Hieromonk Ioann of Sarov
I apologize to my readers for such a long lapse since I have published a post. Sometimes responsibilities and priorities and such that anything which is not of necessity cannot be accomplished. Not long ago I published a life and instructions of St. Seraphim of Sarov. The source was the book (in Russian): The Sarov Hermitage and the Ever-memorable Ascetics that Struggled Therein (published 1884). Beginning with the founder of the monastery, Hieromonk Ioann (Theodorov)we will begin serializing a number of the monastics of that same monastery as our greatly beloved St. Seraphim. By the mercy of God we hope also to do Fathers Pachomius and Isaiah. The first was the abbot who received St. Seraphim into the monastery and the latter was his sponser in the tonsure.
The Account of the Founding of the Sarov Hermitage
And the Life of the First Superior thereof Hieromonk Ioann
Not many words are needed where deeds clearly bear witness. This may be said about the ever-memorable ascetic Hieromonk Ioann. One may procure exalted and edifying knowledge, if one only remembers that he founded the finely structured Sarov desert monastic cloister which blossoms with splendor.
The Sarov hermitage was established in 1705, as the founder, Hieromonk Ioann, himself wrote in his chronicle. Yet, a long time prior to its founding there were miraculous events, which foretold the glorification of the Name of God to happen in that place. Thus, at times a bright light would descend from the sky to the place where the cathedral temple stands today. Bell ringing was also heard, although, at that time there were no human dwellings in that place and all of the surroundings were covered by a thick, impassable forest. These things took place prior to the arrival of the first desert dweller monk Theodosius there along with the monk Gerasim who lived next to each other. The founder and the first superior of the Savor hermitage, Isaak (in the world Ioann Theodorov), who took the name of Ioann when receiving a schema, came to this Gerasim, who lived in that impassable thicket. He was a priest by his background; he was born in the village of Krasnoe of the Arzamas1 region.
Having an inclination for the monastic life from the early age, Ioann Theodorov left his parental home when he was 19 years of age and joined the brothers of the Arzamas Monastery of the Entry of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple. He was tonsured there as a monk in 1689 with the name of Isaak. The virtuous and humble life of Father Isaak soon drew the attention of his superiors. Three years after his tonsure he was appointed to serve as a priest to the Temnikov2 monastery (The Monastery of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos). The life at that monastery did not satisfy the high aspirations of Father Isaak – his soul thirsted for the highest feats, the feats of the anchoritic life. He spent most of his time in the Sarov desert, the beloved place of his, where he later founded the famous Savor Hermitage. He visited the Temnikov monastery rarely, perhaps on the days of his service duty3; he visited the place of his tonsure as well – the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple. At that time, the brethren and the benefactors of the Monastery of The Entrance, remembering the former exemplary life of Father Isaak, turned to him with a request to become the Abbot of the monastery. First, they sent a letter to him, when they did not receive an answer they went to him at his hermitage. Father Isaak dealt with a strong spiritual struggle after receiving this invitation. Two feelings fought in him – the feeling of love towards the place of his solitude and the feeling of love towards the place of his tonsure. At last, the latter, supported by the tearful petitions of the brethren, prevailed over the former and he left his beloved desert place. Yet, the foreknowledge of God guided this elder towards other saving feats whose soul longed for the desert solitude. So, while being the Igumen of the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple, Father Isaak did not interrupt his communication with the Sarov desert, where in his absence he had disciples residing. Having fulfilled the duty for which he was called from the desert, he chose his disciple Hieromonk Athenogenes of the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple to replace him as the Abbot. Then he departed again to his beloved impassable thickets of the Sarov Hermitage.
Previously, as has been noted above, hermits Theodosius and Gerasim had lived in that place. They did not live together, but each one of them separately kept his prayerful solitude, and their lives, as the word of the Apostle says, were “hidden in Christ with God” (Col. 3: 3). Although, the hermits did not remain in the dwellings chosen by them until the end of their days, but departed to another place around 1689, yet, they each foretold the future glory of that place. And, as was revealed, a man foreordained by God came for that purpose, a man who did not fear the terrors of night and the insidiousness of human malice. It was not easy, however, to take this endeavor upon himself, which many lovers of solitude could not bear, since the enemy temptations are especially terrifying in solitude, in the hermit life, where “sharp are the arrows of the mighty” (Psa 119:4). Yet, the cheerful and tireless warrior of Christ Isaak, having faith that the time had come for that place to be glorified—since he himself received revelations from heaven—he, having placed a firm hope in God and being constantly engaged in the struggle of prayer, decided in his heart to either attain victory over the enemy temptations or die in the place of his ascetic endeavor. What did he not suffer in the struggle with the celestial spirits of evil! He knew that his wrestle, according to the word of the Apostle, was not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephes. 7:2)4. What kind of terrible terrors, what kind of spiritual sufferings did he not go through! The enemy of man attacked him in various ways, he incessantly tried to scare him in the night and bring spiritual suffering, which the hermit was subjected to in his difficult struggle. At times an entire legion of demons, the spirits of evil appeared before him, who wanted to drive him from the desert, which supposedly belonged to them, with screaming. They tried to get him to withdraw from the struggle of prayer in all kinds of manners. At times they afflicted him with different tempting suggestions of extreme shame, to treacherously incline him to abandon the desert. He was made to imagine, for example, that his mother and close relatives approached him with tears, begging him to leave the arduous ascetic desire and return to live in the cloister, where they could enjoy a conversation with him. When the enemy of the human kind did not succeed to confuse and shatter the hermit, whom the world did not see, but whom God knew, he attempted to scare him with other strong means by arousing the inner storm in his heart. The eager sufferer felt a dark anguish and deadly despondency, which afflicted the heart and the body with some kind of deathly numbness in such a way, that even the prayer itself could not disperse this yearning quickly. There were moments when the ascetic cell seemed to become a smelling dungeon and even perceptible smell would fill it suddenly in such a way that the hermit had to exit it to get fresh air. When he returned, any kind of manual work and reading became completely impossible due to great despondency. Once, due to the action of the spirit of the tempter the young hermit’s spirit unrest was so strong, that it seemed that his entire hermit cell as if was swaying around him, and he himself was as if surrounded by fire and he felt as though he was bitterly ill. Isaak used reliable means against the illusions in his solitude – a strict fast and a fervent prayer to the Setter of the struggles5; and he defeated all kinds of temptations entirely with these spiritual weapons; so that in his life the Evangelic word came forth – this kind can only come out by nothing but prayer and fasting [Mark 9:29]. The unclean spirit, with all of his tricks, ran away far from Isaak, who was constantly armed with prayer and fasting. (to be continued…)
1. A city 410 kilometers east of Moscow.
2. A town in the Republic of Mordovia, Russia, about 540 kilometers east of Moscow
3. He was probably one of several priests or more who would serve in rotation for a whole week and them be free until their turn came up again.
4. The struggle with various temptations is described in detail by Father Isaak himself in his chronicles, where he represents himself under the name of monk Hilarion.
5. This refers to our Lord Jesus Christ