Abbot Damascene of Valaam
Builder of Orthodox Sanctity
A THOUSAND YEARS OF VALAAM
In the northern part of Russia a thousand years ago, on an island in the huge lake of Ladoga, was founded the monastery of Valaam. And ever since, with relatively short intervals, holy monks have labored there for Christ. Their influence was immense in the building of Holy Russia, when daily life was lived according to the ascetic principles of the Christian world-view.
Now that we are celebrating a thousand years of Valaams monasticism, the hundred years since the death of one of its major builders, Abbot Damascene, seems such a small time. He was a spiritual giant with a loving heart, and he was the primary force which shaped the last flowering of Valaam sanctity, something that lasted up to the middle of this century.
Father Damascene was of simple peasant stock. He came at a young age to Valaam and at once became the disciple of Elder Eutheraius, a direct link with Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky. He brought up his apprentice in the strict desert loving tradition. Valaam always had the three types of monasticism, and Damascene “graduated” from all of them, spending fourteen years as a recluse on a forest island, in addition to knowing the life of the sketes and the coenobitic monastery. Another offspring of the Paisian tradition, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, insisted on placing him as abbot in Valaam, and he was not mistaken; for this timid man became the general of thousands of Christ’s warriors, establishing numerous sketes around the fortress of the main monastery as spiritual watchtowers on the surrounding islands.
The magnitude of his personality and influence came from his total openness, simplicity, humbleness, and love, which worked miracles and made him a clairvoyant elder in the midst of a number of holy elders. He knew how to forgive, conquering with a burning love the hearts of all who came within the sphere of his influence.
His talks were not eloquent or abstract. His advice was always brief, practical, to the point, and highly effective, for he spoke without calculation, but from heart to heart. When he met a responsive soul, in his able hands that soul would reach the heights of spiritual perfection through the narrow path of absolute humility and self renunciation. This made him not only a builder in the outward sense (indeed, no one erected more buildings or established more sketes than he in the whole history of Valaam), but even more he was a builder of sanctity on his island iavra, whose influence spread far and wide, making him one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the Orthodox Church in recent times.
But the spirit of Valaam’s monasticism still calls men of good will and inspiration to the resolve to wage war within oneself against the spirit of this world, against sensuality and self-pity. And the spirit of Abba Damascene can still be a builder of the life of sanctity so needed by Orthodox Christians today.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
Having arrived in Valaam as a novice, Father Damascene gave himself entirely over to monastic renunciation. With a quick grasp, attention, and intelligence he fulfilled all his obediences. At first he was assigned to the stables, then baking braed, and when he would have a free moment he would pray with many prostrations. When he would get exhausted he would fall right there on the floor in order to catch a moment of sleep, and then again he would jump up and complete his obedience with prayer. In about two years he was placed in charge of all the monastery workers. The exemplary zeal that this young novice showed attracted the Abbot’s attention. He was therefore placed in charge of guarding the monastery. He was given a boat, a boatman, and a horse in order to do the surveillance. This gave him an opportunity to be close to nature, which is so important for monastic development, and at the same time it gave him ample opportunity to see the potential of Valaam s natural setting for monastic striving.
At the very beginning of his stay in Valaam, Fr. Damascene met a simple monk who told him: “Stay with us here, brother. We have three types of monastic life: at first one must labor in the monastery, then in the skete, and only then in the desert. Stay with us, brother. Here is my prayer rope for you.”
With these words the Elder told him how to pray the Jesus Prayer and directed him to Fr. Euthemius, saying, “This is a truly simple monk.” The humbleness of Euthemius truly amazed Damascene and he didn’t know what to say to the elder, but soon he became totally devoted to this expert of human hearts, who was not lazy in bringing forth a great ascetic in his young disciple.
Damascene’s cell was above the stables outside the main body of the monastic dormatories. Every midnight Euthemius would come with a long pole and knock at the window to wake his disciple for Nocturn prayers, and would persistently continue knocking until the other would return a knock on his window pane. Every night, without lighting a light in his cell, the young ascetic would fulfill his prayer rule even before the beginning of the* church services. With the first bell which gathered the brothers to common prayer he would hasten to church, which at times would take great effort, since overnight whole mountains of snow would sometimes fall and cover the path, and at times one would have to crawl to the church for Nocturns in snow up to the waist.
In his cell there was total nonacquisitiveness: one icon, one book, a prayer rope, a table, two stools (which were of his own making) and two boards, which during the night served as a bench on which a mat and pillow were placed for his bedding. These were all the possessions of the humble brother. He had one blanket for a covering. His winter over coat was also of a very poor quality. He never ate or drank anything without, a blessing, although his obedience was in the bread baking area.
On Christmas, 1823, he was made a rvassaphor monk. He then began to acquire the experience of coenobitic monastic life. After two years he was tonsured a monk. Soon after that his elder, Fr. Euthemius, secluded himself in the desert and Fr. Damascene received a blessing to go and live in a skete, thus acquiring the second type of monastic experience. He went to the Skete of All Saints, which was the largest skete founded by Abbot Nazarius, where the perpetual reading of the psalter was conducted day and night. True to his strict way of life, here too Damascene put all his strength into taking care of the skete brotherhood, which consisted primarily in gray-haired elders.
In two years he left for the desert. Where the Konevits Skete of the Mother of God is now located, there was at that time an impenetrable desert forest within a six mile walking distance (it was three miles if one went by boat). His ascetic life was known only to God. In the monastery they knew that his food was scarce. He ate mostly dry bread and would cook food on rare occasions, eating sometimes already spoiled food. On feastdays he would come to the Skete of All Saints for the Liturgy, and after the service, having taken the antidoron, he hastened to depart, avoiding meetings and conversations, to his beloved desert, since the occasional meetings and conversations would threaten his inward spiritual peace. Later he would say that if at times during the feast days in the monastery he would allow himself to talk to someone, then coming back to the desert it would take sometimes a week or more before he would attain again the blissful state in which he was before. For this reason the skete cook would prepare his food or bread and place it at the garden gate. Damascene, returning to his desert from the services, would then take his portion of food, and hastening into his cell where he could sit down on his bed, and glorifying God, would eat his bread with water, rejoicing over his peaceful festive dinner. Sometimes the humble ascetic would abandon even this portion of food, preferring spiritual joy in its place. While in the desert he never changed his clothes or underwear and wore his clothing until his shirt literally fell off his back.
He lived in a small house divided into four tiny rooms. In the first one, which was larger than the others, he did his carpentry work. He would carve out wooden spoons. Sometimes he would spend whole nights through doing this work. In the second room he would scrupulously copy out books at a special table made and designed by himself for that purpose. In the third room, which was so small that a human being could hardly fit in it, he would conduct his desert-dwelling prayer rule and prostrations. Here it is fitting to note that his prayer rule was not easy:
Matins, the Hours with Inter-hours, kathismata, and also the “Twelve Psalms” which were sung by the ancient desert fathers. In this cell was his icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a prayer rope, mantia, and a small stool on which for many hours on end he would sit and practice mental prayer. Finally, in the fourth room there was a coffin made out of simple boards by his own labor, where this strict desert dweller would lay his much-labored body for a short rest. This coffin served as his bed and the lid of the coffin as his blanket. There was no heater in the house. There were in the house iron chains which he inherited from the previous inhabitant, Schemamonk Porphyry. These chains Fr. Damascene wore while he dwelt in the desert for ever greater self-mortification and for greater mortification of the sinful flesh, as he would later recall:
“At times I would start to make prostrations, and the iron would get so hot that it would burn the flesh, but thereby the soul would be peaceful and joyful. Ah, if only one could spend one’s whole life like that!”
Fr. Damascene during his desert dwelling showed no pity on himself and strove in every way possible to humble his flesh. Prayer and labor, labor and prayer, almost constantly without stop, day and night — so Fr. Damascene spent his entire life in the desert.
Much did he suffer while in the desert from demonic temptations, which would assail him visibly or invisibly. Many times during the long autumn nights the enemy of our salvation would appear to him as an old man coming out of the lake with long disheveled hair. At times the enemy would attack him invisibly through an excessive dose of despondency and despair. But the Lord did not abandon his faithful slave, for with prayer on his lips and the sign of the cross as with a flaming sword, the virtuous desert dweller rebuffed the enemy’s temptations. Once when he was in such a state. Abbot Barlaam visited him, and he heard from Damascene such words: “I’m contemplating running away.” The Abbot told him to endure like St. Anthony the Great: “…endure the enemy’s temptations, but don’t leave the desert. Stay there and count the boards in the ceiling. And he became conqueror of the enemy’s temptations. Having acquired the necessary experience in the desert, he became the main force in the foundation of the chief sketes of Valaam.
Once Fr. Damascene became the Abbot he already had a good sober picture of what is needed and what ought to be the emphasis for the formation of true soldiers of Christ. His main concern, of course, was the fortification of the ancient Valaam coenobium with its many interdependent “households” or workshops, which provided independence and stability for this virtual world of monasticism. Having achieved this, he turned next to the building of isolated sketes all over the islands, and provided them with strict eremitic rules. In the skete of St. John the Baptist, for example, the rule was so strict that the monks never tasted nonfast foods.
This whole ascetic way of life was generally in a total harmony with the unspoiled temper of the simple Russian Orthodox Christian, the tone being that of “seeking the heavenly homeland” (in the words of St. Herman of Alaska). It was also highly conducive to the contemplative aspect of Orthodox monastic aspirations, to which Valaam was geared.
Fr. Damascene’s labors soon gave their fruits: humility of wisdom began to exude from various monks, and sanctity was quite apparent in a number of the desert dwellers. This was the crown of Fr. Damascene’s labors, amidst which he aged, and then, on December 23, 1881, passed on to the Lord. His last days were marked bv his extraordinary childlike simplicity, inward peace, and total guilelessness, occasionally clearly revealing his gift of foresight. When he died, Valaam monastery was at its height in all respects. Only a few monasteries in the world could rival it.
May our Lord, through the prayers of Elder Damascene, protect also this land of America, whose heavenly patron is another Valaam monk, Saint Herman of Alaska. It was Abbot Damascene who first laid the beginning for St. Herman’s glorification, for it was he who first collected and published the Life of St. Herman and his iconographic representation in 1864. He also set the tone for his canonization, which due to the Revolution was so long postponed. Abbot Damascene strengthened his monks also as defenders of Orthodoxy, and this was clearly revealed during the controversy over the question of the “new church calendar.” It is hoped that the monks of America today will not seek only the externils of Orthodox monasticism, but will fortify themselves in the steps and spirit of Abbot Damascene by placing the monastic struggle in its primary position and have the Valaam tradition as its guiding light. For truly, without Abbot Damascene’s spirit monasticism today can easily turn into a self-satisfying phenomenon that could well serve the spirit of the antichrist. May the spirit of Abbot Damascene protect the monastic shoots of America from this calamity.
Our holy Father Damascene, pray to God for us!
In a dream after his death, Abbot Damascene gave the following testament on the meaning of monastic life to his grieving spiritual daughter, Abbess Taisia of Leushy:
He asked me: “Do you know what is the meaning of the rending in two of the veil of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Saviour’s death on the Cross?” I replied, as I had studied in the Sacred Scripture, that this signified the division between the Old and New Testaments. “That is good,” he replied, “that is correct according to the books; but think yourself: doesn’t this refer somehow to our monastic life?”
I began to think; and being uncertain myself of the exactness and rightness of my opinion, replied: “I think that this signifies how the human soul is torn as it strives towards God and towards pleasing God; it is rent in two, becoming spiritual but not ceasing to belong to the fleshly man that dwells in it; it is torn, cutting off and tearing away from itself the will of the outward man which is sweet, but inclined to sin; its poor heart is torn, tearing itself in half, into pieces, some of them, as unfit but nonetheless kin to it, it tears and throws into the world, but the others it carries like pure incense to its Christ. Oh, how difficult it sometimes is for the poor heart; how it is tormented and suffers, literally being torn in half!” never heard not expected to hear anything like that when awake; but now I said this in my dream with such fervor that I was all covered with tears. Abbot Damascene replied to me: “Yes, the Lord has not deprived you of His grace. Is it for you to grow fainthearted and despondent in sorrows? Take courage, and may your heart be strengthened with hope in the Lord.” With these words he stood up and again blessed me. I awoke all in tears, but in tears no longer of sorrow but of unutterable joy, which for a long time strengthened my weak powers.