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Joseph of Volokolamsk

The Venerable Joseph of Volokolamsk, also known as Joseph of Volotsk or Joseph Volotsky (Russian: Ио́сиф Во́лоцкий) was an abbot and theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He led the party advocating monastic landownership that took his name as the "Josephites". He is commemorated on September 9 and February 13.


Ivan Sanin (Russian: Ива́н Са́нин) born in Volokolamsk Principality, on November 14, 1439, to a family of landowners that owned the village of Yazvisch-Pokrov. His father's name was John and his mother Marina. At the age of seven, Ivan was sent to be educated by the Elder Arsenius at the Monastery of the Volokoloamsk-Exaltation of the Cross. At the monastery, John displayed rare qualities and an extraordinary aptitude for church service. In 1459, John joined the Monastery of Tver Savvin under the Elder, and strict ascetic, Barsanuphius. Finding the monastic rule not strict enough, he left, with the blessing of Barsanuphius, and joined St. Paphnutius of Borov in Borov. On February 13, 1460, John was tonsured a monk at Borov Monastery, taking the monastic name Joseph.

The young monk Joseph shouldered the heavy obediences placed on him with love and zeal, with the duties of ecclesiarch that St. Paphnutius had assigned. Before he died, St. Paphnutius ordained Joseph a hieromonk. After the death of St. Paphnutius in 1477, Joseph became igumen and began to transform monastic life at the monastery along strict cenobitic principles. A majority of the monks, however, strongly objected to Joseph's leadership. Visiting a number of Russian cenobitic monasteries, including the St. Cyril of White Lake Monastery with the Elder Gerasimus, only strengthened his views on monastic life.

Returning to Borov at the wish of the prince, St. Joseph continued to encounter the resistance from the brethren. He, thus, resolved to start a new monastery with a strict cenobitic rule. With seven like-minded monks he returned to Volokolamsk where, with the approval of Prince Boris Vasilievich the brother of Grand Prince Ivan III, St. Joseph founded within Prince Boris' principality the Monastery of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God at the confluence of the Rivers Struga and Sestra. The date August 15, 1479, with the consecration of the wooden Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, marked the founding of this monastery that later gained the name Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery, after its founder.

The monastery rose quickly, as St. Joseph, a skilled builder himself, joined with everyone in its construction. Reports of the quality of asceticism and his example of an ascetic life of temperance and spiritual sobriety brought new monks to the monastery. He led a strict cenobitic life in accord with the Rule he compiled, to which all the services and obediences of the monks were subordinated. It governed their whole life, "whether in their comings or goings, their words or their deeds." At the core of the rule was total non-covetousness, detachment from one's own will, and constant work. The brethren possessed everything in common: clothing, footwear, food and other things.

Over the following years the monastery grew. Stone and heated churches were built as the monastery trained a school of renowned monks. Among his disciples and followers were Metropolitans Daniel and Macarius of Moscow, Archbishop Bassian of Rostov, and Bishops Simeon of Suzdal, Dositheus of Krutitsa, and Sava of Krutitsa, called Black.

Under St. Joseph's leadership his monastery became the center of the lives of the common people of the surrounding area, providing the means for sustaining their existence when they came into extreme need.

In 1470, a preacher Skhariya (Zachariah), who came to Novgorod in the retinue of the Lithuanian prince Michael Olelkovich, played on the deficiencies of faith and learning of certain clergy with the idea of self-determination of ones faith and salvation. These ideas led to a disdain of basic elements of Orthodox popular morality: rejection of holy icons and veneration of saints and ultimately to the fundamental teachings of Orthodox Christianity. The proponents of these ideas became known a Judaizers. Their influence reached to the Grand Prince Ivan III who introduced them to Moscow. In Moscow, he placed two in positions as archpriests at the Cathedrals of the Dormition and Michael the Archangel in the Kremlin. Eventually, an heretical Metropolitan Zosimas was installed in the see of Moscow.

St. Joseph, with Gennadius of Novgorod, led the struggle against the spread of this heresy. Joseph first epistle, "Concerning the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity" attacking the heresy, was written in 1477 while he was a monk at the Paphnutiev Borov monastery. At the Dormition Volokolamsk monastery, he wrote his main works, including "The Enlightener" (Просветитель), as the monastery became the bulwark of Orthodoxy in the fight against the Judaizers. Through the works of St Joseph and Arch. Gannadius success was gained in defeating the heresy. In 1494, the heretic Zosimas was deposed. At local councils of 1501 to 1504, the heresy of the Judaizers was condemned.

During the struggle, St. Joseph bore other trials and tribulations. He angered the Grand Prince Ivan III, who only repented his weakness and came to a reconciliation with Joseph only near the end of his life. Joseph also drew the ire of the Volotsk appenage prince Theodore, on whose lands the Volokolamsk Monastery stood.

Joseph advocated the position that "all church-acquired property is essentially the acquired property of God, pledged, entrusted, and given to God." There developed opinions about the differences of outlook and discord between the two pedagogues of Russian monasticism, Ss, Joseph of Volotsk and Nilus of Sora, at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries. In the historical literature these views usually present them as proclaiming two "contrary" currents within Russian spiritual life: external action and inner contemplation. This is profoundly incorrect. St Joseph in his Rule developed these two aspects of Russian monastic tradition, proceeding without interruption from the Athonite blessing given to St. Anthony of the Kiev Caves, through St. Sergius, and down to our own day.

Ss. Joseph and Nilus are spiritual brothers, in that spiritual work and physical work are but two aspects of the same Christian vocation: a vital continuation of the creative activity of God in the world, encompassing as much the ideal as well as the material spheres.

St. Joseph was an active proponent of a strong centralized Moscow realm. He was among the originators of the position about the Russian Church as the recipient and bearer of the piety of the Byzantine Empire. The views of the Josephites on the significance of monasteries possessing properties for church building, and the participation of the Church in social life, were set amidst the struggle for centralized power by the Moscow prince. His opponents were separatists who tried to disparage these views for their own political ends and surreptitiously used the teaching of St Nilus of Sora about "non-acquisitiveness," the withdrawal of monastics from worldly matters and possessions. This supposed opposition engendered a false view on hostility between the trends of Ss. Joseph and Nilus. Both trends legitimately coexisted within the Russian monastic Tradition, complementing each other. As is evidenced from the Rule of St. Joseph, its basis was complete non-acquisitiveness, and renunciation of the very concepts of "yours-mine."

St. Joseph fell asleep peacefully in the Lord on September 9, 1515. Local celebration of St. Joseph began at the Volokolamsk monastery in December 1578, on the hundred year anniversary of the founding of the monastery. On June 1, 1591, the church-wide celebration of his memory was established under Patriarch Job.