Saint Joseph the Hesychast (1897 -1959)

Glorified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on October 20, 2019

Francis Kottis (Saint Joseph’s name before his monastic tonsure) was born in Paros1 on February 12, 1897, the fourth of seven children to the simple but pious couple George and Maria Kottis. Because of their extreme poverty, Francis left home at the age of seventeen to work in Piraeus2 as a merchant to support his large family. When he was twenty-three years old he was engaged to a pious girl and lived in exemplary chastity, never touching his fiancee for fear of coming to the point of kissing her.

One day he beheld a wondrous vision of two angels in the form of palace guards, leading him to serve the heavenly king. After this vision, he became pensive and lost all interest in worldly things; he spent his time reading the lives of saints, especially those of the great ascetic Fathers, which ignited in his heart the desire to become a monk. He then called off his engagement, and in preparation for his life on the Holy Mountain,3 he started conditioning himself to ascetic struggles by fasting and praying in the countryside of Athens.

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The Chapel of St. John the Forerunner at Small St. Anne's Skete

In 1921, after two years of living ascetically in the world, he finally made his way to the Holy Mountain, his heart longing for a God-bearing spiritual guide to teach him the art of noetic prayer, and he began traversing the crags and caves in search of one. After searching for sometime without success, he decided to join the brotherhood of Saint Daniel of Katounakia.4 Renowned for his discernment and exalted spiritual life, Saint Daniel chose a moderate ascetical program for his brotherhood. Francis, however, was inclined to a more austere spiritual life and total dedication to unceasing prayer of the heart, which requires great silence and humility, and thus he stood out from the rest of the brotherhood. Saint Daniel knew he could not stay with his brotherhood, but he also knew that Francis needed a companion, a fellow ascetic, in order to avoid delusion. So he told him that until a co-struggler could be found for him, he should cultivate the Jesus Prayer alone in some remote cave, coming to him occasionally for spiritual guidance.

One day, after suffering many temptations, he was granted a vision of the uncreated light, and he received the gift of ceaseless prayer. From that point on until his death, the prayer was said in his heart unceasingly, granting him exalted spiritual states and divine visions.

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Saint Joseph the Hesychast
1898
1959

Eventually, a suitable co-struggler, Father Arsenios, was sent to him by Saint Daniel. These two spiritual warriors would be inseparable companions for the rest of their lives, leading an austere ascetical life together. In the beginning Father Arsenios regarded Francis as his geronda,5 even though Father Arsenios had already been tonsured a monk and Francis was still a layman. However, on the Holy Mountain, to be a geronda, you have to be obedient to a geronda until his death. Therefore, following Saint Daniel’s advice they became disciples of two humble old gerondas in Katounakia named Joseph and Ephraim. It was not long before one of them, Saint Joseph, reposed in the Lord. Geronda Ephraim, now their sole geronda, was soon convinced by the exceptional lifestyle of young Francis that this spiritual warrior should be officially enrolled in the angelic monastic order. Thus, the day of his monastic tonsure was set for Sunday, August 31, 1925, the commemoration day of the deposition of the precious sash of the Theotokos. His tonsure took place in the cave of Saint Athanasios the Athonite,6 and he received the name Joseph, after his reposed geronda.

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Saint Joseph with his small brotherhood 
Young Father Ephraim is first from the right

After some years, Geronda Ephraim also fell asleep in the Lord, and the young Father Joseph became a proper geronda. Soon he began attracting monastic aspirants, but few of them were able to endure his severe ascetic program. Eventually, the nucleus of his brotherhood would consist of five disciples: his co-ascetic Father Arsenios; Father Athanasios, his brother in the flesh; Father Joseph the Cypriot, who would later become the geronda of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi;7 Father Ephraim, later abbot of the Holy Monastery of Philotheou8 and future geronda of thirty-three monasteries in Greece, the US, and Canada, including Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona; and Father Haralambos, later abbot of the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou.9 Also, it is noteworthy to mention Saint Ephraim of Katounakia;10 although he belonged to a different brotherhood, he was guided spiritually by Saint Joseph, and thus is also considered one of his disciples.

In 1938, seeking greater solitude, Saint Joseph and his community moved from Saint Basil’s Skete to a cave at Little Saint Anne’s,11 but after 15 years of living in the harsh conditions of Little Saint Anne’s, the fathers’ health started to deteriorate, and so in 1953, Saint Joseph decided to move the community farther down the mountain, near the sea, to New Skete,12 where he would spend the last six years of his life. A few months before his death, he was visited by the Virgin Mary, whom he held in special reverence, and was promised by her, that she would take him on her feast day. Thus the saint fell asleep in the Lord, on August 15, 1959, the day the Orthodox Church celebrates the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God.

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Saint Joseph (seated) with his small brotherhood

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Father Ephraim (seated at right) with his small brotherhood shortly after the repose of his ever-memorable elder,
Saint Joseph the Hesychast

“You will fatigue greatly until you realize that prayer without attention and watchfulness is a waste of time, work without pay. Without attention, both the nous [the eye of the soul] and the powers of the soul are diffused in vain and ordinary things, like useless water running down the streets.”

Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph’s legacy has been carried on by his disciples, who have reestablished the practice of noetic prayer and watchfulness on the Holy Mountain, brought Athonite monasticism to the United States and Canada, and encouraged many Orthodox faithful through the publishing of his life and letters. Today the spiritual grandchildren of Saint Joseph, who endearingly refer to him as “Pappou Iosif” (Grandfather Joseph in Greek), call upon him to help them in their spiritual life, and he in turn stands before the throne of God and intercedes for his spiritual children and grandchildren, and all those who call upon him.

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Geronda Ephraim,
former abbot of the Holy Monastery of Philotheou and spiritual father of St. Anthony's Monastery

“I pray with all my heart that through divine eros you acquire a ceaseless yearning for God, and that by soaring with it you attain beauty equal to the angels.”

Geronda Ephraim

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

Footnotes

  1. Paros is a Greek island in the central Aegean Sea.

  2. Piraeus is a port city in the region of Attica, within Athens Greece.

  3. Located on peninsula in northeastern Greece, The Holy Mountain, also know as Mount Athos, is an important center of Eastern Orthodox Monasticism. It is governed as an autonomous polity within the Greek Republic. Mount Athos is home to 20 monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

  4. Katounakia is a group of cells in the desert region on the southeastern side of the peninsula.

  5. A geronda is an Orthodox Christian spiritual leader.

  6. St. Athanasios the Athonite (c. 920 - c. 1003) founded the Great Lavra, the biggest and most famous monastery on Mount Athos.

  7. The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi on Mount Athos, was founded in the second half of the 10th century by disciples of St. Athanasios the Athonite. The monastery was expanded several times during its history, particularly during the Byzantine period and in the 18th and 19th centuries. More than 120 monks live in the monastery today.

  8. The Holy Monastery of Philotheou is located on the northeastern side of the peninsula. It was founded at the end of the 10th century.

  9. The Holy Monastery of Dionysiou is located in the southwestern part of the peninsula. It was founded in the 14th century.

  10. Glorified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on October 20, 2019.

  11. Little St. Anne’s is a small skete on the southeastern side of the peninsula. It belongs to the Great Lavra.

  12. New Skete is one of two sketes attached to St. Paul’s Monastery. It is located between St. Paul’s Monastery and St.Anne’s Skete.