Schema-monk Siluan of Mt. Athos (his secular name was Semyon
Ivanovich Antonov) was born in 1866 in the village of Shov, Lebedinsk region of
the Tambov district of Russia. He first arrived on Mt. Athos in 1892, was
tonsured in 1896 and took the vows of the schema in 1911. His period of
obedience was served at the Mill, the Kalamarey Metoch (monastery territory
outside Mt. Athos), the Old Nagorny Rusik and the Oeconomia. He died on the 24 (11)
September 1938. These brief facts are taken from the Athos records.
Between "born" and "died"
there seems very little to say; but to speak of someoneís inner life before God
is a forthright, audacious act. To open up the "innermost heart" of a
Christian on the world stage is almost sacrilege. But in the knowledge that for
the Elder, who left this world a victor over it, there is nothing to fear;
nothing will disturb his eternal rest in God, so we ó who also search for
righteousness ó can attempt to discover his morally rich life.
Many who come into contact with monks and with
Elder Siluan in particular, do not see anything particular in them and thus
remain unsatisfied and possibly even disappointed. This occurs because they
approach monastics with the wrong scales, with improper demands and
The monk is engaged in endless struggle, and often
very pitched struggle, but an Orthodox monk is not a fakir. He is not
interested in the acquisition, through special exercises, of specific psychic
powers, which is what so many ignorant seekers of mystical life expect. Monks
engage in difficult, constant battle, and some of them, like Elder Siluan,
engage in a titanic struggle, invisible to the outside world, to destroy within
themselves the proud beast and to become men, real men in the image of the
perfect Man ó Jesus Christ ó humble and meek.
This is a strange life, incomprehensible to the
secular world; everything in it is paradox, everything is in a form opposite to
the order of the secular world, and it is impossible to explain it in words.
The only way to understand it is to perform the will of God, that is, to follow
the commandments of Christ; the path, indicated by Him.
Childhood and Early Life
From the long life of the Elder we would like to
highlight certain facts which are indicative of his spiritual life and his
"history." The first comes from his early childhood, when he was no
more than four years old. His father, like many Russian peasants, would take in
pilgrims and travelers. Once, on some holy day, he invited to his home a man
carrying books, hoping to hear from this "learned type" something new
and interesting, for he was unhappy in his "darkness" and eagerly
sought enlightenment and knowledge. At home, the guest was treated to tea and food.
Little Semyon with childish curiosity studied the guest and listened closely to
his words. The bookworm tried to convince Semyonís father that Christ is not
God and that there is no God. Little Semyon was particularly affected by the
words: "Where is He, where is God?" and he thought to himself,
"When I grow up, I will travel the world to find God." When the guest
had left, Semyon said to his father: "You teach me to pray, but he said
there is no God." His father answered, "I thought he was an intelligent
person, but he turned out to be a fool. Donít listen to him." But his
fatherís answer did not calm Semyonís apprehension.
Many years passed. Semyon grew up, became a
healthy young man and went to work on the neighboring estate of Prince
Troubetskoy. He worked as a carpenter with a gang of other workmen. The gang
had a cook, an old peasant woman. Once, on a pilgrimage, she visited the grave
of the hermit Ioann Sezenovsky (1791-1839) a famed monk. Upon her return, she
told of her pilgrimage and of the miracles that happen at the grave. Some of
the workers also mentioned the miracles and all agreed that Ioann was a holy
Listening to this conversation, Semyon thought,
"If he is a holy man, then God must be among all of us, and there is no
need to wander the earth searching for Him." With this thought, his young
heart was lifted with love for God.
Somehow, from the age of four to the age of
nineteen, the thought that had entered Semyonís soul during the bookwormís
conversation with his father, a thought that had stayed with him, unresolved,
was finally answered in this strange, apparently naive manner.
After Semyon felt that he had acquired faith, his
mind was concentrated on the memory of God, and he prayed often with tears. At
the same time, he felt an internal change and a desire to become a monk, and,
as he later recounted, he began to look on the beautiful daughters of Prince
Troubetskoy with love, but not desire, as sisters, though earlier he had been
partial to them. At that time he also asked his father to release him to go to
the Kiev Pecherskaya Lavra (Monastery), but his father told him categorically,
"First you must finish your military service, and then you will be free to
Semyon spent three months in this state, but then
it dissipated and he once again resumed his friendship with his peers, took up
drinking vodka, chasing after girls, playing the accordion, and in general
living like all the other peasant boys his age.
Young, handsome, strong, and by that time wealthy,
Semyon enjoyed life. The villagers liked him for his happy and peaceful
character, and the girls looked at him as a good marriage possibility. He also
fell in love with one of them, and before the question of marriage was
resolved, one late night, "something happened."
Strangely, the next morning, while working with
his father, the latter asked Semyon, "Son, where were you last night, my
heart was aching." These meek words fell deep into Semyonís soul, and
later, remembering his father, he said: "I didnít follow in his footsteps.
He was completely illiterate, he even said ĎOur Fatherí with mistakes, having
learned it by ear in church. But he was a humble and wise man."
Semyonís was a large family: father, mother, five
sons-brothers and two daughters. They lived together and were content. The
older brothers worked with their father. Once, during the harvest, Semyon
prepared dinner in the field. It was Friday, but Semyon had forgotten, and so
he prepared pork, and everyone ate it. Half a year passed from that day, and
one winter holiday, Semyonís father turned to him with a kind smile: "Son,
remember when you fed me with pork in the field? It was a Friday, and you know,
I ate it then as if it were carrion."
ó "Why didnít you tell me then?"
ó "I didnít want to embarrass you."
In telling about these events from his life in his
fatherís house, the Elder would add, "This is the type of Elder one should
be: he never became angry, always had an even and meek disposition. Think about
it: he waited a half-year for a good moment to tell me without shaming
Elder Siluan had great physical strength. Once
when he was still young, prior to military service, after Easter he stayed at
home when his brothers went out to see friends. Even though he had just had a
large meal with meat, his mother made him an entire pot-full of scrambled eggs,
at least fifty, and he ate it all.
In those days he worked with his brothers on the
estate of Prince Troubetskoy, and on holidays he would sometimes visit the
local inn. There were instances when he could drink and entire
"quarter" (2.5 liters) of vodka, but still not be drunk.
Once, during a severe frost that followed a thaw,
he was staying at an inn. One of the guests who had spent the night there was
preparing to return home. He went out to prepare his horse, but soon returned,
saying, "Trouble! I must get home, but I canít: ice has gathered on my
horseís hooves and she wonít let me break it off because it is too
painful." Semyon said, "Come, I will help you." In the stable he
took the horseís head under his arm and said to the peasant, "Break the
ice off." The horse stood motionless during the entire process, and the
peasant was able to ride off.
Semyon could take an entire cast-iron pot of
boiling soup from the stove to the table where the gang of workers would be
sitting. He could break a thick board in pieces with his fist. He could lift
heavy objects and was able to withstand extreme temperatures and great physical
labor with little food.
But this strength, which later helped him in his
extraordinary struggles, was also the reason for his greatest sin, for which he
had to do an extraordinary penance.
Once, during the yearly village religious holiday,
Semyon was out walking and singing with friends as all the villagers gathered
outside their huts. Two brothers ó the village bootmakers ó walked toward
Semyon and his group. One of these brothers was also very strong, and a
troublemaker. This day he happened also to be drunk. He came up to Semyon and
tried to take away his accordion, but Semyon managed to pass it to his friend.
Semyon began to ask the bootmaker to go in peace, but the latter, wishing
apparently to show his strength in front of the entire village, jumped on
Semyon. This is how the Elder described the situation:
First I thought it
better to retreat, but suddenly I became ashamed by the fact that the village
girls would laugh at me, so I punched him in the chest. He flew backward and
hit the ground in the middle of the road: blood and froth came from his mouth.
Everyone grew frightened and so did I: I thought I killed him. I stood there
even as the younger brother of the bootmaker took a big rock and threw it at
me. I managed to turn in time, but the rock hit me in the back and I said to
him, Ď Do you want the same treatment?í I moved on him, but he ran away. The
bootmaker lay long on the roadway, but people came to help him, washed him with
cold water. It was a half-hour before he could get up, and with great
difficulty they brought him home. For two months he was ill, but he lived. I
had to be careful from then on because his brothers and friends would lie in
wait for me in the evenings with knives and sticks, but God preserved me.
So it was that in the noise of young life the
first sound of Godís call to monasticism was drowned out in Semyonís soul. But
God, who had chosen him, soon repeated the call with a type of vision.
Once, after spending some time indulging in
earthly pleasures, Semyon fell asleep and in a dream saw that a snake had slid
through his mouth inside him. He felt disgusted and awoke. At the same time he
heard these words, "You swallowed a snake in your sleep and you are
disgusted. That is how unpleasant it is for me to see your actions."
There was no one in the room. He heard only a
voice that spoke those words, a voice that was extraordinary in its kindness
and beauty. But the impression that voice made, in spite of its quietness and
sweetness, was revelatory. The Elder was deeply and undoubtedly convinced that
this was the voice of the Mother of God. To the end of his days he thanked the
Mother of God for not forsaking him, for visiting him and helping him rise up
from his fall. He said, "Now I see how the Lord and the Mother of God feel
sorry for people. Think of it ó the Mother of God came down from Heaven to show
me, a lad, of the error of my ways."
He attributed the fact that he was unable to see
the Virgin Mary to the unclean state he was in at the time.
This second call, which came not long before his
military service, had a decisive influence on his choice of life. The first
result of this call was a complete reversal in his lifestyle, which had taken
on an unwholesome form. Semyon felt a deep shame for his past and began to ask
genuinely for forgiveness from God. The decision to enter a monastery after
military service returned with new strength. He acquired a strong sense of sin,
and because of this he began to view everything in life differently from
before. This different attitude became apparent not only in his own life and
actions, but also in his conversations with others.
Semyonís military service took place in St.
Petersburg, in the Life-Guards Sapper Battalion. Leaving for service with a
living faith and deep feeling of penitence, he never ceased to remember God.
In the army he was liked as a well-disciplined,
calm and orderly soldier. To his comrades he was a loyal and trusted friend.
This was in fact, typical of the Russian army as a whole, where soldiers lived
together as brothers.
Once, during a holiday, he went with three
soldiers from his battalion to a large tavern in the capital, where there was
much gaiety and music. A dinner with vodka was ordered and the group began to
talk loudly. Semyon remained mostly silent, and one of his friends asked,
"Semyon, you are so quiet, what are you
"I am thinking: here we are in this tavern,
eating, drinking vodka, listening to music and having a good time, and
meanwhile on Mt. Athos monks are keeping the vigil and will pray all night. So,
who of us will give a better answer on Judgment Day ó we or they?"
Then another said," What a strange character
you are, Semyon! We are listening to music and having a good time, and your
mind is on Mt. Athos and Judgment Day!"
The words of this Guards soldier, that Semyonís
"mind is on Mt. Athos and the Judgment Day," are applicable not
merely to the moment when they were all sitting in the tavern, but to the
entire period of his military service. His thoughts of Athos were also apparent
in the fact that he sent money there on several occasions. One day he was
walking from the Ust-Izhora camp, where the battalion was quartered in the
summer, to the Kolpino post office to send a donation to Mt. Athos. Upon his
return, not far from Kolpino, a rabid dog ran toward him. As it approached and
prepared to bite him, he could only exclaim in fear, "Lord, have
mercy!" As soon as the words left his mouth, some force pushed the dog
aside as if it had encountered a wall; circling Semyon, it ran off toward a
nearby village, where it bit a number of people and cattle.
This event left a deep impression on Semyon. He
personally felt the proximity of God, who had saved him, and his faith became
Having finished his military service, before
departing for home, Semyon and the company clerk went to visit Father Ioann of
Kronstadt to ask for his prayers and blessing. However, Father Ioann was absent
from Kronstadt, so they decided to leave him letters instead. The clerk began
to write a long letter in his best handwriting, but Semyon wrote only a few
words: "Father, I wish to become a monk. Pray that the world does not
They returned to their barracks in St. Petersburg
and, in the words of the Elder, the very next day he felt that all round him
"the flames of hell were burning."
Leaving St. Petersburg, Semyon returned home, but
he spent only one week there. Clothes and presents were collected for him to
take to the monastery. He said good-bye to everyone and departed for Mt. Athos.
But from the day that Father Ioann of Kronstadt prayed for him, "the flames
of hell" burnt round him no matter where he was: on the train, in Odessa,
on the ship and even in the monastery on Mt. Athos, in church, everywhere.
Arrival on the Holy Mountain.
Deeds as a monk.
Semyon arrived on the Holy Mountain in the autumn
of 1892, entering the Russian monastery of the holy martyr St. Panteleimon.
Thus began his new life as a monk.
According to the customs of Mt. Athos, the novice
"brother Simeon" was to spend a few days in complete calm, so as to
ruminate on the sins of his life, and, having written them down, confess them
to his priest. The hellish suffering he had endured brought forth in him a
complete and sincere repentance. During the sacrament of Confession, he sought
to free his soul from all that weighed on it, and for this reason he willingly
and fearfully, without a trace of self-righteousness, confessed all the sins of
His confessor then said to him, "You have
confessed your sins before God, and know that they are forgiven... Now you must
prepare to lead a new life... Go in peace and be joyous that the Lord has led
you to this harbor of salvation."
Brother Simeon was prepared for spiritual feats by
the centuries-old tradition of monastic life on Mt. Athos, filled with the
ever-present memory of God: prayer in the cells alone, lengthy common services
in the church, fasts and vigils, frequent confession and communion, reading,
work, and works of penance. Soon he learned the Prayer of Jesus on the rosary.
Only a brief while later, some three weeks, one evening during prayer before an
icon of the Mother of God, the prayer entered his heart and continued to repeat
there day and night, but it was some time before Simeon appreciated the
greatness and rarity of this gift, received from the Mother of God.
Brother Simeon was patient, mild, and obedient; in
the monastery he was held in high regard as a good worker of fine temperament,
and this pleased him greatly. It was then that thoughts began to creep into his
soul, such as, "You live a saintly life, you have repented, your sins have
been forgiven, you pray incessantly, and you fulfil your obligations
These thoughts disturbed the mind of the novice
and worried his heart, but due to his inexperience, Simeon did not know what to
make of these feelings.
One night, his cell filled up with a strange
light, which showed through even his body, so that he could see his organs
inside. A thought came to him, "Take this ó it is grace," but his
soul was confused, and he was left in a state of great anxiety. After seeing
the strange light, he was visited by demons, and out of naivete he spoke with
them, "as with people." Their visits became more frequent; sometimes
they would say, "You are now a saint," and sometimes, "You will
not be saved." Brother Simeon once asked a demon, "Why do you say
such contradictory things: on the one hand I am holy, and on the other I will
not be saved?" The demon laughed in answer, "We never tell the
Contrary demonic insinuations, lifting him to
heights of pride and throwing him into the depths of eternal damnation,
burdened the soul of the young novice, bringing him to the verge of despair and
causing him to pray with increasing fervor. He slept little and in brief
spells. Physically strong, of heroic stature, he did not lie down in bed, but
spent his nights in prayer either standing or sitting on a stool. When
exhaustion overcame him, he would sleep for 15-20 minutes on his stool, and
then rise again for further prayer.
Months passed, but the suffering of demonic visits
only intensified. The young noviceís spiritual strength began to falter, his
courage was exhausted, the fear of death and despair gripped him, and a
horrible feeling of hopelesness took hold of his entire being more and more
often. Finally, he reached the brink of his despair, and, sitting in his cell
one evening, concluded that, "It is impossible to reach God through
prayer." With this thought he felt completely forlorn, and his soul
darkened with hellish languor and anguish.
The same day, during vespers, on an icon of the
Savior outside the church of the Holy Prophet Elijah by the windmill, he saw
the Living Christ.
"The Lord mysteriously revealed himself to
the young novice," and his entire body, his entire being, was filled with
the fire of grace of the Holy Spirit, the same fire that the Lord brought to
earth during His Coming (Luke 12:49). From this vision, Simeon fainted, and the
It is impossible to describe Simeonís condition in
this hour. He had been sanctified by the glorious light of God, as though he
had been removed from this world and spiritually transported to the heavens,
where he heard unspoken words. At this moment, he was as though born anew from
on high (John 1:13; 3:3). The meek gaze of the all-forgiving, all-loving,
joyous Christ drew to Him his entire person, and having disappeared, continued
to vitalize his soul with the sweetness of Godís love through the vision of God
outside the confines of worldly objects. Later, in his writings, Simeon often
repeated that he came to understand the Lord through the Holy Spirit, that he
saw God in the Holy Spirit. He also insisted that when the Lord Himself visits
a soul, the soul cannot but recognize him as its Creator and God.
Comprehending its resurrection and having seen the
light of true and eternal being, Simeonís soul experienced the joy of the
Pascha for some time following this vision. Everything was great: the world was
wonderful, people were nice, nature indescribably beautiful; and his body
seemed different too: it was lighter and he appeared to have greater strength.
But slowly the feeling of grace began to weaken. Why? What could be done to
avoid its loss?
The search for an answer to this puzzle was sought
in the advice if Simeonís spiritual guide and the writings of the ascetic Holy Fathers.
"During prayer keep your mind free of all imagination and thought and
concentrate it in the words of the prayer," admonished the Elder Father
Anatoly of Holy Rusik. Simeon talked much with Elder Anatoly, who concluded his
useful and didactic teaching with the words, "If you are already such,
where will you be in old age?" Without wishing it, Anatolyís astonishment
gave the young novice a strong push toward vanity, which Simeon did not yet
know how to vanquish.
The young and inexperienced Simeon now embarked on
the most difficult and complicated struggle against vanity. Pride and vanity
bring with them all manner of sorrows and falls: grace disappears, the heart
grows colder, prayer becomes weaker, the mind is distracted and various
passions take root.
Now a monk, Siluan gradually becomes more adept at
ascetic works, most of which appear impossible to the common man. His sleep
remains fitful: 15-20 minutes several times a day. As before, he does not lie
down, but sleeps sitting on his stool; in the daytime he labors as a worker; he
follows the precepts of internal obedience and learns to submit his own will in
order to more fully commit himself to doing the will of God; he abstains from
food, talk, and extraneous movement; spends lengthy periods praying the Prayer
of Jesus. And despite all this spiritual exertion the feeling of grace often
leaves him, and at night he is surrounded by demons.
The constant change of condition from a feeling of
some grace to a feeling of hopelesness in the face of demonic attack does not
pass without bringing fruit. In this state of perpetual change, Siluanís soul
becomes accustomed to constant internal battle, vigilance, and the diligent
search for a solution.
Fifteen years passed since his vision of Christ.
And one day, during a struggle with the demons, when, despite his efforts, it
proved impossible to achieve a clear state of mind for prayer, Siluan rose from
his stool to prostrate himself, but saw before him an enormous demon, obscuring
the icon and expecting to take Siluanís bow for himself. The entire cell was
full of demons. Father Siluan sat down again on his stool, and, head hung low,
with heavy heart prayed, "Lord, you see that I wish to pray to you with a
clear mind, but the demons wonít let me. Teach me what I must do so that they
cannot distract me." And the answer came from within his soul, "The
proud always suffer like this from demons." "Lord," said Siluan,
"teach me what I must do to humble my soul." Once again the answer
came from his heart: "Keep your mind in hell and donít lose hope."
From this moment he saw not in an abstract or
intellectual manner, but with his entire being that the root of all sin, the
seed of death is pride; that God is Meekness, and the person seeking to win God
must win meekness. He understood that the indescribable sweetness of Christís
meekness that he had been given to experience during the Vision, was an
inseparable aspect of Godís love, Godís being. From this moment he truly
understood, that his entire spiritual labor must be directed toward attaining
meekness. Thus with his own being, he was able to comprehend this great mystery
In this manner, his soul was exposed to the
mystery of the struggle of Serafim of Sarov, who, following his vision of
Christ in church during the Liturgy, also experienced a feeling of having lost
grace and contact with God; who stood for a thousand days and nights in a
desert on a rock, calling, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."
He finally saw the true meaning and force of Saint
Pimen the Greatís answer to his disciples, "Believe, my children! Where
Satan is, there I will be." He understood that Saint Anthony the Great was
sent by God to a shoemaker in Alexandria to learn the same lesson: from the
shoemaker he learned to think, "All will be saved, only I will
He understood from the experience of his life that
the field of spiritual struggle with evil, cosmic evil, lies within a personís
own heart. He saw with his soul that the tap root of sin is pride, that curse
of mankind that tore people from God and thrust the world into endless sorrow
and suffering; pride was that true seed of death that had enveloped mankind in
the darkness of despair. From this moment, Siluan, now a spiritual giant,
turned all his energies toward acquiring the meekness of Christ, which he was
given to witness during his first Vision, but which he had not then been able
Now the monk Siluan stood firmly on the path of
righteousness. From this day, his "favorite song," as he called it,
became, "Soon I will die, and my cursed soul will descend into the closed
black confines of hell, and there I alone will burn in a dark flame and cry for
the Lord, ĎWhere are You, light of my soul? Why have You deserted me? I cannot
live without youí." This prayer led to peace in Siluanís soul and to
clarity in prayer, but even this flaming path was not a short one.
Grace does not desert him as before. He feels
it in his heart, he feels the living presence of God, Godís mercy fills him
with wonder, he experiences the depth of the world of Christ; the Holy Spirit
once again fills him with the power of love. And though he is no longer as
foolish as before, and though he has emerged wiser from the long and arduous
struggle, though he is now a great spiritual wrestler, yet still he suffered
from the inconstancy and mutability of human nature, and his heart cried with
an inexpressable sorrow when he felt grace slipping from him. And this
continued for fifteen more years, until one day he acquired through one
sweeping exercise of the mind, invisible on the outside, the ability to
vanquish that which had for so long defeated him.
By way of clear internal prayer, the ascetic
learns the great mysteries of the soul. Entering his heart with his mind, first
he finds his human heart, within which he sees, deeply hidden, the heart whose
essence is not human at all. He finds this deeper heart, this spiritual,
metaphysical heart, and discovers that the being of humanity is not something
alien or external to him, but is organically connected to his own personal
"Our brother is our life," taught
the Elder. Through Christís love all people are accepted as an indivisible part
of our own personal eternal being. The commandment to love your neighbor as you
would yourself, he begins to understand as something other than a mere ethical
norm; in the word "as" he sees not an indication of the level, or
measure, of love, but a sign of the ontological commonality of being.
"The Father does not judge, but has given
judgment to the Son... because He is the Son of man" (John 5:22-27). This Son of man, the Great Judge of the
world, on Judgement Day will proclaim that "the one among the smallest of
these" is Himself; in other words that the being of each individual is
held in common with Him, and is included in His own personal being. All of
humanity, "all of Adam," he has taken into himself and has suffered
for all of Adam.
After the experience of the torments of hell,
after Godís admonition to "Keep his mind in hell," it became a habit
of Elder Siluan to pray for the dead suffering in hell. But he prayed also for
the living and for future generations. His prayer, which was not bound by
temporal limits, erased any trace of the transient features of human life, and
of enemies. He was given in the sorrow of the world to distinguish between
those who experienced God and those who did not. It became unbearable for him
to consider that people could languish in the depths of darkness.
Once a hermit-monk said to him that "God
would punish all atheists. They will burn in an eternal flame." It
appeared to give this monk satisfaction that they would be punished by eternal
fire. But Elder Siluan, with some worry, asked, "Tell me please, if you
are placed in Heaven, and from there you see how others burn in hellish flames,
would you remain detached?" "What can you do ó itís their own
fault," countered the monk. The Elder, filled with sorrow, answered,
"Love cannot accept that... Everyone must be prayed for."
And indeed, he prayed for everyone; to pray only
for himself became a foreign concept. All people are disposed to sin, and all
are stripped of Godís glory (Romans 3:22). For Siluan, having been exposed to
the glory of God and having been denied it, the very thought of such denial was
too heavy to bear. His soul languished in the consciousness that people live
without knowing God and His love, and he prayed with great prayer that the Lord
through his inscrutable love should allow them to know Him.
Till the end of his life, despite waning strength
and sickness, Siluan continued to sleep for only brief spells. He had much time
for individual prayer, and he remained in prayer constantly, changing its form
to fit circumstances. He prayed especially strongly at night, before the
matins. That was when he prayed for the living and the dead, for friends and
enemies, for the entire world.
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