Our holy Father Paisius was born at Poltava in Ukraine in 1722, where his father was a priest. One of a large family, he was gentle, reserved, endowed with a great capacity for recollection, and had a lively intelligence. He learned to read very quickly, and eagerly immersed himself in the Scriptures, the lives of the holy monks, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church on ascesis and compunction. He was sent to study at the Ecclesiastical Academy in Kiev but was soon disappointed at seeing clergy and monks corrupted by money and worldliness, as well as by the arid teaching, which was heavily influenced by Latin scholasticism and pagan culture. At the end of four years, he abandoned his studies, and set out to look for a spiritual father and a monastery where he would be able to live in dispossession, imitating the poverty of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). He stayed in various monasteries and became a rasophore under the name of Plato. When he heard tell of the admirable way of life they led in the sketes of Moldavia and Wallachia, where the greater number of the Russian monks driven out by Peter the Great’s reforms had found refuge, he and a few companions made haste to join them. He stayed there for some years in the best possible circumstances for monastic life, with wise spiritual fathers who were faithful followers of the teaching of the holy Fathers. He showed all the qualities of an exemplary disciple: absolute obedience, humility, love of the brethren, constancy and joy in times of trial, zeal for meditation and prayer. Seeing the progress he made, his superiors wanted him to be ordained priest, although he was under the canonical age of thirty years. Afraid of transgressing the holy Canons in any way, Plato left his monastery and Romania, and set out for his longed for destination of Mount Athos.
The situation on the Holy Mountain, then under Turkish occupation, was scarcely encouraging. Ignorance reigned, and spiritual men were as rare among the Greek monks as among the Slavs. Plato was unable, in spite of all his efforts, to find a spiritual father. He settled alone near the Monastery of Pantocrator with only the Bible, the writings of the Fathers and the testimony of his own conscience to guide him. Completely poverty-stricken, he ate one day in two. He struggled daily against temptations to discouragement, but persevered in prayer and in meditating on the writings of the Fathers. After he had lived like this for four years, Basil of Poiana Marului (d. 1767), a holy and wise Elder whom he had known in Romania, came to visit Mount Athos and tonsured him a monk under the name of Paisius, advising him to dwell with some companions in order to avoid the dangers of living an eremitic life before the time. Soon afterwards, a young Romanian monk called Bessarion, who had also been unable to find a spiritual father, arrived and asked with tears to be received as his disciple. Paisius did not consider himself worthy to teach a disciple but was willing to accept Bessarion as a brother and companion in ascesis. They lived, therefore, with one soul and one heart in mutual obedience directed towards God alone. Their way was so pleasing to God that they were soon joined by other brethren, Romanians and Slavs, who wanted to follow the way taught by the holy Fathers. When their number had reached twelve, they adopted the cenobitic way of life, which is an image of the holy Apostles around the Saviour, and of the Angels who serve ceaselessly around the Throne of the King of Heaven. In 1758, Paisius, who still refused to consider himself as their master, as last gave in to the tears of his companions and agreed to be ordained priest and to become their confessor. The community continued to grow in spite of material difficulties. They moved to the Skete of the Prophet Elias, and from there tried to revive the Monastery of Simonos Petra; but constant harassment by Turkish creditors made them decide, in 1763, to leave Mount Athos and return to Romania.
Paisius and his sixty-four disciples were welcomed with joy by the Metropolitan and by the Voivode of Moldavia, who presented them with the little Monastery of the Holy Spirit at Dragomirna. In ordering the common life there, Paisius followed Athonite usage, and faithfully put into practice the principles established by the holy Fathers. Each monk lived in complete dispossession and freedom from worldly concerns, constantly cutting off his will, keeping his conscience naked before God, and having as mediator and intercessor Paisius, the Father of them all and the living symbol of Christ. Obedience, Paisius taught, is the ladder that leads from earth to heaven, the path that ends in passionlessness. By cutting off his own will in the numerous occasions that community life affords, with humility, peace and fear of God, the monk is able to keep the remembrance of God continually and to invoke in secret the holy Name of Jesus. Back in his cell, he devotes himself to meditating Scripture and the inspired writings of the Fathers, to bowing to the ground with tears and, above all, so far as he is able to bringing his intellect down into his heart in order there to call on the Name of Christ without disturbance. The methods of inner prayer, until then the preserve of hermits and hesychasts, were adapted for the first time to the conditions of cenobitic life in the community of Saint Paisius. The services in the church were ordered with due solemnity: one choir chanted in Slavonic and the other responded in Romanian. Every evening the monks confessed to their Elder so as not to let the sun go down on anger (Ephes. 4:26) or on dissension. A brother who bore a grudge against another was forbidden to enter the church or even to say the Lord’s prayer.
As he led his ever-increasing flock, Saint Paisius drew devotedly from the writings of the great masters of the monastic life. He approached the texts with all the respect, humility and love that a disciple has for his spiritual father. Ever since his days as a student at Kiev, he had been painfully aware of the inadequacies of the old Slavonic translation which often presented an incomprehensible text, and he had worn himself out seeking in vain to understand them through comparing translations. As soon as he arrived on Mount Athos, he began to learn Ancient Greek, and patiently undertook the collation of a whole series of copies of Patristic texts in the original language. At Dragomirna, he worked methodically and tirelessly with devotion and critical rigour at establishing the correct Greek text of Fathers such as Saints Antony, Hesychius, Macarius, Diadochus, Philotheus of Sinai, Theodore the Studite, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory the Sinaite and, above all, Saint Isaac the Syrian. In making translations, Paisius was assisted by a group of his brethren, who also checked and revised the translations, which were then tested by reading and explanation in the presence of the assembled community, one evening in Slavonic and the next in Romanian.
When Northern Moldavia was ceded to the Roman Catholic power of Austria after the war between Russia and Turkey (1774), the community left Dragomirna for the Monastery of Secu. By 1779 their number had grown so large that Paisius had no alternative but to divide his spiritual family. He accepted the offer of Prince Constantine Moruzi and went with the larger group to settle in the neighbouring monastery of Neamts, which had been the centre of spiritual life in Moldavia since the fourteenth century. The monastic army soon reached one thousand, with 700 monks at Neamts and 300 at Secu. Besides the round of common prayer and other spiritual labors at Neamts, the monastic community undertook a whole range of charitable works. Pilgrims came from Russia and from all the Balkan countries to contemplate the order, peace, brotherly love, and piety that reigned there; and some of them stayed on as monks. Saint Paisius’ work of translation continued unabated, yet he was always an attentive father to his sons. He received without distinction all who came to ask his advice, and carried on an extensive correspondence in the Slav lands. “Such was the gift of the holy man” wrote one of his disciples and biographers, “that he was able to kindle zeal in the most slothful.” And a Greek visitor to Neamts gave his testimony: “I saw with my own eyes holiness incarnate, a man free of every passion and completely transparent. He was exceedingly meek of countenance and so pale as to appear bloodless. His beard was well-kept and shining white…He was very gentle and direct in conversation, and one would have said he was a man without body.” Saint Paisius fell asleep on 15 November 1794, one year after the publication of the Philokalia in Slavonic, based largely on translations that he and his disciples had made many years before. These translations, and the influence of the Saint through the activity of his disciples in Russia, led to a widespread spiritual renewal, and to the restoration of traditional monastic life there which lasted until the Revolution of 1917.
From the Synaxarion of Simonos Petra, compiled by Hieromonk Makarios