Saint Alexander of Svir was born on July 15, 1448, on the Feast Day of the Prophet Amos, and was named for him in Baptism. Saint Alexander was a beacon of monasticism in the deep forests of the Russian North, living in asceticism, and so he received remarkable gifts by the All-Holy Spirit.
His parents, Stephen and Vassa (Vasilisa) were peasants living in the village of Mandera near Lake Ladoga, on the shores of the Oyata River, a tributary of the Svira River. They had adult sons and daughters who had left the home of their parents. Stephen and Vassa longed to have another son, and prayed that God would grant their wish. The couple heard a voice from on high: “Rejoice, good man and wife, you shall bear a son, in whose birth God will give comfort to His Church.”
Amos grew up to be an extraordinary child. He was always obedient and gentle, he avoided games, jokes and foul talk; he wore poor clothing and so weakened himself with fasting that it caused his mother much anxiety. When he came of age, he met some monks from Valaam who had come to the Oyata to purchase various necessities, and on other monastery business.
By this time Valaam was already known as a monastery of great piety and strict ascetic life. After speaking with the monks, the young man was fascinated by their account of Skete life (with two or three monks living together) and the solitary life of the anchorite. Knowing that his parents had arranged a marriage for him, the young man fled secretly to Valaam when he was nineteen. An Angel of the Lord appeared to him the guise of a traveler, and showed him the way to the island.
Young Amos lived at the monastery as a novice for seven years, leading an austere life. He spent his days at work, and his nights in vigil and prayer. Sometimes, he prayed in the forest bare-chested, covered with mosquitoes and gnats, until it was time for Matins.
In the year 1474, Amos was tonsured with the new name Alexander. After several years, his parents eventually learned where their son had gone from some Karelians visiting Mandera. Following the example of their son, the parents also went to monasteries and were tonsured with the names Sergius and Barbara. After their deaths, Saint Alexander, with the blessing of the Igumen of the monastery, settled on an island, where he built a cell in the crevice of a cliff and continued his spiritual endeavors.
The fame of his asceticism spread far and wide. Then in 1485, Saint Alexander departed from Valaam and, after receiving instructions from on high, chose a place in the forest by the shores of a beautiful lake, which was later called Holy Lake. Here he built a shack, living in solitude for seven years, eating only what he gathered in the forest.1
During this time, Alexander experienced terrible suffering from hunger, frost, sickness and demonic temptations, but the Lord sustained the righteous one's spiritual and bodily strength. Once, he was afflicted with a terrible pain in his stomach. Not only was he unable to get up off the ground, but he couldn't even lift his head. He just lay there and chanted Psalms. Then an Angel appeared to him. Placing his hand on the sore spot, he made the Sign of the Cross over the Saint and healed him.
In 1493 while hunting for deer, a nearby landowner named Andrew Zavalishin happened to discover the Saint's cell. Andrew told him of a fiery pillar he had seen over this place, and begged him to tell him about his life. The Saint was deeply saddened by this, because he had not able to hide himself from men. After making the other promise not to tell anyone about him until after his death, Saint Alexander spoke to him about his life in the wilderness, where he had lived for seven years without seeing anyone, how he had subsisted on plants alone, and how he had been healed of a pain in his stomach by an Angel. After that, Andrew began to visit Saint Alexander often. Finally, following the Saint's advice, he went to Valaam, where he was tonsured with the name Adrian. Saint Adrian founded the Ondrusov monastery, and led a holy life (Saint Andrew is commemorated on August 26 and May 17).
Andrew Zavalishin was unable to remain silent about the holy ascetic, despite the promise he had given. News of the righteous one began to spread widely, and soon monks gathered around him. Therefore, Saint Alexander withdrew from the brethren and built a cell 130 sazhen from the monastery. There he encountered a multitude of temptations. The demons assumed the forms of wild animals. Hissing like snakes, they ordered him to leave. Saint Alexander's prayers scorched and scattered the demons like a fiery flame.
In 1508, twenty-three years after he came to this secluded spot, the Life-Creating Trinity appeared to Saint Alexander. One night he was praying in his cell. Suddenly, there was a dazzling light, and he saw three Angels in resplendent white garments approaching him. They shone with a pure brightness greater than the sun. Each held a staff in His hand. Saint Alexander fell down in terror, and after recovering his senses, he prostrated himself upon the ground. Raising him by the hand, the Angels said: “Have faith, blessed one, and do not be afraid.”
The Saint was told to build a church and a monastery. He fell to his knees, protesting his own unworthiness, but the Lord raised him up and ordered him to carry out the instructions he had been given. Saint Alexander asked to whom the church ought to be dedicated. The Lord said: "Beloved, as you see us speaking with you in Three Persons, so build the church in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial Trinity. Peace I leave you; my peace I give you.”
Then Saint Alexander beheld the Lord with outstretched wings, moving along the ground until He became invisible.
This appearance is acknowledged as unique in history of the Russian Orthodox Church After this vision, the Saint began thinking of where to build the church. Once, as he was praying to God, he heard a voice. Gazing up to the heavens, he saw an Angel of the Lord clothed in a mantiya and klobuk, such as Saint Pachomios (May 15) had seen.
The Angel, standing in the air with outstretched wings and upraised hands, proclaimed: “One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.” Then he turned to Saint Alexander saying, “Build a church here in honor of the Lord Who has appeared to you in Three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Undivided Trinity.”
After making the Sign of the Cross over the place three times, the Angel became invisible.
In that same year he built a wooden church in honor of the Life-Creating Trinity (a stone church was built here in 1526). At the same time as the church was built, the brethren urged Saint Alexander to be ordained to the holy priesthood. For a long time he refused, considering himself unworthy. Then the brethren implored Saint Serapion, the Archbishop of Novgorod (March 16), to convince him to accept this office. So that very year Saint Alexander went to Novgorod and was ordained by the holy Archbishop. Soon afterward, the brethren also asked the Saint to be their Superior.
As Igumen, Saint Alexander became even more humble than before. He wore tattered clothes, and he slept on the bare ground. He himself prepared food, kneaded dough and baked bread. On one occasion, there was not enough firewood, so the steward asked the Saint to send any unoccupied monks to gather firewood. Saint Alexander replied, "I am not busy." Then he began to chop firewood. Another time, he carried water.
When all were asleep, the saint was often busy grinding wheat with hand-stones to make more bread. Every night, he went around to all the cells, and if he heard vain conversations, he tapped softly on the door and left. In the morning, if the brother readily acknowledged his guilt and repented, he was forgiven. On the other hand, if the brother tried to justify himself, he was admonished and given a penance.
Toward the end of his life, Saint Alexander decided to build a stone church in honor of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. One evening, after chanting an Akathist to the Mother of God, he settled down to rest in his cell. Suddenly, he said to his cell attendant Athanasios, “Child, be sober and alert, because at this very hour we shall have a wondrous and astounding visitation."
Then a voice like thunder said, “Behold, the Lord and His Mother are coming.”
Saint Alexander hastened to the entrance to the cell, which it was illumined by a great light shining throughout the monastery, brighter than the rays of the sun. The Saint beheld the Most Pure Mother of God upon the foundation of the Protection church, and sitting where the altar would be, like a Queen upon a throne. She held the Infant Christ in her arms, and a multitude of Angels stood before her, with shining with indescribable radiance.
He fell down to the ground, unable to endure the great light. The Most Holy Theotokos said, “Arise, chosen one of my Son and God. I have come here to visit you, my dear one, and to see the foundation of my church. Since you have prayed for your disciples and for your monastery, henceforth they shall have all that they need; not only during your lifetime, but also after your death. I shall be with your monastery always, providing an abundance of what is required. Behold, and note carefully how many are the monks who have come into your flock. You must guide them on the path of salvation in the name of the Holy Trinity.”
The Saint arose and saw a multitude of monks carrying stones and bricks for the foundation. Again the Mother of God said: “My dear one, if someone brings even one brick for the building of my church, in the name of Jesus Christ, my Son and God, he shall not lose his reward.”
After saying this, she became invisible.
A year before his death, Saint Alexander foresaw the time of his departure from this life. He summoned the brethren and gave them his final instructions, commending them to the Mother of God. The brethren wept at the thought of being separated from their beloved Father. When they asked where he wished to be buried he said, "Bind my sinful body by the legs and drop it into a the marsh then, after covering it with moss, trample on it with your feet."
The brethren replied, "No, Father, we cannot do this.”
Then the holy ascetic said that if they would not do as he asked, then they should bury him near the church of the Transfiguration. Saint Alexander departed to the heavenly Kingdom on August 30, 1533 at the age of 85.
Countless miracles of healing took place at his grave for those who came there with faith.
In 1545, his disciple and successor, Igumen Herodion, compiled his Life. In 1547 local veneration of the Saint began and a Service was composed for him. On April 17,1641, during the rebuilding of the Transfiguration church, the incorrupt relics of Saint Alexander of Svir were uncovered, and his universal veneration was established on two dates: the day of his repose, August 30, and on April 17, the day of his glorification (and the uncovering of his relics).
Saint Alexander of Svir instructed a multitude of disciples, just as the Mother of God had promised him. These Include Ignatius of Ostrov, Leonid of Ostrov, Cornelius of Ostrov, Dionysios of Ostrov, Athanasios of Ostrov, Theodore of Ostrov, and Therapon of Ostrov.
In addition to these saints, there are disciples and conversers with Saint Alexander of Svir, who have separate days of commemoration: Saint Athanasios of Syandem (January 18), Saint Gennadios of Vasheozersk (February 9), Saint Makarios of Orodezh (August 9), Saint Adrian of Ondrosov (May 17), Saint Nikephoros of Vasheozersk (February 9), Saint Gennadios of Kostroma and Liubimograd (January 23).
All these saints (except Saint Gennadios of Kostroma) are depicted on the Icon of the monastic Fathers who shone forth in the land of Karelia (the icon is in the church at the Seminary in Kuopio, Finland). The Synaxis of the Saints who have shone forth in Karelia is celebrated by the Finnish Orthodox Church on the Saturday which falls between October 31 and November 6.
The incorrupt relics of Saint Alexander were removed from the Svir Monastery by the Bolsheviks on December 20, 1918 after several unsuccessful attempts to confiscate them. There was an infamous campaign to destroy the relics of the Saints which continued from 1919 to 1922. Many relics of Russsian Saints were stolen and subjected to "scientific examination” or displayed in anti-religious museums. Some of them were completely destroyed.2
A second uncovering of Saint Alexander’s relics took place in December of 1997.
The relics were found to be incorrupt, just as they were when they were confiscated. The saint’s appearance matched the description in the records from 1641. Once it was determined that these were truly the relics of Saint Alexander, Metropolitan Vladimir of Saint Petersburg permitted them to be taken to the church of Saint Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (September 17) for four months before they were returned to the Monastery. As people venerated Saint Alexander’s relics, they noticed a fragrant myrrh flowing from them.
The holy relics were taken to the Saint Alexander of Svir Monastery in November 1998, and miraculous cures continue to take place before them.
1 Later at this place, Holy Lake, 36 versts from the future city of Olonets and 6 versts from the River Svira, Saint Alexander founded the monastery of the Life-Creating Trinity, and 130 sazhen (i.e. 910 feet) from it, at Lake Roschina, he built a cell on the future site of the Saint Alexander of Svir Monastery.
2 The Soviets conducted many tests, hoping to prove that the relics were fakes. However, the tests only confirmed that the relics were genuine. Finally, the holy relics were sent to Petrograd’s Military Medical Academy, where they remained for almost eighty years.