The Northern Thebaid
“The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North” [St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 3rd edition, 2004]
Compiled and translated by Fr. Seraphim Rose and Abbot Herman Podmoshensky
“From the fourth century A.D., the desert Thebaid of Egypt was the home of thousands of monks and nuns who made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving toward heaven in the angelic way of life. A thousand years later, no fewer thousands of monks and nuns, likewise seeking union with God, went to live in the forests of northern Russia, creating what has become known as the “Northern Thebaid.”
Just as the sultry African nature with its clear blue sky, lush colors, its burning sun, and its incomparable moonlit nights, is distinct from the aquarelle soft tones of Russia’s northern nature with the blue surface of its lakes and the soft shades of its leafy forests—in the same way the sanctity of the Saints of the Egyptian desert, elemental and mighty, is distinct from the sanctity of Russia, which is quiet, lofty, and as crystal-clear as the radiant and quiet evening of the Russian spring. But both in Russia and in Egypt there is the same noetic prayer, the same interior silence.
Illustrated with rare pictures from old Russian books and magazines, The Northern Thebaid chronicles the lives of a number of holy men and women of the Russian forests, presenting the Orthodox monastic tradition which inspired them and which is still alive today for those who would follow in their footsteps.”
“”The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North” is a collection of Saints’ lives edited by Fathers Seraphim Rose and Herman Podmoshensky of Platina, California and first published in 1975. Most of the source material in this book derives from old Russian texts of the Lives of Saints from the 19th century preserved after the Russian Revolution in America’s émigré community. This book refers to the period between the fourteenth and early eighteenth centuries until Peter I and Catherine I closed down many monasteries during their “enlightened” reforms of the 1700s. The “Northern Thebaid” derives from the early Egyptian Thebaid, the desert to where hermits and monks would flee in order to live with Christ alone and be free of worldly pressures. Russia’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity began during 988 AD under the reign of St. Vladimir. In the subsequent centuries, a repeat of the phenomenon of desert monasticism that had occurred during the Roman Empire beginning with St. Anthony the Great of Egypt in the fourth century AD. A monk would venture into the desert by himself, separate from the world, and would later attract followers. These disciples would collaborate and establish an official monastery. The next generation of hermits would leave monastic settlements and venture into the woods and later attract his own following, thereby repeating the process. In this way monasticism spread through the vast forests and wilderness of northern Russia and Siberia. The Russian Orthodox ascetic struggle involved fasting, labor, chastity, humility, obedience and prayer. The first Orthodox missionaries to America in the 18th century were monks; the most noted of whom is St. Herman of Alaska. The first Saint discussed in this volume is Sergius of Radonezh who lived as a hermit and monk during the 1300s, founding monasteries and was renowned as a spiritual teacher. St. Sabbatius of Solovki founded a monastery on an island in the Arctic Sea, which was later headed by St. Zosimas, and developed into a noteworthy center of Orthodox piety in the far north. Unfortunately, Solovki was dismantled and used as a Communist prison after the Revolution. The lives of most of these Saints, notes the authors, follow a similar pattern. They look for solitude and prayer in the wilderness and face a variety of temptations, both physical from the demanding environment and supernatural evil powers. After their deaths, many miracles and healings were attributed to these Saints, some even appearing in person after death to guide future ascetic saints in the Orthodox faith. A few chapters address the Lives of female saints. The authors note that there is much less material on female Saints because of the humility of Russia’s holy women. However, many of the Saints’ Lives and Church records of similar type were written by women. “The Northern Thebaid” is almost a first volume of a two volume series. It does not continue in depth with the history of Blessed Paisius Velichovsky and the Hesychast revival after Russian monasticism’s nadir under Peter I and Catherine I. Fr. Seraphim, in his epilogue, notes that by the time of Blessed Paisius, Russia had developed its own tradition of Orthodox sanctity equal to that of old Byzantium.”
Preface by Fr Seraphim:
“What Orthodox Christian is not exalted in heart and mind at the thought of the Egyptian Thebaid — the place of struggle of the great St. Anthony, first among monastic Fathers and model of the anchoretic life; of St. Pachomius, the coenobiarch, who received the monastic rule of the common life from an Angel; and of the thousands of monks and nuns who followed them and made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving towards the heavens in the Angelic way of life?
Few, however, are those who know of Orthodox Northern Thebaid — the Russian “desert” of the forested, marshy North — where no fewer thousands of monks and nuns sought out their salvation in the footsteps of the great monastic Fathers of more recent times: St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Cyril of White Lake, St. Nilus of Sora, and hundreds of others whose names have been entered in the Calendar of Orthodox Saints.
Little has been published in English about these saints, and most of what has appeared thus far is of little value. No work in English has even been attempted to present the Orthodox monastic tradition which inspired and formed the great Russian Fathers. Indeed, the Russian religious intelligentsia of the Diaspora has been largely at fault for spreading false ideas about these Saints and their tradition. The most accessible works on Russian Saints in English [those of Fedotov and de Grunwald] are so filled with inaccuracies and distortions, with a Roman Catholic terminology totally foreign to Orthodoxy, and with an astonishingly fanciful notion of Orthodoxy, sanctity, and monasticism — as to be more a hindrance than a help to the serious student of the Russian monastic tradition.
One Orthodox scholar of the Russian Diaspora — Ivan Michailovich Kontzevich [†1965] — devoted his life to a serious study of the Orthodox spiritual tradition. Unlike the Westernized Russian intelligencia, he was not an “academic” scholar, but proceeded rather from the living Orthodox tradition. Even while living in the Diaspora in the 1920’s, he continued to receive spiritual guidance from Elder Nectarius of Optina, and to mold his life and thought , not on the heterodox “wisdom” of the West, but on the age-old tradition of Holy Russia. Having acquired a theological education, he planned to write [in Russian] a trilogy of works on this tradition.: the first, on the spiritual tradition of ancient Russia, before Peter I [“The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, Paris 1952]; the second on Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky [which was never completed]; and the third, on the Optina Elders [Optina Monastery and It’s Epoch, published posthumously by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y., 1973].
The present work, which was inspired by Professor Kontzevitch, is a kind of “source book” in English for the first volume of his trilogy in Russian on ancient Russia, and utilizes above all two of his key ideas regarding the Orthodox spiritual tradition:  that the Lives of the Saints are the chief source of our knowledge of the Russian spiritual tradition of this period,and a careful examination of them will give a clear idea of this tradition to one who is well versed in the phenomena and the vocabulary of true Orthodox spirituality; and  that it is evident — as a result of such an examination — that the Russian spiritual tradition is not at all something “uniquely Russian,” or something novel in Orthodox history, but is identical in essence with the whole Byzantine tradition of spirituality, which in its monastic formulation comes down to us from the Fathers of the Egyptian desert. Indeed, the Orthodox reader of these Lives — which have been taken from sources in Russian and Slavonic as close to the original Lives as possible — will find that they breathe the same spiritual fragrance as the Lives of the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, and have the same signs of true Orthodox monastic life: the “mental activity” of the Jesus Prayer, spiritual guidance by Elders, “revelation of thoughts” to the Elder, spiritual labors joined with love of neighbor. The Introduction by Professor Kontzevitch consists of excerpts from his book, “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, referring to the period of the “Northern Thebaid” — the great spiritual current which proceeds from St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century [and behind him, from Byzantine Hesychasm] to the end of the 17th century, when Russia, although outwardly in spiritual decline, was preparing its forces for a spiritual current which has come down to our own times — that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky and the great Elders of the 18th century to the 20th centuries.
It was in the mid-19th century that a pious Orthodox Russian, Andrew Muraviev, undertook a pilgrimage to the almost-forgotten monasteries of the North and brought them back to olive for the readers of his book, giving the whole region the name by which we now know it. At that time most of these monasteries still existed.
Today, however, these monasteries have been closed and destroyed, and most of them removed from the face of the earth. Why speak of them any more, and give the Lives of their founders and the history of their monastic tradition, as we attempt to do in these pages — and that not merely as an example of dead history, but of living tradition, as is our definite intention? While these Lives were being printed separately in “The Orthodox Word”, one of the leading modernists “Orthodox theologians” chastised in print “those who call to non-existent deserts,” evidently regarding such Lives as an appeal to a religious “romanticism” and idealism totally out of step with contemporary conditions of life. Why, indeed, should we inspire today’s Orthodox youth with the call of the “Northern Thebaid,” which has in it something more attractive and somehow more accessible for a 20th-century zealot than the barren desert of Egypt?
First of all, the monastic life here described has not entirely disappeared from the earth; it is still possible to find Orthodox monastic communities which teach the spiritual doctrine of the Holy Fathers, and to lead the Orthodox monastic life even in the 20th century — with constant self-reproach over how far one falls short of the Lives of the ancient Fathers in these times. True Orthodox Christians have preserved the living monastic tradition of Holy Russia and are linked directly to Optina, Valaam, St. Seraphim’s Diveyevo, St. Job’s Pochaev, Lesna, and of course to the monastic citadels of the Holy Land and the Holy Mountian of Athos. The wise seeker can find his “desert” even in our barren 20th century.”
Andrei Muravyev’s book on the Northern Thebaid [“Russian Thebaid in the North” (1855)](in Russian) is available on-line at: http://www.booksite.ru/fulltext/phiv/aida/index.htm