St. Cyril of Belozero. c.1337-1427
St. Cyril was the greatest adherent of St. Sergius. His hagiography was compiled by Pakhomy Serbin on the basis of recollections gathered in the St. Cyril Monastery.
St. Cyril of Belozero was born in Moscow in 1337 into a family of a man who served to a grand prince and was related to some noble boyar families. At christening he received the name of Cosmas.
When he was young, he lost his parents and entered the house and guardianship of Timothy Veliaminov, one of the noble boyars of Dmitry Donskoy. The boyar grew fond of the orphan-relative for his good disposition and diligent piety and treated him as an equal and later on made him the treasurer of his estate.
Cosmas felt the burden of ‘high life’ because he felt a vocation for monkhood to which Timothy Veliaminov would not give his consent.
Thus for fifteen years Cosmas had to be a layman, though in his thoughts and even his behaviour he tried to be a monk.
His secret monkhood finished when St. Stephen Makhrishchky visited the house of Timothy Veliaminov. Cosmas kneeled before him in tears and entreated to tonsure him a monk. The saint managed to persuade the boyar to let him fulfill Cosmas’s wish.
Rejoiced at the successful outcome, Cosmas gave away all his belongings to the poor and became ‘naked’. Stephen took him to the Simonov Monastery to Hegumen Theodore where he took monastic vows with the new name of Cyril. He was at least 43 at the time and it was after 1380.
Cyril started his monastic labour: fasting, prayer, work at a bakery and kitchen. His ascetic extremes were abated by obedience. He was under spiritual guidance of monk Michael who later became the bishop of Smolensk. Cyril implicitly obeyed and imitated him: “ charged himself with fasting instead of satiety, winter cold instead of warmth, made himself suffer from abstinence, and slept very little while sitting instead of lying down”. He asked the elder to allow him not to eat every day, but the elder did not agree and told him “to eat bread with the other monks though not to satisfaction”.
During his first monastic exploits Cyril was tempted by demons, who “appeared to him in various strange and terrifying forms and images and tried to frighten him”. Cyril protected himself from all temptations with Jesus’ name, a cross and a prayer.
Meetings and talks with St. Sergius of Radonezh date from this period. When visiting his nephew, Hegumen Theodore, in the Simonov Monastery St. Sergius would first go to the bakery and talk to Cyril about ‘spiritual worth’ for hours.
Apart from docility Cyril had a particularly sensitive and emotional character: he could not even eat bread without tears. Eager for solitude and the tender emotions he decided to withdraw to his cell and requested this not from the hegumen but from the Mother of God who he set hopes upon and entrusted with all his intentions. Thanks to her mercy he was shifted from the kitchen to a cell to write a book. Uncommonly, his new assignment disappointed him and he returned to the kitchen. For nine years Cyril served obediently in the bakery and kitchen.
Trying to avoid the worldly fame and “hiding his virtue”, the saint started to pretend to be an idiot for which he was punished by the hegumen who ordered him to eat only bread and water for 40 days. St. Cyril bore the punishment with zeal. No matter how hard he tried to hide his spirituality, experienced elders saw through him and against his will he was ordained a hieromonk.
When he was free from his duties St. Cyril would take the place of a novice and do some hard work. When St. Theodore was appointed the archbishop of Rostov, the monks elected St. Cyril the archimandrite of their cloister in 1390. He assiduously managed the monastery, treated all monks with equal love and set an example of humbleness. Before long he realized that it was impossible for him, being the archimandrite, to observe silence: crowds of people flocked to the renowned archimandrite form Moscow which was nearby. At that time Cyril made up his mind to abandon the abbacy and retire to his cell.
However, even in his cell he was not saved from numerous visitors looking for spiritual counsel. The new archimandrite, who was envious and displeased with crowds of people flocking to Cyril, made him leave the monastery. First he abided in the Old Simonov cloister (in Moscow) but then he resolved to seclude himself “far away from the world”.
St. Cyril had a special veneration for the Mother of God. Once, late at night, when reading the Akathist he heard her voice: “Cyril, leave this place and go to Belozero. I have prepared the place where you can save yourself”. When he opened the window of his cell he saw a fire column in the north where the Immaculate sent him.
At that time the monk of the Simonov Monastery Ferapont came back from Belozero. To Cyril’s question whether there were places suitable for silent seclusion in Belozero, Ferapont answered that there were many. At the age of 60 after the longstanding monastic labour in Moscow St. Cyril decided to go to Belozero and Ferapont wanted to accompany him to “the country behind the Volga”.
Cyril had been long looking for the place from the miraculous vision before he finally recognized the ‘beautiful’ place shown to him by the Mother of God. It was near Siverskoye Lake in a thicket of wood surrounded with water. It was here that Ferapont and Cyril started digging a cell. However, Ferapont could not bear “the tough and tight” existence that Cyril was striving for and decided to settle down 15 versts (16 km) away from St. Cyril where subsequently he founded his own monastery.
Cyril spent many years in solitude in his underground cell and underwent many trials. Once, overcome with sleep he lay down under a pine tree, closed his eyes, but heard: “Run, Cyril!” Hardly had he jumped up when the tree crashed down. The saint made a cross out of this pine.
Another time, Cyril nearly died of fire and smoke when he was clearing away the forest and there appeared somebody in a form of his guardian Timothy Vassilievich and with words “follow me” lead him out of the fire safe and sound.
One peasant tried to set his cell on fire but failed no matter how hard he tried. Then with tears of repentance he confessed his sin to St. Cyril who tonsured him.
In a short while two brothers from the Simonov Monastery called Zevedey and Dionisy came to Cyril who welcomed them with great warmth. They were followed by others who wanted to take monastic vows and to be Cyril’s disciples. Thus a monastic community was formed around Cyril. The elder realized that the period of solitude and silence was over. The community needed a church for prayer but the location was remote therefore it was difficult to find carpenters. Cyril pleaded the Mother of God and it was arranged by her that they came by themselves. In 1397, they built the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God.
When the community grew in numbers, the saint composed a coenobitic charter that he sanctified with his own example. He did not write down any of the rules but put them into practice so we learn about the details of the charter from his biographer: “the blessed Cyril established that nobody was allowed to talk during the service or leave the church before the service was finished. Monks were to line up in order of seniority when kissing the Gospel or sacred icons or when going to the refectory where they all ate in silence except for the reader. The monks had three meals (the hegumen had only two) excepting the fast-days. Then silently thanking God they were prescribed to go straight to their own cells without stopping at somebody else’s, unless there was some urgency”. Nobody was allowed to receive letters or presents without showing them to St. Cyril, or to write letters without his blessing. Money was kept in the monastery treasury and nobody had private property. Even if they wanted to drink water, they had to go to the refectory. Honey and wine were banned in the monastery. The cells did not lock for there were just icons and books and nothing else there.
We do not know anything about punishments imposed by the hegumen. Supposedly, his spiritual authority was sufficient and unquestionable. Cyril’s charter was subsequently extended to the Solovetsky Monastery.
It is not the austerity but the rules that distinguished the life in the monastery of St. Cyril. Like Sergius the hegumen wore torn and darned habits and was likewise humble with his offenders. Once he said to a monk who hated him: “Everyone was deceived about me and only you alone knew the truth and realized that I was the sinner.”
Cyril’s ‘non-possessiveness’ was more pronounced than that of Sergius. He did not let the monks go begging and turned down villages presented to him by grand princes and boyars on principle. However, he did not reject donations brought to the monastery. Firm though humble independence from the might of this world characterized St. Cyril and his followers.
Once, there was not enough wine for the Divine liturgy which was communicated by the sexton to the saint. St. Cyril asked to bring him an empty vessel that turned out to be full of wine. During famine he would give to the poor bread that did not end though the stock was just sufficient for the monks. Another time the saint subdued the lake storm that threatened fishermen’s life.
St Cyril believed in spiritual enlightenment and inculcated it in his disciples. According to the 1635 inventory, the monastery numbered over 2000 books, among which 16 belonged to Cyril. The saint’s three epistles addressed to Russian grand princes are remarkable instances of spiritual instruction, guidance, love, peacefulness and consolation. His love for enlightenment passed to his disciples noted for their learning.
The last admonition of the dying Cyril was addressed to his brethren. He asked them to love each other so that there were no discords that could destroy their coenobitic life.
The saint conducted his last liturgy on the Holy Trinity day and passed away in peace at the age of 90 on 9 June 1427 on the feast day of his namesake priest Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria.
The non-possessiveness covenant was broken in the monastery immediately after the death of the founder. The St. Cyril Belozero Monastery became the richest estate owner in northern Russia rivaling with the Trinity St. Sergius Lavra in this respect. Nevertheless, the monastic community and strict chartered life lasted until the mid 16th century.