11. The move to New Skete
‘Arsenios,’ said the Elder one day in June 1951, ‘it looks as if our stay here is over. The boys have fallen ill. Who’s going to look after who now – they us, or we them?’ It was true: even I had begun to weaken, although I was a country boy and somewhat used to a hard life. I had a constant pain in my chest, I was coughing up blood and having stomach haemorrhages and I felt almost permanently unwell. My younger brother Ephrem was weaker, and in consequence he too joined the list of those ‘on suspension’.
The Elder then called us and told us his opinion and his decision that we should move somewhere lower down and nearer the sea, as the needs of our life required. But the foremost reason, as I have already explained, was economy towards us. That made me wonder at his discretion, that he preferred to sacrifice his personal peace in order to make allowance for our weakness, whereas he was by temperament very hard on himself.
New Skete was chosen at the instigation of Father Theophylact, who also wanted to stay with us at that time. So we decided to stay there, at the hut of the Holy Unmercenaries in the middle of New Skete, for the time being. We went there because he himself very much wanted to, but it did not suit us; it was cramped and restricted, and cheek by jowl with the surrounding huts. Our attention, especially the Elder’s, was drawn immediately to the isolated huts outside the Skete, which at that time happened to be uninhabited. After reaching an understanding with the ruling monastery of St Paul, we took all the isolated huts in that area around the tower. They was small, solitary huts, and were more attractive to the Elder precisely because they were isolated, so that large gatherings of people were avoided. We lived one or two to a hut, and came all together only at certain hours of the day or at the Liturgy.
The move from the caves to New Skete seems easy in the telling, but in practice it was very tiring; not so much because of transporting our things – since we had very little – as because of the dreadful state the New Skete huts were in. This was the period after the war, when our country had undergone the ravages of civil strife. At that time, because of the danger that flocks kept out in the open would be seized by the opposing factions, the government of the day obliged the shepherds to take refuge on the Athos peninsula for their own safety. These fine guests had missed no opportunity by whatever means to grab, ruin or befoul places and things so as to do whatever they felt like. I do not know if there was ever an official evaluation of the damage caused by this disaster in the contemporary history of the Holy Mountain. In any case, where we were they had fortunately done only so much damage, because they had not stayed long. For instance, to keep themselves warm they had burnt floors, divans, doors, windows and whatever other wood there was, such as shelves or props, thus destroying plasterwork and walls! Since we inherited this sorry state of affairs as the spoils of war, one can just think what it took to make such places habitable.
The Elder’s old practice that we should never have anything of our own gave us more trouble then that at any other time, because we had neither resources nor money to procure them, and everything was cramped and restricted. But even so, our previous familiarity with such surroundings and situations made everything bearable. After we had got ourselves organised in a rudimentary way in the places that were suitable, a pressing need was to build a small chapel, because the Elder was not able to move far and nor could he remain without the Holy Mysteries. In accordance with the Elder’s wish, St John the Baptist was chosen again, as our permanent patron. Shortly we had our little church again, makeshift as it was, in the place where the Elder lived, and so began our new life.
When we realised that it was largely for our sakes that the Elder had sacrificed his quietness, we turned all our attention to our new surroundings. We tried as far as possible to create conditions which would help us implement our old regime and rule, so that the change of place would not be noticeable. We were much taken up with the fear that the Elder would not be at ease, because the place was more approachable and easier to reach in comparision with our previous lodgings. The truth is, however, that we did not have any difficulty where we were living outside the Skete, because our regime was respected both by the devout fathers of the area and by the ruling monastery. So we soon began our fine rule, as before. The fact that there were fewer loads to be carried and less heavy toil, compared with our previous lodgings which were far from the places where we had to go for our necessities, soon bore fruit in us younger monks. We regained our health and managed to find more time for spiritual pursuits, which we so loved in our youthful zeal.
But for our ever-memorable Elder, the consequences of exhaustion and hardships became ever more plain. Day by day his strength was deserting him, and we too began to appreciate his yearning for the release which he had always longed for and sought after. The slightest movement brought on swelling and asthma; the least exertion exhausted him and brought on the other connected symptoms to be found in a sick and exhausted constitution. His long-established habit of not giving way in his regime of struggle persuaded him not to yield, and here his anxiety to put pressure on himself reached its height, as we could see. For him the criterion was faith, not reason. He applied to the letter St Paul’s words: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Phil. 1:21).
His insistence on not giving any ground on the requirements of his personal rule and the additional exertions of the moves exhausted him totally. Thus two serious illnesses, one after the other, brought an end to his earthly life. It was New Year’s Eve in 1958 when a large spot came up on the centre of his neck. ‘It’s a New Year’s present, boys,’ he said; and told us, ‘I feel discomfort and numbness in my body.’ The next morning when we went to see him that area was very swollen and inflamed; he was shivering, and was totally exhausted. We were unable to persuade him to accept help. After two or three days his condition had worsened considerably and his whole body was infected, because – as we later discovered – the spot was benign anthrax, which is a serious disease.
We all gathered together and begged him to accept treatment and he told us our efforts were in vain, because his desire had always been to ‘leave’, and now his hour had come. We insisted, and then he agreed to let us do as we thought best. We sought help from the fathers of the Skete, and the community of Father Kyrillos volunteered with the devout brother Makarios to treat him with antibiotics by injection. In a human way we had checked the fatal consequences of the disease, but the treatment took a long time to complete and the stages it had to go through were painful. After almost a year he managed to recover, by which time he was totally worn out, and he immediately began to suffer from a weak heart, which brought an end to his earthly life.
In his first illness the symptoms were external and the pains and other manifestations were obvious, so that we found out about them and conqequently made him accept help. But in the second phase of his illness, by the time the symptoms appeared it was too late and there was almost nothing we could do for him, despite the fact that then too we persuaded him to let us see what we could do. ‘Don’t waste your effort,’ he told us. ‘It’s my time to go; you are just tormenting me. But since you insist, do as you think best.’ We wrote to doctors outside, spiritual children of his, describing the symptoms, and they sent us medicines. We repeatedly brought in doctors from outside and whatever else could be done, but God did not grant him to us. Truly, it was time for him to leave this world, as he ardently desired.
Once, when he was having trouble breathing because of his illness, I heard him talking quietly to himself in the inner cell. With the freedom that he allowed us, I went in of my own accord to see whom he was speaking to and what he was saying, because I knew there was no one else there at that time. I found him holding in his embrace an icon of our Lady the Mother of God. He was kissing it and speaking to it, and what I heard was this: ‘My Lady, my Lady, do not forsake me. I kiss you in your icon and you carress me in real life!’; and he was in floods of tears. ‘Are you talking to our Lady, Elder?’ I asked him. ‘What were you saying to her, Elder? Please tell me.’ He had told me on another occasion, but I had forgotten, and he told me:
‘Our Lady gave me great consolation in the past with this icon, when I suffered trials. At Little St Anna, before you came, there was a time when the trials and afflictions multiplied, and she was my only consolation. I used to go into our chapel, where I had this icon on the iconstasis. There in front of her I would pray and beseech her, as she herself had promised me that I should place my hope in her. When in the course of trials grace hides its perceptible presence, then the anguish grows and one entreats with great fear: “Hasten as thou art compassionate and be swift to help us as thou art merciful, for thou art able if thou wilt,” I cried out; “and where then should we find other succour if we look not to thee who art compassionate, the physician of souls and bodies?” And as I was in a state of concentration and weeping before this icon of her, I experienced – as at other times – the presence of her succour. As the space inside that little church was small (the distance from the iconostasis to the stall where I was standing was scarcely a metre), this is what I saw: her icon flashed with light and then her godly face took on life-sized dimensions and she was no longer an icon but was alive, full-length, full of light, fair as the sun, and as ever both Mother and Virgin. Lowly as I am, I saw as much as my mortal nature allowed and in reverence I bent towards the ground, unable to look any more, because her all-holy Babe that she held in her arms, our sweetest Jesus, shone more than the sun according to His godly majesty, and it filled me with His love so that I was totally unaware of myself and just marvelled. Then I heard her voice, full of fragrance and sweeter than honey, saying to me, “Did I not tell you to place your hope in me? Why are you disheartened? Here, take Christ!” And she stretched out her blessed arms towards me and the all-holy Babe came near to me, so that he was within a man’s reach! While I dared not make any move in my amazement, our Jesus full of goodness stretched out His little hand and carressed me three times on the forehead and head! My soul was filled with immeasurable love and light, so that I could no longer stand on my feet. I fell to the ground and with yearning and tears I kissed the place where the Mistress of all had stood, because she had gone back into her icon and left me with her consolation and her fragrance, because that place where she had stood was fragrant for a long time, reminding me constantly of her blessed promise! So there, that is what I am now reminding her of, and that I have not forgotten her promise, which was none other than to take me from this life into the Kingdom of the Son of her Love!’
Indeed, his especial love for our Lady was quite obvious, and also his faith in her maternal providence, to the point where even his bearing betrayed it, whenever he heard her name or saw an icon of her or when someone was singing some hymn to her. The manifold instances of succour with which she consoled him, and in general her particular providence and guardianship towards the monks of Athos, had won over the Elder’s soul completely; in consequence whatever description we may give of his faith and love for our Lady will still be inadequate.
To be continued…