The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to Saint John of the Ladder (Climacus), the author of the work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The abbot of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai (6th century) stands as a witness to the violent effort needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom (Mt.10: 12). The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, “not against flesh and blood, but against ... the rulers of the present darkness ... the hosts of wickedness in heavenly places ...” (Eph 6:12). Saint John encourages the faithful in their efforts for, according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt.24:13).
Hieromartyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, suffered for his faith in Christ under the emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363). By order of the emperor Constantine (May 21), Saint Mark had once destroyed a pagan temple and built a Christian church.
When Julian came to the throne, he persecuted Christians and tried to restore paganism. Some citizens of Arethusa renounced Christianity and became pagans. Then Saint Mark’s enemies decided to take revenge on him. The old bishop hid himself from the persecutors at first, but then gave himself up when he learned that the pagans had tortured many people in their search for him.
The holy Elder was led through the city and given over to torture. They tore out his hair, slashed his body, dragged him along the street, dumped him in a swamp, tied him up, and cut him with knives.
The pagans demanded that the holy bishop pay them a large sum of money to rebuild the pagan temple, and he refused to do so. The persecutors invented several new torments: they squeezed the Elder in a foot-press, and they cut off his ears with linen cords. Finally, they smeared the holy martyr’s body with honey and grease, then hung him up in a basket in the hot mid-day sun to be eaten by bees, wasps, and hornets. Saint Mark did not seem to notice the pain, and this irritated the tormentor all the more.
The pagans kept lowering the price he had to pay for their temple, but Saint Mark refused to give them a single coin. Admiring him for his courage and endurance, the pagans stopped asking him for money and set him free. Many of them returned to Christ after hearing his talks.
Saint Gregory the Theologian (January 25) describes the sufferings of Saint Mark in his First Oration against Julian. Theodoritus of Cyrrhus also mentions him in his Church History (Book 3, Ch. 6)
The historian Theodoritus relates that during the reign of Saint Constantine the Great, Saint Cyril destroyed many idols and pagan temples in Heliopolis, Phoenicia. He was put to death for this during the reign of Julian the Apostate. Pagans cut open his stomach and, like wild beasts, they ate his liver and intestines, for which the Lord punished them with blindness, boils and other terrible afflictions.
During this time the pagans killed many Christians in the Palestinian cities of Ascalon and Gaza: priests, women and children who had dedicated themselves to God. The torturers cut up their bodies, covered them with barley and fed them to pigs.
The holy martyrs received crowns of victory in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the torturers also received their just recompense: eternal torment in Hell.
Saint John the Anchorite: During a persecution against Christians, the devout widow Juliania of Armenia hid from pursuers together with her two young children John and Themistea. She taught her children to pray and to read the Holy Scriptures.
From time to time John secretly visited a nearby monastery, thereby placing himself in danger. Once, a pious old man advised him to find a more secluded place for prayer. Returning home, the saint told his mother that he was going to visit the Elder. Thinking that her son would soon return, she let him go.
John went to the desert-dweller Pharmutios and received his blessing to live alone in the wilderness. The young ascetic found an abandoned well, which was filled with snakes, scorpions and other vile creatures. He lowered himself into the well and lived there for ten years in fasting, vigil, and prayer.
The angel who brought food to the hermit Pharmutios also brought bread for Saint John. The angel did not bring the bread directly to John, however, lest the young ascetic become filled with pride. Food was sent to him through his spiritual Father, Pharmutios.
Saint John had many temptations from the devil to test him. Demons assumed the appearance of his mother, his sister, his relatives and acquaintances in order to sadden the ascetic and compel him to give up his ascetic struggles. With tears they approached the well one after the other, begging Saint John to leave with them. All this time the saint did not cease to pray. Finally he said, “Be gone from me,” and the demons vanished.
Saint John lived in the well until the time of his blessed repose. Through God’s providence Saint Chrysikhios, who had struggled in the desert for thirty years, came to bury him. On the eve of his repose, Saint John told Chrysikhios of his life and struggles for salvation. After his death, numerous miracles occurred at the place of his ascetic deeds.
Saint Eustathius the Confessor, Bishop of Bithynia, was already at the beginning of his spiritual struggle a pious monk, meek and wise, filled with great faith and love for his neighbor. For his virtuous life he was made bishop of the city of Bithynia (a Roman province in northwest Asia Minor) and for many years he guided his flock, giving them an example of virtuous life and perfection.
During the Iconoclast heresy, Saint Eustathius boldly came out against the heretics and defended the veneration of holy icons. Iconoclasts denounced him to the emperor, and the saint suffered imprisonment and fierce beatings. Finally, they deprived Saint Eustathius of his See and sent him to prison.
The holy confessor died in exile during the ninth century, after suffering insults, deprivation, hunger, and want for three years.
Saints Mark, Jonah and Bassa are venerated as the founders of the Pskov Caves monastery.
It is not known exactly when the first hermit monks settled by the Kamenets stream in the natural caves of the hill, which the local inhabitants called “the holy hill.” The monastery Chronicle presents an account of eyewitnesses, hunter-trappers from Izborsk nicknamed Selishi: “We came with our father to the outlying hill where the church of the Mother of God is now, and heard what seemed to be church singing. They sang harmoniously and reverently, but the singers could not be seen, and the air was filled with the fragrance of incense.”
Of the first Elders of the Pskov Caves monastery only Mark is known by name. The Chronicle says of him: “In the beginning, a certain Elder was living at the Kamenets near the cave. Some fishermen saw him by the three rocks above the cave of the Most Holy Theotokos church, but they were unable to discover who he was, his lineage, how and from whence he came to this place, how long he dwelt there, or how he died.”
The second igumen of the Caves monastery is identified as Elder Mark in the monastery Synodikon. Saint Cornelius (February 20) doubted the veracity of this inscription and ordered that the name be removed from the Synodikon. Suddenly he became grievously ill and it was revealed to him that this was his punishment for ordering the name of Saint Mark to be stricken from the monastery diptychs.
After begging forgiveness at the grave of the Elder Mark, Igumen Cornelius restored his name. When the cave church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos was dug out and the burial caves expanded, the igumen Dorotheus found the grave of Saint Mark in a state of neglect, but his relics and clothing were preserved.
In the year 1472, the peasant Ivan Dementiev cut down the forest on the hill. One of the felled trees rolled down the hill, uprooting another tree from the ground. The slide opened up the entrance to a cave, over which was the inscription: “The cave built by God.” There is a tradition that Saint Barlaam, a fool-for-Christ, frequently came to the cave and wiped out this inscription, but it miraculously reappeared every time.
The priest John (nicknamed “Shestnik”) came to this holy spot, where the first ascetics prayed. He was a native of “the Moscow lands” and served as priest at Iuriev (now Tartu) in “a right-believing church, established by people from Pskov” and dedicated to Saint Nicholas and the Great Martyr George. He and the priest Isidore spiritually nourished the Russians living there.
In 1470, Father John was compelled to flee to Pskov with his family because of persecution by the German Catholics. When he learned of the martyric death of Saint Isidore (January 8), Father John decided to settle in the newly-appeared “cave built by God,” so that there, on the very boundary with the Livonians, he might found a monastery as an outpost of Orthodoxy.
Soon his wife fell ill and died after receiving monastic tonsure with the name Bassa. Her righteousness was evidenced immediately after her death. Her husband and her spiritual Father buried Saint Bassa (March 19) in the wall of “the cave built by God,” but at night her coffin was “taken from the ground by an invisible power of God.”
Father John and Saint Bassa’s Father Confessor were upset, thinking that this had occurred because they had not done the complete Service for the Departed. So they sang the funeral service a second time, and they buried the body again. In the morning, however, it was found above ground. Then it was clear that this was a sign from God, so they dug Saint Bassa’s grave on the left side of the cave. Shaken by the miracle, John became a monk with the name Jonah and devoted himself even more fervently to spiritual struggles.
He dug out the cave church and built two cells on pillars, then petitioned the clergy of the Pskov Trinity cathedral to consecrate it, but they decided not to do so at the time “because of its unusual location.” Then Saint Jonah sought the blessing of Archbishop Theophilus of Novgorod.
On August 15, 1473 the cave church was consecrated in honor of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. During the consecration there was a miracle from an icon of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos:1 a blind woman “sent by the merciful God, beginning His great gifts to His All-Pure Mother” received her sight.
The date of the consecration of the cave church is regarded as the official date of the founding of the Pskov Caves monastery. Saint Jonah labored at the Cave monastery until 1480, then peacefully fell asleep in the Lord. Upon his death they discovered a chain mail coat on his body. This was hung over his grave as a sign of his secret asceticism, but it was stolen during a German invasion.
The relics of Saint Jonah rest in the Caves beside the relics of the Elder Mark and Saint Bassa. Once, when the monastery was besieged, the Livonian knights wanted to open the lid of Saint Bassa’s coffin with a sword, but fire spurted forth from the coffin. Traces of this punishing fire may still be seen on the coffin of Saint Bassa.
1 This icon, which they call the “old” to distinguish it from another wonderworking icon of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos with scenes of Her life around the borders, was painted around 1421 by the Pskov iconographer Alexis Maly, and is now kept in the altar of the Dormition church. The icon with scenes around the border is the Cave church’s patronal icon.
The holy Schema-monk Niketas was born in the city of Orel in 1695. From childhood, he loved to go on pilgrimages to the holy places. As a youth, he left his parents and lived about a mile or so from the White Bluff (Beloberezhsk) Hermitage. It is not known when he received the monastic tonsure, or from whom. In 1780 he built a cell on a hillock, and he dug a well by the hill. He ate bread that passersby would leave in his basket, which hung by the roadside on a tree. This was in a dense part of the forest, and animals were often seen by the hermit’s cell. Mosquitoes bit him mercilessly, until he was covered in blood. They tormented him terribly, but Saint Niketas bore everything with patience. He received the gift of tears from God, and he always shed tears for his own sins and for the sins of others.
Once, in March, he became ill, and lay down without moving. The day before the Feast of the Annunciation arrived. Father Niketas lay there and heard the bells ringing in the Hermitage for the all-night service. He tried to sing the Troparion of the Feast, but being so weak, and because he had lost his voice, he was unable to do so. The Elder wept bitterly, heartbroken because he could not meet the Feast Day in an appropriate way. Suddenly, his cell became awash with light, and Niketas saw the Most Holy Theotokos surrounded by angels. The Mother of God blessed him, and he began to sing the Troparion of the Feast feebly, but with an unearthly ecstasy. The angels joined him in the singing, and his cell was filled with the praises of the inhabitants of heaven. The vision ended, but Saint Niketas remained under its impression for a long time.
As soon as he regained his health, he went to the White Bluff Hermitage for a time. When he got there, he found only ashes where his cell had once stood. Some evil person had burnt it down while the Elder was away. Father Niketas sat down on the hillock weeping bitter tears. Later, he moved to the monastery, where he humbly fulfilled all the obediences that were laid upon him, serving the monks without sparing himself. Once, during a Church service, he fell on the floor from exhaustion. Hearing about the Roslavl solitaries, he moved in with them and lived there on the southern edge of Monks’ Gorge, near the village of Yakimovskoe (Akimovka) on the property of Alexandra Bronevskaya, a zealous protector of the hermits who lived on her lands in great numbers. She reposed in 1853, and was more than eighty years of age. Saint Niketas lived there for over ten years, and again he moved to White Bluff Hermitage. In 1792, however, he wanted to return to his Hermitage before his death. At his request, the Roslavl hermit Father Dositheos rented a horse from a peasant, and in late 1792 he came over to the Hermitage for Father Niketas, and found him very ill. Dositheos asked him to wait until summer, but the Elder was in a hurry to see his Hermitage.
Receiving the Superior’s blessing, Dositheos took Niketas and laid him on the wagon, and covered him with a tarp and some straw. He took the ailing Elder some 90 miles to the Roslavl Forest. Here Niketas lived for another six months, departing to the Lord on March 29, 1793. After preparing his body for burial, Father Dositheos put it into a beehive, called in the nearby priest and neighboring hermits, and they buried him near his cell. Since Monks’ Gorge always had water in it, Father Dositheos, after a certain revelation, dug up the grave of Elder Niketas after seven years, in order to move it to higher ground. The beehive was whole, and the body and clothing of the Elder were incorrupt. Only a birch (linden?) bark shoe which was made by a disciple and not by the Elder himself was found to have rotted. The other shoe was whole.
When the beehive was opened, Father John from the village of Luga was there with other hermits. One of these, Father Arsenios, wanted to exchange his prayer ropes for those of the Elder. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not take them from Saint Niketas’s hand. The body of Father Niketas was taken out of the beehive and placed in a coffin. After a Memorial Service, he was buried on the hillock. At the burial there was a sick monk who suffered from a stomachache. He drank water from the grave site and was healed. About fifteen years after Elder Niketas’s death, the coffin was opened again, and his body was found incorrupt just as before. On his grave were two memorial stones, and one was very large. Hermits came here on Pascha to sing the Paschal Canon. Elder Dositheos honored the memory of Schema-monk Niketas until the time of his own death, and he always remembered him every year at Pascha.
Saint Niketas was approved for local veneration in the Smolensk Diocese on August 31, 2017.