21 February 2011
Monk Joseph the Silent
by Archpriest Nicholas Masich
A Cossack of the Kuban Army, Temizhbek "stanitsa,"* Simeon F., was called to the colors in the year 1860. After completing his period of service and upon his return home, he found his wife with an illegitamate child. His wife's unfaithfulness terribly saddened Simeon. He suffered, and to forget and comfort himself, he began to attend church regularly and to go to the nearest monastery, known in the region as the Obvolsk Hermitage.
Simeon's piety became a true labor: infallible attendance of church services, long prayers at home, strict moderation in food, in words, and in sleep. "Thus, sometimes passing circumstances lead to virtue, when one does not wish to approach the good through free inclination."
Being semi-literate, he educated himself through constant reading of the Bible and spiritual books.
Once, in summer, when the sheaves were being transferred from the fields, Simeon was walking alongside his cart of hay pulled by oxen, when suddenly the oxen bolted aside in fright. Simeon quickly removed his hat and falling on his knees wept with joy. His two younger brothers jumped off their carts behind him and ran up to him. He removed their fears but did not explain what had happened to him. Later it became clear that the Most Holy Mother of God had appeared to him and had told him to renounce the world and bear the labor of silence. Upon his return from the fields, Simeon did not eat his supper, but without a word shouldered his bag, took a staff into his hand, prayed before the icons, bowed at the feet of his mother, his wife, all of his brothers, sisters and children, and left the house never to return.
His family thought that he had gone to the monastery to prepare for the reception of Holy Communion, and a few day later they went there. At the monastery they were told that Simeon had been there, had taken Communion, and had left for some unknown destination. The priest of the monastery, however, revealed to them that Simeon had told him during his confession of the heavenly vision and of the Mother of God's command that he leave the world and observe silence as a pilgrim. Never again did his family see him.
After having pilgrimaged to numerous Russian monasteries, Simeon reached the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. In one of the monasteries there he was tonsured a monk, receiving the name Joseph. Observing silence, he lived on Mount Athos in labor and prayer for nearly forty years. In the spring or 1914, two young monks were sent from Athos to the Caucasus for alms, and Fr. Joseph, being a native of the Caucasus, was sent with them in the capacity of guide. The great war which commenced that summer cut off the route for the Athonites to return to their monastery in Greece, and so they remained in the Temizhbek stanitsa, Father Joseph's homeland. Father Joseph himself, however, settled in a mountain cave on the right bank of the Kuban River, about a verst from the stanitsa. He enlarged the cave and furnished it: there was an earthen bed, and an earthen table and sets, with a corner table in the holy corner covered with icons and an ever-burning vigil light. Soon all the inhabitants of Temizhbek and neighboring stanitsas heard of the ascetic elder Joseph and did their best to show their consideration by respect and material aid. Among the people he became known as a mute, but not one who was deaf; by motioning his head and hands he replied to the people who spoke to him.
During the 1918 civil war the stanitsa authorities, both the Reds and the Whites, appointed lookouts to observe the old man. The fact was that the stanitsa would change hands tens of times from the Red detachments to the Whites and vice versa. A day or two before a change in the stanitsa authorities, Elder Joseph would inevitably appear in the yard of the stanitsa administration and fix a flag on the gates -- a white one if the stanitsa was going to fall to the Whites, and a red one if the Reds were going to capture it and the Whites forced out. The heads of the stanitsa under the Whites and the commisars under the bolsheviks acknowoledged that the elder was a military barometer and dared not to show anger towards him.
After 49 years of silence, the elder Joseph spoke. This happened in 1920. One holiday the elder was going to vespers. On the road he met a youth who bowed to him respectfully. The elder bowed to him in return and then suddenly asked, "What's your name, Sonny?" "Basil," replied the youth. Then the elder removed his hat and said, "May the Lord give rest the soul of the servant of God Basil!" Some women who were sitting nearby asked Basil, "What did the elder say to you?" The youth replied and went on his way down the street to a group of young people. A quarrel arose there among the street youths and Basil was knifed to death on the spot. In the meantime the old man was crying out in the church, "May the Lord give rest to the soul of the servant of God Basil!" This foretelling completely convinced the populace that Father Joseph had the gift of clairvoyance from God and also that now God had evidently willed him to speak and not keep silent.
Now Father Joseph began to walk frequently along the streets with all kinds of foretellings, as the inhabitants noted. Leaning on his staff, but skipping along like a child, he would occasionally walk up to some house and whispering a prayer would make the sign of the cross over the house and its yard. At other times he would write the symbol of the cross on the wall or gates with his staff. The people were convinced that his visits and his signs held a prophetical meaning.
Cossack Alexei Ivanovich R. told me the following: "One summer day our family sat down to a meal. Through the window I saw that Father Joseph was coming up to the yard, whispering something and making the sign of the cross over the yard. I sent my eldest son Stephen -- I had three sons already married and with children - telling him to go quickly and invite the elder and bring him to sup. He went right away but returned alone and told us that the elder had declined but that he said, 'I'll come early in the morning tomorrow, not today!' then he made a small cross from some straw and put it on our gate. I chided Stephen that he couldn't entice the elder to sup. After the meal everyone in the family became occupied with his work. In the evening our three cows and a bull came from the herds. Stephen's wife went to milk the cows. The bull attacked her and disemboweled her, killing her on the spot. We spent the night in deep grief, prepared the dead woman for burial, read the Psalter, wept, and prayed. Early in the morning Father Joseph, leaning on his staff, entered straight into our house. With tears in my eyes I met him saying, "Old Man, why didn't you tell us straight away that trouble was coming to us?" Sadly he replied, "Oh, my dear ones, you want it to be put in your mouths... Ask the Lord..."
Many nuns from the former monasteries, the Stravropol and Lyebyashei Hermitage on the Kuban, at that time closed by the bolshevicks, lived in the stanitsa. One elder-nun of very strict life wanted to check how Father Joseph lived, and tried to enter his cave secretly -- unexpectedly, without uttering the prayer for entrance. But suddenly at the entrance of the cave snakes slithered out, hissing at her. Being frightened, she cried out, and from the cave Father Joseph called out, "What, have my dogs frightened you? So, don't poke into here without a prayer. Now you may go, don't fear..." She became convinced of his holiness. The snakes retreated into their holes which now became visible to her.
In 1923 the "renovationists" seized all the churches. Father Joseph stopped going to them. The following year the "Tikhonites" obtained with much difficulty a church. Father Joseph passed by the old large church to pray in the small "Tikhonite" church. One Saturday the "renovationist" clergy -- there were three priests, two deacons, and two readers -- decided to entice Father Joseph to their church and sent their young, bold deacon, who had the same surname as Father Joseph, as though he were a relative. The deacon stood outside the church gates on the street and, seeing Father Joseph passing by, went up to him, respectfully bowed to him and began inviting him to enter their church. But the old man declined, shaking his head, and tried to sidestep the deacon. The latter. however, took the elder's arm and, saying kindly words, led him into the church yard. In the yard were many who had come for the vepser service. The elder pretended to have agreed to enter the church, freed his arm from the deacon, entered the yard, and laid down on the ground on his back, raised his feet into the air, and shouted, "I won't go to the Antichrist!... God the Holy Spirit has left you!... All the pigeons have flown away..." The deacon ran up to Father Joseph and helped him up, led him out of the church yard, asked to be forgiven, and shamefacedly returned to his fellow clergy. Next morning at the liturgy there were fewer people at the "renovationist" church, while the "Tikhonite" church was filled to overflowing. Everyone noticed that the pigeons on the "renovationist" church disappeared, while the "Tikhonites" had a whole mass of pigeons. The young deacon, Boris F., repented and crossed over to the "Tikhonite" church, and a year later the "renovationist" church remained with but a single priest and one reader who had nothing to do because the people went to pray in the "Tikhonite" church.
Around 1924 Father Joseph became frail with age. Two nuns then invited him to stay with them. Father consented and moved into their home. People thirsting for consolation, instruction, and prayer began to come to him from far-surrounding districts. Elder Joseph received his visitors sitting on a chair facing the icons, with his back to the people entering and leaving. Not seeing the visitors, he kept speaking uninterruptedly what seemed incoherent utterances, but it turned out that he was giving advice, instructions, and disclosures to all the visitors, every now and then concluding with "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Often Father would speak in rhythm.
During the so-called "food taxation," the bolshevicks made terrible deprivations of wheat and cattle from the people. These robbed people came in panic to Father Joseph who, sitting with his back to the entrance, with his face to the icons, knew through the spirit why they had come and told them, "In troubles don't be despondent, for there is the Lord to depend upon." "The sleighs are made to suit us." "Patience is an easy way to salvation." "people are evil but the Lord is merciful." He often sang in his old doleful voice, "The Lord has given us the Cross as a weapon against the devil," and so on. "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes."
Cossack Gregory Stepanovich K. recounted that "one evening I was driving home from the neighboring stanitsa past a government owned forest. I noticed that there were several bundles of firewood. I drove up to them and quickly filled the wagon with wood and took it hone with me. Having piled it in the shed, I washed and went to see Father Joseph whom I repsected like my own father. There were about ten people in the first room. Father Joseph sat in the front corner facing the icons and was as usual saying something unintelligible. It was quiet and I held my breath, listening. Father Joseph was saying, 'What a sin! ... Driving past the forest... I saw the firewood. The wood is government-owned. I'll take a wagon-full; it will come in handy during the winter. Took it. Brought it home. What a temptation. And how sinful!'... people were whispering, 'Can't make out a thing ...' Father Joseph started saying something else, perhaps about someone else, but I began to feel ashamed and frightened, and I whispered to my neighbor, 'I understand it all, brothers. The elder said it about me ... I'll go home now and repent, ask God's forgiveness ...'"
One pious woman with tears told of the following incident: "Prior to our first-born son Ivan's marriage, I went with my husband to Father Joseph to tell of our joy and ask him for prayers and a blessing for the coming marriage. Several people stood in the old man's room. We also stood quietly. A few minutes later we heard Father Joseph saying, 'Little children eat their parents' bread while grown children eat their parents' hears out ... ' and then at length in a sing-song, 'Oh Vanya, Vanya, he'll dupe you bitterly ...' The elder's prophecy came true. Soon after his marriage, our son moved out of our house with his wife to another abode and became such a horrible activist-communist, that on accunt of him many people cried and groaned and were deported, while we with my husband felt pained, ashamed, and terrified ..."
Another servant of God. Efimiya, recounted the following: "My two daughters were preparing for marriage. Before the Feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, with my husband we bought new colothes for them in town, and returning through the Temizhbek stanitsa, stopped there to feed the horses and visit Father Joseph. As usual he was sitting facing the icons, and as soon as we entered, he suddenly began to lament 'Himushka, Himushka, two flies will you get, it will be difficult for you ... Be strong, take courage, and grasp the Lord's robe ... Patience is salvation without labor ... ' We decided with my husband that it seemed as though both of our daughters would marry and that this would be for us two painful flies. But it turned out differently than we had decided. Upon or return home, we handed our daughters the newly bought dresses, sharing the joy with them, and they took their clothes to the upper room, each putting them away in her trunk. Happily we went to bed. Waking up in the morning we saw that the window was open in that room and that all the goods were stolen from the daughters' trunks. We ran to the militia where the captain was our relative. He concluded right away, 'This theft was committed by Kosoi's band which lives in the Orekh valley and was in the stanitsa last night for supplies.' The captain took with him two more militia men and my husband, all armed themselves with rifles and headed for the valley in a small cart. They never returned. The bandits killed all four, took the horses and cart, and roamed on to another place ... And so I received two bitter flies -- our daughters' dowries were stolen and we lost our husband and father. From grief I almost lost my mind. Only God, through the prayers of Father, helped me to live through this grief. A year later both of my daughters were married and I became closer to the church and give thanks to the Lord for His mercy sent to me in the form of that grief ..."
Cossack Feodor Salyutin recounted the following episode. "In spring a pair of my oxen disappeared from the field. Whether the bandits who were terrorizing the region at that time had taken off with them, or whether thieves had led them away, or whether they themselves having become untied walked off somewhere -- it was a mystery to me. I couldn't understand it. Atop a horse I rode around the fields for tens of miles. I went towards the Caucasus stanitsa in a carriage. There on the carriage I sat turning round and round like a top, inspecting the surrounding stepppes. hoping to catch sight of the oxen. I left the stanitsa several miles back and came abreast with the Obvolsk Monastery. suddenly from behind a hill on the monastery side Father appeared. I stopped and waited, removing my hat. Father came towards me. He was calling from the distance, 'Feodor, why the pouting lips?' I replied, 'Trouble has befallen me, Father. Oxen have disappeared from the grazing fields. Pray, Father, that they be found.' 'Pray yourself and look with your eyes. . .', he said and pointed with his hand to the rear from where I had ridden. I looked and saw my oxen standing in the distance beside the road. From joy I grabbed Father in my arms, put him in my carriage, and headed back at a trot. Father was crossing himself and laughing. The oxen were standing near the road and drinking from a puddle. With unconcealed tears of joy and gratitude to God and to the holy old man, I tied the oxen to the carriage and brought them home, after which I drove Father back to the home of the sisters, where he lived."
The "staretz" monk Joseph died in 1925 on the Feast of Our Lady of Kazan. The burial took polace on October 25 by the old style. Many ecclesiastics and thousands of people assembled from outlying stanitsas and towns for the burial. Local bolsheviks did not interfere with Father's solemn funeral. He was buried in the common stanitsa cemetery. Three years later I was transfered to serve in this stanitsa. My parish had a large population, and each week we had two or three burials with bearing to the cemetery, and each time people asked me to serve a panikhida at Father's grave for the ever-memorable monk Joseph.
I compiled his life from the words of living witnesses who revered him, but in 1931 when I was arrested, he GPU confiscated the notebook with other materials and it was never returned.
Orthodox Life 1969