Part I: The Life
1. Childhood and Youth
The Elder’s homeland was Paros in the Cyclades; a small island, but peaceful and, at that time, a place with strict moral standards. His parents were simple people and not well off, so that the children were obliged to work for a living from a young age. His father, George, did not live to bring up all his family. So the children, already poor, were now orphans as well – something not that uncommon in poor families. His mother Maria, a real woman of God in all her natural and acquired character traits, was, in the words of the Lord, ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile’ (Jn 1.48). This blessed soul had such simplicity and intregrity that many times in her life she saw supranatural phenomena, and believed that everyone else must be seeing them too. This happened especially when she went into churches, whether for services or just to take care of the church.
When the Elder went off to become a monk and his mother heard about it, she told her relations, ‘From the time he was born, I knew he would become a monk’ – and she recounted the following story.
‘Just after my Francis was born’ (that was his name in the world), ‘I was on my bed with the baby beside me, swaddled, when I saw the roof open and a youth with wings came down, very beautiful and so bright that I could hardly look at him. He stood beside my baby and began to uncover him with a view to taking him away. I protested, “Hey, what are you doing? Are you taking my baby away?” He insisted that that was why he had come, and that this was the ‘decision’. And to convince me, he showed me a decree written in a notebook, saying that he had to take the baby whatever happened. I resisted, and then the angel gave me a precious piece of jewelry in the form of a cross, and took my baby away.’
From that time on, she believed that one day Francis would follow Christ.
Until he was in his teens, the Elder stayed in the village doing various small jobs within the family. When he was old enough to go out to work, he left for Piraeus, and worked in Lavrio until he went into the navy to do his national service. When he came out, he used the modest savings he had put aside to start work on his own. He started as a salesman, and then became a merchant. He operated mainly at the various trade fairs and had soon made a substantial amount, enough to ensure him a bright economic future. He was hard-working but also humane, and always abhored unfairness and sharp practice. However many opportunities he had to get ahead by dishonest means, he never compromised.
The Elder was twenty-three years old and based in the capital when he began studying books on the Fathers. He was struck by the lives of the Holy Fathers, and particularly the strict ascetics. But as he used to tell us, the real impetus towards monasticism came to him from the following dream:
‘One night, I dreamed that I was passing by the palace, and all at once two officers of the palace guard siezed me and took me up into the palace. I did not understand why and protested, and they answered kindly not to be afraid but to go up, because it was the king’s wish. We went up into a quite exceptional palace, beyond any palace on earth, and they dressed me in priceless clothing of pure white and told me, “From now on you will serve here”; and they took me to do obeisance to the king.
‘I woke up at once, and the things I had seen and heard made such a deep impression on me that I couldn’t do anything or think about anything. I stopped work and remained deep in thought. Inside me I kept hearing that command constantly as if it were being endlessly repeated: “From now on you will serve here.’ My whole inner and outward state changed. Nothing of the things on earth interested me, but I didn’t know what it was I had seen or what I ought to do. Two spiritual women who lived nearby understood my state, and lent me a book about the Fathers, The Summer Book, containing the Lives of great saints whose feastdays fall in the summer.
‘While I was avidly reading that book, it had such an effect on my existing state of mind that I stopped thinking about anything worldly. I could no longer stay amidst the noise in the city. I would go out into the surrounding countryside which at that time was uninhabited; I went to a number of places, but mostly to Penteli. There I lived as an ascetic with much fasting and vigil, as much as I could with my meagre knowledge. At night, I would sometimes climb up into a tree and spend the whole night like a stylite, and I tried to imitiate the various other kinds of hardships I had read about in the lives of the Fathers. Then I began to think about the deserts where the Fathers had lived a spiritual life. I also thought about Mount Athos, where I believed I would find fathers of the stature of those I had read about in the Lives.’
When he went into Athens, he chanced to meet an elder, an Athonite monk from a cell in Karyes, and asked if he might go with him when he went back. So it was that he first went to the Holy Mountain and made its acquaintance. In the meantime, he disposed of all his savings in alms, wherever he though best, and left other things to his family. He had made a firm decision to stay on the Holy Mountain, in the most remote and ascetic parts.
His first stop was Katounakia, at the blessed community of the Danielaioi. The founder of that community, the ever-memorable Elder Daniel, was living there at that time. He was a man of great piety, learned, wise, well experienced in ascetic life, and very gentle and comforting to those who came to him. Our Elder’s favourable impressions of that community and particularly of the holy elder remained fresh in his mind throughout his life, as he often told us. But he had set out with an ardent desire to live a life of the utmost strictness and in a more peaceful spot, and this was why he did not stay long with the elder Daniel. Instead, he left to find the stillness that he longed for.
At that time there was living in the wilderness of Katounakia the hesychast and niptic Elder Kallinikos, who enjoyed considerable fame on Athos. It was there that the ardent young Francis headed next, intending to stay near the Elder for his spiritual benefit. Little came of this attempt, because, despite his obvious spirituality and dedication to this work, this ever-memorable Elder was unwilling for whatever reason to teach anyone else the mysteries of hesychasm and prayer in which he himself had progressed so far. When Francis asked him to show him how he too could make a start, and where to begin, he gave the discouraging reply that only after the Elder’s death would it be the time to worry about that. After being told this, the young novice left for Vigla, nearer to the Great Lavra, with a view to leading the hardest life possible.
In people’s lives we sometimes see actions which are somewhat strange or even, in most people’s estimation, apparently mistaken. Yet such actions reveal in restrospect a more mysterious purpose ordained by divine providence. In the various biographies of our Fathers one encounters many such instances which seem strange to various critics, but which set those Fathers on the path to greater advances in their struggle.
To be continued…