The Monk Athanasii (Afanasii) of Serpukhov
Commemorated on September 12
The Monk Athanasii
(Afanasii) of Serpukhov, in the world Andrei, was born at Obonezhsk
Pyatinainto the family of the priest Avksentii and his wife Maria. He was from
youth inclined towards prayerful self-absorption and renunciation of the world,
and he sought for a worthy guide in monastic doings.
At this time, news about the efforts of the Monk Abba Sergei of Radonezh had already spread throughout the whole of Rus'. The monastery of the Life-Originating MostHoly Trinity at Makovets had become for everyone a luminous model of monastic organisation. Here in the monastic life-in-common was transformed "the hateful discord of this world", creating an oneness of spirit in an unity of love on the example of the Divine Trinity Itself. To Abba Sergei, to the Trinity at Makovets, headed also in his footsteps in search of spiritual perfection the youth Andrei, from the far off Novgorod outskirts.
Named Athanasii (Afanasii) in monasticism, in honour of Saint Athanasias the Great, the student and copyist of the life of Abba Anthony the Great, the founder of Egyptian monasticism. Abba Athanasii in turn became a worthy student of the great Hegumen Sergei, the father and teacher of Russian monasticism.
The students of the Monk Sergei, besides the usual monastic obediences, received blessing of the holy abba for special church services: book-writing (i.e. copying), icon‑writing, temple construction. This was a genuine church-ification of life, imparting within it churchly beauty and versification, a liturgical transfiguration of God's world. The favourite obedience, which Abba Athansii imposed upon himself, was book-writing. The holy books were regarded by the fathers as right alongside holy icons, as being the most important material form of imparting churchly ideas, those of theological and liturgical creativity. The school of the Monk Sergei, revealing to the Russian and to the Universal Church the whole extent of theological experiential knowledge about the Holy Trinity, is closely connected with the flourishing of church bookishness, with the necessity of interactive enrichment of the Russian Church by the literary-works of the Byzantine Church, and the theologians of Byzantium – by the deep spiritual experience of the Russian ascetics.
In the year 1374, the Serpukhov prince Vladimir Andreevich the Brave, a colleague of Dimitrii Donskoi, turned to the Monk Sergei with a request to found a monastery on his land-holdings. Abba Sergei came to Serpukhov with his beloved disciple Athanasii, and having situated the monastery of the Conception of the MostHoly Mother of God, he gave blessing to the Monk Athanasii to organise it, and then to be its hegumen.
The monastery of Saint Athanasii was built nearby the city of Serpukhov, on the high bank of the River Nara. They therefore called it "the monastery on the heights", or "Vysotskoi" ("of the heights"). Hence also its title, with which entered into Russian Church history its founder and first hegumen – the Monk Athanasii of Vysotsk.
Abba Athanasii zealously set about the organisation of the monastery entrusted to him. Many a Russian ascetic arrived here, "on the heights", for an heightened schooling in monasticism.
In accord with the teaching of Abba Athanasii, preserved for us by Epiphanii the Wise, – to be a monk was no easy thing. "The duty of the monk doth consist in this, that he be vigilant in prayer and in Divine precepts until midnight, and sometimes the whole night; he should eat nothing besides bread and water, oil even and wine will be altogether improper". Through the words of the saint of God, many came to him at the monastery on the Heights, "but then they did slacken, and unable to endure the work of ascetic abstinence, they did flee". Those ascetics of higher monastic worth remained with the holy abba.. Therefore, it was to this monastery, to his disciple and fellow-ascetic Athanasii, that the God-bearing Abba Sergei of Radonezh sent off for tonsure and guidance in monastic deeds his future successor, the Monk Nikon (Comm. 17 November). The Monk Athanasii taught him: "Monks are called voluntary martyrs. Many an holy martyr did suffer within a single hour and then die, but monks each day do endure sufferings not from torturers, but from within, from the properties of the flesh and from mental enemies, there exist struggles, and until the last breath they suffer".
In 1478 after the death of the Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Alexei, there arrived in Moscow the new Metropolitan – Saint Kiprian (Comm. 16 September). But Great‑prince Dimitrii Donskoi wanted to establish as metropolitan his own priest and colleague Mikhail (Mitaya), and he would not accept Metropolitan Kiprian, and instead expelled him from Moscow. Saint Kiprian was in a difficult position. But he found support and sympathy among the pillars of Russian monasticism – the Monks Sergei of Radonezh and Athanasii of Vysotsk. From the very beginning they saw the canonical propriety of the metropolitan in his dispute with the great-prince and they supported him in the prolonged struggle (1478-1490) for the restoration of canonical order and unity in the Russian Church. Saint Kiprian several times during these years had to journey to the Constantinople Patriarch for participation in council deliberations in regard to the governace of the Russian Church. On one of these journeys, with the blessing of holy Abba Sergei, there set off to Constantinople with the metropolitan also his friend the Monk Athanasii of Vysotsk, leaving as the hegumen of the Vysotsk monastery his own disciple, the Monk Athanasii the Younger (+ 1395).
At Constantinople the Monk Athanasii settled into the monastery of the holy ForeRunner and Baptist of the Lord John, where he found himself a cell with several disciples that had come with him, meanwhile concerning himself with prayer and theological salvific books. The monk spent about twenty years in the then capital of Church culture, in constant work at translating from the Greek language and copying Church books, which he then sent off to Rus', transferring over to the Russian Church not only a legacy of great Orthodox thought, but also the traditions of the Constantinople book-copyist masters, with their elegant writing-script and artistry of textual miniatures, achieving an harmony of content and form. A continuing creative connection was established between the book-copyist mastery of the Monk Athanasii at Constantinople and the calligraphic and iconographic school of the Vysotsk monastery at Serpukhov.
It was not by chance that it was especially at the Vysotsk monastery that the Monk Hegumen Nikon guided the future great iconographer-monk Saint Andrei Rublev (Comm. 4 July), as once previously the God-bearing Abba Sergei had guided him himself in this monastery for spiritual maturity and grasp with a rejuvenating and transformative spirit of pure churchly beauty. In this sacred service of churchly beauty, in constant liturgical activity to the glory of the Life-Originating Trinity, there matured and consolidated the life-bearing genius of the Monk Andrei, which God foreordained for the great visual rendering of the theological and liturgical legacy of the monk Sergei – within the immortal wonderworking icon of the MostHoly Trinity for the iconostas of the Trinity cathedral. In the iconographic creativity of the Monk Andrei Rublev, just as in the temple-building activity of the Monk Hegumen Nikon, and in the hagiographic works of Epiphanii the Wise, we find embodiment and synthesis of the finest traditions of the Byzantine and Russian artistry.
This creative synthesis was served also by the Monk Athanasii of Vysotsk all his whole life. Living at Constantinople, he continued to work for the Russian Church, and for his native-land. In but one example, he sent to the Vysotsk monastery10 icons of the finest Greek style. By him and his disciples were rendered into the Slavonic language and copied the "Four Hundred Chapters" of the Monk Maximos the Confessor, the Chapters of Mark about church-services, and the Discourses of the Monk Simeon the New Theologian.
In the year 1401, just before his death, the venerable elder copied, and possibly himself translated, a Church ustav (rule), distributed within the Russian Church under the title, "The Ecclesial Eye".
The Monk Athanasii spent his life in constant work with books. He died at Constantinople in old age in the year 1401 (or perhaps a bit later). Russian chroniclers note him as an elder "virtuous, learned, knowing the Holy Scriptures", to which "at present his writings give witness". His life was written in the year 1697 by the priest-monk Karion (Istomin) of the Moscow Chudov monastery.
About the Monk Athanasii's successor and student, Blessed Athanasii the Younger, it is known that he successfully directed the spiritual life of the brethren and gave example by his own God-pleasing life. Saint Athanasii the Younger reposed after a long illness on 12 September 1395. In the ancient manuscripts of the saints it says about him: "The Monk Athanasii, hegumen of Vysotsk Conception monastery at Serpukhov, a new wonderworker who did repose in the year 6904 (1395) on the 12th day of September, a student of the Monk Athanasii, wondrous student of the Monk Sergei, who later was at Tsar'grad and there reposed".
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.