Elder Daniel "the Greek" Wilderness Ascetic of Mount Athos


Life is blessed for those in the wilderness as they fly upon the wings of divine love. (Hymns of Ascent, tone 5)

The year was 1814. A sailing ship drew to the shore beneath the skete of Kavsokalyvia and deposited an eighteen-year-old Greek youth by the name of Dimitri. He aspired to become a monk and, before setting foot on the Holy Mountain, had resolved to accept as his elder and spiritual guide the first monk he met there, and to live with that monk until he died. With this in mind, he turned his back to the sea and began ascending the mountain. He had climbed a fair distance when he encountered the elder, Fr. Herman, who lived in the kellion of Saint Artemios. "Here is the monk whom I must serve until death," said Dimitri to himself, "for the Lord Himself has led me to him."

The Elder Herman, a Serb, had what to all appearances was a refractory, stern, even harsh character; he not only railed constantly at his obedient disciple, he even beat him frequently, especially at the beginning. He did this not out of anger but out of spiritual wisdom. However, it was a long time before his disciple-not to mention others who witnessed this behavior-could understand this. In spite of such treatment, Dimitri did not leave the elder and was unquestioningly obedient to him. And he remained so until Fr. Herman's death, forty years later.

Fr. Herman's harsh treatment of his disciple did not go unnoticed. One day (Dimitri had by this time been tonsured with the name Daniel) the elders from St Anne's Skete came to Fr. Herman in order to persuade him to cease such cruelty toward his disciple, The Elder responded with words from the Gospel: Ye know not the things that be of God but those that be of men! Realizing that the elder was acting thus out of spiritual wisdom, the monks departed, marvelling at Daniel's perseverance and his devotion to the elder.

After living for many years with Fr. Herman, Daniel attained to a profound humility and was granted gifts of grace. Once, when still a novice, he was stoking the bread oven and, in raking the embers, he dropped the poker, which had been poorly attached to its wooden handle. The fire in the oven was blazing. Turning to his elder, Daniel cried out, "Forgive me, father, I have sinned. The poker fell off its handle!" "Reach in and get it!" the elder ordered sternly. "Bless me," said the novice. "God bless you," replied the elder. At once Daniel jumped into the oven and, thrusting his bare hands into the burning embers, retrieved the red-hot poker-without suffering any burns! News of this miracle spread rapidly all over the Holy Mountain. Daniel, unwilling to be the subject of general attention, left his elder and lived in obscurity for a time, until the incident's renown died out.

Daniel lived with his elder in the kellion of St Artemios for two years. They spent the next year at the Serbian monastery of Chilandar, then a year on Karoulia. From there they moved to Karasia, where they lived for seven years, finally settling in St Anne's Skete. They had lived there, in the kellion of the Holy Resurrection, for fifteen years when the Elder Herman reposed.

In his early years on Mt. Athos, Daniel endured a great deal, not only from the elder but even more from those calamities that befell the Holy Mountain at that time. It was the time of the Greek Revolution. The hermits were reduced to dire circumstances: there was no bread, and they sustained themselves on wild grasses and chestnuts. The latter they ground into a meal, but it was very powdery and required the addition of wheat flour in order to hold together for bread. Even then the product was barely digestible, and only extreme hunger compelled the hermits to eat it. Hunger and want often reduced Fr. Daniel to ask for alms at one of the monasteries, if only to obtain some bread for his elder. Once he managed to get some wheat and was carrying it on his shoulders into the wilderness. He went at night so as to avoid meeting up with robbers, but his precaution was in vain. He was attacked; the robbers took his wheat and demanded money. After beating him, they realized that indeed he had nothing, and they let him go.

On another occasion, when Daniel went off in search of provisions, he again fell into the hands of some robbers, who already held three monks captive. Coming to the shore, the robbers began leading their prisoners onto a boat, intending to take them away and sell them into slavery. Daniel, who was of slight build, fell in tears at the feet of the captain and begged him to leave him there on Mt. Athos, or, if he wished, to cut off his head at once. The captain pushed him away, figuring, no doubt, that such a small man would never fetch a decent price. He climbed into the boat, and it pulled away from shore, leaving Daniel free to return to his elder.

This incident was soon followed by yet another. At that time Daniel and his elder were living in Kerasia, in the kellion of Saint John the Theologian. In the neighboring kellion of Saint George, lived a hieromonk, who was also poverty-stricken and lacked sufficient food. To allay his hunger, he would go down to the sea at night and fish. One night some robbers seized him and forced him to take them to his cell. Taking everything there that they could, they proceeded to ransack the neighboring kellia as well. Not finding anything at Elder Herman's, they compelled him and his disciple to carry their loot to the shore. There, for some reason, they paid no further attention to Fr. Herman and Fr. Daniel, but they took the hieromonk with them.

Upon the death of his elder, Fr. Daniel moved into a cave above St Anne's Skete. In climbing up to the cave, one had to go sideways, and even then it was hard to avoid being scraped by rocks. The cave itself was so cramped that on entering one had to sit down. On the floor stood a platform; here the elder rested and here he sat while occupied with handiwork or reading-he had a good collection of books.

"Once two of us [from a note by Fr. Panteleimon] accompanied the elder to this cave. After he had settled near the window and my companion had squeezed in next to him, there was no place left for me. When I did step in, the door wouldn't shut until I had moved in tight against the others. In the corner of the eastern wall there was a niche with some icons and books; next to them was the skull of Elder Herman. During our conversation, Fr. Daniel pointed to the skull and, crossing his arms on his chest, said meekly,

'I do nothing, I have no good deeds, my only hope is in the mercy of God and the prayers of the elder. How else can I justify myself?'
Fr. Daniel's appearance, everything he did and said, reflected his profound humility."

"In the summer of 1870, we visited Fr. Daniel and saw that near the cave some trees had been chopped down and there stood a small hut. It had been rather roughly constructed by a man who felt sorry for the elder's sickly condition, brought on by the cave's dampness. The dwelling drew the elder out of his reclusion and he went to Karyes to purchase some materials - his first such expedition in thirty years.

"Having visited the elder now and again, and knowing how strictly he avoided giving any advice or instruction, we tried to draw out some recollections of his life experiences by posing various questions. For the most part he declined to respond, but he did answer some simple questions."

"'When we are beset by temptations," said the elder, 'we should thank God, because He sends them for our benefit, and He does not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. If we murmur, the temptations will intensify. When someone resists a trial or thinks to run away from it, he is sure to encounter a worse trial. One must endure, one must endure. The holy martyrs shed their blood for Christ; we should at least expend some labor and sweat. Through trials a man gains experience and progress towards perfection. One must labor and pray!'"

"'Can one pray alike when one is at peace and when one is disturbed by some anxiety or grief?'"

"'This is for spiritual fathers to judge. I am a simple man,' the elder replied. "'

"But we are not addressing you as a spiritual father. We are simply asking. After all, in the past you yourself have undoubtedly experienced periods of grief, so you must know about this."

"'In a state of grief,' he replied, 'a man turns to God in tears and Christ is his comfort. As great as his grief, so great is the measure of comfort that comes from the Lord.'"

"Is it true that hesychasts, as we have heard, cannot remain more than three days and nights in uninterrupted contemplation and prayer, even when they are visited by grace?"

"'Yes," replied the elder, 'some movement is needed so as not to succumb to indolence. But this is only true for the weak; it does not apply to those who have tasted the fruit of silence.'

"'Why, can they maintain such a state of prayer longer than three days without leaving their cell?" we asked. 'How do they do it?'

"'They can...' The elder evidently wanted to say more but cut himself short. Then he added, 'In the desert one must constantly war against enemies that wage a cruel warfare with ascetics. It is a hand-to-hand combat, and their cunning and demonic malice make it very dangerous. Those who live among people are distracted by all kinds of diversions, and because of this their spiritual warfare is not as fierce.'"

Elder Daniel was Greek, but he was so fluent in Serbian that many took him for a Serb. The gifts of grace with which he was endowed were seldom detected; it was evident that he purposely kept them concealed.

At the top of Katounaki lived a Moldavian elder by the name of Cosmas. His life was austere, but he bore it with cheerful equanimity. At one time he was overcome by a terrible oppression, and he was unable to find any relief, even in prayer. In this state he went into the woods in search of some soft wood suitable for carving. There he encountered a gaunt elder of small stature with a sparse beard and shabbily dressed. He bowed to the elder, not knowing that this was Fr. Daniel. Suddenly he sensed within himself a dramatic change: the heaviness was gone from his soul, and it was suffused with a quiet joy and light. Cosmas understood at once that here was a grace-filled elder and that he had mentally prayed for him, having spiritually perceived his troubled state of soul. However, no sooner had he approached the elder, trying to express with gestures his gratitude (Cosmas did not speak Greek), than the elder rapidly withdrew and was lost to sight.

A few years later, this same Cosmas was sick and in need of some fresh cucumbers to treat his illness. Knowing that they could be obtained only at Saint Paul's Monastery, he went there, but because he did not speak Greek and therefore could not explain just why he needed the cucumbers, his request was denied. Returning to his hermitage, he had already ascended a fair distance above Saint Anne's Skete when he heard someone swiftly catching up with him from behind. It was Elder Daniel. As though oblivious of his age, he soon overtook Cosmas on the steep slope. Cosmas bowed to the elder, who took from his bosom six fresh cucumbers, just picked, and stuffed them into Cosmas's bag. Without a word of explanation, he turned and proceeded back down the mountain to his cave, leaving the bewildered Cosmas wondering what was more amazing: the fact that the elder had perceived his grief and need of the cucumbers, or the fact that he had obtained the cucumbers at all, for neither Fr. Daniel nor anyone else in the area had any-and they had just been picked!

Some months passed, and Fr. Cosmas, weighed down by a heavy sack, was climbing up that same steep slope on the way to his hut. It was winter, cold and threatening. A light snow began to fall. Mustering his strength, he increased his pace in order to reach home before dark. He had climbed some distance when conditions worsened: the snow was coming down thick and fast, visibility was poor, and his strength was utterly spent. Wet to the bone and with no change of clothes, Fr. Cosmas began looking around for some shelter. He discerned nearby a large rock and decided to sit down beside it-and what did he find there? Curled up, almost like a ball, in his tattered clothing, barefoot and without any covering, lay the elder Daniel. Cosmas, whose past experience had led him to regard the elder as a grace-filled protector, slipped off his bag and, placing it under his head as a pillow, lay down beside the elder. The storm continued, the cold intensified, and the blanket of snow thickened, but, lying near the elder, Cosmas soon felt warm, as warm as if he were in a heated room. And so he remained until morning. When he awoke, the elder was already gone. Where he had lain there was no snow, and the ground was perfectly dry.

According to Fr. Euthymius of the Ioasaf brotherhood in Kavsokalyvia, Elder Daniel was an ascetic of a caliber no longer to be found. The elder reached the end of his earthly life there in his cave near the kelli of St Artemius, above Saint Anne's Skete, on 19 July 1879.

From orthodox America.
Translated from Zhizneopisaniya Afonskikh Podvizhnikov Blagochestiye XIX veka, by Hieromonk Antony (Sviatogorets), Jordanville, 1988.

Note: One should not confuse Elder Daniel the Greek with a later Elder Daniel (1846-1929) also of Katounakia, a learned hermit whose inspiring life is related by Archimandrite Cherubim in Contempoary Ascetics of Mount Athos, vol. 1, Saint Herman Press, Platina, 1991.

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