The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (11)

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Continued from (10)

Although they stayed in their hut more than before, they did go out from time to time in the summer to various places of stillness, and would carry on their struggle in the peaceful environment they had chosen, which was suited for such a purpose. On one occasion they went to the kathisma of St Gregory Palamas above the Great Lavra, where there is a little church, and there is a tradition that at one time the saint stayed there to find stillness, when he was in the region of the Lavra. It was late afternoon when they went, and they intended to stay a week or so, because the Elder felt very much at ease in that place. In the evening, when they had rested and begun their vigil praying alone, as they always did, the demons began causing a disturbance and then shouting, ‘You’ve burnt us, you’ve burnt us! Go away, go away from here!’, and they cursed in a crude and wicked manner. This time Father Arsenios heard them too, and was frightened. He ran to the Elder and asked him, ‘Why are they shouting like that, Elder? Who are they?’ The Elder reassured him and told him, ‘They are temptations.

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I don’t just hear them, I can see them too. Calm down and they will go away. They don’t like what we are doing.’ The next day, the monastery sent the forester to notify them to leave without delay. Father Arsenios, with his customary simplicity, asked the Elder, ‘So, how does the Lavra know we are here and why are they telling us to go, since we’re not bothering anyone?’ ‘Arsenios,’ he replied, ‘we are not annoying the Lavra, but we have annoyed the ones who were shouting during the night. After they stopped shouting, I saw them go down and enter the courtyard of the monastery, and they were causing a disturbance there. That is why I suspected before that we should have some trial; it is just good that it is so minor.’

They returned to their hut and devoted themselves to the best of their ability to prayer and freedom from care. During that period the Elder tried a form of complete enclosure, with Father Arsenios serving him. At that time he did not go out of his hut at all, and, naturally, did not go to Liturgies either. On feast days only Father Arsenios would go to other places where the Fathers congregated according to their custom.

Once, on a feast day, Father Arsenios went to a nearby hut to receive Communion and the Elder remained alone in stillness, as was his rule. ‘The whole of that evening,’ he told us, ‘I had the persistent thought that the other Fathers would receive Communion, and I was not worthy of this grace because of my sins. At a certain point, as I was sitting there holding onto the prayer as best I could, I stopped and concentrated my thoughts. The same thought started up within me, and an intense longing for the Bread of Life. Like a lament, full of grievance, I had begun a prayer which was rather a reproach against myself, when I felt a presence. I opened my eyes – because besides always having it dark, I was also in the habit of keeping my eyes closed – and saw in front of me an Angel full of light, just as the Church describes them, and light filled the place, light from the other world. In his hand he held an elegant and radiant vessel, which fitted into his palm. He opened it with care, came as close as he needed and with great reverence and care placed in my mouth a particle of the Lord’s Body. Then he looked at me with a grave smile, closed the vessel and was taken up through the roof to where he was before. All that day my mind was held captive by that vision and my heart was filled with love for our Christ, and I did not call to mind anything earthly.’

* * *

Even though their moves became fewer, as we have said, and they stayed in their hut more, yet they did not forget their beloved Athos, particularly after their enclosure throughout the winter. After Easter they would make their first visit to the peak, and then especially to their beloved chapel of the Mother of God, where they had stayed so often in their early years.

I did not note the date, when it was that they went to the peak again right after Easter. Anyway, they told us that there were patches of snow up there, quite apart from the fact that the north-facing gullies were full of it. They had a small copper cooking pot in their bag, their Russian capes which served as rasa and bedding, and they spent the night wherever circumstances required. When they had no water, they would boil up snow in their pot and that gave them water to drink. Sometimes they would also boil up greens or bulbs which they found there. There is almost always a wind up there, because it is high, over 2,000 metres. But they found places in the lee of the mountain, and so were sheltered. Sometimes they stayed in the chapel on the peak if it was in good condition, because it is often destroyed by lightning – in which case the Great Lavra usually repairs it.

When they went up that time, the Elder told us, the weather was good and they went straight to the peak. The chapel was in good condition, and outside there was a small cistern. ‘When we went into the church, we found on the Holy Table three lovely apples, fresh-picked, rosy red ones, and we took them. When we had eaten them, it was only then that the simple Father Arsenios asked me, “Well, Elder, who brought apples here in this weather, and where did they find apples this time of year, when the apple trees are still in blossom?” But I remember the taste of them and can never forget it, because I don’t remember ever eating such fine apples.’ Bear in mind that at that time, before 1935, modern methods of transporting and preserving fruit and produce did not exist. This is why it is impossible to suppose that someone put them there. Nor were there foreigners travelling around Athos as there are today; and when the Fathers or devout pilgrims went up there, these visits took place in the middle of the summer, because only then did weather conditions permit. They stayed up there as long as they could stand the cold, and to rest they went into the chapel of the Mother of God, where they stayed longer.

We shall talk later about instructions concerning patient endurance and faith contained in the ever-memorable Elder’s teaching, so far as our poor memory has retained them. Here, however, we shall mention a particular incident which took place in the form of a consolation, after patient endurance and entrusting to Christ the things that concerned us. ‘At one time,’ he told us, ‘when we were staying in our hut all the time, some other people came to stay with us, and they created disorder. I was at my wits’ end to know what to do and I began to pray with patience, although I was very worried. It is true that we did not make any selection, but taking compassion as our rule we would accept anyone who asked to live with us because, ostensibly, they were interested in stillness and the spiritual life. Unfortunately, however, their actions revealed the opposite. They were anything but peacable and submissive. They just hindered us from continuing, rather than themselves seeking to benefit from being there. When someone is not only unwilling but also brings his old habits with him, then it becomes difficult or rather impossible. As I was in a state of concentration and entreating God’s mercy, I felt illumination. My senses were altered, as was the space of my narrow cell, and I saw our Lord Jesus Christ cruficied coming down from above, life sized, in the actual dimensions of His divine-human form! He stood before me with His Cross, looked at me serenely and said, “Look what I have endured for you, and are you so easily tired?” As soon as I heard that, I fell down before Him and cried out with sobs, “Lord, help us sinners and do not forsake us.” And while I was on the ground weeping, He was taken up again where He was before, leaving the fragrance and the consolation of His divine love. After that the things that were causing offence ceased, and with time those who could not stay with us went away of their own accord.’

At their hut at St Basil, they built a small chapel dedicated to the Birth of St John the Baptist. Once they had decided not to travel around to other places but to stay more in their hut, they began to work at the crafts that were then usual for ascetics. The Elder was especially skilled at wood-carving and could have gone far in that craft, as we saw from a few highly successful pieces of his work. But he did not go in for fine pieces of luxury handiwork, because they preoccupied him too much and kept his mind from directedness towards God. So he worked almost exclusively on one sort of carving: he would make a small cross with our Lord crucified on one side and our Lady the Mother of God on the other. Father Arsenios prepared the basic material from trees growing wild that are used especially for this craft, and the Elder was concerned only with the carving. Later, when we asked him why he did not favour other types of carving which other fathers used to do, he told us, ‘At that time that craft flourished among the ascetics on Athos, and went into great detail. With this simple work, the object was just to meet our basic needs for living. If we had chosen to branch out into finer work, we would have got into more cares. Then again, people’s interest in our handicrafts would have become an additional obstacle to our stillness. This would have resulted in distraction of the mind, which would be dissipated from mindfulness of God. When a monk works and this hinders him from holding his mind on God, he ought not to continue, because this means that he is being harmed in his monastic life.’ Having practical experience of inwardness and in particular of the way in which the enemy ensnares and misleads man and disorientates him from his initial purpose, the Elder went beyond what is required according to human judgement. Wanting to strengthen us, he would say, ‘Our Christ put those wretched cares on the same level as debauchery and drunkenness. Just think: we could be dying of hunger, as they say, and have the same failures as debauchees! Because all three alike produce heaviness and hardening of the heart, and so make us fall away.’

The Elder was in the habit of comparing excessive worldly care with the disease of tuberculosis, prevalent in his day, which is wasting, destructive and fatal. When we tried to improve something and make it more convenient or efficient, he would often remark, ‘Don’t start giving me the consumption of care, boys!’

While they were staying at St Basil the Elders accepted into their community three brothers: Father Ephrem (later a hieromonk and leader of an Old Calendarist movement in Volos), Father John from Albania (who stayed at St Basil after the Elders moved to Little St Anna) and Father Athanasios (the Elder Joseph’s brother according to the flesh). But apart from the permanent brothers, there were often many others visiting and some, who were also concerned with stillness and prayer, would stay for longer. One of these was the ever-memorable Father Gerasimos Menagias, whom we visited when he was sick, on his death-bed, in St Paul’s Monastery. When we told him we were of the Elder Joseph’s community, he sat up in his bed and when I tried to make a prostration before him, that venerable Elder clasped me in his arms and wept. When he regained his composure, he told me with emotion, ‘I shall never forget my stay with the Elder, and I must confess that those were the best days of my monastic life; but unfortunately my bodily infirmities did not allow me to continue what remained for me a nostalgic dream!’ This was what the devout Elder told us. Once they stayed permanently in their hut, the Elder became known and many fathers went to seek his advice.

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