03 November 2020

Venerable Pimen the Athonite of Zographou

Saint Pimen of Zographou

The third of November in the Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of the holy and venerable Athonite father, Saint Pimen of Zographou. Another of the humble and gentle spirits in the mould of Saint Ivan of Rila and Saint Dimităr of Basarbovo, he belonged to the same nation that they did: the Bulgarian nation. He is a singular light in the dark times of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, who with his own hands restored and built churches throughout his old homeland, and decorated them with beautiful frescoes.

Saint Pimen [Bg. Пимен] was born in the city of Sofia. His parents were elderly, and his mother had hitherto been barren before his birth. One night in a dream, his mother received a vision from the Holy Theotokos in a white raiment, surrounded by a multitude of ascetics. The Mother of God gave the woman to know that she would lift the barrenness from her, and also that she would bear forth a son, whose occupation in the world was indicated by those around her in the apparition. Departing from her, the woman was filled with joy, and she conceived.

She bore her son on the twenty-ninth of June, 1540. Because it was the feast-day of the leaders of the Apostles, she christened her son with the name of Pavel. From when he was young, his parents sent him to study with an elderly hieromonk named Toma, who had been on Athos when he was younger but who then served in the Church of Saint George the Greatmartyr in Sofia. The venerable Toma taught young Pavel not only his Cyrillic letters, but also how to read Holy Scripture, and as well the arts of church singing and iconography.

After his parents died, so too did young Pavel’s mentor meet his repose. On the fortieth day after his death, the hieromonk Toma appeared to Pavel in glory, and bade him go to the Holy Mountain, which would be the site of his salvation. And so Pavel took all he had – everything that his parents had left him – sold it and divided it amongst the poor of Sofia, and brought himself to the Monastery of Zographou on Mount Athos. It was here that he took the tonsure, along with the monastic name of Pimen.

Zographou Monastery, Athos, Greece

Young Pimen took quite readily to the monastic life. He was humble, thinking of himself only as a sinner, and showed himself to be kindly and gentle to all. It was natural that the other monks would come to him for a word, and his brother-monks took to calling him ‘the young Abba’. He was not, however, without enemies, for the Evil One works his way in everywhere, and preys upon the hearts of the heedless and unsuspecting. One monk became bitterly jealous of Pimen’s virtues, and took his cloak and cast it into the fire. The cloth, however, did not catch light – instead, wherever it touched the fire, the fire was extinguished. And just as the cloth extinguished the fire, so too did Pimen’s humility and goodwill overcome the malice sown in the hearts of his brethren by the wiles of the ancient enemy.

On his thirtieth birthday, on the feast-day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Bishop of Edessa Pamfil Vodenski visited the Zographou Monastery. Against his will, the Bishop of Edessa made the young monk Pimen into a priestmonk, to serve at Zographou. Each time the young priestmonk served the Liturgy, it was with tears in his eyes as he gave to all the Body and Blood of Christ. He also gained the gift from God of wonderworking prayer. He conducted an exorcism upon one of the brethren who was tormented by dæmons, and on another occasion one brother was bitten by a poisonous serpent and died. Saint Pimen raised the brother to life again and expelled the atter by his prayers.

So that he would not fall victim to vainglory, he implored the abbot to allow him to go into some secluded place and there live the life of an anchorite. With great reluctance the abbot assented, and so Pimen left Athos for the woodlands nearby. He built a simple hut of sticks for himself, and ate only chestnuts and wild weeds for his food. He only ventured into Athos to partake of the Holy Elements. On one occasion he was visited by two brother-monks, when a wildfire broke out and threatened to engulf the enclave. But Saint Pimen made the Sign of the Cross and prayed to heaven, and at once a stormcloud blew up and a torrential downpour began, extinguishing the fire before it could reach the saint’s hut.

Thus he spent twenty-five years in his little hut near Athos. One day as he knelt in prayer he was visited in a vision by Saint George of Lydda, who was the patron both of his home church in Sofia and of the Zographou Monastery. The mighty soldier and meek martyr told Pimen that it was God’s will that he sojourn again among his own people and blood kin, who were like a flock of lost sheep without a shepherd to guard them from the beasts.

Saint Pimen – good Orthodox monk that he was – at once suspected himself of vainglory and did not believe the vision, thinking it to be possibly dæmonic in origin. And so he went to one of the elders of Athos and asked him his advice. Only when the elder perceived Saint Pimen’s vision to be genuine did he accept a blessing from the abbot, and departed into Bulgaria. He took with him a monastic disciple who was also named Pamfil, who would later commit Saint Pimen’s Life to writing. It was with sad joy and with many tears that the brothers came forth to bid farewell to Pimen, and they went with him to the borders of the lands of Zographou.

Over many years Saint Pimen travelled throughout Bulgaria. He went first to Sofia and into the villages around there, then spent some time in the Petritsoni Monastery of the Holy Dormition in Bachkovo, in southern Bulgaria. He sojourned in the north as well: in Vidin, in Silistra, in other towns. Everywhere he went, he preached the Word of God and strengthened the Bulgarian people in their faith, and worked many wonders of healing with his prayers. One man of Silistra, born blind and given his sight by the saint, asked to be tonsured a monk. Though reluctant at first, seeking to be assured that it was the man’s own will, he at last granted the man’s wish.

Saint Pimen also built churches wherever he went, or else renovated old ones which had fallen out of use under Turkish persecution, harassment and harsh taxes. He is credited with having built up or repaired as many as three hundred parish churches and fifteen monasteries with his own hands, as well as decorating them in beautiful frescoes and icons. His buildings were inspired by the Balkan Tărnovo School of architecture that characterised both Zographou and Petritsoni: compact rectangular floor plans and arched reliefs in the high stone walls. Two examples of his work are the Assumption Monastery in Cherepish, which became an important centre for calligraphy and illumination in early modern Bulgaria, and also the Suhodol Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Toward the end of his life he returned to Cherepish; it was there that the venerable saint reposed at the age of eighty years, in the year 1620. Holy venerable Pimen, builder of churches and upbuilder of the faith among the Bulgarian people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Cherepish Monastery, Stara Planina, Bulgaria

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