St. Paphnutius of Borovsk, Hegumen and Miracle-Worker. 1394-1477
St. Paphnutius of Borovsk was a disciple of the Borovsk Hegumen (abbot) Nikita, who was in turn a disciple of St. Sergius of Radonezh, and teacher of Joseph of Volotsk. Thus the ‘genealogy’ of the Moscow saints can be traced back to the great elder (starets) of Radonezh.
St. Paphnutius of Borovsk (secular name Parpheny) was born in 1394 in the village of Kudinovo not far from Borovsk into a family of a baptized Tatar Martin and Fotinia.
His ancestor was a tax collector of a Tatar khan. God’s ways are unknown: his descendant became a coenobite and afterwards the famous saint.
When a youth, Parfeny left his home and became a monk of the Intercession Monastery under Hegumen Markel in 1414 and lived in obedience to St. Nikita of Serpukhov, a disciple of St. Sergius of Radonezh.
St. Paphnutius’s diligence in his life of a monk was such that when the former hegumen died in 1426 he was chosen hegumen by his fellow monks and consecrated by Metropolitan of Kiev Photius.
For thirty years he lived in the Intercession cloister and served both as hegumen and elder-confessor. He had a gift of a pastor and a tutor and set amazing examples of love and care for his brothers entrusted to him by God. In one of his dreams God revealed to him that two monks were planning to flee and demons in a form of Ethiopians flung red-hot brands into their cells. So aware that it was a question of their eternal life, Paphnutius dissuaded them from their fatal design. In another dream, Paphnutius saw a tree full of beautiful fruit dying in his monastic garden. Paphnutius gave up his other work and turned to the tree and looked after it until it came back to life. Apparently, one of the monks away from the monastery had sinned but repented and thus evaded the deadly sin. That was the summary of the dream and life of St. Paphnutius, i.e. he is a gardener in the garden planted by God.
During his abbacy he revealed numerous talents: a vocation to convert people and bring them to God, all-embracing mercy and compassion, uncompromising firmness towards any sin, astonishing insight and astuteness.
When St. Paphnutius was 50, he fell seriously ill and not hoping to recover he was tonsured into the great schema. Yet he recovered and decided not to resume his duties of the hegumen but to retire to solitude in order to dedicate the rest of his life to prayer and purification of the soul.
On 23 April 1444, St. Paphnutius left the Intercession Monastery with one monk and settled down on the left bank of the Protva River. More and more monks started gathering and settling around him. According to the legend during his hermitage the Mother of God appeared to St. Paphnutius and told him to found a monastery and to become its hegumen. He spoke about her apparition only at his deathbed.
St. Paphnutius served as an example to his brothers by leading a very strict life: his cell was the poorest, he picked the worst food, did not eat on Monday and Friday and ate only dry meals on Wednesday. He chose the hardest work: cut and carried logs; dug and watered the kitchen garden. A new stone cathedral in honour of the Virgin Nativity was built on the site of the wooden one and its walls were painted by the best icon painter of the time Dionisy and his assistants.
Of interest is his account of the circumstances of the monastery’s construction: “This place was created through no princely authority, no riches of the mighty but by God’s will and the grace of the Immaculate Mother of God. I did not ask or receive any gifts from earthly princes for the monastery but set all my hopes upon the Immaculate Theotokos.”
Paphnutius was loved and esteemed by monks of not only his but other cloisters as well. ‘Divine Providence’ brought a twenty-year old Ivan Sanin to the Borovsk Monastery where he found the hegumen felling tress in the wood. Having tested the young man the hegumen made him a monk with the name of Joseph (later St. Joseph of Volotsk). Recollecting his teacher, Joseph of Volotsk wrote that he could be kind and indulgent, as well as rigorous and angry with unrepented sinners. His spiritual children both esteemed and feared him. When going to confession they were overcome with fear.
St. Paphnutius astuteness did not leave any chance to the Evil. Once, icon painter Dionisy, having broken the hegumen’s ban on meat, discovered that the lamb he had secretly brought to the cloister was infested with worms and he was covered with straps. Dionisy was cured through the mercy of the saint. One monk, who reviled at the hegumen’s commands, was frightened by demons in a dream and the next morning came to the saint to ask for his forgiveness. Even after his death St. Paphnutius prayed for his disciples and followers.
St. Paphnutius spent 63 years as a monk. Shortly before his death, when he refused to eat and lay in bed, having left all cares, deep down in his penance, he was asked a question whether the monastic community or the grand prince should be in charge of the cloister, the elder answered: “The Immaculate Theotokos”. Then Paphnutius urged the monks to work in fear and purity for their salvation so that he could rest in peace after his death. And finally he concluded: “Make haste to be good!”
When he was dying, the angels could be heard singing in his cell. St. Paphnutius died on 1 May 1477 as he had predicted.
Two literary monuments dedicated to the saint’s life that were written by his disciples have survived: The Hagiography of St. Paphnutius of Borovsk written by Vassian Sanin, the Bishop of Rostov and The Tale about the Death of St. Paphnutius of Borovsk written by elder Innokenty.