“I won’t grumble about it, because a monk is the property of the Church. He has no personal life; he is alone. Wherever they put you, start working… Glory to God for all things!”
These are the words of St. Hilarion Troitsky – the saint whom we celebrate today. These are the words of a true monk, and of a man who has dedicated his whole life towards proclaiming God’s truth, both in word and in deed, and towards serving the Church and living Christ’s Gospel Commandments to the fullest during his all-too brief time on this earth.
In the world, the future St. Hilarion was called “Hilarion the Great” by his colleagues and those who knew him. And he was a great man. At the very young age of 5 years old he was a reader and a chanter in his parish church. As time went on, he grew into a young man who was a respected and original theologian, writing thousands of pages of theological papers, letters and treatises. He was a highly educated and brilliant polemicist who was able to speak knowledgeably and authoritatively on the great theological, ecclesiastical, philosophical and social issues of his time. St. Hilarion was tonsured a monk at the age of 27 and was quickly ordained into the priesthood, elevated to archimandrite and appointed inspector of the Moscow Theological Academy. At the age of 33, he was consecrated as a bishop by Partiarch Tikhon. As a bishop, Vladika Hilarion devoted much of his time to the Divine Services and to preaching, serving 142 liturgies, more than 142 vigils, and giving 330 sermons all within his first year as bishop.
All of St. Hilarion Troitsky’s talents made him a great man. But what determines a great man from a saint? The young Hilarion, from his childhood until his time as a young hierarch – contributed greatly to the Church, giving God the first fruits of his time and his talents. Yet it was his time in prison – in the dreaded Solovki gulag – where we truly see Hilarion the Saint. It was in the gulag in which everything in St. Hilarion’s world had been stripped away – honor, rank, title, comforts, and everything we take for granted as basic human necessities. It is precisely here that St. Hilarion really shone as a great saint of God’s Church in our times.
St. Hilarion was a true lover of God. He rejoiced in his afflictions and infirmities, which only drew him closer to God. His biographers recount that the thought of Solovki as a “school of virtues” cheered the young Archbishop Hilarion very much: non-possessiveness, meekness, humility, abstinence, patient endurance, and love of work. Upon arriving at the dreaded Solovki labor camp, the Soviets robbed the clergy and took their boots. St. Hilarion delighted in this, saying: “This is how they teach us non-possessiveness!”
The impression that Vladika Hilarion made on everyone at Solovki was of a young man full of life, all the while displaying complete monastic non-possessiveness, deep simplicity, genuine humility, childlike meekness, and a sincere love for those around him. A fellow prisoner remembered him this way: “He would simply give away everything he had… He wasn’t interested in his things… He was always cheerful… He looked at everything with spiritual eyes and everything served to profit his soul.”
Even working as a fisherman and mending nets on the White Sea, Archbishop Hilarion loved to refer to his work by rearranging the words of the Church hymns for Pentecost: “The Holy Spirit giveth all things; formerly, the fishermen became theologians. Now the theologians have become fishermen.”
Immensely popular at Solovki, St. Hilarion was accessible to all. Even the criminals and the “rabble” he would talk to as equals – as true brothers – walking arm-in-arm with them in deep, heart-felt discussion.
Even with his vast education, his extraordinary talent and high ecclesiastical rank, Vladika Hilarion, in the words of one man who knew him at Solovki:
… was the same as everybody. It was easy for everyone to be with him, to meet with him, and to talk with him. The most ordinary, simple, not holy appearance – that was what Vladika himself was. But behind this ordinary appearance of joviality and even worldliness you could little by little discern a childlike purity, a great spiritual experience, kindness and mercy, this delightful indifference to material goods, true faith, genuine piety, high moral perfection, not to mention a deep intellect joined with the strength and clarity of conviction. This appearance of sinfulness, foolishness, this guise of worldliness hid from people his inner activity and saved him, himself, from hypocrisy and conceit.
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In today’s Epistle we hear the words of St. Paul, and he says:
When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your member which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… Put off all these… Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Colossians 3:4-10).
The Christian life is a paradox. In order to live, we must die. In order to truly live in Christ, we must die with Christ. We must die to the old man – our lusts, our passions, our attachments, and so on. We may have many wonderful talents and virtues, and these are good inasmuch as God has given us these talents to use in service to the Church. We may be good singers, or good speakers. We may write sermons or be good cooks or have a wonderful practical knowledge of any number of useful trades: farming, electronics, computers, mechanics, and so on. We may know multiple languages or have a vast knowledge of liturgics or Church history or rubrics or the canons and so forth. And all of these things can be used in service of the Church. But ultimately none of these things will save us, and none of these things in themselves will make us a saint, for all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags before God as we read in Isaiah.
Instead, God looks at our heart. When all of our talent and position and rank and pride is someday stripped away, we will stand naked before God with the deeds of our life written on our heart. Did we love sufficiently? Did we love our neighbor and our brother? Did we love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength? Can we say that we made an effort to do so to the best of our ability, with God’s help?
That St. Hilarion was a great man was evident in his life before Solovki. But his sanctity was made clear once St. Hilarion was put into what amounted to hell on earth, the Soviet gulag, in which men were sent to be tortured and to die. For once all the riches and of the glory of the world were torn away and thrown down, the purity of St. Hilarion’s heart and his faith began to shine for all those around him, like the purest gold tested in fire. His was a selfless, noble heart which embraced even the most cruel and cynical villains in the Solovki camp. His was a virtuous heart. His was a fearless heart. This was the heart of a saint. This was the heart of a man who truly loved the Lord God and his fellow man.
But it was precisely in that he truly died to himself and to this world that “Hilarion the Great” became “Hilarion the Saint”. There is no way to the Resurrection except through the Cross. There is no way to follow Christ if we run from suffering. There is no way to be a Christian other than to follow the words of our Lord: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23). And, as it is so well put in the words of Elder Sophrony of Essex: “It is impossible to live as a Christian — it is only possible to die as a Christian.” To die daily. To die to this world. To die to the old man, to the flesh, to our lusts, to our passions. In order to live, we must die, and only when we die in Christ – and die every minute and every second of our life – do we find life eternal.
My brothers, as St. Ignati Brianchaninov reminds us in The Arena, we are truly monks of the last times. We are few in number and few in accomplishments. Even as monks we live luxuriously by almost any historical standards. Yet all too often we struggle and fight tremendous warfare in even the smallest issues whether real or imagined: a perceived slight, a small inconvenience, some setback or not getting something we want. Our prayer is often shallow and distracted, even to the point of our prayer being nearly obliterated by a barrage of worldly thoughts and cares.
All of this can only come from one thing: our hearts do not yet truly burn with the love of God, as St. Hilarion’s heart did. We rely on these little things: our cleverness, our intellect, our wit, our talents and our distractions. And even these very distractions become a secret comfort to our wayward will: we want honors and worldly success, nice foods and delights. We want to appear holy and prayerful and well thought of. We flee from even the slightest afflictions and persecutions, instead of seeing God’s hand in all that comes our way as God’s providence to help us in our salvation. We are like the men who were invited to the wedding feast in today’s Gospel reading, each having his own excuse as to why he couldn’t come. There’s always something else more pressing to attend to, something else we’d rather do. We’re always just too busy, or we just can’t be bothered.
We must look to St. Hilarion as our example, our guide and our inspiration. St. Hilarion is a model of a man who truly loved God above all things, through the destruction of everything he loved in this world, and even unto his death. A model of true obedience and selfless love, he gave his life and his blood serving the Church.
God Himself has brought all of us to this monastery for our salvation. Everything we need for our salvation is here. St. Hilarion Troitsky did shine as a great saint in the hell of Solovki precisely because he laid a good foundation early in his life, with prayer and fasting, perfect obedience and love of God. Let us all follow his example, and let us never forget what an amazing blessing it is that God has brought us all here to struggle together for our salvation, bearing each other’s burdens with love, patience and humility.
With firm resolve and manliness of heart, let us all ask God’s help to put to death the old man and to put on Christ, Who is our Life. Let us not rely merely on our own efforts and virtues, but like St. Hilarion, let us choose the one thing needful and truly love God above all. With boldness, let us not be afraid to confess Christ and the truth of the Church in the face of rampant apostasy, just as St. Hilarion had done in his life, but let us also emulate St. Hilarion’s meekness, humility and love. Not by our own efforts, but with prayer and a true love for God will the Lord send us his grace to purify our hearts and endure our trials. For it may be someday we ourselves will be called to witness Christ in the way St. Hilarion did, and we will be asked to give everything. We must lay a firm spiritual foundation in our life now, lest we find ourselves shut out like the foolish virgins with no reserve of oil to hold back the enclosing darkness of night.
God calls every single one of us to be saints, so let us pray to the warrior of Christ, St. Hilarion, that we may emulate his example, and that he may intercede for us at the throne of the Lord God. And to echo the kontakion of his feast, let us not fear the minions of the coming Antichrist, but let us all manfully confess Christ and, if need be – and if God wills it, let us be prepared to lay down our very lives for the Church of God. For it is only through Christ and His Church does our life truly have any meaning. And it is only in dying to this world do we truly find life, and life eternal.
O Holy New Hieromartyr of Christ Hilarion, pray to God for us! Amen.