The spiritual legacy of Elder Iosif of Vatopaidi
I have lived thirty odd years next to our blessed Elder, Joseph of Vatopedi. I have had the opportunity to listen to his teaching both face to face as well as along with the rest of the brotherhood; such teaching was the result of the spiritual experiences and personal skills derived from his many ascetic struggles. I am grateful to the Lord for granting me such a favor.
I also thank the Lord for another reason: By living in such proximity with the elder I had the opportunity to watch how he would react spiritually to the afflictions, persecutions and slanders which as he would always say, the Lord had permitted him to suffer in order to absolve him of his sins. I also had the son’s audacity to boldly ask him about his secret spiritual disposition not only during the difficult periods of his life but also during the periods of spiritual consolation which the Lord would grant profusely to his loyal and virtuous soul.
Our Elder Joseph was born on the 1st of July 1921 in Drousia in Paphos. He enters the Holy Monastery of Stavrovouni in Cyprus in 1937 and he becomes a monk with the name Sofronios. He lived there for ten years next to the righteous Elders Barnabas and Fr Kyprianos. At the instigation of the latter, he leaves for the Holy Mountain and meets with Elder Joseph the Hesychast, renowned for his great spiritual stature. He joins the brotherhood, which was residing at the time in the caves of Little Saint Anne.
From his experience, blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast knew that the particular secret of success for a monk was to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit early on in his monastic life. He immediately granted this gift through his prayer to monk Sofronios. One day he told him that during that night after sunset, at the time when they used to pray, he would send him a present and he should pay attention to receive it. This was something which initially Sofronios did not comprehend. The same night however, before he even had the chance to call upon the Lord’s name three times, he was overwhelmed by the Lord’s mercy and experienced, for the first time with such a great intensity and through fervent tears, Christ’s love and the deep humility which the Holy Spirit grants to man. He had experienced the reward through the prayers of his father. From then on, he would strive to capture and preserve this reward throughout his life.
He would tell us that he had lived the best spiritual years of his monastic life next to the God-inspired Elder, our spiritual grandfather, Elder Joseph the Hesychast. He did not follow his Elder’s way of life, namely the pure hesychastic experience, even though Elder Joseph was a pure hesychast himself, but the truly blessed way of obedience.
His teachings and his ascetic experiences are his spiritual legacy which guides us from this earth to Heaven and from death to life, if we of course manage to imitate his words and deeds with our modest capabilities.
Like all the Fathers, our wise Elder, founding his experience on his Elder, would regard the virtues of the renouncing (αποταγή) and abandoning (ξενιτεία) of the world as the initial step of the heavenly route all monks should take, in accordance with the Lord’s command: “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”.( Luke 14.33)
Just as man’s nature is dual, consisting of the body and the soul, likewise must be his renunciation of the world. The one aspect has to do with his rejection of worldly things, even our relatives, which is mostly easy to do with the grace of God. The more difficult aspect is the rejection of our passionate thoughts, wishes and ‘superstitions’, which our Fathers describe as the “operative sins” which form the habits and memories of the rational part of our existence and especially reside inside our heart.
After the renouncing of the world, Elder Joseph advocated the monk’s attachment to a spiritual elder, something which he considered essential in order to guide the soul to perfect success, provided that he who renounces the world also decides to reject all his thoughts and desires for the sake of obedience. Elder Joseph had a lot of proof for this course of action. Through teachings and perseverance to his spiritual regime and through the prayers of his spiritual father, the obedient becomes well equipped to struggle against the world and sin.
By abandoning the world, one avoids the causes which strongly pull one towards the various sinful pleasures and desires. The Elder was saying that the struggler already enjoys “relative freedom” simply by leaving. However, as far as “thoughts and memories” are concerned, which cause the transgressions and “are etched in one’s fantasy, he needs to launch intellectual effort and struggle” to clear them out and prepare his inner person as a Throne for the Lord .
“The soul and the body are interdependent and affect each other both during the times of spiritual advancement , spiritual defeat, in life and in death”
To the novices he would emphasize the following spiritual detail which is full of spiritual experience: In our path towards Christ, “in which one finds purification, enlightenment, regeneration and salvation” we must preserve the courage derived from faith against the “strange feelings” which appear without our permission in our heart during the onslaught of the unseen war against the rulers and authorities of darkness. He would also call “such strange feelings” as “spiritual changes” which appear irrespective of our good intentions, irrespective even of certain spiritual mistakes or defeats which we may suffer not only because of our inexperience in spiritual matters but also because of our many human weaknesses.
“We need to show perseverance and patience” in the face of the perverted feelings which appear during such wars, in order not to back away from our intentions neither from our scheduled everyday practice of obedience, of prayer, of comprehensive restraint and from the rest of our regime.”
Insistence in our regime as a result of our faith is regarded as “a practice” which indicates to the Lord that even though we suffer from all our internal sinful feelings, we will not physically draw away from Him, even if we, especially the novices, reach the point when we just safeguard the walls of our cell for His Love because of our spiritual weaknesses, without the comforting light of divine Grace or any other divine consolation inside our souls.
Gradually together with the practical teaching and prayer, our blessed Elder would refer to the various spiritual contemplations which reinforce faith. These cause Jesus’ quicker descend in our hearts and are derived from the unmistaken mouth of the Lord.
He would always stress that both the laity’s and the monks’ inclination to the spiritual struggle was not “our invention nor the result of intelligence but the Lord’s plan”. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15, 16) and “No one is able to come to me unless the Father Who sent me attracts him” (John 5.44?)
Because of his spiritual inexperience, the novice cannot utterly embrace such holy and divine words. In his absolute humble conviction which was the result of the unshakable faith of contemplation which the Lord had granted him, the elder would say that such painful reluctance is an indication of immaturity and spiritual inexperience because our selection by the Lord cannot be anything else but in the context of his plan: “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8, 30)
For as long as the struggler stays on and fights, no matter how pointless it seems in the beginning, he will soon understand how true the above words are: Namely that the Lord does not lie; that He has called us and will give us His Grace despite our inexperience, our weakness and our sinful nature, provided that we try our best in every way not to retreat in so far as our intention is concerned. Such a conclusion was the reward derived from his long term monastic experience. The blessed Elder would regard our commitment to intentionally resist sin which resides inside us as the basis for assured success.” It is impossible”, he would say, “for a soul which endures a long term struggle because of its faith and does not draw back or neglect its duties, not to be heard by the Lord and not to succeed”. The struggler will soon perceive the divine assistance to the measure of his divine zeal and his humility; However, God’s Grace will not remain continuously with him perceptively; but it will remain effective until the soul acquires long experience, rejects every hesitation and embraces the perception of God’s Grace unto the end mostly through humility and the queen of virtues, love. With the passing of each day the acquisition of virtues will lead the soul to even greater spiritual perception and illumination; the latter is granted as a gift to the struggling soul.
The elder, as an imitator of Christ’s crucified life, was teaching us not to groan in the face of temptation but always to receive it as God’s will. He was saying: “You see the Saints, our Fathers, gained the Kingdom through faith and struggle. Therefore, as long as we keep our faith as a shield we will remain standing in the face of the onslaught by the devil and his servants. Look. None of the Saints had found peace externally. God has given them over to tribulation, trouble, exile and killings. Why then do we naively and continuously ask “why”? Therefore, is there a “why”? “In the world you shall have tribulation” (John 16, 33”) “and you shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10, 22).”
Salvation was given to us as a gift on the Holy Cross by our Lord once. Why is it therefore, that we are not able to experience the peace and the rest of the Holy Spirit’s gifts steadily and deeply? It seems that our soul needs a certain time to mature naturally, just as it happens with the aging process of the body. There is not an artificial way to help a child grow up. It must naturally grow up with the passing of time. For this reason it is necessary for the struggler to feed himself spiritually with spiritual teachings and readings, but mostly to practice in the correct ascetic way, since no one receives an award unless he strives in the right way.
The elder would regard the virtue of obedience to a spiritual elder, lovingly and eagerly, as the most important one. In almost all of his teachings, whether they had to do with repentance, prayer or any other virtue, he would never omit to refer to obedience even briefly.
“In exercising obedience”, he was saying, “what is valuable is the amount of satisfaction shown by the one who gives the order- the Elder and the Abbot, who is in the place of the Lord- rather than the result of our actions or achievements”.
He would especially draw the attention of the obedient to the need to avoid showing indifference and negligence to spiritual matters and to avoid self-assurance or faith in his “own thoughts”. The spiritual father’s satisfaction with the zeal and spiritual love expressed towards him by his obedient, allows divine Grace to express Its prophetic power through the spiritual father.
One of our Elder’s beloved fellow ascetics, Elder Efrem Katoynakiotis, acknowledging the force of this truth, would entirely sacrifice even his logic in front of his very old Elder; the latter would give utterly irrational replies when asked about various aspects of everyday life, which in the end would prove to be prophetic and correct because of the good will and faith shown by his obedient. Our Elder was saying that true obedience was the same as humility, love and faith. It is humility as a decision; when it is employed it becomes practical love and therefore in the end it becomes comprehensive faith in the Lord. By faith he did not mean the kind of faith which all people have, but faith which is derived from the perception of the Spirit. This kind of faith is based on obedience; that is, on humility and on the love which is created in the cleansed heart of the struggler by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit, as the source and root of every goodness and virtue ”likes this kind of struggle, this kind of spiritual reality”.
Our Elder’s words were always condensed with spiritual meanings. Along with obedience he would rank incessant prayer. Prayer finds the true obedient ready to receive the divine presence, to show patience in the face of tribulations, to put up with his neighbor’s mistakes and to be aware of the spiritual law and generally of the presence of divine Grace. Through the prayer of repentance, which is based on obedience, one slowly accomplishes illumination and the cleansing of his heart. This is the long period of spiritual sowing and cultivation in the fields of the soul; then the acquisition of virtues is accomplished; this descends imperceptivity on one, when he persists in the spiritual struggle.
At some point the soul begins to perceive more clearly the virtues as a more permanent condition of internal illumination and pleasure; this is the period of bloom; the soul finds pleasure in the kind, peaceful and all powerful presence of the Spirit.
Already from this period of the flourishing of virtues and illumination, divine Grace shows the struggler- through some mysterious illuminations- the presence of the great gifts of the Spirit to the measure of his personality and spiritual stature in order to incite divine zeal in his spiritual struggle.
And what happens after all these? He who has experienced spiritual matters could no longer find the correct words to explain them to us fully. The Elder would explain to us that after the illumination the soul enters the realm of Deity through the holy virtues; he would remember Jesus’ prayer: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” ( John 17,21-22). “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me” (John 17, 11). This unity with Jesus is the unity with the Father. When Fillip asked: “Lord, show us the Father”, He replied: ““Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” ( John 14,8).
Thereafter, it is from this unity with Jesus, that the struggler derives the existential perception of God as a person through spiritual contemplation. He also derives only those gifts of the Spirit which he is able to receive and in accordance with the needs of the Church and its flock, and only for the sake of his brother in the spirit of Christ.
Then man, despite the various external temptations and tribulations, feels that he is free because of Christ. The Grace of the Holy Spirit which has descended on the soul springs inexpressible, enchanting light from the heart and from then on the struggler does not need to make any special effort. Because of his long experience, he knows that as soon as he turns towards Christ, He Himself descends like light, like Love, like Eros. Where do then passions fit in? Where is anger or sorrow for worldly things? As soon as Christ dwells in our heart there is no tribulation, passion, devil, slander or temptation which can have even the slightest impact on us.
Apart from Jesus’ prayer- “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”- which bears many fruits, the elder believed that the confessionary way of praying is also very productive and comforting because “we feel what we say and the mind does not wonder simply because it is the one which engages the meanings and forms the words of the prayer” This way causes the wondering mind to stay put.
Because of his continuous struggle and the discriminative force he employs, the struggler gradually realizes that he is unable to win over any passion or to acquire any virtue without the Lord’s Grace. Thus, the existential, ontological and continuous self- blame and self- condemnation is born; these are the result of repentance and humility as well as of divine love. He loved a lot and that is the reason why he was constantly blaming himself. Self-condemnation which poses a real obstacle for every struggler initially- because he comes face to face with the hard shell of pride and haughtiness in his heart- was a constant occurrence for him. He said that it was the result of the practical obedience and the lessons he learnt from his Elder, Joseph the Hesychast. Self- condemnation was granted to his pure and cleansed soul initially as humility and later on as the light of love, so great and so strong that when asked by some of us about the slanders against him which the media recited every now and then he said: “I am not affected my child; I condemn myself more than they do”. Indeed in his teachings, he preferred to talk about the practical effort and self-condemnation, which if enforced definitely and undoubtedly lead to divine Eros and divine blending, rather than resort to descriptions of “spiritual” contemplations which excite the imagination and the haughtiness of the strugglers.
However, he would occasionally give himself away and would reveal his secret experiences. When talking about divine Eros he would say: “I cannot understand this generation. Christ is our life, our love, the centre of our existence. Why don’t we all sinners fall into His arms? He pleads with us. He pleads, do you understand? “Abide with me and I with you”( John 15,4). “Listen! Listen!” He would say in awe. “Christ pleads with us to stay with Him”! And he would go on: “You will never know how much and how long I pray that you experience these words uttered by the Lord: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (John 15, 9). The blessed Elder’s eyes would fill with tears and he wouldn’t go on because he was sobbing but would repeat: “’My children’, Christ said to his Apostles and to us, ‘abide in my love’”.
The act of the confessionary way of praying was often self- condemnatory and an acknowledgment of our absolute weakness, he said, but also a perception of our guilt. Such was the permanent condition and disposition of the bottomless heart of the blessed Elder. Because of the condition of incessant humility he was spiritually wounded; his mourning and spiritual tears would raise him to the height of God’s love and he would attain the status of the heir for his absolute purity. He himself was virtually uneducated. He only attended elementary school up to the second grade. However, the Lord’s light shone so brightly in his soul that he had an absolute experience of what was happening to his spiritual children through the love of the Holy Spirit.
He would often tell me: “Today, my child, while I was working, I had such a strong spiritual perception that such and such spiritual child was suffering that I could not go on working. I left to pray, to plead with God”. The blessed man had reached such high level of love towards God and his brother that those who didn’t know him would ask how such an almost illiterate man could write sixteen spiritual books. The answer is simple: With the Grace of God, derived from the events at Penticost. In the same way the illiterate fishermen of Christ regenerated and transformed the world.
I have been serving at the Holy Altar for sixteen years. Whenever the blessed Elder came to take the Holy Communion, his eyes were filled with tears. He did not take Holy Communion without tears not even once.
The spiritual perception for the love of the Most Holy Lady resided permanently in his heart; he loved her so much that his eyes would fill with tears just by hearing her name.
The Elder’s prayers for the entire suffering world were fervent. He was praying not only for people he knew or didn’t know but also for his slanderers. One morning I saw him worn out with tears brimming in his eyes. I asked him: “What is it Elder and you are so strained?” And he said to me: “Last night, my child, I was praying for many hours. I shed many tears for the one who is slandering me. I pleaded with the Lord to enlighten him and save his soul”.
The blessed man had reached such perfection that he wished to die because of his divine Eros “having a desire to depart and be with Christ”( Philippians 1, 23). Every time I would see him, especially in the last year before his demise, he would say with nostalgia: “I am waiting for the train, my child, but it is running late”.
The blessed Elder died on the 1st of July 2009, and an hour and a half later, he smiled, thus practically sealing the evidence for the Common Resurrection.
The blessed Elder experienced the pleasure and delight of those persecuted and slandered in this life in accordance with “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5, 11). The blessed Elder smiled after his death because he had shed many spiritual tears and cleansed his heart through repentance. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6, 21) said the honest mouth of the One, whom the Elder had loved in a unique way during his lifetime.
What dead person has smiled after his death? But, the Elder did not die, he just went to sleep in accordance with the word of the Lord: “there are some standing here who will not taste death” (Mark 9,1). He went to sleep and the brotherhood was celebrating his resurrection rather than mourning for his death. The Spirit was giving testimony with Its strong presence about the joy that took place in the Heavens. The Lord’s Grace has assured us in a perceptive way that he had enjoyed such perfect level of adoption and boldness towards Christ that he was free to sort out his dead body.
He was the reformer of the Vatopedi Monastery, as Elders Efrem Katounakiotis and Porfyrios Kausokalyvytis had foretold. He had intentionally pursued anonymity, showed patience without protests in the face of slanders and avoided glorification; that is the reason why God had glorified him. He has perceptively asserted the boldness he has acquired towards God, as a genuine son with his father.
His last, everlasting and most recent legacy was the following: “Love one another. If you are united in love, no one will ever be able to harm you”. He possessed and was experiencing a profound view about love. He said: “God does not love, He is love;, His existence is love. Love is the perfection of our personality; it is not an acquired virtue. It is the very same person, Christ. Look inside you and you will acknowledge that when love is missing, you are troubled. There is no personhood without love”. And he continued: “Is it possible for the one who loves to criticize, to admonish, to disobey, to misunderstand? No, since he loves. Therefore, love is a duty; it is an element of our existence. We have a duty to love our enemies and we ought to sacrifice our lives for our brother. Christ Himself has proved this in His earthy life; He did not refer to it in order to encourage us ”.
We have tried, as best as we could, to describe the main aspects of Elder Joseph’s teachings, which constitute his spiritual legacy. The Vatopedi brotherhood, united, is always trying to obey his words. We feel his prayers and rely on them.