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ELDER ISAIAH-IGNATIUS OF ST. NICEPHORUS HERMITAGE
Schemamonk Ignatius was born in 1780 in the Novgorod region in a peasant family, and his name was John. At 18 he felt that he was drawn to give himself to God entirely. Having studied how to read and write he began to seek what God expects from man, and therefore he abandoned the world. He built himself a cell in a lonely spot in his garden: there he read the Holy Scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers, and at the same time, beside praying and fasting, he did handicrafts in order to feed himself. After two years of such a life, John went on a pilgrimage to the Kiev Caves, and from there went to Solovki, in 1798. Having returned, again he settled in his cell and gave himself entirely to spiritual reading.
Then one day he heard of the spiritually experienced Archimandrite of Pesnosha Monastery, Macarius, who was a spiritual giant of great significance for the spiritual revival of Russia. He was a disciple of the blessed Theodore of Sanaxar and a correspondent of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky. Fr. Macarius, in fact, inherited the abbot's staff that belonged to Blessed Paisius. His disciples revived twenty-five previously abandoned monasteries. But before John went to Pesnosha Monastery, he saw to it that his elderly mother would be taken care of. In the Monastery, he asked Archimandrite Macarius to spiritually direct him himself, to which the latter agreed. The spiritual father did not have to encourage zeal in his novice, but on the contrary, to restrain it. Seeing in him capability and a talent for the position, the Archimandrite wanted to tonsure him and make him the treasurer of the monastery. When John heard this he became afraid, knowing how distracting this obedience is, and how it would deprive him of the possibility of concentration, shatter his inward peace and the life of sobriety. So he secretly left the monastery and chose a secluded place deep in the side of a hill and settled there. Soon his brother Theodotus joined him. The hard life in the desert was made more difficult by ascetic labors. But about food they did not have to worry, for it was brought to them by one kind peasant.
In such labors they spent four years. There John acquired much: warm love towards his neighbor, pure concentrated prayer, humbleness, and tears of contrition which at the moment of concentration would pour out of his eyes, giving him exalted consolation. Once when Theodotus was absent, two armed robbers came to him demanding money. They did not believe John when he said that he had none, and that they lived out of charity, and so one of the robbers started aiming his gun at him. Then all of a sudden, by some intuition, John named one by his name, and the robber was so astonished by this that his rifle fell out of his hands. Both of the robbers asked forgiveness of John, and they quickly departed. Since the existence of the recluses became known, visitors began to arrive, shattering their beloved silence, so John decided to flee from that place, and went to Mt. Athos. There in 1818 he was tonsured a monk with the name of Isaiah. On Mt. Athos he was so greatly respected that many people came to him for spiritual advice. In 1821 when the war began between the Turks and the Greeks, and it was no longer peaceful there, the Russian monks began to abandon Mt. Athos. Fr. Isaiah with his brother returned to Russia by way of Vienna, Austria.
In Vienna Fr. Isaiah had a long conversation with three Roman Catholic theologians, who began to ridicule the writings of St. John Climacus and of St. Ephraim the Syrian, saying that they used crude language and were not scholars, and that they themselves could write much better than these. This and other talks showed Fr. Isaiah the spiritual depravity and lack of discernment in their ascetic world-view. Later in his life, while talking to Bishop Ignatius Brian-chaninov, Fr. Isaiah mentioned that the work of Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, was written from abstract opinion and rationalism, but not from spiritual experience. Bishop Ignatius had asked him what he thought of this book, and to read certain passages from it. When he started reading, he burst out laughing and said that the author imagines how things are, and not how they are in reality.
Having arrived in Russia, Fr. Isaiah encountered various complications due to the fact that he had been tonsured on Mt. Athos. He finally settled at Konevits Monastery, and having stayed there for a while, he left to retreat to a deserted cell which was located two miles from the monastery. Once a week he would come to the monastery on foot, to be present at the Divine Liturgy.
He received from God special divine revelations. Thus once, during Liturgy, he saw that the air began to thicken and darken, so to speak, and in the twilight there appeared bright stars which would gradually descend on the heads of some of the people who were present. And here at once he heard a voice: "Upon whom these stars descend, those are worthy to receive Christ's Mysteries."
Due to the ill-will towards him of the Abbot of Konevits, Fr. Isaiah had to leave the holy grounds of St. Arsenius' Monastery. He chose for his desert dwelling a place far away from villages, a place lost in the deep forests — the St. Nicephorus desert in the Olonets region.
This monastery is located seventy miles from Piotrzavodsk, the nearest town. It consisted of two ancient wooden church structures, a log chapel over the relics of Sts. Nicephorus and Gennadius of Vazhe Lake, two small habitable cells, and the kitchen building. The monastery did not possess much land, and even that was not good for cultivation, due to the forest and marshes. Fr. Isaiah installed a coenobitic type of life which he taught the brethren strictly to observe. Since there were few brothers, with no priest among them, a village priest sometimes was summoned to celebrate the service, that is, until Fr. Isaiah's brother Theodotus was ordained a priest. The church services were performed in full and unhurriedly. All monastery labors were done by the brethren themselves. Fr. Isaiah labored together with everybody else — he chopped wood, carried water, worked in the kitchen, and during the summer he worked in the vegetable garden and cut hay. All this encouraged the brethren towards physical labors. But even more unfailing was his care for the spiritual well-being of the brethren. In spite of his failing strength, Fr. Isaiah continued the same ascetic type of life. His cell was a half-earthen one, uncomfortable for living. But he would not agree to change to a better one, and he would say, "If earthly life is not eternal, then why worry about its comfort?"
He would always teach his disciples about spiritual life, and his teaching, although exalted, came from a heart filled with love and humbleness. This virtue in him was especially well developed. Two of his disciples who had degrees in theology, having met Fr. Isaiah in Konevits, begged the Metropolitan to send them to the wilds with Fr. Isaiah in the St. Nicephorus desert. His labors he called insignificant; all hope of salvation he placed on our Savior, about Whose sufferings he always talked while shedding warm tears. About pride he would say the following: "Yes, I am a pig; yes, I am a third satan" (a rhyme in Russian) — "a pig because of stupidity, and satan because of pride. These are the friends of a proud person."
With everyone the Elder behaved as a simple monk, not allowing anyone to notice his virtues, yet unwillingly attracting human hearts to himself. His humbleness began to bear spiritual gifts and visions. Once he revealed about himself the following: To a monk who asked him whether it is true that some pious people see their own souls while still alive, he said: "Once when I was sitting in my cell and my mind was occupied with thoughts of God, and from my eyes tears were streaming down, suddenly I came into a sort of ecstasy, my soul saw the immaterial Light, and at the same time it saw itself, as if made up of light, and the body as if dead; and it came out already from this body."
In 1846 the Procurator of the Holy Synod, having heard much about Fr. Isaiah, called him to Petersburg. Here many sought acquaintance with Fr. Isaiah and were astonished at his unpretentious wisdom.
Noiov, a well-known pilgrim to holy places, showing Fr. Isaiah his own library said: "See, elder, I occupy myself by translating profitable books from various languages into Russian." But the elder answered him, "But do you read your own book, which it is more important to be read?" Noiov thought for a minute and then said, "During my life I have had opportunities to speak to many people, but none of them has said this to me. The simple elder reminded me of the most important thing in life."
Another time, being in the company of influential persons, Elder Isaiah remarked to them, "I can't understand; why do you speak with me with such intensity, while I cannot even talk on your level?" They answered him as follows: "Many important educated people come to us, but we see that the larger part of them strives either to please us or to show off their better side, while in you we see nothing similar. On the contrary, in you we see only humbleness and sincere goodwill, and for this reason we speak with you with great interest and find benefit in it for ourselves."
During his stay in St. Petersburg, Elder Isaiah was able to obtain an independent status for his St. Nicephorus Hermitage, which previously had been a dependency of the St. Alexander of Svir Monastery.
In 1849, Fr. Isaiah was tonsured to the schema with the name of Ignatius. The last years of his life Fr. Ignatius dedicated especially to preparing himself for eternity. He was forewarned from above about the time of his death. Every Sunday the elder approached for Holy Communion, always with tears streaming down his cheeks. During Great Lent of 1852 he said: "My end is close; but according to the mercy of God I shall continue to be on my feet until my departure from this life."
Several times Fr. Ignatius was heard by several of the brethren to say to one young peasant: "See, Peter, we often converse with each other, and will both die at the same time." "No, Batiushka, I should die earlier than you so that you can pray for me here," answered Peter. In the spring of 1852 the brother of this Peter came from a village 250 miles away with the sad news that Peter had died, and on his deathbed he had requested that Fr. Ignatius be told about this at once. Then Fr. Ignatius said, "Peter died, so the time has come for me to die also." On the very next Sunday the elder died.
On that Sunday, April 20, 1852, the third week after Pascha, the elder received communion and with an especial concentration would glance at the icons. Despite his weakness he attended the common meal at the request of the brethren, but ate almost nothing. When at two o'clock several of the brethren came to him, he said: "Light the lampada before the icons. I am dying. Glory be to Thee, 0 Lord!"
The brethren with fear began to weep. The elder sat quietly in absolute contemplation. The clock struck three o'clock — the ninth hour according to the liturgical day, the hour in which the crucified Christ died. "Perhaps at this very hour," thought one brother, "the elder's soul will depart to God." Perceiving this thought, the elder turned to that brother and looked at him with a long, loving glance. And so, in a few moments, the soul of the elder departed to God. He was then 72 years of age.
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