Elder Philaret of Karoulia. Photo by Pávlos Mylonás, 1959 According to Fr. Daniel from the Danielaioi Brotherhood, Elder Philaret (1872—1962) was one of the heads of Stavronikita Monastery. But he left it because at that time it was an idiorrhythmic monastery and the life of the fathers of its community turned out to be different from what Fr. Philaret preferred. He left it to have more silence and peace of mind, gain perfect stillness of mind and devote himself to the prayer of the heart—something his soul yearned for. Thus he left for the Desert, for Karoulia, and settled at a solitary kalyva.
He had a specialized education, for he joined the monastery at a mature age, having consciously chosen monastic life and rejected married life which entails many cares and worries and often alienates us from God.
He was abstinent, quiet and reticent; he prayed unceasingly and studied the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings tirelessly, comprehending the precepts and Divine meanings of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Day and night he would meditate on the greatness of the love of God and Father for the rebellious and ungrateful man, on the fact that God sacrificed His only begotten Son for him, and He in divine economy of His incarnation agreed to sacrifice Himself to save the human race from bondage of sin.
Elder Philaret vividly imagined the complete mercy, the boundless humility, the terrible suffering, the abuses and horrible torments that the only begotten Son and the Word of God endured as the perfect Man and reflected on the love He revealed, reveals and will always reveal to ungrateful, spiteful and murderous man. He would admire the greatness, glory and peacefulness of the mind that our Lord Jesus Christ breathed into the human heart after His Resurrection on the third day, when He appeared to His disciples, the holy apostles, and said: Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you (Jn. 14:27); and: Receive ye the Holy Ghost... Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained (Jn. 20:22-23). Thus He prepared an abode for the Paraclete, the Originator of the sacraments, the One Who purifies and sanctifies—for the Holy Spirit and God of all things, as He said Himself: But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, Whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (Jn. 14:26).
Praying and meditating on this day and night, Philaret thought that man is the ideal dwelling place for the most good God, the threefold sun in three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—as He says in the Holy Scriptures Himself: If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him (Jn. 14:23).
With his heart inspired by these and other similar spiritual meditations and inflamed by the fire of Divine love, Fr. Philaret wholeheartedly gave himself up to the prayer of the heart; and his heart was filled with love for all the brethren, all people, and the entire world visible and invisible. Driven by these feelings, desiring to help and serve his fellow-monks by some practical ways, he would grow potatoes on the little dry plots of land that he tilled himself; due to the shortage of water, potatoes would grow very small yet quite palatable.
Fr. Philaret would give the yield to all the ascetics in the vicinity saying that that year God had supposedly blessed him with a rich harvest and so he couldn’t eat the whole crop, whereas in reality he didn’t taste a single potato. He wanted everybody else to eat of the fruits of his labor, and he became a partaker of their reward, imitating the Apostle Paul, who said: Ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. …So laboring ye ought to support the weak…, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:34-35). He did the same with the vegetables, radishes and lettuce: he would give away his whole yield, while living on coarse herbs that he cooked and mixed with bran—they made the most excellent food for him.
In order to wear himself out he never wore boots or any other kinds of shoes and he would walk through those precipitous and barely passable areas of Holy Mount Athos barefoot. His feet, which so often hit rocks and owing to the scorching sun that rages in the summer in this region, became calloused and resembled a tortoise shell.
Thus he would make the round of all the hermits, distribute vegetables, potatoes and dried crusts (that he would receive from the nearest monastery) among them, and say: “Fathers and brethren, partake of the blessings and gifts that God has sent us this year!”
Fr. Philaret would often say many various meaningless things so the others would think that he was out of his wits. And he did it so naturally that indeed many considered him to be mad and stupid. And he rejoiced and was in raptures over the fact that many regarded him as an insane person. Thus, many mocked him, despised him and even abused him verbally, while others wondered his purpose for all of this was.
Once Fr. Gerontius, head of the Danielaioi Brotherhood, one of the most spiritually experienced monks, a good iconographer and excellent singer, said to Elder Philaret in all seriousness:
“Forgive me, Brother Philaret, but you are a hypocrite and liar, you walk barefoot and make yourself out to be a saint. You want to impress people in this way so they may think, in other words, that you are a holy man! And you boast of their praise and put on airs, filled with pride and conceit. You miserable man, don’t you know that you will be punished for doing this and leading the brethren into temptation?”
Elder Gerontius said this in the presence of Monk Daniel the younger who later related it to me and assured me that in an instant Elder Philaret repented and apologized. Since he believed that he had indeed tempted Elder Gerontius, every time he was making for the hesychasterion of the Danielaioi Brotherhood he would thenceforth take out a pair of threadbare and excessively big boots that he always carried in his saddlebag and put them on while approaching their house in order not to tempt them.
His customary food was the fruit of the nopal (a cactus) in which Karoulia abounds, because it seems to have been planted very long ago and has since multiplied so much that it has spread all over the rocks. Fr. Philaret would take its fruits, whether fresh or dry, and squash them as they were, with prickles… Then he would mix them with bran and consume them raw or cooked…
He had great reverence and awe for the Holy Most Theotokos; every time he pronounced Her name tears streamed down his eyes. Whenever he heard Church hymns, particularly, “It Is Truly Meet”, he would burst into tears, and his heart spilled over with joy and jubilation.
One day Fr. Daniel said to Elder Philaret:
“Fr. Philaret, I have watched you for a long time and I see that when we sing the psalms you weep instead of rejoicing with everybody else. Why? What exactly makes you weep?”
He replied hesitantly:
“When I hear the brethren sing psalms I travel from earth to heaven in my mind and it seems I hear the angels of God sing. My soul rejoices so much that my eyes fill with tears of joy. Another time, feeling my sinfulness, I cry, unable to sing together with these earthly angels of God. And then my tears start flowing more intensively because I think that if I cannot sing in unison with these brethren here on earth, how will I become worthy of glorifying the Lord our God and sing His name in harmony with the heavenly ranks of angels, unworthy and sinful as I am? With all these thoughts, brother, my eyes always stream tears of joy and sorrow, and in my soul I start glorifying the most holy, precious, and glorious name of the Lord our God.”
Towards the end of his life
Having reached the age of eighty, after austere ascetic labors Elder Philaret grew physically weak, yet his thoughts of and zeal for spiritual life strengthened and increased, as the Apostle Paul says: For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1); and as Christ says: The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41).
Feeling that the moment of his departure for eternity was near, Elder Philaret asked Elder Gerontius, head of the Danielaioi Brotherhood, to give him his blessing and allow Monks Gerontius and Acacius to come to his kalyva in the desert and sing a few Church hymns to him for the glory of God.
Elder Philaret of Karoulia. Photo by Pávlos Mylonás, 1959 Elder Gerontius, knowing Fr. Philaret’s spiritual state, blessed both cantors with exceptional voices, who loved Elder Philaret and held him in reverence. They went to his kalyva in Karoulia with joy and sang him some hymns with spiritual feeling, namely, “The Most Holy Sovereign Lady”, “Entrust Me not to Any Human Protection”, “Fathers of the Desert of Athos” and other beautiful Athonite hymns in exchange for his prayer and blessing.
Tears were flowing from Elder Philaret’s eyes like two streams. He was singing loud praises to God, thanking the All-Holy Mother of Christ and Theotokos Mary. Bending his knees, he offered up a fervent supplication to Christ his Master:
“Preserve, O Lord, the community of the Danielaioi Brotherhood, these angels of the desert. And shield, o my Christ, I beseech Thee, all the monks who out of love for Thee and Divine love have abandoned the world and everything in it, come to hate the illusive good things of the earth, and now seek to enjoy the promised blessings of eternal life, of which by the mouth of Thy Apostle Paul Thou said: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him (1 Cor. 2:9). Protect these monks who have come here, to this holy place—Holy Mount Athos—and also all those who have sought refuge in this haven called the Garden of the Theotokos, from the delusions of satan by Thy power and grace. Grand sober-mindedness, purity of heart and salvation to their souls and to all people. I thank Thee, o my Lord!”
Having finished his ardent prayer, he started teaching us about Divine enlightenment and the earnestness of virtues. He told us how and in what way we can start to pray the prayer of the heart, how we can avoid the delusions of the devil who skillfully sows the tares of self-love and pride in the minds and hearts of those who desire to struggle, grow in spiritual virtues and embark on spiritual warfare where they will have to fight against him face to face. He said to us that they would face many difficulties, but they should not be discouraged; instead they should stand their ground and ceaselessly say the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”
“But, my children, heed my words: pronounce this entire prayer and not just half of it, as some have gotten used to for brevity. According to the Holy Fathers, it is an impermissible error, for by omitting ‘the Son of God’ we annul the theological meaning of this prayer, which, though simple, is filled with theology as it summarizes the whole mystery of economy of the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, as St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite1 says. You must know that from this moment on the devil’s delusion for those who struggle to acquire divine and heavenly prayer (which should be in union with our breathing) begins.
“When we get into the way of pronouncing it properly from the very beginning, our mind will be cleansed from all worldly stains. Then the mind will enter our heart, which will initially feel oppression, pain, shortness of breath, and grief. But if we persevere in uttering the entire prayer (and not half of it), then the human passions and weaknesses that constantly find abode in our hearts will subside. If our heart is eventually cleansed, the torch of Divine light will flare up—that is, heavenly lights will begin to shine and the throne of God will arise there.
“Once all these and many other things (that you will acquire by your labors) have happened, revelations and mysterious victories in spiritual life will follow, and you will see them yourselves if the most good God vouchsafes it to you, under the direction of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then you will march forward without fear, making progress and growing in true spiritual life; and the Divine mysteries that open up before us and can only be comprehended by our mind but cannot be expressed in human words will be revealed to you.
The elder said these and many other things that we could not remember, for these were lofty revelations and meanings which we did not understand well enough. We marveled, saying to ourselves: “What a great spiritual gem is hidden in this earthen vessel!” As the Apostle Paul said: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7).
At some point he said to us:
“And now, my children, I ask you, sing the Athonite hymn and the hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos ‘It Is Truly Meet’.”
When we sang these hymns, he embraced us, gave us the kiss of peace, and said prophetically:
“My brothers and angels of the Sovereign Lady, I will never see you again with my physical eyes; for God through the intercession of the Theotokos and the holy Athonites will take me to His heavenly abodes.”
After that he saw us to the door of his kalyva. The next day, when we came to see him and ask for his prayers and blessing, we found that he had departed this life. He lay on the wooden bed with his hands crossed and his eyes closed, as if sleeping, but in reality his soul had already reached heaven. He sank into his eternal sleep, the blessed repose for which his soul longeth…, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord (Ps. 83:3).
After his repose we discovered that there was a big, gnarly stump under Elder Philaret’s wooden bed, on which he would allow his body to rest a little. His bed was always made up, and the only time he ever touched it was at his hour of death. This is what “sleeping on bare ground” and “bringing your body under subjection” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27) mean.
A temptation in his old age
Geronda Philaret of Karoulia. Photo: Jacques Lacarière, 1954 Several years before Elder Philaret’s death, an evildoer stole all the valuables from his kalyva—that is, all the books by Holy Fathers that he had possessed and read. The police detained the robber with all the books in Thessaloniki. To extricate himself from this situation he claimed that Elder Philaret from Karoulia had sold him the books. So the police charged the elder with illegal trade in antiques—selling the books which were considered a priceless heritage. He kept receiving summons and eventually had to appear before the court as a defendant.
When the Danielaioi Brotherhood learned this sad news, they saw to it that Elder Philaret was dressed in appropriate clothes and took off the torn and patched up, yet very clean, rags that he usually wore. And one of the brethren accompanied him to the court of Thessaloniki.
The elder appeared before the court without a lawyer, while the criminal had secured the service of a very good lawyer, who by his formidable accusatory speech convinced the judges of the elder’s guilt. Regrettably, human justice is often misled and does not discriminate between good and evil in order to judge justly. That is why we see countless unfair sentences and judicial errors.
One pious lawyer who followed the case and saw through the cheat’s crafty scheme and the groundless rhetoric of his lawyer (who was consciously accusing the elder and distorting the truth), took Fr. Philaret’s defense on himself for free and spoke up in favor of the holy and venerable elder. The latter was so simple and kind that, hearing the lawyer speak in his defense, he said with admiration:
“Where does he, a blessed man, have all this knowledge from? Only he who possesses the grace of the Holy Spirit can speak so beautifully and put the case exactly according to the facts!”
When the chief justice called on the elder to swear, Fr. Philaret stood up from the dock, came up to the Holy Gospel, crossed himself three times, and kissed the book reverently. The chief justice told him in a strict voice to lay his hand on the Gospel and swear. When Fr. Philaret asked what book it was the justice answered that it was the Gospel book on which the faithful lay their hands and swear, vouching for the truth of their words.
Elder Philaret answered the chief justice:
“If this is the Gospel, as you say, then please open verse 34 of chapter 5 of the Gospel according to Matthew and you will see the following words: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is His footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black (Mt. 5:34-36).”
The chief justice told the servant to open the Gospel, and when it was done they found that the page with the Lord’s teaching on swearing was missing. Then Elder Philaret said to the chief justice daringly:
“Mr. Chief Justice, as genuine Christians by the grace of God we try to observe what the Gospel of Christ our Master directs us to do. If Christ Himself tells us not to swear, how can we transgress God’s command to follow the commandments of men (cf. Mt. 15:9)—your commandments that instruct people who consider themselves true Christians to swear, though they disobey and disregard His commandment? I am sorry, Mr. Chief Justice, that you call yourselves Christians and do not obey Christ’s commandments.”
The chief justice and the judges felt hurt by the burning words of truth uttered by Elder Philaret and sentenced him to nine months in prison for his refusal to swear.
The elder gladly accepted the sentence and was ready to be sent to prison. But the audience present during the trial, indignant over the unjust decision of the court, which had not punished the robber but had unjustly punished the righteous elder, immediately banded together and paid bail for the elder. And Fr. Philaret, who had been convicted by human trial but had won, triumphed and defended the truth, returned to his kalyva in Karoulia.
According to Fr. Daniel, when he came back to Karoulia, they asked him:
“Father, how was your stay in Thessaloniki? How did you find the world? How was the trial?”
But Elder Philaret answered them with his face shining with joy and with a smile:
“My brothers, everyone makes efforts and struggles for their salvation except me, a sinner.”
He did not say anything else and withdrew into himself.
In addition let us recount a miracle associated with Elder Philaret, an ascetic and hermit from the hesychastic cell of Karoulia. It Divine Providence that made it so that the monk who strove for virtue could lay aside all thoughts and cares for material things, which always impede our progress and confirmation in spiritual life; and, more importantly, are the greatest handicap in our attempt to acquire the unceasing prayer of the heart.
This happened so the most gracious God could free the elder’s heart from all unnecessary cares. This served as a lesson for us—that we should have faith and confidence in God, love and respect for our neighbors.
In 1935, Elder Philaret desperately needed 200 drachmas. This thought captured both his mind and heart. One day, Fr. Gerasimos, a cantor from the Little St. Anne’s Skete, saw him walking towards St. John the Forerunner’s Kalyva very dispirited and asked him what was oppressing him. Fr. Philaret revealed the problem that troubled him to Fr. Gerasimos and the latter at once gave him 200 drachmas, saying:
“Venerable Father Philaret, take this money you need and do not give it back to me; rather, if you can, offer up a prayer to the most good God so He would have mercy on us.”
Fr. Philaret took the money and, thanking Fr. Gerasimos, went to give those 200 drachmas to pay off the debt.
The neext day, Elder Philaret was heading for St. Anne’s Skete. On his way he was continuously repeating the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and Thy world!” as is the custom among monks. Suddenly he saw four papers lying beside each other on the ground. He took them into his hands, looked at them and marveled, because they seemed different from ordinary papers. He returned to Fr. Gerasimos’s hesychasterion from Little St. Anne’s Skete, showed him the papers and asked him with his characteristic simplicity:
“Fr. Gerasimos, what kind of papers are these? I found them below, on the way to St. Anne’s. They lay right on the road!”
Fr. Gerasimos said to him:
“These are four notes of fifty drachmas each, which God has sent you for your needs.”
And indeed, as Fr. Gerasimos told me, these were four brand-new notes of fifty drachmas each.
“Venerable Father, I would like you to share with me what you were saying and what you were thinking about as you were walking to St. Anne’s Skete.”
Fr. Philaret answered him:
“Fr. Gerasimos, what could I repeat other than the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ…?’ But from time to time my mind carried me away back to the 200 drachmas you had given me, so I was thinking on how I could give them back to you. And, while thinking, I saw these papers on the ground. I beg you, take them so my mind can break free from this thought and this debt!”
Fr. Gerasimos marveled at the work of Divine Providence, gave praise to the most good God and asked Fr. Philaret to keep the God-sent money and pray to God for the salvation of his soul.