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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.