In EnglishJoseph the Hesychast

The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (8)

14 Οκτωβρίου 2009

The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (8)


Continued from (7)

7. The Discovery of the Hesychast Elder Daniel as Spiritual Father

From the very beginning of his venture, the Elder longed to find a spiritual father: a spiritual man, in the full sense of the word, who could teach him and guide him in this subtle and mysterious life. And despite all his disappointments, as he told us, he never ceased to search and hope. There was a rumour about ascetics whom most people never saw, who lived in obscurity and would present themselves from time to time to certain priests, themselves spiritual men, and receive Communion. For a long time this was a problem and a trial for the Elders, because they kept trying and searching constantly in the hope of meeting such people. In their persistent efforts they went round all the caves and huts, and any other trace of earlier habitation or place where there was evidence that some ascetic had once lived.

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The famed Father Daniel was at that time living as a hesychast at the kathisma of St Peter, beyond Krya Nera in the region of the Great Lavra. He was a true hesychast, living in virtual enclosure. He never went further than his yard, and struggled in vigil and prayer and celebrated the Liturgy daily. In character he was silent and free from care, and he had a rather different rule of life. He had no visitors and did not readily receive people during his hours of quiet and prayer, especially at the Liturgy, which usually took place around midnight. The Elder Joseph satisifed himself of the spiritual quality of the surroundings and the holiness of this Elder, and asked him to allow them to attend the Liturgy there from time to time, seeing that they were living at St Basil which was not far away, and to make their confession to him. The Elder accepted their request.

On the subject of this great Elder, Father Daniel, someone else ought to write at length, because we know very little. Here we shall say a little so that his venerable name may not be forgotten, because he is one of the heroes of the Athonite state and, indeed, one contemporary with us. In character, as we have said, he was quiet and silent, and with this he combined humility; he always wanted to hide himself and remain in obscurity, which is something common in real monks. He was always temperate, and hardly ever took oil; he ate only pulses boiled without oil, and that once a day, at the ninth hour by Byzantine time. He kept vigil every night, praying on his own, and before midnight he would go into the church, where he read a small part of the service, particularly kathismata of the Psalter, in preparation for the proskomide. After midnight he would begin the Liturgy, which would be celebrated very slowly and with great devotion. He would often interrupt the sequence of the service with his tears and contrition as he recited the prayers, and thus on many occasions the Liturgy alone lasted up to four hours. ‘Often’, the Elder told us, ‘we would press him to say something to us by way of a spiritual homily and he would shy away from it, giving as his excuse the words of St Synkletiki, alluding to the passion of self-esteem: “When a lamp burns, it gives light to others, but it burns its own lips.”’

Another devout brother from New Skete told us of this holy Elder Daniel that he and his own Elder would sometimes pay Father Daniel friendly visits, because the two Elders had known each other a long time. ‘I was not yet a monk,’ the brother from New Skete told us, ‘and I had just arrived, after finishing my military service. As we came near, my Elder greeted him with a prostration, and then motioned silently to me to do the same. I approached, and Father Daniel shook me by the hand and greeted me by name, saying, “Welcome, Stergios. It is good that you have come to the garden of our most holy Lady and to be with the Elder Neophytos. Just stay and be patient, and in a little while Nikos will come and you can live together.” Nikos was my younger brother according to the flesh and we had separated a long time before, because we were orphans, and neither knew where the other lived: I had gone out to work in Livadia and then I went into the army, and Nikos had gone to Athens at a young age and worked in the bakeries. Then he turned to my Elder and encouraged him to keep us, and he called his disciple, Antonios, and told him to make tea for us and to put in lots of sugar for me, Stergios. In due course the tea arrived, but mine looked unpleasant at first glance, as if some soot had fallen into it. When I tasted it, I made a face and left it. Then he asked me, “Is the tea nice, Stergios?” “No, Elder,’ I replied, annoyed. “Some soot fell out of the fireplace, and it’s like poison.” Then he found the fitting occasion to teach me the meaning of the monastic life I had chosen. “No, child,” he said; “no soot fell into it; it is just wild acorns from the forest, which are bitter and astringent, and symbolise the struggle involved in our life here, which will seem as if it is bitter, and in this way the Lord will give us sweetness in His Kingdom.” I always remember these words, as if he had said them yesterday. As for my brother, he did indeed come two years later, and we have lived our whole lives in the same hut that we went to at the beginning, even after the death of our Elder.’

These two brothers were the Monk Cyril and Hieromonk Neophytos, who lived with the Elder Neophytos the wood-carver in the Hut of the Life-giving Spring at New Skete.

Grace dwelt so richly in the soul of Father Daniel that he knew with precision and in detail about things that were far away and obscure. Towards the end, the Elder told us, when he was very old and could not stand unaided, he did not give up his diet. On the last day before his departure, he asked for someone to support him so that he could stand up and go out into their yard. When with some difficulty he had come out, he looked around and up and sighed lightly: ‘A vain world. All is vanity.’ And slowly he went back to his bed. A few hours later he departed to heaven, which he had loved so much and for which he had laboured. This was the holy Elder Father Daniel.

‘One summer,’ the Elder told us, ‘while we continued our life as far as possible without distractions, I really suffered great torments. My body was worn out from the violence of it. I tried not to give way, because I believed that “the patience of the poor shall not perish forever” (Ps. 9:18, LXX); because at the end of the eight years, as I surmised, the war of the flesh was increasing even more. My means of defence were not having much effect, because grace was withheld and I was not finding that much consolation even in prayer. At such moments human consolation is a great help, when it comes from real brothers and fathers who have experience of temptation and adversities. But for us that was very difficult, because what with our behaviour, the way we avoided meeting people for the sake of stillness, many people misunderstood us and thought we were deluded, so they found us repellant and avoided us. The most ignorant made fun of us and mocked us. When this happens, it really is “adding to the afliction of our wounds”, as David says (Ps. 69:27, LXX). The only person we had left was the Elder at St Peter, Father Daniel. We often took refuge there, and the Elder would comfort us, especially as he saw that we were making real efforts for our salvation.

‘During this period of bitter struggle, one summer evening we were in our usual place, between St Basil and Krya Nera’, he told us; ‘I was heavily weighed down, and grace showed me no consolation. Having nothing else to do to to give myself some respite, I decided to visit my spiritual father, and so I set off slowly. I had no strength, and every so often I would stop and confess to Him who searches hearts and reins, “Most good Master, You are present and see everything. What more do You want of a poor weak creature? You know my intention. What more can I do? With Your help I do not give up, and I take courage in Your mercies, that You will not abandon me. Why such violence? Will it force my will give way? Do not abandon me, God my Saviour, the hope of all who call upon Thee.”

‘When I started to walk on again, it was as if I heard a bird song in front of me, and at once I felt a change in myself. That unbearable weight which had been pressing upon me left me, and I recognised, as usual, the signs of comfort. Grace began to increase within me, my strength was renewed and, as always, my mind was able to turn to thanksgiving and praise, to the degree that grace impels. I mean, provided it stays at a certain level: because if it increases, then the intellect and the senses cease to function and contemplation alone remains as the chief regulating principle. Suddenly I heard the bird song a second time, incomparably sweeter than the first, and it seemed to be in front of me, a very short distance away. I still had my senses, and I thought that if I walked on a little, I would see it. So I did indeed quicken my pace and hurried to see. That mysterious voice sang again, and at that point my senses stopped and my intellect was “caught up”, going outside myself, in a infinite expanse of light without bounds or measure. Before that happened, I think I had time to lean against something on the path where I was walking. Afterwards, as St Paul says (2 Cor. 12:2) “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows”, I seemed to be walking up a slope. The terms I use are according to our own measures and categories and elements; but in that place where a man finds himself in those supranatural states, there is nothing that resembles the things of this world even to the smallest degree.’ (We were pressing him to explain in greater detail how he saw these things, and that was how he answered). ‘It seemed that I was going up a great mountain and heading for the peak, because something told me that I had to get there. But my course was directed by that sweet and melodious voice of birdsong, which I could always hear in front of me, inviting me to follow it. I was not getting tired, I did not feel the weight of my body and my movements were not bounded by time; and without realising it I had arrived at the peak where a new surprise was in store, as I looked upon the woundrous works of God!

‘In front of me there stretched a vast plain, with no borders or end to be seen anywhere; it was like the sea. And the light was incomparably whiter, so much so that I stopped in ecstasy. And without realising it I started to walk east, as I thought. My interest was aroused as to what all this was and what there might be at the far end, which I believed I would get to, because the voice I could hear was coming from there. My progress was so swift, I don’t know how I covered that immense expanse and reached the far side, where the walls of a great city could be seen.

‘As I came near, I found myself in front of an enormous door whose beauty made me stop to admire it, and I said to myself, what man could make something like this? There was nothing to be heard; there reigned an infinite silence and a divine tranquility, and only that melodious voice of bird song could be heard coming from within those walls. When I had spent a little time marvelling at the beauty and order of those supranatural phenomena, I felt the urge to see what was inside, and to find out what that heavenly bird was which sang so delightfully. Seeing no one to ask or get permission from, I made the sign of the Cross and went through that door.

‘But “how marvellous are Thy works, O Lord of Hosts! Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvellous are Thy works, and no word sufficeth to sing of Thy wonders!” As soon as I went in and my eyes fell on the splendour and glory of everything in there, I stopped. I remained motionless and could think of nothing; I just wondered at that divine glory, and it began to dawn on me that this was the city of God. Looking down at the floor, I was captivated by the vision of this glorious composition and design, which the human mind cannot even imagine. There was such multifarious glory to be found there that it was impossible to tear my gaze away from it, and it was only some other movement that enabled me to break free and turn my eyes elsewhere. The walls which surrounded this sacred city were mysterious in their construction and their boundlessness and their height, because as you lifted your gaze to see how high they were, they kept going up. My interest reached a climax, however, when I finally saw that beautiful bird with the angelic voice.

‘In the middle of that mysterious space which was a church or a city – only God, who built it, knows – there hung, or floated in mid-air – God knows – something like the metal Byzantine coronas hanging in the central churches of the Athonite monasteries, of immense size; but it was not made of metal or some other inanimate material, but of a host of song-birds of unimaginable beauty and variety in their colour and form, and they all sang with a kind of voice like a melody, like a hymn, incomprehensible to me but so melodious that my whole being was filled with the grace of God. Precisely in the middle of them stood, majestically, the bird I had been hearing from the beginning; and in a steady voice, like the chanter who keeps the ison, it set the tone for that wonderful melody.

‘How long I stayed there, only God knows. He who comforts those whom His goodness knows. As I was wondering at all these splendours of God, I seemed to hear footsteps of passers by outside the door through which I had come in. I wanted to meet someone who could tell me what all this was, so I turned round and went out, but I was too late and there was no one to be seen. It just seemed that I had started walking north and was going downhill again as I had come, only I was not going the same way.

‘There too I encountered wonderful things, because there seemed to be olive groves and places to live, but all supranatural. As I neared the end of the descent from this wonderful mountain, I saw spread out at its foot an immense plain, bright green, and filled with children, some older and some younger, and they were playing very happily. I admired them and wondered at how many there were, and also at their good behaviour and their joyfulness; then I made a turn – as the surroundings guided me – and went to the entrance to that place, as I thought, where there were very tall trees with dense foliage.

‘When I actually reached the entrance, which was a divine masterpiece, I saw an old man sitting in infinite tranquility on a comfortable couch. He was very majestic, and at the same time filled with kindness and love. I went up to him very respectfully and made a prostration before him. He gave me his hand in a very loving way, smiling a fatherly smile, and I think he put into my hand three pieces of white bread, small like our antidoron, which I held tight; then I turned to go, and I came to myself.

‘I found myself standing up, leaning against a rock, as I had been when I heard that wonderful birdsong on the path as I was going to see my spiritual father. Filled with spiritual joy and amazed at all these wondrous works of God’s goodness which His compassion had vouchsafed to me, I turned back. I went to Father Arsenios and kept saying to myself, in the words of our great teacher Paul, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18), because indeed “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those that love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). When I came to myself, I was holding my fist tightly clenched; and when I remembered why I had clenched it, I opened it and did not find the pieces of bread. They were spiritual, it seems, because within me I felt boundless happiness and joy, and for the whole of the next twenty-four hours I did not call to mind any bodily need, but wept tears of joy and thanked God for the greatness of His condescension to lowly man.’

To be continued…