Saint Paisius Velichkovsky was born in Poltava in Little Russia on December 21, 1722, and was the eleventh of twelve children. His father John was a priest, who named him Peter at his Baptism. This was in honor of St Peter the Metropolitan of Moscow, on whose Feast Peter was born.
After his father died, Peter was sent to study at the Moghila Academy in Kiev in 1735. After four years, Peter decided to leave the world and become a monk. At the age of seventeen, he went in search of a monastery and a good spiritual father. For seven years Peter visited various monasteries, but he did not feel drawn to any of the monasteries in Ukraine. At the St Nicholas Medvedevsky Monastery he was made a rassophore monk and given the name Platon. But he left before being tonsured due to a lack of an experienced Elder to mentor him.
While traveling through to Kiev, Peter happened to meet his brother’s widow who informed him of his mother’s sorrow when he left Kiev. An angel had appeared to her and told her that instead of loving the Creator with her whole heart and soul, she loved His creation (her son) more. The angel said that by God’s grace, her son would become a monk, and that she should also renounce the world and become a nun. She accepted God’s will, entered a convent and was tonsured with the name Juliana.
While in Kiev, Peter met two monks from Romania who were traveling back to their country. After crossing the border into Moldavia, they came to Vlachia and the Skete of St. Nicholas. The Elder of the Skete was away on business in Ukraine, so Platon and his companions were welcomed by the Superior, Fr Demetrius. Platon was placed under a general obedience and given a cell near the Skete, from which the church was visible.
One day, the Elder Onuphrius of Kyrkoul visited the Skete and spoke about his Skete at Kyrkoul. Platon longed to see Kyrkoul, and so he returned there with Fr Onuphrius. He remained there for a time, conversing with Fr Onuphrius about overcoming the passions, the struggle with demons, unceasing prayer, and other soul-profiting topics. Platon was also filled with a longing to visit Mount Athos. He asked the brethren of the skete, and those of other sketes, for their forgiveness and blessing for the journey. He also thanked them for their kindness and their paternal instruction. They blessed him and let him go in peace. At that time, he was just twenty-four years old.
Platon went to Mount Athos in 1746, arriving at the Great Lavra on July 4, the eve of the Feast of St. Athanasius of Athos. His traveling companion, Hieromonk Tryphon fell ill and died after four days. Platon would have died from the same illness, if not for the care of the Russian monks. He recovered and lived in solitude in a cell called Kaparis near the Pantokrator Monastery. He went around visiting the ascetics and solitaries, looking for a spiritual Father, but was unable to find anyone suitable.
Other disciples began to join them, and their number continued to increase. Since they needed a priest and a confessor, they begged Fr Paisius to accept ordination. He did not want to hear of this, and repeatedly refused to consent. They did not give up, however. They asked him how he could expect to teach the brethren obedience and cutting off their own will, when he disobeyed the tearful entreaties of those who wanted him to accept. Finally, he said, “May the will of God be done.”
In 1754, Fr. Paisius was ordained to the holy priesthood and was given the Skete of the Prophet Elias, where he began to accept even more disciples. St. Paisius remained on Mt Athos for a total of seventeen years, copying Greek patristic books and translating them into Slavonic.
In 1763, Fr. Paisius went to Moldavia with sixty-four disciples, and was given the Dragomirna Monastery near the city of Sochava and on the border between Bukovina and Moldavia. Here he remained for twelve years, and the number of monks increased to three hundred and fifty. His friend Hieromonk Alexius came to visit him from Vlachia, and Fr Paisius asked him to tonsure him into the Schema. Fr Alexius did so, but without changing his name. While at Dragomirna, Fr. Paisius corrected the Slavonic translations of patristic books by comparing them to the Greek manuscripts he had copied on Mount Athos.
The Russo-Turkish war broke out in 1768, and Moldavia and Vlachia saw many battles. Dragomirna and the forests around it became filled with refugees from the villages near the battlegrounds. Another catastrophe appeared in 1771 with the outbreak of plague. When Dragomirna and Bukovina came under the control of Austrian Catholics, St. Paisius and his flock fled to Moldavia. In October of 1775, he went to Secul (“Beheading”) Monastery, which was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, with many of his monks.
Secul was too small for the number of brethren, who were crowded with three to five monks in a cell. In the spring, more brethren were due to arrive from Dragomirna, so new cells had to be built. After three years of labor one hundred cells were completed, and everyone had a place. Still, the numbers increased and they had to look for a larger monastery.
Prince Constantine Muruz wrote to the Elder saying that there was no larger monastery than Neamts, about two hours from Secul. On August 14, 1779, St. Paisius moved to Neamts Monastery where he spent the last fifteen years of his life translating the writings of the Holy Fathers. He organized the community according to the Typikon (Rule) of Mount Athos. He gathered about a thousand monks in the monastery, instructing them in the unceasing prayer of the heart.
Archbishop Ambrose visited St. Paisius at Neamts in 1790, staying for two days to converse with the Elder. During the Sunday Liturgy, he raised St Paisius to the rank of Archimandrite. He remained two more days, then departed after blessing everyone.
St Paisius fell asleep in the Lord on November 15, 1794 at the age of seventy-two. It is possible that God revealed the date of his death to him beforehand, for he stopped translating books. He only reviewed and corrected what had already been translated.
He was ill for four days, but felt well enough to attend the Liturgy on Sunday. After the service, he asked everyone to come and receive his blessing. He said farewell to them all, then returned to his cell and would not receive anyone. A few days later, on November 15, he received the Holy Mysteries again and surrendered his soul to God. His funeral was conducted by Bishop Benjamin of Tuma, and was attended by multitudes of priests, monks, laymen, nobles and ordinary people.
The holy relics of St. Paisius were uncovered in 1846, 1853, 1861 and 1872, and were found to be incorrupt.
St. Paisius is remembered for initiating, in the late eighteenth century, a revival of monasticism in Russia and Eastern Europe. His great literary talent in the task of correcting old translations and making new translations of the ascetic literature of the Holy Fathers allowed his students to become influential among the monks in Moldavia and Russia well as on Mount Athos itself. The influence of St. Paisius has also stretched to America through St. Herman of Alaska who was taught by Elders whose spiritual formation was guided by St Paisius. His legacy is one that continued to flourish long after his death through his disciples as well as his ascetic literary translations.
Throughout his life, St. Paisius continued to seek an elder who could mentor him in the way of being a monk. The interesting thing is that through this humility and hunger for Orthodoxy, he became someone that others looked to as a leader and a good mentor to others. His life shows us that sometimes in seeking the thing that we value and want for our lives, it is something we can become. In wholeheartedly seeking a suitable monastic mentor, St. Paisius became one himself.
“God’s goodwill and all our intentions are meek, full of good hope, and undoubting. Not only in our good deeds, but also in our lawlessness, God endures long with meekness and awaits our repentance.”