Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Romanian Shepherd” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone.
Shepherd of Souls: The Life and Teachings of Elder Cleopa, Master of Inner
Prayer and Spiritual Father of Romania (1912–1998)
The Truth of Our Faith: Discourses from Holy Scripture on the Tenets of
reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon
When Father Cleopa Ilie died about 2:20 a.m. on December 2, 1998, most of the citizens of Romania regarded his passing as a national catastrophe. Father Cleopa’s reputation as a wise spiritual master and charismatic healer, richly endowed with gifts of clairvoyance and prophecy, had spread over much of Eastern Europe and beyond. Consequently, for several decades, scores of thousands of Romanians, along with many other Christians from neighboring countries, had been flocking regularly to the Monastery of Sihastria, well up in the Carpathian Mountains, to listen to that venerable man, to request his prayers for the healing of their sundry afflictions, to confess their sins and receive from him the sacramental absolution of the Church, and to seek his counsel in various matters concerning their Christian lives. Except for a few articles in journals of limited circulation, however, Father Cleopa was a man little noticed in English-speaking countries. The two books here reviewed, which are recommended without reservation, will do much to increase that notice.
The eighth of ten children in a shepherd family in Moldavia (northeastern Romania), Father Cleopa was born in 1912. Intensely trained in the Christian life by his parents and a monastic ascetic who lived in the region, he departed at age 17 with two older brothers to join the monastic community of Sihastria. As he was already expert in tending sheep, the young monk was given this same task at the monastery. Indeed, such work forced him to dwell in a hut among the sheep, apart from the other monks and the daily round of shared monastic prayer. For more than a decade, then, he lived a life of relative solitude, giving himself to constant prayer and study while looking after the sheep. Choosing some hundred or so books, all of them theological works, he pretty much committed them to memory. A man of truly extraordinary intellectual retention, his total command of every verse of Holy Scripture would serve, years later, to make him a very formidable opponent in theological debate with missionaries sent to Romania from the West. (Before becoming a monk, Cleopa had already memorized the Book of Psalms, which he prayed by heart daily for the rest of his life.)
During World War II, after the monks of Sihastria elected Cleopa their new abbot, he was ordained a priest and deacon. The next couple of decades were spent as the spiritual father of Sihastria and, after he came to the attention of the Romanian bishops, many other monasteries in his country. (Romania easily has the largest per capita number of monasteries of any country in the world.) Twice arrested and tortured by the Communist government of Romania, Father Cleopa spent several years living in seclusion deep in the Transylvanian forests, living on roots and grasses, regularly spending 15 hours a day in prayer. After the government’s relative relaxation from persecution in 1964, he returned to Sihastria and undertook the very extensive ministry to the rest of Romania that we noted above.
Shepherd of Souls is a small biography by one of Father Cleopa’s disciples, Father Ioannichie Balan, already the author of several other works of monastic history. It is a deeply edifying book, much in the tradition of the Lausiac History of Palladius and the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great. At the end of it is a collection of “sayings” of Father Cleopa, closely resembling ancient collections of monastic Verba Seniorum. This book is available from the Brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska, PO Box 70, Platina, CA 96076.
From the title of the second book, The Truth of Our Faith, I was expecting a treatise of doctrinal theology. In fact, however, the contents of this book fall more easily under the category of apologetics or Kontroverstheologie. The material consists of a series of dialogues drawn from Father Cleopa’s conversations with many inquirers about the Eastern Orthodox faith. In these he deals with quite a number of the differences of perspective that, in varying degrees, distinguish Orthodoxy from the Christianity of the West: the authority of Tradition and its relationship to Holy Scripture, veneration of the Mother of Jesus and the other saints, the Sign of the Cross, veneration of icons and relics, non-chiliastic eschatology, prayer for the dead, and so forth. This book is being distributed in the United States by Conciliar Press, PO Box 76, Ben Lomond, CA 95005.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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