My good friend, Fr Luke Hartung, sent me an e-mail this morning notifying me of the repose—on the day of his own birth—of Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi, who was one of only two remaining direct disciples of the great Athonite, Elder Joseph the Hesychast (the other being Elder Ephraim, currently of Arizona). The newly reposed Elder Joseph, a Cypriot, was the author of the biography of his Elder, as well as one of the biographies of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, a sort of spiritual ‘cousin’ on the Holy Mountain. Although I never had the opportunity for a proper talk with Elder Joseph, I did see him give a homily before the assembled Vatopaidi brotherhood one time, and my newly baptised father and I were able to receive his blessing. My impression was of a man possessed of an extraordinary, childlike humility and love. Here is a brief excerpt about his life from the interview with Elder Joseph conducted by Fr Seraphim Bell for Divine Ascent #7, (Presentation of the Theotokos, November 2001):
I started off from my home when I was a young boy, 15 years old. My family was in America. There were five of us brothers and sisters; all four were there. I was also preparing to leave for America in order to go to school to study. I didn’t know anything about monasticism then. I had not had much opportunity to study. I had to work, to do farm work. I had not learned to read and write very well, when one day, by chance, and out of curiosity, I found myself visiting a monastery for the first time; the only one in the area. There the monks lived the Athonite life. And when I saw the life the monks were living, I was moved by it and I thought to myself, How is it that such a way of life exists and I didn’t know about it? And then I was told, Yes, it does exist and all the saints you venerate, they passed through this way of life and on to sanctification.
Oh my, I thought to myself, such a great thing exists and I didn’t know about it? And here I am planning to leave to go to America. Oh my! I’ll obtain a degree, make some dollars, nothing more! I will lose the life of sanctification and I will lose the blessing!
So, I took out my documents which I had prepared for my trip. I tore them up, and I didn’t leave. . . . After the crisis was over, in ’46, and things got better, then I left and came to Athos, because, as you know, the foundation is here; that is, the real monastic life, and here I would find spiritual people and become a good monk. When I came in ’46, . . . I sought to find a holy man, a person from whom I could learn the teaching, the dogma, the authentic patristic Tradition. And I heard that there was an Elder who lived in the caves, who lived the life of prayer (the Jesus prayer), and I persisted in order to meet him.
. . . What value is there in anything else, if I don’t find the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is what will transform me? Then I will have lost my way. With the Elder, I found my way, because we saw in his person the working of the Holy Spirit, which was the guarantee. This was the diploma! (pp. 85-7)
Fr Seraphim’s last question to the Elder was, ‘Do you have a final word for those of us in America who are Orthodox and who are trying to live faithfully?’ The Elder responded:
What can I say about this? It is the greatest blessing and more precisely our heritage, as Christians. You see He sent us the Apostles saying, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . It is our duty wherever we may find ourselves on this earth. It is our absolute responsibility, and for us to be Christians and to tell others as many as want to follow. However, we cannot accept innovations. Whoever wants to be with us and brings in new ideas, NO. That’s how it is, because this is revelation. Christ Himself came and lived among us and showed us by His example and with His Word, the Truth. What else can we add now? This is how it is. Okay. (p. 95)