In EnglishJoseph the Hesychast

The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (5)

11 Οκτωβρίου 2009

The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (5)


Continued from (4)

4. The Move to St Basil and the Death of the Elder Ephrem

Any move is in itself not pleasant. But when it becomes essential or useful for the overall goal, then it is the preferred option and is carried through. This is what one finds in most of the Fathers. The prince of evil who schemes against our salvation leaves untried none of the means at his disposal in his war against us, in his efforts to impede our progress towards our spiritual goal. He makes use of locations, places, our limbs, people, things, the inner, the outer, things around us and whatever else you can think of – he turns it all against us so as to lessen our faith in God, to overturn our beliefs and disappoint our hopes. But it is with a particularly frenzied fury that he attacks those who are making progress in the work of the heart and spiritual intellect. Abba Isaac the Syrian refers to something of this sort in his discourses when he says, ‘When the devil sees that progress of this kind has begun, he will stir up some person or some occasion even from the other end of the world to create an obstacle, to prevent the intellect perceiving the experience of grace.’

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Even though the Elder had spent little time seeking and trying to discover grace compared with people in the old days, he had nevertheless been taught by it sufficiently about its value, and how painful and difficult it is to regain it if it once withdraws due to inattention on man’s part. He was therefore punctilious in keeping as far as possible the rules of stillness and freedom from care, as the most basic means to retain it. Self-control, silence, vigil, austerity and inwardness according to one’s capacity were regulated depending on personal initiative. But of the means conducive to finding grace, those that depended on or were influenced by other factors and particularly other people were hard to avoid, and the only remaining solution was to move.

Once the three had agreed on this, they gave their hut to the community in Katounakia with whom the Elder Ephrem was on friendly terms, at the hut of the same name, and left for St Basil. They took with them only what they could carry in their hands, a very few books and some of their clothes. At St Basil. however, they encountered another difficulty. At that time there were no empty huts for them to live in and they were forced to build their own, which was not easy in parts where not even the principle materials were available. Old Ephrem did not live long there. He fell asleep in a saintly death, having had a presentiment of the end and prepared himself accordingly.

The quiet and silence of the place was ideal. Reinforced by the spiritual warriors’ freedom from care, it offered all the prerequisites for wholehearted cultivation of prayer and ‘action’ – the practical work which, according to our Fathers, is the first stage of Christian life. Freed from every care after the departure of their Elder, our Elders abandoned their makeshift huts. With no more cares, the two young warriors would spend the whole summer moving from place to place, and in particular visiting places where they heard that some virtuous ascetic had lived in the past. For the most part, they pursued their ascetic life on the peak of Athos and the lower ground around it, as far as the mountains of the Lavra area. If some reason arose, for the sake of an edifying encounter or some such purpose, they would go as far as the furthest monasteries and Sketes. But for the most part they stayed in the region of the Great Lavra and on their beloved Athos.

Their main reason for constantly moving around was to remain generally unknown and, even more, to meet some spiritual man who could teach them. On these journeys, their only equipment was an old Russian rason each, fur-lined, which also served as bedding, a bag for rusks and a copper cooking pot which they usually carried with them on Athos, so that they could sometimes boil up wild greens. They avoided unnecessary encounters, so as to keep silent; nor did they speak at all between themselves, as far as possible, and they always walked some distance apart for that reason, and again sat at a distance from one another when they stopped. In the winter, they would return to their hut and stay there until Easter. After Easter, they would resume their travels in the same places, and for the same purpose.

Father Joseph did not let up at all in his readiness for the struggle and particularly in his efforts in prayer, and was implacably strict in all the rules of ascetic labour. They fasted intensely and kept vigil even more, because – as the Elder emphasised to us – no other hardship subdues the body and makes the passions wither so much as this. Their food was so scant at that time when they were free from care that it seems incredible to our generation. Each day the Elder Joseph ate just 75 grammes of rusk after the ninth hour, Byzantine time, which is three hours before sunset. On Saturday or Sunday, if they were at some monastery or in an inhabited place, they would be given some food to eat. The monasteries supplied them with rusks, because at that time they still kept the old customs and would distribute food to the ascetics when they visited the monasteries. They did no handicraft, even though the Elder was extremely good at wood carving. He had a particular talent and exceptionally steady hands, which this craft particularly requires. They restricted their expenses to an incredible extent, so that they hardly needed to spend anything. So it was not necessary for them to do any handiwork when they first started out. When their shabby clothes were completely worn out, pious Elders from the monasteries would give them others, and so they preserved their freedom from care as far as they could. This pattern of their life when they first started out lasted for about eight years, and after that they stopped in their hut without travelling around.