Way of the Orthodox - Elder Joachim of the Holy Mountain
Holy Robber of St Anne's Skete
Fr. Joachim, Manoli in the world, was born on the island of Crete, in the village of Kalikrata. From of old the local inhabitants had a reputation for being adroit and reckless robbers, and they considered the title of bandit to be an honor.
Manoli was unschooled; he didn't know any prayers, and in playing with his friends naturally assimilated their bad habits. When he was twenty he joined a band of robbers. While still inexperienced, he fell into the hands of some soldiers and was imprisoned, but he managed to escape. Soon, however, he became proficient in his "trade", and the authorities posted a substantial price on his head.
Manoli spent fifteen years as a bandit. But the good Lord, Who desires that all men be saved, seeing that his criminal behavior proceeded not from a wicked heart but was merely the result of a local tradition, gave opportunity for him to leave this path to perdition. When Manoli's older brother landed in jail, Manoli, feeling sorry for his brother and his brother's family, decided to intercede for him and to give himself up in place of his brother. In the village lived some Christians. One night Manoli approached one of their leaders for advice: should he turn himself in or go away somewhere? The elder promised to talk it over with the kaimakam. He went to him and asked, "If we capture Manoli, will you give him to us?" "Absolutely!" replied the kaimakam. The elder told Manoli of the "deal" he had arranged and took him to the pasha. The pasha was stunned; he couldn't believe that the notorious bandit Manoli, who had such a high price on his head, was standing there before him, and, what was even more incredible, that he was voluntarily turning himself in. The pasha was so taken by this that he released Manoli's brother and asked Manoli to stay with him as a paid servant, to which Manoli agreed.
After four years the pasha was assigned to Thessalonika, and Manoli asked to go with him. A year later he accompanied the pasha to Mount Athos, where they met the same kaimakam to whom Manoli had turned himself over. The kaimakam asked that Manoli stay there on patrol, but Manoli declined, unwilling to abandon the pasha en route, and he returned to Thessalonika. Within a week the kaimakam came and asked that the pasha release Manoli, as he was a strong and daring man well suited for defending the Holy Mountain. Manoli took this as a sign from God; he left his bride and departed with the kaimakam.
For a whole year Manoli diligently fulfilled his responsibility, making the rounds of the monasteries, keeping order among the crowds at feasts, etc. with other patrolmen. When the kaimakam was assigned elsewhere, he offered Manoli to go with him. "Efendi," replied Manoli, "I like it here. Allow me to stay another year." "Very well, very well," answered the kaimakam, and he departed alone. This marked a turning point in Manoli's life. In his heart he began to hear the call of God-to forsake the world and devote the rest of his life to repentance.
In the first year of his life as a pilgrim, Manoli was tempted several times to leave the Holy Mountain-whether out of boredom, or because of his former self-will, or because he couldn't endure the difficult penance laid upon him-but no sooner would such thoughts enter his mind than he felt something binding him there.
Five years passed since his arrival on Athos, and the period of his penance was coming to an end. Again Manoli decided to leave. With this determination he set off, but he had barely reached the monastery of Chilandar when he experienced such inner turmoil that he could go no further and he turned back, giving away to those he met all the money he had earned in the service of the kaimakam.
At St. Anne's Skete, where Manoli had spent a year, he was warmly received by the superior, Fr. Bessarion, who sympathized with his spiritual distress and welcomed him to stay. Manoli found a place very much to his liking just behind the skete, in a large cave. Receiving a blessing from the elders, he settled there, and went to the skete daily for the early morning Liturgy.
One day he arrived at the church before Liturgy. Several brothers were gathered in the foyer. "Come now, Manoli. How is it that you continue to live in our midst as a layman. It's time you set aside your worldly clothes and became clothed in monastic apparel!" Manoli avoided giving an answer and entered the church. Standing in his accustomed place, he heard a quiet inner voice: "Why are you delaying so, Manoli? Take the elders' advice. Look at you, you're already an old man, even your beard is grey. Where are you going to go? Don't you realize that Sts. Joachim and Anna, together with the Mother of God, are watching out for you? Just look how they've kept you here; they don't want you to leave this place!"
After the service Manoli said to the brothers, "I'm going to stay here. I've taken your advice. Just get me the appropriate garments and call me Anna, so that by my very name I will always belong to the skete!" The monks, knowing of Manoli's former life, were not surprised at such simplicity. They explained that this was not proper, but that they would call him Joachim. The elders took up a collection to pay for the monastic habit: the superior gave ten levs, the others-whatever they could. When this was still not enough, Manoli went round to several monasteries asking for donations and bought whatever was necessary. Then he was tonsured and, since his penance was no longer in force, he was able to receive the Holy Mysteries.
The cave where Fr. Joachim lived was spacious and even rather light, but it was always cold and damp; there was little protection from the wind and the elements: there was no door, no window, the roof leaked and in freezing temperatures the rivulets of water turned to ice. Snow blew in and remained long after it had melted in more exposed areas. Fr. Joachim never had a fire, nor did he wear warm clothes; he always went about in the same lightweight inner and outer cassock-summer and winter.
He spent five years in this way after his tonsure. The Lord rewarded his determination and voluntary suffering by gifts of humility and compunction. And he fully absorbed the fear of God.
The fathers of the skete appointed him sacristan of the cemetery chapel, where he would come every day before dawn to prepare whatever was necessary for the Divine Liturgy. In appointing Fr. Joachim sacristan, the skete fathers agreed to give him every day a loaf of bread. After Liturgy he would clean the chapel, then go to one of the cells, where he was given a loaf and, taking a jug of water, return to his cave. The next day he would go to another cell, and so forth by turn. The bread he turned into rusks, which he offered to his visitors. As soon as someone came he would pour water into a dilapidated bowl, break into it some rusks, put in a spoon, and, folding his hands on his breast, invite his guest to eat; and he was so sincere, so touching, that even if a person were full he would not decline.
He had a wooden cross which had been given to him when he first came to Athos. Both sides were intricately carved with the twelve major feasts. Into the spaces between them he stuffed pieces of cotton which he had taken from reliquaries of all the monasteries. According to his faith these pieces of cotton emitted a marvelous fragrance, as if from the relics themselves. This cross was his sole treasure, and he kept it in a wooden chest. When anyone came, he first brought out the cross and offered his guest to pray; afterwards he asked his guest to venerate a paper icon of the Mother of God. He then invited the guest to sit down while he went about preparing the rusk "soup".
"Previously," he would tell people, "I ate meat and all sorts of food; I drank quantities of wine; milk I drank instead of water, from a bowl. Now the Lord has given me this water and this bread, and to me it is more delicious than anything I ever ate or drank in the world! It's amazing how the desert sweetens bread; it gives it a special flavor, a special sweetness. Glory to Thee, O Lord! Glory to Thee, O Lord! How merciful is the Lord and how amazing His gifts!"
When asked, Fr. Joachim never hesitated to tell people that yes, indeed, he was the notorious bandit Manoli. "It is a miracle of God's mercy, a miracle! I never had the slightest idea of becoming a monk, and just look what the Lord has done! A Turk, a Turk brought me here! It's an absolute miracle, a miracle of God's loving-kindness."
At the entrance to the cave the elder made a little garden where he planted sage, cornflowers and some other fragrant herbs, which he would give to his visitors as a blessing. In crevices between the rocks along the path leading up to the cave, he stuffed here and there grapevines or shoots from almond trees and took pleasure in seeing them take root and leaf out.
The cave was quite bare. In one corner a few old boards covered with a tattered woolen bag served as a "bed". One wondered how Fr. Joachim spent the long nights in the cave: he didn't light a fire, he didn't know how to read (he memorized all the festal hymns), he didn't have any handiwork. Somewhere he found two empty gourds; into one he put some pebbles, and he set the other gourd nearby; for each pebble he would make a prostration with the Jesus Prayer, transferring the pebbles from one gourd to the other. The pebbles served him as a kind of prayer rope.
When he first settled in the cave, some people took pity on his poverty and gave him a shirt or other clothing, but it was not long before he had given these away to some hermit or simply left them along the road frequented by the hermits; he did the same with money he was given. Seeing he never wore these things, the people would ask what had happened to them. Fr. Joachim would answer rather absentmindedly: "I left them in the cave, and when I was out someone must have taken them." Once they discovered his habits, people stopped giving him things. In later years, however, Fr. Joachim suffered dire need: the cave's biting cold, the dampness, and his advanced age took their toll on his health, and he was obliged himself to ask for a warm cassock and sturdy boots.
In addition to his prostrations, Fr. Joachim added to his physical exploits by cleaning the paths of stones and making them smooth. Mount Athos is covered by narrow, twisting paths, winding down steep slopes of crumbly rock. It was impossible to keep them perfectly clean, but the lover of labor picked up the bigger stones which made walking difficult, and used these to make the paths more even. On the steepest slopes he made walls of these stones to keep rocks from falling onto the paths. His primary purpose in this activity was to keep himself from growing slack, and at the same time, in his sincere love for the monks, to make their walking easier.
Where these paths intersect, crosses have been traditionally erected as sign-posts to help pedestrians find their way. In the vicinity of St. Anne's Skete, because of its location among a lot of cliffs, paths branch off in every conceivable direction; almost every cell has its own path. The local monks were accustomed to finding their way, but others were easily confused by the many, often tangled intersections. At each intersection and major turn Fr. Joachim placed crosses, braced by rocks, rather artistic constructions. And by means of this handiwork he made it significantly easier for visitors to find their way.
Once Fr. Joachim was asked if living in such a damp cave weren't bad for his health, wasn't he afraid of catching cold? "...What better habitation could I have? I just don't know how to thank the Lord and His Most Holy Mother for this cave. After all, where would I go, what do I lack here? I have clothing, I didn't even have to go after it, it was brought to me. The fathers provide me with bread. I should stay put. And here I remain, as if tied down; I can't leave the cave, except to go to the skete for Divine Liturgy. The Lord has given me such sweetness here in this cave that even if I were given the whole of Athos I wouldn't leave this spot. "And isn't it cold, Father?"
"At times my hands and feet get so cold that they become contracted and I can't straighten them. But when this passes I feel seven times healthier than before. I must tell you, brothers, they say that on Athos the air is bad, the water, flowing along the marble rocks, is bad, and they're afraid of this. Fear is from the enemy. If the Mother of God is the Queen of Creation, and if this is her domain, and if she has care of the whole world how much more care will she lavish upon her own domain. Then what is there for us to fear?
"Twice Abbot Paul came here and asked if I wouldn't move to the monastery, promising to provide everything I needed, but I just can't. Here I've been given clothing, footwear; I have bread, water... Glory to God. How can I justify leaving? A monk must exhibit valour and courage, just like Christians at war against the Turks: only the valorous among them are conquerors. If at the outset they do not firmly resolve to fight even unto death, they could not have such courage, they couldn't be conquerors and they wouldn't become captains and generals. So too, a monk must exhibit his own form of valor and courage in his affairs, and before all else he must establish himself in one place and maintain strict discipline...
"But don't think that I'm leading any kind of monastic life. I just sit here constantly occupied with judging others, with pleasing my belly and sleeping. Although I have no desire for fish, I eat lots of bread. Nevertheless, I trust in God's graciousness, in the protection of the Mother of God, in Saints Joachim and Anna-even though I'm altogether unworthy!"
By God's allowance, Elder Joachim had an experience similar to St. Anthony the Great. On the eve of some feast, after working on the paths, he was on his way to the vigil when suddenly there appeared a horde of demons who grabbed him and flung him down the steep slope towards the sea. The elder tumbled down and when he stopped on some level ground the demons again threw him further; and each time he managed to stop they threw him further, until, rolling along craggy rocks and through bushes, he landed at the very sea shore. Amazingly, he suffered no harm. Meanwhile, the monks of the skete had begun to gather for the vigil. Surprised not to see Fr. Joachim-knowing that he was always first to arrive at the church-they suspected something was amiss and went to his cave. Perhaps he had died.
When they did not find him in his cave, the fathers began to seek elsewhere. Finally they heard his voice and discovered him down by the sea. Afterwards they all decided he shouldn't be allowed to live anymore in the cave and he was given a cell at the cemetery chapel.
Before the Feast of the Lord's Nativity, 1888, the elder became ill; he went to bed and did not eat. And until his very repose he ate nothing, drinking only small amounts of water. His voice weakened, but he managed still to speak and one could, with difficulty, make out what he was saying. Bright Week arrived, the eve of the cemetery chapel's patronal feast: the Life-giving Spring. The sun had already reached the edge of the horizon, another minute and it would be hidden. Suddenly Fr. Joachim cried out in a loud voice: "My Mistress! My Heavenly Queen!" And with these words he gave up his spirit into the hands of his Lord, Whom he had loved with such devotion.
Translated and compiled from Lives of the Athonite Ascetics of the 19th Century by Hieromonk Anthony of Mount Athos; Jordanville, 1988