Hieromonk Seraphim Rose – The unbroken continuity of the orthodox monastic tradition (18th Century Russian's Monasticism).

The great monastic movement which began with St. Sergius, the great Abba of the Northern Thebaid, came to an end with the conclusion of the 17th century. New historical conditions – chiefly the Old Believer schism and the Westernizing reforms of Peter I – made no longer possible that harmony between the ascetic fervor of the best sons and daughters of Russia, and the profound piety of the believing Russian people, which led to the creation of innumerable new monasteries and convents under the inspiration of the Byzantine monastic ideal. We have seen, indeed, that the end of the period of the Northern Thebaid is one of decline – but it is a decline only by comparison with the astonishing monastic blossoming of the 14th to 16th centuries; by comparison with almost any other Orthodox land or period, the 17th century Russian monastic movement would have to be called a flourishing one that produced at least 45 canonized Saints1 (and many were never canonized owing to 18th-century conditions) and a large number of new monasteries.

At the end of the 18th century, a new great epoch of monasticism began with the great Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, the Abba of a new monastic movement whose current has not entirely died out even in our own times. That must be the subject of another book.

What, then, of the 18th century itself? Was the true monastic tradition dead in Russia? Did Peter and Catherine actually destroy monasticism, as has sometimes been said? The answers to these questions will do much to illuminate not only the continuity of the monastic tradition in Russia, but also the condition of Orthodox monasticism in the 19th century, and even today.

Some of the decrees of Peter I regarding monasticism2, to be sure, were directed against abuses in an institution which at that time had become very large and, in places where the monastic rule and spirit were not carefully preserved, there were unquestionably disorders which needed regulation. But several of the decrees were directed against the free existence of monasteries, and they smothered the very spirit of monasticism. Thus, in 1703 Peter forbade the building of new monasteries; a decree of 1724 turned monasteries into refuges for sick soldiers; and in 1734 it was forbidden to tonsure anyone except widowed priests and retired soldiers. Finally, under Catherine, in 1764, the Government appropriated monastic property altogether and assigned a monetary salary to the monastic clergy; of the 953 monasteries then existing, 568 were closed entirely and 160 more were left totally without income; and "quotas" were established of the number of monks allowed in each monastery. It can be imagined what a blow these reforms gave to Russian monasticism: what room was there for desert-loving fervor in State-supported and supervised institutions whose abbots were often transferred and too often had the function of administrators rather than spiritual fathers?

But the aims of the Westernizing rules were not achieved: the monastic spirit, still very much alive in all classes of Russian society, was not snuffed out. Desert-loving monks and nuns simply went again to the desert, whether in Russia or outside her borders, avoiding the "established” monasteries; new communities were established, despite the laws; and there rose up a number if powerful monastic leaders, new Abbas of Holy Russia, who were not afraid to defy the authorities in order to preserve the free monastic spirit, and who sometimes endured a trial hitherto unknown in the history of Russian monasticism, revealing the extent of the disharmony between the monastic ideal and the corrupted leading society: they were placed in prison.

Here it will be possible to mention only very briefly some representatives of the genuine Orthodox monastic tradition in 18th-century Russia – enough to show that the monastic "revival” of Blessed Paisius Velichlcovsky was not at all something imported from abroad, but something which had deep roots in Russia itself and only awaited more favorable conditions to burst forth into the glorious flowering of 19th-century Orthodox monasticism

BLESSED JOB (Joshua in Schema) OF SOLOVKI (†1720, March 9), the first monastic victim of the reforms of Peter I, humbled himself to such a degree that he was vouchsafed to converse with the Most Holy Mother of God. She blessed him to found the Golgotha Skete and prophesied concerning the millions who would find martyrdom on his Golgotha hill in Soviet times.

BLESSED JOHN OF SAROV (†1737, July 4), founder of the great 18th-century monastic center of Sarov, lived at first in caves, fought the schism of the Old Believers, and was finally placed in prison, where he had a righteous death, leaving behind a whole host of disciples and successors: the Blessed DEMETRlUS, EPHRAIM, PACHOMIUS, JOACHIM, JOSEPH, MARK, and the great ST. SERAPHIM.

ABBESS ALEXANDRA or DIVEYEVO (†1789, June 13) founded her convent under the close spiritual direction of the Sarov Elders, especially St. Seraphim, and nurtured a real Lavra of 3000 righteous nuns and fools for Christ; the Convent continued to exist until the Soviets closed it in 1927.

BLESSED NAZARIUS OF VALAAM (†1809, Feb. 23 and Oct. 14) was the refounder of the great Lavra on Lake Ladoga, using the Typicon in which he had been trained in his native Sarov, leaving behind him a great tradition and holy disciples: BLESSED PATERMUTHIUS, INNOCENT, BARLAAM, ABEL THE PROPHET, CYRIACUS, EUTHYMIUS, and ST. HERMAN or ALASKA.

BLESSED THEODORE OF SANAXAR (†1791, Feb. 19), the great aristocrat-cœnobiarch of the 18th century, the outspoken protege of Empress Catherine II, was a desert-dweller of the renowned Roslavl Forests and Sarov who finally suffered persecution and banishment. He left many disciples: BLESSED MACARIUS OF PESNOSHA, THEOPHANES OF NEW LAKE, IGNATIUS, and others.

BLESSED BASIL OF MERLOPOLYANI (†1767), the Elder of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, living outside of Russia, in Moldavia, wrote important introductions to Patristic works on the Prayer of Jesus.

SCHEMA-ABBESS MARTHA (Protasieva) OF ARZAMAS (†1813, April 30) was the disciple of Blessed Theodore of Sanaxar and later of Paisius Velichkovsky, who wrote to her his famous instruction for women monastics.

BLESSED PAISIUS VELICHKOVSKY (†1794, Nov. 15) was the inspirer of the great monastic patristic movement of 19th-century Russia. His innumerable disciples in Russia begin with ELDER CLEOPHAS (†1778, March 9), the two ELDERS ATHANASIUS, PAUL, THEOPHANES OF SOLOVKI, and many others.

BLESSED NICETAS of the Roslavl Forests (†1793, March 29) was worthy to behold the appearance of the Most Holy Theotokos and even to sing with Her. Together with him there was a whole multitude of desert-dwellers in the Briansk Forests throughout the 18th century: BLESSED SERAPION (†1721), IOASAPH (†1730), BARNABAS (†1775), the great ALEXIS OF KONEVITS (1812), and innumerable others.

BLESSED THEODOSIUS of the Sophroniev Monastery (†1802, Jan. 12) was a fellow struggler of Blessed Paisius and Elder of the great PHILARET, founder of the Glinsk Hermitage.

BLESSED DOSITHEUS OF THE KIEV-CAVES (†1776, Sept. 25) was a recluse who transmitted the Paisian tradition in the south of Russia and blessed St. Seraphim to go to Sarov; in reality she was a woman, and was known to the Empress Elizabeth. BLESSED DOSITHEA or Moscow (†1810) was a royal recluse who spread the Paisian tradition in the north.

ST. TIKHON OF ZADONSK (†1783, Aug. 13) was the great 18th-century enlightener raised up by God against the masonic pseudo-enlightenment of that time. His writings are for laymen as well as monastics, but he was first of all a great monastic force who inspired a host of followers: the BLESSED METROPHANES, AGAPITUS, NICANDER, COSMAS, MELANIA, MATRONA. THAIS, and many others, his influence extending as far as the Kozha Lake Monastery in the Arctic tundra.

METROPOLITAN PHILOTHEUS OF SIBERIA (†1727, May 31) was a great monastic Father in Siberia, where a whole monastic movement was begun by him and other 18th-century Siberian hierarchs: STS. JOHN (†1715, June 10) and PAUL (†1768, Nov. 4) OF TOBOLSK, STS. INNOCENT (†1731, Nov. 27) and SOPHRONIUS (†1771, June 3) or IRKUTSK, the righteous GERASIMUS and SYNESIUS OF IRKUTSK, and many others.

The new monastic movement which sprouted from the fertile Orthodox soil of 18th-century Russia under the favorable conditions given by the truly Orthodox Tsars of the 19th century, was to rival the epoch of the Northern Thebaid itself. But now there was to be a subtle difference in tone, one not affecting the essence of Orthodox spirituality or monastic life, but one that reflected the changed historical circumstances of the whole Orthodox world: the new monastic revival is no longer dependent on Byzantium. There are no more pilgrimages to the East in search of the Orthodox monastic tradition; or, to be more precise: the few pilgrimages thus undertaken, such as that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky to Mount Athos, meet with failure. The Orthodox monastic tradition is more alive in Russia than in Greece, and it is the Russians themselves who, in the 19th century, are responsible for a great monastic flowering on Mt. Athos, led by great Elders such as Jerome and Arsenius, who had, their spiritual roots firmly in Russian soil. Even the great Greek Fathers of the Patristic revival of this time, Sts. Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus the Hagiorite, are not monastic founders as were Blessed Paisius and his disciples, but only transmitters of the Patristic doctrine and its texts.

What all this means is one thing: Orthodox monastic Russia, in the epoch of the Northern Thebaid, had come of age. Just as once Byzantium itself had humbly absorbed the spirituality and tradition of Palestine and Egypt and had transmitted it to other peoples, so now Russia had thoroughly absorbed the Orthodox tradition of Byzantium and made it her own. There is no longer any need to travel outside of Russia to find it. Whether one says “Byzantium” (the earlier phase) or “Holy Russia” (the later phase), the same thing is meant: the tradition of unadulterated Orthodoxy.

The monastic movement of Blessed Paisius completed the monastic foundation which the monks of the Northern Thebaid had begun, by providing Slavonic and then Russian translations of almost all the monastic works of the Holy Fathers which had been written in or translated into Greek. The Northern Thebaid itself richly provided new sources of monastic literature in the numerous Lives of its Saints and in the spiritual writings of its great Holy Father, St. Nilus of Sora; then in the 18th century, the golden age of Slavonic and Russian Patristic literature begins with the writings of Blessed Basil of Merlopolyani, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Blessed Paisius himself, and many others. The great Greek and Near-Eastern Patristic epoch had already produced the basic texts of Orthodox and monasticism, but the final Patristic flowering in Russia – where the purity of Orthodox tradition was sealed by the sanctity of the wonderworking Elders – was to provide the connecting link between the Patristic tradition and the Orthodox faithful of today, some of whom have seen the last great Orthodox Elders, of the golden chain of Orthodox spirituality which has come down unbroken from the Egyptian desert to us.  The spiritual strength of Orthodoxy today, whether Russian non-Russian, rests directly upon the Saints of the Northern Thebaid, who have bequeathed to the Orthodox faithful their experience of communion with God, and the example of their God-pleasing lives.

How can we make use of this holy inheritance in our own lives today? We must not deceive ourselves: the life of the desert-dwellers of the Northern Thebaid is far beyond us in our time of unparalleled spiritual emptiness.  In any epoch the monastic life is limited by the kind of life which is being led in the world.  At a time when daily Orthodox life in Russia was both extremely difficult and very sober, monasticism could flourish; but in our tie when ordinary life has become abnormally "comfortable" and the world-view of even the best religious and intellectual leaders is shockingly frivolous, what more is to be expected than that lukewarm "spirituality with comfort” with which bold voices from inside Soviet Russia even now are reproaching the free West? The situation within enslaved Russia is spiritually much more favorable, because on the foundation of the suffering and hardship which are the daily lot of most people there, something spiritual can come out. From many signs it is evident that a religious awakening is beginning now in Russia, whose result cannot yet be foreseen, but which may well result in the re-establishment of some of the monastic centers mentioned in this book.

And yet, the situation of enslaved Russia and the free West is not as different as it might seem. Everywhere today the disease of disbelief has entered deeply into the minds, and most of all the hearts, of men. Our Orthodoxy, even when it is outwardly still correct, is the poorest, the feeblest Christianity there has ever been. The God-bearing Elders who, comparatively speaking, abounded even in the periods of spiritual decline in earlier centuries, are now conspicuous by their total absence, and the conditions of contemporary life are scarcely likely to give birth to anything but counterfeits.

And still the voice of the Northern Thebaid calls us – not, it may be, to go to the desert (although some fortunate few may be able to do even that, for the forests are still on God’s earth) – but at least to keep alive the fragrance of the desert in our hearts: to dwell in mind and heart with these angel-like men and women and have them as our truest friends, conversing with them in prayer; to be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life, even when they center about some institution or leader of the church organization; to be first of all a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high towards which all our Christian labors are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes. He who has once sensed this fragrance of the desert, with its exhilarating freedom in Christ and its sober constancy in struggle, will never be satisfied with anything in this world, but can only cry out with the Apostle and Theologian: Come, Lord Jesus. Even so, "Surely I come quickly" (Apocalypse 22:20). Amen.


Epilogue by Fr. Seraphim to his book "The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North", Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1975.


1 The Golden Chain of Sanctity in Russia, by Rev. Nicholas Smirnov, Buenos Aires, 1958, gives the complete list of just the officially canonized Saints, together with dates.

2 Information in this paragraph is taken from Hierorronk Clement Sederholm, “On Desert-dwelling in the Forests of Roslavl,” an appendix to the Biography of Elder Moses of Optina, Moscow, 1882, pp. 233-250.