ELDER Cleopa Ilie (1912 to December 2, 1998) was a Romanian spiritual father, who acquired enormous affection and respect throughout the country and beyond.
Archimandrite and abbot of the Sihastria Monastery, he came from a peasant family of ten children. He joined the hermitage at the age of 17, together with his brother; and after he had served in the army, was anointed as a monk in 1937. He rapidly found himself given responsibilities, being ordained priest in 1945, and becoming Abbot shortly after.
Like many others in Eastern Europe, he was regarded with suspicion by the Communists, and forced into hiding. Remaining abbot and spiritual father to his community, he was repeatedly compelled to retire to the remote woodland to evade capture and interrogation. Yet throughout, he cheerfully dispensed advice to an unending stream of monks and laymen, with an air of irascibility belied by his expressive and joyful, affectionate eyes.
Elder Cleopa’s sufferings and spiritual disciplines – towards the end of his life, he would pray for as many as fifteen hours of the day, experiencing many mysteries – fashioned of him a man of magnetic charisma, courage, and spiritual wisdom.
Elder Cleopa’s Immense Learning
Elder Cleopa’s claim to be an unlearned man is true in the sense that he never received any formal theological training, having learnt his faith by raiding the monastery library and reading countless volumes while tending sheep. His frequent references to classical history and the Church Fathers, and his encyclopaedic (and instantly available) knowledge of Scripture, reflect the passages imprinted on his mind in this time.
“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 one’s 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.
From the Romanian Orthodox Spiritual Portal.
Elder Cleopa On The Christian Virtues
Q. What teachings and spiritual counsels do you give to the faithful, to confirm them in the three theological virtues – in faith, in hope and in charity – which are the foundation of our salvation?
A. I AM a simple man, and unlearned, and I am not equal to the task of giving particular teachings on the three theological virtues. That I leave to theologians, who can understand them and explain them to their listeners.
Here it is necessary to deal with a theology of the many and the unlearned, who still do not know the “I believe” and the “Our Father”, nor the Trisagion. In my weak powers and understanding regarding matters beneficial for salvation, first, I recall the minds of the faithful to the fear of God, which teaches man to flee from evil (Prov 1:7, 9, 10).
We know from the Holy Fathers that wisdom has two ends. The lower end is the fear of God, and the upper end is the love of God, which is “the bond of perfection”. Beginning from the fear of God, I urge the faithful to the fear of death and of judgment. Then I recall their minds to the torments of punishment, to the glory of paradise, to compassionate mercy, to the upbringing of children in the fear and trials of the Lord, to sincerity and frequent confession and to the abandonment of sin, which is the true repentance.
As for the married, I urge them to a pure family life, counselling them to abandon the heavy sin of child-murder [i.e. abortion] and any attempts whatsoever to prevent conception. I urge them to abandon quarrelsomeness, fault-finding, anger, drunkenness and hatred, and I urge them to be reconciled before the sun has set.
In the videos below, Cleopa speaks of prayer and of sin. In a few words, he takes us from the most basic first steps in prayer to its mystical heights.
We hear his two most characteristic themes, the “fear of God” (obedience to an affectionate father) and “fear of death” (we should always seek to be ready to meet our Lord). We also hear from him about the stages of Christian prayer and initiation into the mysteries of paradise, of which the fear of God and of death are but the beginning.
We also meet a characteristically abrupt and curious phrase, “May heaven consume you!”. This is not, of course, some kind of bizarre ill wish. It is in fact a blessing, a hope that we will be assimilated into glory.