Modern Holy Elders in the Orthodox Church - Who Are They and What Do They Teach?

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Interview with Hieromonk Panteleimon of Pereslavl (near Rostov the Great)

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“The New Athos Patericon” is the name of a book about modern Orthodox elders, in the preparation of which Hieromonk Panteleimon (Korolev) participated. We talk with him about why the elder is not a magician, miracles are not always useful, and coming to the monastery is the path “not to the walls, but to the confessor.”

An elder without a novice is not an elder

- Father Panteleimon, who are the elders? How are they different from spiritual teachers or just wise people?

– The determining factor here, first of all, is the relationship between the elder and the novice, because just as there cannot be a son without a father, a father without a child, so there cannot be an elder without a novice. This is a very close and absolutely trusting relationship, when a novice is ready to leave all his will in the hands of an elder for the sake of Christ, ready to learn from him the monastic life. An elder, unlike a father, is chosen, but once chosen, there is no turning back. It doesn’t matter what your elder is, quick-tempered, not quick-tempered, soft or severe - you don’t care anymore, you love him like your own father. And there can be no other for you. Reverend St. Ioann of the Ladder (Ioann the Climacus) says: “Before you have chosen your spiritual father, you have the right to consider the features of his character. If you have already become his child, then, considering him with a critical eye, you destroy your relationship in a terrible way.”

The Cross and the Church of the Preobrazheniya Gospodnya (Transfiguration of the Lord) on Mount Athos. Photo of the beginning of the 20th century

- Probably, as in marriage: they chose each other, they got married - you can’t get unmarried.

- Yes, indeed. Someone got married, and suddenly discovered that the better half has a slightly different character than it seemed at first, but you already have a very close relationship and it would be a disaster to deviate from it.

Sometimes the novices, knowing the peculiarities of their own character, deliberately chose very severe elders for themselves. For example, in our book there is a story about Elder Yefrem of Katunak, who had a very strict mentor: he almost did not give any monastic instructions, but on everyday issues he was always very tough. And it turned out to be incredibly useful for Father Yefrem! He loved his elder with all his heart, he cared about him. And when his mentor, Father Nikifor (Nicephorus), was dying, he repeatedly asked for forgiveness from his disciple and said to those around him: “This is not a man, this is an angel!”

It is in such relationships between a novice and an elder that the concept of eldership is revealed to the greatest extent. It is difficult to describe the love of a father for his son. And the love, with which the elder loves the novice — although it may never be manifested in these relationships, the elder can be strict and severe towards the novice — the love that the Lord gives is very strong. On Athos, eldership and obedience to an elder is perceived as a sacrament, and, accordingly, both participants in this sacrament are led by the Lord. In relationships with the elder, the novice learns to hear and obey God.

— That is, he perceives the will of the elder as the will of God?

- Exactly. The ancient patericon (hagiographic book) preserved the following words of Abba Pimen: "Man's will is a copper wall that stands between him and God." So, the novice disassembles this copper wall slowly, piece by piece, obeying his elder, although his instructions can often be incomprehensible or even change every minute. But if with love for God, with love for the elder, the novice tries to fulfill these instructions, then a special work takes place in his soul, he feels the breath of the Holy Spirit. Often, the Lord also expects from us those things that we would not want - out of laziness, out of distrust of God: we want them to be explained to us first, why this should be done, and only then we will do it. And the elder does not have to explain anything to the novice.

Xenophon Monastery on Mount Athos. Photo by Valeriy Bliznyuk

There are different relationships. If there is a novice who, with all sincerity, renders obedience to his elder, then the elder receives admonition from God on how it is correct to lead him into the Kingdom of Heaven. If the novice turns out to be very obstinate and self-willed, then the elder is left to show condescension and mercy, which God shows us, enduring our disobedience and self-will. For example, about one of the elders, Father Kirill Kareiskiy, it is said that he was very fond of praying at night, he performed, in the full sense, all-night vigils, and the novice scolded him for this. And so the elder tried to hide his exploits from him and endured reproach.

Eldership of the younger

– Can we say that monasticism is the vanguard of Christianity, and eldership is the vanguard of monasticism? People "on the front line", who pass on their experience further?

— Generally, yes, we can. There is even such a painting example. Elder Iosif the Hesychast, famous in Russia, had a very hot temper in his youth and retained his ardor into old age; one day he had a vision that he was on the front line in the battle against demons. And he was not afraid, he did not hide behind other people's backs, but, on the contrary, was eager to fight! Indeed, there are such fiery fighters, and in some exceptional cases they grow up with almost no spiritual guidance.

Actually, Father Iosif was one of those, who searched all over Athos and could not find a spiritual leader. His companion, Father Arseniy, although he was ten years older than Father Iosif in age and in the monastic deed, did not take upon himself the burden of spiritual guidance, but said to his younger brother: “Please, you be an elder, and I promise that I will stay with you in obedience to death." It doesn't matter who is older here! Spiritual experience plays a huge role: a person should teach based on his own experience, and not be a "dealer in someone else's wisdom." It was only by speaking from their own experience that the fathers understood that their word was effective.

This relationship between the elder and his novice, who are side by side every day from morning to evening, can only to some extent be transferred to the relationship between a spiritually experienced person and the laity, but trust and obedience also play a huge role here.

- Is it supposed to be absolute obedience? Is it possible for a layman?

- No, in this case, no one requires absolute obedience. But if a person comes with a specific question and the elder, admonished by God, answers him, then, no matter how strange this answer may be, the questioner should act according to what was said. Otherwise, it turns out that he came to question God and turns up his nose: “Lord, You say something so strange; I will do it my own way.”

The presence of faith, sincere trust, and willingness to follow the advice that may seem strange are very important. Often, if this faith is not there, the Lord does not reveal anything to the elder about a particular person - the absence of an answer will be more useful than an answer that will not be accepted. “God took away from the elders the grace of speech,” says the Memorable Tales, “and they do not find what to say, because there is no one, who is fulfilling their word.”

— And how many people are ready for such obedience? Or do most of us still listen to the will of God according to the principle “If I don’t like it, it’s as if I didn’t hear anything”?

- There are always people, who are ready to accept, what they hear, with a pure heart. And it also happens that someone with great pride takes on the unbearable feat of absolute obedience and at the same time heaps an unbearable burden on another, because for an elder to bear the burden of his novices is also a difficult feat, an elder must be a really strong prayer maker. Obedience cannot be learned in five minutes. It's a long road with many falls. Here the experience of elders is important, and a sober look at oneself is “the son of difficult mistakes”. Awareness of one's weakness is one of the key moments of Orthodox asceticism. But after all, a person, who is just getting up on alpine skis, is first of all taught to fall correctly - so that he does not get hurt, but is able to get up and move on. So it is in the spiritual life: under the supervision of elders, we learn both to fall not to death, and to get up with youthful zeal.

- Who are the young elders and how can one protect oneself from falling into false obedience to them?

- Only the Lord our God is truly holy; all people, even saints, have certain human infirmities and shortcomings. There are also some imperfections in those priests, who are ordained by the Church to carry spiritual obedience, to guide the spiritual life of people. Their task is to shepherd the church flock, preventing the sheep from falling into the fatal abyss of heresy, witchcraft, apostasy, or other evil, but without depriving them of their inner freedom. In many matters, even the Apostle Paul gave only advice, and did not impose his decision - so the good shepherd does not pass off his human reasoning as Divine revelation. Obedience is a matter of love and trust, not of army discipline. But it happens that a priest, because of the admixture of pride, considers his opinion to be the only true one and by force tries to push his child into the Kingdom of Heaven: he makes a vital choice for him or points out in small things, without receiving any Divine enlightenment.

We must look for a confessor “not with eyes, but with tears”; we have to ask the Lord to hand us over to the good shepherd. Let us first learn to be simple sheep in the flock of Christ, love the church, watch our language and actions, show respect for our parish priest — and if the Lord deems this useful for us, he will certainly arrange a meeting with the elder.

Miracles are not for everyone

- They say that the world rests on the elders, on their prayers. Is this true or more of a cliché?

- The Russian proverb says that a city does not stand without a saint, and a village without a righteous man. Even in everyday life, this can be seen: there is a person, who keeps the school, and not necessarily the director; there is a person, on whom the parish stands, and not necessarily the rector. And here and there it can be Aunt Masha, a cleaning lady who just kindly meets everyone and quietly prays for everyone.

At the same time, it is very clearly felt how shaky and fragile everything is in our life, everything can collapse in one moment. And the Lord keeps the world with His mercy through the prayer of His saints: some of them are already in Heaven, and some still live on earth and make their way of ascent.

Elder Damaskin the Bead Counter

– Where, then, does the opinion come from that there are no elders in our time?

- Partly because a person wants to see in the elder some, roughly speaking, magician, who, with a wave of a magic wand, will solve all his problems. And, not finding such, people say: “No, I will not obey the one, who tells me to do something, to work; I need a seer, a miracle worker! There are no people like that nowadays…”

We must understand that not everyone is useful for a miracle - most often we need to roll up our sleeves and solve problems ourselves. If your garden is overgrown, and there are no tractors in this village that would clear it, you will have to take a shovel and a chopper and work yourself. And if a miracle tractor does all the work for you, then you yourself will become lazy, your life will become simple, but not good.

In some cases, it is really necessary for a miracle to be revealed. So that a hopelessly ill child would suddenly jump up and run joyfully, and thanks to this, everyone’s faith can be strengthened. But this does not mean that with every sneeze of a child, you need to run to the elder and ask for healing. The search for elders, who would solve our problems for us, is psychologically quite understandable.

- Often the elders were people without education, very simple, and this confuses those, who come...

- The Lord can make an old man even a not very educated person - he declared His will through the donkey. You just have to open your ears, open your heart to hear.

- Apparently Paisiy Svyatogorets had only a few classes of the school behind him, and people lined up to him for advice!

– The Monk Paisiy is a man with an amazing sharpness of mind, attentiveness both to himself, and to those around him, and to nature. The great wealth of his soul was poured out on everyone, and thanks to the talent to clothe the instructions in such a witty, visual form, his words were easily remembered. He gave a lot of examples from everyday life, very vivid comparisons with nature; he spoke very clearly. Approximately this style also includes the oral tradition, which underlies the patericons. Suppose there was such and such an old man, his life was hidden from human eyes, but sometimes he said or did something bright to teach people. For example, he took a basket, poured sand into it, came to the monastery, where the brethren reproached each other, and walked around the yard. They asked him: “What are you doing, abba?” He answered: “I hung my sins behind my back, I don’t care about them, so I go, and I’m just looking at somebody else’s.” Such short instructive stories, also with a bit of humor, are well remembered and often come to mind at the right moment. For example, it is difficult to retell the life of St. Ambrosiy of Optina, but those short sayings that he often used are easy to remember and can cheer up a person in time and tell him how to act.

Obedience of a monk in charge for the guesthouse

- The elders are very different; they do not fit into one type. Elder Paisiy was a very simple and humorous man; Elder Iosif was a very ardent, extraordinary ascetic. What other examples can you give?

– For example, in our patericon, we have a story about an elder, who was archondaric, that is, responsible for receiving pilgrims and in charge for the guesthouse. But at the same time he was a terribly taciturn person! That is, according to his position, this elder is obliged to talk to everyone... being himself a very quiet, very modest person. People, who came to the monastery of St. Paul, were greatly surprised by this. And then... they sent greeting cards to the monks: "Congratulations on your archondaric!" Because, although he was silent, and, it would seem, unsociable, but love emanated from him, which everyone felt.

The inner yard of the Church of the Presvyataya Troitsa (Holy Trinity) of the hermitage New Fivaida (Athos). Photo by Valeriy Bliznyuk

There are also fool-for-Christ elders, whom people mistook for madmen, but who could sometimes be caught, for example, standing in the middle of the street, in rags, barefoot, performing from memory the divine service of today from beginning to end!

There were father’s superiors, who, with parental care, fulfilled all their obediences and did not make a single remark to anyone in the whole course of all their abbotship! They themselves performed the work that other monks needed to do, and prayed that the Lord would enlighten them. By their example, they had an even greater impact on the novices than if they had shouted or stamped their feet.

There are stories about amazingly hardworking monks who had a very clever pair of hands: they grew such tomatoes in their garden that you had to climb a ladder to pick them!

There are also such stories. One person before coming to Athos was engaged in spiritualism. And when he decided to go to the Holy Mountain and went to the last session of spiritualism, the spirits did not appear for a long time and finally said to one of those present: “We will not appear until this person changes his decision to go to Athos.” And he, having come to Athos, began to write about the terrible harm that spiritualism brings.

Such different people lived on Athos - a real flower garden of characters and talents!

– Ancient lives often depict the ideal image of ascetics. Do you write about modern elders without idealization?

– Of course, there are examples of falls and uprisings; the patericon also speaks of the dangers that may lie in wait on the path of excessive achievement. For example, in our book, there is a story about a monk, who lived as a hermit and was a very strict faster: he ate food once every two days or even more rarely. From such severity to himself, he, in the end, was somewhat damaged. When he was taken to a monastery to be cared for, this ascetic was very irritable, he did not want to say a kind word to anyone, he could not pray, everything in him was seething - and such a state, practically God-forsaken, was very painful for him. He stayed there for several months, understood his condition, reconciled with everyone, prayer returned to him, and he rested in peace.

There is a story about a monk, who lived on Athos and commanded the workers. Over time, he plunged into the bustle of life, grew fat, and abandoned his monastic rule. He returned to his former youthful ardor in the faith after one terrible vision, and has lived a very worthy monastic life ever since.

These are stories about living, not idealized people, and this is why they are valuable! These are not superman coloring books. It happened that even robbers became saints, and monks, after heavy falls, returned to monastic life and even received the gift of miracle working.

Therefore, the stories from the life of the elders provide material rich enough for making decisions in our everyday troubles.

"I realized that I was at home"

- Father Panteleimon, why is there such attention to Athos in Russia today?

– The fact is that the monastic tradition was not interrupted on Athos. In Russia, it was restored mainly from books, but there the tradition has been living on for many centuries. And, in fact, the Russian Church has always been guided by Athos. If we take such a fundamental book as the “Typicon”, which defines the charter of our liturgical life, we can see that people live rather on Athos according to the “Typicon” rules than in our parish churches: for example, there they celebrate matins at sunrise, while we perform it about nightfall. In many other ways, the monastic life is much closer to the centuries-old tradition there.

Archimandrite Parfeniy (Murelatos) and Schema-Archimandrite Iliy (Nozdrin)

— Have you ever met people who could be called elders?

- I had a little conversation with Archimandrite Parfeniy (Murelatos), rector of the monastery of St. Paul on Athos. This is a mountain of a man, in every sense. A feeling of very deep solidity emanates from him - this is a person, on whom worldly waves are breaking. At the same time, he is very simple and wise, and loving; next to him, you feel like a little boy next to a big grandfather, who loves you, you experience great respect and awe. You are a little scared - you understand that he already knows everything about you - but at the same time, you feel safe next to him.

Completely different in character is Schema-Archimandrite Gavriil (Bunge) from Switzerland, with whom I happened to stay for a week. This is a man of the broadest erudition, fluent in many languages, reading the holy fathers in the original, a man of German accuracy. It is both joyful and very interesting to be near him, and at the same time you are afraid that your insensitivity will not create inconvenience or cause dissonance. It is precisely the desire to be “on the same wavelength” with the elder that should be characteristic of the novice - he learns to understand the elder from a half-word and hurries to fulfill his will.

— And how did you come to monasticism yourself?

- Everything was somehow surprisingly smooth and painless. If someone can tell about coming to faith through sorrows and difficulties, then it was rather unclear to me how to thank God for the abundance of everything He gives me! Probably, the countdown can be started from my baptism, at the age of 11. However, churching did not begin with the sacrament. Anyhow, an amazingly bright, clear feeling of the beginning of a new life remained from the Sacrament itself - it has been preserved forever.

- Did you decide to be baptized yourself?

- No, my mother brought me. Then, there was a good school, admission to the university, wonderful friends - I don’t remember any difficulties. One day, acquaintances brought me to the church for Easter service, and standing there, in that cramped space, I suddenly realized that I was at home here. That I am where I need to be, and this place is absolutely dear and joyful for me. And then, little by little, a meaningful churching began: I read patristic literature avidly, I began to help in the church - just then my studies at the university ended. Somehow very naturally, in such a “soft way”, I entered the seminary, then the academy*. And life under the protection of St. Sergiy, in the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergiy Radonezhskiy, had a great influence on me. There I found my confessor, who once asked: “If a small monastery appears, will you go?” I say: "I will." Then a small monastery really appeared, and I went after graduating from the Academy. Such a path was, it seems to me, just covered with carpets!

- Without any doubt?

- There were experiences. Anyhow, they just do fade from memory, but the gentle, loving hand with which the Lord led you, its feeling still remains. Experiences are mostly connected with some stupid attempts to turn off to the side, when it was clear that they were leading the wrong way. There were sudden quick and false moves...

Church of the Presvyatoy Troitsy (Holy Trinity) of the hermitage New Fivaida (Athos). Photo by Valeriy Bliznyuk

– There is a saying: if you are 99 percent sure about your choice of monasticism, and 1 percent doubtful, then when you put on the robe, 99 percent of confidence will turn into 99 percent of doubt. Is it really true?

- Depending on what you have imagined about the monastery. If you have some expectations, then the failure to meet these expectations, which can quite naturally arise, will lead to disappointment. Naturally - because you can imagine a certain picture of the monastery, peeping through the keyhole, and then you go in - and everything is different there! And if you don’t expect anything particularly - again, as in the relationship of spouses, you don’t expect that the bride will always cook delicious food for you, keep the house in perfect condition, and always be in a good mood - then your illusions will not be broken into reality, you won't get disappointed. When you get married, a person is important to you as he or she is, regardless of any external circumstances. So it is with regard to the monastery: you do not come to the walls, not to the way of life, you come first of all to your confessor. That is, you commit yourself to him. You just become such soft clay: here I am, sculpt from me, what you want, I trust you completely. And if you are hard as a stone, and they try to mold something out of you, painful sensations arise.

Elder Yefrem of Katunak

- Trust in God is manifested through trust in a confessor or an elder?

- Trust in God and trust in man are close concepts. You trust God first of all, which means that the Lord will save you, He will not let you be offended, and He will vouchsafe you the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not easy to live trusting, but it is even more painful to live, constantly expecting a dirty trick, fearing everything. Yes, you can exist like a very clever fish, having caved a small burrow for yourself and not sticking out anywhere, but it’s hard to call it life! And a life with trust is a life that is in full swing! Every day you are ready for something new. And with such trust, you value less the things that are squeezed in your hands; you agonize less over your mistakes and falls.

I have such an association. You are tasked with bringing water in a glass from one end of the field to the other. And you, joyful and self-confident, take this full glass and go! But then a little water is spilled and you start to get nervous. A little more is spilled - you start to get even more nervous; your hand starts to shake, you completely lose your temper and are ready to throw this glass to the ground, and sit down, and burst into tears. This attitude happens when you look at the wrong thing. You have been told: bring at least some water to the other end of the field. This is your final goal, and the rest is trifles. And it doesn't matter, which one you come - you can get covered in mud, no matter how much water you spill - maybe only a drop at the bottom will remain in the glass, but you must complete the task. There is One, who entrusted it to you. And the less attention you pay to yourself and more to what is expected of you, the better. But vanity sticks out, and you want to carry a full glass. Forget about the falls, remember the final goal. It is not you and not your failures or successes that are important. Your relationship with God, your trust in Him is important. This is the correct approach, I think. Your distrust stops you, it locks you in on itself and the glass, but the goal is not visible, and you can sit down and live your whole life at this end of the field, the glass will stand in front of you, and you will be afraid to take it and carry it.

— Everything you talked about today — both about eldership and obedience — all this is united by some kind of joy. Finally, please tell me, what place does joy occupy in the life of monks, elders, and even in ordinary Christian life?

– There is a well-known phrase: if people knew, what joy monasticism is full of, everyone would run to become monks; but if people knew what sorrows awaited them there, then no one would go to monasticism. And if you make a reference to familiar secular texts, then the following song comes to mind: “She goes through life laughing, meeting and saying goodbye, not upset... but they don’t notice how she, who goes through life laughing, cries at night.” Therefore, when there is an intensive interior life and work, overcoming one's laziness and unwillingness, the Lord rewards all this with joy. And he sends amazing people to meet you. The Lord does not deceive the trust you place in Him. This does not mean that there are some mutual settlements with God or with the elder. There just appears some experience that confirms you in your chosen intention. And why should we be "bugaboos" and engage in self-scrutiny, if Christ is risen and the doors of paradise are open for us? We sit, we lose heart, we are sulky, but the doors are open and the sun shines through them...

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