Elder Philotheos Zervakos
Originally at roca.org. Elder Philotheos, a spiritual son of Saint Nectarios, is soon to be glorified as a saint by the Church of Greece.
While living amongst us thou didst see the future as if present, distant things as if near, the hearts and minds of men as if they were thine own… In the pure life that thou hast led during our sinful times, we see a model of virtue, a source of instruction and inspiration…
This prayer to Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco could also be addressed to Elder Philotheos Zervakos. Like Saint John, Elder Philotheos was a wonderworker and a marvel of spiritual strength in our spiritually enfeebled times. He was in many ways the Greek equivalent of Saint John, and he deserves the same recognition among Orthodox Americans and Russians as Saint John has gained among the Greeks.
The blessed Elder Philotheos was born in 1884 in a small village of the Peloponnese, and was given the name Constantine at holy baptism. From childhood he demonstrated an exceptional love for God, running to church at the first sound of the bells. His delight in reading the Lives of saints developed into a longing for monastic life. The demons evidently saw in the youth a potentially powerful antagonist, and from the outset tried to dissuade him from taking this path. The elder writes in his autobiography:
When I went to bed and slept, I saw fearsome giants with unsightly and horrible faces coming towards me. Gritting their teeth and holding knives, drawn swords and spears, they threatened me. One of them in particular, who seemed to be the leader, said angrily, “Quickly, put away this thing that you have on your mind or else we will finish you off and cut you into pieces!” And they prodded at my body with their swords and spears.
Invoking the aid of the Most Holy Theotokos, young Constantine withstood the attack, but the incident weakened his resolve. He turned towards secular interests and felt the enticement of worldly pleasures, comforts and desires. Thankfully, he had a friend who shared his interest in music and with whom he sang religious songs. Visiting him at his home one day, Constantine chanced to see a well-bound volume, entitled Diamonds of Paradise. Among other texts, it contained selected Lives of saints, and Saint Basil the Great’s homily, “On Watching Oneself.” Constantine felt as if he had in his hands a veritable treasure from heaven. Without saying so much as good-bye to his friend, he took the book home and became engrossed in reading. Saint Basil’s homily struck him forcefully:
I received such a fear and awe in contemplating the unknown hour of death…that I began thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what will happen if I die at this instant, this hour or this day. Where will my soul go? I have not done anything good for my salvation, and my mind has been attached to the vanity of this world.’ From that moment on, I left the musical instruments, the world and the worldly desires, and attached my mind, my heart and my soul to the love of our sweetest Lord Jesus Christ and the heavenly goods.
By this time, Constantine had become a teacher in the village of Phonikion, where he taught for nearly three years (1901-1904). He had a formative influence on his students, nurturing their souls as well as their minds. He would take his students to church, where he taught them to stand still and attentive to the presence of God. And if any one of them misbehaved at home or on the way to school, he would confess this before his fellow students and his teacher So successful was the Elder in inculcating his students with faith and fear of God that they became transformed: those who were formerly “worse than wild beasts” – blaspheming, impious, disobedient to their parents, unruly in school – became like “tamed sheep.” It was evident even then that he possessed the gifts of a spiritual father.
His renewed desire for the monastic life was severely tested. Demons appeared to him repeatedly, in dreams and when he was awake, menacing, threatening and assaulting him – physically and mentally. On the one hand he had to battle fear and faintheartedness, and on the other, carnal desires and images of worldly delights. During one encounter, the evil one tried to incite him to suicide. His parents, although pious, endeavored likewise to discourage him from the path of monasticism. His father declared that if he left them he would drown himself. “Why is it that so few doctors, lawyers, officers and teachers become monks? Do they not know what is in their own best interests?” Constantine loved and respected his parents; he took care of them and gave them his salary. It was difficult to bear their opposition, but he fortified himself with the words of Scripture: He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt. 10:37). He reasoned with his father: “If an earthly king were to call me to his palace to be near him and gave me a grand office, what would you do then? I imagine that you would be extremely pleased, and consider it a great honor. You must rejoice even more now that the Heavenly King, Jesus Christ, is calling me to be near Him.”
Anxious to know how to proceed and where to go, he left his parents’ home one night and, without shoes or a coat, carrying only a Gospel, made his way towards the Holy Lavra monastery in search of spiritual counsel. His journey was arduous: walking over hot sand and thistles caused large blisters to form on the soles of his feet; he was often overcome by thirst and fatigue. But his perseverance proved his resolve, and he was rewarded by being directed to the esteemed Father Eusebios Matthopolous in Patras.
Father Eusebios advised him, “Return home to your parents for the time being, and when you have completed your military duty, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, you may go and serve the Heavenly King.”
About two years later, Constantine was drafted into the army and stationed in Athens. His schedule afforded him time for services, and he frequently attended the sermons of Father Eusebios and several times chanted at vigils served by the saintly Father Nicholas Planas. The Evil One, however, continued to hound him. As a sergeant, Constantine was dispatched with some soldiers to patrol a seedy part of the city frequented by drunkards and prostitutes. “In order to keep me from falling astray,” writes the Elder, “the All-good and Man-loving God caused me to smell an incredible stench and feel an aversion and abhorrence toward the prostitutes when I entered their dens of debauchery. This stench would remain in my nose for quite some time.” And he was thereby preserved from falling prey to temptation.
Upon his release from military service, Constantine revealed to Saint Nectarios, then director of a school for priests in Athens, his desire to become a monk on the Holy Mountain. The Saint advised him instead to go to the monastery of Longovarda in Paros. Nevertheless, when he saw Constantine was set on going to Mount Athos – what young and zealous aspirant could resist its reputation – he gave his blessing.
In May, 1907, Constantine took a steamship to Thessaloniki, from whence he was to continue to the Holy Mountain. He was glad for the stopover, as it afforded him the opportunity to venerate the relics of the Great-Martyr Demetrios, whom he had revered since childhood. However, when he prepared to continue his journey, the Turks, who controlled the city at that time, forbade his departure and arrested him on suspicion that he was a spy. He was being dragged off to the notorious White Tower, when the Pasha himself rushed up and ordered that he be released and taken aboard a Greek steamship that was about to set sail for Greece. Bewildered by the Pasha’s intervention, Constantine later learned that Saint Demetrios had appeared to the Pasha that morning and commanded that he go immediately to such-and-such a street and free a young man who was being unjustly condemned, and have him taken to the steamship Mikali, which would return him to Greece.
Constantine debarked at Volos and met some kind people who tried to help him secure passage to the Holy Mountain, but when obstacles arose at every turn, he realized it was not God’s will. “I learned a valuable lesson,” he later wrote. “I ought to always be completely obedient to my spiritual father, without being defiant, and I ought to seek not my will but the will of my spiritual father – in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who came into the world to do not His own will but the will of His Father, Who sent Him.”
A few days later, he sailed into the port of Spyros on the island of Paros, and from there made his way on foot to the monastery of Longovarda. At last, his longing for a monastic home was realized: “When I saw the order, piety, obedience, love, compassion and harmony of the brothers, I felt so much joy, that I thought I was in Paradise.&rdquo“ He was accepted as a novice, and seven months later, in December 1907, he was tonsured to the small schema and given the name Philotheos, “lover of God.”
In 1910, Fr. Philotheos, now a deacon, received a blessing to fulfill the dream of his youth and go to the Holy Mountain, where he had thought to become a monk. He wrote enthusiastically about his pilgrimage to a friend, describing the joy and awe he experienced at being present in “the Garden of the Panagia,” and at being able to venerate the many spiritual treasures – relics and ancient wonderworking icons at the various monasteries and sketes he visited. In his autobiography, however, he notes with sadness, “I found only a few holy men, who could be numbered on both hands. I did not see any signbearers or miracleworkers as there had been in the past.”
On his return journey, he disembarked at Thessaloniki in order again to venerate the relics of Saint Demetrios, and once again he was apprehended by the Turks on suspicion of being a spy. He was placed in a cell behind three rows of barbed wire, where he found a young man similarly detained. He had not been there long when a great commotion in the harbor (an oil container on a passenger ship had caught fire) drew away the guards. Quickly, the young man took some pliers from his pocket and, cutting through the barbed wire, led Fr. Philotheos out of their prison to a Greek steamship anchored outside the port. Fr. Philotheos settled his belongings and turned to thank the young man, only to find that he had already gone. He never learned who he was – although, years later, he was serving the Divine Liturgy at a church of Saint Demetrios when he looked up and saw an icon of the Saint that bore a strong resemblance to his liberator.
Instead of returning directly to Longovarda, Fr. Philotheos took the opportunity to visit his spiritual father, Saint Nectarios, who was then living at the convent in Aegina. He found the hierarch dressed in a shabby cassock and digging with a pickaxe in the courtyard. Mistaking him for a simple workman, Fr. Philotheos asked that he go tell the bishop that a spiritual Son of his, “a deacon,” was waiting outside to see him. The Saint did not immediately reveal his identity, and showed the visitor into the reception room. “Wait here and I will go tell him to come.” A few minutes later he reappeared. &;dquo;Surprised and shocked,” recalls Fr. Philotheos, “I saw that the man whom I had thought to be a worker, and to whom I had spoken harshly and ordered around, was the Bishop himself! Neither had I even considered that this was the afternoon rest-hour, when everyone slept! I knelt down, tearfully begging him to forgive me for my pride and bad manners.”
Fr. Philotheos then entreated the Saint to instruct him in overcoming God-hated pride, whereupon Saint Nectarlos proceeded to explain how, according to the Holy Fathers, each sin is defeated by its corresponding virtue: “Envy is defeated by love, pride by humility, avarice by poverty, greed and hard-heartedness by charity and compassion, negligence by diligence, gluttony and servitude to the stomach by fasting and self-restraint, idle talk by silence, criticism and slander by self-reproach and prayer.” However, he stressed, it is not in our power to do this in and of ourselves; we must beseech the Lord to help us.
Spiritually enriched and encouraged, Fr. Philotheos took leave of his spiritual father and returned to Longovarda in September 1910.
On 22 April 1912, the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Fr. Philotheos was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Gabriel of Trifilia and Olympia. He describes the occasion in a letter written to his spiritual father, the Very Reverend Matthew of Karakallou:
When the actual ordination was about to begin, the bishop, sensing his duty, came out to the Royal Gate and spoke on the priesthood. He was moved and said only a few succinct words which were full of meaning. As he finished, he told the congregation in a faint voice, “Everyone kneel down and faithfully implore the Lord to send down the Holy Spirit upon him who is to be ordained, so that, thus, he might be useful and of benefit to himself, to his brothers and to society.” Immediately, everyone knelt down – men, women and children – and prayed with compunction. Many of my friends and spiritual brethren of noble and noteworthy families, whom I had met while in Athens as a petty officer and with whom l had shared a strong spiritual love, were present in the congregation. Praying that the Grace of the Holy Spirit might dwell in me, they were moved to tears and remained on their knees until the ordination ended. I felt so much compunction that I could not hold hack the tears. I felt something like pulses through my heart, which brought tears to my eyes for that entire day.
In someone spiritually less mature, such exalted feelings could lead to spiritual conceit and pride, especially in one still quite young; but Fr. Philotheos was protected by an acute sensitivity to his sinfulness. In the same letter he continues:
Even after receiving so many graces from our Heavenly Father, I the unworthy sinner continue to live in negligence, wallowing as a hog in sin, and never considering what I ought to be unto God and my brothers since I was clothed with the highest office of the Priesthood. I fear that, as the wicked servant who hid his talent, I will be condemned. I beg and petition your Reverence to remember me, the foul and impure sinner, in your prayers and when you offer the Bloodless Sacrifice, so that the Lord may have mercy on me.
The following year, Fr. Philotheos was raised to the rank of archimandrite. He began preaching and confessing people in villages and towns on Paros and nearby islands. As the years went by, his pastoral and missionary journeys took him further and further afield, until he became the principal Confessor for all of Greece.
The Elder was in demand as a preacher everywhere he went. In 1924 he made an extensive pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt, which he described in detail in his book, Great and Wondrous Pilgrimages to Palestine and Sinai, published the following year. In it is preserved a sermon that he was asked to give at Golgotha on Good Friday. His gift as a preacher may be judged by the reaction of his listeners, which he notes unaffectedly in a letter written from Jerusalem to his abbot, the Elder Ierotheos:
They listened to my humble words with great attention and contrition. Both the congregation and I were so moved that they all broke into tears. The fathers residing at Golgotha said that none of the visiting theologians bad ever preached so movingly or so instructively.
The impressions he recorded in various letters during this pilgrimage see-saw from the spiritual exaltation he experienced on being present and worshiping at various holy sites, and the keen disquietude, even alarm, he felt at the dismal state of spiritual life in those same places:
Oh, how many wondrous, extraordinary, unusual majesties 1 saw and enjoyed! Every span of earth here is sacred and historical… it seems that I am in Heaven itself, and as if I were seeing Christ Himself… Here, where they have so many reasons, signs and miraculous events, they should be saints; but Satan works overtime here… Unfortunately, the clergy of Jerusalem, with a few exceptions, move and push the Christians into perdition. I went to the rock where Moses had hidden and seen the glory of God. I shuddered in ecstasy at that moment and tears flowed from my eyes: I felt such a sweetness and spiritual gladness as never before… In these places, the Christians are in dire need of the Divine Word. Our own people are sleeping the sleep of negligence and indifference, while the Latins and Protestants are doing a lot of propaganda and proselytization… I saw the hermitages and ascetic dwelling places of the holy monastic Fathers who dwelt in holes and caves, suffered deprivations and afflictions, etc… I shed warm tears, saying, “Where are the most holy fathers who once dwelt in these deserts, holes and caves, and now are inhabitants of Heaven? Those most venerable ones loved the narrow and grievous path, and for this reason they found spacious room in Heaven; while we today seek the wide and broad path, the comfort fear that perhaps, because of this temporal comfort, we might be deprived of eternal comfort. Therefore, let us force ourselves.
In 1930, Elder Ierotheos reposed and, by his will, Father Philotheos succeeded him as abbot of Longovarda. Already he had the reputation of a saint. A history of the monastery describes him as “rich in every virtue, characterized by extreme humility, very learned; and in every respect praiseworthy. Already the virtues which adorned him had become manifest: genuine piety, unshakable faith in God and hope on Him, self-mastery, love of labor, zeal towards the divine traditions, devotion to the work of the Monastery, distinctive power in confessing and teaching the word of God, and, above all, humility.”
In spite of his new duties entailed by the abbacy, Elder Philotheos continued to preach and confess and to maintain ties with spiritual children across a broad horizon.
Yet another long-standing desire of the Elder was fulfilled when, in 1934, he was able to make a pilgrimage to Constantinople. There, too, he delighted in the city’s many spiritual treasures. The majestic splendor of Hagia Sophia elicited his particular admiration. At the same time, he was deeply grieved that the cathedral was in the hands of the Turks. “Alas, O Christians,” he laments, “how our sins have moved the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate God to indignation, and He has allowed us to he deprived of this holy church. O my God, justly hast Thou deprived us; for we have shown ourselves to he ungrateful and thankless toward Thee, the True God.” The Elder prayed fervently that God restore this great and historic church to the Orthodox in his lifetime, that he might offer there the Bloodless Sacrifice, but we Orthodox have yet to repent and amend our lives In such a way as to he worthy of such a gift. It was, as it turned out, the Elder’s last trip abroad.
The Elder’s movements were somewhat curtailed by the war, but during this time the monastery was a hive of activity. The German and Italian occupation brought great hardship to the people of Paros, whose number was swollen by an influx of refugees from the mainland. By God’s mercy, the monastery of Longovarda had an unusually abundant harvest that was able to keep pace with the monastery’s generosity, feeding literally hundreds of people a day. It was later calculated that 1500 Parians would otherwise have died of starvation.
One particular incident during this time provides a striking demonstration of the Elder’s evangelical love. Some British soldiers surprised the Germans on Paros one night, killing two and capturing several others. The Germans, suspecting the Parians of complicity, ordered the execution of 125 randomly selected youths as a deterrent to any such actions in the future. With fervent prayer to the Mother of God, Pantanassa, Elder Philotheos invited the German commissioner Graf von Bereyberg to the monastery. The officer was so impressed by his visit that he impulsively offered to grant the Elder any favor he should ask. The Elder, after having secured the offer with a promise, boldly proceeded to ask that the impending executions be stayed. When the German protested that this was not in his power, Elder Philotheos insisted that in that case he be numbered among the youths to be executed, adding, “I will consider this the great favor.” Utterly disarmed by such a request, Graf von Bereyberg consented to spare the youths.
From this point, the Elder’s autobiography is reduced to little more than an enumeration of cities and towns where he “heard confessions and preached the Word of God.” At the same time, he continued to oversee the monastery at Longovarda, and two convents which had been added to his care. Nor was this the limit of his accomplishments. In a brief addendum to his autobiography, he notes laconically:
During the short time of my earthly life, I followed [Christ,] and He rendered me worthy to build 12 churches, 2 monasteries, 3 cemeteries, 2 schools, etc. and sending me money through God-loving Christian people, I distributed it to His poor brethren, to widows and to orphans.
Additionally, he wrote numerous brochures and booklets, striving by all means to rouse his fellow Greeks out of spiritual indifference and inspire them with the Gospel ideal. He also wrote thousands of letters of counsel to spiritual children scattered all over the world: Europe, Africa, America and Australia.
Considering that the Elder slept little and never ate to satiety, one wonders that he did not collapse from fatigue. In fact, he writes:
I admit that many times after hearing confessions all day and into the night … that I would be so exhausted that I would fall into bed as a dead man, thinking I would never arise again but die, or lie ill for many days… However, when I awoke in the morning, I would feel completely healed and healthy. This amazed me and made me wonder many times, and made me realize my wretchedness as well as the strength and Grace of God (without which we can do nothing), and say, “It is not I who toiled but rather the Grace of God which strengthens me” If I dare boast, I shall be a fool.
Eventually, of course, his body did wear out. In February 1980, just prior to Great Lent, he was at the Convent of the Theotokos, Myrtidiotissa (Of the Myrtle Tree), one of the two convents he founded on Paros, when he fell ill. During the three months that he was bedridden, he continued to instruct and inspire the sisters, as much simply by who he was as by what he said. In describing this final chapter of his earthly life, the sisters wrote movingly of how the Elder would receive Holy Communion:
Despite all his bodily exhaustion, he prepared hours beforehand. When the priest appeared at the door of his cell, he would lift up his weak hands and call out with his whole soul, “Welcome, my God. Welcome!” He would partake of Holy Communion with as much awe, longing and compunction as if it were the first Holy Communion of his life. He was literally transformed; twice his face was so bright that we did not dare look on him. He was full of heavenly light. Afterwards, he would say with raised hands, “Take me, my God, take me.” How sincerely and completely he loved God!
On 8 May 1980, after seventy years of unremitting labors in Christ’s vineyard, Elder Philotheos entered that eternal and blessed repose which is the reward of the righteous. His funeral was conducted according to his wishes, by Archimandrite (later abbot) Dionysios of Simonopetra Monastery on Mt Athos. His earthly remains were laid to rest there at the convent, in a place he had chosen beside the chapel dedicated to his beloved spiritual mentor, Saint Nectarios of Aegina. The same Father Dionysios later wrote in tribute to the blessed Elder:
Most holy and unforgettable Father Philotheos, from childhood until the end you remained always a child of God. At the same time you were an austere monk at the Monastery of Longovarda, a restrained, hidden mystic, a missionary and spiritual father of thousands of souls. Your purity of body, soul and mind were something dazzling. Through your extreme humility you lured the Angels, who always came to you as helpers. You acquired intimacy with all the Saints. You linked yourself with all of them by loving them and commemorating them at every church service and at your private prayers. And you became the friend of every man, of every class, age and condition, men and women. You won over countless hearts, drew them to God.
May we be among those drawn closer to God by the example of the Blessed Elder Philotheos.
Our Lord said that His followers would perform miracles just as He did. Certainly, the life of Blessed Elder Philotheos gives ample evidence of his belonging to the company of Christ’s true disciples. This is further confirmed by the abundant grace he possessed as a wonderworker, both during his lifetime and since his repose. His popularity as a confessor was heightened by his gift of clairvoyance: there are numerous examples of how he would remind people of specific sins they had forgotten or neglected to confess. There are recorded cases of barren couples who conceived soon after asking the Elder’s intercession. Others have reported healings from goiter, from gangrene, from severe headaches and toothaches. A striking miracle was recorded by Efstathia and Andrew Brouma of Athens.
A son, George, was born to them in March 1963. He appeared to be a normal, healthy baby, but as the weeks went by, he stopped eating. A pediatrician diagnosed the problem as “hepatitic enlargement of the tubes” and blood tests revealed Cooley’s Anemia, a condition requiring repeated blood transfusions. The prognosis for the infant was grim. A few days after the baby had been admitted to the hospital, the mother’s sister recommended that they go see Elder Philotheos, who had just arrived in Athens from Paros. They did so, and, at the mother’s tearful entreaty, the Elder accompanied them to the hospital.
The infant’s weak breathing gave the only visible sign of life. The Elder prayed and made the sign of the Cross over the child. He then placed an icon of the Mother of God on the pillow. “What should I do?” asked the distraught mother. “Should 1 let him die here or should I take him home?” “No!” replied the Elder, “the doctors will give him to you in two or three days. However, in a year’s time bring him to me on Paros.” Those gathered around the crib were dumbfounded. “Father, what are you saying?” exclaimed a nurse. “The child is at his end. It is unlikely that the doctors will even be able to perform the transfusion.” “You are thinking one thing,” responded the Elder, “and the Panagia is thinking another.”
That night, the baby’s fever rose and he had difficulty breathing. By morning, however, the fever had subsided and when the nurse weighed him she was puzzled to discover that he had gained two and a half ounces: the baby hadn’t eaten anything for two days.
It was a miracle. On the third day, the baby was released from the hospital. His discharge papers read simply, &ldqou;Anemia.” The mother took her baby to Elder Philotheos to thank him for his wonderworking intercession. The Elder called the boy, Moses-Theosostos (God-saved).
Sources: The Blessed Elder Philotheos Zervakos by S. Kementzentzidis, translated by Palis and Chalice, Thessaloniki 1986. Blessed Elder Philotheos Zervakos by C. Cavarnos, Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont MA 1993