09 September 2017

Venerable Iosif (Sanin) of Volokolamsk

Saint Iosif the Abbot

It may be ‘coincidental’ from the view of a non-Orthodox person, that the feast of Saint Iosif the Abbot falls precisely one week after the joint feast of the Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy of the Kiev Caves. And coincidences do happen every day. But after being Orthodox for three years, I’ve come to not trust coincidences. God has a way of making events rhyme, in the human world as well as in the natural one.

Saint Iosif the Abbot of Volokolamsk is, in most English-language histories of Russia, contrasted sharply with his contemporary, Saint Nil of Sora. The two of them are portrayed as being heads of two bitterly-opposed and antagonistic schools of monasticism: the Josephite ‘possessors’ and the Zavolzh’e ‘non-possessors’. However, this distinction is vastly overdrawn by Western scholars. Saint Iosif and Saint Nil were known to each other, and indeed shared disciples. However, Saint Iosif – who was by no means a stranger to polemicism against his rivals – had no harsh words for Saint Nil. Indeed, Saint Iosif recommended Saint Nil to his own disciples, if they were disquieted or otherwise in need of inward prayer. It was, in point of fact, Saint Nil’s student, the boyar Vassian Patrikeev, who was the actual political rival of Saint Iosif and his school. But the differences between Saint Iosif and Saint Nil, though real, are still heavily exaggerated by Western observers.

In that respect, Saints Iosif and Nil are somewhat similar to Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy of the first generation of Russian monastics. Like Saint Antoniy before him, Saint Nil was an Athonite monk whose writings show influence from the hesychasts of Sinai; even though Saint Nil did not perform the extremities that Saint Antoniy did, he was still far more sympathetic to eremitical living, holy seclusion, inward spiritual feats. The form of asceticism Saint Nil advocated was in the total renunciation of property by monastic communities; he felt that monastic communities ought to be simple and detached from worldly ties, that they should not imitate the sæcular relationship between lord and vassal. In this point alone was he somewhat opposed to Saint Iosif.

Although on first blush Saint Iosif’s spirituality appears to be given to a rather un-Kievan outward rigorism, on closer examination his style of life is more comparable to that of Saint Feodosiy. Saint Iosif was born Ivan Sanin, to a Ruthenian military family originally hailing from what is now Belarus, but which was eventually enfeoffed at a small village close to the town of Volokolamsk. Many members of his family were drawn to the monastic life, including his grandfather, both his father and mother, and two of his brothers. Like Saint Feodosiy, Saint Iosif’s spirituality acquired a deep caritative flavour from a very young age, marked in particular by generosity and sympathy as well as by obedience and diligence. In particular, both as a novice and as a full monk at Borovsk, he tended the sick and the infirm with a true and unaffected warmth.

Iosif was also a talented singer, and preferred being located at a stone monastery with its heavenly acoustics. A diligent scholar as well, he devoted himself to building up the library for his Abbot Saint Pafnutiy and to ensuring his fellow-monks access to a broad array of spiritual writings. Given his brisk energy which was translated so often into the works of mercy at the abbey, he was a natural candidate for succession to abbot on the repose of Saint Pafnutiy. He declined this offer repeatedly, though, and had to be forced to take the position of igumen by Ivan III. At the Borovsk monastery, Saint Iosif made a name for himself by enforcing strict obedience to the rule of common property; no exceptions were to be made for the sons of boyar families.

Saint Iosif left the Pafnutiev monastery to found his own in 1484, and personally oversaw the construction of the beautiful, frescoed stone Church of the Dormition which was to serve as its centre. There are elements of his hagiography at this point which appear almost as a mirror of that of the great Abbot of Kiev Pechersk Lavra (whose example he appealed to explicitly). Like Saint Feodosiy, Saint Iosif wore mean and ragged clothing. His ascetic life was marked more by hard work than by silence and seclusion. He even had a brief conflict with his strong-willed mother, who was also a nun. And, very much like Feodosiy, he was far harder on himself than he was on his fellow-monks and novices. His enforcement of the rule was notoriously lax in early years, and he ‘condescended greatly to weakness’ in his fellows. He served as a spiritual father to a large number of laymen, rich and poor. And most importantly, he made his monastery a centre of social service to the poor. He admonished against usury and abuse of serfs and servants by the nobility. His monastery built and ran an orphanage for foundlings and exposed children. Part of every meal at the monastery, by general consent among the brothers, was given to the poor and hungry. During times of famine he not only exhausted his own monastery’s resources feeding the hungry, but also sermonised to the nobility to fix grain prices to prevent the poor from starving. He established a daughter monastery to his own, which served as an infirmary and lazar-house, and which was funded from the communal coffers of his own.

Like Saint Feodosiy, also, Saint Iosif was an ‘activist’ who got involved in many of the political and religious conflicts of his time. His manner of addressing princes has definite echoes of Saint Feodosiy’s approach; he thought it his job to urge princes in conflict to a voluntary conciliation, and not to speak from a position of power. Even though Saint Iosif is cast in the rôle as one of the first defenders of autocracy – and at that with good reason; he and no other was responsible for introducing Byzantine Imperial language of a ‘terrestrial god’ in defence of the Tsars of Moscow – his support for the Tsar was by no means unconditional.
If the Tsar himself is ruled by… passions and sins, avarice and anger, wickedness and injustice, pride and fury and, worst of all, disbelief and blasphemy, such a Tsar is not God’s servant but the Devil’s, and not a Tsar but a tyrant… do not obey such a Tsar, who leads you to impiety and evil, even if he tortures, even if he threatens death.
But here, in his political activities, is where he begins to attract more controversy. He found himself dragged into a campaign against a heretical ‘Judaïsing’ sect which erupted in Novgorod, which destroyed icons, attacked priestly privileges and the Mysteries, and even sermonised against the Trinity. The relation of the ‘Judaïsers’ to actual Jews is, to say the least, highly dubious – but that is how they were characterised in the Orthodox polemics of the time, including those of Saint Iosif himself. In these missives he defended the classical Trinitarian doctrine and attacked both the heretics and those churchmen he found wanting in zeal for the faith, who treated the heretics with too great a degree of permissiveness. His missives involved him in bitter, rancorous quarrels with Metropolitan Zosima of Moscow and Metropolitan Saint Serapion of Novgorod, as well as with certain churchly representatives of Zavolzh’e.

The permissiveness, gentleness and faith in suasion which Saint Iosif the Abbot showed to his brothers at the monastery, to his spiritual sons and daughters among the laity, and even to his ‘interventions’ among the members of the royal family, seems to have largely evaporated in these political disputes, and is replaced with a much harsher approach. Saint Iosif appealed to the Tsar to have the heretics tried in sæcular courts and punished with imprisonment or execution – in which he was also opposed by the Elders of Zavolzh’e.

Saint Iosif was a strong advocate of the close alliance between the Church and the state, which in his view was the best way to ensure that the wealth of the state could be distributed to the poor, and the best way to prevent heresy from taking root among the people. For this reason also, he was an advocate – one of the first – of Tsarist autocracy, and of Metropolitan Zosima’s theory of Moscow as the Third Rome. Later Tsars of Russia, even and especially autocratic reformers like Tsar Aleksiy the Quiet, cited Saint Iosif’s writings with approval.

Venerable Iosif the Abbot was very much a Muscovite saint. But his links with the more noble kenotic and caritative proclivities of ancient Kievan spirituality should not be ignored. For this reason – particularly in light of his examination of the differences in the style of life between Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy – I find Gyorgi Fedotov’s treatment of Saint Iosif more than a trifle disappointing and frankly unfair. For all his sympathetic treatment of Saint Feodosiy in the Kievan period, he unfortunately gives short shrift to Saint Iosif’s concern for the poor and hungry and sick, and allows the latter to be glossed as a ‘ruthless inquisitor’. And for all his elucidation of Saint Antoniy’s Athos-inspired seclusion and asceticism, Fedotov does not seem to make that same connexion in relation to Saint Nil. Even though Fedotov does have a valuable point in highlighting the differences between Muscovite and Novgorodian spirituality, and even perhaps to see that difference between Saint Iosif and Saint Nil, in this particular instance it leads him to exaggerate those differences to the point of distortion.

Saint Iosif had often been favoured by Russian conservatives on account of his defences of autocracy and church establishment, and Saint Nil by Russian liberals on account of his emphasis on mercy and moral suasion as applied to criminals. But the social dimension of Saint Iosif’s work, and his advocacy within the Russian state on behalf of the poor and oppressed, should not be ignored; nor should the respect that Saint Iosif and Saint Nil accorded to each other, in spite of their differences of spiritual approach.
As the edification of the ascetics,
The beauty of the Fathers,
The bearer of mercy,
The lamp of discretion.
All the congregating faithful praise
The teacher of meekness,
The shamer of heresy,
Iosif most wise, the Russian star:
Praying to the Lord,
Have mercy on our souls.

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