Monasteries and the monastic life have always been prominent features of Christianity. We sometimes think of cathedrals as being a focal point because they are large and impressive, as well as being the seat of the diocesan bishop. A monastery usually has a significant influence on church life as a powerhouse of prayer. In some instances, the large catholicon (church) of a monastery can also serve as a cathedral. In such cases, the bishop would usually be the abbot of the monastic community.
Today we commemorate St Anthony of the Kiev Caves. The date of the Baptism of Rus’ is the year 988 and Anthony was born in 983 in Liubech, a small town near Chernigov, in what is now Ukraine. Once again, we need to remind ourselves that the Russian/Ukrainian debate is of modern political origin and not relevant in the 10th Century. Ancient Rus’ covered this whole territory. It is recorded that his baptismal name was Antipas although it is not certain at what age he was baptised. As a young man, Anthony travelled to Mount Athos and settled in a cave, overlooking the sea, near to Esphigmenou Monastery. There he lived as a hermit under the spiritual guidance of the monastery. This cave can still be visited.
When he was in his late 20s, the abbot sent Anthony back the Kiev to establish the monastic life in his newly converted native land. On returning home, Anthony found that a few small monastic communities had already been established at the command of local princes, yet these were not as austere as Esphigmenou, so Anthony settled in a cave that had been excavated by a priest named Hilarion. In 1015, the peace was shattered by the violent struggle for power between Vladimir’s sons, Yaroslav and Sviatopolk. When the conflict ended, Anthony returned to Athos, but the abbot sent him back to continue his obedience in Kiev, prophesying that many souls would join him. This proved to be true, because his severe asceticism attracted many novices. Antony’s strict lifestyle was extremely austere. He ate only rye-bread every other day and drank only water. Many people came to seek his counsel or receive his blessing, and some asked to stay with him. Although he was, by nature, a hermit in the same mould as his namesake, St Anthony the Great, Anthony eventually agreed. Among the first were the priest Nikon and a man named Theodosii.
From the beginning, the proposal to establish the monastic life in Kiev, received royal support. Anthony gained twelve disciples and established a monastic community, excavating caves and building a large church, beginning what would become the renowned Kiev Caves Lavra. Anthony was inspired by the solitary life, and therefore he appointed the monk Barlaam as the first abbot. Anthony withdrew to a more remote place, which is now known as the Far Caves. In time, Barlaam became abbot of the new St Demetrios Monastery at the city gates. The monks asked Anthony to name a successor and he named Theodosii.
Having royal patronage has its disadvantages. Anthony was in conflict with Iziaslav I who suspected him of sympathising with his enemies, the Cumans, Turkic nomads who lived between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan. This happened because there was an uprising involving the Cumans. Iziaslav asked Anthony for a blessing to suppress the rebellion. The saint refused and foretold Iziaslav’s defeat because of his sins, but later the two were reconciled.
Anthony and Theodosii built a larger church, to accommodate the growing number of monks, but Anthony did not live to see the church completed. Shortly after blessing the foundation of the new church, he reposed in the Lord at the age of ninety. Before his death, Anthony called the monks together to console them and to ask that his mortal remains should be hidden away for ever. The monks carried out his request. Although it is thought that he was buried in his cave, no relics have ever been found. Many pilgrims have visited the cave and some have reported healings after intercessions to St Anthony, who is venerated as the founder of monasticism in Kievan Rus’.