An Interview with Elder Joel of Sihastria (1908–1986)
An Interview with Elder Joel of Sihastria (1908–1986)
|Protosinghel Joel (Gheorghiu)|
I joyfully approached the cell of Fr. Joel—a secluded cell in the orchard, where the light of the sun radiates peace and blessing in abundance. The door of his cell is never locked, a sign that his mind is always watchful, that he is in constant expectation of Christ the Bridegroom and, at the same time, ready to receive anyone at any hour and give him spiritual rest. He still kept the tradition of the monks of long ago: never to lock the gates of the monastery, the door of the church, the kitchen, the trapeza, or the cells.
The elder was on his knees, praying from the Horologion. Near him was a lit candle on a candlestand, and I could smell the fragrance of incense. I waited on the porch for him to finish his prayer. How precious are these fathers who bring us the fragrance and piety of a generation that has come to an end! Hieroschemamonk Joel is not a learned monk, but he is humble, with great love and purity of heart, and these are the things that God blesses above all.
Fr. Ioanichie: Bless me, Fr. Joel. Are you happy to have a new pilgrim? Fr. Joel: The Lord bless you, Fr. Ioanichie! I am very happy that you have not forgotten me. The Lord will reward your love. As long as we cast our shadows upon the earth and the Savior allows us to live in the body, do come any time so that we may hold spiritual counsels. As the Holy Scriptures say, There is salvation in much counsel, and again, Those for whom there is no leadership fall like leaves (Prov. 11:12). After I depart from the body, no one will open the door of my cell any more.
Fr. Ioanichie: What year did you come to the monastery, Fr. Joel? Fr. Joel: In May 1932. I was twenty-four years old. My mother had been a widow with four children since 1916, because Father died in the World War. Mama, however, was a very strong and pious woman. She worked a lot in order to raise and feed us. Our consolation was God and the village priest. His name was Gheorghe Mironescu—a priest with a great soul. He built our church out of stone in our village, Cut, near Piatra Neamts. I helped him in church, and he was very pleased with me.
Fr. Ioanichie: Who urged you to go to the monastery?
Fr. Joel: An interior calling, Father, that’s what goaded me. The voice of the heart was stronger than anything else. Mother was very happy to have a son in the monastery. That’s why she didn’t stop me from becoming a monk.
Fr. Ioanichie: What was the spiritual life at Sihastria Monastery like fifty years ago?
Fr. Joel: It was very strict, due to the abbot at that time, Protosinghel Ioanichie (Moroi), who had come from the Holy Mountain. The order of the common life was respected faithfully. The blessing to begin services was not given in church if anyone was missing, except for the sick or those under obedience. One who did not come at night to Matins did not eat the next day. The meal was served once a day—fasting food—at three in the afternoon, except Saturday and Sunday. The cells were very simple and were never locked, because there was no one who would steal nor was there anything in them to be stolen. All care was only for the soul. No one was allowed to have money, possessions, or food in the cells. All were of one mind and one soul; all went to their obediences, all to church, all to meals. There was a different spirit of peace in that time, and all were content.
Fr. Ioanichie: What kind of ascetic labors did your spiritual father, Archimandrite Ioanichie (Moroi), perform?
Fr. Joel: He was severe with himself and a lover of ascetic labor. He fasted a lot, he prayed a lot, he especially read the Psalter; he never missed church, he had great love towards all, and he read to us daily a word of instruction in trapeza while we ate. For twenty years he served the Holy Liturgy daily, because he was the only priest, and during the four fasts, except on Saturday and Sunday he did not eat, because the grace of God strengthened him.
I know his life best because I was his cell-attendant from the day I arrived until 1945, when he went to the Lord. At that time, he made one hundred prostrations at night, he always kept quiet and unceasingly said the prayer of the heart, that is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He wore shoes without socks, summer and winter, and gave food to all the worshippers that came to the monastery.
Fr. Ioanichie: What words of instruction did Fr. Ioanichie (Moroi) give you?
Fr. Joel: More than anything he counseled us to maintain these three things: fear of God, vigilance of the mind (keeping it pure of evil thoughts and imaginings) and not to forget the Jesus Prayer. Then, he urged every one of us to do our prayer rule and prostrations in our cells, and to avoid speaking with women, much wine, and the acquisition of money and possessions. Once I entered Father’s cell when he was praying, and as soon as he saw me he said to me, “Bow down and make prostrations for, behold, the Mother of God is here before us and tells me that from this day forward she will place the monastery under her care!” And when I was tired and upset with temptations, the elder would comfort me with these words: “Beloved, have patience, be at peace and don’t worry about every little thing!” When I returned from my obedience, he strengthened me with these words: “Brother John, you are hungry, you are thirsty, you are tired! Have hope. The Mother of God strengthens us! Pray a little and go to bed so that we can go to Matins!” And when I would err in something, he would say to me in a meek voice, “Beloved, allow me to reproach you a little!” He was very close to us all. Consequently, at any moment he would open his door and his heart to you, and you would be able to tell all to him, without fear. Such was Fr. Ioanichie. He died in great lack of earthly things, and he knew the time of his end beforehand.
Fr. Ioanichie: What was the schedule of services and of obediences fifty years ago?
Fr. Joel: The bell for rising was rung at 5 a.m. Each did his prayer rule and penance until 7 a.m. in his cell. Between 7 and 10 a.m. we all took part in the hours, Akathist and Holy Liturgy. Then we went to our monastery obediences (with the abbot as our prime example) until 2:30 p.m., when the bell rang for the afternoon meal. At 3 p.m., we went to Vespers. Afterwards, we withdrew to our cells, we read holy books, and did our evening prayers, the Canon to the Mother of God, the Canon to the Guardian Angel and other canons. At 7:30 p.m., the bell was rung seven times, and, after that, each returned to his cell and no one was allowed to have any more conversations.
We rested until Matins— some in bed, others in chairs, and others did not sleep at all. At 11:30 p.m., the bell rang for Matins and the brother with the obedience to wake us called us all to church. How beautiful was monastic life at Sihastria at that time! Fr. Ioanichie: What was your greatest spiritual joy in the years of your youth?
Fr. Joel: That the Mother of God brought me out of the world to this blessed place and that I was the disciple and cell-attendant to my father and abbot Ioanichie (Moroi). This was the greatest joy of my life—that I had an example in the monastic life. He taught me many good things, and I saw and heard a lot from him.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can spiritual life be renewed in the monasteries and parishes?
Fr. Joel: Spiritual life cannot be renewed except through much prayer, through good spiritual fathers, through the abandonment of earthly cares, and through great struggle for that which is divine, asking for the grace and mercy of God. But where pride, discord, care for earthly life, prosperity, and relaxation rule, renewal is not possible until you cut out the roots of these sins. Then also, the renewal of spiritual life is not possible without the kind of instruction that proceeds from the heart and goes to the heart. But let us have hope, Father.
|Fr. Paisius (Olaru), Fr. Cleopa (Ilie), and Fr. Joel (Gheorghiu).|
Fr. Joel: A church hymn says, “The cares of life have driven us out of Paradise.” We have deceived ourselves with transitory cares and with the greed of storing up much, eating much, living according to the body, and no longer having patience for prayer. This is due to our having extinguished our spirit and ardor of heart and to our being very dispersed and distracted in mind toward earthly things. Then also, we no longer pray steadfastly with tears because we forget the hour of our death and judgment; we forget those things we promised at our tonsure and at Baptism. We even forget the sick who lie in heavy sufferings. How much would these desire to be in our place and pray day and night with tears, only to be healthy! Let us pray more, even doing violence to ourselves, because the Spirit will warm our heart.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can we pray more with attention, and what prayers do you think are most profitable to us?
Fr. Joel: If we think constantly on death and on the judgment, if we visit the sick, if we read the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture more, then we will begin to pray more, we will sweeten ourselves with the gift of prayer, the gift of tears will be visited upon us, and faith will increase in us along with zeal for prayer. Then also, let us not ignore the power of fasting, because without fasting we cannot pray. And let us not be absent from the church services and especially the Holy Liturgy, except because of illness or to fulfill obediences. I was yoked to the church services. They kept me close to God more than anything. When I was performing an obedience or traveling, I would constantly say the Jesus Prayer, and in my cell, more than anything, I read the Psalter and the Horologion. Let each one read those books which nourish and profit him the most. Let each one pray in the way his spiritual father counsels him, but let him never abandon the services in church. Let us think on the word of the Psalmist which says, “With the spirit burning, and the Lord serving!” And when we can no longer pray, let us make prostrations, let us read something profitable, let us visit the sick, let us give rest to the brothers, let us give alms, and we will have the same reward.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can we escape the temptations of the flesh and all the troubles that surround us from all sides?
Fr. Joel: We escape from bodily temptations only through frequent confession, fasting, and prayer. There is no other way. Then, let us avoid the place and the people that led us astray, let us flee from wine and rest, and let us not blame anyone. Let us do this in all the troubles of life. Let us pray more, especially at night, with fasting and prostrations. Let us ask the counsel of our spiritual father, let us read holy books, and we will unburden ourselves. Only let us not feed the war within ourselves through unclean thoughts and imaginings.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can we vanquish the passion of licentiousness which destroys countless souls?
Fr. Joel: We read in Proverbs, A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished (Prov. 27:12). And St. John of the Ladder says, “The prince of hell is Lucifer and the prince of the passions is the gluttony of the belly.” Prayer and fasting are the two weapons through which we are saved from licentiousness. The will of man, steadfast prayer, and the mercy of God drive away from man the passion of licentiousness and strengthen us in the spiritual fight.…
Fr. Ioanichie: What is true repentance?
Fr. Joel: We confess our sins, we no longer perpetuate them, and we repent of them for the whole of our life. This is true repentance.…
Repentance has seven steps, that is to say, through these comes about the forgiveness of the sins of him who repents. First is penitence, in order that we no longer sin from that time. The second is to weep over our sins with tears, but not over worldly things. The third is almsgiving, that is, to secretly give to the poor, without vainglory and with love. The fourth is to forgive the sins of those that have erred. If someone wrongs you, forgive him and do not return evil for evil. The fifth is to have love for all, toward those smaller and those greater, toward those who love you and those who insult you. The sixth is humility, as this absolves all sin. The seventh is to not blame anyone.
Fr. Ioanichie: How must a priest prepare for the Holy Liturgy?
Fr. Joel: According to the typicon. The priest must first of all confess to his spiritual father and be reconciled with the entire world. Then he must complete the cycle of prayers and his rule, according to the typicon, with all piety and with great fear of God. When he serves in church, the priest must be in constant prayer, have tears in his eyes, and not speak with anyone, for he is standing before the Lord. At the Holy Altar the priest prays for the whole world, and he is in the presence of the Most Holy Trinity. St. John Chrysostom says: “The priest must sacrifice himself, not just bring the sacrifice.” And the Psalmist says: Serve ye the Lord with fear, and rejoice in Him with trembling (Ps. 2:11). The priest who is not reconciled with his neighbors and has not confessed to his spiritual father is completely forbidden to serve that which is holy.
Fr. Ioanichie: How should we conduct ourselves at the Holy Liturgy?
Fr. Joel: As before the throne of the Most Holy Trinity. With attention, with a mind purified from the cares of the world and with great fear of God, because at the time of the Holy Liturgy, Christ the Sacrifice is sacrificed for our salvation. I remember one of the brothers of Fr. Cleopa (Ilie), Fr. Gerasim—who led a very righteous life—who, when he was sick, would ask the brothers to bring him to church on a stretcher, only so he would not miss the Holy Liturgy. Once I gave Fr. Gerasim a spiritual book to read, and when he returned it, he said to me, “The words of this book will judge me!”
Fr. Ioanichie: Could you describe the spiritual life of Sihastria Monastery under the abbacy of Fr. Cleopa [1945– 1949]?
Fr. Joel: In the time of the abbacy of Fr. Cleopa, Sihastria Monastery grew spiritually with great advances. The community grew to eighty fathers and brothers. In church, services were done according to the established order, with all piety, with beautiful singing, and with a sermon on every feast day. Fr. Cleopa’s sermons filled the monastery with monks and faithful. He introduced the continuous reading of the Psalter in the church by the entire community, including the abbot. It was arranged for each to read two hours, day and night, outside of the hours of services. He also introduced the all-night vigils at the royal celebrations [the twelve Great Feasts of the year] like on the Holy Mountain. Fr. Cleopa is a man graced by God. He spoke beautifully and he himself put into practice that which he taught others.
In everything, he was first—at prayer, at going to church, at teaching, at fasting, and at almsgiving. For this he was loved and obeyed by all, for he spoke both by word and by deed. In the time of his abbacy, much peace and tranquility reigned in our monastery.
Fr. Ioanichie: What were the most notable legacies that these two great abbots, Protosinghel Ioanichie (Moroi) and Archimandrite Cleopa (Ilie), left for the community of Sihastria Monastery?
Fr. Joel: Fr. Ioanichie (Moroi), the abbot of us all, left the cenobitic life at Sihastria, founded by him, according to his personal example. His pure life—ascetic, and full of love for the whole community—helped us greatly. Fr. Cleopa bequeathed us the uninterrupted reading of the Psalter in church, his wise teachings which instruct us all on the path to salvation, and his love, which captivates every soul. With Fr. Cleopa in our midst we have no need to care for anything except to follow his instructions. God is with him, and we see and feel the reality of this fact. Many faithful monks, priests, and hierarchs admire him and come to hear him speak, even from abroad, because he has in him the grace of God. All the brothers and monks desire to remain constantly close to him, due to his boundless love, felt by all who are near him. At any place and any time he is ready to give you unequaled counsel. Because of this, we all seek him out and love him.
Fr. Ioanichie: What is your opinion of Fr. Cleopa’s transfer to Slatina Monastery as abbot in 1949?
Fr. Joel: It was a true blessing from God, both for Slatina Monastery and for the faithful in Bucovina. He formed a strong community at Slatina, with the same monastic rule as at Sihastria, beautiful services, a sermon and a meal for all the worshippers. Through his teachings and sermons he strengthened and united the Orthodox faithful against the sects which seek to deceive them.
Fr. Ioanichie: Between the years 1949 and 1959 you were abbot at Sihastria Monastery. How did you carry out this difficult obedience?
Fr. Joel: I strove with all my strength to follow my predecessors, who formed me and urged me to do good works. I did my utmost to maintain—without diminishing—all that I had inherited from those two great abbots, Fr. Ioanichie [Moroi] and Fr. Cleopa [Ilie]. With the help of God and the counsel of the fathers, I bore this difficult obedience for ten years. In this time, the community increased again to seventy monastics, and the services continued just the same, as did the reading of the Psalter, obedience, the fasts, common meals, and other things. No one locked his cell and there was great trust among us. I was also younger then: I had great zeal and strength to work, and I served the monastery with all my heart. I had nothing to hide, and I did all with prayer, counsel, and blessing. That is why Sihastria progressed in those years, both spiritually and materially.
Fr. Ioanichie: How does spiritual life in the monasteries today seem to you in comparison with thirty to forty years ago?
Fr. Joel: Spiritual life in the monasteries forty years ago was much more advanced and exalted than in our days. Then, each had come to the monastery only with the thought of weeping for his sins and serving God with faith, in humility and submission. All did their obediences with love and submitted themselves to the order of the monastery, and no one desired anything for himself, other than the salvation of his soul. In our days, zeal, piety, faith, and obedience have weakened. That is why fewer come to the monastery. And those who do come are not in possession of much humility or patience. However, by the grace of God and with the prayers of the Theotokos, we have hope.
Fr. Ioanichie: Which virtue has weakened the most in our monasteries today?
Fr. Joel: Today the main virtue which is weakened in our monasteries is love, which comprises all good deeds. Love in the monasteries is especially strengthened through the personal example of the elders. It is not enough to say a profitable word to the young. They must see fathers advanced in good deeds whom they can follow. In the monastery you must strive to do everything from the heart, with great love and submission. Then, you must forgive all, in order that you also be forgiven and have peace. The spiritual fathers must care for these young ones and counsel them in the spirit of meekness, with much patience and kindness. In the monasteries with good spiritual fathers, many more youths—also of a higher caliber— enter, and they rejoice in a more exalted spiritual life. The lives of the abbots and spiritual fathers must be an example to everyone. Only in this way is it possible to strengthen and increase spiritual life.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can the monasteries grow in love and in all the virtues?
Fr. Joel: Only through the church, through holy prayer. The church is the heart, the soul, of the monastery. It is the ship of our salvation. Just as a man without a heart dies, so also monks and the faithful without the church, without participation in the holy services, die, grow cold in faith, and are enslaved to the passions. Going to church and participating in the seven praises [i.e., the cycle of church services] and especially the Holy Liturgy, daily, is the well-spring of all good deeds. I, to the extent of which I was able, never missed church, day or night. I went on errands for the monastery, especially when I was abbot, but when I returned, I would first go to church and listen to the services, and only then would I go to my cell. And God always helped me.
Fr. Ioanichie: What is the importance of Confession and Holy Communion for the spiritual formation of monks in a monastery?
Fr. Joel: These two Holy Mysteries form the cornerstone, the foundation, of spiritual life in the monastery. Without good spiritual fathers and without frequent confession of the whole community, even weekly, neither the novices nor the monks can advance or be formed spiritually. Frequent confession of thoughts destroys the den of the enemy who wages war against us, and sin cannot take root. And Holy Communion received with much preparation—with fasting and prayer—according to the counsel of the spiritual father, brings to man the forgiveness of sins, the grace of salvation, joy, and much hope for salvation. At Sihastria in the time of our Abbot Ioanichie, we confessed every day, in the evening—or at least every few days. In the time of Fr. Cleopa, Confession had become like it is now—once a week, on Fridays. Schemamonks and the sick received Holy Communion once a week; and the other monastics, every three weeks, or at least once a month, according to the counsel of St. John Chrysostom.… Through Holy Communion we receive our Lord Jesus Christ into our soul. Let us therefore desire it with all our hearts—for what greater charity is there, what gift is more precious, and what love could ever be more consuming than these divine gifts?
Fr. Ioanichie: Fr. Joel, according to your experience as an abbot and spiritual father, how can the spiritual unity of the life of the monastery best be maintained?
Fr. Joel: Unity is the fruit of love. And love and concord are strengthened in the monastery through that which I have previously mentioned: through the regular participation in the daily services of the church and through frequent Confession and Holy Communion. Then no one will remember evils, and each will consider himself below his brother. Abba Dorotheus says that as long as we have trust in one another and preserve love, then unity and harmony will exist in the community; and when there is no trust, then suspicion and unrest begin in the monastery.
Fr. Ioanichie: What is the best and most profitable means for the spiritual growth and formation of novices and monks in the monastery?
Fr. Joel: Brothers in the monastery rejoice that Christ has pulled them from the abyss of sins, temptations, and all the evil influences that come from the devil. Here they are in the harbor of salvation. Here they are in the ship together with Christ and are easily able to grow and be perfected on the road of salvation. Continuous prayer, fasting, Confession, Holy Communion, humility, the reading of holy books, unconditional obedience, and patience are the most important good deeds which help them ascend to Christ. Yet, most of all it is the personal example of the abbot and the spiritual fathers that urges them on to wage spiritual warfare and to catch up with them.…
Fr. Ioanichie: How can good spiritual fathers be formed in villages and monasteries?
Fr. Joel: It was once said by a great Orthodox hierarch, “Give me good spiritual fathers, and I will change the face of the earth.” The spiritual father is the soul of the monastery. A good spiritual father is formed after much ascetic struggle and labor and is a chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit. In him rests the grace of God more than in other Christians. The spiritual father must pray more than the other monks, must be the first to church, to obedience, in fasting, in giving alms, and in all good deeds. He must know the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Canons and the teachings of the Holy Fathers very well, so that he can teach and heal each one that comes to him. He must unite—with much wisdom and discernment— scarcity with bounty, severity with meekness, the canons with forgiveness. Otherwise, he will condemn himself and hurl condemnation upon his spiritual sons. Spiritual fatherhood is a great gift of God. I have always been more afraid of spiritual fatherhood than of the Holy Liturgy, and with great care have I received people for Confession. But if we are under obedience and we pray more, we have hope.
Fr. Ioanichie: Why is it that today we do not have devoted spiritual fathers illumined by the Holy Spirit as in the past?
Fr. Joel: Because our faith and our love for God are weakened, and because where there is not deep faith and fervent love for Christ, it is impossible for spiritual life to exist.
Fr. Ioanichie: How can an abbot act in accordance with God?
Fr. Joel: The abbot of a monastery represents Christ. He works in the name of Christ and of his respective hierarch. Therefore, in the same way that the Lord worked on earth, so also must the abbot work. That is, he must be a man of prayer; he must love Christ to the point of sacrifice, as well as love the Church, his spiritual sons, the poor, and all men. He must love fasting, silence, reading the holy books, services in church, obedience, confession, and humility. As the head of the community, the abbot must be a living example for the others. Neither too severe nor too forgiving, neither too bound to the earthly nor too indifferent to it, but able to reconcile Martha and Mary as we see in the Holy Gospels. Monks are obliged to constantly pray for their abbot that God enlighten him—then all will be good and peaceful.
Fr. Ioanichie: Fr. Joel, what counsel do you give to your disciples in the monastery and to those in the villages?
Fr. Joel: I remind my disciples of the elder’s counsel from the Patericon, the one who was asked by a monk how to be saved. The elder answered, “Every day do that which you did the first day you came to the monastery!”
Fr. Ioanichie: Give me also, Fr. Joel, your fatherly counsel before my departure.
Fr. Joel: Fr. Ioanichie, first of all, let us do everything we can in order not to lose our souls, because if that happens, all will be in vain. Do all that you can, all that you think is good, to the glory of God and for the profit of men, because later you will no longer be able to do so. Then wait for the mercy of God and do not lose hope. There are so many of the faithful that pray to God for us, and I think that Christ will have mercy on us through their prayers.
Fr. Ioanichie: Thank you, Father, for your good spiritual counsel. May God and the Mother of God bless you.
Translated, edited, and abridged by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood from Convorbiri duhovnice ti, vol. 1.