If in the Ancient Patericon one of the elders says: “Let not the sun go down on your anger,” then the sun would rise and set, and Elder Mikhail was euphoric.
In this article, the head sister of the Holy Dormition-Gremyachevo Monastery Nun Mikhaila (Osipova) speaks about their spiritual guide, Elder Mikhail (Belaev) of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra:
This man lives in Heaven!
Our beloved elder and mentor, Schema-Archimandrite Mikhail (Belaev), a monk of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, was a spiritual man. Even during Batiushka’s lifetime, it was said of him that he was the most enigmatic elder, and a spiritual father who visited him from Athos said of him: “This man lives in Heaven!”
The elder himself advised us: “Everything spiritual must be hidden so that nobody knows.”
And our Batiushka hid his spiritual gifts, but the Lord Himself revealed them to the brothers and his spiritual children.
I would like to share a story about our elder and his teachings with everyone who desires to fill themselves with his wisdom and spiritual discourse, acquired through long years of prayer and monastic labors.
First, I’ll say a little about our Batiushka’s childhood. He was born on July 7, 1924 in the village of Bogorodskoe, in the Moscow region, eighteen miles from Sergiev Posad, in the family of the peasants Theodore and Agrafena Balaev. He was baptized as a baby with the name Viktor.
The village of Bogorodskoe has long been famous, since the sixteenth century, for its carved toys, which both common and noble children alike played with. Viktor’s father and mother also did wood carving, and all of their children graduated from vocational school with this specialization and became skilled craftsmen.
A fiery trial
Viktor was only seventeen when the war began. A year later, the youth was taken into the tank corps and even made a commander. Our Batiushka didn’t like to recall these times: He endured too much pain and human death. But he passed through such a fiery trial that he was hardened in spirit and remained a courageous warrior and commander his entire life—later a spiritual warrior in the monastic ranks. It’s no coincidence that they gave him the name Michael at his monastic tonsure, in honor of the great Commander of the Heavenly Hosts, the Archangel Michael.
Batiushka would tell us he never again felt such prayer, such nearness to God as he did during the war. He told us how terrible it was: the sky black from aircraft, the roar all around, smoke, shells exploding. His soldiers, very young Chuvash1 guys, would cling to him and shout in fear: “Mama!” And he would pray for them, his face to the ground, covering them from the explosion of the shells, and he would just cry out to the Lord; thus none of Batiushka’s soldiers died.
Even at war Batiushka kept the fasts. He would recall how they walked on their knees in cold water and slept on the damp ground, and while many got sick, he remained healthy, even though he kept the fasts.
When Batiushka returned from the war, with the rank of staff sergeant, he worked for several years as an artist in the vocational school in his home village and became a member of the provincial Union of Artists. He also printed leaflets in defense of the faith and the Church and distributed them to people, although he could have been thrown into prison for it in those years. But at his native parish he found mostly elderly women—there were practically no young people in the Church, and Batiushka later recalled those times with a smile: “Okay, perhaps I had no like-minded comrades then, but we would have so come out in defense of the Church that we definitely would have been behind bars.”
But it was all providential, because the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra was already waiting for Batiushka. Having gone to the Lavra once as a pilgrim, he was amazed to see the seminarians—stately young men in cassocks (one of them later became the Patriarch of Georgia). Then Batiushka felt with his whole heart that he too should become a monk.
In the monastery of St. Sergius
In 1957, at thirty-three years of age, Viktor left the world and entered the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. The new worker was not immediately enlisted in the brotherhood: The authorities hindered young people from adopting monasticism, especially front-line soldiers. In 1959, Viktor was finally enrolled among the brethren as a novice. He found a spiritual father in the monastery—Elder Kirill (Pavlov).
In his younger years, Batiushka was very fast, clever, and nimble, and would joyfully take up any obedience: He served in the altar in the Trinity Cathedral, went on duty at the checkpoint, and worked in the kitchen. He was often put to work peeling potatoes as he had learned to do so very quickly in the army.
He especially loved to light the lampadas in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, by the shrine with the relics of St. Sergius. There were about thirty lampadas there, and he would have to run to the church before everyone else to manage to light them all before the brothers’ moleben.
Batiushka later blessed us to light lampadas and said: “The lampada burns—prayer burns; the lampada goes out—prayer goes out.”
When they told the zealous novice on the eve of the feast of the Transfiguration about his upcoming tonsure, it was one of the happiest days of his life. They tonsured him on August 19, 1960 with the name Joasaph, in honor of the Holy Hierarch Joasaph of Belgorod. A year later, Monk Joasaph was ordained as a hierodeacon.
With His Holiness
His Holiness Patriarch Alexei (Simansky) visited the Lavra. He looked attentively at Fr. Joasaph, noting his diligence, attentiveness, and zeal, and took him on as his cell attendant at the Patriarchal dependency at Peredelkino.
The Patriarch’s personality and his spiritual experience had a strong influence on the young hierodeacon. His Holiness was an extraordinary man. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh remembered him thus:
An elder, thin, even fragile, of short stature, but who couldn’t go unnoticed anywhere. He was very restrained in conversation, very simple in appearance—a pure monk, keeping himself in the shadows; he stood out from his surroundings, drawing the gaze of others and as if demanding attention with his calm grandeur, radiating confidence: “Everything is from God, everything is in the hand of God, therefore everything, without exception, can be and should be a reason, sent down by the Lord, for Christian action, for the works of God…”
The director of the Patriarchal choir at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Nikolai Sergeevich Georgievsky, has testified about His Holiness: “You couldn’t help feeling that he possessed a tremendous practice of prayer. And this practice of prayer—even with the infirmity characteristic of his venerable age—always gave a certain quintessence of a kind of ‘prophetic rank,’ if you can say that… I clearly remember that the entire church froze in silence whenever His Holiness the Patriarch pronounced something.”
With such a man of prayer, the young hierodeacon, our future elder, quickly grew spiritually. He really loved and revered His Holiness and later told us that Patriarch Alexei was a man of holy life. Batiushka would recall how His Holiness was sometimes so immersed in prayerful contemplation that he would only quietly repeat: “Paradise. Paradise. Paradise.”
His Holiness always greatly loved his loyal cell attendant and always gave him difficult tasks.
Batiushka was with His Holiness during the difficult period when they demanded that the Patriarch to agree to the mass closure of churches, monasteries, and theological educational institutions. His Holiness even declared his readiness to go into retirement, if only not to do what was being demanded of him. The first Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev was eager to show the country “the last priest” and was intent on the complete destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In these years, the number of churches in the country was reduced by nearly half. The number of theological educational institutions decreased from ten to five. Churches were closed throughout the country, under various pretexts; more than half in the Moscow Diocese were closed. It was all very painful for the faithful.
The years of severe trials
In 1969, Fr. Joasaph was ordained as a hieromonk. After the blessed repose of His Holiness in 1970, Batiushka had an obedience in the Patriarchal residence in Peredelkino and was elevated to the rank of igumen. These years were times of severe trial and even persecution against Batiushka.
He later said: “The enemy especially attacks spiritual people. We were living in Peredelkino, and behind the wall we had a home for elderly Bolsheviks. The enemy didn’t touch them; everything was quiet and peaceful for them. But we had such cases of temptation and collision—until His Holiness came!”
Here Batiushka faced yet another difficult ordeal—he fell ill with cancer. He humbly accepted his sickness and agreed to an operation in 1985. Batiushka generally treated doctors with great respect, saying: “Doctors and medicine are from God. They do their work, and you do yours—pray!”
The doctors themselves were amazed by the elder’s patience and humility, saying they rarely meet such patient and obedient patients.
In 1988, in connection with a serious illness, Abbot Alexei (Kuteopv) of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra (now the metropolitan of Tula and Ephremov), tonsured Batiushka into the Great Schema with the name Mikhail. The Archangel Michael became his Heavenly patron and intercessor, which was a sign of the fiery faith and zealous service to the Lord of Schema-Archimandrite Mikhail.
Batiushka would say that he never wanted any promotions or ranks, accepting the rank of archimandrite only out of obedience, but he greatly rejoiced at the schema. After receiving the schema, the elder was transferred back to the Lavra, and from that time until his very death, he never left its walls.
His cell became a blessed spiritual hospital
The brothers of the Lavra and numerous spiritual children flocked to Batiushka as to a spiritual spring, for advice and for comfort. His cell became a truly blessed spiritual hospital, a family home where you would be understood, comforted, strengthened by prayer, and given the strength to continue your path to God.
You could simply be present at one of Batiushka’s conversations with someone else and you would receive the answers to all your questions, and receive comfort in your sorrows. The elder led his spiritual children on the middle, “royal” path, teaching them to avoid extremes, so as not to fall into delusion.
Thanks to his holy prayers, new monasteries were built and blossomed, headed by his spiritual children: in Maloyaroslavets, Kaluga, Khabarovsk, Tyumen, Saratov, the Caucasus, Kuzbass, and even in America. Orthodox orphanages were opened. Together with the sisters of the monastery, Batiushka endured all the enemy’s attacks on the young monasteries, transferring his spiritual experience to their abbesses in some mysterious way.
The elder always said that God has one giant monastery, scattered across the globe, and all monastics are one big family; and we felt this unity with all our hearts.
For the sisters of our St. Nicholas-Chernoostrovsky Monastery, there was no higher reward and consolation than to go see Batiushka. Almost the entire monastery would go to the Lavra on feast days, taking children from the orphanage with us and singing spiritual hymns for Batiushka. Anointed with oil by the elder’s loving hand, we would return to our monastery as if on wings, with light souls and a giant bag of Lavra prosphora, books, and sweet treats.
“Well, Sergei, walk happily!”
Once a colonel, the captain of a submarine, half-dead from a huge dose of radiation, came to see Batiushka. The doctors had sentenced him to death. Batiushka sat and listened to his sorrowful story, then stood up straight, hugged the colonel, and said: “Well, Sergei, walk happily! The diagnosis is nonsense! Let’s see what the Heavenly doctors prescribe!”
He carefully anointed the terminally ill man with oil, and a month later, the colonel came to see Batiushka a completely different, healthy man; he knelt before him and wept. Such great spiritual power the elder had!
It’s difficult to describe how many people Batiushka helped with his prayer, helped to cope with their passions, how many he set on the path of truth by his spiritual advice.
The elder’s instructions
When the soul is with God, then everything is prayer: Reading is prayer; handiwork is prayer; spiritual singing is prayer. (Batiushka loved to cut crosses out of wood and give them to his spiritual children).
No one knows the greatest men of prayer. Perhaps some “granny beyond the swamp” is pleading for the entire world.
Batiushka greatly disliked a formal approach to prayer. He would say: “What’s the use of picking peas?” (That is, praying without attention, just to say you did it).
Our abbess asked the elder about a certain possessed, “sick” sister. The elder answered that although such people should not be put in positions of responsibility, before God they can be higher than the healthy, and their prayers, from a constrained and sorrowful, martyric heart, troubled by the enemy, are heard by God much more than ours, which are complacent and cool.
The elder warned against taking on podvigs beyond your strength. We mustn’t overdo it, but give the soul a rest: admire nature, go to a holy spring.
He taught to do everything in moderation. He advised the young novices, full of zeal not according to knowledge, to not take anything upon themselves, and to live more simply. He would say: “You can eat to the glory of God. You can sleep to the glory of God. Sleep each according to his own measure, to get enough sleep.”
The elder did not forbid strict fasting; he was only against the fast of the gloomy, with stress and irritation. But if you felt joy and relief from measured fasting—then he would allow it.
He really disliked spiritual “bribery”—he taught to never do anything by force, with pressure. It’s very dangerous to take on prayer beyond measure, for this is followed by failure and despondency.
To die in obedience is a special grace of God, but to cripple yourself with excessive zeal and become incapable of anything further is a great sin.
The most fearful thing is to “grip” your soul in a vice. A monk or a secular person begins to labor ascetically, and thus humbles himself, thus compels himself, which squeezes him tighter and tighter, and the soul is unable to breathe—there is neither joy nor living prayer, from which he then falls into despondency or delusion.
We must allow the soul to rejoice and leap about playfully, as King David rejoiced in the Lord. How can you not rejoice in Him?! This will be true prayer!
It’s very good when something works out, and something not. Humble yourself, and labor, and pray.
The best fast for monastics is to eat only what is given to them at the common meal.
When you go out into the world, it’s better not to flaunt your monastic clothing, but to cover up so as not to stand out.2
It is absolutely necessary to multiply the talent given you by the Lord: whoever has been given the talent to sing should sing; teachers should teach; painters should paint. The Lord will sternly ask about it later.
A fighting spirit
Batiushka’s cell attendant, Fr. Andrei, told about the great love, piety, and devotion with which the seriously ill elder celebrated the Divine Liturgy. After the service, he would devest carefully and slowly from fatigue, and say: “Well, you’ve come out of the battle!”
Batiushka complained to nobody and almost never spoke about how he was seriously wounded at the end of the war, losing half his femur. Few of his spiritual children suspected how martyric the elder’s life had been, especially in the last years of his life. Sometimes he would fall to the floor after having gotten up from bed with much trouble. He would fall, lie there, and pray. In would come his cell attendant: “Batiushka! What are you doing there?!”
“Well, I was flying, but I landed incorrectly… Throw me, throw me quickly onto the bed!”
Batiushka had such a fighting spirit until the end of his life. Even when he could no longer stand on his feet, so much spiritual power radiated from him! He would meet us, his spiritual children, happily; to questions about his health, he would answer: “Wonderful! Better than anyone! Glory to God!”
Even in severe pain, the elder continued to sit in his chair and read the Psalter, and the brothers would look at him and say: “Batiuskha’s in the saddle!”
On his final night, July 14, 2009, the elder was quietly singing before the icon of the Blachernae Mother of God in his cell: “Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!”
When he became very ill, they sent for the hieromonk who was communing the elder; and Batiushka, waiting for Communion, communed and departed to the Lord fifteen minutes later.
All the Lavra brethren and as many sisters from various convents—the elder’s spiritual children—gathered to bid farewell to Batiushka. They served his funeral in the Dormition Cathedral of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and buried him in the monastic cemetery at the Church of the Icon of the Savior “Not Made By Hands” in Deulino, a mile north of Sergiev Posad.
“The sun would rise and set, and Elder Mikhail was euphoric”
The abbot of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, Archbishop Theognost of Sergiev Posad, gave a very touching homily about Batiushka after the funeral:
We know that Fr. Mikhail was gracious, good-natured, loving, and compassionate. If in the Ancient Patericon one of the elders says: “Let not the sun go down on your anger,” then the sun would rise and set, and Elder Mikhail was euphoric. He always thanked God.
Everyone that visited him was affirmed in the thought: “The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing.” In what did his spirit live? His soul was so refined, and it shone with grace, joy, and love, which he radiated to all who came to him. Yet another lampada has gone out on the Earth, but we believe that a new lampada has been lit in the spiritual Heaven. And as he was an intercessor and pled for us to the Lord, so there he will pray and intercede for us—we believe in and this and we entreat him.