In his Ladder of Divine Ascent St. John Climacus says: “He who has conquered the passions wounds the demons; by pretending that he still has passions he deceives his foes and remains unassailable.”1 One of such ascetics was Elder Herodion the Romanian of Kapsala (+1990). The elder feigned insanity so skillfully that many didn’t believe that he really pretended to be a fool. And the Elder Paisios used to say: “If he were in prelest [spiritual delusion], he wouldn’t live his life this way. Fr. Herodion is very good.”
Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki and Schema-Monk Hilarion of the Cell of St. Charalampos share their recollections of the Elder Herodion of Kapsala.
Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki:
“He was standing amid a garbage pile and shining”
We found ourselves amid a trash dump
After my studies in America where I spent eight years I went to Mt. Athos and lived near Elder Paisios for six months. Two or three months after my arrival, St. Paisios said to me: “Go with Fr. Nicodemus [another monk] to Talea [a grocery store at Karyes] and buy whatever you find there—cookies, macaroni, and fruit—and then go and see how Fr. Herodion is doing. By the grace of God he pretends to be a fool in the presence of people.” This is what the Elder Paisios said... So we set out, curious to know about this unusual ascetic! First we stopped at Karyes and bought the things Fr. Paisios had told us to buy. Fr. Herodion’s cell was at Kapsala—not faraway—just between fifteen and twenty minutes’ walk from Karyes.
We had already visited extraordinary monks before then; I give an account of these meetings in my book, Mount Athos: the Highest Place on Earth. But this time we really found ourselves amid a trash dump! It was a cell, covered with a layer of garbage: cans, stones and seeds, peelings, plastic bags, lids, squashed plastic coca-cola bottles—everything that you can imagine! In my estimate, the layer of trash that could be seen from the door was about forty centimeters [c. 1.3 feet] thick! With flies and cockroaches inside, it was quite a spectacle!
“Take this, birds!”
We went into the cell and saw a man with his long hair hanging down, wearing something strange instead of his cassock. He was sitting at the entrance, holding on to a wooden beam with both hands, leaning back against another beam. We went in. “Father, we have come to see you!” “Who has sent you?” he asked with Romanian accent. We answered: “Father Paisios!” “Ah, Father Paisios, a holy man! Father Paisios, a holy man!” he exclaimed. “Yes, and he told us to bring you something to eat.” “Ah, thank you so much, Father Paisios! What has Father Paisios brought me?” he went on. Then he took a tomato and hurled it against the opposite wall: “Eat it!” Next he hurled the Papadopoulos cookies, tore open the box with the words: “Let the birds eat them!” A peach was thrown aside, too. I was observing all of this with interest, trying to fathom the reason behind his odd behavior. He scattered everything around. He tore open the packet of macaroni and dropped it on the ground: “Thank you, Father Paisios! Thank you, Father Paisios! The birds will have this! The birds will have this!” he repeated over and over again.
“To atone for the betrayal of Judas”
The elder was speaking about Judas… Although he expressed himself not very clearly, as far as we could make out, we humans should atone for the betrayal of Judas. Each of us is like Judas because we all sin. This is what I understood. In our lives we are called to do the opposite of what Judas did.
We said good-bye and left. I looked back and saw the sunset. It was at that time that I realized that a man of the “uncreated light” was in front of us. He was standing amid a garbage pile and shining, radiating light. I experienced the strongest emotion of delight: how the humble Christ may be hidden inside something very ugly (from a secular point of view), in a repulsive appearance and outwardly impertinent behavior.
Fr. Herodion was similar to the ascetic whom I had once met, while climbing to the summit of Mt. Athos, and whom I had been unable to understand back then. That ascetic stopped, found a brick, wrote “ΑΓΡΙΟΣ” on it, and then erased “Ρ” (“rho”). Thus he wanted to say that every (ΑΓΡΙΟΣ) (“agrios”—“wild”) human being is called to become “ΑΓΙΟΣ” (“agios”—“holy”).
These stories indicate that God “hides” in the fools of this world (cf. 1 Cor. 3:18), in poverty, in the “foolishness for Christ’s sake”, in sick people… This monk (Fr. Herodion) is great not because he hurled cookies, tomatoes, and peaches, but because he uniquely lived in the state of permanent extreme self-denial. He didn’t speak about this, but I became a witness to this.
Schema-Monk Hilarion (Michael): “Christ Is not Risen!”
The path towards Mt. Athos
The future Elder Herodion (secular name: Ion Madov) was born in 1904 to a peasant family in Bessarabia. One day a Russian traveler stopped in their village. He was walking back from his pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. Petru, little Ion’s father, invited the wayfarer to their poor shack. The household fed the stranger, gave him hot tea to drink, and he eloquently recounted his journey with its twists and turns to them, and with tender emotion and tears in his eyes related his meeting with the Garden of the Holy Theotokos.
Many years passed. Little Ion grew up, but the “spark” of monastic life, ignited in his heart by that unexpected guest, glimmered on inside him. At that time a virtuous elder from Dionysiou Monastery’s Cell of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple was living in Romania. After meeting Fr. John (the name of that ascetic), young Ion with his parents’ blessing chose the monastic path. He came to Holy Mount Athos at the age of twenty-five. There he began his monastic life in the Cell of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple; further, there is mention of the elder’s stay in Lakkoskiti, Provata, Karakallou Monastery, near Karyes, Philotheou Monastery, and Vatopedi Monastery. The cause of his wanderings was his poverty. At that time many kelliotes [monks who lived not in coenobitic monasteries, but in separately built cells, albeit not necessarily as strict hermits.—Ed.] had to work in different monasteries simultaneously to earn a living. They would labor in vineyards, grow and care for olive and hazel trees, till the land, and gather in the crops.
An incident at Vatopedi Monastery
Once, when the elder lived and labored at Vatopedi Monastery, workers from the island of Lemnos started a quarrel with each other, and Fr. Herodion tried to calm them. One of the workers, who bore the elder (whom everybody in the monastery loved for his remarkable industriousness and physical endurance) a grudge, hit him on the head. The Lord, to Whom the depths of human souls are revealed, called Fr. Herodion who had a brain concussion to perform the podvig [spiritual labor] of foolishness-for-Christ. So the elder would “fool” both people and demons, enduring insults, persecutions, and slander, thus keeping the grace that God had bestowed on him.
“An ox will drink all the water and burst”
My first meeting with Elder Herodion took place in the summer of 1987. Then I lived at Dionysiou Monastery’s dependency at Karyes and it was the ever-memorable Fr. Isaac the Lebanese, a disciple of the Elder Paisios, who told me about him. So a deacon from Kykkos Monastery (Cyprus) and I went on a journey to Fr. Herodion’s hut. When we arrived, the elder was sitting under an olive tree and looked so grace-filled that one could think that he was solemnly sitting on the highest throne in the world. He had a sock on his head instead of a cap; the elder himself was wearing ragged trousers and a shirt; his body was wrapped in a blanked as if it were a skirt; he was almost barefoot, and we could see his broken toes. When we greeted him with the words, “Geronda, give us your blessing!” Fr. Herodion replied: “God bless you!” And he proceeded, playing the fool: “I’ve got airplanes! I am flying above all the countries!” He paused and then continued in an unhurried manner: “Now I am flying over Cyprus!” Next he said: “I’ve got boats, I’ve got ships!” Then he stopped and added tenderly: “Don’t swallow everything at once. An ox will drink all the water and burst. Don’t go into your shell!”
Proceeding in the same manner, the elder turned to the deacon: “Give me your hand.” The deacon gave him his hand. “Listen to your priests attentively! Pay heed to what they say. Do you hear me?”
Now this “deacon” serves as a bishop in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.
“A house… Florina… Thessaloniki…”
One day Fr. Herodion was visited by one elder and his disciple. As soon as Fr. Herodion saw them, he started uttering disconnected words which had to do with the disciple’s problems: “A house… Florina… Thessaloniki… Monastic life… Go together. Oh, he will leave. Canada… 100,000 of the sealed,” and so on. And that monk intended to leave Mt. Athos, to build a house between Florina and Thessaloniki (as the elder predicted), and go to his relatives in Canada. In the end he left Mt. Athos.
“Otherwise Jesus is beating me”
The elder spent the final years of his life in the Kaliva of St. Demetrius in Kapsala with Elder Panteleimon, nicknamed “Good Day” (from Greek «καλημέρα» - “Kalimera”, meaning “good day”, “good afternoon”). Though he was a true monk and ascetic, Fr. Panteleimon became a “zealot”. Thus, he always responded to the monastic greetings “Give your blessing!” with the words, “Good afternoon!” When he grew old, he realized his mistake and began to respond properly. Initially Fr. Herodion would go to Elder Panteleimon for daily earnings, but since he was poor and a very small eater, the elder gave him a hut. It was a dilapidated cabin with ramshackle walls, leaky roof, and broken windows. Elder Herodion lived there as if under a tree. Due to the excessive damp and excessive ascetic labors the elder’s body had been deformed, becoming ugly, and this prevented him from walking further than the cell yard. He would hold on to two sticks in order to move and walked with them with great difficulty. He would walk back faster, moving backwards like a crayfish. When he needed to walk up a little, he would move sideways with small steps, bending right and left alternately. If somebody was looking at him at that moment, he would say: “Why are you looking? I am walking this way because otherwise Jesus beats me!”
“It doesn’t become monks to lead a life like this”
One day a brother brought a stove to Fr. Herodion. As soon as the elder saw him, he showed that he had been waiting for him and said: “Now Christ is rejoicing so much because you have brought your stove to an old man!” The brother asked for permission to install the stove inside the room, but Fr. Herodion answered: “I will do it on my own! You know, I can lift 100 kilos of weight!” But he never lit the stove.
Another brother made a water supply to the elder’s cell with a hose and fixed up a faucet. Several days later he called on the elder again—only to find that the latter had taken out the faucet and stuck an old piece of tubing in its place. The brother asked:
“Geronda, why did you remove the faucet?”
“It doesn’t become monks to lead a life like this.”
Then Fr. Herodion looked at him and said: “Your hose costs very much”, implying that he was praying for that brother.
One guest of Elder Meletios intended to take a photo of Fr. Herodion when he was staying in his cell. “Don’t take a picture of me! You’d better take a snap of the car!” the elder said to him, pointing at the vehicle of a builder who was working there. “It [the car] has nothing to worry about! It will drive to Karyes, will leave Mt. Athos and drive in the world—and this won’t do it any spiritual harm!”
“I can’t! I have a rule!”
In 1987, severe winter frosts coincided with the feast of Nativity. Temperatures dropped to as low as minus six degrees, and there was a heavy fall of snow. One brother, who was passing by, knocked at the door of the elder’s hut, fearing that the elder would freeze to death without heating and with an insufficient supply of clothes. It is so hard to survive in such conditions when you are eighty-three, unless you are protected by Divine grace!.. On his way back the brother met another man who said that he had knocked on the elder’s door, but in vain. The brother came up to the cell again, knocked, but Fr. Herodion didn’t open. Only mumbling in Romanian was coming from the hut: “It hurts so much!” The brother called a neighbor to help him. Together they peeped into a broken window and saw that the elder had fallen on the floor. They asked him to let them in. “Now you may come in,” they heard the elder’s voice.
The ascetic was dressed in long woolen underwear and a flannel shirt. The cell presented a strange sight—useless things were scattered all over it, and the floor couldn’t be seen. It was covered with a layer of empty cans, stones and seeds, sacks, ash, bottle caps, and crusts—they made up Fr. Herodion’s “precious carpet”. There was no bed, no chair, no other sign of comfort. The entire space was cluttered with useless items. The brothers made a bed out of the door and laid the elder on it. But due to the great curvature of his body he couldn’t lie on this “bed” evenly. The brothers lit the stove for Fr. Herodion to get warm. Gradually he came to his senses and asked them to sing the Nativity hymns to him. Then they offered him a sweet pudding. The elder took a piece of it and said:
“It’s so tasty!”
“Take more,” one of the brothers said.
“I can’t, I have a rule to observe! Thank you. It was so good and so lovely!”
The last act of “folly for Christ’s sake”
When the elder turned eighty-six, he could no longer live alone in his cell. Both old age and many years of ascetic labors told on him: His legs couldn’t hold him anymore and he would often fall on the floor. So Fr. Herodion accepted the offer of his compatriot, the Romanian Elder Meletios, and moved to his St. George’s Kaliva. Elder Meletios accommodated him in a secluded room of his cell’s ground floor and attended upon him. In spite of his weakness, Fr. Herodion asked for a piece of wood to lean against, while he read his evening prayer rule. In the final month of his life the elder ate very little and asked those around him to ask God to take his soul as soon as possible. In the evening before the feast of St. Spyridon of Tremithus Elder Meletios went to the monastery for the All-Night Vigil. The worker Costas who looked after Fr. Herodion stayed in the cell alone. In the evening Costas heard the elder pray and try to make several prostrations. When it was dawning, Costas heard no rustling in the room and decided to go inside to see what the elder was doing. But before that he peeped through the window and saw the elder lying naked on the bed, covering his private parts with his hands. As St. Job said: Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither (Job 1:21). The elder fell asleep in the Lord on December 12, 1990. After hearing about Fr. Herodion’s repose, the Elder Paisios said: “That was his last act of ‘folly for Christ’s sake’.”
The elder was buried the next day after St. Spyridon’s feast. The log that had helped him keep his vigils was buried with him. Three years later his relics were uncovered: the bones turned out to be yellow, which according to Athonite tradition signifies a man of God.
With a dozen brethren
Elder Herodion constantly repeated Jesus Prayer, praying for the whole world, for all who sought his prayers and rendered him help. When asked, “How are you doing, geronda?” he always answered: “With a dozen brethren!”, implying all the people for whom he was praying.
When one brother who had many temptations came to the elder, he said, “You need a lot of patience. Great patience, and ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ All who strive for Christ have to bear sorrows. Saints had great patience, prayer, and love.”
An elder is a “valve” of Divine grace
If somebody, especially a monk, wants to be saved and to succeed in prayer, performing his spiritual labor in purity and free from spiritual delusion, he must wholeheartedly obey his spiritual father as if he were Christ Himself. For a monk his elder is a “valve” of Divine grace.
One brother who lived alone visited Elder Herodion regularly, seeking spiritual counsel. The elder taught him that if he wanted to succeed in spiritual life, he must live not alone but in full obedience to an elder who had motherly love. He used to cite the following example:
A disciple comes to his elder and the latter tells him, “Can you see the Kaliva of Resurrection there, on the cliff? Isn’t it made of stone?”
“Can you see this hut well? It is made of wood, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is, geronda.”
Obedience works wonders! A true elder is like a caring mommy!
Due to his life in obedience a monk’s heart and ministry becomes responsive to the lives of others and feels pity and sympathy for people who are suffering. And when we serve and sacrifice ourselves for our neighbors, then we become like Christ. Let us remember a troparion sung during the Holy Week: “Teaching Thy disciples the mysteries, O Lord, Thou taught them, saying, whosoever of you will be first, shall be a servant.2” Christ showed it to us during the Last Supper. The Lord Himself, the Master of the house, washed His disciples’ feet. This way our hearts and our spirits develop for ever and ever.
On two kittens
One brother was depressed because of his spiritual state as he was unable to keep his strict monastic fast. Whenever he abstained from eating for a single day, he was barely able to drag his feet. One day he and another brother, for whom it was easy to abstain from food for a whole week, came to Fr. Herodion. When the clairvoyant elder saw them, the concern of one of the brothers was revealed to him. So he said: “Can you see these kittens? [there were two kittens nearby.] One of them eats once every three days, and the other one eats three times a day. And they are the same inside.” The brother was consoled and realized his mistake: One shouldn’t compare himself to others.
One brother was very disappointed because he didn’t feel divine grace. Losing hope, he came to the elder, thinking that he might not be fit for monastic life. “The elder opened the door, crossed him, and said: “Now Christ is on the Cross. But then He will rise from the dead and ascend to heaven.” At the same moment the brother felt peace in his heart and joy rising up inside him.
One monk intended to build a church near his home. He made repeated attempts to clear the area, but every time despondency seized him he would stop the work. Feeling pangs of despondency, he didn’t take care of his olive trees anymore. Once he called on Elder Herodion, and the latter began to reprove him: “Lazybones! You are not even tending your olive trees! What are you going to eat?! How are you going to build the church?!” The brother was shocked. “Your despondency won’t go away like that! While you are idling away your time, the devil is at work. Make prostrations… A little time for prostrations, a little time for food, a little time for work—and the devil will go away.” The brother heeded his advice, and melancholy instantly disappeared.
“What did this child do wrong?”
One monk committed a grave sin, and, therefore, he gave way to despondency and despair. He decided to go to Elder Herodion. He knocked at the door. The elder opened and said: “Grave! Go away!” But the monk was standing without knowing where to go and what to do. Then the elder addressed him again: “Go upstairs, refit the water supply system and then come back.” The monk fulfilled the task, and when he returned the elder said to him gently: “Well, now sit down and learn. Pray hard: ‘Lord Jesus Christ…’.” And then he added: “What did this child do wrong? The things that everybody does.” Thus he comforted the brother and raised his spirits.
“Christ Is not Risen!”
During Pascha the elder was visited by one pilgrim who greeted him with the words: “Christ Is Risen!” But the elder replied: “Christ Is not Risen!” Thus he wanted to say that we won’t be able to experience the Resurrection of Christ fully until we have cleansed ourselves of our passions (and who can say that he has no sinful passions?). Once we have freed ourselves from all the passions that torment us, we are able to experience the Resurrection in spirit.
Translated from the Russian version by Dmitry Lapa
Ἰλαρίωνος Μοναχοῦ, Γέρων Ἡρωδίων Καψαλιώτης ὁ διὰ Χριστοῦ σαλός (Ὁ κρυφὸς φίλος τοῦ Γέροντος Παισίου). Ἔκδοσις Ἱερᾶς Καλύβης Ἁγίου Χαραλάμπους. Νέα Σκήτη. Ἅγιον Ὄρος 2008.