The future Elder yearned to pray unceasingly, but had great troubles - he could not find a spiritual father, and the indifference of many monks towards unceasing prayer.
In the midst of this experience, however, he was granted a vision of the uncreated light, and the gift of ceaseless prayer was given to him.
"At once I was completely changed and forgot myself. I was filled with light in my heart and outside and everywhere, not being aware that I even had a body. The prayer began to say itself within me... "
During this time, he spent time in remote places to recite the Jesus Prayer. Eventually he met Fr Arsenios, who was to become his co-struggler, and found that they shared a common desire for hesychasm, and decided to find an experienced elder. They found Elder Ephraim the Barrel-Maker, and they arranged their lives to provide the maximum silence for praying the Jesus Prayer. In addition to his work and his prayer rule, Fr Joseph went to a cave at sunset to recite the Jesus Prayer for six hours.
After Elder Ephraim the Barrel-Maker's repose, Frs Joseph and Arsenios spent summers moving from place to place around the peak of Mount Athos, so as to be unknown and to find and learn from spiritual monks. In winter, however, they returned to their hut in the wilderness at St Basil's. They possessed only their tattered monastic garments, and Fr Joseph ate three ounces of rusks (dried bread) a day, sometimes with an amount of boiled wild greens. They spoke little so that they could pray more. Fr Joseph was assailed by the demon of fornication around this time, and he would battle this great temptation for eight years, using as weapons extended vigils and using, instead of a bed, a chair to sleep on. Finally, Frs Joseph and Arsenios discovered an experienced ascetic and spiritual father, Elder Daniel.
Time passed, and the fame of Elder Joseph began to spread. After Fr Arsenios ceded the eldership that was his right by length of time in monasticism, Elder Joseph accepted three brothers to live with them, with others living with them for short periods of time. In 1938, seeking solitude from the increasing number of monks who sought his advice, he went to a cave at Little St Anne's, where the brotherhood grew to seven monks.
["On one occasion it was a feast of the Lord, I think Epiphany, and Father Arsenios and the Elder Ephrem went to a vigil nearby, as was their custom. Our Elder, however, did not go, but stayed in his artificial cave occupied with inwardness and prayer. ‘As I was sitting there immersed in myself,’ he told us, ‘and noticing the sweetness of the prayer, all of a sudden I was filled with light – not like the daylight we see, of course – and then it grew so that the whole place became light. Suddenly there appeared three little children, about six to eight years old, completely alike in appearance so that it was impossible to make out any distinguishing feature. They were so charming and so lovely that the sight of them captivated all my senses. I did not feel anything else, I just admired them. They were a short distance from me, a few yards away, walking towards me with the same rhythm, the same step, the same movement. All their movements and their features were as if they were one, and yet they were three. And they were singing, very melodiously, the verse, ‘As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia’. When they were very close to me, so close that I thought I could have touched them if I had stretched out my hands, they moved rhythmically back again, without turning their backs, and continued the same hymn; and at the alleluia they blessed me with their little hands, as a priest does’.
When I asked him, out of curiosity, what he was thinking during those moments, he told me that there are no thoughts or questions at that time, because the mind that is held captive by contemplation and suffused with light by divine grace does not have any activity of its own. ‘The only thing I remember’, the Elder went on, ‘is that I was in such a state of bliss that I felt something akin to what Peter said, “It is good for us to be here” (Mt 17:4), and I was wondering, how do they know how to bless when they are so young? This lasted as long as the divine grace and love for mankind wished it, and then the light went away along with the trio of little boys; then I came to myself and saw that my usual time had gone past, because the alarm had gone off a long time before without my hearing it.’" (http://www.manastir-lepavina.org/vijest.php?&id=4195&page=3)]
[Elder Joseph has been walking in prayer on Mount Athos. Suddenly, the landscape becomes white as snow, and the Elder, anxious that he is trespassing, looks for a way out.
"I saw a basement door and entered there. It was a temple [the Greek word for a church] of our Most Holy Theotokos.
Some beautiful youths were sitting there dressed with splendid garments and had a red cross on their chests and on their foreheads.
One of them, who wore a brighter garment and looked like a general, arose from his throne and said to me, “Come. We are waiting for you.” Then he urged me to sit down.
“Forgive me,” I said, “I am unworthy to sit there, but it is enough for me to stand here at your feet.”
He smiled, left me, and went in front of the iconostasis to the icon of the Panagia and said,
“Lady and Mistress of all, Queen of the angels, Immaculate Virgin Theotokos! Show thy grace to this thy servant who suffers so much for thy love, so that he be not engulfed by sorrow.”
And suddenly, so much brilliance came out from her divine icon and the Panagia looked so beautiful, in full length, that from the extreme beauty – a million times brighter than the sun – I fell down at her feet unable to gaze at her and cried out in tears,
“Forgive me, my dear Mother, because out of ignorance I sadden you!” And crying thus in reality, I came to myself soaked in tears and full of joy." (http://gabrielsmessage.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/it-is-enough-for-me-to-stand-here-at-your-feet/)]
After approximately 13 years, the large amount of physical labour required to live there became too much, making most of the fathers ill. Elder Joseph moved the community further down the mountain, nearer the sea, to New Skete.
Elder Joseph reposed on August 15, 1959.
Elder Joseph has been 'locally' canonized in several places, including the Holy Mountain, Greece and Romania. However, this is not the official canonization of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This 'local' recognition of being a Saint is a prelude to the full canonization. Archimandrite Sophrony (+1993) knew Elder Joseph well and in his book about Saint Silouan the Athonite, Elder Joseph is one of the monks mentioned who was granted the gift of the 'Uncreated Light'.
The relic of the Elder's head is kept in St. Anthony's monastery, in Arizona (USA), while the rest or his relics are kept in the Vatopedi monastery. Many visitors to Athos report that his relics give off a divine fragrance. The abbot of Vatopedi monastery, Fr. Ephraim, spoke publicly in Athens about miracles performed through the intercession of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, and even about miraculous appearances of him.
For another, more in-depth version of the Elder's life and miracles, see here.
On October 20th, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced on his pilgrimage to Mount Athos the upcoming formal canonization of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, along with three other Athonite Fathers.
Saint Joseph the Hesychast and Cave-dweller was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on March 9th, 2020, together with Elders Ephraim and Daniel of Katounakia.
-Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, by Elder Joseph the Hesychast, 1998. Published by St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, Arizona. ISBN 0-9667000-0-7 (HB), ISBN 0-9667000-1-5 (PB)
-Elder Joseph the Hesychast: Struggles, Experiences, Teachings, by Elder Joseph, 1999. Published by the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, Mount Athos. ISBN 960-7735-12-9 (SB)."
Ο ΓΕΡΟΝΤΑΣ ΜΟΥ ΙΩΣΗΦ Ο ΗΣΥΧΑΣΤΗΣ ΚΑΙ ΣΠΗΛΑΙΩΤΗΣ (1897-1959)
by Elder Ephraim
This is the most complete biography of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, one of the most important figures of Athonite monasticism in the twentieth century. The book presents previously unpublished stories about Elder Josephs’ brotherhood and his other spiritual children, his spiritual counsels, struggles, and miracles after his holy repose. Includes B/W and color photographs.
The Radio Operators of God: Elder Joseph the Hesychast (amateur translation)
from the Monastery of the Precious Forerunner, Mesa Potamou (2011)
Does God have radio operators [i.e. that help facilitate communication with Him]?
Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain confirms that He does.
They are the monks who send our messages to God through their prayer, and the messages of God to people.
A great radio operator of God that lived in our days is Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
The young Francisco, later Elder Joseph, had his dream all planned out: to become a rich importer. However, this suddenly changed one night when he saw in a dream that he was called to the service of a supernatural king. It was Christ! He left everything and hastened to Mount Athos, where he became a monk. There he experienced divine things. He was communed by the hand of an angel, and was embraced by Panagia and the divine Child-Christ Himself-who touched him on the head!
Learn about his struggles and how he managed to keep strong his great love for Christ.
Theology according to the venerable Elder and generally in the Holy Fathers is a fruit of the divine Grace within us. Therefore the Holy Fathers view the monasteries of the desert as universities. The letters of the venerable Elder are true theological essays but are written without the canons of syntax and orthography. Searching the letters of the blessed Elder Joseph, anyone can well comprehend the great grace with which this perfected Athonite monk sent them. All the more so we who are his spiritual descendants and have the further fortune to have among us our Elder. He was among the spiritual children of the ever-memorable Elder and very often brings up something spiritual concerning his elder, Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
Saint Paisios the Athonite on Blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast
(amateur translation from a Greek book on Elder Arsenios the Cave-dweller: http://www.pigizois.net/pneumatikoi_logoi/ger_arsenios_spilaiotis/ger_arsenios_spileotis.pdf)
"Our Panagia hastens everywhere. She bestows her grace abundantly upon anyone who fervently cries out to her. She is a mediatress to Christ for everyone, because she was deemed worthy to give birth to the Lord and to become the Mother of God. She carries Him in Her arms and continuously entreats Him. Since we sinners do not have the boldness to run directly to God from the start, we cry out to His Mother. She regenerates us; she intercedes; she anticipates all our afflictions. She is our protectress and helper, more honorable than all the angels, beyond compare more glorious than the Cherubim and Seraphim, second in rank only to the Holy Trinity. Oh, but she is so good, so sweet, that you want to embrace her at every moment and obtain consoling grace. The more you love, the more you are loved."
Translations of several hymns from the service to Elder Joseph the Hesychast, written by his spiritual son, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi (official translations likely to come at a later date)