rode clear across Moscow to see him. From Moscow I had to ride north another ten or twenty miles on the train, past the St. Sergius Lavra. I came to the tiny Leski station, surrounded by a dense hardwood forest. There was no village, nor any sort of human habitation. It was truly a forested desert. To get to the monastery I had to go yet another three or four miles on foot, following a narrow forest path. It was a nice August day. It wa squiet in the forest. An hour later I saw the cloister in a shaft of light between the trees. It was still new at the time: the churches and buildings appeared freshly painted. The architecture was beautiful.

     The path led me right up to the monastery guest-house, built outside the cloister for pilgrims. Hieromonk Innocent was in charge of it...

     At that time he was about thirty-five or forty. He had sharp features, a pointed black beard, and a serious look about him. He led me away tea small, clean room in the guest-house,

        Shortly thereafter, I set out to meet the Abbot. I had heard that monastics from the nearby Moscow Theological Academy, as well as ordinary citizens, high-ranking clergy, and Princess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (sister of the former Empress), all came to him with spiritual questions. On the basis of this fact alone one could already see that the Elder was an exceptional ascetic and spiritual director. I was also familiar with a little brochure in which his correspondence with the celebrated recluse of Vysha, Bishop Theophan, was published. For the most part, it dealt with questions about prayer. In particular, one of Bp. Theophan's letters about demons stuck in my mind. Father Herman asked the Recluse to give him as a memento an article of his clothing, but Bishop Theophan refused. He stated that his reason for doing so was that together with his clothing many demons and temptations would fly into Fr. Herman's cell.

     His answer to a question about the clergy also came to mind. Before he became Abbot, Batiushka was given the obedience of confessing the monks and pilgrims. This obedience seemed difficult and dangerous for him, so he asked the abbot to relieve him of this cross, but the abbot refused. Then he addressed this matter to the Recluse of Vysha. In doing so, he also stated that certain individuals came to him to confess the same sins over and over again, and he asked what he should do about this.

     Bishop Theophan, if memory serves me right, answered that he should never refuse to confess these people, nor should he be distressed by their infirmities, and advised him to be merciful in absolving them of their sins, no matter how many times they came to confess :hem. The Recluse, however, gave the elder strict orders not to give anyone so much as a hint about what sins those who came to him confessed.

      The Bishop added this advice: In order to remember this, place a knife, a sharp one, near the place where you hear confessions. Look at it and think: it would be better for me to cut out my tongue than to reveal anyone's spiritual secret.

    This was the man whom I was now on my way to meet. When I saw him, I instantly became very serious and sober, for it seemed to me that this is how Fr. Herman was. He was tall, with a gray and rather unkempt beard, the flaccid face of an aged man, lids that hung low over his eyes, the cold and calm yet stern voice of a judge, and not even a trace of a smile. He made a Very strong impression on me. We were introduced.

Among his questions was the following:

    "What are you going to teach at the Academy?''

First I named the most innocuous subject:

    "Homiletics (the study of preparing sermons),''

    "And what else?" he asked like an investigator at an interrogation.

I found it difficult to answer right away, "Theology for priests," I said. I felt ashamed at having taken it upon myself to teach the students how to be good pastors.

    "And what else?" he asked, as if foreseeing what the third subject was as well.

     'Asceticism," I said quietly, lowering my eyes...

    Asceticism... The study of spiritual life.., It was easy enough to say! I, a spiritual infant, who had come to resolve my own troubles, was teaching others how to live... I felt ashamed.

    Later, when I recounted this conversation in detail for my spiritual father in Petersburg, he said:

    "You should not have mentioned that subject.''

    Then I exposed my soul with all of its failings to Fr. Herman, and asked the question which was disturbing me. He heard this with the same cold and yet calm attention which he had given to the whole conversation. His answer satisfied me. Towards the end of our meeting I said to him:

    "Batiushka! We sinners usually deserve sympathy, but when we talk about our sins in this way, surely you must stop loving us altogether."

    "No," Fr. Herman answered in the same calm, even, arid dispassionate tone. "We confessors love those who bare their spiritual sores before us all the more."

    Then I asked him to give me some sort of obedience in the monastery--I will say more about this below.

     Incidentally, as soon as I entered his room, I noticed he had a big easel with an unfinished icon of the Chernigov Mother of God; it turned cut that he was a good iconographer as well.

    When I left, I bore with me the impression that he was very stern. This neither surprised nor disappointed me, though. From my reading of the Holy Fathers, I had long been aware of the fact that even holy people can be quite individual; some are affectionate, others are austere, some are hospitable, others are aloof, some are reticent, others are willing conversationalists. Yet in God's eyes they can all be pleasing. Later on, by the way, I chanced to bear from various people that Fr. Herman had been very affectionate to them. Perhaps he took on this stern tone just for me, for the sake of my salvation? No, I think that he was indeed very serious and stern by nature. 

The Mushroom Gathering Obedience 

     A s I just mentioned above, before leaving I asked him a favor:

     "Batiushka, won't you give me some sort of obedience to perform, so that I might do a bit of work in the monastery before I leave?"

     At that moment I recalled that one of my friends at the Academy had asked for an obedience at the Valaam Monastery, and that they had sent him to the barnyard to milk the cows. I thought that he, too, would give me some sort of dirty manual labor and that I would humbly accept and perform it. But the Elder saw right through me.

     "What sort of obedience should we give you? You should rest. Well, perhaps you could gather some mushrooms for the monastery?''

     "Sure," I answered, dissatisfied, however, that I had not received a "dirtier" obedience.

     But that day went by and so did the next, and I thought no more of those mushrooms. Then I went to the forest a couple of times, gathered up a few and brought them to the kitchen. I thought that Fr. Herman had forgotten about this trifling matter. But then, as I was saying farewell before I left, he suddenly asked me:

     "And did you perform your mushroom gathering obedience?

"Not really," I answered, embarrassed.

     Batiushka did not say anything, but again I felt that my weakness had been exposed.

     Once, when I was gathering mushrooms, I came late for lunch. When I entered the refectory, all of the tables had already been cleared. The novice who worked there, Brother Ivan (who also performed an obedience in the church), with a humble smile silently gave me some food. He was a young man with a handsome noble face... While I was having lunch, the monastery choir held a rehearsal in the refectory for the Feast.

It seemed to me that everything was wonderful: they sang well, I had gathered mushrooms, and Brother Ivan was such a good fellow. Once I said to Fr. Herman: "What a good fellow Brother Ivan is!"

     "That is an emotional, not a spiritual feeling which you have for him," he said. It was as if the Elder had poured cold water on me. I was silent and thought: what fine distinctions spiritual people make in all things, even in "good" things. They are correct in doing so: many things are all mixed up in us, especially when we are inexperienced. Again I was taught a simple lesson. But the sorriest episode still lay ahead of me; it happened toward the end of my visit.

     This new lesson happened in connection with the arrival at the monastery of Elizabeth Fyodorovna and her sister, a nun from the Mary-and-Martha Convent in Moscow. On their arrival, several rooms in the monastery guest-house had to be cleared out and several of the pilgrims were asked to move to rooms inside the monastery. I was among those who got an empty little cell, in which no one had lived for a long time. Soon thereafter the All-night Vigil started and I stood in the choir with the singers as was my habit.

    Services in the monastery were performed remarkably slowly. I had never witnessed such drawn out litanies and singing. Surely the Abbot did it this way for some reason: I do not wish to judge him. I, however, found this slow pace positively and excruciatingly boring. I started to speed up the tempo of the singing, dragging the singers behind me.

      The desire to spruce up the service in this way "for the princess" also flashed through my mind.

     A few minutes later, however, the very same Brother Ivan who was mentioned above, came out from the altar, where the Abbot himself was serving, went up to the choir director and said:

     "Batiushka (that is, Fr. Herman) blesses you to sing more slowly."

     I knew that this was my fault and slowed down a bit. But it turned out that this was not enough. A little while later Brother Ivan conveyed the same instruction from the Abbot for the second time. We began to sing even more slowly. This, however, still did not satisfy the priest. "Sing the way you always do!" Brother Ivan brought this stern message to the director, and the choir returned to its usual pace. The service lasted from six until eleven at night. Afterwards everyone went to his own room.

     I went to my empty little cell and went to bed. But it was absolutely impossible to fall asleep: scores of ravenous fleas viciously attacked me. Any attempt to fall asleep was futile. Thus I suffered until five in the morning, when it started to get light. Finally I dozed off from exhaustion. It was probably less than an hour later that I heard a knock on the door of my cell followed by the usual monastic prayer: "By the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!" I instantly awoke and answered, "Amen!"

     Hastily I threw on a cassock and opened the door, and a novice told me: "Batiushka (the Abbot) asks you to come to him." He left. A few minutes later I was in the Elder's study. He asked me to sit down and started sorting the mail. His vision was rather poor.

      "Who is this letter for?" He handed me one so that I could read the address.

"It' s for Father such-and-such." "And this one?"

"That one is for Father so-and-so." "Don't stand in our choir any more!" he suddenly said in the same even voice which he had used when asking about the addresses. I knew that he was giving me this instruction because I had sped up the singing the day before. To explain the reason for this order, he added:

"Your melodies don't fit in with ours."

       It was not my melodies, but rather my tempo that indeed did not fit In with their slow pace… I, of course, could do nothing but agree in silence. “When in Rome, do as the  Romans do," [1] as the saying goes. The Abbot was right.

     After this he dismissed me to my flea infested cell. I left with a feeling of acute emotional pain due to this "insult." Although I knew that the Abbot was obliged to do everything in his power so that outsiders would not destroy the established order, this thought could not calm my troubled heart. On the contrary, this pain continued to grow and strengthen. I could have gone to sleep then after being awake all night, but I did not feel like it. My soul burned with bitterness from this "insult." I do not recall whether I went to Liturgy or just did not feel like praying, but I know that I became so distressed that I had to do something to relieve my suffering. Then I remember a piece advice which I had read in Tolstoy somewhere: when one is enraged, he should do some sort of heavy manual labor. What should I do? Gather mushrooms? That is an easy job. Chop wood by the kitchen? The monks would notice me and be embarrassed. What else could I do? I decided to tire myself out by walking along the ravines and through the thickets. This is just what I did. An hour went by, then another... I was already drenched in sweat... But nothing helped: the pain did not go away. My heart was pricked: how could "he" fail to take pity on me? After all, I was not just a monk, but a future "professor" at the Academy! And why did he have no patience with me, as if there was only a day or two left to live? And the singing had also returned to its usual slow pace.

      I tried reciting the Jesus Prayer, but even this could not put out the fire of my egotistical annoyance.

      He had already given me his blessing to serve him during the Liturgy the next day, On Sunday: how was I to serve when I harbored such animosity toward him? It would be a great sin !

     Thus I wandered about for several hours. Finally the thought came to me: I must turn to the Mystery of Confession for help! One should, however, make peace first and then go to confession. Did this mean that I would have to ask his forgiveness again...? Oh, how very difficult all this was!

      And then I remembered that there was another monk with whom I had been annoyed a few days ago: it had seemed to me that he was sanctimonious, that he loved to teach and give instructions, that he fancied himself to bean elder, etc. hid this mean that I would have to ask his forgiveness, too?...

      The confessor at the monastery was the famous elder Fr. Alexis. They called him a recluse because he spent the greater part of the week in solitude, but on Wednesdays (if memory serves me) and Saturdays he confessed those who came to the monastery. In fact, the princess and her sisters went to him for confession regularly. Later on, I happened to hear the princess tell someone that Fr. Herman was "stern and austere." Fr. Alexis, on the other hand, was much more easy-going. Formerly he had been archpriest at the Kremlin Cathedral of the Dormition. When he became a widower he withdrew into seclusion at the Zosima Hermitage and placed himself in obedience to Fr. Herman. That is when he was given the obedience of hearing confession. Seven years later he participated in the Moscow Local Council, and it was he who was blessed to draw the lot of the one chosen to become Patriarch ....

    This was the man to whom I had to go for confession. My only question was whether I had to ask both of these "less favored" monks or forgiveness, or just Fr. Herman. Having broken my will, I was ready to go to both of hem. Then, however, I began to doubt that it would be appropriate to make peace with the other monk since we had never had any -confrontation and he did not even suspect the feelings that were hidden in my foolish soul. After thinking it over, I decided not to trouble him unnecessarily and that if Fr. Alexis gave his blessing I would ask his forgiveness later on. For now, before confession I would go only to Fr. Herman.

    On weekdays he usually stood way in the back of the church on the right side, among the other monks. I can still see him now: tall, erect, with his eyes closed, he stood without moving, like a pillar. Absorbed in inner prayer, he seemed not to notice anything. He probably performed the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He was without a doubt a great, exceptional man of prayer. On the eve of the Feast, however, Fr. Herman stood in the altar. I went up to him before going to confession.

After bowing at his feet as usual, I said:

     "Batiushka, bless me to go to Father Alexis for confession!"

    "May God bless you," he answered dispassionately as always,

"Batiushka, forgive me!"

     "May God forgive you !" he said, as if not remembering the lesson he had taught me that morning.

     "But I have bitter feelings toward you," I said.

     "How is that?" he continued, as calmly as ever.

"This morning you were stern with me."

     Father Herman did not try to justify himself, but rather said the following:

     "Forgive me. I am by nature a proud man."

     That is just what he said: not "tough," not "stern," not "austere," but "proud."

     I did not need to make any more explanations or excuses then: as soon as I bowed and said those wonderful words, "forgive me," all malice and torment positively disappeared from my soul, and utter calm settled there! The beneficial healing of a repentant soul, a miracle with which we are all familiar, had taken place. Neither Tolstoy nor physical fatigue had done any good, but the words "forgive me" gave me peace. I calmly approached the recluse. I told him about the Abbot and he advised me not to go to the other monk, but just to repent in my heart while confessing.

      The next day I served Fr. Herman in peace.

      Later, since I was preparing to leave on Monday, I went to him to say farewell. Our conversation was brief but peaceful. He presented me with two small, red apples and something else as well.

      Now I cannot remember whether or not I slept those last two nights. It seems that I did. I do not know where those fleas went to... probably the inner peace prevailed against their bites...

      Rather early in the morning I left on foot for the station. I tossed my bag into the cart on which the Abbot was to ride while escorting the princess... The weather was fair, but cloudy.. Fall was already in the air. As I recall, there was fresh dew on the grass... My soul was at peace.

Thus I walked about half-way. Then I heard the cart rattling behind me. I glanced over my shoulder: in front rode a monk, the driver. In back were the Abbot and a police officer who was also escorting the princess. When they caught up with me, Fr. Herman ordered the driver to stop. Then, without saying a word, he touched the officer’s shoulder and silently pointed to the coach-box, indicating that he should sit there. Batiushka seated me next to himself. The horse set out again. We rode. Fr. Herman embraced me in his right arm and affectionately patted me on the back. We were silent. I thought to myself:

    “So, two days ago you gave me a hiding, and now you are caressing me? It would have been better if you had not give me that hiding…”

     But these thoughts did not contain the spite and malice of annoyance.

    The princess and the sisters rode up from behind. The train approached, and we boarded it. The Abbot stood, dispassionate as always. Even when he bowed to the princess, he maintained his inner calm…He was, of course, a holy ascetic, although he had a stern temperament.

    Thirty-five years have gone by since then. The Revolution took place…and then the Second World War with the Germans…I was in Moscow for the election of the Patriarch. There I met a former monk from Zozima. He also considered Fr. Herman a saint, but he talked about him as a man of loving kindness.

    The hermitage continued to exist until 1923. Fr. Herman provided for its subsistence. He also predicted the following: “As long as I am alive, they will not touch the hermitage. When I die, you will be scattered.”

    This is indeed what happened: the monastery was closed on the very day when he was buried. The monks scattered in all directions.

    What is yet to come, God only knows….

December 13, 1956   Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenko) 

(From a text found in samizdat, published in Nadezhda; translated by Antonina Janda).


[1] Translated literally from the Russian, this saying reads: “One does not follow one’s own rules when visiting another monastery.”

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