Elder Paisios of Mount Athos 1924-1994
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God, consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith… (Hebrews 13:7)
On July 12, 1994 one of the greatest Orthodox spiritual elders of our day fell asleep in the Lord after a lifetime of prayer, fasting, and spiritual warfare. Though he was not a priest but a simple monk, he was sought out by priests and even bishops for his spiritual counsel. Being blessed with the grace of the Holy Spirit he was known as a miracle worker and clairvoyant who could read the hearts and thoughts of people.
Father Paisios was born in Greece in 1924 and was baptized with the name of Arsenius by St. Arsenius of Cappadocia (1840-1924), which was the last priestly act performed by this modern saint. After completing his required military service, at the age of twenty he followed his heart’s desire to devote his live to the Lord and entered a monastery in the ancient monastic republic of Mount Athos. Father Paisios sought out experienced holy elders and hermits who shared with him their spiritual struggles and experiences. He struggled daily to purify his soul of sinful passions and to unite himself to God through prayer. For a time, he lived in Egypt at the famed Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, later returning to Mt. Athos to become the disciple of a Russian elder, Father Tikhon. Father Tikhon had the gift of tears and would serve the Liturgy in a small chapel while Father Paisios would chant the responses. Liturgy would often take as long as five or six hours because Father Tikhon would fall into weeping or be silent in contemplation.
After the death of his beloved Father Tikhon in 1968, Father Paisios continued living on Mount Athos where he spent his time in prayer and assisting troubled people. It is said that he dedicated his days to people and his nights to God. He received troubled souls into his humble monastic cell and received dozens of letters each day from people throughout the world. He became a spiritual magnet drawing out the pain of people’s lives: broken marriages, mental illnesses, sicknesses, death. Some of the instructions he gave to people who came to him include:
- The more one becomes united to Christ, the less fear he experiences.
- Since we are weak, we must avoid the sources of passions. For instance, if I like sweets, I should not stare at the windows of pastry shops, or if I smoke, I should avoid going by shops that sell cigarettes. The person who tries to be temperate, must safely guard
the “entrances” of all passions, which are the eyes.
- If we are found in a difficult situation, we must not be upset; instead, we should realize this is God’s way to make us feel closer to Him and become aware that He is the
grantor of everything in our lives.
He was once asked if it would not be better if he left his monastery to go into the world so that he could better help people. Father Paisios replied:
The army has many divisions and each one fights from its own position; the navy at sea, the airplanes in the air and the army on the land. A very specialized position is the one of the radio operator. His main characteristic is that he connects all the army divisions with the headquarters, which send help in case of emergency. The radio operator must not be close to the combat zone, but higher up in a quiet place, so that he may clearly transmit the messages. When the soldiers fight and are in danger, they should not say to the radio operator: “What are you doing up there? Come and fight with us.” His duty is to stay where he is and receive orders from headquarters, and keep them up to date regarding the outcome of the combat.
Along with bearing the burdens of people who turned to him, Father Paisios endured many of his own physical problems beginning in 1966: respiratory disease, hernia, colon cancer. He once told a visitor that twice he had been sick to the point of being near death. He said he valued these experiences because he had seen how good and kind people were and that he had to rely on God alone. He told a fellow monk:
In our days, everybody suffers from three things: cancer, mental illnesses, and divorce.
The dozens of letters I receive every week talk about these problems. I do not suffer from any serious mental illness; I have nothing to do with marriages and divorce. At least, let me suffer from cancer as a consolation to people in distress. Things do not look too good when
everyone in the world is in pain and sorrow and one of us has nothing to worry about.
Now, thank God, everything is just fine.
Father Paisios peacefully fell asleep in the Lord from colon cancer which had spread to his liver and lungs. He had confided to one of his disciples I had asked God to make me suffer from cancer and when told he had four months to live he replied Do I have to wait for that long? Can’t it be earlier than this?
The life of Father Paisios, like that of many holy monks and nuns, is a lesson on the importance of asceticism in the lives of Christians. The word asceticism comes from the Greek ascesis which referred to gymnastic exercises and later in Greek philosophy it meat achieving virtue by means of exercises. St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians uses this concept to describe training or discipline in order to win a competitive game and spiritual discipline to struggle against sin and develop virtue:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight; not as one who beats the air. But I discipline
my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others,
I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9)
We are saved, not by performing good works but when our lives are joined to that of the Lord Jesus. It is He who saved us by His Passion, Death and Resurrection. But in order to be joined to the Lord Jesus I must struggle to free myself of whatever sin stands in the way and struggle to join myself daily to Him. This requires effort, struggle, discipline, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. The Lord said: If anyone would come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.
Everyone today is involved in some kind of asceticism, usually prescribed by their doctor and only for the health of their body which is temporary: low salt diet, low fat, regular exercise… If we are to be saved, if we are to be freed from our sinful passions and joined to the Lord Jesus Christ some forms of asceticism are absolutely necessary and required, not only for monks and nuns, but for all Christians. The life of Elder Paisios and the life of other holy monastics are our teachers and guides.
-Father Edward Pehanich