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Joseph of Volokolamsk


JOSEPH OF VOLOKOLAMSK (14391515), born Ivan Sanin, was a Russian Orthodox monastic saint. Joseph succeeded his spiritual father, Pafnutii, as abbot of the Borovsk monastery in 1477. But the reforms toward a stricter form of communal life that he sought there did not find favor with his community, and Joseph undertook an extensive tour of Russian monasteries in search of alternative models. Ultimately Joseph established an entirely new monastery at Volok or Volokolamsk (1479), where he remained for the rest of his life.

Since his early years at Volok, Joseph had been involved in politics, campaigning against the widespread reformationist heresy of the so-called Judaizers, the Novgorodian-Muscovite opponents of church order and Trinitarian teaching. Joseph was to urge consistently (and in 1504 finally attain) the physical elimination of the leading heretics at the hands of the state. In his view, even professions of repentance should not allow heretics to be spared. Joseph's zeal in this regard was expressed in his Prosvetitel' (The enlightener, c. 15021503; expanded version, c. 1511), a compilation of antiheretical writings. In 1507 Joseph transferred the allegiance of his now influential monastery to the Muscovite grand prince, a serious breach of ecclesiastical discipline, resulting in alienation from the Novgorodian archbishop.

More positive and more lasting than his work against heretics was Joseph's contribution to the shaping of Russian monastic discipline and piety. He composed two rules, the second (and longer) of which dates from his final years. The aim of each was to ensure sobriety and discipline in liturgy and daily life. Poverty was enjoined on the individual monk. Yet the community as a whole was expected to flourish for the service of society at large, especially at times of dearth or distress. As many as seven thousand people would be fed daily during a famine; an orphanage for fifty children was regularly maintained. The orderly and dutiful expression of Christian philanthropy was Joseph's dominant concern and principal contribution to Russian Orthodox tradition.

Joseph was the foremost proponent of the Possessors' school of thought; he insisted that monastics should own land and he effectively countered the contrary claim of certain Orthodox ascetics and of Ivan III (14401505). The Moscow church council of 1503 heeded Joseph and decided the question in favor of the Possessors. Had it been otherwise, Joseph might have felt impelled to act in accordance with the daring principle that obedience to a ruler was conditional on the ruler's righteousness, which he had enunciated earlier. An unjust ruler is "no tsar, but a tyrant." In the words of Georges Florovsky (18931979), Joseph bordered here on "justification of regicide." In fact, Joseph was to become ever more dependable a collaborator of the state.

It was Joseph's hope that his monastery would attract well-born postulants and that these would provide the bishops of the future. His expectations were fulfilled in the course of the sixteenth century. By the end of it his posthumous reputation was firmly established, and his local canonization (1578) was followed by the proclamation of his sanctity by the Russian Orthodox church as a whole in 1591.


Joseph's Prosvetitel' was edited (anonymously) by Ivan I. Porfir'ev as Prosvetitel' ili oblichenie eresi zhidovstvuiushchikh: Tvorenie prepodobnago ottsa nashego Iosifa, igumena Volotskago (Kazan, 1857); while his prolific correspondence appeared more recently as Poslaniia Iosifa Volotskogo, edited by Aleksandr A. Zimin and Iakov S. Lur'e (Leningrad, 1959). Only one of Joseph's major writings has been translated into English: The Monastic Rule of Joseph of Volokolamsk, translated and edited by David Goldfrank (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1983). His spiritual counsels and regulations are surveyed in an orderly manner in Thomas Spidlík's Joseph de Volokolamsk: Un chapitre de la spiritualité russe, "Orientalia Christiana Analecta," no. 146 (Rome, 1956).

Sergei Hackel (1987)

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