The Monk Joseph of Volotsk, in the world John (Ioann) Sanin, was born on 14 November 1440 (1439 per another source) in the village of Yazvisch-Pokrov, not far from the city of Volokolamsk. He was born into a pious family with his father named Ioann (in monasticism Ioannikii) and Mother Marina (in schema Maria). The seven year old lad John was given over for education to the pious and enlightened starets (elder) of the Volokolamsk Kresto-Vozdvizhensk (Exaltation of the Cross) monastery, Arsenii. Distinguished by rare qualities and extraordinary aptitude for church service, for one year the talented lad studied the Psalter, and the following year – the entire Holy Scripture. He became a reader and singer in the monastery church. Contemporaries were astonished at his exceptional memory. Often, without having in his cell a single book, he would do the monastic rule, reciting from memory from the Psalter, the Gospel, the Epistles, and all that was properly required.
Even before becoming a monk, John lived a monastic lifestyle. Thanks to his reading and studying of Holy Scripture and the works of the holy fathers, he dwelt constantly in thought about God. As his biographer notes, he "from his boyhood years much disdained obscene and blasphemous talk and endless mirth".
At twenty years of age John chose the path of monastic striving and, leaving from his parental home, he went off into the wilderness nigh to the Tver Savvin monastery, to the reknown starets and strict ascetic, Varsonophii. But the monastic rule seemed to the young ascetic insufficiently strict. With the blessing of Starets Varsonophii, he set off to Borovsk to the Monk Paphnutii of Borovsk, who had been a novice of the starets Nikita of the Vysotsk monastery, who in turn was a disciple of the Monks Sergei of Radonezh and Athanasii (Afanasii) of Vysotsk. The simple life of the holy starets, the tasks which he shared with the brethren, and the strict fulfilling of the monastic rule suited the state of soul of John. The Monk Paphnutii lovingly accepted the young ascetic who had come to him, and on 13 February 1460 he tonsured him into monasticism with the name Joseph (Iosif), thus realising John's greatest wish. With love and with zeal the young monk shouldered the heavy obediences imposed upon him – in the kitchen, the bakery, the infirmary – this latter obedience the Monk Joseph fulfilled with especial care, "giving food and drink to the sick, taking up and arranging the bedding, so very anxious and concerned with everything, working, as though attending to Christ Himself". The great spiritual abilities of the young monk were evidenced in the Church reading and singing. He was musically talented and possessed a voice such that "in the church singing and reading it was like that of a swallow and wondrously harmonious, delighting the hearing of listeners, as much as anyone anywhere". The Monk Paphnutii made Joseph "ecclesiarch" (church doorsman) in church, so that he would observe the fulfilling of the Church ustav (rule).
Joseph spent about seventeen years in the monastery of the Monk Paphnutii. The strict efforts of monastic obedience under the direct guidance of the experienced hegumen was for him an excellent spiritual schooling, having educated him into a future tested instructor and guide of monastic life. Towards the end of the life of the Monk Paphnutii (+ 1 May 1477) Joseph was ordained priestmonk and, in accord with the final wishes of the Monk Paphnutii, he was appointed hegumen of the Borovsk monastery.
The Monk Joseph decided to transform the monastic life along strictly coenobitic (life-in-common) principles, following the example of the Kievo-Pechersk, Trinity-Sergiev and Kirillo-Belozersk monasteries. But this met with strong opposition on the side of a majority of the brethren. Only seven pious monks were of the same mind with the hegumen. The Monk Joseph decided to visit at Russian coenobitic monasteries, so as to investigate the best arrangement for monastic life. He arrived together with the starets Gerasim at the Kirillo-Belozersk monastery, which itself presented a model of strict asceticism on the principles of a coenobitic ustav (monastery rule). His acquaintance with the life of these monasteries strengthened the views of the Monk Joseph. But, having returned to Borovsk monastery at the wish of the prince, the Monk Joseph encountered anew the former staunch resistance of the brethren to change from their customary ustav‑rule as hermits. Therewith, having resolved to found a new monastery with a strict coenobitic rule, he set off with the seven like-minded monks to Volokolamsk, his native region, to a forest known to him since childhood.
In Volokolamsk at the time the prince was the pious brother of GreatPrince Ivan III, Boris Vasil'evich. Having heard about the virtuous life of the great ascetic Joseph, he gladly received him and allowed him to settle on the outskirts of his principality, at the confluence of the Rivers Struga and Sestra. The selection of this spot was accompanied by a remarkable occurrence: a storm whipping up blew down the trees before the eyes of the astonished travellers, as though clearing the place for the future monastery. And right here it was that the ascetics in June 1479 erected a cross and sited a wooden church in honour of the Uspenie (Dormition) of the Mother of God, consecrated on 15 August 1479. This day and year stand in history as the date of the founding of the monastery of the Uspenie of the MostHoly Mother of God as "volok' lamsk" ("broken-up peninsula"), later named after its founder. The monastery was built quite quickly. Much of the work in the construction of the monastery was taken on by the founder himself. "He was skilled in every human craft: he felled trees, carried logs, he chopped and he sawed". By day he toiled with everyone at the monastery construction, nights he spent in solitary cell prayer, remembering always, that "the carnal desires of the lazy can kill" (Prov. 21: 25). Good reports about the new ascetic attracted students to him. The number of monks soon increased to an hundred men, and Abba Joseph strove in everything to be a good example for his monks. Preaching temperance and spiritual sobriety in everything, he was in no way externally distinct from the others – his simple, cold-weather tatters were his constant clothing, and bast-shoes served as his footwear. He was the first of anyone to appear in church, he read and sang in the choir alongside the others, he spoke an instruction and was the last to leave church. At nights the holy hegumen walked round the monastery and the cells, safeguarding the peace and prayerful sobriety of the brethren entrusted him by God; if he changed to hear a frivolous conversation, he rapped on the door and unassumingly withdrew.
The Monk Joseph devoted great attention to the inner ordering of the life of the monks. He himself led a strict common-form life in accord with the "ustav" ("rule") compiled by him, to which all the services and obediences of the monks were subordinated, and it governed their whole life: "whether in their comings or goings, their words or their deeds". At the core of the Ustav was total non-covetousness, detachment from one's own will together with constant work. The brethren possessed everything in common: clothing, footwear, food and other things. Without the blessing of the hegumen, none of the brethren could take anything into their cell, not even a book or an icon. Part of the refectory meal of the monks through general consent was given away to the poor. Work, prayer, spiritual efforts filled the life of the brethren. The Jesus Prayer never vanished from their lips. Festivity was viewed by Abba Joseph as a chief weapon for demonic seduction. The Monk Joseph invariably imposed upon himself quite burdensome obediences. The monastery was much occupied with copyist transcription of Divine-service books and those of the holy fathers, such that the Volokolamsk book collection soon became one of the finest of Russian monastic libraries.
With each passing year the monastery of the Monk Joseph flourished all the more. In the years 1484-1485 a stone church of the Uspenie of the Mother of God was erected in place of the wooden one. In the Summer of 1485 "artistic masters of the Russian land" painted within it, – Dionysii the Iconographer with his sons Vladimir and Theodosii. In the icon fresco-painting of the church participated also the Monk Joseph's nephews and disciples – Dosithei and Vassian Toporkov. In 1504 was set up an heated refectory church in honour of the Holy Theophany, then a bell-tower was erected and by it – a temple in the name of the Hodegetria MostHoly Mother of God.
The Monk Joseph trained a whole school of reknown monks. Certain of them gained reknown in the arena of church-historical activity – they were "good pastors", while yet others gained fame with works of enlightenment, some left after them a devout memory and were a worthy example to be imitated with their pious monastic efforts. History has preserved for us the names of many disciples and co-ascetics of the holy Volokolamsk hegumen, who afterwards continued to develope his ideas.
Among the disciples and followers of the Monk Joseph were: the Metropolitans of Moscow and All Rus' – Daniel (+ 1539) and Makarii (+ 1563), the Archbishop of Rostov Vassian (+ 1515), the Bishops of Suzdal' – Simeon (+ 1515), Dosithei of Krutitsk (+ 1544), Savva of Krutitsk termed the Swarthy, Akakii of Tver, Vassian of Kolometsk, and many others. Monastics of the Iosifo-Volokolamsk monastery preeminently occupied the most important archbishop cathedra-chairs of the Russian Church: Sainted-Hierarchs of Kazan – Gurii (+ 1563, Comm. 5 December) and German (+ 1567, Comm. 6 November), and Sainted Varsonophii, Bishop of Tver (+ 1576, Comm. 11 April).
The activity and influence of the Monk Joseph were not limited to the monastery. Many a layperson went to him to receive advice. With a pure spiritual insight he penetrated into the deep secrets of the souls of questioners and perspicaciously revealed to them the will of God. Everyone living around the monastery considered him their spiritual father and protector. Eminent boyar-nobles and princes took him as god-father for their children, they revealed to him their souls in confession, they besought written letters of guidance for fulfilling his directives.
The common folk found at the monastery of the monk the means for sustaining their existence on occasions of extreme need. The number of those fed through monastery resources sometimes approached 700 people. "All the Volotsk land towards good doth wend, enjoying indeed peace and quiet. And the name Joseph, as something sacred, is carried about on the lips of all".
The monastery was famed not only for its piety and help for the suffering, but also for its manifestations of the grace of God. The righteous monk Vissarion once beheld at the Matins-service of great Saturday [i.e. Friday evening] the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove, sitting upon the Plaschanitsa, which was being carried by the Monk Abba Joseph. The hegumen, bidding the monk to keep silent about the vision, himself rejoiced in spirit, hoping that God would not forsake the monastery. This monk had seen the souls of dying brethren, white like snow, issuing forth from their mouths. To him himself was revealed the day of his end, and he reposed with joy, having communed the Holy Mysteries and assuming the schema.
The saintly life of Abba Joseph was neither easy nor placid. In these difficult times for the Russian Church, the Lord raised him up as a zealous protagonist for Orthodoxy in the struggle with heresies and churchly disputes. The Monk Joseph exerted quite a great effort in denunciation of the Judaisers, who tried to poison and distort the foundations of Russian spiritual life. Just as the holy fathers and teachers of the OEcumenical Church had elaborated on the dogmas of Orthodoxy in responding against the ancient heresies (which contended against the Spirit, Christ, or icons), so also Saint Joseph was summoned forth by God to oppose the false teachings of the Judaisers and therein compile the first codex of Russian Orthodox theology – his large book "The Enlightener" ("Prosvetitel'"). Already even far earlier preachers from among the Khozars had come to the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Vladimir (Comm. 15 July), trying to convert him to Judaism. But the great Baptiser of Rus' repudiated the pretensions of the rabbis. After this, the Monk Joseph writes, "the Great Russian land dwelt for five centuries in the Orthodox faith, until the enemy of salvation the devil, shouldst bring the cunning Jew to Great Novgorod". With the retinue of the Lithuanian prince Mikail Olel'kovich came to Novgorod in 1470 the Jewish preacher Skhariya (Zakhariya). Playing upon the inadequacies of faith and of learning on the part of certain of the clergy, Skhariya and his accomplices sowed distrust among the petty-minded towards the church hierarchy, they inclined them towards a revolt against the spiritual authorities, they tempted them with the idea of "self-authority", i.e. a personal capricious self-determination of each in matters of faith and salvation. Those they tempted gradually pushed towards a full break with Mother Church, they disdained holy icons, and repudiated veneration of the Saints, – basic elements of Orthodox popular morality. Ultimately, they led the religiously blind and deluded to a denial of the saving Sacramental-Mysteries and the fundamental dogmas of Orthodoxy, outside of which there is no knowing of God – the dogma of the MostHoly Trinity and the dogma of the Incarnation of the God-man our Lord Jesus Christ. If decisive measures were not taken – "it would be the doom for all Orthodox Christianity from heretical teachings". Thus was posited the question by history. GreatPrince Ivan III, enticed by the Judaisers, invited them to Moscow; he had two of the most prominent of the heretics made archpriests – one at the Uspensky, the other at the Arkhangelsky cathedrals of the Kremlin, and he summoned to Moscow even the arch-heretic Skhariya himself. All those close to the prince, beginning with the clerk heading the government, Theodore (Feodor) Kuritsyn – whose brother became a ringleader of the heretics, were led astray by the heresy. Even the in-law of the great prince, Elena Voloshanka, accepted the Judaisers. And finally, upon the cathedra-chair of the great Moscow Sainted-hierarchs Peter, Alexei and Jona, was installed the heretical metropolitan Zosima.
The Monk Joseph and Sainted Gennadii, Bishop of Novgorod (+ 1505, Comm. 4 December), called for a struggle against the spread of the heresy. The Monk Joseph wrote his first missive "Concerning the Mystery of the MostHoly Trinity" while still a monk at the Paphnut'ev Borovsk monastery – in the year 1477. The Uspensk Volokolamsk monastery became from the very beginning a bulwark of Orthodoxy in the struggle with the heresy. Here it was that Saint Joseph wrote his chief works, here emerged "The Enlightener", here were engendered his fiery anti-heretical missives, or as the monk himself unassumingly called them, "Book-exercises". The works of the Monk Joseph and holy Archbishop Gennadii were crowned with success. In 1494 the heretic Zosima was deposed from the hierarch's cathedra, and in the years 1502-1504 at a conciliar gathering were condemned the malicious and unrepentant Judaisers, who blasphemed against the Holy Trinity, Christ the Saviour, the MostHoly Mother of God and the Church.
Saint Joseph had many another trial and tribulation sent him – but the Lord each time tried him in the measure of his spiritual strength. The saint angered the GreatPrince Ivan III, who only towards the end of his life reconciled with the saint and repented of his former weakness for the Judaisers. The saint angered also the Volotsk appenage prince Theodore, on whose lands Joseph's monastery was situated. In 1508 the monk suffered wrongful interdiction from Sainted Serapion, Archbishop of Novgorod (Comm. 16 March), with whom however he apparently soon reconciled. In 1503 a Sobor (Council) at Moscow under the auspices of the Monk Joseph and his disciples adopted a "Conciliar Answer" concerning the indissolubility of church properties: "wherefore all church-acquired property – is essentially the acquired property of God, pledged, entrusted and given to God". The legacy of canonic works of the Volotsk hegumen is notably in "The Nomocanon Codex" – a vast codex of canonical rules of the Orthodox Church, initiated by the Monk Joseph and completed by Metropolitan Makarii.
Views exist about the differences of outlook and discord between the two great pedagogues of Russian monasticism at the end-XV beginning XVI Centuries – the Monk Joseph of Volotsk and the Monk Nil of Sorgsk (+ 1508, Comm. 7 May). In the historical literature these views usually present them as proclaiming two "contrary in position" currents within Russian spiritual life – external action and inner contemplation. This is profoundly incorrect. The Monk Joseph in his "Ustav" gave synthesis to these two aspects in the Russian monastic tradition, proceeding without interruption from the Athonite blessing given to the Monk Antonii of Pechersk, through the Monk Sergei and down to our own day. The "Ustav" presupposes the need for a full inward regeneration of man, submitting one's whole life to the task of salvation and "deification" ("obozhenie", Grk. "theosis") not only for each individual monastic, but also the collective salvation of the whole human race. A great emphasis in the "Ustav" is put on the demand to monastics for constant work in conjuction with inward and churchly prayer: "the monk should never be on holiday". Work, as "a collective deed", comprised for Joseph the very essence of church life – faith, embodied in good works, is the realisation of prayer. On the other side, the Monk Nil Sorsky had himself asceticised for a number of years on Athos, and he brought from there the teaching about the contemplative life and "Mental Prayer" [i.e. the Jesus Prayer] as a means of an hesychiast service of monks to the world, as a constant spiritual activity, in conjuction with the physical work necessary for sustaining one's life. But spiritual work and physical work – are two sides of the one selfsame Christian vocation: a vital continuation of the creative activity of God in the world, encompassing as much the ideal as well as material spheres. In this regard the Monks Joseph and Nil – are spiritual brothers, varied in continuing the Church tradition of the holy fathers, and heirs to the precepts of the Monk Sergei of Radonezh. The Monk Joseph highly esteemed the spiritual experience of the Monk Nil and dispatched his own disciples to him for study of the experience of inner prayer.
The Monk Joseph was an active social activist and proponent of a strong centralised Moscow realm. He was one of the instigators of the teaching about the Russian Church as the recipient and bearer of the ancient OEcumenical piety: "the Russian land now in piety hath surpassed all". The ideas of the Monk Joseph, possessing tremendous historical significance, were later on further developed by his students and followers. And from them came forth, with his own teaching about Moscow as Third Rome, the Pskov Spaso-Eleazarov monastery elder Philothei, declaring: "For two Romes art fallen, and the third doth stand, and a fourth there shalt not be".
These views of the Josephites on the significance of monastery possession of land-properties for church building, and the participation of the Church in social life, were set amidst the conditions of the struggle for centralised power by the Moscow prince. His opponents were separatists who tried to disparage these views for their own political ends, using surreptitiously the teaching of the Monk Nil Sorsky about "non-acquisitiveness" – the cutting off of the monastic from worldly matters and possessions. This supposed opposition engendered a false view on the hostility between the trends of the Monks Joseph and Nil. In actuality both trends legitimately co-existed within the Russian monastic tradition, complementing each other. As is evidenced from the "Ustav" of Saint Joseph, complete non-acquisitiveness, renunciation of the very concepts "thine-mine" was posited in its basis.
The years passed. The monastery flourished with the construction work and efforts of the Monk Joseph, and as he got old he prepared himself for passing on into life eternal. Before his end he communed the Holy Mysteries, then convened all the brethren, he gave them his peace and blessing, and reposed blessedly on 9 October 1515.
The funeral oration to the Monk Joseph was compiled by his nephew and student, the monk Dosithei Toporkov.
The first "Vita" ("Life") of the saint was written in the decade of the 40's of the XVI Century by a disciple of the Monk Joseph – the Krutitsk bishop Savva the Black, with the blessing of Makarii, Metropolitan of Moscow and all Rus' (+ 1564). It entered into the "Great Menaion-Readings" ("Velikie Minei-Chet'i") compiled by Makarii. A second redaction of the "Vita" is from the pen of the Russified Bulgarian writer Lev the Philolog with the assist of the monk Zinovii of Otensk (+ 1568).
Local celebration of the Monk Joseph was established at the Iosifo-Volokolamsk monastery in December of 1578, on the hundred year anniversary of the founding of the monastery. On 1 June 1591 was established the general church celebration of his memory, under Patriarch Job. Sainted Job, a student of the Volokolamsk tonsured Saint German of Kazan, was a great admirer of the Monk Joseph and was author of the service to him, which was entered into the Menaion. Another student of Saints German and Varsonophii was likewise the companion and successor to Patriarch Job – the Patriarch PriestMartyr Ermogen (+ 1612, Comm. 17 February), a spiritual leader of the Russian people in the struggle for liberation under the Polish incursion.
The theological works of the Monk Joseph comprise an undeniable contribution within the treasury of the Orthodox tradition. As with all church writings, inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit, they continue to be a source of spiritual life and knowledge, and they have their own theological significance and pertinence.
The chief book of the Monk Joseph was written in sections. Its original form, completed in the time period of the 1503-1504 councils, included 11 Sections. In the final redaction, compiled after the death of the saint and involving a tremendous quantity of scrolls, – "The Book against the Heretics" or "The Enlightener" is in 16 Sections, prefaced by way of an introduction by "An Account of the Newly-Appeared Heresies". The first section expounds the Church teaching about the dogma of the MostHoly Trinity; the second – about Jesus Christ, the True Messiah; the third – about the significance within the Church of the prophesies of the Old Testament; the fourth – about the Incarnation of God; the fifth through seventh – about icon veneration. In the eighth through tenth sections, the Monk Joseph expounds on the fundamentals of Christian eschatology. The eleventh section is devoted to monasticism. In the twelfth is demonstrated the ineffectualness of the anathemas and sanctions, imposed by heretics. The final four sections consider methods of the struggle of the Church with the heretics, and the means for their rectification and repentance.