Archimandrite Hilarion (Dan) is one of the most revered Romanian spiritual fathers of our days. In the world he was a man of high standing and had huge opportunities, but he renounced his earthly wealth for the sake of a life in Christ.
“People seek fame, adrenalin, but they cannot live a full life without Christ”
In the world Fr. Hilarion was an eminent economist, he did probationary work abroad where he was keenly appreciated and offered an interesting job. He also had many friends and enjoyed an eventful secular life. But he renounced everything for the sake of the only possible freedom in the world—the freedom given by the love of Christ. He became a monk.
In 1980, Ion Dan graduated from Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies (Subdepartment of International Economic Relations of Department of Commerce). He was assigned to a job at the “Mamaia Coast” state tourist office1 and worked at the General Customs Administration for a few years. Having worked at the Department of Reforms in the Romanian Government, in the 1990s he pursued a banking career. For some years he headed the branches of Bancorex2, OTP Bank3, and the Turkish-Romanian Bank in Constanța, and then retired. In February 2009, he was tonsured and became Novice Hilarion; in April the same year he was ordained a hieromonk and appointed as the father-confessor at the Holy Cross Convent in the same Constanța County, a few miles away from the village of Crucea4.
What is color?
Ion grew up in a totally non-religious environment. He was born in 1956, at the height of “Stalinism” (as he used to say), and his parents, as everybody else at that era, were “products of the regime”. Fr. Hilarion explains:
“My father never left our small town5. Then the only offer was the so-called ‘patriotic brigades’, so he joined them.”
His grandmother would take little Ion to church when he came to spend his holidays with her. It was not until his adolescence that his search began: Ion asked questions and could find the answers nowhere. Then he started reading many books, especially philosophy books, but couldn’t find what he looked for until he stumbled on a book of the Modern Ideas series, published by Politizdat:
“Different (and mostly leftist) books were published in this series on sociology, philosophy, and economics. Though there were also other books, such as Mind and Matter by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. This man maintained that spirit is different from matter. And he began with an interesting experiment. Answering the question, ‘What is color?’ he demonstrated in physical terms that color exists only in our consciousness. It is a mere sensation which appears in a subject who consists not only of matter but also of spirit. We see colors and light through our spiritual part. Having encountered this approach, I began reading and searching more vigorously and became a theist, though still not a committed Christian, accepting that, ‘Yes, God exists.’”
A path towards the soul
Ion Dan discovered Christianity, Orthodoxy, together with the Revolution6:
“It was like breaking free from your chains,” the spiritual father recalls.
In the 1990s, when he worked in Bucharest, he confessed his sins for the first time:
“I got into the hands of a great spiritual mentor, Fr. Sofian (Boghiu) from Antim Monastery, a man of remarkable humility. It was then that I decided to return home, to Constanța.”
Fr. Sofian sent him to Fr. Arsenie (Papacioc) from Tekigroul Monastery.
“I hadn’t heard about Fr. Arsenie before, though as a student I made some money during my vacation by conducting tours around monasteries for foreign tourists. After this meeting my faith grew ever deeper. Fr. Arsenie’s support was so strong that if it were not for him I would have had big, serious mental problems.”
The “Saint Menas” project
“How will you show up in the park with a dead person?”
In 1992, Fr. Niculai Piku got the future Fr. Hilarion involved in the project of the building of St. Menas’s Church in Tabacarie Park, Constanța. They drew up the design together, looked for masters in Maramureș County7 together. At the time, he was Bancorex Manager:
“We were full of enthusiasm, but we were faced with a problem concerning the church construction site. When we came to the city council and said that we wanted to have the church built in Tabacarie Park, they jolted up as if they were on fire: ‘How will we erect a church in the park? You will show up in the park with a dead person, and people will be shocked! They will come to the park to have a rest and will see a corpse!’
“Finally they gave us some land in order to get rid of us: ‘It is in Tabacarie, but not where you want—it is behind the Micro-Delta Zoo8.’ Fr. Niculai was so distressed! But I knew that place well because I used to walk there with my children—it was very quiet there. So I suggested that Fr. Niculai and I go and see that spot—what if St. Menas himself wanted that?
“And the area was perfect: the surface was flat, without trees, and we had more than enough space for our construction materials, logs that we delivered in vans in large quantities, and heaps of sawdust… And it wouldn’t have been possible to build anything on the site we had originally requested. There were trees with stagnant water there, but we didn’t see that until a few years later—and we realized that it was the will of God.
It was a romantic period, when we worshipped in tents and were united just as the early Christians were united,” Fr. Hilarion relates with a smile.
1999 was the worst year for him. His wife died in that year.
“She was forty. We were still young, and our children were at the ‘tender age’—our daughter was sixteen and our son was fourteen. Then communication with Fr. Arsenie helped me very much. He supported me so I could overcome that trial. And professionally I was overloaded both physically and morally. I had taken a tremendous amount of responsibility on my shoulders and faced a large number of risks. After all, I witnessed the period of structural changes in the Romanian economy and I know perfectly well what this shock feels like with all the ensuing consequences. And all of a sudden I became both a mother and a father to my children.
“My wife was an exceptional mother; and for me she was not only a spouse but also my closest friend and an adviser for many years. I perceived her death as a sacrifice for me and our children.”
It was then that it occurred to the future priest to take the monastic vows. So he went to the Romanian Prodromu Skete in honor of St. John the Baptist on Mt. Athos:
“Then I thought, ‘I might become a monk, too,’” Fr. Hilarion says with a smile. “Though it was impossible back then because I had children to provide for. Now I understand that even if it had been possible, I was not ready for monastic life. Some while later I realized what ‘joining a monastery’ means.”
“It is no good saying you will go—just do it”
The “Monastery Cassian”9 project was launched in 2000:
“Its abbot, Hieromonk Iustin (Petre), was very young. Once he had obtained a theological education, he was sent here, to Dobrogea, to build a monastery. He had no idea what to begin with and where to get money from. I lent him a helping hand and we became very close friends. I was at that monastery from the very beginning, from the moment the first monks arrived. This was followed by a construction project, and I was with them all the time. I would spend every Saturday and Sunday there. I found refuge there for several years.”
The thought of monastic life took root in his mind:
“At least for two years I considered various options, including how I would look in that garb!” he laughs. “I had revealed my desire to Fr. Arsenie a few years before, and he encouraged me. But a year before my tonsure he began to ask me every time: ‘Have you made up your mind?’ I would answer him that I hadn’t yet solved my problems in the world—there were financial difficulties, I needed to help my children and get their consent too. When you are going to join a monastery, you begin to have temptations.
“And at some point Fr. Arsenie told me: ‘Brother Ionel, there is nothing to wait for now!’ I asked him: ‘Well, and how is it done?’ He said: ‘You take a knapsack, come and say that you are here!’ It was so easy to say these words, but harder to do it.
“There was one more problem, namely my mother. I knew she would not give her consent. But at long last I said to myself, ‘Stop hesitating! Come what may!’ Fr. Arsenie and I decided that I would join St. John Cassian’s Monastery. I thought he would send me to Moldova, and I would have gone anywhere readily as an act of obedience.
“So I took my bag and knocked at the monastery gate. It was easy for me to enter this monastery because I knew it well, the people were familiar to me, so adjusting to a new life was not a stressful process. And after moving into the monastery I got back to normal. This idea had matured in me for as many as eight years. It is no use going to a monastery hoping to find a monastery there—you won’t find it. First and foremost you need to have a monastery in your heart.”
Many found it strange that a bank manager should wear a monastic cassock instead of a suit. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that around 200 people were present at the tonsure ceremony of the distinguished economist, to his great amazement.
“I was tonsured at St. John Cassian’s Cave on the monastery’s patronal feast—February 28, 2009. I thought the ceremony would be ordinary, but His Eminence Theodosius came and said: ‘It will take place in the cave.’ That was a great surprise.
“Such ceremonies usually take place in a narrow circle of family and friends. In my case, there were lots of people because it was the patronal feast. All of them knew me (in 1997–1998 I was among the best known residents of Constanța), but they were unaware that I would be tonsured. So I found myself surrounded by a multitude of my acquaintances.”
All of Fr. Hilarion’s intimate friends were astonished by his new way of life, but they approved of it. They had felt his inclination for monastic life for a long time. One person was disappointed, though:
“I have a close friend in America who is a very successful businessman. He was intrigued by my choice. In fact he was the only person to respond negatively. That was really something! He came to me and stated all the negative stereotypes of clergy—that all priests are ‘corrupt’ and they do everything ‘only to make money’… I didn’t engage in polemics with him and let him have his say. When he finished, I said: ‘Well, I am determined to do this!’ He argued, ‘Listen, what are you going to do in this wilderness? For whom are you going to celebrate services? For pigeons? For birds?’ And I found his words so nice and replied, ‘Yes, for pigeons!’ If it were not for him, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to find such a beautiful answer to this question! He, poor thing, left very upset, while I couldn’t do anything for him.
“My daughter’s reaction was very original. ‘Our dad allowed us to do whatever we pleased and encouraged us. Can we really disapprove of his choice now?’ True, they had a presentiment about this. In any case, now I can find more time for them than ever. As for financial support, they don’t need it anymore.
“My son felt somewhat abandoned. I assured him that I wouldn’t become a recluse there, but he argued, ‘Yes, but life won’t be the same anymore.’ And he was right. Now I am not just their father. He asked me, ‘Please, stay with us for a while.’ And I stayed in the world for another year.
“My father was intrigued when I informed him. But he would always advise me to do what my heart tells me. He died in April of that same year, when I was ordained. As for my mother, she has only now started visiting me.
“Father, where is it harder to live?”
What is like to live in a monastery?
“It means living in a different way, to see everything in a different light, to understand the world and yourself differently. You walk your own path, you realize what you must do, and you are one hundred percent sure of that. Remarkably, now you not only believe that something is the case but you know that it is the case! St. Nicholas Velimirovich related that when he was a prisoner of the Dachau concentration camp a German guard came up to him and asked (he knew that His Eminence was a highly educated man and had defended five dissertations): ‘Father, do you really believe in God?’ And the saint answered him, ‘When I was young, I believed in God…’ The German gazed at him: ‘At last! You appear to be a man of good sense!’ St. Nicholas continued: ‘…But now I don’t believe anymore—I know that He exists!’ [laughs]. And the German left the cell and slammed the door.
“The same can be said about me and all that has happened to me over the past twenty years. When you have lived through all these things, you have no more doubts. There is nothing left for you to doubt.
“In any case, all I can say now is that I had never felt so free before in my life. Once some visitors asked me, ‘Father, where is it harder to live—in the world or here?’ I answered: ‘In the world, my brothers. It is harder to live in the world. I look at those who remained in the world, at my former colleagues with whom I still speak on the phone, with love and an aching heart. They can hardly endure and are worn out by their everyday worldly cares. As for me, I am a bit ashamed because I feel so good here.”
435,000 miles at the wheel
Ion Dan first went to America for a trial period in banking in 1994. He received training on the East Coast, in Delaware, and underwent practical training in a bank south of Chicago. That was followed by two other trips to America and a job offer—although the Americans invited him, he declined:
“I have travelled my fill around the world. I saw a lot of things and drove many different cars. Once I estimated my mileage roughly and found that I had covered around 435,000 miles over my life. That is colossal! I like driving, and now I give this opportunity to the mother-superior. I don’t have the slightest desire to get behind the wheel again.
“People often ask me: ‘Do you regret anything?’ But what can I regret? Freedom of movement? I climb to the top of that hill and feel fine there! It is far better there than in New York City!”
The crisis we are experiencing is a systemic one
In 2003, Ion was out of work for half a year because he couldn’t work:
“I had terrible stress. Whenever I took some paper or document to read, I got a sudden headache and dizziness. That was severe! I was sick and had stress. Now that I am stress-free I know how tormented poor people are in this frantic rush for money every day, but they eventually gain nothing… I know it from my own experience because I had money, I had good salaries, but no matter how much money I got I would spend it all. And I had no illusions: you remain penniless. Comfort? But what does it mean to you? When you are stressed out, it won’t make you happy.
“What is currently going on in the world is awful. As an economist I understand the mechanism of this crisis—it is not a mere economic crisis, it is much deeper. It is a systemic crisis. And people themselves are in crisis. The most obvious things begin to collapse, and what is more obvious than money?
“I used to work in this financial system and I developed an aversion for money. I cannot stand money! I suffered so much because of it! And here I am the happiest man in the world because I don’t touch any banknotes at all!
“We are faced with three fundamental questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? And, where am I going? If we try to find the answers to these questions honestly, we will inevitably meet Christ. Because no other answer exists. He, Christ, is the answer to any question and the solution to all our problems. Any other solution is an illusion. We delude ourselves. I say this from my own experience. I didn’t read about this in books! This is something I have experienced in my life.
“Unfortunately, modern people live by the myth of the continuous progress, the technology that promises to miraculously resolve all our problems. Maybe this technological progress is useful, but we need love and affection. Every human being needs this. Meanwhile, the source of love is Christ; but if you don’t have Him, if you don’t reach this source, then you have no love either. Then people start seeking other resources: fame, money, adrenalin and so on in their desire to feel that they live a full life. But real life is only possible in Christ.
“Indeed modern people seek frantically, but they find nothing except surrogates and start seeking even more frantically10.”