Orthodox America

  From the Bookshelf - One of the Ancients and Elder Melchizekek

One of the Ancients by St. Simeon Kholmogorov; St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988; 192 pps, illus., 

Elder Melchizedek:  Hermit of the Roslavl Forest by Serge N. Bolshakoff; St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988; 70 pps., illus., 


In the early 1970’s I wanted to publish the life of a certain Greek Old Calendar hierarch, still living at that time, who had a much-deserved reputation for sanctity and steadfastness.  When I put this idea to my advisor, Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), he replied, “Better not to publish this life.  Archbishop (N.) is undoubtedly a very good and even great man, but his life is not yet finished, and who knows what the future might hold for him?  If he were to falter in his witness then you would have done a disservice to the Faith by promoting his life.”

            One of the advantages of publishing the Lives of righteous men or women who have reposed in the Lord is that their story is “already finished.”  We can learn how their earthly and spiritual journeys began, what transpired throughout their lifetimes, what choices and decisions they made, and how death came for them.  Their completed lives can thus be properly assessed and evaluated, and we can with assurance know whether or not they remained steadfast followers of Christ to the end and are therefore good models of piety for the rest of us to follow – or not, as the case might be.

            In addition, converts often have a temptation to pursue their study of Orthodoxy primarily from the “intellectual” standpoint – reading Church history and Church canons, the theology of the Fathers and accounts of jurisdictional differences – to the exclusion of saints’ Lives.  This is a one-sided approach that, while appealing to the “head,” misses the “heart.”  However, the Lives of saints and righteous ones – particularly recent ones that have lived in times similar to our own – show how the theology of the Fathers is incarnated in actual life.  Such are these recent biographies of the Elder Gabriel of Pskov and Kazan (+1915), and Elder Melchizedek of the Roslavl Forest (+1840).


            Although there are many familiar elements in the life of Elder Gabriel, and it is externally similar in many ways to the Lives of other holy ones, replete with spiritual experiences and consolations, miracles and visions, there is also a refreshing candor that makes this account almost unique, and certainly makes it “must” reading for anyone who takes spiritual life seriously.

            For example, we are not simply told that the Elder suffered many temptations and underwent the usual struggles, but the precise nature of some of these temptations is laid open before us so that we see our own feeble human nature reflected, as in the mirror, and we can behold the quite specific ways in which this Elder rose above the passions and difficulties of fallen human nature, as though we were invisible witnesses during his life.  (Especially valuable for today’s reader is the Elder’s understanding of the importance of avoiding not only “occasions” of sin, but places – and even cities – where temptation may be overwhelming.)

            Although Elder Gabriel knew many of the “great ones” of both Church and State (for example, he knew the New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth and had met Rasputin), his faith remained always simple and childlike – and this was the secret of both his “sweet prayer” and moving manner of serving the Divine Liturgy.  Yet he was never pompous, never overbearing, and disliked “strictness for strictness’ sake”:  “Like a child he happily rejoiced over anything worthy of joy.  He was merry, fun-loving and he laughed like a child at witty stories and amusing situations.”  Although he was a “real” staretz (elder), in the true and full meaning, “one did not sense any haughtiness, any sternness characteristic of the personality of an elder.  On the contrary….”

            Though such things are not often emphasized, this Elder came from a healthy, whole, and functional family, with parents who were not only psychologically stable, but spiritually serious and advanced, as a quite touching chapter, “Childhood”, makes clear.  It was upon this foundation that God performed such a great work in the life of the Elder – a lesson that modern parents, most of whom are neither psychologically whole or spiritually sound, would do well to heed.

            As if the “Life” itself were not already a sufficient treasure, the editors have two appendices – the Elder’s own “Testament” to his spiritual children, and articles about the author, New Martyr Simeon Kholmogorov, by the noted lay theologian and Optina chronicler, the newly-departed Helene Kontzevitch, and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna.  A “Glossary of Orthodox Terms” insures that this book can be easily read by those outside the Faith, and the story of how this remarkable manuscript was, after many years of arduous searching, providentially “revealed,” is told in the Preface.


            The infinite creativity of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in a quite different way in the life and personality of Elder Melchizedek, the relatively unknown (in English) subject of Serge Bolshakoff’s book, Hermit of the Roslavl Forest.*

            Readers of Robert Massie’s exhaustive and evocative biography, Peter the Great (1980), will have had a glimpse of the restrictions and reforms imposed by this Tsar on the Church, in an unhealthy spirit of westernized overreaction.  Although some actual abuses were corrected, the Tsar’s “attack” on the Church – for such it really was – had the effect of stifling the free activity of the Holy Spirit, especially in the monastic realm, introducing a kind of early “Sergianism,” whereby ritual and the outward institution of the Church became all.**  On the surface, it seemed as though the Spirit was quenched.

            But as the late Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) has so well explained in The Northern Thebaid, “Desert-loving monks and nuns simply went again to the desert, whether in Russia or outside her borders, avoiding the ‘established’ monasteries; new communities were established, despite the laws [imposed by Tsar Peter]; and there rose up a number of powerful monastic leaders, new Abbas of Holy Russia, who were not afraid to defy the authorities in order to preserve the free monastic spirit, and who sometimes endured a trial hitherto unknown in the history of Russian monasticism…”

            It was within this very restrictive world and atmosphere that the wondrous Elder Melchizedek was raised up by the Holy Spirit.  Although even the externals of this saint’s life are remarkable (he did not enter the life of a solitary – or hermit – until the age of 95, and lived to the extraordinary age of 125), it is his “wise austerity and simplicity,” his clear-headed, serene, and completely “balanced” inner life that merits our attention, in particular his absolute trust in Divine Providence, a virtue almost completely ignored by moderns, who are more likely to focus on the external aspects of the Elder’s life – a very dangerous thing indeed.


(*Mr Bolshakoff is well-known to many as the author of Russian Mystics (Cistercian Publications, 1977))

(**The term “Sergianism” takes its name from Metropolitan Sergius of the Moscow Patriarchate who, in the 1920’s, severely compromised the freedom of the Church by submitting its life to the control of the atheist Soviet authorities.  Today, however, the term applies equally wherever – even in the “free” West – the emphasis in Church life is on externals rather than on the internal life and growth of the individual soul.)


            As both author and editor wisely tell us:  “The dangerous and adventurous freedom of solitude…should not be seen as a model for everyone.”  Rather, when reading the Lives of solitaries like Elder Melchizedek, we should contemplate and learn from “their interior relationship with God, rather than adherence to a religious ‘institution,’ as the essence and center of their monastic life.”

            In Hieromonk Seraphim’s words, “We must not deceive ourselves:  the life of the desert-dwellers…is far beyond us in our time of unparalleled spiritual emptiness…of lukewarm ‘spirituality with comfort’…”  BUT:  we can use the inspiring Lives of Elder e and those like him to “at least keep alive the fragrance of the desert in our hearts:  to dwell in mind and heart with these angel-like men and women and have them as our truest friends, conversing with them in prayer; to be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life, even when [or perhaps especially when] they center about some institution or leader of the Church organization; to be first of all a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high, towards which all our Christian labors are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes.  He who has once sensed this fragrance of the desert, with its exhilarating freedom in Christ and its sober constance in struggle, will never be satisfied with anything in this world, but can only cry out with the Apostles and Theologian:  Come, Lord Jesus.  Even so, Surely I come quickly’ (Rev. 22:20).  Amen.” (The Northern Thebaid)

            In the words of Serge Bolshakoff’s own “appreciation” of Elder Melchizedek:  “Our life nowadays is so complicated, hurried and unreal that it destroys both body and soul, makes us overtired, unhappy and dissatisfied.  This is a common knowledge.  Each one of us may find inspiration in the Life of Melchizedek and in due measure may follow his example in the practice of a disciplined life…cultivating serenity of mind and abandonment to Divine Providence.”

Fr. Alexey Young