Father Cleopa: The Elder of Romanian Orthodoxy
The name and personality of Elder Cleopa Ilie of Romania is today known not only in his homeland but also throughout the world. Father Cleopa was born in 1912 in the town of Soulitsa and district of Botosani into a pious village family and named Constantine. His parents were called Alexander and Anna and he was the ninth of their ten children. The religious upbringing that he and all his siblings received from childhood as well as their great inclination toward the monastic life were so strong that five of the ten children, along with their mother in her later years, took up the monastic life and were clothed in the monastic Schema.
His spiritual formation was owed first of all to the Great-schema hieromonk Father Paisius Olarou of the Kozantsea-Bodosani skete who was for many years the Spiritual Father of his entire family. While spending his childhood years shepherding the family’s sheep around the forests of Sihastria, the young Constantine, together with his two oldest brothers Basil and George, was being spiritually raised by their spiritual father hieromonk Paisius.
In the spring of 1929 the three brothers departed their father’s house and entered the struggle of the monastic life in the monastery of Sihastria which at that time was under the spiritual direction of Archimandrite Ioannicius Moroi, considered one of the greatest and holiest of spiritual fathers in Moldavia at the time. After seven years of trials the young novice Constantine Ilie was tonsured a monk in 1936 with the name Cleopa and continued for a number of years his beloved service of shepherding sheep as the student of a virtuous monk, Fr. Galaction.
The more than ten years of beloved service close to the sheep and in the midst of the natural beauty of the mountains and forests of Moldavia was for Father Cleopa a veritable school of spiritual formation and advancement in humility, stillness and prayer. Surrounded by the majestic Carpathian Mountains, the breeze of silence gently blew across the hillside above the fertile valley of Sihastria, whispering to the aspiring hearts of the young brothers Basil and Constantine a reminder of the presence of the Creator. Day flowed into day as time passed imperceptibly. The brothers rarely left the fold and did not even perform the customary cycle of services. Rather, they sought the altar of God within themselves, continually raising their mind’s eye to God through the sacred Prayer of the Heart.
It was here at the sheepfold that the soul of the future guide of the Romanian people would be formed. Elder Cleopa would later remember his nostalgic beginnings:
“In the years that I was shepherd of the skete’s sheep together with my brothers, I had great spiritual joy. The sheepfold, the sheep - I live in quiet and solitude on the mountain, in the midst of nature; it was my monastic and theological school.”
“It was then that I read Dogmatics by St. John Damascene and his Precise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. How precious this time was to me! When the weather would warm up, we would put the yearling lambs and the rams in Cherry Meadow which was covered with green grass and surrounded by bushes. They would not stray from there. ‘Stay put!’ I’d say to them, and then I would read Dogmatics.
“When I would read something about the Most Holy Trinity, the distinctions between angels, man and God, about the qualities of the Most Holy Trinity, or when I read about Paradise and hell - the dogmas about which St. John Damascene wrote - I would forget to eat that day.
“There was an old hut in which I’d take shelter, and there someone from the skete would bring me food. And when I would return to the hut in the evening, I would ask myself, ‘Have I eaten anything today?’ All day long I was occupied with reading… When I was with the sheep and cattle I read St. Macarius of Egypt, St. Macarius of Alexandria, and the Lives of the Saints in my knapsack when I first arrived at the monastery. I would read and the day would pass in what seemed like an hour…
“I would borrow these books from the libraries of Neamts and Secu Monasteries and carry them with me in my knapsack on the mountain. After I had finished my prayer rule, I would take out these books of the Holy Fathers and read them next to the sheep until evening. And it seemed as if I would see Saints Anthony, Macarius the Great, St. John Chrysostom and the others; how they would speak to me. I would see St. Anthony the Great with a big white beard and in luminous appearance he would speak to me so that all he would say to me would remain imprinted on my mind, like when one writes on wax with one’s finger. Everything that read then I will never forget…”
In this university of obedience and silence, Father Cleopa read about one hundred theological and other works, starting with the theological, moral, liturgical, and hagiographic and ending with the patristic works of the great saints of our Church, not to mention, of course, the Horologion and Psalter. The most beloved book of all, however, was Holy Scripture. In addition to Scripture, Father Cleopa loved the lives of the Saints, the sayings of the desert fathers, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus, the ascetical works of Saints Isaac and Ephraim of Syria, as well as the writings of Saints Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian and others.
As he was endued with special reverence and much zeal for the divine, penetrating insight and comprehension of divine mysteries, and a powerful memory, in a short amount of time Father Cleopa was revealed as self-taught and unequalled among the monks of Romanian monasticism. In addition to these gifts of God, he was given the ability to teach and the strength of eloquence. In the beauty of the Moldavian ecclesiastical dialect, with the semi-archaic diction of an elder, and by means of preaching from Holy Scripture, selected patristic texts, and instructive ethical stories of all kinds, he presented the Truth to the people of God.
In 1942 Father Cleopa, although still a simple monk, temporarily assumed the governing of Sihastria in place of the ageing Abbot Ioannicius Moroi who was confined by sickness to his bed. In January of 1945 he was ordained deacon and priest and named abbot of Sihastria, serving in this capacity as the shepherd of souls for four years. In this short amount of time the Elder gathered around himself eighty monks and novices, built inside the walls of the monastery new housing for the monks, erected a winter chapel, restored the monastery to its original cenobitic status, organised it according to the traditional order of hesychastic monastic life, elevated important spiritual fathers and made many missionary journeys for the salvation of the faithful.
In 1947 the soviets occupied Romania, forcing King Michael to abdicate, and a communist dictatorship followed immediately. Monasteries were closed, coutless hierarchs, priests, monks, nuns and other faithful Orthodox were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.
Thus far Sihastria had remained untouched in its remote location near the Carpathian Mountains. And although Abbot Cleopa was only thirty-six years old, he had already become a nationally known spiritual leader of the Christian faith. Now that he had been joined by his spiritual father from his youth, Elder Paisius Olaru, and had the support of Fr. Joel Gheorgiu, Sihastria was fast becoming the spiritual center of Orthodoxy for Romania and thus a threat to the communist government. By the grace which flowed from the eloquent mouth of Fr. Cleopa, a living faith was imparted to those who has ears to hear. The government now sought to dam the flow of faith by stopping Fr. Cleopa from speaking.
In May of 1948, on the feast of Ss. Constantine and Helen, Father Cleopa delivered a homily in which he said, “May God grant that our own rulers might become as the Holy King and Queen were, that the Church might be able to also commemorate them unto the ages.” The next day the state police took him to prison, leaving him in a bedless cell without bread or water for five days. After being released Father Cleopa, upon good counsel, fled to the mountains of Sihastria, where he lived in a in a hut mostly underground. There the elder prayed night and day seeking the help of God and the Theotokos.
During this time the elder was visited by the grace of God in the following way. Fr. Cleopa told his disciples that when he was building his hut, birds would come and sit on his head. The first time he served Liturgy on a stump in front of his hut, as he was communing the Holy Mysteries, a flock of birds came and gathered, such as he had never seen before. As he gazed upon them in astonishment, he noticed that each one had the sign of the Cross marked on it forehead.
Another time, after the preparation for Liturgy and having read all the prayers, he set the Antimension on the tree stump and began the Liturgy with the exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages!” Again the birds appeared, and as they perched in the branch of the tree they began to sing in beautiful and harmonic voices. Fr. Cleopa asked himself, “What could this be?” And an unseen voice whispered to him, “These are your chanters on the cliros.” These signs and others encouraged the Elder immensely during his time of exile.
In the summer of 1949 Father Cleopa moved to the monastery of Slatina with thirty monks who were advanced in virtue, intent on renewing the spiritual life there as well. His interaction with the pious Christians living in the region of northern Moldavia increased his pastoral experience and missionary activity and gave him the opportunity to work with great zeal for the aims of the Gospel of Christ. In particular, his preaching, personal counsel and spiritual direction, compassion and love spread his renown throughout the country. Through these and other struggles for the salvation of men in Christ, Father Cleopa became the most celebrated and respected Abbot of the monasteries of Romania and a spiritual father with pre-eminent spiritual authority. Villager and intellectual, monk and layman, young and old, healthy and sick, bishop and priest - everyone found in Father Cleopa a true Spiritual Father. Father Cleopa was a model of life for all, ready to offer to everyone whatever he could, to counsel and give rest and lead all to Christ with amazing conviction and authority.
During this time the Metropolitan of Moldavia asked Father Cleopa to assume the spiritual guidance of most of the monasteries in the region: Putna, Moldovita, Riska, Sihastria, and the Sketes of Sihla and Rareau, according to the prototype of Slatina
In 1952 Father Cleopa was arrested briefly for a second time by the secret police. Having been released again, he and a monastic brother travelled once again to the mountains of Moldavia until the situation normalized. There in the mountains the elder battled the demons, lived side by side with wild animals and prayed night and day, receiving confession and communion from his co-struggling monastic brother.
In 1953 he resigned from the abbacy. In 1956, after assisting in the reorganisation of the Poutna Monastery and the Raraeu and Gaie sketes, Father Cleopa returned to Sihastria, the monastery of his beloved repentance. Here he continued in his spiritual activity with prayer, by going deeper into the writings of the Holy Fathers, and in the guidance and spiritual advancement of his many disciples.
From 1959 to 1964, the Church of Romania suffered acute persecution from the Communist regime, with the monasteries undergoing their most difficult days of the twentieth century. In 1959 the government decreed that all monks under the age of fifty-five and all nuns under the age of fifty must leave the monasteries. By the spring of 1960 the state police had removed more than four thousand monastics from Romania’s monasteries. Once again Father Cleopa was forced into the mountains of Moldavia where he spent more than twelve hours a day in prayer. It was during this time of exile that the elder wrote several of his well-known guides to the spiritual life for priests and monks. In 1964 the Communist persecution abated and the Church once again experienced a good measure of freedom.
In the summer of 1964, to the great joy of all the monks of Sihastria, Father Cleopa returned from the desert and his silence and within days the monastery was filled with pilgrims seeking his counsel and direction. Thus began once again the apostolic-missionary work of Elder Cleopa, delivering soul-benefiting words of instruction to the faithful, and confessing and directing the pious.
The first duty Father Cleopa sought from the faithful was the devout preservation of the Orthodox Faith, meaning all of the dogmas and mysteries of the Holy Orthodox Church, for without true Faith, even if all possible good works are performed, no one can be saved.
Secondly, the Elder gave great significance to the confession of sins, admonishing the faithful to confess at least four times a year. He taught them: “Brother, when you see that your father or mother is sick, don't call the doctor first, but the priest, for the doctor cannot add to our life even one minute. And if he could lengthen our life, he doesn't do this of himself. Everything rests with God!”
The Elder recommended generally that one should read the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God together with the morning prayers of the Church, the Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos in the evening before bed with the oil lamp lit, and the rest of the day to pray the Jesus Prayer as much as possible. However, more than anyone, the Elder prayed for the Church, the faithful, those fallen into great sins, those undergoing the trials and tragedies of life. The prayers of the Elder brought about miraculous results: sicknesses were cured and the ill were returned from the hospital wards healthy, examinations by doctors unexpectedly had positive results and generally the blessings of God, by the prayers of the Elder, were spread everywhere.
Father Cleopa never tired of encouraging the faithful in almsgiving and showing mercy on others. He would tell them in confession: “Don’t turn anyone away from you without showing mercy. If you don’t have money to give him, give him potatoes, some bread, a kerchief, give him something, even a scrap. If you give something, it won’t seem hard to you to give the next time something more, for your almsgiving and mercy arises to God like a thunderbolt. Why? Two great virtues are combined: almsgiving and humility.”
The primary duty that he asked christian families to fulfil was the birth and upbringing of children. Following the Holy Canons of the Church, Father Cleopa absolutely condemned the aborting of children and the killing of embryos, one of the greatest sins a Christian could commit.
In 1965 with the exhortation of his disciples and with the blessing of many hierarchs, Father Cleopa began to write homilies, teachings, and soul-benefiting epistles for monastics as well as laymen. Specifically, knowing well the community life of the Romanian people, the misfortunes of the clergy, and perhaps most of all the fanatical proselytism of heterodox groups in Romania over the past thirty years, Father Cleopa wrote many apologetic works for the support of the Orthodox Faith and the correction of false teachings. The most important of these works include Discourse on Visions and Dreams, containing seven discussions dealing with the problems of dreams, visions and the question of frequent Holy Communion and Heresiology, a monumental work containing thirty-three dialogues covering the wide range of anti-dogmatic and anti-orthodox teachings of both the heterodox and the faithful but simpleminded. This work was published in 1981 under the title On the Orthodox Faith. Other works with moral-instructional character include Homilies for the Feasts (1976), containing thirty-six sermons on the great feasts of the year, Homilies for Monks, a massive work containing forty-eight “philokalian” sermons, Homilies for the Sundays and Feasts of the Year, also massive, and Homilies for Laymen.
These and other activities constituted the great spiritual missionary work that the Elder Cleopa carried out from the Fall of 1964 until the second of December, 1998 when he gave his soul into the hands of God. During many of these years the Elder divided his day into three eight-hour periods. During the first, at night, he rested a little and prayed. During the next period he read the Holy Fathers and wrote, and during the third period he gave himself up to his disciples and the pilgrims who came to him from near and far for confession and instruction. In order to be able to pray and write undisturbed, every morning he left his near cell, five minutes away from the monastery, and went to one twenty minutes away to the north. He remained there alone the whole day writing down extracts of his experience, and in the afternoon he came down to the near cell to receive the faithful and confess the monks.
Fr. Cleopa, as with every venerable servant of Christ, was above all a man of prayer. As a boy, the young Constantine prayed often from books and learned many prayers by heart and continually repeated them. As a youth he developed a great love for reading the Psalter, which he repeated daily. He also knew by heart the Akathist to the Saviour, the Akathist to the Mother of God, the Canon of Repentance to the Saviour, and the Paraclesis to the Mother of God, which he said daily. At the same time, he made three to four hundred prostrations and bows each day.
Under the influence of his ascetically minded older brothers Basil and George, he also began to force himself to become accustomed to the Prayer of the Heart, at which the older two became advanced at a young age.
As Abbot of Sihastria Monastery, being very busy during the daytime hours, Fr. Cleopa would pray more at night. He would sleep two hours before Matins and again two more hours after the service, after which he would perform his entire prayer rule for the day, which took three hours. Over the course of the ten years he spent in the wilderness during his three exiles, he devoted countless hours to the Prayer of the Heart. Even the fingernail with which he would pull the knots of his prayer-rope was deformed because of a lifetime of practicing this prayer.
Fr. Cleopa would speak to his disciples about pure Prayer of the Heart as if he were speaking of someone else’s experience: “I met with someone who had toiled with hunger, with thirst, with cold, with nakedness in the woods and he told me that he had once spend the night in the home of a pious Christian man. In the evening before Sunday, he completed his rule of prayer. At the house of a neighbour there was a wedding with music. The desert-dweller, being at prayer, had before him an icon of the Mother of God. Standing and pondering, he thought upon the word of St. John of the Ladder which says, ‘Some say songs can raise the advanced to more exalted contemplation.’ Thus, hearing the music from the wedding, he said to himself, ‘If these people know how to sing so beautifully, how do the angels in heaven sing, who give praise to the Mother of God?’ From this feeling his mind descended into his heart, and he stayed in this prayer for over two hours, feeling much sweetness and warmth. His tears flowed continually, his heart was enflamed and he sensed Christ - how He conversed with his soul. Such a fragrance of the Holy Spirit came upon him then, and he felt so much spiritual warmth, that he said to himself, ‘O Lord, I want to die in this moment!’
After two hours, his mind came out from the heart and remained with a sweet sorrow, a joy, a consolation, and an incredible spiritual warmth for a month. The heaven in his heart could no longer be drawn to something from this world, because the tears that stream during such times of prayer, being from the Holy Spirit, wash away all defilement and sinful imaginings and the soul remains pure.”
Fr. Cleopa would say of the Prayer of the Heart, “When the mind descends into the heart, then the heart opens up and then it closes. That is, the heart absorbs Jesus, and Jesus absorbs our heart. In that moment the Bridegroom Christ meets with the bride, that is, our soul!”
For most of Elder Cleopa’s life God blessed him with good health. When he reached his seventieth year, however, the Elder began to feel tired and fatigued. The years passed in the mountains as well as his trials under the Communists had taken their toll. From 1985 until his repose in 1998 the Elder suffered from illnesses such as a double hernia, kidney stones, a spasmodic right hand, the removal of a cyst, and other sicknesses. All of these trials and illnesses kept the Elder alert and expectant for the arrival of the last hours of his life, always immersed in unceasing prayer and thinking on Christ.
The last twenty years of his life the Elder spent in increased and concentrated prayer: fourteen to fifteen hours a day. He had mystical moments when he did not want to speak to anyone, not even his cell attendant. From four until eight the Elder prayed his morning rule; afterward he confessed monks and lay people until about four in the afternoon, when he began his evening prayer rule, consisting of the canon of repentance, canons to the Theotokos, the Supplicatory Canon, Small Compline and other services. At night the fathers made ready the veranda where the Elder would stand alone in prayer, awe and wonder at the Creator’s majestic handiwork, which he loved very much - the sheep and all of God’s creation - until sometime in the midst of the night when he would rest a bit before beginning again.
In the last months of his life the Elder could be heard saying often: “Now I am going to my brothers!” and “Leave me to depart to my brothers!” and “I am going to Christ! Pray for me, the sinner.”
On the eve of the Elder’s departure for the next life he began to read his morning rule, when his disciple said to him: “Geronda, its evening now. These prayers should be read tomorrow morning.” The Elder answered him saying, “I am reading them now because tomorrow morning I am going to my brothers.” On the morning of December 2nd, 1998, at about 2:20 a.m. Elder Cleopa departed for eternity and His Christ.
In the three days that followed until the funeral thousands of faithful converged on Sihastria to be close to their Elder one last time in this life. The funeral was attended by huge numbers of the faithful with tears in their eyes upon seeing their Elder leaving them and yet also filled with resurrectional joy and the Paschal hymn “Christ is risen” on their lips. A great monastic and hesychastic period for the Church of Romania came to an end with the departure of the Elder Cleopa to the place where the just repose. A golden page was inserted into the history of the Romanian Orthodox Church with its beginning and ending at the hesychastic Monastery of Sihastria in Moldavia.
* This article has been compiled from two different sources: The Life and Struggles of Elder Cleopa: Romanian Hesychast and Teacher and Spiritual Dialogues with Romanian Fathers, both by Archimandrite Ioanichie Balan in Greek translation. Some excerpts have also been taken from the forthcoming book of the St. Herman Brotherhood, Shepherd of Souls, Elder Cleopa the New Hesychast of Romania, also written by Fr. Ioanichie Balan.
Tags: orthodox, elder, ilie, cleopa, jesus, prayer, religion, saint, ortodox, pray, father, god, priest, monastery, sihastria, romania, church, son, holy, spirit, heaven
Location: Iasi, Iasi, Romania (load item map)
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