The XXth Century Patericon
Interview with Stylianos Kementzetzidis
K.I.: The Holy Fathers are the extension of the Gospel into the world, because the Church is the “workshop” of holiness.
Over the centuries, Orthodoxy has offered a lot of patristic figures. They are not absent during our century, either, as they are God’s great gift to us, who live in the world and have a worldly way of thinking. Mr. Kementzetzidis, let us start with the way in which you met Father Cleopa. Tell us about the impression that this Romanian Father made on you.
S.K.: During my stay at the Holy Mountain, I had heard that Romanian monks stood out by their virtues more than the other Orthodox who live and do obedience in those places. I have found this myself, upon seeing many Romanian fathers who carried out their duties with unusual piety.
K.I.: When was that?
S.K.: Between 1974 and 1979. I came into contact with the Romanians who lived there, because in the Holy Mountain there is a Romanian skete, dedicated to St. John the Forerunner (the Prodromu Skete, t.n.), but also many cells where Romanian Fathers dwell, and who stand out by particular piety. Father Paisios knew many of them and used to say that they proved great love and faith in God.
Thus, I became interested in meeting a few Romanian saints, but God gave me the opportunity to fulfill my wish through a monk who had gone to worship in some of the monasteries in Romania (which are very numerous; I could say that there is a whole Holy Mountain there – only in Moldavia there are hundreds of old monasteries; even today, two of them have over 700 nuns each).
K.I.: This is a very important thing.
S.K.: The piety of the Romanian people surpasses that of the Orthodox everywhere else in the world.
K.I.: Is it that great?
S.K.: It is something that I have never come across anywhere else. This is particularly true about the people who live in the Carpathian Mountains. Up there, the monastic tradition is alive.
K.I.: There have also been many Greeks in Romania. Let’s not forget that Ypsilanti started the Revolution (*this is about the Greek Revolution of 1821, whose starting signal was given in Iaşi, in the Three Hierarchs churchyard, on March 25, 1821 – a date which is today Greece’s national day) there.
S.K.: There are many Greeks… in Iaşi, Brăila, Galaţi… Moreover, Romanians have been very influenced by Byzantium.
K.I.: Did their links to it continue during the Ottoman Empire?
S.K.: Very many Voivodes supported the Holy Mountain and that included the building of monasteries up there. So to continue my account – this blessed monk went to Romania and, in a month, he managed to learn the language. So he suggested to us to publish a volume about the Romanian Fathers – older, as well as younger ones. He found a voluminous book, entitled “The Romanian Patericon”, in which I read about many saints. I had also heard about the ones who were still living, so I very much wanted to meet them.
God was willing and, in 1990, I made the first visit to that country, with the blessing of our Fathers and of our Church. Thus, the links with Romania grew tighter. Since then, I was worthy enough to go there nine times, and upon my visits I was able to collect various spiritual documents, while I also tried to help with the publication of religious books in Romanian, in order to enhance people’s knowledge of God, as after many years of communist regime, Romanians needed such a thing.
Four Greek translations of Romanian books were done. Among them, there were: the Spiritual dialogues with Romanian Fathers, most of which was dedicated to Father Cleopa, Spiritual words – entirely by Father Cleopa, and Dialogues about Heresies, also by Father Cleopa, as well as other materials that have been published in periodicals.
K.I.: Was Father Cleopa a learned man?
S.K.: From a wordly person’s point of view, he was not learned at all, because he had never attended school. However, he possessed a thorough knowledge of God.
K.I.: Certainly. And along with him was also Father D. Stăniloae.
S.K.: Yes. He has gone to the Lord, too. He was a learned Father.
K.I.: University professor.
S.K.: That is correct. Father Cleopa was confessor priest in many monasteries as well as to many clergymen in that country – a luminous beacon of wisdom, holiness, and holy witness-bearing figure, in the midst of the modern world in which we all live. I will tell you a few things that I had heard when I was there.
K.I.: In which part of Romania is this place?
S.K.: In the region of Moldavia. I cannot fail to mention the Monastery of Paisios Velicicovski (Paisius Velichkovsky), which had 1000 monks and contained a printing shop and other wonderful things. It is a region with very many monasteries and nunneries.
K.I.: Is it far from Bucharest?
S.K.: Yes. It is about 4 hours’ away. The region is called Sihăstria, because in the old days, “sihaştri” (hermits) lived there. Today, Sihăstria has about 100 monks. Father Cleopa gave up the position of Father Superior of the monastery, in order to dedicate himself fully to confessing and advising people, as he would be visited daily by hundreds of persons, in tens of buses from all over Romania, who would go to him to hear at least a few words of advice. He would stay up until midnight or one o’clock in the morning to receive endless groups of people. What was going on at the Holy Mountain around Father Paisios took place – on a much greater scale – in a monastery in Romania, where Father Cleopa lived. Since in Romania there are 18 million Orthodox and people such as the Father are rare, indeed, Father Cleopa would draw the interest of the whole country.
As far as I understood, Father Cleopa came from a family of many children. They were apparently about ten brothers and sisters, seven of whom became clerics, monks, hieromonks, and in the end, even the mother received tonsure. When Father Cleopa first arrived at the monastery called Sihăstria, the confessor priest there didn’t let him in. Although it was winter, he left him outside and told him: “You are not good to be a monk.” Father Cleopa remained outside of monastery gates for three days and three nights, during which time he prayed and tried to speak with the monks, but they didn’t pay any attention to him. On the third day, they opened the gate and let him in, and told him: “Come in and join us, but you should know that life here is hard. You need to forget about any personal issues, do complete obedience, and, in addition, you are not talk with your brother – he had a brother in that monastery – for a whole year, no matter where the two of you might chance upon one another. He agreed to all that, after which, he was told: “Your obedience will be to take the sheep flock to graze.” And he truly fulfilled his obedience with much zeal, while praying and reading – we could say – God’s book by contemplating Nature, taking care of his conscience, worshipping God, and studying the Holy Scriptures.
This is how he would spend his time. After the year passed and he met with his brother, they still did not talk to each other. Within a few years, he had grown very wise. He knew the Scriptures and many writings of the Holy Fathers, by heart, having reached very high levels of wisdom. At that time, the monastery Father Superior was a man full of grace, who knew his death beforetime. When that moment came, God let him know that shepherd Cleopa was worthy of being the new Father Superior.
The news displeased the rest of the monks. But they said to themselves: “Let us not sadden our Father Superior. After he dies, we shall straighten things out. After all, we shall not allow for a shepherd to lead us, who are learned men and have been here for so many years…” They thought that such a thing would be humiliating to them and that the Father Superior had been wrong.
K.I.: They didn’t have humility.
S.K.: They did, but sometimes, worldly things surface. The “former person” is still alive. Sometimes, we see things through our reason, which is not always accurate in its judgements.
A little while later, the Father Superior gathered them up and told them: “Get ready, take your ripides, and let’s go into the forest, to fetch our confessor Father.” The fathers – about 100 in all – agreed and they all set off to the forest. At a certain point, Father Cleopa saw them come, knowing nothing about what awaited him. They said to him: “God is calling upon you to be the shepherd of our community”. At that point, he fell to the ground and started to cry, asking to be exempted from the service, because he deemed himself unworthy of it. “I would rather see the earth open up and swallow me”, Father Cleopa said, but the Father Superior told him: “If you do not obey to the call and do not make the will of God, you will be a stranger to salvation and will remain outside of Christ’s blessing”. At that point he obeyed and followed the procession back to the monastery.
They all entered the church, the enthroning service was performed, they gave him the starets staff, and then he was told: “And now, do say a word of teaching to your flock.” During this time, the Fathers – a part of them – were grumbling in their minds against Father Cleopa: “This uncouth man…” and other such things, without sharing their thoughts with the others.
K.I.: They were commenting in their minds…
S.K.: Yes. And Father Cleopa, for a few hours, talked to those present about the Holy Fathers, about the Scriptures and about so many other wonderful things. He surprised everyone and unveiled their hidden thoughts.
K.I.: He had charisma…
S.K.: He certainly did. Each of the ones who had wronged him in their mind came to him afterwards and genuflected, avowing to him: “Father, forgive me for having thought such and such about Your Holiness“.
This is how Father Cleopa became the Father Superior of the monastery, which, from then on, started flourishing. A few years before going to the Lord, he gave up his function in order to devote himself undisturbedly to his confession and soul-guiding work.
K.I.: What you are telling us, Mr. Kementzetzidis, is particularly beautiful. You have filled my soul with joy. This is evidence that apostolic events happen during our times, too. They took a shepherd and made him a Father Superior! – shepherd over the rational sheep. Tell us a few of his teachings.
S.K.: Let me tell you, first, something about Father Paisios, before I forget, and then I will get back to Father Cleopa.
Father Cleopa had very much wanted to go and worship at the Holy Places in Jerusalem and at the Holy Mountain. And, indeed, by the grace of God, in 1977, his wish came true. Upon arriving at the Holy Mountain, he visited a few monasteries, as a humble and simple pilgrim, and in the end, he also met Father Paisios.
Father Cleopa would speak Romanian, and Father Paisios would hear in Greek. Father Paisios would speak in Greek, and Father Cleopa would hear in Romanian.
K.I.: This reminds me of the Pentecost.
S.K.: They talked to each other for quite a long time. They understood each other without any problem and parted full of love and joy. I learnt about this from a Bishop who knew the episode of the meeting between the two, very well. This Father was very wise. We even have him recorded on a video tape.
I will now present to you something that he told us the second time that we went to see him. At some point, there was a meeting of all the Hierarchs of the Romanian Orthodox Church, where many decision-makers took part (that is, state department secretaries etc), too. They gave the floor to Father Cleopa, too, as a person who was highly respected by everyone.
Before the Government representatives, Patriarch, and Bishops, he said: “Since you have given me the staff, I shall «hit» you with it without mercy“.
The topic was about how to revitalize the spiritual life in that area; how the monastic life could regain its former brightness – and this is what Fr. Cleopa told them: “You all know that I was a shepherd for ten full years and I know how to make good whey/pot cheese: one needs to have a good pot. The good pot are the confessor priests, without whom neither Christians, nor monks can be made. The communist regime removed 10.000 monks and clergy from monasteries, forever – and left them only with the ones who were over 60. Today, our monasteries have only young – that is, inexperienced – people and very old persons. If we do not work on forming spiritual guides, we will not be able to achieve the spiritual rebirth of our people and of our monastic community”. After telling them all the things that needed to be done, in a spirit of witness-bearing, truth, and boldness, Father Cleopa provided the necessary spiritual guidance, which was taken into consideration, because he was the conscience of the contemporary Romanian people.
Father Cleopa was a luminous beacon and a saintly confessor, which is also evident in the persecution that he suffered during the [communist] regime. For ten years, he hid in the Carpathian Mountains, where he was protected by God’s grace, since he survived cold weather and all the hardships he went through. He would not light the fire lest he should be detected. Wild beasts obeyed and accompanied him. His time in the mountains brought to the believers’ conscience a true contemporary witness-bearer, that he actually was.
K.I.: This account reminds us of the great desert-dwellers.
S.K.: That is true.
Once, when we went to him and left him several little things that had been lovingly sent by believers in Greece and other countries – such as little crosses, icons, etc – he told us tearfully: “I am crying because it’s the first time I can offer the believers here icons and crosses, which will make them happy, and I am happy thinking how happy they will be.” I asked him: “Would you want to send a word to the people who sent you these gifts?” And he replied: “May Heaven consume them!“
S.K.: That is, may they be gained by the Kingdom of God.
Let me tell you another thing that has just came to my mind and which regards not only Father Cleopa, but also yet another saintly man, about whom we know nothing.
One day, a hermit who lived somewhere else decided to visit Father Cleopa, to ask for his advice. He could not rest properly where he lived. He was challenged by temptations. On the way up there – through a forest – he met with another hermit, dressed in very old clothes, who kept his head down, while tears were running down his face. That hermit greeted him and called him by his name: “You are going to Father Cleopa to tell him you cannot find your rest. Father Cleopa isn’t there. I go to the monastery and meet with him without the knowledge of the monks. Go back, pray, and those bad thoughts will go away”. The monk was amazed. “The reason why I have met you here is none other than the fact that I would like you to bring me some paper, a pen, and paper.” “And where will I find these?” “This is God’s will. When you wish to come again, we will meet again.”
The monk was left speechless with amazement. He bid him farewell, went back to his abode, but six months later, he got bad thoughts again, so he decided again to go to Father Cleopa. On his way down from the monastery, he remembered his encounter with the hermit. He went into the neighbouring village and bought paper and all the other necessary things, just in case he would meet him again.
And, indeed, the hermit was waiting for him in a certain place. When he saw him come, he greeted and thanked him, while the latter asked him: “Who are you?“ And the hermit said: “I will tell you my story, because this is why you are here. I would like to write a few things that God commands. What are the times we live in, like? Open the Gospel, as the events in the Apocalypse are nigh. We live in those times”. He showed him a fragment of a chapter. “Who are you?” “My son, I am a Bishop. They made me a bishop forcefully, and I could not find my peace, as the wilderness attracted me very much. After a holy Liturgy, I took off my omophorion, put it on the Holy Table, jotted down a little note, and left. After having walked 400 kilometres towards the Carpathians, I found a monastery, where I asked them to kindly receive me. They did, and told me: «You will be a shepherd». And so I did, I was a shepherd for a few years and I prayed to God ceaselessly, while doing obedience faithfully.
One evening, after having returned from the forest, the Father Superior told me: «Get yourself ready so that we can make you a monk ». But I was already a monk and I said to myself that they should not find this out, so I left the monastery unbeknowingly. It’s been more than twenty years since. I now live in the Carpathian mountains, alone, just with God and the wild beasts – bears and wolves, who listen to me and protect me“.
The monk asked him: “What do we need to do in order to have a spiritual life?” and he replied that one’s spiritual life had 12 steps. He continued: “Those who eat meat cannot reach the heights of spirituality“. He told him all the appropriate things and then added: “There are also people who, when covered by Grace, can live without eating anything at all. They just feed once a week by taking the Holy Eucharist. Such people have no concern regarding cold (in that part of the country, temperatures go down to minus 40ºC) or heat. They live in Heaven. But it is very difficult to reach that point and not many are granted such grace“.
K.I.: Those are the angels living on earth.
S.K.: This unknown monk revealed many other things to him. He also told him: “Wild animals accompany me to the gate of the monastery; I get in, take the Eucharist, I talk to Father Cleopa and when I leave, the wild animals take charge of me again and take me back”. Signs of the presence of this hermit existed until 1950-1951. After that, they were lost. He was taken to the Lord.
K.I.: Did he remain unknown?
S.K.: Yes. He is an unknown saint. Only Father Cleopa knew him.
K.I.: This account reminds me of the wild beasts, of how saints would be flown away by the wind… I realize that that region is a contemporary desert, full of wonderful things.
S.K.: Let me tell you another thing I have just remembered. One day, some theologians from the United States came to visit Father Cleopa, because of the fame he had earned, and were in admiration of his wisdom. They asked him: “How many theologians does Romania have?” He replied promptly: “Two million.” The theologians were surprised and asked: “Where do you keep the two million theologians?” And he told them: “All the people living in the Carpathian Mountains are theologians, because they know how to pray and stand through 4 to 5-hour services without ever sitting down, just as if they were monks; they know how to confess; they know how to fast like true fasters; they have an Orthodox conscience; and they carry out the good fight in order to stand honorably before God. These are the true theologians, not the ones who study in contemporary schools.”
K.I.: That is beautifully said. Very beautifully said…