Saint Isaac the Recluse of the Kiev Caves
February 14 is the Commemoration of Saint Isaac the Recluse of the Kiev Caves.
“Saint Isaac the Recluse was a monk during the early years of the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. He was deluded by a false vision but later recovered. St. Isaac passed away in the 12th century.
This Saint Father was a wealthy merchant in the city of Toropets of the Pskov province. Having decided to become a monk, he gave away all his possessions to the needy and monasteries and came into the cave of Saint Anthony.
Having become a monk, Saint Isaac loved the harsh life: not only did he put on sackcloth, but also told to buy a goat and take off his skin. Out of this skin still damp and wet, he made his robe and wore it over the sackcloth so that that skin dried on his body. Then Isaac shut himself in narrow cave and there prayed to God with tears. Only one little prosphora served him as food, but even that he ate in every other day. He quenched the thirst with water and only in small quantities.
St. Anthony brought and gave food and drink to him through a narrow window of such size that it could accommodate only one hand. In addition, Isaac never went to bed but was sitting up during a short sleep. Thus, he spent seven years in the great feats not going outside of his close cell.
One day in the evening, Isaac began to do prostrations as usual, singing psalms till midnight. Suddenly the cave was illuminated with the great light, bright like the sun, and Isaac was approached by two demons in the form of beautiful young men. Their faces shone like the sun and they said: “Isaac! We are the Angels, and Christ is coming to you with the heavenly hosts”.
When rising, Isaac saw many demons. Their faces shone like the sun. One of them was shining more than others, and the rays were proceeding from his face. Then the demons said to Isaac: “Isaac! This is Christ. Fall before him and worship him”. Failing to understand the devilish tricks and forgetting to make the sign of the Cross, Isaac bowed to the demon as if to Christ. Immediately, the demons have raised a great cry, saying: “Isaac – you are ours now!”
Offering him a seat, they themselves sat around him. Then one of the demons, imaginary Christ, said: “Take the pipes, timbrels and gusli and play them and let Isaac dance in front of us”. Immediately, the demons began to play the pipes, timbrels and gusli. Having seized Isaac, they began to leap and dance with him for a long time. Having tired him and leaving him half dead, the demons disappeared.
The next day when Isaac usually took his food, St. Anthony went as always to the window and said: “Bless me, father Isaac”. There was no answer. Amazed, Anthony thought: “Did Isaac repose by any chance?” Then he sent to the monastery for St. Theodosius and for other brethren. The brethren came and dug the cave and brought Isaac out, thinking he was dead and laid him in front of the cave. But then they noticed that Isaac was still alive.
Then the hegumen, Saint Theodosius, said: “In truth, what happened to him is demonic”.
Then Isaac was put on the bed and Saint Anthony himself took care of him. When Saint Anthony left the monastery and went to Chernigov, Saint Theodosius took Isaac, moved him to his cell and took care of him. What is surprising is that within two years, Isaac ate no bread, no water, no vegetables, and any other food, but still remained alive, lying on his bed mute and deaf.
At the third year, Isaac started to speak. Then he begged to put himself at his feet. Later he learned how to eat and gradually recovered completely.
When Saint Theodosius reposed, Isaac began again the harsh life saying to the tempter: “You deceived me, the Devil, when I was in seclusion in the cave, but now I do not shut myself, but working in the monastery I will try with God’s help to vanquish you”. Isaac began to help the cooks and worked for the brethren. At matins he entered in the church before everyone and stood motionless in his place. When winter came, he stood in the church in very torn shoes despite the bitter cold, so that his feet were often frozen to the flagstone, but he did not shift one foot to the other until the end of the service. After matins, he was the first who went to the bakery, he was preparing the fire, wood and water before the other monks came.
Once one of the monks, also named Isaac, said laughing at the Saint: “Isaac! There sits a raven, come and catch him”. Having bowed to the ground, the humble monk came and took the raven and brought him to the kitchen to the monks. Everyone was surprised at such thing and monks started to respect him since then. But not wanting glory from people, the blessed Isaac took the foolishness on him and began to insult either the hegumen or the brethren, or the laity, so that many even beat him.
Having become a holy fool, he again moved into the cave of Saint Anthony who had already died. The demons tried to frighten him, but he casted them away making the sign of the Cross. And since then the demons could not cause any harm to Isaac. Since he moved into the cave for the second time, he was fighting against them during three years. After this, he began to have more severe life with greater abstinence.
The time of his death came among these feats. Isaac became sick in his cave and the brethren moved him into the monastery where he reposed 8 days later. Hegumen John and all the brethren prepared the body of the Saint and buried him honorably in the cave with other Fathers. So this good soldier of Christ, first being defeated by the enemy, later himself defeated the Devil and honored to receive the Heavenly Kingdom.”
The Near Caves of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Drawn by author Abraham van Westerveld (1620-1692) in 1651.
“The Near Caves or the Caves of Saint Anthony Ukrainian: Ближні печери, Blyzhni pechery; Russian: Ближние пещеры, Blizhnie peschery) are historic caves and a network of tunnels of the medieval cave monastery of Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The Near Caves have a total length of 383 metres and are 5 to 20 metres deep. The Near Caves were founded when in 1057, Saint Varlaam was appointed as the first hegumen (abbot) of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra by Saint Anthony. Monk Anthony withdrew himself from the monastery and later settled on a new hill, where he dug out a new underground cell, now called the Near Caves.”
“Saint Isaac was the first person in northern lands to live as a fool for Christ. His name in the world was Chern. Before becoming a monk, he was a rich merchant in the city of Toropets in the Pskov lands. Having distributed all his substance to the poor, he went to Kiev and received the monastic tonsure from St Anthony (July 10).
He led a very strict life of reclusion, eating only a single prosphora and a little water at the end of the day. After seven years as a hermit, he was subjected to a fierce temptation by the devil. Having mistaken the Evil One for Christ, he worshipped him, after which he fell down terribly crippled.
Sts Anthony and Theodosius took care of him and nursed him. Only after three years did he begin to walk and to speak. He did not wish to attend church, but he was brought there by force.
Upon his return to health he took upon himself the exploit of holy foolishness, enduring beatings, nakedness and cold. Before his death he went into seclusion, where again he was subjected to an onslaught of demons, from which he was delivered by the Sign of the Cross and by prayer.
After his healing he spent about twenty years in asceticism. He died in the year 1090. His relics rest in the Caves of St Anthony, and part of them were transferred to Toropets by the igumen of the Kudin monastery in the year 1711. The Life of the Blessed Isaac was recorded by St Nestor in the Chronicles (under the year 1074). The account in the Kiev Caves Paterikon differs somewhat from that of St Nestor. In the Great Reading Menaion under April 27 is the “Account of St Isaac and his Deception by the Devil.” “
See further: Natalie Challis and Horace W. Dewey “Divine Folly in Old Kievan Literature: The Tale of Isaac the Cave Dweller” “The Slavic and East European Journal” Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 255-264