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, in honor of Saint Peter the Metropolitan of Moscow, on whose Feast he was born.
After the children’s father died, their mother Irene raised them in piety. 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, including the Kiev Caves Lavra, but he did not feel drawn to any of the monasteries of Ukraine.
After being made a rassophore monk (one blessed to wear the rasson, but not yet tonsured “into the mantle”) at the Saint Nicholas Medvedevsky Monastery with the name Platon, he found that there was no experienced Elder there who could teach him obedience or give him spiritual direction. Not wishing to begin his monastic life without such guidance, he left the monastery a week after his tonsure with the blessing of his Elder.
At first, he went to Kiev, where he happened to meet his sister-in-law, the widow of his older brother Archpriest John. She informed him of his mother’s sorrow when he left Kiev, and her mind seemed to be affected by her grief. Then one day an angel 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. Because of this excessive love, the angel went on, she was thinking of starving herself to death, which would result in her eternal condemnation. 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. After this, she became calm and accepted God’s will. She entered a convent and was tonsured with the name Juliana. After about ten years, she departed to the Lord.
While at Kiev, Platon met two monks from Romania who were about to return to their country. After crossing the border into Moldavia, they came to Vlachia and the Skete of Saint Nicholas, which is called Treisteny, around 1745. The Elder of the Skete, Hieroschemamonk Michael, was away on business in Ukraine, so Platon and his companions were welcomed by the Superior, Father Demetrius. Platon was placed under a general obedience and given a cell near the Skete, from which the church was visible.
As he was sleeping one night, the semantron was sounded calling the monks to Sunday Matins, but Platon did not hear it. He woke up and ran to the church, only to find that the Gospel had already been read, and the Canon was being sung. In his grief and shame, he did not enter the church, but returned to his cell and wept bitter tears. After the Liturgy, when it was time for the meal, the Superior and the Elder were surprised that Platon had not been seen at the services. The Elder ordered that the meal be delayed while he sent a Father Athanasius to find out what had happened to Platon. Father Athanasius found him and asked why he was weeping. With difficulty, Platon was able to tell him the cause of his sorrow. Father Athanasius tried to console him and urged him to come to the Skete, where the others were waiting for him. Finally, he was persuaded to go.
Seeing the brethren at table but not eating, Platon fell down before them weeping and asking forgiveness. The Elder and the Superior lifted him up and heard from Father Athanasius the reason for his sorrow. The Elder told Platon not to grieve so over something that had happened involuntarily, and did his best to console him. From that time, however, the saint would not sleep lying down in bed, but sitting up on a bench.
One day the Elder Onuphrius of Kyrkoul visited the Skete and spoke about his Skete at Kyrkoul. Platon long to see Kyrkoul, and so he returned there with Father Onuphrius. He remained there for a time, conversing with Father Onuphrius about overcoming the passions, the struggle with demons, unceasing prayer, and other soul-profiting topics. This seed fell on good ground, later bearing spiritual fruit a hundredfold.
The time came when Platon was 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 Saint 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.
In 1750 Saint Basil of Poiana Marului (April 15) visited the Holy Mountain and spent some time with Platon, who asked him for monastic tonsure. Elder Basil granted his request, giving him the name Paisius. Then Father Basil returned to his Skete at Vlachia. About three months later, a young monk named Bessarion came to the Holy Mountain from Vlachia. He went around to the monasteries searching for an instructor, but did not find one. He also came to Father Paisius and asked him to tell him something about saving his soul. Father Paisius sighed and told him that he himself had been looking for an instructor without success. Yet, feeling compassion for Father Bessarion, he talked to him a little about the qualifications necessary for a true instructor, and about the Jesus Prayer. After hearing him, Father Bessarion said, “What more do I seek?” He fell down at the feet of Father Paisius, entreating him to be his Elder. Father Paisius did not want to be anyone’s Elder, wishing instead to be under authority himself. Father Bessarion remained for three days weeping until Father Paisius agreed to accept him as a friend, and not as a disciple. For about four years they lived together fulfilling God’s commandments, cutting off their own will and obeying one another as equals.
Other disciples began to join them, and their number continued to increase. Since they needed a priest and a confessor, they begged Father 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 Father Paisius was ordained to the holy priesthood and was given the Skete of the Prophet Elias, where he began to accept even more disciples. Saint Paisius remained on Mt Athos for a total of seventeen years, copying Greek patristic books and translating them into Slavonic.
In 1763 Father 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 Father Paisius asked him to tonsure him into the Schema. Father Alexius did so, but without changing his name. While at Dragomirna, Father Paisius corrected the Slavonic translations of patristic books by comparing them to the Greek manuscripts he had copied on Mt 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, Saint Paisius and his flock fled to Moldavia. In October of 1775, he went to Secu (“Beheading”) Monastery, which was dedicated to Saint 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, Saint 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 Mt Athos. He gathered about a thousand monks in the monastery, instructing them in the unceasing prayer of the heart.
Archbishop Ambrose visited Saint Paisius at Neamts in 1790, staying for two days to converse with the Elder. During the Sunday Liturgy, he raised Saint Paisius to the rank of Archimandrite. He remained two more days, then departed after blessing everyone.
Saint 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 Saint Paisius were uncovered in 1846, 1853, 1861 and 1872, and were found to be incorrupt.
Saint Paisius has had an enormous influence, not only in Romania, but throughout the Orthodox world. His disciples traveled to Russia, sparking the spiritual revival of the nineteenth century with Slavonic translations of the PHILOKALIA and the tradition of eldership which they had learned from Saint Paisius. This influence has been felt even in America through Saint Herman of Alaska (December 13). Saint Herman was taught by Elders whose spiritual formation was guided by Saint Paisius. He first met Father Nazarius, who became his Elder at Valaam, at Sarov, then followed him to Sanaxar when Saint Theodore (February 19) was their igumen.
One of the books that Saint Herman brought with him to America was the Slavonic PHILOKALIA, printed in 1794. He absorbed the spiritual wisdom that it contained, and imparted it to others.