When Letters of a Valaam Elder was first published in Finland in 1956, it immediately found an audience. Its publication in various languages and other countries followed soon thereafter. One review from an Argentinian reader said the most important thing in the book is the Valaam elder’s personality itself. The author of these Letters was Schema-Abbot John (Alexeev).
Schema-Abbot John (Alexeev) John Alexeev was born on February 14, 1873 in the village of Gubka in the Tver Governorate. His parents were peasants, and according to his memories, were “exemplary people.” His father wove sandals and his mother sewed. John also had two brothers and sisters. As the family lived in poverty, the older brother grew up and went to St. Petersburg where he opened an inn.
The Alexeev children, the Elder recalled, were taught to read and write by a tailor who sewed fur coats for peasant families. Having learned to read, John bought several little books of the lives of the saints and began to read them. Although he himself wrote that he was illiterate and “did not study in school,” Ivan is listed in Valaam documents as having graduated from the parish school in the village of Ilinskoe.
The Elder also recalled that in his childhood he had a “friend of like mind” with whom he discussed the lives of the saints and went on pilgrimage to several remote monasteries, including going on foot to the St. Nil of Stolobny Hermitage. John also went on pilgrimages with his parents.
He later moved in with his older brother in St. Petersburg and helped him at the inn. He bought himself spiritual books with the money he earned and spent all his free time reading. He didn’t live with his brother for very long, and at the first opportunity, he went with some people passing through to Konevsky Monastery, although he didn’t like it there, and from Konevets he went immediately to Valaam.
John was sixteen when he arrived at Valaam Monastery and decided to stay there. He was sent on obedience to the Skete of St. Herman of Valaam. There he did farming and took care of the livestock, which he was accustomed to since his childhood, and also carried out obediences in the shoemaker’s shop and baked prosphora in the bakery. The youth spent four years in the skete, after which he was called up for military service. Having served his four years in the infantry, John returned home, where he lived about two years with his father. After that, on May 28, 1901, he returned to Valaam and remained in the monastery forever. After that, as he himself says, John “never had the thought of returning to the world.”
Soon after arriving at Valaam, John was sent to the dependency on Kalashnikov Street in St. Petersburg, where he bore obedience in the Valaam chapel on the Sinop embankment. The hustle and bustle and populousness of St. Petersburg was oppressive on the young novice, but he spent no less than two years at this obedience.
John was tonsured into monasticism in June 1910 with the name Hyacinth and, after numerous requests, was transferred to Valaam’s St. Elijah Skete, located on a separate island. He fulfilled the duties of a psalmist there for three and a half years. After the skete, Hyacinth was sent on obedience to the trapeza at the Valaam Monastery hotel. Then he was again sent to the St. Herman Skete as a psalmist.
The next transfer was more pleasing to the young monk’s soul—they sent him to the Skete of St. John the Forerunner. The severity of the ascetic life in this skete and the presence of spirit-earing elders, under whose guidance he spent six whole years, especially attracted Hyacinth.
St. Tryphon of Pechenga Monastery
The next transfer was completely unexpected for Fr. Hyacinth—on October 19, 1921, he was appointed abbot of the Holy Trinity-St. Tryphon of Pechenga Monastery. It was even more surprising for Hyacinth as at that point he wasn’t even a priest, but only a simple monk, although this was followed quickly by his ordination—on November 13 as a hierodeacon, and two days later as a hieromonk; and on December 11 that year he was raised to the rank of igumen. On December 30, 1921, Hyacinth took up the post of abbot of the Pechenga Monastery.
Nevertheless, although he was surprised, Fr. Hyacinth received his appointment very calmly. He himself noted some unusual changes that took place within himself. For example, being naturally timid, as he himself confessed, he used to not even go to Vigil by the Gospel, because his legs would give out from nervousness and he was afraid he’d fall. However, with his appointment as abbot, in place of this fear suddenly came tears, which he himself recalled with tender emotion.
At that time, the St. Tryphon of Pechenga Monastery was in a state of devastation at the hands of the godless soviet authorities. In fact, the new abbot was supposed to begin the restoration of the monastery. Fr. Hyacinth took up his post with an address to the brothers in which he apologized in advance for his possible mistakes due to his lack of experience and called for peace and understanding between the brethren as the basis of the monastic life in the monastery.
Return to Valaam
Abbot Hyacinth spent ten years in Pechenga Monastery. That whole time he was painfully aware of the great difference between life in this monastery and in Valaam and he missed his native monastery. His request to return to Valaam was granted, and in the spring of 1932, Fr. Hyacinth returned to Valaam, so dear to his heart. He was immediately sent to his native St. John the Forerunner Skete. On May 8, 1933, Fr. Hyacinth took the schema with the name John.1
Life in the Forerunner Skete agreed with Schema-Abbot John; he liked it and its seclusion. He joyfully recalled how one time he even had a chance to celebrate the feast of the Lord’s Pascha alone. However, the decrease in the number of hermits in the skete made it impossible for Fr. John to continue living there, and in 1937 he was forced to return to the main monastery, where he was appointed the confessor of the monastery.
1940 was a fateful year for Valaam Monastery, when the Valaam Archipelago passed to the USSR as a result of the Soviet-Finnish War, which threatened the monastery with closure. Therefore, the brothers of Valaam Monastery, including Schema-Abbot John, were forced to relocate to Finland. There, in Papinniemi, on the banks of Lake Joujarvi, they founded a new monastery named New Valaam. The history of the founding of this monastery is interesting and the choice of place was not accidental. When the abbot with part of the brotherhood examined the estates for sale, they saw an icon of Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam on the wall of the building of one of them, which was perceived by them as a sure sign that the monks should move there.
Fr. John’s main obedience at New Valaam was as confessor. Until the end of his days, as long as he had the strength, he also did other obediences with the brothers on the farm, working in the field and chopping wood. In his free time, Schema-Abbot John carried on an extensive correspondence with his spiritual children who were, as a rule, Russian emigrants, scattered to the ends of the earth. There were also many nuns from Pukhtitsa Monastery2 among his spiritual daughters, to whom he had begun to spiritually minister while at Valaam.
The burial of the Elder
Fr. John’s strength gradually left him; his feet hurt very much in his last years and he greatly suffered from the dropsy and a hernia. From November 1957, the Elder was in a nursing home in Heinävesi. A few months later he returned to New Valaam, which he had greatly missed. He reposed in the monastery on June 6 (or 5 according to other sources), 1958. During his lifetime, Schema-Abbot John was modest and loved silence. As several witnesses recalled, his burial was just as modest. The Elder was buried in the New Valaam cemetery.
On November 29, 2018, Schema-Abbot John (Alexeev) was glorified among the saints by the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople upon recommendation of the Finnish Orthodox Church.
Letters of a Valaam Elder
Among the spiritual children of Elder John were both simple and highly educated people, varied in their social status and spiritual dispensation, and he found an approach and the necessary words for all of them. He himself was sometimes amazed how he, not having a sufficient education, could write to intelligent and highly educated people. “Sometimes a thought disturbs me: ‘Why do I, who am illiterate, correspond with the educated?’” Fr. John wrote. In signing his letters, he always called himself “Your partner in prayer,” but never “Elder.” He also loved to sign, “Arch-sinner Schema-Abbot John,” calling himself “spiritually lame in both legs.”
The artist Inna Colliander and the author Tito Colliander played a special role in the publishing of Fr. John’s letters. It was Tito who proposed that Schema-Abbot John publish his letters, and who undertook to edit them. Before that, several letters, translated into Finnish, were already published in the 1950s in the journal Aamun Koitto. The Elder suggested calling the collection, Letters on the Spiritual Life. Tito suggested a different name: Letters of a Valaam Elder. Fr. John agreed to that title.
In 1956, a small collection in the Russian language was first published in Helsinki. Then it was translated into several foreign languages and consistently received good reader reviews. The sole purpose for publishing Schema-Abbot John’s letters was the spiritual benefit of the readers, and not personal glory.
From the Letters of a Valaam Elder
Schema-Abbot John The spiritual life is like bodily growth: The man himself doesn’t notice it. However, a sign of spirituality is … when someone sees his sins like the sand of the sea. In this is the health of the soul.
If you strictly look after yourself, you will truly see yourself as worse than all, then those praising you won’t hurt you; because people only look at a person’s external appearance, but inwardly they do not know him.
We should strive for virtue as far as our strength will allow, but to stand firm in virtue is not within our power, but within the Lord’s, and the Lord preserves us not for our labors, but for humility.
There is no such commandment to demand love and a proper life from others. Let those who are appointed by Divine providence take care of others.
Sin is never satisfied; the more you feed it, the more food it requires.
There are two benefits from sorrow: The first is zeal for God and gratitude from the whole heart; the second is that it delivers from vain cares and worries.
Without prayer, life will be filled with much sighing, but when you acquire the skill of prayer, the heart will rejoice and be at peace—a blessed state.
The labor should be ours, but success depends on grace; grace is given not for labors but for humility—as much as a man humbles himself, so much does grace come.
If you find someone of the same spirit, then talk and consult with him—this is the best method in our time. An inexperienced leader can only harm the spiritual cause—there were many such cases in former times and in ours.
It is most useful to see everyone as good, and yourself as worse than all.
If you happen to falter in virtue—do not tremble, for our nature is very changeable. Only angels inherently stand invariably in virtue.
The spiritual life is like a tree, the Holy Fathers say: Without leaves—that is, without labors—there will be no fruit, and, a tree without fruit is hewn down.
We must work towards pleasing God according to our own free will, then grace will help us. But if we do not labor, then the grace of God will not help; our labor and the grace of God go together.
Although it’s somewhat hard to endure grief, it’s very useful. We must prepare, with God’s help, to endure vilification, reproach, contempt, and ridicule. If we prepare ourselves, it will be easier to endure them when they come.
We needn’t fear infirmities, for the Lord descended from Heaven for the infirm. If a man is aware of his infirmities and repents, the Lord, in His goodness, will not remember his infirmities and sins. Above all, we must fear demonic pride, vanity, enmity, and condemnation; but infirmities humble our supposed piety.
When you say something for the good of another’s soul—speak simply. You don’t need to think about how to influence him. The grace of God will do this beyond our desire, if only it will be for the benefit of the one listening.
In all perplexing questions, take as a rule the advice of the divinely-wise Holy Fathers: If two evils stand before you, choose the lesser, and if two virtues, choose the greater.
Temporary solitude is good, for it calms the soul a bit from various vanities. But to live in solitude… It does not cure the passions, but only lulls them. If you live attentively among people, you will more quickly come to self-awareness, for there are many terrible things there that uncover your rot.
If something human happens, we have to remember that we are not wiser than the all-wise Solomon, not stronger than the Prophet David, and not more zealous than the Apostle Peter.
Build yourself a home and take no care for that of others, then you will know how to build homes for others.
Knowledge without spiritual experience only puffs up.
Holy Scripture should be read not for knowledge, but in order to save our souls.
Don’t get excited to jump high—the spiritual life demands patient gradualism.
Reproach is very useful, and praise is very harmful, for by it we are tripped up in the spiritual life. Vainglory greatly binds us and weakens our free will.
Silver is known by its standard, but asceticism by humility.
We must deeply believe in God’s providence and not seek out the reasons why this or that thing happens to us.
We should do everything for the sake of God, and not pay any attention to people, for people praise today and tomorrow overthrow.
It is man’s characteristic to fall, and the devil’s to not repent.
Only the holy angels live without variation, constantly glorifying the Lord. But we must endure. During a difficult experience—wait for joy, and during joy—wait for sorrow.
To live together and have peace of mind requires patience and humility, but as we do not have these virtues, we think to ourselves: Everyone else is to blame, not me. However, we must try to at least not be angry for a long time, otherwise we won’t be able to benefit from prayer.
If a man internalizes the remembrance of death, then he will have the correct view of his temporary, fleeting life.
Sicknesses and sorrows are not accidental phenomena, but sent by God for our benefit. They can be called wedding clothes, in which we can enter into the eternal marriage chamber.
It is very difficult to yield to another—only great souls can do it, but the weak firmly insist upon their own will.
Pride is to see only the good within yourself and only the bad in others, but humility is to see your own sins and good qualities in others.
Of course, bodily labor is necessary, for without it there will be no fruits. But know that not all bodily labors are virtues, but a guidebook towards virtues. Many have labored hard but not received any fruits, for their labors were purely external, killing the spirit.
We must not trust ourselves until we’re lying in a coffin. Standing firm in virtues does not depend on us but on the grace of God. The Lord preserves us for our humility: As much as a man humbles himself, so much does he succeed in the spiritual life.
Humanity is in turmoil, and poor people do not know the secret of inner peace; they don’t know how to acquire it. Here is the secret: Do not interfere in anybody else’s affairs and take no notice of the weaknesses of others. Know only yourself, and that’s enough. If you do this, believe me, you will always be peaceful.
This life is temporary and filled with various sorrows, and no one can avoid them—only their sorrows may differ. And as the soul is created according to the image and likeness of God, it will nowhere and never find peace and consolation, except in God. If we orient ourselves on the will of God, then sorrows will trouble us only slightly.
Know for sure that the thoughts that bring peace of mind and tenderness are angelic, while the thoughts that bring confusion and disorder are demonic.
Humanity invented politeness instead of love, and under this politeness hides vanity, hypocrisy, cunning, anger, and the other passions of the soul.
He who condemns others is like the antichrist, for he tries to purloin God's judgment.
As far as the heart is cleansed from passions, so far is God known and the Kingdom of God will be within you.