Schemamonk George from the Old Russikon, a Disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast

Schemamonk George was a little-known ascetic, laboring in asceticism on Mt. Athos for twenty years. He was a disciple of the great Elder Joseph the Hesychast and greatly beloved by his whole brotherhood. Fr. George reposed in the Lord on September 8/21, 1972.

    

Strictly, precisely, laboriously, and zealously following the tradition
of our fathers, truly blessed George attained perfection;
he is a triumph of Orthodoxy and the praise of Athos
Elder Joseph of Vatopedi († 2009)

Monk George went to see Elder Joseph one day for spiritual advice. He was a Serb by nationality and did not know Greek very well. Choosing his words with difficulty, George told about how when he had lived in the world and studied at the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, such abundant Divine grace visited him that he left everything and went to be a monk. But now, in such a blessed place, on Athos, where George had gone for the sake of greater knowledge of God, the feeling of grace had completely stopped, and therefore it seemed to him that it had left him. Fr. George had already begun to contemplate leaving for Paris again, thinking that grace would return to him there where it had first come to him.

Elder Joseph answered slowly, taking a big pause between words for George to understand more easily. The elder explained that everything was as it should be, that grace always acts this way with those who are heading for spiritual perfection. “Grace did not leave, and it has not waned, and it never will wane, because the Divine gifts are immutable,” (cf. Rm. 11:29) the elder said. “You do not feel grace, but it remains in you as before, only it is not obvious to your senses now, but as energy. Divine grace always manifests itself in two ways: The first we call energy, and the second—feeling.

“Grace always abides in believers as energy, because without grace, no one would even be able to believe. But grace manifests as a sensation when it wants to help someone who is tired and exhausted in the spiritual battle, or he is threatened with some kind of spiritual danger.

“You were inexperienced then, knowing nothing of the spiritual life, and grace came to you clearly in its fullness and opened its mysteries in order to attract you to the spiritual life, to teach and give you strength to renounce the worldly life and to correctly use God’s gift.

“Grace helped you to do everything correctly. Now you have ascended to the first step—renunciation and wandering. Now the feeling of grace has receded for you to begin obedience to the Divine will and that by your own labor and fidelity you would be deserving of grace. This is why you do not feel grace right now as you did earlier when it called you.”

After speaking with Elder Joseph, George remained in his brotherhood and no longer thought about returning to France. It was 1959, with only a few months remaining until the elder’s death. Elder Joseph the Hesychast lived in the Annunciation kelli[1] in New Skete at that time. Fr. George resettled in a small kalyvia[2] given him by one of the monks of the brotherhood—also Joseph, nicknamed “the Younger,” later the spiritual father of Vatopedi Monastery. Fr. Joseph “the Younger” recalls that he had a lot to learn from Fr. George: He had passionate spiritual zeal, strict attention to himself, and carefully kept the monastic rule. Another monk of the brotherhood, now Archimandrite Ephraim of Arizona, told about how the brothers greatly loved George for his openness, his ascetic spirit, and his obedience. He was also distinguished by exceptional physical strength: He could take three bags of cement and carry them from the pier at New Skete to the kelli above up a steep path. “And he smiled with great kindness,” Elder Ephraim recalls.

Monk George, Banko Vitkovic in the world, was born in a small Serbian village in 1920. He graduated high school with honors, and then the institute for military engineers. He was taken prisoner at the beginning of the Second World War and sent to Italy, from where he fled to France. After the war, he studied mechanical and electrical engineering in Munich and theology at the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. Having decided to dedicate himself to monasticism, Branko Viktovic went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1954, where he became a novice in the Lavra of St. Savva the Sanctified. From there he went to Athos, to the Serbian monastery of Hilandar. After a while, Monk George left the cenobitic Hilandar in search of solitude, and resettled in the Old, or as it is also called, the “Mountainous” Russikon, belonging to the Russian St. Panteleimon’s Monastery. According to Archimandrite Ioannicius (Kotsonis), the author of The Athonite Paterikon, Fr. George was a very educated man, knew several languages, and before secluding himself in the Old Russikon, he bore the obedience of librarian in the monastery of the holy Great Martyr Panteleimon. In the Old Russikon he began to fulfill the obedience of watchman, maintained the inextinguishable lampada in the church in the tower where St. Sava the Serbian had received the monastic tonsure, and soon he was clothed in the great schema. From there he went to Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s community.

Fr. George had the opportunity to live near Elder Joseph for only six months. In the last days of the earthly life of this great ascetic, George was always with him, trying to alleviate his illness. When Elder Joseph especially suffered from asphyxiation, Fr. George fanned him with a large piece of cardboard. After the elder’s repose, he participated in his funeral.

There were few monks in the Russian St. Panteleimon’s Monastery at that time, and the care of the extensive monastery property required people. The Russian monks began to search for their caretaker. When George found out that the fathers of the Russikon were insisting upon his return, he didn’t know what to do. The fathers of the brotherhood advised him to return to the Old Russikon. “Render obedience,” Fr. Joseph “the Younger” told Fr. George, “and you will receive a reward from God.” Before leaving, Fr. George went to the elder’s grave, embraced the cross and said, “If our elder was alive, I would never leave.”

    

In the Old Russikon, practically abandoned and gradually decaying at that time, Fr. George lived in complete solitude, spending his time in prayer and fasting. He never ate fresh bread, only rusks or a warm flour-water mixture. His handiwork was making brooms, which he would trade for the rusks. Greatly loving nature, Fr. George spent all his days in his cell, that impressions from the beauty of nature would not occupy his heart and not disturb his prayer. Only at night would he leave his cell and keep his prayerful vigil according to the rule of his teacher Elder Joseph the Hesychast under the open sky—even in winter when it was very cold in the Old Russikon, standing rather high above sea level. He greatly loved nighttime prayer. The mysterious silence of the night helped his contemplation.

For Fr. George, the patience of an injury was another ascetic deed, taming the carnal movements and liberating his spirit. While studying in Europe he had gotten into a car accident and injured his leg. Although the wounds healed, they had to be treated all the same, but Fr. George didn’t take care of it but patiently endured the pain, bandaging his legs with rags that he happened to have on hand. Another challenge for Fr. George was inflamed tonsils. Sometimes he had such a swollen neck from it that he couldn’t speak. Fr. George endured these good-naturedly, leaving them untreated.

Asceticism is never an end in itself for Christian ascetics. Fr. George sacrificed his health and even the smallest daily comforts for the sake of Divine grace, which is impossible to acquire and sustain without ascetic struggles. Constantly sick, in abject poverty, having renounced every joy from the items of this world, Fr. George always rejoiced with spiritual joy, welcoming guests with the Paschal “Christ is Risen.” “We are children of the Resurrection,” Fr. George loved to say, “It is impossible for us monks to live or be saved without Paschal joy.”

In his book The Athonite Paterikon, Archimandrite Ioannicius (Kotsonis), having personally spoken with Fr. George, wrote of him that he is a “learned man and a practitioner of mental prayer and sobriety,” who walked “with his staff of asceticism and prayer rope, with eyes gazing inward, silently praying.” Fr. George would say, “The spiritual life is constant abiding in God: Abide in me, and I in you (Jn. 15:4). No man can be considered a theologian without an understanding of apophatic theology.[3] The Church’s dogmatic truths must be lived, known by experience. For this you must accomplish your own personal Pascha, your Passover. Ignoti nulla cupido—one does not desire what one does not know. If we do not come to know God, we will not acquire Him. The knowledge of God is the vision and contemplation of Him. Seeing God is seeing His depths…[4]

“It is impossible for us to participate in the essence of God, but we can commune of His energies.[5] We can access the glory that emanates from the essence of God. Being enlightened by the glory of God, we become able to see human souls, to understand difficult passages in Holy Scripture, to acquire perfect understanding, and to understand everything…[6]

“Worldly thoughts and generally everything worldly dissipate our minds, making us external, decrepit people. Who can describe the joy of union with God? It is joy unspeakable, it is ‘Christ is Risen’ for our entire lives…

“The best prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’”

The abbot of the Monastery of the Paraclete not far from Athens, Archimandrite Timothy, met Fr. George two days before his repose and spoke with him at length: “Fr. George spoke animatedly; his words were very deep and based on experience. He wanted to express everything, to tell about all of his spiritual experiences, and to reveal all the treasures of his heart. It was as if he foreknew that it was his final conversation. We didn’t notice how the time passed. It was already midnight, but Fr. George constantly moved from one topic to another, and the whole time his old, worn prayer rope was ceaselessly moving in his left hand…”

    

He would say, “Our first tentative steps towards the heights of the spiritual life are: a) freedom from the passions, vices, weaknesses, and the like; b) abandonment of judging in words and thoughts; c) abandonment of desire for worldly things (riches, glory, honor, etc.); and d) a completely peaceful conscience.

“All of the above are a necessary condition, foundation, and preparation for great labors. A man of God desires neither the blessed life, nor eve Paradise, but only the glory of God. He is ready for any sacrifice for God’s sake. He has ceased living for himself, but lives for God and for others. In his love, he desires that all would be enlightened and saved, and feels the need to share his experience with others…”

Schemamonk George departed to the Lord on September 8/21, 1972. His death was excruciating: He died from poisonous mushrooms. They buried Fr. George in the kelli in the Old Russikon where he had labored. The funeral was celebrated by an elderly hieromonk from St. Panteleimon’s Monastery. Among Fr. George’s belongings they found only a wooden cross, a few rusks, a packet of mountain tea, and an old, tattered riassa, which they used to wrap his body for burial. And as so often happens when sending off holy people, all who had come to give the departed a final kiss felt joy as if it were Pascha.


[1] A kind of monastic agricultural dwelling, each inhabited by a monk who is termed the elder and is familiar with the monastic life, which he has lived as a brother of one of the ruling monasteries.

[2] Sacred places belonging to the ruling monasteries in which one monk, usually, lives the monastic life, dependent upon the charity of the monasteries and the fruits of the earth.

[3] “Our path is the path of apophatic asceticism through our ‘exhaustion’ in pursuit of Christ, who depleted Himself even unto the death on the Cross” (cf. Phil. 2:5-9).—Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), On Prayer.  

[4] But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10).

[5] “We do not know the Essence of God, but we can have experiential knowledge of the Divine way of being.”—St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads.

[6] That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ (Col. 2:2). 

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