What man might be worthy to recount your wonder workings, venerable fathers Zosimas, Savvatii and Herman? And we, unworthy as we are and with uncomprehending minds, sing you this humble song, celebrating your unblemished and honourable memory with joy and God’s love.
Rejoice, for you have the abundance of Christ’s beauty, illumined by His light, and have received the fullness of the gift of eternal glory: in the body, that flourished on the island in the sea, and in the soul that rose to Heaven, where you reap the glory of your honourable labours, emanating from Christ, the King and God of all.
Therefore, we beseech you: do not abandon us with your constant presence, and pray ceaselessly for us, our venerable fathers Zosimas, Savvatiii and Herman, adornment of monks.
Ikos from the canon to the Venerable Zosimas, Savatii and Herman of Solovki
In the 15th century, Orthodox ascetics Zosimas, Savvatii and Herman set foot on the Solovetski Archipelago in the White Sea, 165 kilometres North of the Polar Circle, to live a life as hermits and ascetics in solitary prayer.
On 21 August, the Russian Orthodox Church commemorates the transfer of the relics of Sts. Zosimas, Savvatii of Solovki in 1566, and the second transfer of their relics and the relics of the Venerable Herman of Solovki in 1992.
Zosimas and Savvatii were glorified at the Makarievsky Council in 1547. Even though they never met during their lifetimes, their lives are seen as inextricably connected both in the minds of the Russian faithful and in the Church tradition. The Church also venerates the third co-founder of the Solovetsky Monastery, Monk Herman, who was the first to land on the archipelago but did not dare to settle here on his own, even though he found it suitable for an ascetic life.
The White Sea is not navigable for eight months in a year. Although it does not freeze over, drifting ice floes pose a deadly threat, leaving the islands without a safe connection to the mainland. The islands remained uninhabited for many centuries, as no man dared to settle there. Finally, in 1429, Monk Herman arrived with Monk Savatii, and they became the first human settlers in the archipelago. After the repose of Monk Savvatii in 1436, the Venerable Monk Zosimas arrived in the company of the elder Herman.
Today, these three saints are named in a different order: Zosimas, Savatii, and Herman, even though Zosimas was the last of the three to arrive. One probable reason is that the building of the archipelago's first church was attributed to Zosimas. He is also credited with establishing its monastery and serving as one of its first abbots.
In icons, the Venerable Zosimas and Savvatii of Solovki are traditionally depicted together, even though they never met each other during their lifetimes
Each monk arrived with a distinct mission. Saint Herman came as a trailblazer and pioneer and remained a loyal friend, a true helper, a record keeper and a guardian of unity among the brethren throughout his service. He was a model of humility, always ready to assist others in their daily tasks. His permanent job was to procure and deliver food and other essential supplies from the mainland to the archipelago. His every journey across the ice-cold White Sea was a risk to his life and a feat of courage.
The tireless monk Herman was born into a poor family. He never learned to read or write, but the lives of Sts. Savvatii and Zosimas were recorded through his labours. He wished to preserve their memory for posterity and dictated his memories of both ascetics to his disciples. In his humility, the venerable Herman claimed no role in the ascetic feats of his sainted brethren and was not glorified until 150 years after the canonization of Sts. Zosimas and Savatii. However, it was obvious that no important decision was made without his advice.
Venerable Herman of Solovki
The venerable monk Herman told Elder Savvatii that it was God’s will that a monastery be built on the islands where many monks would glorify God’s name with their labours, and that a church would be constructed here in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Venerable Savatii was a monk of the monastery of Saint Cyril at Belozersk. The details of his life before monasticism are not known. There is no information on his family, origin or background, or even where he had been tortured. According to his hagiography, he ascetised as a monk during the reign of the Righteous Prince Vasily Vasilyevich, presumably after 1425, when the prince (known to historians as Basil II) ascended to the throne. His hagiography also narrates some of his first ascetic deeds.
“On hearing about the Lake Nevo (now Ladozhskoye Lake) in the Novgorod Region, the Island Valamo in this lake, and the monastery in honour of the Holy Transfiguration, whose monks were living strict ascetic lives day and night to please God, and supported themselves with the fruits of their labours, the Venerable Savvatii asked the Hegumen and brethren of the Monastery of St. Cyril at Belozersk to give him the blessing to join the Valamo Monastery and reside there permanently.” The Hegumen gave him his blessing.
Saint Cyril Monastery at Belozersk
Like at the monastery of Saint Cyril at Belozersk, Monk Savvatii lived at Valamo Monastery as a pious ascetic. However, he was growing weary of the praise and honours from the brethren of the monastery and desired to find a quieter place where he could settle. Previously, he had heard about the desolate and uninhabited Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, (the largest of the six islands of the Solovetsky Archipelago) situated at the entrance to the Onega Bay of the White Sea.
He made up his mind to settle there.
The Solovetsky archipelago in the White Sea
At the mouth of the River Vyga that flows into the Onega Bay of the White Sea, there had long stood a chapel. Here, at a location named Soroki, Savatii met the monk Herman, who had been ascetising around the chapel as a hermit. Savvatii told him of his intention, and both ascetics joined forces to reach the islands and settle there. Entrusting their lives to the providence of God, they prepared a boat, gathered a supply of food and clothing, and a set of tools and waited for quiet weather to begin their journey. Finally, they set sail for the islands and reached them safely after two days.
A place of solitary prayer
After landing, the monks walked further inland, where they found a scenic location suitable for human settlement. They put up a cross, built a cell and began to live lives of prayer and labour. This original settlement was at the foot of Mount Sekirnaya, 12 versts from the present location of the Solovetsky monastery. Eventually, a hermitage was established here and a chapel was built in honour of Monk Savvatii.
The mount received its name after an incident that revealed God's plan for the future of the islands. Two angels flogged the wife of a fisherman who had wished to settle on the islands with his family following the example of the monks. The angels commanded the family to move away, telling them that God willed this place to become a mainstay of monasticism."
Venerable Savvatii of Solovki
At some point, the Venerable Monk Savvatii was the only human remaining on the island. He lived in solitude for many months. After six years, Herman asked for the saint's blessing to travel to the mainland to run some errands on the banks of the Onega River. One day, as Savvatii was praying, the Lord appeared to him in a vision and commanded him to prepare to be released from the confines of his body and ascend to His throne.
Feeling the approach of death, Savatii was wondering how he would receive the Holy Communion. Because there was no priest on the Island, he chose to sail to the mainland. He prayed, walked to the sea and found a fully prepared boat with all the essential supplies for the voyage. Seeing this as providential, he climbed into the boat and reached the mainland in one day.
Immediately after landing, he walked towards the mouth of the River Vyga. On his way, he met a certain abbot named Nathanael. He was walking to a remote village to give communion to a dying man, and he had the Holy Gifts with him. At first, Nathanael offered to commune him on his return journey and asked him to wait in the church on the Vyga. But Savatii replied, “Father, let us not wait until the morning, as we cannot be certain if we will continue to breathe tonight, and we know even less about what will happen on the day after.”
Nathanael listened and communed the God-pleaser. Savatii safely reached the church on the River Vyga and locked himself up in a cell. While at the Church, Savatii met a Novgorod merchant named John, sailing down the River Vyga on a boat full of merchandise. The monk gave him a blessing and asked him to stay for the night. At first, John declined the offer. Soon, a storm began, and the merchant perceived it as a sign from God.
That night, Monk Savvatii departed to God. John found him the next morning sitting in full monastic clothing. Together with Abbot Nathanael, who had returned by that time, John laid Savvatii’s body to rest on 27 September 1435. Savvatii’s holy relics remained there until their transfer to Solovetsky Island. The lives of the saints Zosimas and Savvatii report numerous miracles at their graves.
Savvatii’s Skete on Solovetsky Island, as seen from Mount Sekirnaya
We know somewhat more about the life and works of Saint Zosimas of Solovki than about the Venerable Monk Savvatii. Saint Zosimas was born in the Novgorod Region. He comes from Tolvuya, a village on the Onezhskoye Lake. According to a different chronicle, he was born into a wealthy family in Novgorod, but his family later moved to Shunga Village, close to the Baltic coast.
His parents’ names were Gavriil and Barbara. They raised their son in righteousness and piety and taught him how to read and write. Seeking purity in body and spirit, the young man forsook marriage, left his family and lived in the wilderness as a hermit and monk. As he was looking for a spiritual instructor, he met monk Herman, who had lived with the Venerable Savvatii on Solovetsky Island. Herman related to Zosimas the history of the Venerable Savvatii’s life and ascetic feats. According to the hagiography, Saint Zosimas was inspired by his account and wished to settle on that island and succeed the Venerable Savvatius. Therefore, he beseeched Herman to take him to that uninhabited island and teach him monastic life.
At that time, Zosimas’ father died. After his funeral, Zosimas convinced his mother to take monastic tonsure. Then he distributed his parents’ estate to the poor and returned to Herman. The venerable monks safely reached Solovetsky Island and found a suitable location to settle. According to tradition, that happened in 1429.
Monk Zosimas’ vision
They build themselves cells. A miraculous omen from above had guided them to the site. In the morning following their landing, Zosimas saw a bright ray of light descending from heaven. Still, the completion of the church was a long time away.
Soon, Herman departed to the mainland to stock up on the essential supplies and tools for building a monastery. He had to stay longer than expected. Autumn came and made the return voyage to the island impossible.
Zosimas spent the winter in solitude. He had a difficult time, experiencing hunger and fending off the devil’s temptations. When he had lost all hope of finding food, a miracle happened: some men arrived on horse-driven sledges full of bread, flour and cooking oil.
Elder Herman returned in spring, bringing with him another man, a fisherman named Mark, later tonsured with the name Macary. Soon, other monks began to arrive. They cut down trees and built the cells at the location where Zosimas had seen his vision. They also built a small church in honour of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Holy Transfiguration Church of the Solovetsky Monastery
A blessing from the archbishop was needed to consecrate the church. Also, the brethren had to procure the church supplies and an antiminsion. They also needed to elect the abbot. Zosimas dispatched one of the brethren to Bishop Jonah in Novgorod. Soon, the blessing was obtained, and all the things needed for the church’s consecration were procured. The church was consecrated, and the Solovetsky Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour came into existence.
The brethren had difficult lives. They spent their time in prayer and fasting, while also growing crops, cutting trees and extruding salt, which they exchanged with the merchants for essential supplies. Unable to withstand the hardships of daily life, Abbot Paul left the monastery. After three abbots appointed by the Bishop of Novgorod left the desolate island, the brethren resolved to select the abbot from the monks of the monastery. After multiple requests from the monastic brethren and at the insistence the Bishop Jonah, Monk Zosimas agreed to become the abbot of the Solovetsky Monastery.
The number of monks constantly grew. With the blessing of Abbot Sozimas, a new wooden church of the Holy Transfiguration was built. Later, a trapeza was completed and and the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God was constructed. The relics of Saint Savvatii of Solovki were transferred to the monastery in 1485, and laid under the altar of the Church of the Dormition in a separate chapel. Soon, an icon of Saint Savvatius was delivered, donated by the aforementioned merchant John and his son Fedor.
Abbot Zosimas continued to live a life of prayer and incessant labours through the final years of his life, remembering every minute about the imminence of death and God's final judgement. With his own hands, he made himself a coffin which he kept at the door of his cell. Anticipating the approach of death, he entrusted the monastery to his successor Arseny, and then gathered the brethren for a final instruction.
The Venerable Abbot Zosimas died on 17 April 1479. The brethren buried him with honours in a grave he had made himself behind the altar of the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of the Lord, where a chapel was later built. On 8 August 1566, the holy relics of the Monks Zosima and Savvatii were transferred to a side chapel of the church dedicated to the saints, where they have remained to this day.
The relics of the Venerable Saints Zosimas, Savvatii and Herman, the Holy Transfiguration Church of the Solovetsky Monastery
Like Saint Savvatii, Saint Zosimas became renowned as a great wonderworker. Multiple miracles have been reported that started soon after his departure. He has appeared multiple times to sailors in times of mortal danger. He has stopped storms and averted shipwrecks. He has been seen among the monks during prayers, and many sick people who invoked the names of Saints Zosimas and Savvatii at their graves have received healing from their prayers.
By the XVI century, Solovetsky Monastery had become one of the richest in Russia. It resisted multiple enemy attacks in the 17th, 18th and even in the 19th centuries. In the 20th century, it saw some of the darkest and most horrific events. After the October Revolution of 1917, the new authorities closed it down, and in 1923 they transformed it into a high-security prison camp. For two years from 1937, it was used as a maximum security prison.
In the 1990s, prayers to the Solovki wonderworkers were heard again. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church blessed the reopening of the Solovetsky Stavropegial Monastery of Sts. Zosimas, Savvatii and Herman, the wonderworkers of Solovki. Their honourable relics were transferred from Saint Petersburg to the monastery on 19 – 21 August 1992. Illumined by the spiritual exploits of the monks and the feats of the martyrs and confessors, the Solovetsky Islands are still havens of prayer amid the stormy sea of modern life.
O Monk Fathers, great intercessors in our sorrows, receivers of our prayers, God pleasers and wonderworkers Zosimas, Savvatii and Herman!
Remember us, your children, as you had promised, with your visitations. You may have departed from us in the body, but you have remained with us in the spirit.
We beseech you, venerable monks: protect us from fire, foreign invasions, internecine strife, and evil influences, premature death and all the demons’ ploys that may descend upon us.
Hear us sinners, and accept this prayer and our supplication like fragrant incense and our God-pleasing sacrifice, and bring our souls life back to life, from the throes of death caused by our evil deeds, counsels and thoughts. Like you have raised a maiden from the dead and like you have healed many from incurable afflictions, deliver us from impure spirits tormented by evil, and save us from the evil snares and the devil's nets; pull us from the depths of sin and protect us from all visible and invisible enemies by your merciful visitation, so we may glorify the Most Holy Trinity of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
Compiled by the team of obitel-minsk.ru
The photos were drawn from the archives of Saint Elisabeth Convent and the Internet.
Text sourced from:
1. Lives of the Saints [Russian], as narrated in the Lives of the Saints of Saint Demetrius of Rostov and the Prologue. М., 1902-1911. September (The Life of our Venerable Father Savvatii, Wonderworker of Solovki); April (The Life of our Venerable Father Zosima, Abbot of Solovki);
2. Biographies of the famous people of Russia from the X to the XX century. М., 1992;
3. Klyuchevsky V. О. Ancient Russian hagiographies as a historical source. М., 1988.
4. Venerable Herman, Savvatii and Zosima of Solovki: stories that continue into the present (monastery.ru)
5. The history and founders of Solovetsky Monastery (pravmir.ru)