Archimandrite Hippolytus (Khalin; 1928-2002), an Athonite, was one of the greatest elders of modern Russia. He lived in the Pskov Caves Monastery for twelve years and was under spiritual guidance of the elders of both the Pskov Caves Monastery and Valaam Monastery.
This article is based on the reminiscences of Archimandrite Hippolytus, Schema-Archimandrite Kensorin (Fyodorov), and Nun Maria (Stakhovich). Photographs from their personal archives along with the diary of Schemamonk Nikolai (Monakhov), an elder of Valaam Monastery, have been used.
Archimandrite Hippolytus (Khalin) joined the Pskov Caves Monastery in 1957. He would go to Elder Symeon (Zhelnin), the monastery’s father-confessor, to confess his sins and reveal his thoughts to him. At the monastery he met another young novice, the future Fr. Kensorin, and they were to remain lifelong friends. They would go to Fr. Symeon together, and one day he said to them:
“The Fathers-superiors have come! You will become abbots.”
And in time Fr. Kensorin became abbot of Svyatogorsk Monastery of the Dormition in the Diocese of Pskov, and Fr. Hippolytus, after Mt. Athos became abbot of the Rylsk-St. Nicholas Monastery in the Diocese of Kursk. With the blessing of Elder Symeon both novices were tonsured into the mantia on the same day in 1959.
After the army I moved from my native Yaroslavl to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, intending to enter the seminary. But I was told there:
I came to Elder Symeon and remained in Pechory. I began to assist him. Fr. Symeon had great humility. His legs ached and he couldn’t walk up into the St. Michael’s Cathedral.2 I and another cell-attendant would offer him: “Father, allow us to carry you!” We would fold our arms in the form of a chair, he would humbly and joyfully sit down on them like a child, and we would lift him. I stayed with Fr. Symeon for three years, right until his death.
We lived together with Fr. Hippolytus at the Pskov Caves Monastery. At first we worked at the bakery. He was noted for his simplicity, love, humility, and meekness. He would recollect his early years: “In my youth I was cheerful, liked joking, dancing and was a ‘live wire’. But whenever I stayed alone, I felt very depressed, suffering, worrying and thinking about the purpose of my life, thinking about how to make the right choice in life. All these questions kept pestering me.”
In February 1959, on the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, we were tonsured into the mantia together at the Dormition Church. We received our monastic names in honor of two martyrs of Rome, namely the Hieromartyr Hippolytus and the Martyr Kensorin. We spent the first night after the monastic tonsure at the church of St. Lazarus living quarters, where the Valaam elders resided. A year later Fr. Hippolytus was ordained a hieromonk, while I served as a hierodeacon for eight years.
Fr. Hippolytus was my friend and father-confessor at the same time. I often confessed my sins to him. Sometimes I was too ashamed to confess my sins, but Fr. Hippolytus, a gentle and merciful pastor, was lenient with me, feeling and knowing our human weakness and nature perfectly well. Fr. Hippolytus was the person I loved the most and held closest, and it’s such a pity he is no longer with us.
When he lived on Mt. Athos, he would send letters to me. It was seen from his letters that Fr. Hippolytus felt homesick, missing his homeland and his fellow-countrymen. He used to write to me: “Treasure the fact that you live in Russia. Kiss your native soil.” Once I learned that Fr. Hippolytus had returned from Mt. Athos, I went to the Pskov Caves Monastery to see him. I will never forget how Fr. Hippolytus, on seeing me walking on the territory of the monastery, opened the ventilating window and shouted like a child: “Father Kensorin, do come to see me!” I was amazed by his simplicity and love and even my tears began to flow. His perfection was in his love, simplicity, and accessibility to people.
From the reminiscences of Schema-Archimandrite Kensorin (Fyodorov):
After Fr. Hippolytus’s return from Holy Mount Athos I would visit him at Rylsk Monastery every year. When I arrived there for the first time, the monastery was in ruins, the community was tiny and lived in poor conditions. Despite all these difficulties, Fr. Hippolytus always gave a cordial welcome to guests and would be in a buoyant mood. The monastery was restored very quickly. Thousands of people—the sick, the afflicted and those who needed the grace-filled elder’s consolation—flocked to the monastery. He would always wear an old cassock and carry a simple stick. Over the fifty years of my ordained ministry I have not seen any other pastors who were as meek, humble, and loving as Fr. Hippolytus. And people felt drawn to him—five to six buses full of pilgrims would come to Rylsk Monastery every single day. Hundreds of people would line up to speak to the elder, seek his spiritual counsel, and ask for his prayers.
And now that the beloved elder is dead, there is a permanent influx of the faithful to his grave. Last time I visited Rylsk Monastery on Fr. Hippolytus’s name day. Five buses of pilgrims arrived from Moscow, Belgorod, Kursk and elsewhere. Believers flock to Fr. Hippolytus today just as they did in his lifetime. Love doesn’t die even after death. And Fr. Hippolytus won people’s hearts with love.”
The elders of Valaam
Fathers Hippolytus and Kensorin would often visit the great elders of Valaam, who lived in the Pskov Caves Monastery: Schemamonk Nikolai (Monakhov), Hieroschemamonk Michael (Pitkevich), and Schema-Igumen Luke (Zemskov).
Schema-Hieromonk Michael (Pitkevich; 1877-1962)
In the Soviet era Valaam Monastery was for many years under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Finland, which introduced the new calendar and planned other Church reforms. The monks who refused to accept the reforms were severely punished. The “Old Calendarists” defended the old Julian calendar and the genuine Orthodox paschalia, regarding the innovation as a war against Church tradition, and dangerous renovationism.
Fr. Michael headed the resistance of the defenders of the old calendar and called on everybody to “preserve the purity of Orthodoxy”. With a group of monks he was forced to move from Valaam to Finland, and then, in 1957, at the venerable age of eighty he came to the Pskov Caves Monastery. When he lived in Finland, he used to say: “Sorrows and suffering purify Russian people.” The Russian land is “the land of martyrs, the land of confessors of faith; soaked in the blood of the martyrs, it is being ‘refined’ just as gold is purified by fire. Even if the cross or the martyrdom awaits me there, I want to die in my motherland alongside my people.” Fr. Michael always referred to the Church inside Russia as “the Russian Orthodox Church of the Confessors”, though abroad it was often called, “the Soviet Church”.
For more than thirty years, Fr. Michael performed a very rare kind of ascetic feat [“podvig” in Russian] on Valaam—he was a recluse and an elder at the same time. He was the Valaam brethren’s father-confessor. He would live in remote Valaam sketes or in a solitary cell, and he celebrated the daily Divine Liturgy for forty-one years! He practiced contemplative prayer (hesychasm) and eventually attained dispassion, which he called “inner stillness”. Fr. Hippolytus recalled how once he had seen Fr. Michael surrounded by supernatural fire as he walked. The Lord showed him the elder’s degree of perfection.
In his instructions Fr. Michael would stress that humility and love are the most important things in spiritual life. Love for one’s neighbor can save even an inveterate, hardened sinner: “Love covers all”. He encouraged creating good conditions for prayer: “Above all maintain the peace of your heart, be patient, humble, contrite, and, most importantly, keep peace of mind. Avoid the things that crowd out your peace. You need to pay close attention to yourself and exercise discretion in order not to lose the most precious thing—peace of mind. Never judge anyone, and then peace will reign in your heart. Learn to keep silence.”
The elder distinguished between two kinds of silence. Firstly, this is silence as lack of response to any malice. But, secondly, there is the more important inner stillness—spiritual peace and hesychia. Holy elders attain this state: they can talk all day long, while preserving inner stillness. Fr. Michael taught: “You need to try and attain a calm spirit, for there can be nothing good in a passionate soul.” This is what the true “hermit’s life and reclusion” are like—“the Kingdom of God, rightly understood”, where the Jesus prayer unceasingly serves God inside one’s heart. This peace begins to reign once all thoughts of judgment have stopped.
The state of hesychia, a calm spirit, shows the heart’s depth, and an ascetic truly perceives his sinfulness. This leads to deep repentance and purification: “Purity of heart is vital! Only blessed hesychia raises you to the holy purity of the heart. It is sincerity, truthfulness, and purity of heart that underlie all the main things.” Fr. Michael, who knew the things he taught his monks by his own experience, used to say that this is “an ideal, a feat which is beyond our strength!”
The elder taught his spiritual children to fight and become winners in spiritual warfare. Nun Maria (Stakhovich), his spiritual daughter, recalled his precepts: “Enduring many hardships—this is our sacrifice to God. The Lord tests our faithfulness by sorrows. All who choose the monastic path will encounter sorrows and trials. The strongest will face them at the beginning, and the weakest will experience them at the very end lest they take flight. But don’t be afraid of anything. Divine grace won’t abandon a monk as long as he doesn’t turn away from God. Don’t try to avoid sorrows and suffering; have courage and determination to endure all things for God’s sake. Resist and struggle, and let the Lord decide the rest. It is impossible to avoid sorrows from demons; if they are unable to do you harm, they will send people to do it in their stead. It will take a lot of attention and effort.”
The elder bitterly lamented the defects of monastic life in his time, particularly phariseeism, worldliness, and the loss of the true monastic spirit. He would say with sadness that there was vanity everywhere, that the world with its corrupt customs was introducing new rules into the monasteries. The elder referred to the Pharisees of the time with their self-righteous hypocrisy as to “hairsplitters”. “Even if you read all the prayer rules in the world, your soul won’t benefit from this if you don’t have a broken and contrite heart. Take the first commandment and take pains to obey it—it’ll be your rule! But if you stand through all services, read all prayers, and act in compliance with the monastic rule without cleansing yourself inwardly, you will be like the Pharisees. Don’t be a hairsplitter! This is not to say that the rules and discipline shouldn’t be observed; we must abide by these rules, but if we do it in this manner, we will bring condemnation on ourselves.”
Fr. Michael’s favorite maxim was: “Love everybody and avoid everybody.” Fr. Hippolytus would repeat it as well, exhorting his monks. Likewise, Fr. Hippolytus didn’t tolerate phariseeism and hair-splitting. Of course, his attitude towards his motherland was in the same “spirit of Valaam”.
From the reminiscences of Schema-Archimandrite Kensorin (Fyodorov):
In 1962, I was blessed to become the Valaam elders’ cell-attendant. I performed this holy obedience for eight years—the Lord was extremely merciful to me! The Valaam elders lived in the St. Lazarus living quarters. They always gave me a cordial welcome, and I was so happy with my new obedience and took care of them with love. I felt their prayers, and my heart was filled with the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to express the impressions of my communication with them. I cannot find words to express all my feelings just as one cannot describe the beauty of nature to somebody who was born blind.
Fr. Michael poured out his love on everybody and was lenient towards human weakness. Everywhere he was concerned about the salvation of others, with all his heart striving to satisfy the highest demand of God—the commandment of love. He loved seclusion. Whenever I had an opportunity to speak to Fr. Michael, he would say: “Living in the monastery, I knew only two paths: to the church and to my cell.” For several years he lived in complete seclusion, celebrating the Divine Liturgy in his cell on a daily basis. I would bring prosphora and hot water to his cell. Fr. Michael loved all who came to him. After the departure of some visitors he would lie in bed, feeling very unwell, in some cases for several days. He gave his grace to his visitors and took their infirmities instead.
Fr. Michael wanted to die on either Pascha or the Annunciation. At the end of Great Lent, on the feast of Annunciation, he passed away. Before his repose he invoked a multitude of saints, so many saints that I marveled at his ability to remember the names of all of them. Fr. Hippolytus cared for and devoted much attention to Fr. Michael when the latter was sick. He would spend a lot of time inside Fr. Michael’s cell, reading the Gospel for hours. Fr. Hippolytus continued to love the elders throughout his life. In those early years, through communication with those men of prayer, the Lord was preparing him to be an elder.
We, modern monks, will never achieve the perfection of the Valaam elders. They were real spiritual guides: They took their spiritual children by the hand and guided them in the way of salvation. Ascetics are the salt of the earth; monasticism will disappear without ascetics, and the world won’t be able to exist without monasticism.
Schemamonk Nikolai (Monakhov; 1876-1969)
One of his notes is to do with the period of division among the Valaam brethren in 1925: “They were trying to force us to adopt the new calendar. The Church administration headed by our Abbot Paulinus came and the Church court met. One after another we were summoned to the court room. At last it was my turn. I entered the room, where Fr. Paulinus with other Church administration members were sitting. They asked me: ‘Will you attend services at the cathedral according to the new calendar?’ For some reason I became speechless at that moment and was unable to answer their questions. Then they said: ‘Go and think it over, servant of God.’ I began to pray to the Holy Virgin, ‘Surety of Sinners’, in my heart: ‘Tell me whether I should follow the new or the old calendar.’ And an inner voice answered: ‘Stick to the old calendar.’ Next I heard a woman’s voice from above: ‘If you want to be saved, adhere to the tradition of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers.’ Then I heard the same thing again, and even for the third time that voice said to me: ‘If you want to be saved, adhere to the tradition of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers, and not these smarties.’ My heart rejoiced, as the Lord through the intercession of His Most Pure Mother showed me the path of salvation.”
The wonderworking icon “Surety of Sinners” stood in a modest frame on the chest of drawers in Schemamonk Nikolai’s cell. The elder would pray in front of it day and night. The elder composed sublime chants and doxologies in honor of the Mother of God. In 1957, on the feast of the icon “Surety of Sinners”, he recorded the following miracle. He was serving the Vigil with Brother Alexander in his cell. “I came up to the icon and saw the Queen of Heaven come out of the icon, standing, as if She were alive, with Her Son. She was joyful. I touched Her hand, which was warm and full, as was the foot of Infant Christ. I went up to the brother and said: ‘Look! The Queen of Heaven has come out of the icon! Go and venerate Her.’ But by the time he got there, the Virgin Mary was in Her place again.”
From the reminiscences of Schema-Archimandrite Kensorin (Fyodorov):
I communicated with Elder Nikolai more than with anybody else. We shared the same cell with him. One day I was so unwell that I couldn’t perform my obedience. Seeing him in the garden, I gladly rushed towards the elder and told him about my misfortune. He embraced me tight, pressed me against his chest, and I instantly was healed by his embrace. In his presence I always felt that he was a holy man. This is how Fr. Michael (Pitkevich) characterized Elder Nikolai: “He is a grace-filled elder. The grace of God is given to ascetics for great spiritual labors, but Elder Nikolai has received it for his great humility and love.” He had the gift of unceasing prayer. He particularly liked to pray at night. At about eleven in the evening he would sit down on his arm-chair and pray through the night till five in the morning. When I got up, he would say: “Now it’s time for me to rest a little. Night-time prayer is pleasing to the Almighty.”
Living alongside him, I sensed how the heavenly light illuminated his cell while he was praying; in those minutes my soul was filled with indescribable joy. After the midnight prayer and the church service I would give tea to the elder and go to perform my obediences at the prosphora bakery or elsewhere, while Monk Nikolai would pray for the holy monastery, its brethren, all the people who were laboring there, and for the whole world.
He would always meet me with a great joy, just as any child meets his loving mother. The elder possessed many qualities of a child; namely simplicity, humility, obedience, and an amazing, unfathomable love. He used to say: “The Lord once told me: ‘In your old age you will be like a child.’” Even his countenance was the evidence of this. I would often serve in the church, and the amazing thing is that whenever the elder needed my help he would turn to God, asking Him to “send” me to him. I felt this urge every time and would come to him just at the right moment. Schemamonk Nikolai was blind for ten years and naturally needed permanent assistance. But despite his needs he would often allow me to go and serve in the church or perform my obediences. I often saw his face transformed in an unearthly joy—in those moments the elder was visited by celestial beings. But he out of humility would conceal these things from me. One day, when I came back from church, the elder was in tears. He said, “The Lord has visited me.”
Elder Nikolai would welcome the brethren and pilgrims warmly and with great joy, and even kissed the hands of many of them. He taught all of us humility, obedience, and love, saying: “God is love; there is no salvation without love.” He had immense humility. One day, when my mother Zinaida came to help me take care of the elders, I said jokingly: “Now I will test the humility of our Schemamonk Nikolai.” I just came up to him and said: “Why did you offend my mother, Brother Nikolai?” On hearing this, the elder prostrated himself before her: “Aunt Zinaida, forgive me, a sinner, for hurting you!” The elder was ninety-three. With some difficulty I helped him stand up and seated him on the armchair. Then I said to my mother: “Do you see what a humble heart Schemamonk Nikolai has? If you dare say to one or another novice at our monastery that he has committed an offence, he will find hundreds of words to make excuses and will justify himself for hours.”
Feeling that his end was near, during Great Lent of 1969 Elder Nikolai said: “This is my last Pascha.” He wanted to repose on Pascha, and the Lord took his soul on Mid-Pentecost. Schemamonk Nikolai was a holy man who showed us holiness through his living experience and by his example.