Note: 2014 year marks the 20th anniversary of the repose of St. Paisios the Athonite. Of course much has been written of this great man who during his life helped hundreds on a daily basis with his prayers and spiritual instruction, and after his repose, helps even more. Thousands flock to his grave at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian in Souroti (outside of Thessaloniki) to receive his blessing, and many miracles continue to occur through his prayers. His life and writings continue to inspire, instruct and lead many to repentance and a more spiritual life. Below is a short summary of his life with a small selection of his teachings. We pray that we might all have his blessing!
Elder Paisios was born on St. Anne’s day, July 25, 1924, in Farasa of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. His father, Prodromos, a pious man, was the mayor of Farasa. He was characterised by a strong sense of patriotism and his life was many times put in danger by the Tsetes, who were a constant threat to the town of Farasa. Prodromos felt a deep devotion and love for Father Arsenios, the spiritual father of the family; he was recently canonized by the Church because of the numerous miracles he had worked, even before his death. Impressed by St. Arsenios’ miraculous life, Prodromos kept a notebook where he recorded the saint’s miracles, which he either heard, or experienced himself, for the benefit of both his children and his own. The Elder’s mother was called Eulambia and he had nine brothers and sisters altogether.
On August 7, 1924, a week before the big emigration from Farasa (Turkey) to Greece, St. Arsenios decided to have all the children baptized including Prodromos’ son. The boy was supposed to be named Christos, after his grandfather, according to the old Greek custom. However, Fr. Arsenios refused to name him so, as he wished to give him his own name. So, he said to his parents: “I understand you wish to leave someone in the grandfather’s shoes. Shouldn’t I wish to leave a monk in my shoes, too?” Then, he turned to the godmother and said: “Arsenios will be his name!” Thus, St. Arsenios had predicted the Elder’s calling who, since his early childhood, was chosen to become a receptacle of the Holy Spirit.
On September 14, 1924, the day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, after many hardships, the immigrants from Farasa finally reached the harbor of Piraeus, Greece. They stayed in Piraeus for three weeks and then went to the island of Corfu, where they temporarily settled down at a place called Kastro. Saint Arsenios, as he himself had predicted, lived on the island for just forty days. On November 10, in the age of eighty, he fell asleep leaving behind, as a worthy successor and heir of his spiritual wealth, young Arsenios, later to be called Elder Paisios.
Young Arsenios and his family spent a year and a half on the island of Corfu and then moved to a village near Egoumenitsa (Northeastern Greece). Their final destination was the town of Konitsa in Epirus. Young Arsenios’ heart and mind were totally devoted to Christ and the Virgin Mary and his strong desire to become a monk dominated his life. He loved to walk in the woods and pray all day long holding a wooden cross he himself had made.
In 1945, he was drafted in the army, where he was distinguished for his ethos and bravery. He always wanted to be in the front line, or take part in the most dangerous operations, as he wished to put his own life into danger first. He was especially concerned about his fellow soldiers who were married and had children. He used to tell them: “You have your wife and children waiting for you, whereas I have no one; I am free.” Many times, he nearly lost his life in order to save someone else’s. For the most part of his military service, he served in the department of communications. In 1949, he was discharged from the army.
The first years of the Elder’s monastic life
After the end of his military service, he immediately left for Mount Athos as he had already decided to become a monk. He only stayed for a few months, however, because his mind was preoccupied with the future of his sisters who were still unmarried. So, he left to return to his family for just a short while.
In 1950, he went back to Mount Athos. He spent his first night at the cell of St. John the Theologian which belongs to the Great Lavra Monastery situated close to Karyes. Then, he went to the Skete of St. Panteleimon at the cell of the Entrance of the Holy Theotokos, where Father Cyril resided, a very spiritual and virtuous ascetic. Later on, Father Cyril became the abbot of Koutloumousiou Monastery.
Father Cyril’s conscientious efforts in fasting and long vigils greatly benefited young Arsenios, who wished to stay by his side for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, circumstances did not permit him to do so. Father Cyril sent him to Esfigmenou monastery, a very hospitable one, which had not yet been involved in the old-calendar movement. He first set his foot there in 1950 and in 1954 he was tonsured a monk. His new name was now Averkios.
Young Averkios displayed great zeal in practicing obedience. When all the monks were involved in various communal tasks, he tried to remain alone and quiet, in order to be able to pray. For instance, when everyone was working in the olive groves, he would stay a hundred meters away, conscientiously completing his task, while at the same time he was in a state of spiritual contemplation.
He thoroughly studied the lives of the saints of our Church, the Gerontikon (a collection of brief stories and wise sayings of the desert Fathers) and the book of St. Isaac the Syrian; he always kept his book by his bedside, under his pillow. When Averkios completed his task (assigned by the monastery), he did not go to his cell to rest. Instead, he helped the rest of the monks to quickly finish their own tasks. He could not tolerate the privilege of enjoying the peace and quietude of his cell, while the others were still working late. He offered his services to the weakest ones and avoided those who were wasting time in useless tasks. He loved everyone without distinction and humbly obeyed all of them always considering himself the least important.
Averkios did not trust his own judgment or will. He unhesitatingly asked his spiritual father for advice on all matters. He prayed to God to always enlighten him, so He would guide him according to his own will.
His heart was full of gratitude, as he always thought about all the good deeds God was doing for him and the rest of the world. His love for God, originating from his inner gratitude, was continuously growing along with his effortless, unceasing prayers. The sole aim of his heart was to thankfully respond, even in the least, to God’s benevolence. He believed that the grace of God was the only cause of every good; for every evil, he blamed himself out of his deep sense of humility. When he saw someone falling into sin, refusing to repent, or having no faith in God, he thought: “It is my fault that one of my brothers has found himself in this difficult situation. If I were acting according to Christ’s will, then He would listen to my prayers and my brother wouldn’t be in this unpleasant state; my wretchedness is causing my brother’s misery.” He always thought this way and tried to make the world’s problems his own. He constantly prayed to God to help all the people who, as he humbly thought, suffered due to his own negligence and spiritual indolence. God, who listens to all humble people, always responded to Averkios’ prayers that gushed out of his burning heart; a heart full of gratefulness and humility.
While he was still young, he visited many monks, and like a bee he collected their “spiritual pollen” so that he may produce later on his own “spiritual honey”, which many of the people in grief were able to taste.
In 1954, circumstances (as well as his spiritual father’s advice) led him to leave the Monastery of Esfigmenou to go to Filotheou Monastery, where his uncle was also a monk. The monastery was then idiorrythmic. Averkios became the disciple of Father Symeon who was a very virtuous man. In 1956, Father Symeon gave Averkios the small schema and his new name, Paisios, in honor of Archbishop Paisios B’ the Caesarean who also came from the town of Farasa in Cappadocia.
In Filotheou Monastery, he became acquainted with Elder Augoustinos, the ascetic, who resided at the cell of Filotheou Monastery “The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos.” His simple-heartedness and humility greatly benefited the Elder.
Elder Paisios continued his zealous spiritual struggle and always assisted the monks in the monastery in any way he could. Following is an incident indicating the Elder’s strong desire to constantly assist the others. One of the monks had committed a sin but was embarrassed to confess it. As a result, he withdrew to himself, and being in despair, he started thinking of committing suicide. The Elder foresaw his situation and tried to help him. One day, he found him alone and started telling him about his own sins, mentioning on purpose, the same sin he had fallen into. Unfortunately, the monk reacted negatively to the Elder’s effort to make him go into confession. Instead, he started going around the monastery telling everybody that Paisios, whom you love and praise, is a very sinful person, and reported word by word whatever the Elder had told him. Father Paisios, of course, did not try to find excuses for himself, and the monks, who understood his loving and caring intentions, justified his act and praised him for it.
He erased every trace of evil thoughts or negative dispositions from his soul and grew in their place good and positive ones. It was fascinating to see how, without any efforts, he always developed good and positive thoughts for every kind of situation, no matter how difficult and complicated it was; for he allowed God’s grace, which “is not irritable or resentful” (1Cor 13:4) to act on his behalf. He could then skillfully cover the faults and mistakes of other people, as it is clearly shown in the following incident:
In one of the monasteries, there was a monk who was spreading around deluded stories. The visitors, who heard the stories, were scandalized and asked the Elder: “Father Paisios, one of the monks in this monastery is saying weird stories. What exactly is going on?” The Elder promptly answered: “Be careful not to judge others, because our brother is a pious one; when the monastery has visitors, he pretends to be a fool for Christ, so God will reward him.” The Elder’s answer calmed the visitors down.
His kind heart was gradually embracing and protecting everybody in the same way God tactfully covers up all our sins, so they are not exposed to the rest of the world. While he was at Filotheou Monastery, he used to visit Father Cyril in his Skete and seek his advice on various subjects. Father Cyril, with the help of God’s grace, had greatly assisted the Elder. Very often, he used to give solutions to his problems, before the Elder had even had the chance to discuss them with him. He was almost always “informed” by God of his arrival and had the answers ready. Sometimes, he had even found the answer in one of his books, and had underlined it to show it to Fr. Paisios upon his arrival. The Elder expressed his admiration and after asking for his blessing, he left full of joy and spiritual profit.
In 1958, the Elder was asked to leave Mount Athos and go to Stomio, in Konitsa, to assist with the protection of the area against protestant proselytism. As he felt that this was truly God’s will, he left for Stomio where he stayed at the Monastery of Nativity of the Holy Theotokos. With the help of God’s grace, he offered assistance to many people. In 1962, for spiritual reasons he departed for Sinai, where he stayed at the cell of saints Galaktion and Epistimi and spiritually nurtured many people in the area. The Beduins loved him very much. He used to work many hours during the day carving wooden articles. After selling them, he bought food and gave it to them.
In 1964, he left Sinai and returned to Mount Athos where he settled down at the Skete of Iviron, at the Archangels’ cell. In 1966, he fell ill and was hospitalized for a few months in PapaNikolaou Hospital in Thessaloniki. He was operated on and a large section of hislungs was removed.
His acquaintance with the Convent of St. John the Theologian
At this point, I would like to describe how God’s providence led Father Paisios to become acquainted with the nuns of the Convent of St. John the Theologian. The Elder was in great need of blood for his surgery. He had no relatives by his side (as he himself wished) and a group of novice nuns donated as much blood as he needed. He was very grateful for their support. Wishing to express his deep gratitude, he used to say that their kind support resembled a woolen sweater embracing his bare flesh; he wished to take it off and offer it to them in return, as an expression of his heartfelt gratitude.
He sympathized with the nuns who were facing insuperable problems in their effort to build their convent. So, he personally took the initiative to find a suitable area for its construction. He offered his assistance in every way he could; along with the building’s foundations, he also laid its spiritual foundations by giving instructions for the proper functioning of the convent. Thus, the Elder established a strong relationship with the Convent of St. John the Theologian and remained by its side until his death. By the end of 1967, he went to Katounakia in Mount Athos, where he settled down at the cell of Ypatios of Lavra. Living alone in this deserted area, many times he experienced God’s presence and consolation, which contributed to his spiritual growth, enabling him to comfort thousands of people in pain.
At Stavronikita Monastery
In 1968, Father Paisios went to Stavronikita Monastery, where he assisted in its renovation by offering labor work as well as spiritual advice. In the Holy Cross cell of Stavronikita Monastery, located near by, lived Father Tychon, the ascetic, who was also a spiritual father. (Fr. Tychon, the ascetic, who was also a spiritual father. (Ft. Tychon was born in 1884 in Novia Mihaloska of Russia. He was a very gifted man and lived a strict ascetic life). Elder Paisios often visited him for spiritual advice and helped him with the service of Divine Liturgy by serving as chanter. Quite frequently, the service was in spiritual contemplation, which sometimes lasted half an hour. He saw, as he himself confessed, the orders of the angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorifying God. Father Tychon tonsured Elder Paisios and gave him the Great and Angelic Schema.
When Father Tychon’s life was coming to an end, (ten days before he passed away), he asked the Elder to stay by his side and take care of him. Paisios served Father Tychon with great self-sacrifice, offering him anything he could to comfort him. Father Tychon used to tell him: “Paisios, our love is precious. My sweet Paisios, our love, my child, will last unto the ages of ages.” He asked him to stay in his cell after his death and promised that he will visit him every year. Father Tychon fell asleep on September 10, 1968, two days after the celebration of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos, as he himself had predicted, being well equipped and ready for his journey to eternity.
Father Paisios settled down at the cell of the Holy Cross, according to the wish of Father Tychon, where he stayed until 1979.
On May 13, 1979, Father Paisios went to the Monastery of Koutloumousiou where he registered as a monk. He settled down at its hermitage, Panagouda (Nativity of the Holy Theotokos) after it was converted into a cell.
The Elder was very distressed by the content of the letters and by what the visitors used to tell him. Almost always, people spoke about broken marriages, mental illnesses or deaths caused by cancer. Elder Paisios was transformed into a spiritual magnet drawing out the sorrow of people in grief.
The mental fatigue and pain of his visitors, his extremely sensitive soul, his physical exhaustion arising from the many daily visits, as well as his unceasing prayers contributed to his gradual physical weakness and vulnerability to various illnesses.
The illnesses of the Elder
The serious problems of the Elder’s health began in 1966. As mentioned above, Father Paisios suffered from a disease of the respiratory system which made him very weak. The constant visits of the people, the heavy load of their problems and worries, which he always carried on him as if it were his own, but also the physical fatigue of the hospitality duties, resulted in his exhaustion. He had very few hours left to rest during the day as he dedicated the night to praying.
The Elder made small icons using a metallic mould that he himself had carved. He gave these icons (The Crucifix, the Holy Theotokos, St. Arsenios of Cappadocia) to the visitors as a blessing. This task was an additional burden to his already tight schedule, especially when he was using the press that required a lot of physical effort; as a result, he developed hernia. He systematically refused to be operated and tried to invent his own ways to relieve the pain, which were not very successful. He suffered when he was sitting down, but even more so, when he was standing up. When I was at the Convent of St. John the Theologian in Souroti, I remember once that he remained standing up for hours, so everybody could come by and take his blessing. He did not sit down even when he had turned pale and was sweating out of extreme pain. For five years, he endured with exemplary perseverance the painful disease of hernia, thus demonstrating in practice the great virtue of patience to both laymen and the clergy.
When a group of close friends, who were doctors, visited him in Souroti, they literally kidnapped and took him to the hospital to be operated.
The last illness of the Elder
Since 1988, Father Paisios was facing rectal problems. In 1993, during the period of the Great Lent, he was very weak as he was fasting strictly. He could not get any rest during the night due to the unbearable pain and constant bleeding. Although he told the visitors he was very ill, many insisted to see him. He felt so exhausted that he sometimes fainted. Ignoring the poor state of his own health, however, he accepted to see his visitors and relieved them of their grief.
He answered: “Father, vitamins won’t do me any good as my blood is in a very poor condition.” And then he added jokingly:
He stood up laughing, took a glass of water and dropped in an effervescent vitamin tablet and said: “My experience with medicine is a very negative one, so I do not wish to start taking pills again. I am willing, however, to take one’s advice on what to do protect myself, and I will indeed be very grateful to him.”
While listening to the Elder’s words, I knelt by his side and begged him to go to Thessaloniki to have some medical tests done in order to diagnose his disease. The Elder asked me to stand up and said: “Listen, Father. My health’s condition is a great benefit to my spiritual life and I do not really wish to alter it. These are the reasons why I do not wish to go to Thessaloniki for medical tests:
1) Christ knows the condition of our health. Since he is the best doctor, we should have trust in him. If it is for our own benefit, He will act accordingly and cure our illness.
2) Since I believe that I have developed a tumor in my intestine, it is best to leave it as it is; otherwise, if we “play around” with it, it will get worse.
3) 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,” he used to say laughingly; 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.
4) God is deeply moved when someone, who has cancer or some other serious problem, does not complaint about it, but instead prays for his fellow men. Then, one may dare say to Christ: “You see, I am not asking any help for myself, but please do help the others.” And God does help. So, my Father, do not worry too much about me.”
During the Great Lent of 1993, Father Paisios had a tendency to faint due to his low hematocrit. Often, while standing up he fell, unconscious. But he did not despair and faced his illness with great patience, perseverance and courage.
The monks obeyed and left, being very concerned about his well-being. This situation went on until October 1993. He had constant hemorrhages, fainting, a tendency to vomit; in addition, the pain in the intestine made it difficult for him to sit down.
October 22 (November 5 according to the new calendar) was his last day on Mount Athos; he left and went to the Convent of St. John the Theologian in Souroti to be present at the vigil service of November 10 performed in honour of St. Arsenios. He stayed at the convent for a few days, as he always used to do; when he was ready to depart for Mount Athos, the doctors diagnosed the presence of a tumor the size of a small orange in the last section of the rectum. They decided he should undergo radiation therapy to reduce its size and then be operated. The CT-scan confirmed the metastasis of cancer in the liver and lungs. Despite these findings, the operation was considered necessary in order to prevent the total obstruction of the intestine by the existing tumor.
Around 1:30 p.m., when the operation was completed, the Elder was taken to the Intensive Care Unit. Only very few people were allowed to visit him. We remained by his side until he regained consciousness. He opened his eyes for a short while and then fell asleep again. When he finally woke up, I asked him: “How do you feel?”
He answered trying to smile: “Don’t you see, like an astronaut.” (He had an oxygen mask on his face, intravenous serum in his two arms, the wires of the cardiograph on his chest, a nasal-gastric catheter in his nose, a urinary bladder catheter, and a special converter for the measurement of the partial oxygen pressure).
With great effort, he continued: “I was also given a medal, and he pointed to his chest where the wire of the cardiograph had been installed; but I don’t really know the rank I was given. Am I a colonel or a general?”
Then he turned around to an old friend, a doctor, who had been greatly benefited by the Elder, and asked him: “Costa, what did they finally find inside me? Are there any metastases as the tomography indicated?”
“Yes, Father,” the doctor answered. “The liver as well as the lungs have been affected.”
“I don’t mind where the metastases are as long as this remains clean.” (And he pointed to his head).
He had a short discussion with the doctor and when he left, I stayed alone with him.
Among other things, he told me: “Honestly, my Father, if the hemorrhage could stop for just a couple of hours so I could be present at the service of the Divine Liturgy, I wouldn’t be bothered at all. By the way, I just recalled that I had asked God to make me suffer from cancer.”
Many people were distressed, because they could not visit him at the hospital. The reason was not because the Elder wanted his peace and quietness, or he did not wish to see his visitors; being a monk with a very sensitive and discreet soul, he did not want to accept people’s consolation and comfort, while the patients next to him had no one by their side. Moreover, he did not wish to disturb the hospital’s daily routine, as some doctors disliked the coming and going of many visitors.
He used to say to those who informed him that someone is waiting to see him outside: “Visits are of no use to the patient. Peace and quietness are.”
He remained at the hospital for ten days, and then was transferred to the Convent of St. John the Theologian for recovery. In the meantime, the doctors informed him that the prognosis was not so good, and his lifespan was not more than four months. When the Elder heard about it, he said smiling: “Do I have to wait for that long? Can’t it be earlier than this?”
He suffered from acute pain, which at times was getting unbearable. He endured with exemplary patience and joy the terrible pain, thinking as he used to say, of the martyrdom the holy martyrs suffered for the love for Christ- while he suffered only in order to recover!
Father Paisios had irrevocably decided to return to Mount Athos. He had set his departure for Monday, June 13. Meanwhile, he developed high fever with difficulty in breathing and was forced to cancel his trip. His health condition was gradually deteriorating. According to a scan, the metastasis now occupied the biggest part of the liver which was significantly swollen. Every now and then, he had to use an oxygen mask to facilitate his breathing.
As time went by, his anorexia and difficulty in breathing were steadily increasing, as well as his abdominal pains, which were now becoming more acute and frequent. On top of all this, he periodically developed high temperature and serious tachycardia; his abdominal meteorism created great discomfort, as he could not comfortably lie in bed. During all the stages of his illness, he never ceased repeating that we must be patient, while his very own patience was an excellent example to all of us.
Holy Mountain (source)
On January 13th 2015, Elder Paisios was officially canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
A few quotes of Elder Paisios:
"In former days, the Holy Fathers first withdrew into the desert, becoming themselves a desert void of their passions by struggling. Without plans or programs of their own, they left themselves in the hands of God, avoiding honors and power, even when they arrived at measures of sanctity — unless Mother Church had need of them. They did obedience to the will of God, and they glorified the name of God with their holy life. They became spiritual blood donors, for they had acquired good spiritual health in the desert with good spiritual food and vigilant patristic watchfulness.
For more sayings of Elder Paisios online, see here and here.