Two decades ago, two great Elders—Cleopa (Ilie) and Marcu (Dumitrescu)—were living in the apiary of Sihăstria Monastery. The first carried out the ascetic labor of reclusion in the mountains for many years, and the second spent more than twenty years in inhuman conditions in prison. When they met, they began to share their experiences with one another; the one—his experience gained in prison misadventures, the other—the experience of severe hardships that a man experiences in the thickets of the forest, in complete isolation from other people. These secret conversations were heard by the young novice Vissarion who helped Elder Marcu take care of the bees. Now a gray-haired spiritual father, he has agreed to lift the veil of secrecy from these spiritual revelations of the Elders.
Monk Mark (Dumitrescu) When they threw him into it, he thought that’s it—that’s the end. A disgusting cell with no glass in the small window, no floors, no bunks. The prisoners called it “the refrigerator” because the frost easily penetrated into it; a black hole where only death could live. There was nothing to sit on. It was impossible to rest for even a minute.
Those who wound up here would walk back and forth, never standing still, until they fell over. Little by little, minute by minute, the terrible frost would conquer the warmth of heart, shackle the members of the body until it was unable to fight anymore, and life would depart from the stiff, breathless body. Then guards would come and drag it away, to toss it into a common grave.
They didn’t get any food, just some water, and that not even every day. No one survived… The gradually subsiding groans of their comrades could be heard through the wall, and an eerie silence hung over the endless loneliness of the prison.
They threw Fr. Marcu in there to finish him off. But he was hardened by monastery podvigs; he knew how to fight with fear and had already endured a seemingly infinite amount of pain. He was one of the few prisoners who didn’t break when they were tortured. He didn’t let out a single cry, and so he was tortured more than the others. But he was powerless against the cold. He felt the icy coldness flowing into his body, drop by drop, through the walls. And he started doing prostrations: 1, 2, 3, 10, 100, 1,000… “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner! Thou Who hast created me from the dust, have mercy on me! Countless times have I sinned O Lord, forgive me! The spirit of purity, patience, and love grant to Thy servant!”
Lightly banging his forehead on the icy floor, he thought about the Lord’s Passion, about His dreadful and shameful sufferings on the Cross, about the frantic crowd of Jews, and about the Savior’s love, incomprehensible for those who crucified Him. In comparison with the pain and love of Christ, his prison sufferings seemed small and easy bear—enough that he could compress them in his heart into the size of a kernel and fling them into the sea of oblivion, so there remained only love and pity for everyone, even the poor guards, the executioners, who didn’t know what they were doing and to what they were condemning themselves forever. A tear would stream down for them, and then one more, sealing his supplication and forgiveness.
He didn’t know how long he’d been doing prostrations. He didn’t count them; he wasn’t thinking about the minutes. Time, which is hard to get moving in prison, expanded and swallowed him up. His thoughts quickly turned to the monastery so dear to his heart; to the glades where the sun shines, playing with its rays on the untouched snow; to midnight vigils lit by flickering candles; to his friend and abbot Fr. Cleopa.
When he recovered, he found that he had been sleeping directly on the icy concrete, and yet, he was soaked with sweat! The walls all around seemed to be hot, like in a furnace. An amazing warmth, seemingly emanating directly from his heart flooded the small room, which began to feel like his cell to him. God had poured His fire on him, enveloping him in love. And he felt free and happy.
An apiary full of spiritual honey
Elder Cleopa (Ilie) “I heard this story at the Sihăstria apiary from Fr. Marcu (Dumitrescu), when he told it to Fr. Cleopa. I would bring him food there, right to the hives, and they would sit with each other for hours, reminiscing: one about his eremitic misadventures, the other about his own in prison. Both would weep, sharing terrible memories that they hid from others so as not to fall into the temptation of pride. And I, a little spiritual child, marveled that God allowed me to be a witness to such a council—the council of saints.”
Fr. Vissarion (Neag) was a new novice then. As soon as he joined the brotherhood of the great Sihăstria Monastery, he was given the obedience to help Fr. Marcu look after the bees. Old age was taking its toll, and Fr. Marcu couldn’t keep the hives in order by himself anymore.
“He was a very quiet man, always attentive to prayer. I rarely heard him say a word not related to the Gospel or asceticism. He would tell me what I should do at the apiary, but briefly, so as not to waste time on it. Then he would turn his attention inward, fixing the eyes of his mind upon Christ.”
Fr. Cleopa, a fiery preacher and guide of Romanian monasticism, also had a little house at the apiary. He would come there to be alone, to give himself over to Divine contemplation and writing spiritual words. He would sit at the table with Fr. Marcu. They would spread out whatever God sent on a log the size of your hand, and “eat like children. They would take pieces from each other and talk only of spiritual things. They took counsel with one another more than they ate.” It was a feast of the soul.
To be an “apprentice” of such elders was a great blessing for Fr. Vissarion! Fr. Marcu was one of the most seasoned monks of Sihăstria. He spent two decades in prison, and how they tortured him! The guards were infuriated by his patience, which became the talk of the town. He endured everything silently, praying and accepting his sufferings as a penance for his sins. This angered the executioners most of all, and they tortured him more than the others. Thus, they nicknamed him “Fakir,” because the prisoners thought he didn’t feel any pain. But he did.
“They talked like I was stronger in temptations, but I confess to you that I also wouldn’t have been able to withstand all the temptations that I’ve been through over the past twenty-some years if not for God’s grace helping me. Only the mercy of God upheld me, and I didn’t know if I would be as strong in the future. I wasn’t afraid of them; I wasn’t afraid of anything. For there we were upheld only by the power of grace and the faith within us. But no one can be sure today that either of these will be present tomorrow.”
“I met Fr. Vissarion (Neag) in Ţara Moţilor, at Crişan Monastery. Father erected it from scratch, as Fr. Cleopa foretold to him in his youth at the same Sihăstria apiary. They often talked about Ardealu, how it was left without monasteries due to the persecution. The times were harsh and the communist authorities didn’t allow new monasteries to be built then, so no one even expected that monks would appear in Transylvania again. And yet the wise Sihăstria elder told Fr. Vissarion then, in the very midst of the communist dictatorship, to be calm: ‘Transylvania will call you to sacrifice.’”
Now, more than two decades after these mysterious words were spoken, the abbot understood what his spiritual father wanted to tell him then. Indeed, after the December revolution of 1989, Transylvania started calling its sons home, and hundreds of monks from Moldavian and Muntenian monasteries started erecting sketes and monasteries there, correcting the mistakes of merciless history with their zeal. Fr. Cleopa’s prophecy was fulfilled. Only, Fr. Vissarion had to traverse a long path before that—a path that began in his childhood when he first heard the soul-stirring call of monasteries.
Fr. Dometie, ascetic and unmercenary
Peasants would go to the monastery, both old and young, early in the morning as soon as dawn broke. The morning coolness is the friend of a pilgrim, for it makes his path lighter. And they had to cross through the mountains, valleys, and quickly flowing rivers.
“Although the times were hostile for the Church, there were many pilgrims. Hundreds! And the monasteries didn’t have the conditions for pilgrims that they have now. Now they have better conditions, but the old awe and reverence seems to have disappeared.”
They would walk all day—everyone, even the young children, and all just to stand for a few hours in the shade of the stones of Râmeț, listening to the word of Fr. Dometie, Apostle of the Apuseni Mountains. Everyone followed him without blinking. Whole villages around the monastery were under his spiritual authority, and he nourished them with the zeal of a martyr. It was as if the spirit of the martyrs who laid down their lives for the people and the faith had entered into him.
Among the pilgrims who flocked to Apuseni Cathedral was the future Fr. Vissarion, then an eleven-year-old boy. Râmeț was the first monastery he ever set foot in. It was late afternoon. They walked all day, and when they arrived, the All-Night Vigil had already begun in the church. He was simply fascinated by the voices of the nuns singing the troparia of the Most Holy Theotokos on the kliros:
Archimandrite Dometie (Manolache; 1924-1975) “I then repeated it for days in the woods: ‘Most Holy Theotokos, have mercy on us!’ It was a hymn such as I had never heard on earth—angelic singing. That’s when I decided to become a monk.”
Fr. Dometie became his first model, an image of holiness:
“I heard how he talked to the people about the Mother of God and maternal love for children. His words penetrated to the depths of my soul.”
He was there when Fr. Dometie died of a heart attack in front of the little church where he often served. He was so kind that he gave to the poor everything that pilgrims brought him. Fr. Vissarion recalls that when Fr. Dometie died, he wasn’t wearing a shirt:
“They didn’t find one in his cell either. They had to go get one in the city, so they had something to lay him in the coffin in. People like him and Fr. Cleopa and Marcu from Sihăstria were the ideal for me—monks who have completely sacrificed themselves to Christ.”
“In Slatina, in Bukovina, Fr. Cleopa gathered a brotherhood of the worthiest monks. This included Fr. Marcu (Dumitrescu), Fr. Petroniu (Tănase), who later left for Mt. Athos, Fr. Arsenie (Papacioc), the spiritual father of Techirghiol, Leonida Plămădeala, the future Metropolitan of Ardealu, and many others. But the security agencies didn’t like it, although they all only preached Christ, without getting into politics at all.
Then Fr. Cleopa, who gathered thousands of peasants around him with his sermons, was arrested for the first time:
“They took him to the Securitate and wouldn’t allow him to sleep. They shined spotlights in his face to try to make him lose his mind. But it didn’t work. Aware of what awaited him, he fled into the desert. But Fr. Marcu didn’t make it, and they arrested him right there in the monastery.”
Fr. Cleopa hid in the mountains for months on end. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going so as not to endanger his fellow ascetics. He spent whole days and nights under the open sky, remaining in prayer for himself and for those who were arrested, for a long time. He ate whatever he could find in the forest. Eventually, one pious woodsman started to help him, bringing him a little dried bread. Fr. Cleopa would dig pit-houses for himself, but he didn’t stay in them for very long, so as not to give himself away.
These years tempered him in patience and prayer. Fr. Marcu was going through his own “desert” at the same time—the arid desert of the torture chambers. They held him in isolation for weeks on end in Jilava Prison. He was in a living hell. One day, a crow flew in through a window that had no glass in it—an ordinary bird that he wouldn’t have paid any attention to earlier, in freedom. But here, among the gray walls that he looked at day after day, it seemed to him like a sign from God—a sign that there, beyond the prison walls, life goes on as usual; the beautiful nature created by God is out there, and much freedom:
“He told Fr. Cleopa that he was so happy to see a living creature that when the bird flew away, he didn’t even notice the prison hardships for several days.”
A Heavenly wedding
Fr. Cleopa remained locked up in a shed for several weeks. One kind-hearted family had built him this secret room that could only be accessed through the loft. They hid him, and it was a blessing for him. Fr. Cleopa was accustomed to solitude. It helped him dive deeper into his heart, to ascend to God from there. He didn’t need anything, until one evening when a wedding party started just a few yards away: The noisy celebration would have disturbed him, preventing him from focusing on prayer. Then he began to reflect and think: “If people are so happy here on earth at an ordinary wedding, then what must happen in Heaven, when they meet Christ?” As simple as that. The thought was instantaneous, and the Lord used it to exalt him to Heaven.
It was very difficult for him to convey what he experienced there—boundless love and joy that nearly burst through his chest. Whether he ascended to Heaven in the body or out of the body, he himself couldn’t say. He remembered only that he wept from joy, so much that he soaked his clothes and the towel he had with his tears. Seven minutes—that’s how much time passed on earth. But there, in the kingdom of light, seven minutes can be more than an entire lifetime. They can become an eternity.
“Fr. Cleopa spoke about this incident with pilgrims and in his books, but he never confessed that it was about him. He attributed it all to some hermit he’d met wandering in the mountains, so as not to fall prey to the sin of pride. But he spoke openly with Fr. Marcu, and he admitted to him that he was that hermit. He was exalted to Heaven, and when he returned to earth, not a single worldly thought touched his heart for several months—only a quiet joy and unbounded love. And when he spoke about it, they both wept.”
“He had a clear, bright, and pure face, like that of a child. He became more and more silent, preserving his prayer which had probably already become unceasing. It was impossible to come to him and not find him weeping.”
Down in the monastery, Fr. Cleopa would receive pilgrims who sought him out, hungry for the word of life. But the alacrity with which he once walked throughout the Neamț mountains was waning. Both he and Fr. Marcu were preparing for their great transition. Fr. Paisie (Olaru), another great man of prayer from Sihăstria, had already set out on his Heavenly journey a year after the 1989 revolution. Now it was their turn.
“Fr. Marcu’s cell was on the other side of the wall from mine. He was suffering. I went to his cell several times, thinking we were losing him. He had such a weak pulse that it seemed like his heart had already stopped. But by some miracle, he recovered every time. And he continued his labors. At night, I could hear him doing prostrations, although he was very weak.”
The monks of Sihăstria say that in the last years of his life, Fr. Marcu would spend half the day in prayer. Then he would commemorate everyone he knew and read the Psalter again. Although he was a simple monk who couldn’t serve or hear confessions, Fr. Cleopa once told his disciples:
“Do you see him? He’s the greatest spiritual father in Sihăstria.”
Fr. Cleopa departed first. He died quietly in his cell on the morning of December 2, 1998. Fr. Marcu followed after him just two months later, on February 28. He was as if hurrying to the apiary there to sit in conversation with his elder and friend. And of course, that’s what they’re doing now. They’re conversing in the cool of Paradise surrounded by bees and flowers. And Christ is always sitting at the table with them, as He sat with them then, when they were here, in the paradise of Sihăstria.
Counsels of Elder Marcu (Dumitrescu)
● You can deeply comprehend many things with the mind, but if they don’t touch the heart, there’s no benefit. But when the feeling of the heart combines with the enlightenment of the mind, then you feel that the grace of God is working in your whole being.
● God’s words are like a diamond, which if you turn one of its facets to the sun, all the other facets are illuminated.
● God knows more about all of us than we know about ourselves.
Counsels of Elder Cleopa
● The Church is our mother! Don’t leave the Church, because we’re united with Christ in it.
● May the Psalter be like bread for you. If you want to eat—cut off a piece, eat it, do some work, then read another kathisma or two, or three—as many as you can.
● When you say, “Lord Jesus!” all of hell trembles, but you have to say it from the bottom of your heart.
● Live in love for each other, for love never dies.
● Have the heart of a son towards God, the mind of a judge towards yourself, and the heart of a mother towards others.
● Once, when he was shown a new church in the monastery garden, Father said: “It’s harder to make a true monk than a cathedral.”