Introduction to Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky:
The Man Behind the Philokalia
by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina
DECEMBER 21, 1972, marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Schema-Archimandrite
Paisius Velichkovsky. This remarkable anniversary went almost totally unnoticed
in the Orthodox world, which is so occupied with its worldly problems and
its very struggle for survival. And yet, for Orthodox Christians of the 20th
century there is no more important Holy Father of recent times than Blessed
Paisius Velichkovsky. This is so not merely because of his holy life; not
merely because, like another Saint Gregory Palamas, he defended the hesychast
practice of the mental Prayer of Jesus; not only because he, through his many
disciples, inspired the great monastic revival of the 19th century which flowered
most notably in the holy Elders of Optina Monastery; but most of all because
he redirected the attention of Orthodox Christians to the sources of Holy
Orthodoxy, which are the only foundation of true Orthodox life and thought
whether of the past or of the present, whether of monks or of laymen.
It is these very same sources—the Divine Scriptures and the writings
of the Holy Fathers—which are the foundation of all genuine Orthodoxy
in our own times. The observer of the Orthodox world today can see easily
enough what "Orthodoxy" becomes when these sources are not made
the foundation of life and thought.
The followers of unenlightened custom are themselves innocent; they merely
accept what has been "handed down" to them. But not seeing the meaning
and not knowing the sources of what has been handed down, they
are easily led into error, accepting customs which the Church has allowed
only out of her condescension or economy as if they were the best of Orthodoxy,
and also improper customs of recent heterodox origin and inspiration, together
with the pure and meaningful Orthodox customs handed down from the Holy Fathers.
Under strict yet prudent pastors, such people can be guided in the true path
of Orthodoxy; but in our own time of such widespread irresponsible Church
leadership, these people are more often guided gradually into a path of ever
greater and more senseless innovation and reform, the clearest example of
which is perhaps the Greek Archdiocese of America, where pews, organs, and
Uniat spirituality and theology have become the new "customs" of
an unfortunate people whose Orthodoxy has been stolen from it.
Far worse, however, is the state of those who, being unrooted in the true
sources of Holy Orthodoxy, occupy the positions of pastors and theologians
and in their "learned ignorance" seek to guide their flocks according
to some fashionable intellectual current of the day. Such are the leaders
of the "charismatic movement," swept off their feet by an experience
which, while compatible with Protestantism and Papism, is easily discerned
as a satanic deception by those who are rooted in and live in the Holy Fathers.
Such also are the "theologians" of the "Paris" and other
modernist schools who, being at home in heterodox modes of thought and life,
dare to present the Holy Fathers themselves according to the disfigured modern
understanding of them, transmitting neither their true message nor (much less)
their Orthodox savor, giving rather an academic two-dimensional caricature
of them, suitable only for presentation in decadent ecumenical salons and
in lifeless academic journals.
Both of these types of "Orthodox" people are precisely those who
are cut off from the sources of Orthodoxy, and who in turn help to
cut others off from these sources. The movement of true Orthodoxy in our own
times has seen with increasing clarity the need to separate itself from this
pseudo- or semi-Orthodoxy and refind its roots in the true and unadulterated
sources of Orthodoxy, the Holy Fathers. And this is precisely what the Blessed
Paisius saw and did, making him a key figure for us today.
Having come to love the Holy Fathers and true Orthodox piety in his childhood,
Blessed Paisius at the age of 17 saw that even in the best Orthodox school
of Russia he was not being given the pure teaching of Holy Orthodoxy from
the patristic sources, but rather something second-hand and accompanied by
useless pagan learning; and, further, that an over-emphasis on the formal
side of the Church's existence, greatly furthered by the Government in its
attempt to make the Church a "department" of the State, promoted
chiefly the idea that church-minded people, the clergy and even the monks,
occupied a definite place in the apparatus of the Church organization.
This overemphasis of a real but decidedly secondary aspect of church life
tended to obscure the primary aspect: the love and zeal for true Orthodoxy
and true piety, which are what inspire every genuine Orthodox Christian, whether
clergy, monk, or layman. Seeing the difficulty of exercising his love and
zeal in the Russia of his time, Paisius left his homeland in search of a place
where his tender Orthodox conscience could mature in blessed freedom and in
the opportunity to draw instruction and inspiration from the unadulterated
sources of Orthodoxy.
Having come to spiritual maturity, Blessed Paisius then himself became a
source and seedbed for the great monastic and patristic revival of Holy Russia
in the 19th century. True patristic spirituality and its hesychast tradition,
to be sure, never died out in Russia, not even in the 18th century, that age
of pseudo-enlightenment when the Empress Catherine closed most of the Orthodox
monasteries and strictly regulated the rest of them; no, it remained and provided
the fertile ground on which the disciples and the example of Blessed Paisius
were to bear such great spiritual fruits. But it required the patristic bees
of the great Elder Paisius, bringing back the pollen of the true and free
tradition of Orthodoxy under the much more favorable climate of the 19th century,
to cause the native Russian trees to give forth such a marvelous abundance
of spiritual fruit.
Today the situation of Orthodoxy is rather different, and much worse, than
it was in the time of the Elder Paisius. In place of the veneer of paganism
and Latinism which never actually touched the heart of Orthodoxy, we have
today a prevailing atmosphere of modernist heterodoxy and senseless "keeping
up with the times" which has pierced the very heart of some Orthodox
Churches so deeply that they will doubtless never recover, and their children
are deprived of Orthodoxy without even knowing what they have lost. In place
of the heavy hand of governmental bureaucracy, we see the far heavier hand
of pseudo-Christian and pagan ways of life which are depriving Orthodox Christians
of something which was almost untouched in the time of Blessed Paisius: Orthodox
piety, the whole Christian way of life. And, to make this whole difficult
situation virtually impossible, we are beset with self-styled reformers and
revivers who neither know nor feel nor love what Orthodoxy is and would "restore"
the faithful to the latest fashion of Protestant scholarship or piety. The
17-year-old Orthodox youth of today has usually not been raised properly and
consciously in Orthodox teaching and piety, or, if he has, the ever-increasing
tempo of paganized modern life acts powerfully to negate his upbringing; he
has usually not come to love the Holy Fathers and the Divine services from
childhood, and to hunger for more; and there is scarcely anywhere he can turn
in order to correct the deficiencies of his upbringing and environment: of
all the Orthodox seminaries in the free world, it is doubtful that any save
the Russian-language seminary at Holy Trinity Monastery (Jordanville, New
York) will even attempt to give him an education in genuine Orthodoxy. For
such a youth not deeply grounded in Orthodoxy, the human side of the Church
all too often becomes the center of attention, and the all too prevalent petty
quarrels and injustices among church people are often sufficient to turn his
attention away from the Church altogether, or if some religious interest remains—to
turn him toward one of the flourishing religious or social-cults of the day,
or even to the widely-advertised life of drugs and immorality.
Truly, we are far more in need today of a return to the sources of genuine
Orthodoxy than Blessed Paisius was! Our situation is hopeless! And yet God's
mercy does not leave us, and even today one may say that there is a movement
of genuine Orthodoxy which consciously rejects the indifference, renovationism,
and outright apostasy which are preached by the world-famous Orthodox "theologians"
and "hierarchs," and also hungers for more than the "customary"
Orthodoxy which is powerless before the onslaughts of a world refined in destroying
souls. It is of course true that the world, saturated in Holy Orthodoxy, which
produced Blessed Paisius no longer exists; and it is likewise true that the
numbers of God-bearing elders whom Paisius met and produced on his path, even
in an age of spiritual decline, are simply unheard of in our own days, which
are surely the days of the last Christians. And yet it cannot be that the
flame of truly Orthodox zeal will die out before the Second Coming of Christ;
nor that if this flame exists, Christ our God will not show His zealots, even
now, how to lead a true and inspired Orthodox life. In fact, the message
of Blessed Paisius is addressed precisely and directly to the last Christians: in "The Scroll" he tells us that the Holy Fathers wrote
their books "by the special Providence of God, so that in the List times
this Divine work would not fall into oblivion."
Do you hear, O Orthodox Christians of these last times? These writings of
the Holy Fathers, even those dealing with the highest form of spiritual life,
have been preserved for us, so that even when it might seem
that there are no God-bearing elders left at all, we may still have the unerring
words of the Holy Fathers to guide us in leading a God-pleasing and zealous
life. Therefore, they are wrong who teach that, because the end of the world
is at hand, we must sit still, make no great efforts, simply preserve the
doctrine that has been handed down to us, and hand it back, like the buried
talent of the worthless servant (Matt. 25:24-30), to our Lord at His Coming!
Blessed Paisius teaches that "solely by Orthodoxy of faith, without the
diligent keeping of all Christ's commandments [i.e., putting Orthodoxy into
practice, with great effort], it is not at all possible to be saved." The time of the end, though it seems to be near, we do not know; however
close, it is still future, and in the present we have only the same age-old
fight against the unseen powers, against the world, and against our own passions,
upon the outcome of which our eternal fate will be decided. Let us then struggle
while it is still day, with the time and the weapons which our All-merciful
God has given us!
The Life of Blessed Paisius is of special value to us because it is the Life
of a Holy Father of modern times, one who lived like the ancients almost in
our own day. All those deadly anti-spiritual currents which threaten now to
enslave man completely godless humanism, soulless ecumenism, and the fierce
Revolution that has brought them to power upon the ruins of civilization in
a sea of blood—either existed already or were born in his lifetime.
The spiritual climate of his times was very similar to our own; many of our
own temptations were his also; a number of our most pressing questions he
answered for us. This virtual contemporary of ours struggled and was gloriously
crowned, and God, seeing his labors, gave to him a hundredfold of spiritual
fruits which are nourishing Orthodox Christians even to this day, and revealed
in him the fount in modern times of the pure tradition of Russian Orthodoxy.
The reader of this Life must be cautioned, however, against reading it too
"enthusiastically". Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, the great 19th-century
Holy Father who perhaps better than anyone else expressed the meaning of Blessed
Paisius' life's work, warns us that "novices can never adapt books to
their own condition, but are invariably drawn by the tendency of the book
... If a book speaks of unconditional obedience under the direction of a Spirit
bearing Father, the beginner will inevitably develop a desire for the strictest
life in complete submission to an Elder. God has not given to our times this
way of life. But the books of the Holy Fathers describing it can influence
a beginner so strongly that out of inexperience and ignorance he can easily
decide to leave the place where he is living and where he has every convenience
to work out his salvation and make spiritual progress . . . for an impossible
dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination"
(The Arena, Ch. 10).
The Life of Blessed Paisius is not meant to exalt the beginner (and we all,
in our spiritually feeble 20th century, are "beginners") and make
him think that he is capable of such a life; not at all. Elder Macarius of
Optina, another 19th-century continuer of the work of Blessed Paisius, teaches
that "the holy God-bearing Fathers wrote about great spiritual gifts
not so that anyone might strive indiscriminately to receive them, but so that
those who do not have them, hearing about such exalted gifts and revelations
which were received by those who were worthy, might acknowledge their own
profound infirmity and great insufficiency, and might involuntarily be inclined
to humility, which is more necessary for those seeking salvation than all
other works and virtues" (Letters to Monks, Moscow, 1862, p. 370).
Four centuries earlier St. Nilus of Sora wrote, concerning the lives of holy
men: "We who are burdened with many sins and preyed upon by passions
are unworthy even of hearing such words. Nevertheless, placing our hope in
the grace of God, we are encouraged to keep the words of the holy writings
in our minds, so that we may at least grow in awareness of the degradation
in which we wallow" (Monastic Rule, ch. 2). And even in the 6th
century, St. John of the Ladder wrote: "Just as a pauper, seeing the
royal treasures, all the more acknowledges his own poverty, so also the spirit,
reading the accounts of the great deeds of the Holy Fathers, involuntarily
is all the more humbled in its way of thought" (The Ladder, Step
These are the words of the Holy Fathers of past centuries, when Orthodoxy
was firmly rooted in the human soul and had transformed whole societies. How
much more necessary is the humility they speak about in our spiritually uprooted
and superficial 20th century!
We must, of course, continue to read Orthodox spiritual texts, such
as the Life of Blessed Paisius, or we will spiritually wither and die. But
we must at the same time humble ourselves and use the very height of the life
described in these texts as our opportunity to "grow in awareness of
our degradation," as St. Nilus so well says. We must properly apply the
Life of Elder Paisius to our own spiritual condition.
Therefore, let all readers be aware:
1. There are no more elders like Paisius today. If we imagine there
are, we can do irreparable harm to our souls—"imagination"
being precisely one of the forms of prelest or spiritual deception.
We must learn to read of his life and deeds without being able to apply them
entirely to our corrupt and degraded life. At the same time, we must have
respect for our spiritual fathers and elders, who at least know more than
we and try their best to guide their spiritual children under almost impossible
conditions. Many young people today are seeking gurus and are ready
to enslave themselves to any likely candidate; but woe to those who take advantage
of this climate of the times to proclaim themselves "God-bearing Elders"
in the ancient tradition—they only deceive
themselves and others. Any Orthodox spiritual father will frankly tell his
children that the minimum of eldership that remains today is very different
from what Blessed Paisius or the Optina Elders represent.
2. The type of community which Paisius guided is beyond the capabilities
of our times. Bishop Ignatius said that such a way of life was not given
even to his times—when Optina was at its height; and how much more has
Orthodox life fallen since then! Such a "heaven on earth'' could not
exist today, not just because there are no God-bearing Elders to guide it,
but because even if there were, the spiritual level of those who would follow
is too impossibly low. Ours is the age of spiritual fakery par excellence,
not of the ancient Spirit-bearing life. The Abbot of any Orthodox monastery
today will tell you the same.
But let us therefore learn to make maximum use of the limited opportunities
we do have (which still, after all, are "heaven on earth" if compared
to the worldly life of today!), not demolishing our few remaining Orthodox
communities with self-centered and idle criticism, nor unsettling ourselves
and others by dreams of impossibly perfect communities.
3. Our times, above all, call for humble and quiet labors, with love
and sympathy for other strugglers on the path of the Orthodox spiritual life
and a deep resolve that does not become discouraged because the atmosphere
is unfavorable. We Christians of the latter times are still called to work
persistently on ourselves, to be obedient to spiritual fathers and authorities,
to lead an orderly life with at least a minimum of spiritual discipline and
with regular reading of the Orthodox spiritual literature which Blessed Paisius
was chiefly responsible for handing down to our times, to watch over our own
sins and failings and not judge others. If we do this, even in our terrible
times, we may have hope—in God's mercy—of the salvation of our
souls. Perhaps the chief function of the Life of Blessed Paisius for us today
is to give us the courage to endure the frightful anti-spiritual climate of
our times; for as our Saviour has warned us, even in the last times when "the
love of the many shall grow cold," he that endureth to the end shall
be saved (Matt. 24:13).
The Life of Elder Paisius which we here present was written by his own disciples,
chiefly by Schema-monk Metrophanes of Niamets Monastery, and was published
in its present form exactly 125 years ago (1847) by the God-bearing Elders
of Optina Monastery as the first of the texts of the veritable patristic revival
which they inspired in 19th-century Russia. It is much to be preferred to
the 20th-century biography* in that it gives not only the facts of
the Elder's life, but more importantly, the very savor of his struggles.
It is itself a patristic text capable of guiding and inspiring the Orthodox
*Archpriest Sergy Chetverikov, The Moldavian
Elder, Schema-Archimandrite Paisius Velichkovsky, two volumes, Petseri,
Estonia, 1938. In the text below some passages (indicated in the footnotes)
have been added to the original Life from this source, particularly where
the words of Elder Paisius himself have been quoted. The author did research
at Niamets Monastery and was thus able to use manuscripts written by Paisius
himself; his whole tone and approach, however, are those of the worldly 20th
century, and he does not do justice to the spiritual message of Blessed Paisius.
Taken from the Introduction to Blessed
Paisius Velichkovsky, by Schema-monk Metrophanes, trans. by Fr. Seraphim
Rose (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994 ).