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The Monk Alexander of Svirsk


Comorated on August 30, April 17

The Monk Alexander of Svirsk was born on 15 July 1448, on the day of memory of the Prophet Amos, and at Baptism was named in honour of him. Dwelling all his life far off from historical events, the Monk Alexander – a beacon light of monasticism in the deep forests of the Russian North – worked a different and spiritual history and was bestown extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.

His parents, Stefan and Vassa (Vasilisa) were peasants of the nigh-close to Lake Ladoga village of Mandera, at the bank of the River Oyata, a tributary of the River Svira. They had two children, who were already grown and lived away from their parents. But Stefan and Vassa wanted still to have another son. They prayed fervently and heard a voice from above: “Rejoice, good wedded, ye shall bear a son, in whose birth God wilt give comfort to His Church”.

Amos grew up a special lad. He was always obedient and gentle, he shunned games, jokes and foul-talk, he wore poor clothes and so weakened himself with fasting, that it caused his mother anxiety. Upon coming of age he once met Valaamsk monks who had come to the Oyata for the purchase of necessities and concerning other economic needs. Valaam at this time had already the reputation as a monastery of deep piety and strict ascetic life. Having spoken with them, the youth became interested by their account about the skete (with two or three together) and about the monastic hermit life. Knowing that his parents wanted to marry him off, the youth at age 19 went secretly to Valaam. Under the guise of being a companion, an Angel of God appeared to him, showing the way to the island.

Amos lived for seven years at the monastery as a novice, leading an austere life. He spent his days at work, and his nights – in vigilance and prayer. Sometimes bare of chest, all covered by mosquitoes and gnats, he prayed in the forest to the morning song of the birds.

In the year 1474 Amos took monastic vows with the name Alexander. After some several years his parents eventually learned from Karelians arriving in Mandera, whither their son had disappeared. Through the example of their son, even the parents soon went to the monastery and took vows with the names Sergei and Varvara (Barbara). After their death the Monk Alexander, with the blessing of the hegumen of the monastery, settled on a solitary monastery island, where in the crevice of a cliff he built a cell and continued his spiritual exploits.

The fame of his exploits spread far. Then in 1485 the Monk Alexander departed from Valaam and, upon a command from above, chose a place in the forest on the shore of a beautiful lake, which afterwards was named Holy (Svyata). Here the monk built himself an hut and in solitude he dwelt for seven years, eating only that which he gathered in the forest (Afterwards at this place, – Lake Svyata, 36 versts from the future city of Olonets and 6 versts from the River Svira, the Monk Alexander founded the monastery of the Life-Originating Trinity, and 130 sazhen (i.e. 910 feet) off from it, at Lake Roschina, he built himself a “withdrawing place”, – on the spot where the Alexandro-Svirsk monastery later emerged). During this time the saint experienced fierce sufferings from hunger, frost, sickness and demonic temptations. But the Lord continually sustained the spiritual and bodily strength of the righteous one. Once when suffering with terrible infirmities, the monk not only was not able to get up from the ground, but also even was unable to lift his head, he just lay there and sang psalms. And hereupon there appeared to him a glorious man. Placing his hand on the pained spot, he signed the saint with the sign of the cross and healed him.

In 1493 while hunting for deer, the adjoining land-owner Andrei Zavalishin happened to come upon the hut of the monk. Andrei spoke to him about a light, seen earlier at this place, and he entreated the monk to tell him about his life. From that point Andrei started often to visit with the Monk Alexander, and finally through the monk’s guidance, he himself departed for Valaam, where he took vows with the name Adrian, founding later on the Ondrusovsk monastery, and glorifying himself with a saintly life (Comm. 26 August and 17 May, + 1549).

Andrei Zavalishin was not able to keep quiet about the ascetic, in spite of the promise given to him. News about the righteous one began to spread widely, and monks started to gather about him. The monk thereupon withdrew himself from all the brethren and built himself a “withdrawing spot” a distance of 130 sazhen from the common dwelling. The he encountered a multitude of temptations. The demons took on beastly shapes, they hissed like snakes, urging the monk to flee. But the prayer of the saint, as it were a fiery flame, scorched and dispersed the devils.

In 1508, the 23th year of the monk’s dwelling at this secluded spot, there appeared to him the Life-Originating Trinity. The monk was praying at night at his “withdrawing spot”. Suddenly an intense light shone, and the monk beheld approaching him Three Men, robed in radiant white garb. Hallowed by Heavenly Glory, They did shine in a pure brightness greater than the sun. Each of Them held in Their hand a staff. The monk fell down in terror, and having come to his senses, prostrated himself on the ground. Taking him up by the hand, the Men said: “Trust thou, blessed one, and fear not”. The monk received orders to construct a church and to build up a monastery. He again fell to his knees, crying out about his own unworthiness, but the Lord raised him up and ordered him to fulfill the commands. The monk asked, in whose name the church ought to be. The Lord thereupon said: “Beloved, as thou beholdest Those speaking with thee in Three Persons, so also construct thou the church in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity One-in-Essence. I leave thee peace and My peace I give thee”. And immediately the Monk Alexander beheld the Lord with out-stretched wings, going as though along the ground, and He became invisible. In the history of the Russian Orthodox Church this Divine Descent is acknowledged as unique. After this vision the monk began to think, where to build the church. Once during a time of prayer to God, he heard a voice from above. Having gazed up to the heights, he saw an Angel of God in mantle and klobuk, such as the Monk Pakhomios had seen. The Angel, standing in the air with out‑stretched wings and up-raised hands, proclaimed: “One is Holy, One is the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Glory of God the Father, Amen”. And then he turned to the monk: Alexander, upon this spot construct the church in the Name of the Lord Who hath appeared to thee in Three Persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity Undivided”. And having thrice made the cross over the place, the Angel became invisible.

In that same year was built a wooden church of the Life-Originating Trinity (in 1526 was built here a stone church). And at the same time as the building of the church, the brethren began to urge the monk to accept the priesthood. For a long time he refused, considering himself unworthy. Then the brethren began to implore Saint Serapion, Archbishop of Novgorod (+ 1516, Comm. 16 March), that he convince the monk to accept the dignity. And so in that very year the monk journeyed to Novgorod and received ordination from the holy archbishop. Soon afterwards the brethren also besought the monk to accept being hegumen.

Having become hegumen, the monk became even more humble than before. His clothes were all in tatters, and he slept on the bare ground. He himself prepared food, kneaded dough and baked bread. One time there was not sufficient firewood and the steward asked the hegumen to dispatch after firewood any of the monks that were idle. “I am idle”, – said the monk, and he began to chop firewood. Another time likewise he began to carry water. And by night when all were asleep, the monk was often grinding away with hand-stones for making more bread. By night the monk made the round of the cells and if he heard anywhere vain conversations, he lightly tapped on the door and departed, but in the morning he admonished the brother, imposing a penance on the culprit.

Towards the end of his life the Monk Alexander decided to build a stone church of the Pokrov (Protection) of the MostHoly Mother of God. One time in the evening, after doing an akathist to the MostHoly Mother of God, the monk settled down to rest in the cell and suddenly said to the cell-attendant Afanasii: “Child, be sober and alert, because in this hour will be a wondrous and astounding visit”. There followed a voice, like thunder: “Behold cometh the Lord and His Birth-Giver”. The monk hastened to the entrance to the cell, and a great light illumined it, spreading over all the monastery brighter than the rays of the sun. Gazing, the monk beheld over the foundation of the Pokrov church sitting at the altar place, as it were an empress upon a throne, the All-Pure Mother of God. She held the Infant-Christ in Her arms, and a multitude of the angelic rank, shining with an indescribable brightness, stood before Her. The monk fell down, unable to bear the great light. The Mother of God said: “Rise up, thou chosen one of My Son and God. For I have come here to visit thee, My dear one, and to look upon the foundation of My church. And for this, I have made entreaty for thy disciples and monastery, from hence all wilt be abundant; not only during thine life, but also upon thy departure persistently from thy monastery will be a granting of all necessities in abundance. Behold and watch carefully, how many monks are gathered into thy flock, which by thee mustneeds be guided on the way of salvation in the Name of the Holy Trinity”. The monk rose up and beheld a multitude of monks. Again said the Mother of God: “My dear one, if someone doth bear one brick for the building of My church, in the Name of Jesus Christ, My Son and God, his treasure perisheth not”. And She became invisible.
      Before his death the monk displayed wondrous humility. He summoned the brethren and bid them: “Bind my sinful body by the legs and drag it to a swampy thicket and, having enclosed it in skins, submerse it by the legs”. The brethren answered: “No, father, it is not possible to do this”. Then the monk bid that his body not be kept at the monastery, but at a place of withdrawal, the church of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Having lived 85 years, the monk expired to the Lord on 30 August 1533.

The Monk Alexander of Svirsk was glorified by wondrous miracles during his life and upon his death. In 1545 his disciple and successor, Hegumen Irodion, compiled his life. In 1547 was begun the local celebration of the monk and a service compiled to him. In the year 1641, on 17 April, during the rebuilding of the Transfiguration church, the incorrupt relics of the Monk Alexander of Svirsk were uncovered and the universal Church celebration to him was established on two dates: the day of repose – 30 August, and the day of glorification (Uncovering of Relics) – 17 April.

The Monk Alexander of Svirsk instructed and raised up a whole multitude of disciples, as the Mother of God had bequeathed him. These are the Sainted-Monks: Ignatii of Ostrovsk (XVI), Leonid of Ostrovsk (XVI), Kornilii of Ostrovsk (XVI), Dionysii of Ostrovsk (XVI), Athanasii (Afanasii) of Ostrovsk (XVI), Theodore (Feodor) of Ostrovsk (XVI), Ferapont of Ostrovsk (XVI). Besides these saints, there are known disciples and those conversing with the Monk Alexander of Svirsk, which have separate days of memory: the Monk Athansii (Afanasii) of Syandemsk (XVI, Comm. 18 January), the Monk Gennadii of Vasheozersk (+ 8 January 1516, Comm. 9 February), the Monk Makarii of Orodezhsk (+ 1532, Comm. 9 August), the Monk Adrian of Ondrosovsk (+ 26 August 1549, Comm. 17 May), the Monk Nikifor of Vasheozersk (+ 1557, Comm. 9 February), the Monk Gennadii of Kostroma and Liubimograd (+ 1565, Comm. 23 January). All these saints (except the Monk Gennadii of Kostroma) are imaged on the Icon of the Monastic Fathers, illumined in the Karelia land (icon from the church at the Spiritual Seminary in the city of Kuopio, Finland). The festal celebration of the Sobor-Assemblage of the Saints Illumined in the Karelian Land is done by the Finnish Orthodox Church on the Saturday falling between 31 October and 6 November.

© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.