Sunday, May 01, 1994

RIP: Brother Cleopa

Bucharest - Brother Cleopa, an orthodox monk who once fled Communist pressure by becoming an anchorite in Romania’s forests, died last week in the remote monastery where his down-to-earth teachings came to attract large and steady streams of pilgrims. He was 87. Romanian Orthodox officials in Bucharest, who reported his death on Thursday, said he succumbed to the illnesses of age. He was to be buried at the 14th century Sihastra Monastery, 200 miles north of Bucharest, where an amphitheater was constructed after 1989 to accomodate the growing number of visitors eager to hear Brother Cleopa’s teachings. In accordance with a tradition traced to Saint Gregory of Sinai, a 14th century saint, Orthodox officials said Brother Cleopa’s body will be lowered directly into the ground seated on a small stool as a mark of respect for a life of particular ascetiscism. In an article posted recently on a Romanian language Web site devoted to Brother Cleopa’s teaching, he was described at a recent appearance as being frail as he greeted visitors while being carried by younger monks. “I am Uncle Moldy,” he was quoted as saying, “with one foot in the grave and the other on Earth.” Then he declared, “Life is a fight against the body, the world, the devil and death.” A child of illiterate peasants who was born in northern Romania, Brother Cleopa entered the Sihastra Monastery in 1934 at age 25, taking a single name as is customary for monks. As he cared for the monastery’s sheep, he quickly gained respect within the religious community for his remarkable memory. “He could recite long sections of Scripture and the teachings of the church fathers by heart,” recalled the Rev. Roman Braga, a 77-year-old priest who is the spiritual leader at a Romanian Orthodox convent in Rives Junction, Michigan, the Dormition of the Mother of God. “I met Brother Cleopa in between my prison terms,” said Braga, who spent 11 years in custody in Communist Romania. “I had heard of him and traveled to see him in the early 1950s. He was not highly educated, but he was able to speak in simple ways that were at the same time very deep and went to the heart of his listeners. He spoke of ordinary things but in ways that made you think of God. I remember how joyful he was. He kept saying that life was a gift, and he had his special way of greeting you; he would say, “May Heaven consume you.” By the time Braga met the monk, Brother Cleopa had returned from his years of solitude. As Braga told the story, the monk had spent 12 years as a sheperd when the old abbot of Sihastra died. The monks elected Brother Cleopa to be the new abbot. After that, his reputation spread, and people began traveling to the remote monastery to seek his absolution and guidance. After 1948, when the Communist Party consolidated its control over Romania, such visits brought Brother Cleopa to the attention of state authorities, police and even some fellow churchmen. “He was told to tell the people who were coming to see him to go away, to stop coming, but he could not do that,” said Braga. “Instead, sometime around 1950, he left the monastery and became a hermit. He went into the mountain forests, living in solitude in an underground den he built. Woodsmen brought him sacks of potatoes each month, and every day he would eat one potato.” Braga said that after Stalin died in 1953, pressure on the Orthodox Church was eased, and Brother Cleopa was able to return to the monastery. His reputation for wisdom and good humor grew, and so, too, did the number of visitors, first during the years that the country was ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu and then even more markedly after the fall of the dictator in 1989. In the last decade of his life, brother Cleopa was invited to lecture at universities. His sermons were gathered and published under the title “Talks with Brother Cleopa” and were posted on the Internet. Some were translated into English and were published in Sobornost, an ecumenical Orthodox and Anglican journal published in Oxford.
- New York Times