St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition
In endeavoring to write something on St. Joseph the Hesychast I think of how his disciple, Joseph the Younger, approached his work on the saint. He asserts that he is “ignorant and inadequate to the task” and so he “casts his anxiety upon the Lord” (I Pet. 5:7) (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Joseph, Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi 1999, p. 159). Although this is a micro-fraction of what he accomplished I set out by following his disposition. Here I simply organize available historical information to fit under the heading of the selected title. May God help me, through the prayers of St. Joseph the Hesychast.
If we look at the life of St. Joseph the Hesychast and in particular his struggles on the Holy Mountain, it should be clear that he was a chosen vessel of God. But what did he do? The appellation by which he is named tells us: Hesychast. With a limitless zeal and uncompromising determination he sought to make the hesychastic way of life his own. But what is meant by hesychastic way of life? We could perhaps say that this indicates to be withdrawn from the world and its distractions, to have much silence and solitary prayer, and to acquire mental prayer on the heart level as a state of being. In his letters he speaks of a state of grace called, “illumination”1. He says to attain this, “the person praying much have much stillness and an unerring guide” (Monastic Wisdom, The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery 1998, p. 45). An “unerring guide”, in this lays the true and incalculable value of St. Joseph. This is what he came to be. St. Joseph is a link to the past, we could liken him to a link in an unbroken chain—a practitioner and perpetuator of the Hesychast Tradition of the Holy Mountain.
On arriving at the Holy Mountain he sought out a hesychast who could guide him, however he soon discovered that such Elders were becoming scarce. Elder Joseph the Younger writes: “From the beginning of his venture, the elder longed to find a spiritual father: a spiritual man, in the full sense of the word, with appropriate experience, who could teach him and guide him in this subtle and mysterious life. And despite all his disappointments, as he told us, he never ceased to search and hope.” (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, p. 70) However, as he was advised by an Abbess before coming to Athos, he did put himself in subjection to the Elder, St. Daniel of Katounakia. So he became St. Joseph’s first elder to whom he practiced obedience.
The Elder, St. Daniel of Katounakia, was well known on the Holy Mountain and beyond. Not only was he a wise tempered ascetic but he also had a theological education and was a deep thinker. He was a graduate of the renowned Theological School of Smyrna. As was mentioned, St. Joseph specifically went to this Elder, and on reaching Katounakia, he decided to remain with his community. However, it was not long after when the Elder advised him to struggle in a stricter ascetic life with a like minded brother. He moved to a nearby cave where he was first alone, and then joined by Father Arsenius who became his life-long co-struggler.
After St. Joseph and Father Arsenius lived together for about a year St. Daniel thus instructed them: “You aren’t accomplishing anything like this. Now you will listen to me. Here on the Holy Mountain there is a tradition: in order to become an elder you need to bury an elder. In other words, you need to have an elder and be obedient to him until his death in order to become an elder….Without the blessing of an elder, nothing succeeds in monasticism. Without the seal of a spiritual father, no spiritual work bears fruit. If you want to have the grace of God all your life, you must first pass under obedience.” (My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Ephraim, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery 2013, p. 91)
The Elder advised them to submit themselves to two old monks, who were brothers: Ephraim and Joseph. So they did go to these fathers and were received with abundant joy. “Elder Ephraim didn’t know how to express his joy for the obedience and assistance of his two new disciples. He was frequently moved to tears seeing their eagerness and their perfect obedience.” (ibid., p.93) Joseph, however, did not live much longer while Ephraim remained as their elder for a total of seven years. They first lived at Katounakia and later, in 1928, they moved higher up the mountain to the Skete of St. Basil. This move came about in their desire for move solitude and to have their hesychastic way of life continue without disturbance. Elder Ephraim did not live long after this move, he foresaw his repose and he had a saintly death. And so, “When Elder Joseph and Elder Ephraim reposed, their two disciples inherited their blessing as a protection and purveyance.” (ibid., p.124) It was very significant for St. Joseph and Father Arsenius that they had elders who understood and protected their desire for the quiet life of prayer. First Daniel of Katounakia and then Ephraim the Barrel maker—as he is called—understood, encouraged and shielded their hesychastic life.
Allow me to continue by quoting once again the aforementioned words of St. Joseph, “The person praying much have much stillness and an unerring guide” (Monastic Wisdom, p. 45). Now, with these words, a question arises: Who was it, that guided St. Joseph in the hesychastic life? Who was his unerring guide in this “art of arts and science of sciences”?2 Well, he did find a number of fathers from whom he gathered “pearls of great price” (Mat. 13:46). In his book, My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Ephraim tells us about them. First there was Elder Kallinikos the Hesychast. When St. Joseph moved from the brotherhood under St. Daniel of Katounakia he was near to Elder Kallinikos. Concerning him, St. Joseph later wrote: “He was a first-rate ascetic, a recluse for forty years. He practiced the noetic work and thrived on the sweetness of divine love and became beneficial to others as well. He experienced ecstasy of the nous.3” (ibid., p. 86) It is believed, that in order to preserve his state of hesychia, he did not teach others noetic prayer since this could lead to a multitude of disciples which could be distracting to his state. Nevertheless, he did agree to give some advice to St. Joseph. He did find other elders immersed in the Hesychast tradition. There was also Gerasimos of Chios: “He practiced noetic prayer4….He had continuous tears. He led his carefree life sweetened by the contemplation of Jesus.” (ibid., p. 86) The elderly and blind Ignatius was another mentor. “His counsels were precious. The amazing thing is that when he spoke, an indescribable fragrance came out of his mouth due to the prayer that he said noetically without ceasing.” (My Elder, p.51) Again there was another blind elder at Katounakia who continually said the Jesus Prayer either orally or noetically. When St. Joseph went to him to reveal his thoughts the elder’s only reply was: “My child, my child, the prayer! Say the prayer, my child! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (ibid., p. 51)
Finally we come to the most significant of all, Daniel the Hesychast. Elder Ephraim states that St. Joseph received his hesychastic program from him. In his biography of St. Joseph, Elder Joseph the Younger has a chapter heading: “The discovery of the Hesychast Elder Daniel as Spiritual Father. He lived near the Great Lavra. From sunset until midnight he kept vigil with the prayer rope and then served Liturgy which would last three and a half to four hours because, being moved to compunction, he couldn’t verbalize his petitions. Although he only allowed his disciple at Liturgy he agreed to permit St. Joseph to come and confess to him. Confession would be either before or after Liturgy. “To save time he would read his thoughts and respond with a few words full of grace.” (ibid., p.56) As to how long he was under the direction of Elder Daniel was not clearly stated. However, Elder Ephraim mentions him finding Daniel the Hesychast before Fr. Arsenius joined him as a co-struggler. Elder Joseph the Younger speaks about them going together to see him while living at St. Basil’s Skete.
So now I repeat my title: St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition. He went to the Holy Mountain early in 1921. Sparing no effort, he diligently sought out “an unerring guide” from whom he could learn the “art of arts and science of sciences”. Perhaps without realizing it at the time, he found what he sought. He made contact with some of the great hesychasts of the early twentieth century on the Holy Mountain. “Benefitting from Everyone” (ibid., p.51), he absorbed their teaching and became the embodiment of the hesychast tradition of the Holy Mountain. He was a chosen vessel of God to perpetuate this, for if it wasn’t for him what would have happened to the teaching of those elders? Would it have disappeared? Elder Ephraim, in referring to the hesychasts his elder met, writes of them, “Even though these men, who had lived in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, were of great spiritual stature, they left no heirs to their noetic prayer.” (ibid., p.44) They had no disciple living with them as their elder who buried them and became an heir to their noetic prayer. But what about St. Joseph the Hesychast? As a bee gathers honey from a variety of flowers so he gathered whatever teaching he could from each of them and became an heir to their noetic prayer. In passing on what he acquired, several of his spiritual children became Athonite abbots. And so, the three monasteries where they became abbots and several other Athonite monasteries have become revived through them. And now, here in North America, the hesychast tradition has been planted by Elder Ephraim, that tradition which he inherited from his elder, St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition.
Through their prayers and all the saintly hesychasts may our Lord Jesus Christ help us to make a few baby steps upon the path which they trod so magnificently. Amen!
- Concerning ‘illumination” St. Joseph writes: “One receives the light of knowledge and is raised to vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, depth of cognition.” (Monastic Wisdom, p.45)
- Nicephorous the Solitary, in his text, “A most Profitable Discourse on Sobriety and the Guarding of the Heart”, in the Philokalia, referrs to the monastic life in this way. (Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Faber and Faber, 1975, p.23)
- Nous is sometimes translated mind or intellect. In this quotation the translator left this term as a transliteration of the Greek. In the volumes of the Philokalia it is translated as intellect and defined as, “the highest faculty in man, through which—provided it is purified—he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception….The intellect [nous] is the organ of contemplation, the eye of the heart. (Volume One, p. 362)
- “Noetic prayer is prayer done with the nous without distraction within the heart. Another name for it is ‘prayer of the heart.’ It is contrasted with prayer of the intellect which is done within the reason.” (My Elder, p. 690)