by Nicholas Fennell
This excerpt is from Russian Monks on Mount Athos: The Thousand Year History of St Panteleimon’s (pp. 35 – 38). Here, we are introduced to Monk Ioanniky, who succeeded Schema-hieromonk Pavel as the leader of the Russian brotherhood of St Panteleimon’s Monastery in 1840. At this time, the Russian monks shared the monastery in a sometimes tense arrangement with monks of Greek origin and practice, including the abbot.
All footnotes have been omitted from this excerpt.
The abbot set about looking for someone to replace Fr Pavel. Apart from Elder Arseny, the only Russian Athonite considered to be suitable was one Monk Ioanniky (Solomentsov), who, although only relatively recently settled on the Mountain, had already gained the reputation of an exemplary ascetic.
His father was a merchant. Those from mercantile backgrounds were playing a vital part in establishing a strong Russian presence in the Orthodox Near East, and eventually in increasing the stability and wealth of the Russian Athonite houses. These kuptsy / merchants were zealously charitable Orthodox pioneers and builders. They formed the “powerful class of Russian merchants and entrepreneurial factory owners—the Russian ‘businessmen’ who were famous everywhere for their honesty … and, above all, for their prayerful piety.”
Fr Ioanniky (Solomentsov) was born in 1805 with the baptismal name of Ivan. His native town was Stary Oskol, whose citizens were zealously church-going. His family was well-to-do and extremely pious. Ivan’s eldest brother became a monk and his sister an abbess, in whose nunnery their own mother was tonsured to the Great Schema. Encouraged by his grandmother, Ivan became a proficient church reader at an early age. The whole family loved church services:
Often on feast days or Sundays we’d all gather in the hall, light incense and the icon lamp, and start singing …. We would … sing to our hearts’ content for three to four hours …. During the visits of our aunts, who were nuns at Orlovsky Monastery, our house practically became a church: … singing, reading, and prayers happened every day.
By the age of six Ivan was serving in the sanctuary and had become an expert campanologist. He had longed to become a monk from the age of five. He was not allowed to forget, however, his filial duty and his place in the Solomentsov firm. He persuaded his sister, who had as many as twenty suitors at the age of sixteen, to take the veil. Ivan’s father asked him to stay at home as compensation for the loss of his daughter. They haggled over the length of time Ivan was to remain at home, and settled for two years beyond his sister’s departure.
Ivan’s prolonged stay was hard: “I suffered harsh trials and nearly perished.” He refused to accept the wealthy brides his parents lined up for him and fought manfully against earthly temptations. He spent a night on his knees under a pear tree, praying for strength; in the morning the devilish torments left him, and he went to matins with a light heart, but the tree withered and died. All the while, he worked in his family’s tannery business. He sold their wares at local fairs and markets with singular success.
At last he was free to go. In 1831 he set off with his brother in Christ, Nikolay Goncharov. They sought “a place suitable for the ascetic life where they could find what they longed for: silence and cenobitic discipline, away from the female sex, and an escape from ordination to the priesthood.” No suitable monastery was found. In 1834 a friend advised them: “In Russia you will find nowhere closed to the female sex. Such a place, and the only one in the Orthodox Church, is to be found solely on the Holy Mountain of Athos.”7 The pair returned to Stary Oskol to obtain foreign travel passports. They left Russia in 1835, but had to return home once they reached Constantinople, where the plague had broken out. From Odessa they went to Voronezh to venerate the relics of St Mitrofan. There they met a fool in Christ, who predicted: “You, my brother Ivan, will arrive on Athos; you’ll set up your hive and will be letting swarms fly from it.” It was only in 1836, with a group of friends from Stary Oskol, that they reached the Holy Mountain.
Upon his arrival, Ivan chose as his spiritual father Elder Arseny, who tonsured him a monk with the name Ioanniky. On his advice Monk Ioanniky took on two novices and bought the Prophet Elijah Kellion / Hermitage belonging to Stavronikita Monastery. There he stayed in eremitical seclusion for four years. Monk Parfeny (Ageev) joined them to work as a cook, baker, church reader, and kanonarchis / choir master.
A delegation of Russian brethren was sent to Fr Ioanniky entreating him to come to St Panteleimon Monastery, but he refused to leave his kellion. Next Elder Arseny was begged to come to St Panteleimon’s, but unsurprisingly he also refused. The delegation again went to Fr Ioanniky, but the young hermit declined the invitation: “Although I love your holy house for the strictness of its life, I can in no way agree to come and live with you. I have left Russia so as to avoid being ordained. Furthermore, I cannot endure your severe cenobitic rule on account of my ill health.”
In despair the Russians asked the elder what to do. He advised them to fast and say special prayers for a week, and then return to him. At last Fr Arseny received them and joyfully proclaimed: “It is God’s will that Fr Ioanniky be in the Russian monastery.”
Parfeny (Ageev) recalls how Fr Ioanniky’s brotherhood was taken by surprise:
We … along with our [Fr] Ioanniky, knew nothing [of this]. Suddenly a note was delivered to us from the [elder] requesting that all three of us go to see him. We were amazed, for why should he summon all three of us at once? When we arrived … he told us to go to the church; he put on his epitracheilion / stole, and began thus: “Fr Ioanniky, the Lord blesses you to enter the Russian cenobitic monastery with your disciples. Sell your kellion / hermitage.”
With characteristic emotion Ageev describes how all three burst into tears and fell to the ground begging the elder to relent. Fr Ioanniky protested that he had left Russia with the express intention of avoiding ordination—for he knew that if he were to enter the monastery, he would become dukhovnik / spiritual father to the Russians and therefore would have to become a priest. He also protested that his health was too weak “to endure Greek food,” and that he had arrived on the Mountain “not to be in authority,” but to spend his life in eremitical seclusion.
The elder upbraided Ioanniky:
All things are good at the right time: it is good to avoid ordination, and good to accept it for the glory of the God, should the Lord so choose. Just as it is evil to seek ordination, so it is evil to resist God’s will. That you are weak in health, the Lord knows better than you …. He chose you; He will grant you health. As for what you say of wishing to conquer your passions in eremitical seclusion … one can achieve this [as a hermit], provided that one lives according to God’s will. But in the cenobitic life one can both [conquer the passions] and [be one with God], for eremitical seclusion merely deadens the passions, whereas the cenobitic life destroys them entirely, burying them in humble obedience and the cutting off of one’s will …. For nowhere can one find true monastic life other than in a cenobium. Further, you desire to save but two souls. Go and save twenty, and in time fifty. You must care for everyone. You must set up the Russian house and through you it will gain glory. Oppose God’s will no more.
For two weeks Fr Ioanniky and his disciples gave the chattels stored in his kellion away to the poor, who were fed by two cooks working full time. A year’s supply of flour, fish, oil, and wine was distributed. Fr Ioanniky’s party eventually left for the monastery on twelve mules, taking with them his vestments, clothing, and books. The future spiritual father and leader of the Russian brotherhood had come to the Holy Mountain a wealthy man. This was a far cry from rigorous non-possession of his own spiritual father, Elder Arseny; and unlike his predecessor, the humble Pavel, he would prove to have a strong character and indomitable will.
Fr Ioanniky (Solomentsov) and his disciples were received with joy at St Panteleimon Monastery on October 20, 1840; a month later he was ordained priest, and the following year he was tonsured to the Great Schema with the name of Ieronim. Thus, four years after his arrival on the Holy Mountain, unwillingly but in obedience to his elder, Priest Ieronim of the Great Schema found himself to be the spiritual father and leader of a small but growing Russian brotherhood in the mainly Greek St Panteleimon monastery. There were eleven Russians there in 1840, one hundred in 1859, and five hundred at Fr Ieronim’s death in 1885.
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Nicholas Fennell is the author of four books on Athonite Russian history and has been researching and visiting Mount Athos since the 1980s. He holds a MA in Modern and Mediaeval Languages from Trinity College Cambridge, where he was a Senior Scholar, and a PhD from Southampton University. He is a member of the Friends of Mount Athos and of the Institute of the Athonite Legacy in Ukraine.