Desert-dwellers of the Roslavl Forests
March 10 is the Commemoration of the Desert-dwellers of the Roslavl Forests near Bryansk. One of whom was the Elder Melchizedek.
Serge N. Bolshakoff “Elder Melchizedek: Hermit of the Roslavl Forest” [ Saint Herman Press, 1988]
“The Life of the pious man in Elder Melchizedek was very unusual, even unique–it was an extremely long life, lasting for 125 years, from 1715 to 1840. At 95 years of age, Elder Melchizedek left his monastery for the life of a solitary in the great White Forest. At this age, he had the vigor of a man in his fifties, mentally alert and courageous.
Elder Melchizedek was part of the whole phenomenon of the desert dwellers of Roslavl, which led to the formation of the Optina Skete. Similar to many others who pursued monastic love for the wilderness, he was a contemporary of outstanding men of prayer to whom mystical realities were opened.”
The spiritual heritage of Optina takes its roots among the 18th century desert-dwellers of the Roslavl Forest, where the Patristic revolution begun by St. Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) had spread.
Elders Moses and Anthony joined them in the early 19th century, then were invited to restore the Skete of the Forerunner of Optina Monastery. – see http://www.roseburgorthodoxchurch.org/2013/04/st-barsanuphius/ and http://www.holy-transfiguration.org/library_en/mod_optina.html
The Hermitage of Optina (Optina Pustyn) is situated at the edge of deep forests in the district of Kaluga on the right bank of the River Zhizdra, some way from the town of Kozelsk (about eighty miles from Moscow).
“The life of Father Melkhisedek, one of the outstanding spirit-bearing Fathers of Holy Russia, was very unusual, one might even say unique, in the annals of monastic life. In the first place, it was an extremely long life, lasting for 125 years, from 1715 to 1840. Another striking fact is that when Melkhisedek was already 95 years old, he left his monastery for the life of a solitary in the great Bielsk Forest, in the south-west of the Russian Empire. At this age, rarely attained by one person in a hundred thousand, and then only in an advanced state of senility, Melkhisedek was as vigorous as a man in his fifties, mentally alert and courageous.
After leaving his monastery, the nonagenarian spent thirty years as a hermit. During the last few years of his life, he had a disciple as companion, and was much visited. Melkhisedek was free from illness during the whole of his long life, his sight (he never wore spectacles), his hearing and his movements were unimpaired to the end. His death was easy, painless and dignified.
A study of his manner of life, with its perpetual prayer of the heart, its wise austerity and simplicity, together with its wonderful serenity, strikingly demonstrates that here was something more than a natural way of living.
St.Serafim of Sarov, as well as Bishop Theophan the Recluse, often said that wise and abstemious living leads to good health and a long and useful life.
Father Mitrophan, the disciple and companion of Melkhisedek, recorded his sayings and many incidents of his life, and he himself benefited greatly from Melkhisedek’s wisdom. Mitrophan was over 60 years old when he joined Melkhisedek in his hermitage. He was a well-to-do peasant, and was married. He reached nearly the same age as his master — no doubt because he strictly adhered to the master’s way of living. A long life is, of course, not necessarily a great or a holy life, but in the case of Melkhisedek and his disciple both greatness and sanctity are to be found.
Melkhisedek, in the world Maxim, was born in the province of Kharkov, in Russia, in 1715. His father was a wealthy merchant. Little is known of Melkhisedek’s childhood and youth, apart from his learning to read and write whilst still young, and that he helped his father in running his business. When Maxim was 25, his father proposed that he should marry and become a partner with him in the business and in due course succeed to the ownership. But this was not what Maxim wanted. He was friendly with certain monks, one of whom had suggested that the young man had a calling to the monastic life. The idea of being a monk appealed to the young man. But there were difficulties which appeared to be insurmountable…
White Bluff Monastery was a good but ordinary Russian monastery when Melkhisedek entered it, but it changed a good deal during his stay. This was due to the disciples of the celebrated Archimandrite Paissy Velichkovsky who himself visited it and stayed some time. Paissy was one of the greatest renewers of Russian monasticism as well as a transmitter of Athonite spirituality. He and his disciples much preferred the old ways; the scrupulous observance of ritual and external asceticism, consisting in fasting, vigils, prostrations etc. Father Melkhisedek, for his part, felt an ever-growing inclination to a solitary life. Consequently, when difficulties increased, he took the radical decision to leave White Bluff Monastery and to go and live as a hermit in the vast forest of Bielsk in the Province of Smolensk.
In 1810 Melkhisedek left White Bluff Monastery, where he had spent fifty years of his life, taking with him only a staff and a sack. At this time he was 95 years old. Scarcely one person in a million attains this age, and then only in an advanced stage of senile decay. It was not so with Melkhisedek. At the age of 95 he looked like a man in his late forties or early fifties. He was physically strong, full of trust in Providence, a master of interior prayer.
Many Russian saints began as solitaries, for example, St. Sergius of Radonezh, the founders of Valaam and Solovki monasteries. But they usually ended their lives as cenobites or even Abbots. With Melkhisedek it was different. He started as a cenobite and finished as a hermit. Solitude has always exercised a strong attraction over Russian monks. The elder Zosima Verkhovsky, well known for his writings, was for many years a solitary in the forests in different parts of Russia. He left several passages glorifying solitude. Here’s one of them:
“It is impossible to describe in words the sensation of intimate and spiritual sweetness which is inseparable from solitude, the joy and serenity which no scepter and no honor can secure. What peace neither to see or hear or participate in worldly life, which is delusion. Nothing distracts you from the service of God, nothing prevents you reading and meditating upon the Sacred Books… The virgin forest separates you from the world. All you can see is the sky above, you already live as in Heaven. It proves that man is created for beatitude. If, from the contemplation of the beauty above, the eye turns to the contemplation of nature, the heart is again inflamed with love for Him who created such beauty. The heart quickens before the marvels of His Wisdom and in thanks¬giving for His goodness.”
When Melkhisedek went into solitude, he wisely selected the vast, almost virgin forests which at that time covered large areas of the Provinces of Smolensk, Oryol and Kaluga. Because of the oppression of monks in the Russian Empire under Peter the Great and afterwards, and the numerous and complicated obstacles set before aspirants to the monastic life, quite a few monks were professed secretly or in violation of the civil regulations. For such monks, living in a monastery was a hazardous business which could very well end in defrocking, prison or compulsory military service. For such monks, suspect to the government, the forests offered a safe asylum.
Melkhisedek, arriving at the forest of Bielsk, near Smolensk, found in due course a suitable place for a hermitage. The selected spot belonged to a landowner who not only allowed Melkhisedek to settle there, but erected a “cell” for him, that is, a small wooden house, and supplied him with food. Melkhisedek was very happy in his solitude, spending his time in manual work, reading, fasting and prayer. Another solitary, hearing that Melkhisedek had come to live there, came to cheer him up, thinking he must be sad because of his exile from the White Bluff Monastery, but Melkhisedek answered him:
“I am only sorrowful because the monks expelled me as unworthy to belong to their society, because, after 50 years with them, I could not attain the purity of their life.”
When Melkhisedek became known in the neighbourhood, people began to come to him, asking prayers and advice….
On the day of his death, July 9th, 1840, Father Vasily (Basil), the parish priest of the village of Mokroye, came to the forest and Melkhisedek confessed to him and received Holy Communion. He then went to bed and died shortly afterwards, without any agony. He simply fell asleep. He was 125 years old.
Father Mitrophan buried Melkhisedek near his cell.
According to those who knew the elder Melkhisedek, he was rather short but very healthy and wiry. His face was thin and long and he had a short beard. Melkhisedek never wore spectacles. He had perfect hearing and sight. In his great old age he used to make small wooden crosses which he gave to visitors as a token of his blessing….