In our life-long pursuit of Salvation, God demands that we offer ourselves as instruments for His Will. In the life of Saint Paisios, we find a man who offered himself wholly as a vessel for God. From his humble roots in Farasa, endurance in the struggles of the population exchange, and ultimate surrender to the will of God on the Holy Mountain, this God-fearing man continues to shine as an example of Christian virtue to all who encounter him. Unlike many of the great pastors throughout the history of our Church, Saint Paisios was not called to the world but to the wilderness. Unlike his contemporaries of the Holy Mountain who fought and struggled to cultivate virtues, Saint Paisios was entrusted with great gifts of Grace from a young age. When, as a young man, he was confronted with atheistic thinking, he departed to the forest to pray and seek an apparition from God. Seeing no apparition, the blessed one prayed, “even if He was only a man, He deserves my love, obedience, and self-sacrifice. I don’t want paradise; I don’t want anything. It is worth making every sacrifice for the sake of His holiness and kindness.” Seeing this expression of obedience and humility, our Lord appeared to Paisios as he recounts, “He looked at me with tremendous love and said, ‘I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in Me, even if he dies, he shall live.”
Indeed, it was this humility which allowed him to achieve the greatest heights of Christian pastorship— calling the flock of Christ to holy repentance! We too as men answering Christ’s call to service must strive to cultivate such a degree of humility. To this end, Saint Paisios reminds us that, “Humility is cultivated through our pursuit of honorable acts and is also cultivated with the manure of our falls. An honorable person will attribute everything good that he has to God. He sees God’s many bounties, he is aware that he has not reciprocated, so he humbles himself and constantly glorifies God … Involuntary humility resembles a field with poor soil; for it to be fruitful, you have to apply both fertilizer and manure, but even so, its fruits will not be as tasty.” In this way, we are either called to penitent humility or organic humility. The good pastor recognizes that all are called to be humbled before God and so he must cultivate the discernment to understand what level and style of humility his flock requires. However, the pastor first must cultivate such humility lest he fall into pride, for “when there is pride, everything one does is merely a balloon inflated by the devil, who then pierces it with a needle. Pride is dishonorable, such a terrible thing, as it even turned Angels into demons!”
Quite possibly the greatest example of Paisios’ humility and zeal for God lay near the end of his life when he said, “I do not suffer from any serious mental illness; I have nothing to do with marriages and divorce,” the elder listed, “at least, let me suffer from cancer as a consolation to people in distress. Things do not look too good when everyone in the world is in pain and sorrow and one of us has nothing to worry about.” It was this spirit of humility and self-sacrifice which captivated all who encountered this blessed father. He did not visit the sick and say, “thank you Lord that I am not sick,” but he saw those suffering and prayed for more struggle in his own life. When we contemplate struggle, we might be charged to say that the contemporary pastor is stretched too thin for additional struggles. It is by cultivating humility that a discerning spirit shall arise to guide the pastor towards what is fitting. Indeed, Saint Paisios reminds us that “with involuntary humility you settle a small portion of your debts of sin, but you need to begin to humble yourself voluntarily.” With humility, a pastor can more clearly discern the Divine Will and shepherd his people with true discernment.
Compassion & Chastisement
Saint Paisios was not always soft and gentle in his love. Many times, pilgrims would remark to the elder, “I remember how one time you scolded me a lot,” to which Elder Paisios replied, “If necessary, I will scold you again, that we may go together to Paradise. Now I will take draconian measures!” He was never fearful of being too harsh, as he said, “My conscience never bothers me when I scold someone or make a remark and he becomes upset, because I do it out of love, for his own good.” Likewise, good pastors cannot always be complacent in fear because someone may take offense at confronting their own sinfulness. If our goal is to elevate ourselves to the Kingdom and our entire flock alongside us, then we must be striving at all times to chasten others in the same way that Saint Paisios did.
The beauty of his strong-handed compassion is revealed in the saint’s great humility, for he says, “if you do me an evil, I will forgive you. If you then do me another evil, I will again forgive you. I’m fine, but, if you aren’t correcting yourself, this is very harmful. Do not put your thoughts at ease and say: Since he forgives me, then everything is in good order and I don’t need to be burdened, so no need to worry.” Ultimately, at the goal of all his chastisement is the salvation of others. He does not chastise in order to make himself feel better about his sinfulness, nor does he chastise to exert unfounded anger. Rather, Saint Paisios desires for all to recognize the brevity of life and come to repentance—not tomorrow—but today. Likewise in ministry, we mustn’t be bogged down by how someone might temporarily feel, instead we look only to their hope for salvation. Saint Paisios never turned to self-righteous anger but always practiced righteous indignation.
“Someone can err, but they should repent, weep, ask for forgiveness with contrition, struggle for correction, then there is a recognition of it and the spiritual father must forgive it,” Saint Paisios teaches, “but if they do not repent and continue their tactics, then the person responsible for his soul can’t laugh. Compassion harms the unrepentant.” With the discernment of humility, the pastor should recognize who falls down before Christ with true repentance and who comes as a matter of ritual or moralistic purification. Compassion is fitting to comfort those who recognize the grievous sins they have committed, but chastisement is necessary for those who do not comprehend the extent to which sin has corrupted their true nature.
Philotimo (Holy Courage)
Saint Paisios, though he was never made a priest (by his own humility), was one of the few blessed fathers gifted with divine discernment by God. While it is unlikely that many of us should attain to such heights of Grace, we should also keep on the front of our minds these words from Saint Paisios: “Merciful people, since they are always filling others with love, are always filled with the love of God and His abundant blessings.” It is in our mercy towards those God sends to us in ministry that we in-turn receive His abundant mercy! This is what Saint Paisios refers to as “philotimo,” or as he describes it: “The reverent distillation of goodness, the love shown by humble people, from which every trace of self has been filtered out. Their hearts are full of gratitude towards God and their fellow men; and out of spiritual sensitivity, they try to repay the slightest good others do for them.”
If we want to be the best instruments of God, then we must strive like Saint Paisios to cultivate the virtues in pursuit of a spirit of philotimo. This is the example our most blessed father Paisios expressed for us in his life, an example of self-sacrificial love. As he recounted, “when people have a problem you have to listen carefully, for as long as they’re talking and not give any sign that you’re tired, because then you’ll lose everything. Well, I listened to a young man one day for nine hours, without moving. That’s when my insides were damaged.” It was the self-sacrifice of Saint Paisios which both aided a young man and simultaneously brought greater struggle to himself. Let us keep this example of Saint Paisios at the forefront of our minds as we contemplate how to be the most useful instruments of God’s arsenal.