St. Joseph, Hegumen of Volotsk. 1440-1515
St. Joseph Volotsky (secular name Ivan Sanin) was born on 14 November 1440 in the village of Yazvitsche-Pokrovskoye, not far from the town of Volokolamsk.
The Sanins clan originated from Lithuania but settled in the principality of Volokolamsk.
When Ivan was seven he was sent to the virtuous and enlightened elder (starets) of the Volokolamsk Cross Exaltation Monastery Arseny for instruction. Having a brilliant memory, Ivan quickly learnt to read and write and became the reader and singer of the monastic church.
At 20, Ivan left his parents’ home and joined the Virgin Nativity Borovsk Monastery under the supervision of the elder St. Paphnutius. St. Paphnutius received the youth kindly and on 13 February 1460 admitted him as a coenobite under the name of Joseph.
Soon afterwards, Ivan’s father, who was stricken by paralysis, took the monastic vows in the same monastery. Coenobite Joseph was blessed by the elder to look after his parent, which he did till his death. Joseph’s mother also took the veil and became a nun of the Volokolamsk convent. All the children except for one followed their parents.
Among Joseph’s relatives, there were 14 monks and 4 nuns. Joseph’s brother, Vassian became the archbishop of Rostov. His other brother was the bishop of Tver Akaky, while his two nephews, Dosifey and Vassian Toporkovs became icon painters and painted the stone church of the Dormition in the St. Joseph of Volotsk Volokolamsk Monastery together with the celebrated icon painter Dionisy. Truly, the Sanins clan produced a great number of monks “through God’s grace”.
The young monk carried out his hard obediences in the kitchen, bakery and infirmary. He revealed great spiritual talents in liturgical reading and singing. He was also talented in music and had a perfect command of his voice.
After St. Paphnutius’ death, Joseph was appointed hegumen (abbot) of the Borovsk monastery in accordance with the will of the deceased.
St. Joseph decided to transform the monastic life by enforcing a very strict coenobitic rule similar to the Kiev-Pechersk, St. Sergius Trinity and St. Cyril Belozero monasteries. However, the rule turned out to be beyond the brothers’ strength. Then, still determined to found a cloister with a strict coenobitic charter, he and a group of his followers set off for Volokolamsk forests that were familiar to him from his childhood.
When choosing a site for a new cloister, they saw a sign: a sudden storm started felling trees as if clearing space for the future monastery. On this very spot, in June 1479, St. Joseph with his monks laid a cross and a wooden church in honour of the Dormition of the Mother of God that was consecrated on 15 August 1479. These date and year are recognized as the date of the foundation of the Dormition Monastery which later acquired the name of its founder.
Gradually, the cloister of St. Joseph developed. In 1484-1485, a stone Dormition Cathedral replaced the wooden one and the same year its walls were painted by Dionisy and his sons Vladimir and Theodosius along with St. Joseph’s nephews and disciples, coenobites Dosifey and Vassian. Also, in 1504, a warm refectory building in honour of the Epiphany was laid, later a belfry with a cathedral of the Hodegetria under it were constructed.
Joseph created a true monastic charter adducing extensive quotes from Holy Writ and writings of church fathers, a charter that he himself called the ‘spiritual certificate’. Under the charter the brothers were to devote all their time either to prayer or to physical labour.
The food in the monastery was very simple. Everyone wore shabby clothes enduring heat and cold with equal placidity. Laughter or idle talk was not welcome. The monks’ cells never locked since brothers were not allowed to have anything but religious books and icons. They spent most of the night in prayer. “Thus obedience hallowed and love crowned them”.
St. Joseph set an example of asceticism: at least, the hegumen’s “shabby patched” frocks are mentioned in his sacred biography.
St Joseph’s work and influence were not confined to the monastery. Many lay people asked for advice and all those who lived nearby considered him as their father and protector. He helped the destitute: if a villager needed “seeds for planting” or “lost his cattle”, Joseph gave what was needed. One year in Volokolamsk region there was a famine during which Joseph “fed around seven hundred people not counting children”.
St. Joseph’s cloister that was established thanks to his exploit and labour, flourished while its founder, advancing in years, was preparing for the eternal life.
Before he died, he partook the divine sacraments, then gathered the brothers and, having blessed them, passed away in peace at the age of 76 on 9 October 1515.
During the grim times, God designated Joseph as a militant defender of the Russian Orthodox church to oppose church disagreements and heresies, namely the false doctrine of The Sect of Skhariya the Jew, or Zhidovstvuyuschiye that was spreading at that time, and to create the first code of the Russian Orthodox theology, the book called The Enlightener that consisted of 16 chapters (Words). Another monument of St. Joseph’s writings was the Rudder (the Pedalion, Svodnaya Kormchaya), an extensive code of canons of the Orthodox Church started by St. Joseph and completed by Metropolitan Makarius.
Joseph influenced the growing political consciousness of Moscow grand princes asserting that “a tsar is a man in essence, but his power is that of God". He personally persuaded Ivan III to imprison and execute the heretics.
According to the biography of St. Joseph, his severity turned priests and elders against him. The epistles of the trans-Volgan elders reveal that covenants of Christian grace and mercy were still ingrained in Russia. On the contrary, Joseph’s instructions were heeded by Moscow grand princes, especially Vassily III who ordered “to cut heretics tongues and to commit some to the flames”. However, such victory over the heretics was the beginning of an excruciating schism in the consciousness of Orthodox people.
Of no less significance was the role of St. Joseph in the dispute «over monastic estates”.
At the 1503 Church Council, Ivan III raised the issue of the secularization of “the church and monastery lands” but Joseph got the upper hand and the monasteries retained their estates. As a result, apart from being the centres of education and book production, monasteries, major landowners, were able to feed the local population in lean years, to support the poor, disabled and sick as well as to help pilgrims and the destitute.
Nevertheless, some historians hold a different opinion that Joseph of Volotsk in his struggle against non-possessors (Nil Sorsky and his disciples), without meaning it, upset the traditions of St. Sergius that restrained the sumptuous Grand Duchy of Moscow. Philosopher Georgy Fedotov refers to the deepening opposition of the spiritual approaches of the trans-Volgan non-possessors and Josephites as the tragedy of Russian holiness.