The “Possessors” and “Non-Possessors”: to Have, or Not to Have?

The late fifteenth, early sixteenth centuries saw a conflict arise in Russia that had some parallels to events and movements in Western Christianity of the time. As the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing against insincere converts to Christianity, and the dissolution of monastery property was successfully killing Catholic monasticism in some northern European countries, the existential question of “to have or not to have” was reaching like an aftershock the comparatively sheltered religious life of Orthodox Russia. Those asking this question in the realm of Rus’ found themselves also inescapably defending their own views on the problem of insincere Christians and their role in politics.

Just as the Franciscans and later Cistercian orders in the Catholic Church had begun as a reaction to a weakening of monastic discipline and a longing for Gospel simplicity, a number of monastic elders in Russia, mainly in the north, felt very strongly that monks are much better off if they do not own property. Wealth is a temptation for any Christian, but especially for people who have taken a vow of poverty. This simple Gospel principle has always held true, but such simplicity has likewise always proven to be a real boon to those who have not taken a vow of poverty, and have the power to confiscate the property of those who have.

St. Joseph of Volokolamsk St. Joseph of Volokolamsk
The main ecclesiastical figures grappling with this problem in Rus’ were: St. Nilus of Sora, the leader of the so-called “non-possessors”, and St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, the leader of the “possessors”, also called the “Josephites”. It would be wrong to say that either of them set out to start conflicting movements. Each was rather living out his own monastic life to the best of his ability, and in accordance with the specific needs of their respective monastic communities and the lay communities around them.

Both of these schools of monastic practice lead us back to the work of the “Abbot of All Russia”, St. Sergius of Radonezh (†1392). St. Sergius’ monastery grew around him, due to his hard-working, strict monastic discipline. This diligent spiritual and physical labor under severe conditions caused the monks to develop a well-functioning monastery economy in order to provide for the needs of a large brotherhood. The monks owned no property individually, but their collective labor, along with St. Sergius’s own good reputation among the laity, built the foundation of what is now the great Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra—a monastery incalculably dear to Orthodox Russian Christians, and which still thrives today.

Under the conditions existing in Rus’ at the time, monasteries were often granted large agricultural territories, along with the peasants living on these lands, so that the monasteries could be self-sufficient. As a result, the monasteries came to possess such wealth as to exceed many times over what was reasonably necessary to the monks’ own life. This was happening already during the time of St. Savva of Storozhev and St. Cyril of White Lake, but these abbots were able to combine their own personal sanctity with the economic success of their monasteries. These capable economic administrators and strong organizers had the means to support the impoverished strata of the population, and they highly valued these possibilities. Meanwhile, those who inclined more to the spirit of St. Sergius’ poverty looked on in dismay, and preferred to refrain from any property ownership—individual or collective. A conflict arose between the two sides, which had far-reaching consequences for the entire Russian Church.

"The Enlightener". A painting by Saida Afonina. (From "The Enlightener". A painting by Saida Afonina. (From
St. Joseph of Volokolamsk was the disciple of a disciple of St. Sergius, St. Paphnuty of Borov (†1477). St. Joseph was an austere and strict abbot, a warrior for the good of the Church, the Orthodox people, and the country. He was destined to labor during this complex time, when the spiritual foundations laid by St. Sergius for the coenobitic monastic life had weakened. St. Joseph opposed this tendency through strict discipline and order. His main written work, The Enlightener, is a bright testimony to his love of God and His Most Pure Mother, and his zeal for the Orthodox faith. He was a man of great administrative talent, but at the same time, a leader of a monastic army in an uncompromising spiritual battle with sin. This battle is not for the weak or disorganized, but for the resolute and courageous; for those who are ready to give all their time and energy to labor and prayer. The army of Christ should be disciplined, prepared, decorous, well-equipped and provided with everything needed. It should, he considered, be a reliable support and protector of the struggling peasantry, and do everything it can to strengthen the sovereign authority in the country.[1]

The Monastery of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk today. The Monastery of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk today.
He reasoned that in order to do this, the monasteries must be strong and wealthy, that their lands should be vast and in excellent condition, so that the suffering population would always find in these monasteries both spiritual support and material help. For their tenacious and systematic work for the creation of wealthy and strong monasteries, St. Joseph and his followers received the name, “possessors” (or more accurately, “acquirers”). In the Life of St. Joseph we read, for example, that during a famine his monastery fed up to seven thousand of the needy. St. Joseph himself cherished the opportunity to relieve the suffering of the poor, and considered that God visited his monastery in the guise of the needy. He rebuked any monks who feared for themselves and who thought that the monastery would soon lack what it needed to feed its own monks. St. Joseph founded schools for homeless children, almshouses for the aged, shelters and hospitals for the sick and impoverished. He was stern and authoritative with regard to secular landowners who did not help the poor during a famine that threatened their very lives, and he exhorted the prince to live in accordance with God’s will and keep the benefit of all his subjects, from the little to the great, first in mind. St. Joseph and his disciples therefore earned respect and trust from all different levels of Russian society. He taught that the country’s leader commits a grave sin if he does not think about the good of the Church and the welfare of the people.[2]

St. Nilus of Sora (1433–1508)—a monk and ascetic, instituted the “skete” way of life; he himself was a strict ascetic and zealot of Orthodox enlightenment. The fall of Orthodox Byzantium in1453 to the Turks was a tragic event not only for the Greeks, but also for the Russians. St. Nilus went to Mt. Athos to drink in its authentic monastic spirit. He also travelled to Constantinople, where he sorrowfully beheld the Muslim crescent upon the magnificent church of the Hagia Sophia. This left a deep impression upon him. It turned his thoughts forever away from worldly grandeur and political power that potentially leads to the downfall of a great Christian civilization. When he returned to Russia he supported and strengthened the monastic school of piety, the representatives of which were called “non-possessors” (non-acquirers). He found them to be more faithful to the rule of monastic poverty, serving the people by working on themselves spiritually, cutting off the passions of love of money and worldly ambition. The “non-possessors” worked just as hard in their monastic service as the followers of St. Joseph, but their labor was of different quality. St. Nilus had brought from Mt. Athos a dedication to the ancient patristic writings, and sincere devotion to spiritual instructors and elders. His monastery practiced a hesychastic life of mental prayer and watchfulness of sinful thoughts. St. Nilus and his disciples saw that, without even noticing it themselves, some “possessors” had begun to live “not according to the law of God and patristic tradition, but according to human will and reasoning.” They had begun to rely less on God and more on their own efficiency and labors, (which really were impressive, and an example to the laity), and on their ability to organize everyone and everything well. St. Nilus himself said that, “The striving for the acquisition of villages and wealth is apostasy from the commandments of Christ.”

At the Council in Moscow in 1503, St. Nilus insisted that monasteries should limit themselves to their own necessities and not acquire large agricultural territories with villages and peasants. (This was during the time of serfdom in Russia, when peasants were unpaid workers attached to the land.) The example of St. Sergius and many other ancient Russian ascetics spoke in favor of this. The “non-possessors” highly valued Christian education and preserved fidelity to the ancient Christian and Byzantine heritage and the spirituality of St. Sergius better than the Josephites.[3]

Thus, in Russia two camps were forming—one more connected with the powerful of this world, poised to influence them for the greater good of an Orthodox land, and the other more inward-looking, wary of owning any property at all—never mind peasants—as incompatible with monasticism, and loathe to get involved in politics.

St. Maxim the Greek, a non-possessor. He was imprisoned in Volokolamsk under Metropolitan Daniel. St. Maxim the Greek, a non-possessor. He was imprisoned in Volokolamsk under Metropolitan Daniel.
Also supporting the non-possessors was St. Maxim the Greek (1480-1556), who was invited to Moscow from Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos to translate and correct ecclesiasticl texts. Maxim the Greek (Michael Tivoulis in the world) was a learned monk who received his education from the Italian humanists, and became friends with the scholastic Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar. The Dominicans, like the Franciscans, were also trying at that time to reform the Church in the West with a return the Gospel poverty. Savonarola was a vocal critic of the excesses of the clergy at the time, and was eventually put to death. Michael became an ascetic under his influence, then left Italy for Mt. Athos, where he was given the monastic name Maxim. Maxim’s formation made him naturally lean toward St. Nilus’s school. He also suffered persecution for his convictions, and was imprisoned at Volokolamsk Monastery, where he nevertheless fruitfully produced many instructive texts.

But we have no comment from St. Maxim or St. Nilus on the tendency taking hold at the time in northern Europe and England to dissolve monasteries altogether and confiscate their property. There were many wars being fought in Europe, and revenues needed to be found. An article in Wikipedia on the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Europe describes how this happened:

Martin Luther Martin Luther
In 1521, Martin Luther had published 'De votis monasticis' ('On the monastic vows'), a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. Luther, a one-time Augustinian friar, found some comfort when these views had a dramatic effect: a special meeting of the German province of his order held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows, resign their offices and get married. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg all the friars, save one, did so.

News of these events did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded (and acquisitive) rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly. In Sweden in 1527 King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues; and to force the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them. In one fell swoop, Gustav gained large estates and a company of diehard supporters. The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods, with the result that some collapsed immediately, while others lingered on for a few decades before persecution and further confiscations finally caused them all to disappear by 1580. In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his grab in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles, who were soon found enjoying the fruits of former monastic lands. Danish monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden.

In Switzerland, too, monasteries came under threat. In 1523 the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived.

Ruins of the Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey, Laskill, North Yorkshire, confiscated and closed under King Henry VIII of England. Photo: Wikipedia Ruins of the Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey, Laskill, North Yorkshire, confiscated and closed under King Henry VIII of England. Photo: Wikipedia
Perhaps St. Joseph and his followers were foreseeing a danger that could also spread to Russia if it were not stopped. And this is probably how the conflict of the possessors and non-possessors became relevant in the struggle against heresy in the still relatively isolated northern realm. St. Nilus’s disciple, Vassian Kosoi, came out for the confiscation of Church properties and distribution of them to the people, something that Prince Ivan III was inclined to support. The possessors, with St. Joseph of Volokolamsk at the head, stood for the principle of the immunity of Church and monastery properties. They considered that Church piety and Tradition should have the first place, and confirmed the divine origin of princely authority and its priority in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, which ultimately assured their victory. The possessors convinced Ivan III to refuse support to the non-possessors as opponents of the strengthening of governmental authority. The Council of 1503 condemned the non-possessors and supported the preservation of Church landowning with the subjection of the Church itself to the Moscow princes. But it was not until the Council of 1531 that the non-possessors suffered their final defeat.[4]

St. Nilus of Sora and St. Joseph of Volokolamsk lived during a complicated era of heretical sectarianism making its way into Russia. there were a large number of Bogomils, who followed a philosophy similar to the Manichean heresy brought a long time ago to Rus’ from Bulgaria, even before Kievan times. There is little known about them except that in the northern lands they comparatively easily found a common language with the pagan shamans, hid from the Orthodox, preached dualism of light and darkness, made an appearance of being strict monk-ascetics, infiltrated monasteries, and sometimes even became Skoptsy (a sect that practiced self-mutilation and total abstinence from marriage). There were actually more problems from them in Europe than in Russia.[5] In Southern France, the spread of Catharism, which also had its roots in the Bogomils, instigated the use of inquisition as a means of rooting out heresy. As we know, this escalated into the Spanish Inquisition, which took the practice to an infamous extreme.

The non-possessors’ inward-looking asceticism naturally set them against any violent means of dealing with sectarians, and they favored education and enlightenment. They insisted that heretics must not be tortured or executed but rather persuaded by knowledge and example to come to the true faith. But when the “Judaizer” heresy began to penetrate the prince’s court and threatened to influence policy, St. Joseph’s followers took a more head-on approach.

The Protestant Reformation with its both anti-hesychastic and anti-monastery vein would have essentially affected both the possessors and the non-possessors had it taken root in Russia. It is possible to talk to (or persecute) a heretic if he openly admits his beliefs. But if he is bent on taking control of an Orthodox country by pretending to be Orthodox, he becomes a slippery contingent, a fifth column. While the inquisition against the “Judaizers” in Spain was bound up with Jews who had not sincerely but rather by coercion converted to Christianity, the “Judaizer” heresy in Russia had little to do with actual ethnic Jews.

It began in Novgorod, where some of the clergy had fallen under the influence of a doctor named Zachary and his followers, two members of the court of the Lithuanian-Russian Prince Alexander Olelkovina, who had arrived from the West. These new arrivals followed a modernized form of Judaism, and were highly educated. Flattered by the attention of erudite foreigners, and disillusioned by the ignorant state of much of the Russian Orthodox clergy at the time, an unorganized conspiracy arose in Novgorod, which, although put down by Prince Ivan III from Moscow, continued to act through intrigue until it reached the Kremlin. Eventually two of the conspirators were able to gain favor with the prince by not revealing their entire abandonment of Orthodoxy; they had in fact denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, blasphemed His name, mocked the veneration of the Mother of God, Christian spiritual practices, monasticism, and icons, and accused the Orthodox hierarchs and monks of barbarity. Joining them in Moscow was the prince’s scribe, Feodor Kuritsyn, a foreign minister who had brought back from Hungary a doctrine which denied the Orthodox teaching on the Holy Trinity.[6]

Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod set out to stop these intrigues that would be so damaging to the nation and the Church if allowed to spread. He began sending letters to other hierarchs warning them of the danger, and finally succeeded in calling a council and having the Novgorod Judaizers condemned. Russia did not take the lead of the Spanish Inquisitors at that time—the heretics were imprisoned and not executed. But the spread of the heresy to the prince’s court proved to be beyond Archbishop Gennady’s powers. His main argument was that schools should be opened in Moscow to raise the education level of the faithful, for the learned foreigners were usually able to out-talk the simple Orthodox believers who mainly followed their hearts, and thus succeeded in bringing some to doubt. But Archbishop Gennady was not successful in this endeavor, due to political inertia.

St. Joseph deemed it more prudent to act less directly, using his own influence at the court. Finally Metropolitan Zosima of Moscow, who was sympathetic to the Judaizers if not working actively on their side, was caught in drunkenness and sodomy. This helped St. Joseph win a victory against this ambitious heretical crew—who would surely have unleashed persecutions against the Orthodox had their power finally consolidated.

The St. Nilus of Sora Hermitage--made a psychiatric institution by the Communists. The St. Nilus of Sora Hermitage--made a psychiatric institution by the Communists.
It is clear that St. Nilus of Sora and the non-possessors were the more crystal-pure examples of Gospel guilelessness, monastic dispassion and poverty. His diligent labors in the field of Orthodox literature were necessary and of enduring value. But it is also clear that St. Nilus would not have been able to counteract this new, covertly-spreading tendency from his enclosure in northern wilds of Sora. St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, located not far from Moscow, was in the right position to play this decisive role in Russian history. Some say that St. Joseph’s view of the untouchable authority of princes may have led to the excesses of Ivan the Terrible and his “Ophrichnina”, but this is hard if not impossible to prove. Ivan the Terrible was a sick man, and he is not the only tyrant in history, before or after St. Joseph of Volokolamsk.

Note that none of these ideas taken to their extreme would be beneficial. On one hand, if monks were to entirely abandon their vow of poverty, they would be no monks, and therefore bring no benefit to the Church. Metropolitan Daniel,[7] a follower of St. Joseph, would later persecute the non-possessor monasteries, even confiscating them—a rather ironic turn of events considering their extremes of non-possessiveness. However, for all the moral attractiveness of non-possessiveness it has to be admitted that if taken to an extreme it could threaten the normal functioning of the ecclesiastical and civil organism under real-life historical conditions. Land holdings allowed the monasteries to conduct broad pastoral, charitable, and enlightenment activities, and were a beneficial influence upon life in society.[8] Furthermore, acquisitiveness can be a holy thing—it depends upon the acquisition. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for example, was a diligent acquirer of the Holy Spirit, and thousands have been saved because of it.

The Church has not answered our question, and yet it has. Nilus of Sora, Maxim the Greek, and Joseph of Volokolamsk have all been canonized saints. Furthermore, both spiritual leaders—St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, of the “possessors”, and St. Nilus of Sora of the “non-possessors”, left their own spiritual, social, and monastic legacies in Russian Orthodox Church tradition. St. Joseph’s most well known disciples were also canonized: St. Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow,[9] and St. Gurius, enlightener of Kazan.[10] St. Nilus left timeless instructions in Orthodox monasticism that are still used as fundamental texts.[11] Therefore, the Orthodox Church apparently has not chosen one saint’s movement over the other, and some sources show that St. Nilus and St. Joseph held each other in the highest esteem.

*   *   *

The principle of the possessors prevailed in Russia until the time of Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762–1796. Although the German-born Empress Catherine accepted Orthodoxy as required, her mentality concerning monasteries remained decidedly Western and Protestant, or more precisely, irreligious. Under her leadership, the Church’s lands were confiscated, and the budget of both monasteries and bishoprics were taken under government control. Endowments from the government replaced income from privately held lands. The endowments were often much less than the original intended amount. She closed 569 out of 954 monasteries and only 161 got government money. Only 400,000 rubles of church wealth was paid back.[12] But her anti-monastic policies were not limited to material wealth—under Catherine, Orthodox religious education also suffered greatly. By 1786 Catherine had excluded all religion and clerical studies programs from lay education. By separating the public interests from those of the church, Catherine began a secularization of the day-to-day workings of Russia. She transformed the clergy from a group that wielded great power over the Russian government and its people to a segregated community forced to depend on the state for compensation.[13] These secular reforms also had far-reaching effects, and inexorably led to the one of the cruelest persecutions of all times against the Church—the Bolshevik Revolution and its ideology of militant atheism, because the constructive interrelationship between clergy and the laity had been undermined.

Under the Communists, not only the monasteries, but religion in general was liquidated. This harsh historical experience proved several things pertaining to our question, “to have, or not to have?”


  • In the 1930’s, the Russian and Ukrainian heartland was suffering a terrible famine; most evidence shows that it was man-made by the Soviet Government to force collectivization. Church property, including Communion chalices and other church utensils were confiscated under the pretext of relieving the famine. The Church was already active in charitable assistance, but indeed feeding the people was not what the authorities were after. They needed to sell these sacred valuables to Western buyers to finance Communist policies. Thus, government money gained from liquidated Church assets rarely goes to the poor, and the Church is a better distributor of these assets than the state.
  • The closure of seminaries attached to monasteries made it very difficult to provide quality education to the clergy.
  • The lack of religious education did not eradicate religion, but it did enable the spread of anti-social religious movements—interest in the occult grew in the Soviet Union as people sought for something outside the material world. Moral standards declined across society, and some problems that developed under Communist rule have not been easy to solve, to put it mildly.
  • Once the Soviet government fell and the Church was again free, believers rushed to rebuild what they had lost. Had they not lost it, their resources could have gone to other charitable causes. That the people rushed to rebuild, first of all, their beloved churches can be taken as proof of Christ’s words that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, which ever exists in the hearts of the faithful.


  • If the Church had not accumulated wealth, there would have been no property to seize, and no stumbling block to the covetous.
  • The persecuted Church produced many martyrs, and separated the wheat from the chaff.

[1] L. Vasilenko, History of the Russian Orthodox Church, “The ‘Possessors’ and the ‘Non-Possessors’”, Mir Pravoslavie,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[5] History of the Russian Orthodox Church, ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Metropolitan Daniel had been a monk of the monastery in Volokolamsk. He was elected abbot by the brothers of that monastery after St. Joseph’s repose, and later appointed Metropolitan of Moscow. His time as Metropolitan is not favorably remembered: he is seen as overly ambitious and too quick to take up the methods of the Spanish Inquisition to deal with ideological opponents. However St. Joseph may have dealt with heretics, he would hardly have approved of persecuting the non-possessor monks. Metropolitan Daniel rapidly lost popularity after this and other political moves, and was retired to the monastery of Volokolamsk.
[8] Azbuka Khristianstvo, ibid.
[9] † December 31, 1563. St. Macarius of Moscow presided over a great number of important decisions concerning Russian ecclesiastical practice, and authored numerous important works. The Stoglav Council was called during his time as Metropolitan. St. Macarius sided with the Possessors in Council debates on the subject, but was himself known by all to be a great ascetic. He also goes down in history as the spiritual father of Ivan the Terrible in the latter's early, pious days. It is recorded that St. Macarius foresaw Tsar Ivan Vasileivich’s victory in Kazan, but also the terrible bloodshed to come in his reign—the Oprichnina formed after St. Macarius’s death.
[10] † December 4, 1563. St. Gurius was a nobleman from Radonezh, who became a monk in the monastery of Volokolamsk and was eventually made its abbot. After his transfer to Selizharov Monastery he was appointed the archbishop of the newly-formed Kazan diocese. St. Gurius was very active there in the formation Christian educational institutions. He raised the spiritual level of the Orthodox, and brought many pagans to the faith. He was also successful in bringing a large number of local Muslim Tatars voluntarily into the Orthodox Church. In 1595, St. Gurius’s relics were found exuding myrrh, and many miracles were wrought by them.
[11] Most notably his Rule of Skete Life, which among other things outlines the progression of thought to actual sin, and his Epistles.
[13] Ibid.
Dr. David C. Ford11/3/2015 12:17 am
Very helpful article. Jesse, we just finished talking today about this theme in the Slavic Churches course!
Ellie Rose Elliott6/22/2014 11:31 pm
Perfect! a well-judged article, clear, informative and honest. Thank you very much for the information and inspiration,
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