Prologue to The Truth of Our Faith
by Elder Cleopa of Romania
The name and personality of
Elder Cleopa Ilie of Romania is today known not only in his homeland but also
throughout the world. Father Cleopa was born in 1912 in the town of Soulitsa and
district of Botosani into a pious village family and named Constantine. His
parents were called Alexander and Anna and he was the ninth of their ten
children. The religious upbringing that he and all his siblings received from
childhood as well as their great inclination toward the monastic life were so
strong that five of the ten children, along with their mother in her later
years, took up the monastic life and were clothed in the monastic Schema.
His spiritual formation was owed
first of all to the Great-schema hieromonk Father Paisius Olarou of the
Kozantsea-Bodosani skete who was for many years the Spiritual Father of his
entire family. While spending his childhood years shepherding the familys
sheep around the forests of Sihastria, the young Constantine, together with his
two oldest brothers Basil and George, was being spiritually raised by their
spiritual father hieromonk Paisius.
In the spring of 1929 the three
brothers departed their fathers house and entered the struggle of the
monastic life in the monastery of Sihastria which at that time was under the
spiritual direction of Archimandrite Ioannicius Moroi, considered one of the
greatest and holiest of spiritual fathers in Moldavia at the time. After seven
years of trials the young novice Constantine Ilie was tonsured a monk in 1936
with the name Cleopa and continued for a number of years his beloved service of
shepherding sheep as the student of a virtuous monk, Fr. Galaction.
The more than ten years of
beloved service close to the sheep and in the midst of the natural beauty of the
mountains and forests of Moldavia was for Father Cleopa a veritable school of
spiritual formation and advancement in humility, stillness and prayer.
Surrounded by the majestic Carpathian Mountains, the breeze of silence gently
blew across the hillside above the fertile valley of Sihastria, whispering to
the aspiring hearts of the young brothers Basil and Constantine a reminder of
the presence of the Creator. Day flowed into day as time passed imperceptibly.
The brothers rarely left the fold and did not even perform the customary cycle
of services. Rather, they sought the altar of God within themselves, continually
raising their minds eye to God through the sacred Prayer of the Heart.
It was here at the sheepfold
that the soul of the future guide of the Romanian people would be formed. Elder
Cleopa would later remember his nostalgic beginnings:
In the years that I was
shepherd of the sketes sheep together with my brothers, I had great spiritual
joy. The sheepfold, the sheep - I live in quiet and solitude on the mountain, in
the midst of nature; it was my monastic and theological school.
It was then that I read Dogmatics
by St. John Damascene and his Precise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.
How precious this time was to me! When the weather would warm up, we would put
the yearling lambs and the rams in Cherry Meadow which was covered with green
grass and surrounded by bushes. They would not stray from there. Stay put!
Id say to them, and then I would read Dogmatics.
When I would read something
about the Most Holy Trinity, the distinctions between angels, man and God, about
the qualities of the Most Holy Trinity, or when I read about Paradise and hell -
the dogmas about which St. John Damascene wrote - I would forget to eat that
There was an old hut in which
Id take shelter, and there someone from the skete would bring me food. And
when I would return to the hut in the evening, I would ask myself, Have I
eaten anything today? All day long I was occupied with reading When I was
with the sheep and cattle I read St. Macarius of Egypt, St. Macarius of
Alexandria, and the Lives of the Saints in my knapsack when I first arrived at
the monastery. I would read and the day would pass in what seemed like an hour
I would borrow these books
from the libraries of Neamts and Secu Monasteries and carry them with me in my
knapsack on the mountain. After I had finished my prayer rule, I would take out
these books of the Holy Fathers and read them next to the sheep until evening.
And it seemed as if I would see Saints Anthony, Macarius the Great, St. John
Chrysostom and the others; how they would speak to me. I would see St. Anthony
the Great with a big white beard and in luminous appearance he would speak to me
so that all he would say to me would remain imprinted on my mind, like when one
writes on wax with ones finger. Everything that read then I will never forget
In this university of obedience
and silence, Father Cleopa read about one hundred theological and other works,
starting with the theological, moral, liturgical, and hagiographic and ending
with the patristic works of the great saints of our Church, not to mention, of
course, the Horologion and Psalter. The most beloved book of all, however, was
Holy Scripture. In addition to Scripture, Father Cleopa loved the lives of the
Saints, the sayings of the desert fathers, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by
Saint John Climacus, the ascetical works of Saints Isaac and Ephraim of Syria,
as well as the writings of Saints Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas, Symeon
the New Theologian and others.
As he was endued with special
reverence and much zeal for the divine, penetrating insight and comprehension of
divine mysteries, and a powerful memory, in a short amount of time Father Cleopa
was revealed as self-taught and unequalled among the monks of Romanian
monasticism. In addition to these gifts of God, he was given the ability to
teach and the strength of eloquence. In the beauty of the Moldavian
ecclesiastical dialect, with the semi-archaic diction of an elder, and by means
of preaching from Holy Scripture, selected patristic texts, and instructive
ethical stories of all kinds, he presented the Truth to the people of God.
In 1942 Father Cleopa, although
still a simple monk, temporarily assumed the governing of Sihastria in place of
the ageing Abbot Ioannicius Moroi who was confined by sickness to his bed. In
January of 1945 he was ordained deacon and priest and named abbot of Sihastria,
serving in this capacity as the shepherd of souls for four years. In this short
amount of time the Elder gathered around himself eighty monks and novices, built
inside the walls of the monastery new housing for the monks, erected a winter
chapel, restored the monastery to its original cenobitic status, organised it
according to the traditional order of hesychastic monastic life, elevated
important spiritual fathers and made many missionary journeys for the salvation
of the faithful.
In 1947 the soviets occupied
Romania, forcing King Michael to abdicate, and a communist dictatorship followed
immediately. Monasteries were closed, coutless hierarchs, priests, monks, nuns
and other faithful Orthodox were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.
Thus far Sihastria had remained
untouched in its remote location near the Carpathian Mountains. And although
Abbot Cleopa was only thirty-six years old, he had already become a nationally
known spiritual leader of the Christian faith. Now that he had been joined by
his spiritual father from his youth, Elder Paisius Olaru, and had the support of
Fr. Joel Gheorgiu, Sihastria was fast becoming the spiritual center of Orthodoxy
for Romania and thus a threat to the communist government. By the grace which
flowed from the eloquent mouth of Fr. Cleopa, a living faith was imparted to
those who has ears to hear. The government now sought to dam the flow of faith
by stopping Fr. Cleopa from speaking.
In May of 1948, on the feast of
Ss. Constantine and Helen, Father Cleopa delivered a homily in which he said,
May God grant that our own rulers might become as the Holy King and Queen
were, that the Church might be able to also commemorate them unto the ages.
The next day the state police took him to prison, leaving him in a bedless cell
without bread or water for five days. After being released Father Cleopa, upon
good counsel, fled to the mountains of Sihastria, where he lived in a in a hut
mostly underground. There the elder prayed night and day seeking the help of God
and the Theotokos.
During this time the elder was
visited by the grace of God in the following way. Fr. Cleopa told his disciples
that when he was building his hut, birds would come and sit on his head. The
first time he served Liturgy on a stump in front of his hut, as he was communing
the Holy Mysteries, a flock of birds came and gathered, such as he had never
seen before. As he gazed upon them in astonishment, he noticed that each one had
the sign of the Cross marked on it forehead.
Another time, after the
preparation for Liturgy and having read all the prayers, he set the Antimension
on the tree stump and began the Liturgy with the exclamation, Blessed is the
Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the
ages of ages! Again the birds appeared, and as they perched in the branch of
the tree they began to sing in beautiful and harmonic voices. Fr. Cleopa asked
himself, What could this be? And an unseen voice whispered to him, These
are your chanters on the cliros. These signs and others encouraged the Elder
immensely during his time of exile.
In the summer of 1949 Father
Cleopa moved to the monastery of Slatina with thirty monks who were advanced in
virtue, intent on renewing the spiritual life there as well. His interaction
with the pious Christians living in the region of northern Moldavia increased
his pastoral experience and missionary activity and gave him the opportunity to
work with great zeal for the aims of the Gospel of Christ. In particular, his
preaching, personal counsel and spiritual direction, compassion and love spread
his renown throughout the country. Through these and other struggles for the
salvation of men in Christ, Father Cleopa became the most celebrated and
respected Abbot of the monasteries of Romania and a spiritual father with
pre-eminent spiritual authority. Villager and intellectual, monk and layman,
young and old, healthy and sick, bishop and priest - everyone found in Father
Cleopa a true Spiritual Father. Father Cleopa was a model of life for all, ready
to offer to everyone whatever he could, to counsel and give rest and lead all to
Christ with amazing conviction and authority.
During this time the
Metropolitan of Moldavia asked Father Cleopa to assume the spiritual guidance of
most of the monasteries in the region: Putna, Moldovita, Riska, Sihastria, and
the Sketes of Sihla and Rareau, according to the prototype of Slatina
In 1952 Father Cleopa was
arrested briefly for a second time by the secret police. Having been released
again, he and a monastic brother travelled once again to the mountains of
Moldavia until the situation normalized. There in the mountains the elder
battled the demons, lived side by side with wild animals and prayed night and
day, receiving confession and communion from his co-struggling monastic brother.
In 1953 he resigned from the
abbacy. In 1956, after assisting in the reorganisation of the Poutna Monastery
and the Raraeu and Gaie sketes, Father Cleopa returned to Sihastria, the
monastery of his beloved repentance. Here he continued in his spiritual activity
with prayer, by going deeper into the writings of the Holy Fathers, and in the
guidance and spiritual advancement of his many disciples.
From 1959 to 1964, the Church of
Romania suffered acute persecution from the Communist regime, with the
monasteries undergoing their most difficult days of the twentieth century. In
1959 the government decreed that all monks under the age of fifty-five and all
nuns under the age of fifty must leave the monasteries. By the spring of 1960
the state police had removed more than four thousand monastics from Romanias
monasteries. Once again Father Cleopa was forced into the mountains of Moldavia
where he spent more than twelve hours a day in prayer. It was during this time
of exile that the elder wrote several of his well-known guides to the spiritual
life for priests and monks. In 1964 the Communist persecution abated and the
Church once again experienced a good measure of freedom.
In the summer of 1964, to the
great joy of all the monks of Sihastria, Father Cleopa returned from the desert
and his silence and within days the monastery was filled with pilgrims seeking
his counsel and direction. Thus began once again the apostolic-missionary work
of Elder Cleopa, delivering soul-benefiting words of instruction to the
faithful, and confessing and directing the pious.
The first duty Father Cleopa
sought from the faithful was the devout preservation of the Orthodox Faith,
meaning all of the dogmas and mysteries of the Holy Orthodox Church, for without
true Faith, even if all possible good works are performed, no one can be saved.
Secondly, the Elder gave great
significance to the confession of sins, admonishing the faithful to confess at
least four times a year. He taught them: Brother, when you see that your
father or mother is sick, don't call the doctor first, but the priest, for the
doctor cannot add to our life even one minute. And if he could lengthen our
life, he doesn't do this of himself. Everything rests with God!
The Elder recommended generally
that one should read the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God together with the
morning prayers of the Church, the Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos in the
evening before bed with the oil lamp lit, and the rest of the day to pray the
Jesus Prayer as much as possible. However, more than anyone, the Elder prayed
for the Church, the faithful, those fallen into great sins, those undergoing the
trials and tragedies of life. The prayers of the Elder brought about miraculous
results: sicknesses were cured and the ill were returned from the hospital wards
healthy, examinations by doctors unexpectedly had positive results and generally
the blessings of God, by the prayers of the Elder, were spread everywhere.
Father Cleopa never tired of
encouraging the faithful in almsgiving and showing mercy on others. He would
tell them in confession: Dont turn anyone away from you without showing
mercy. If you dont have money to give him, give him potatoes, some bread, a
kerchief, give him something, even a scrap. If you give something, it wont
seem hard to you to give the next time something more, for your almsgiving and
mercy arises to God like a thunderbolt. Why? Two great virtues are combined:
almsgiving and humility.
The primary duty that he asked
christian families to fulfil was the birth and upbringing of children. Following
the Holy Canons of the Church, Father Cleopa absolutely condemned the aborting
of children and the killing of embryos, one of the greatest sins a Christian
In 1965 with the exhortation of
his disciples and with the blessing of many hierarchs, Father Cleopa began to
write homilies, teachings, and soul-benefiting epistles for monastics as well as
laymen. Specifically, knowing well the community life of the Romanian people,
the misfortunes of the clergy, and perhaps most of all the fanatical proselytism
of heterodox groups in Romania over the past thirty years, Father Cleopa wrote
many apologetic works for the support of the Orthodox Faith and the correction
of false teachings. The most important of these works include Discourse on
Visions and Dreams, containing seven discussions dealing with the problems
of dreams, visions and the question of frequent Holy Communion and Heresiology,
a monumental work containing thirty-three dialogues covering the wide range of
anti-dogmatic and anti-orthodox teachings of both the heterodox and the faithful
but simpleminded. This work was published in 1981 under the title On the
Orthodox Faith. Other works with moral-instructional character include Homilies
for the Feasts (1976), containing thirty-six sermons on the great feasts of
the year, Homilies for Monks, a massive work containing forty-eight philokalian
sermons, Homilies for the Sundays and Feasts of the Year, also massive,
and Homilies for Laymen.
These and other activities
constituted the great spiritual missionary work that the Elder Cleopa carried
out from the Fall of 1964 until the second of December, 1998 when he gave his
soul into the hands of God. During many of these years the Elder divided his day
into three eight-hour periods. During the first, at night, he rested a little
and prayed. During the next period he read the Holy Fathers and wrote, and
during the third period he gave himself up to his disciples and the pilgrims who
came to him from near and far for confession and instruction. In order to be
able to pray and write undisturbed, every morning he left his near cell, five
minutes away from the monastery, and went to one twenty minutes away to the
north. He remained there alone the whole day writing down extracts of his
experience, and in the afternoon he came down to the near cell to receive the
faithful and confess the monks.
Fr. Cleopa, as with every
venerable servant of Christ, was above all a man of prayer. As a boy, the young
Constantine prayed often from books and learned many prayers by heart and
continually repeated them. As a youth he developed a great love for reading the
Psalter, which he repeated daily. He also knew by heart the Akathist to the
Saviour, the Akathist to the Mother of God, the Canon of Repentance to the
Saviour, and the Paraclesis to the Mother of God, which he said daily. At the
same time, he made three to four hundred prostrations and bows each day.
Under the influence of his
ascetically minded older brothers Basil and George, he also began to force
himself to become accustomed to the Prayer of the Heart, at which the older two
became advanced at a young age.
As Abbot of Sihastria Monastery,
being very busy during the daytime hours, Fr. Cleopa would pray more at night.
He would sleep two hours before Matins and again two more hours after the
service, after which he would perform his entire prayer rule for the day, which
took three hours. Over the course of the ten years he spent in the wilderness
during his three exiles, he devoted countless hours to the Prayer of the Heart.
Even the fingernail with which he would pull the knots of his prayer-rope was
deformed because of a lifetime of practicing this prayer.
Fr. Cleopa would speak to his
disciples about pure Prayer of the Heart as if he were speaking of someone elses
experience: I met with someone who had toiled with hunger, with thirst, with
cold, with nakedness in the woods and he told me that he had once spend the
night in the home of a pious Christian man. In the evening before Sunday, he
completed his rule of prayer. At the house of a neighbour there was a wedding
with music. The desert-dweller, being at prayer, had before him an icon of the
Mother of God. Standing and pondering, he thought upon the word of St. John of
the Ladder which says, Some say songs can raise the advanced to more exalted
contemplation. Thus, hearing the music from the wedding, he said to himself,
If these people know how to sing so beautifully, how do the angels in heaven
sing, who give praise to the Mother of God? From this feeling his mind
descended into his heart, and he stayed in this prayer for over two hours,
feeling much sweetness and warmth. His tears flowed continually, his heart was
enflamed and he sensed Christ - how He conversed with his soul. Such a fragrance
of the Holy Spirit came upon him then, and he felt so much spiritual warmth,
that he said to himself, O Lord, I want to die in this moment!
After two hours, his mind came
out from the heart and remained with a sweet sorrow, a joy, a consolation, and
an incredible spiritual warmth for a month. The heaven in his heart could no
longer be drawn to something from this world, because the tears that stream
during such times of prayer, being from the Holy Spirit, wash away all
defilement and sinful imaginings and the soul remains pure.
Fr. Cleopa would say of the
Prayer of the Heart, When the mind descends into the heart, then the heart
opens up and then it closes. That is, the heart absorbs Jesus, and Jesus absorbs
our heart. In that moment the Bridegroom Christ meets with the bride, that is,
For most of Elder Cleopas
life God blessed him with good health. When he reached his seventieth year,
however, the Elder began to feel tired and fatigued. The years passed in the
mountains as well as his trials under the Communists had taken their toll. From
1985 until his repose in 1998 the Elder suffered from illnesses such as a double
hernia, kidney stones, a spasmodic right hand, the removal of a cyst, and other
sicknesses. All of these trials and illnesses kept the Elder alert and expectant
for the arrival of the last hours of his life, always immersed in unceasing
prayer and thinking on Christ.
The last twenty years of his
life the Elder spent in increased and concentrated prayer: fourteen to fifteen
hours a day. He had mystical moments when he did not want to speak to anyone,
not even his cell attendant. From four until eight the Elder prayed his morning
rule; afterward he confessed monks and lay people until about four in the
afternoon, when he began his evening prayer rule, consisting of the canon of
repentance, canons to the Theotokos, the Supplicatory Canon, Small Compline and
other services. At night the fathers made ready the veranda where the Elder
would stand alone in prayer, awe and wonder at the Creators majestic
handiwork, which he loved very much - the sheep and all of God's creation -
until sometime in the midst of the night when he would rest a bit before
In the last months of his life
the Elder could be heard saying often: Now I am going to my brothers! and
Leave me to depart to my brothers! and I am going to Christ! Pray for
me, the sinner.
On the eve of the Elders
departure for the next life he began to read his morning rule, when his disciple
said to him: Geronda, its evening now. These prayers should be read tomorrow
morning. The Elder answered him saying, I am reading them now because
tomorrow morning I am going to my brothers. On the morning of December 2nd,
1998, at about 2:20 a.m. Elder Cleopa departed for eternity and His Christ.
In the three days that followed
until the funeral thousands of faithful converged on Sihastria to be close to
their Elder one last time in this life. The funeral was attended by huge numbers
of the faithful with tears in their eyes upon seeing their Elder leaving them
and yet also filled with resurrectional joy and the Paschal hymn Christ is
risen on their lips. A great monastic and hesychastic period for the Church
of Romania came to an end with the departure of the Elder Cleopa to the place
where the just repose. A golden page was inserted into the history of the
Romanian Orthodox Church with its beginning and ending at the hesychastic
Monastery of Sihastria in Moldavia.
From The Truth of Our Faith:
A Discourse from Holy Scripture on the Teachings of True Christianity, by Elder
Cleopa of Romania (Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2000).
Order from Uncut Mountain Supply.
This prologue has been
compiled from two different sources: The Life and Struggles of Elder Cleopa:
Romanian Hesychast and Teacher and Spiritual Dialogues with Romanian
Fathers, both by Archimandrite Ioanichie Balan in Greek translation. Some
excerpts have also been taken from the forthcoming book of the St. Herman Brotherhood,
Shepherd of Souls, Elder Cleopa the New Hesychast of Romania, also written
by Fr. Ioanichie Balan.