Fr. Pimen has written the best book to date about Athonite monasteries and sketes—Holy Mount Athos, the Garden of the Theotokos, known to all Romanian Athonites and pilgrims.
He came from Bukovina, from the village of Cornu Luncii, and was born in the monastic life in Sihastria Monastery, where he spent two years before the army and two after it. He has been laboring in asceticism in Lacu Skete on Holy Mount Athos, together with his blood brother, Fr. Dosifei, since the age of twenty-four. Fr. Pimen built two cells in Lacu: the first, dedicated to the holy Martyr Artemius, in 1996—it is pastored by Fr. Dosifei now; and the second, in honor of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, in 2009, where eight monks now labor with him. One of Father’s sisters also chose the monastic path.
Every encounter with Fr. Pimen fills the soul with joy. Wherever you see him, he always radiates calm and serenity, and you sense that it is because there is no guile in his soul—it is pure. “How does he manage not to fold under the burden of cares? He is the abbot, after all,” I marveled once and asked him about it. “I reveal all my requests and desires to God alone,” he replied. This is what it means to truly believe that God cares for you, and not rely on yourself! If you lay your sorrows upon the Lord, you will find peace.
—Father, when did you come to Athos?
—I arrived in 1993.
—From Sihastria of Secu.1
—Is that where you were born to monastic life?
—Yes. But first I lived at Sihla, a skete of Sihastria Monastery. From late 1987, I spent about two years there in the mountains, in Sihla. Then I went to serve in the army, but the enlistment office sent us home, because that was the day Ceaușescu fled. They didn’t know what to do with us, and said: “Go home; come back when the revolution is over!” So I returned home. Then, when everything had calmed down, I went and served in the army.
—And how did your love for monasticism arise?
—Love for monasticism does not arise. Monasticism is a calling. When God calls, even if you are bound with ten chains, you will break them and go. When it’s time to go down the monastic path, you go!
—And how was it with you: gradually or immediately?
—Immediately. It was like a fire. It was the grace of God, and when grace descends upon you, you no longer see anything else. I left for the monastery late in the evening, after ten o’clock, with snowdrifts up to the roof. When God calls you, you leave everything and go, not making any plans for monasticism.
—And before that you never had any thoughts about becoming a monk? Because I suspect you were an exemplary Christian from a young age.
—Yes, I went to the monastery for many years—my spiritual father was there. I always went to Fr. Cleopa. I never missed a service in the village church. In the summer, I would spend a few months at the monastery, but I didn’t make the final decision to become a monk. I understood the seriousness of such a step and sometimes thought about whether I could remain in a monastery my entire life. But, when grace came down…
—And now? Do you feel the same abundant outpouring of grace?
—No, it left. But then… It was like throwing yourself into the abyss head first, because you knew God would catch you. You know for sure that He will take you in His arms. And then you leave everything and go. And having left, you rely on the will of God. The grace of God overcomes everything human, and every thought recedes.
—How many were in your family, Father?
—Yes. I am from a Christian family.
—Were there any monastics? Isn’t one of your brothers also a monk—Fr. Dosifei?
—Yes. He’s also in Lacu. You wrote about him a few years ago, calling him Sophrony. I kept racking my brain: Who is this Sophrony he’s talking about?
—Forgive me! He’s the one who’s beard was half-white and half-black, right?
—Yes. Only, now his beard is completely white.
—Ah! A man’s life is an ascent up the mountain to forty years, and then begins the descent. Having passed the forty-year mark, you start receiving telegrams: your hair grows lighter (or completely falls out), then you start to creak—a leg, an arm.
—How old are you? Your beard is pretty black…
—So, you’re already on the descent?
—Well, yes. Me too. A man has all his strength up to forty years. He can still dream, climb mountains, and so on. Then body parts start giving out; this means it’s time for him to prepare. If he is strong, he will live to eighty, and perhaps more, but only with difficulty and elderly sufferings, for the penalty for sins—sickness and death—is already coming.
—Yes, but you shouldn’t get sick, because here, on the Holy Mount, it seems you wouldn’t especially sin.
—Yes, the dampness in Lacu is enough to give you rheumatism. You don’t have to wait for the payment for your sins. This dampness kills! In the summer, when it’s warm, the moisture rises from the sea and hangs here, in our “pit” (as the name of the skete is translated from Greek—λάκκο). Therefore, no one but Romanians live here. There isn’t a single cell within three hours walking distance, neither on the way to St. Paul’s, or in the other direction, before Provata, on the way to Karakallou. And the sea is far…
—Thanks to the dampness, there’s a true Romanian enclave here!
—Yes. “The innermost, deepest desert,” as this place has been called since antiquity.
—Why did the Romanians choose it?
—Because they liked the silence. They were lovers of reclusion. And there was water here. They set up a small garden by the cell and that’s how they lived in the desert. They scraped out grooves in logs, connecting them to one another to bring water to the garden. At that time, there were no wells, no pumps, no installations for drip irrigation, and all these aids we have today.
—You must know the history of these places.
—I know that in ancient times these lands belonged to Vatopedi, but at some point it made an exchange with St. Paul’s Monastery, which it was indebted to, and so this place wound up being owned by St. Paul’s. At first there were Serbs here, and there were many of them in St. Paul’s Monastery, but little by little, the area was deserted. Then the Romanians came.
—How many cells are there in Lacu today?
—Fourteen are finished already, and three are still being built.
—How did you wind up on Athos, Father?
—I arrived on the Holy Mountain the same way I left for the monastery. The Mother of God took me by the hand and led me here. Even just a month before I had never thought about going to Athos. I was calm. I had just been made an assistant to the steward in Sihastria. There were thirty monks and twenty workers under my command, and all the work in the monastery. I had already gone through all the obediences by then, including tending the sheep for a year.
Then, a month before I left for Athos, my father came to visit, and we walked around the garden and up the mountain a while to talk quietly. And just then, Fr. Cleopa was coming down the mountain. He was heading for the monastery, and suddenly turned to me sand said: “Look, don’t run off to Athos!” He said it like a man who knew better than me what awaited me in the future. It was like if he had said: “I know you’re going to run off to Athos!” My father asked me why he said this. “How do I know? He knows what he’s saying,” I replied, not attaching any importance to the Elder’s words.
Four weeks passed, and in just a month, I could no longer see anything before my eyes except Athos! And although everything was rather difficult at that time, the Mother of God arranged everything in a week, and I left for the Holy Land, and then for Athos, without a penny in my pocket. I needed two visas—an Israeli and a Schengen—and I got them without any problems. Every door flung open before me as if by magic. In fact, it was the Mother of God interceding for me to go to her garden.
I could write an entire book just about this pilgrimage: how I sometimes spent the night in the bushes because I didn’t have a penny, leapt up at five in the morning and got myself cleaned up: I would look for a bathroom to wash up and then leave this place.
—Where was this?
—In Jerusalem. I spent about a week in Israel, until the Mother of God took care of it, and I got both money and a Schengen visa to go to Greece, to the Holy Mountain. I didn’t eat anything for three days, until the boat reached Athens from Tel Aviv. Ah, what an opportunity it was! There’s a whole story with my trip from Athens to Thessaloniki and then to Athos. Imagine, I didn’t know anyone either in Thessaloniki or on the Holy Mountain to get a diamontirion (permission to enter Mt. Athos). But the Mother of God helped, and sent people to help me at the right time.
—And where did you go first on Mt. Athos?
—To Prodromou,2 because, coincidentally or not, the skete’s car was in Karyes at that time and took me there, to our Romanian cenobia. Then, since they were waiting for some pilgrims to arrive in Prodromou, and there was no space in the guest house, they took us to Lacu. And I stayed here.
—There was only one cell then, in the kyriakon (skete church)—“the Father’s house,” as we called it. And there was rain pouring into this cell! Forgive me, Lord! And it couldn’t be repaired so easily because it was covered with shingles laid on clay, which all washed and flowed away with the rain. I had a basin over my bed in this cell. There was a sheet of metal coming from it, along which water flowed to the stove, where there was another water-collecting basin. That’s about how the cell of all the monks in Lacu looked at that time.
—A hard life!
—The skete was in complete poverty at that time. We would dig up a couple of potatoes in the garden, pick some nettles, and that was all our food. We’d make a big pot of stew from it, and that was enough for us for half a week. On Thursday, we’d cook another and eat that for another three days. We spent two years this way. We would try a couple of grapes after Transfiguration, and that was it! We didn’t have a change of clothes. Just Church vestments. That was it! Then we found some patched-up tatters in the attack and make work clothes out of them.
—How difficult it was for you!
—Yes. Back then, if we received some Turkish delight from someone, we would cut it into four parts and put it out for guests. We didn’t have anything edible in those days—just whatever grew in our garden.
—Wasn’t it better then?
—Well, yes! Much better! We had silence then. There was no commotion. Although calmness comes from within. Look, Fr. Porphyry spent thirty years in Athens, and what measures did he achieve? We must completely trust God! All fears arise from a lack of faith in God: you’re afraid you’ll get sick, that you’ll die from hunger, that you won’t survive in the desert…
—So you live according to the word of the Lord: Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Mt. 6:34).
—And look, it says right there: Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (Mt. 6:31). Entrust yourself to God and the Mother of God, for she is the best intercessor: All gifts come through her. And you won’t need anything because the Lord gives you all you need. And if you don’t have something, or you’re lacking in it, it means you don’t need it.
I once heard a Greek preach about how a handful of Hellenes managed to survive and even conquer the overwhelming forces of the Italian fascists. It was about George Kastritis, who saw the Most Holy Theotokos surrounded by a host of saints. She said she was going to the frontline to protect the Orthodox. That’s who truly won the battle.
And this father said that it often happens that we honor the Most Holy Theotokos more than Christ, but He is not grieved by this, because God is not like people: He actually rejoices that we honor His Mother, the Queen of Heaven and Earth. Who is more powerful in Heaven or on Earth than the Mother of God? And if you grasp the robe of the Theotokos, what evil can touch you? Rely on her care and nothing can hurt you. Doesn’t she know that you’re in pain?
And then, why do you have so many cares? Such as, “What will I do tomorrow?” Are you sure you’ll live to see tomorrow? And what if you lay your head on your pillow and in the morning you no longer get up for prayer?
The enemy’s greatest fight with man is that he doesn’t allow him to live in the present—either in the future or the past, but not in the present! So the elderly would talk about how wonderful people used to be, during their youth, and the youth thought about their plans for the future. And they don’t live in the moment. They don’t live in the present. They say, “Tomorrow I’ll do this and that, the next day something else,” and today they do nothing, especially for their salvation. But, man, rejoice in this moment, in the people who are near you, whom God has placed in your path…
—Amen, Father! That’s why I came to your holiness today!
—… the beauty around you, birds, trees, flowers, and the grass. But no, man always tells himself that he’ll do something tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes, he says the same thing again: that tomorrow he’ll do and finish something. And thus we neither live nor die. We stand with one foot in the grave and the other on the ground; we don’t live in the present and rejoice in nothing.
Here you are in the world: Rejoice in one another! In your wife, your children. Let go of the sins of others, don’t attach importance to everything—you also sin sometimes, and someone has to put up with you. In the evening, embrace them all, and ask forgiveness from everyone, because you don’t know if you’ll wake up in the morning. Or perhaps one of them will die, and some grievance will remain between you, God forbid!
So, all of this doesn’t allow us to rejoice in life, when we don’t know how to turn everything to an advantage. Let us live beautifully and rejoice in everything that God allows us to rejoice in. And so we will pass into that joy that exists in the other world.
And what do we do? We get in the car, we drive 125 miles an hour, and who sees that a tree has bloomed? Do any of us watch how the grass grows? No.
—More likely, we sit on Facebook and Instagram.
—Yes, maybe. Or, perhaps, you’ll drive hundreds of miles and you won’t see anything, because there’s nothing in your mind except your plans. Your mind is wandering elsewhere. Everyone talks about love today and everyone is suffering from loneliness. Why? Because no one lives in the present.
—You’re right, Father. I would say there’s nothing but the present moment: Yesterday is already gone, and tomorrow has not yet come. Right now there is nothing but our conversation.
—Yes. What is it I want to say? Previously, everyone knew everyone in every village. A rock couldn’t even fall without the last babushka on the edge of the village finding out. And the priest knew his entire flock. Now people live in the same building for twenty years and don’t know one another. At most, they’ll greet one another when they meet, and that’s it. But we should rejoice in one another.
—Yes, and more so what Abba Apollo said: “If you have seen your neighbor, you have seen God.”3
—Yes. And St. Anthony the Great says that both life and death come to from your neighbor.4 And then you can’t be so poor that you don’t give him something, at least a smile. In response, some might say that you’re not totally right in the head, and others will say that you are blessed, but you’ll do good for the majority. It’s better than being gloomy. Everyone used to greet one another in the villages, and often even inquired about their health.
—Father, when I moved to the city, I greeted everyone I met for six months!
—You had a good home upbringing. If you don’t greet someone, even the priest will find out about this outrage!
—This happened to me in childhood. I was five then, and one fine day I was rushing to the clinic to see my father—God rest his soul!—and passed by some people who were digging a ditch, forgetting to greet them. They called out to me: “Hey, are you the son of Mihai so-and-so?” I said yes, then Ilie Paleur said: “Come back here, you forgot something!” I went back and looked carefully under my feet—I hadn’t lost anything there. They said again: “Come back again!” It was only then that I realized I hadn’t said, “God help us,” to them. That’s how people were in my youth!
—Yup. We could get along so well, with great love and respect. But we’re usually prevented from doing this by our egotism. We always worry about one day, which, in any case, isn’t ours, but we also have a certain sickness—the desire to always be treated fairly.
—This thirst for justice is our national scourge, Father! We can’t tolerate anyone or anything. St. Isaac the Syrian said it so wonderfully: “Whoever can endure injustice and abolish it has received comfort from God.”5
—Yes. But today everyone wants to be treated fairly, and everyone wants to be right. I remember a story about a rabbi to whom the Jews would come to litigate. Once, Rachel was cooking in the kitchen (since the door was ajar, she heard lawsuits people were bringing to the court), and she heard how her husband acquitted both sides in the same case. Annoyed, she asked him: “How can they both be right?” “Listen, you know what? You’re right too,” the wise Jew replied. He acquitted everyone. Do you see? It’s important that you have a peaceful disposition of spirit, that you not worry, and then you will preserve peace around you, in those around you, and at home, in your family. This is the only way to grant it to others.
To be continued...