St. Paisius (Velichkovsky)

a brief summary of his life, compiled by the sisters of st. paisius monastery

commemorated november 15th

Among the ascetics of Russia, one of the first places, according to the spiritual influence that he had upon his contemporaries, belongs to the Elder Paisius Velichkovsky. Though his work took place mostly beyond the borders of his native Russia, the light of his labors and teaching penetrated all of the corners of the Russian land and everywhere bore good fruit. His first achievement was that he was a reviver and defender of the ancient teaching on the Jesus Prayer—a teaching almost forgotten in Russia; and his second achievement, that he became one of the foremost laborers in the work of reviving Russian monasteries, which had fallen apart to a great extent, as a result of the reforms of Peter I and Catherine II. He was able, in a truly marvelous way, to form a monastic spiritual center within Moldavia—the perfection of which in no way differed from the ancient coenobia of Egypt described by St. John Cassian and St. John of the Ladder.

This great luminary, St. Paisius, was born in Poltava on December 21, 1722, of very pious parents, his father being a priest in the city cathedral. In this blessed household, Peter, as he was named in baptism, was the eleventh of twelve children. Being orphaned of his father, he was sent by his mother to study at the Moghila Academy in Kiev 1735. From the age of fourteen, he established a rule for himself never to judge his neighbor, even if his sins were evident, never to nourish hatred against anyone, and to pardon with all his heart those who may have offended him. After four years of studies his soul did not find rest in the world, and he felt himself called to monastic asceticism and made a mutual promise with those near him never to become monks in a wealthy monastery, but to follow the poverty of Christ, and to live in suffering and strict observance of the monastic rules.

In the autumn of 1739, when he was only seventeen years old, Peter set off in search of a monastery and a good spiritual father, which were necessities for his soul. For seven years he wandered about to different sketes and monasteries, including the Kiev-Caves Lavra. In the Medvedovsky Monastery he was made a riassophore monk with the name Platon. Not finding spiritual repose and stillness in the Ukrainian monasteries, however, Riassophore-monk Platon, moved by the Holy Spirit, crossed over into Moldavia in 1743, where not a few Ukrainian monks were laboring. At this period, there existed some forty sketes scattered over the surrounding mountains, where lived Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian monks fleeing the misfortunes of their countries.

Platon settled in several of these sketes wherein were living Romanian desert dwellers of high caliber, such as Elder Basil (of Poiana Marului) and Onuphrius. Their rule of life was similar to that on Mt. Athos, and they were fed on the teachings of the Holy Fathers. During this time he acquired such wisdom and experience, including the art of noetic prayer, that all called him the “young elder.”

After three years of spiritual asceticism in Moldavia, in 1746 and at the age of 24 years, he departed for the Holy Mountain as he himself tells us, in order to flee ordination. One of his biographers adds that during his stay in Wallachia he had already received all the spiritual wealth of which he was capable at his age. Besides, Mt. Athos was the dream of his tenderest youth. When Platon arrived on Mt. Athos, he traveled through all the monasteries and hermitages to find a skilled guide. Not finding a spiritual father according to his desire, he retired to the desert, where he labored in asceticism alone for four years, in much want and toil, in prayer and the reading of the Holy Fathers, and in tears and vigil day and night. His poverty was extreme, and he lived only on alms. He ate food once every other day, and then only dried bread with water, except on Saturdays, Sundays and feast days. In the spiritual warfare he conducted as a hermit on Mt. Athos, he felt the need for guidance more than ever. But spiritual fathers were rare at the time on the Holy Mountain, and the ascetic writings were forgotten to the point that many had not even heard of them.

In 1750 Elder Basil visited Athos and tonsured the desert-dweller Platon a monk, giving him the name of Paisius. Elder Basil counseled his disciple to leave his solitary asceticism and travel the royal path, saying: “He who lives alone works only for himself, from self-love.” Later in his life St. Paisius was to echo this teaching in his own words: “He who will not suffer with Christ in the common life but rather dares in his pride to immediately ascend Christ’s Cross, choosing for himself the desert life before its time, is not a desert-dweller but one who is self-willed…. No other way of life brings a monk such advancement or delivers him so quickly from the passions of body and soul as community life through blessed obedience.”

From this time the humble Paisius began to receive disciples, the first being Bessarion, a Romanian monk who had begged him with many tears to receive him. Out of obedience St. Paisius also accepted the priesthood, from which time the number of brothers increased. Lack of space constrained them to move to the skete of the Holy Prophet Elias. The renown and love which Paisius enjoyed was so great that monks came to him from all over the Holy Mountain. His biographer Gregory the Teacher notes that from time immemorial Mount Athos had never known such a community. They lived in great material want, but in complete harmony and spiritual zeal. The blessed abbot himself labored during the day making spoons, and at night in reading and transcribing the books of the Holy Fathers, sacrificing only three hours to sleep. His disciples said that throughout his whole life St. Paisius shed many tears when performing the Divine Liturgy, being pierced by divine love. He lived on Athos for seventeen years altogether.

St. Paisius keenly perceived that spiritual life must be grounded in the study of the patristic ascetic texts. He therefore began his life-long labors of translating these precious texts, an enterprise inexpressibly difficult. The original Greek texts were lacking, and he didn’t know the language. Those manuscripts which did exist were often filled with copying errors, making it difficult to determine the original meaning. With the help of two disciples, he began searching out these manuscripts in the various Athonite monasteries; to their great disappointment, they didn’t find any except in St. Basil’s Skete. The work of the Paisian monks was like a dawn heralding the coming of the Philokalia in 1782.

In the summer of 1763, due to the ever-increasing number of brothers and the material difficulties of their life on Mt. Athos, Abbot Paisius came to Moldavia with sixty-four disciples and was given Dragomirna Monastery. There he lived for twelve years, gathering a community of 350 monks. Here he organized a veritable school of monks to correct, translate and duplicate the patristic and ascetic texts. Already at Dragomirna there was achieved a Romanian Philokalia: a voluminous collection of texts, whose main theme was the Jesus Prayer. Thus, the first Philokalia in a vernacular language was born.

In the autumn of 1775 Elder Paisius went to Secu Monastery, accompanied by two hundred monks; and in the summer of 1779 he moved for the last time to the great lavra of Moldavia, Neamts Monastery, where he lived for fifteen years, the most fruitful years of his life. There he translated numerous works of the Holy Fathers. His disciple marveled: “One can only be astonished at how he was able to write so many books, for he was most infirm in body and had wounds on his whole right side. On the bed where he lay he surrounded himself with books: some lexicons, the Bible in Greek and Slavonic, Greek and Slavonic grammars, the book from which he was making the translation, and a candle in the middle. And he, sitting bent over like a small child, would write the whole night long forgetting both the infirmity of his body, and his severe pain and the labor.”

He also continued his extensive school for training editors and translators. Patristic manuscripts filled the library of Neamts Monastery and were distributed to numerous monasteries throughout the country and beyond the borders. Neamts, in particular, became the center and beacon of Orthodox monasticism—the school of hesychastic life and spiritual culture for the whole of the Orthodox world. This immense work of Starets Paisius was crowned by the publication in 1793 (a year before his blessed repose) in St. Petersburg of the Slavonic Philokalia, the Dobrotolubie.

Just as important, the great Elder was the living transmission of these teachings to his disciples. He organized his community according to the rule of the Holy Mountain, forming a very large brotherhood of about a thousand monks, training numerous disciples in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. Monastic life in his monastery flowered like a new miracle, reflecting that of the early desert fathers. His monastery has been described thus: “Their voluntary poverty is perfect. The monks are especially distinguished for humility, completely shunning pride. They know nothing of hatred and envy. If one of them wrongs another, they quickly make peace. One who does not wish to forgive a brother who has wronged him is expelled from the monastery. The gait of the monks is modest. When they meet, each tries to forestall the other with his bow. Idle talking is completely forbidden. Eight-hundred monks live there in the community of St. Paisius, and when they gather at an obedience—whether a hundred or a hundred and fifty brethren—one of them reads a profitable homily or gives a sermon edifying for the soul. If someone begins to speak of vain things, he is immediately stopped…for those men, being made alive by their love of God, are by their own will dead to earthly things. And how are you able to speak with understanding, except in part, about their secret work, that is to say, the curbing of the heart, deep humility, fear of God, taking heed of oneself, silence of thoughts, and prayer of the heart which is ever rising up, with ineffable and burning love for Christ and neighbor. For many of them unceasingly shed tears, not only in their cell, but also in church, and in the time of their obedience, and in the time of reading and of spiritual talks, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit.”

Abbot Paisius required the monks to do three things in their cells: read the homilies of the Holy Fathers, practice mental prayer, and make frequent prostrations with tears, according to their strength. The great abbot considered daily confession of thoughts to their spiritual fathers to be the foundation of spiritual life.

The Elder kept his cell open to all. He had such a gift that with his word he could console and quiet the most dejected one, and encourage and strengthen the discouraged. Additionally, in the evenings, the brotherhood would gather, candles would be lit, and Abbot Paisius would read from the homilies of the Holy Fathers, explaining what he had read so that all would understand.

Those who knew him described him thus: “For the first time in my life I saw with my own eyes sanctity incarnate and unfeigned. His face astonished me –it was luminous and pale, without any color, his beard long and white, shining like silver, and his clothes and cell had uncommon cleanliness. His speech was meek and wholly sincere. He seemed to me as a man perfectly detached from the body…. O most dispassionate and holy man! O pure soul united to God! He was entirely attached to God and entirely overflowing with love for his neighbor. Therefore, his word also was powerful and effective, filled with grace, uprooting the passions and planting virtues in the souls of those who listened to him with faith and love.” He was also known to be clairvoyant.

On Wednesday, November 15, 1794, at the age of seventy-two, this great beacon, Elder of elders, St. Paisius Velichkovsky, passed to eternal rest, leaving behind him over one-thousand monks: Romanians, Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks. As has been said of him, he was truly a rekindler of the light of eldership, a replenisher of the common life and a bridge to the Holy Fathers. Immediately after his death his disciples perpetuated the memory of their great elder not only by prayer but also by calling themselves and their monastery “Paisian.” This Paisian movement was marked by coenobitic monastic life, the rebirth of the hesychast spirit and its introduction into community life, and biblical and patristic study combined with the labor of translating philokalic literature.

After St. Paisius’ repose, many of his Russian disciples went back to Russia, bringing with them and disseminating, very vigorously, this Paisian transmission. These were holy men, strikingly reminiscent of the ancient desert ascetics, and they were the chief cause of the 19th-century flowering of sanctity in Russia.

In Romania, Elder Paisius’ relics continued to work miracles. Here, his legacy flourished in the forests and mountains of Moldavia, which were filled with anchorites of Paisian inspiration. Hundreds of hesychastic ascetics, likewise at times attaining the sanctity of the great desert saints of ancient times, were nurtured under the grace-filled influence of elder Paisius.

For the holiness of his life, and the great amount of miracles which occur by his prayers, the great elder Abbot Paisius has been canonized as a saint and is commemorated on the day of his righteous repose, November 15th.

O Holy and God-Bearing Father Paisius, pray to God for us!