Elder Tikhon (Timofei Golenkov) was born in 1884 in Novaya Mikhailovka, a remote Siberian village. His parents were devout believers and raised their son in faith and piety. From his childhood years, he enjoyed going to monasteries and worshipping holy relics and icons. The Lord bestowed on him a desire for monasticism, and the young man was waiting with bated breath for his parents to give him the blessing to leave the secular world and seek the world of heaven.
When he turned seventeen, his parents sent him on a pilgrimage to the holy places, and he visited over two hundred monasteries in three years travelling on foot. He also received his parents’ blessing to travel to the Holy Land, Mount Sinai, and Mount Athos. When he reached Mount Sinai, he stayed there for two months before continuing his journey to Jerusalem, where he stopped for some time. His visit to Palestine was joyful and rewarding, but he still could not find there the peaceful spirit that he was seeking, and thus decided to travel onwards to Mount Athos.
His life as an Athonite monastic began in the Russian monastery of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. One year after his arrival, he took monastic tonsure with the name Tikhon in honour of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. He remained at the monastery for another five years dedicating himself to the practice of obedience, prayer and noetic doing by following the example of the church fathers. Seeking to take upon himself the feat of hermitage and serve God by ascetising in solitude, Father Tikhon ventured into the remotest corner of the Karula Desert, where he lived in a cave for fifteen years. The magnitude of his feat was enormous. He ate nothing but dried bread, and that only once in three days or maybe even in a week. Every night, he performed up to 600 prostrate bows. He kept himself occupied by making prayer beads which he exchanged for dried bread. The cave where he resided was at the threshold of the mountain with the cell of Saint George. A wise elder had taken up residence there. He became Father Tikhon’s spiritual mentor. The elder assigned to him readings from the holy fathers of the Church. Over the years of his ascetic feat, He had read many works of the Holy Fathers and acquired from them the zeal for pious living and steadfastness in following their example. He continued to pray day and night.
After Karula, Father Tikhon moved to Kapsala, close to the Greek Stavrokinita monastery. In the nearby cell of the Exaltation of the Cross, an ailing monk was living his last days. Father Tikhon came to live with him and reassure him as he was preparing for his departure. When the monk died, Father Tikhon continued to live in his cell on his own. In his new hermitage, he ascetised more strictly, seeking God’s grace and enlightenment from Him.
But, to quote from the Gospel, people do not light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Word about his wisdom had reached many ears, and people began to turn to him for spiritual guidance. Some of the fathers of the Holy Mount asked Elder Tikhon to accept ordination. As a priest, he would bring healing to all the souls asking for the Lord’s mercy. At that time, the elder had a vision from the Lord. He saw himself standing in a church on a paschal night, singing with great the canon of the Great Pascha. His spiritual father from Stavrokinita Monastery visited him in his cell the next morning and asked him to come to the monastery for ordination. The elder took the blessing from his spiritual father as if it had been from the Lord Himself, and accepted ordination.
He took the liturgy at the church as a great blessing and unspoken joy. Coming back to his cell after the liturgy was to him like returning from another world. He could not believe the time he had spent there. Prayer, fasting and bows became his constant occupations. He was not ascetising for himself, but also all the living and the deceased. When Elder Tikhon grew so old and infirm that he could not rise after a bow without somebody’s help, he tied a rope to the ceiling and held on to it for support. That way, he did not abandon his prayer and worship of God.
All his life, he remembered about his imminent death and prepared himself for it. He had dug out a grave, made a cross and inscribed on it, ‘Hieromonk Tikhon, a sinner who spent sixty years on Mount Athos. Glory be to the Lord!’
The elder cared a lot for his spiritual children, of whom Elder Paisios of the Holy Mount was one. He wanted them to be near him. At the advice of Father Tikhon, elder Paisios moved in to live with him.
Early in 1968, Father Tikhon began to feel the coming of his death and talked about it a lot. He was growing weaker. After the Feast of Dormition, his health deteriorated further, and he could no longer get out of bed. He could not eat and had nothing but water. Nevertheless, he did not insist on having company, as he did not want to interrupt his prayerful conversation with the Lord.
Elder Paisios remembers: “When the last week of his earthly life came, he let me sit by his side in the cell, parting only for short periods for solitary prayer. A committed ascetic, he was not used to having anyone serve him; and so he was grateful for even the smallest assistance that I could provide.
On one of his last days, I walked out of the cell to bring him some water. When I returned, he looked at me with bewilderment as if he did not know who I was.
“Why are you?” he asked. “Are you saint Sergius?”
“No, father,” I replied. I am Monk Paisios.
“Ah! Now I know. Look, my beloved child. The Mother of God came here with Saint Sergius and the Holy Venerable Seraphim. Where did they go?”
At that point, I realised that something unusual was happening. Father Tikhon had received a visit from the dead. So I asked,
“What did the Mother of God say to you?”
“She said that she would take me to herself on the feast day of her nativity”.
It was the evening of 7 (20) September, on the forefeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Three days later, on the tenth, he departed to God.
On the Day of the Nativity, Father Tikhon said to me,
“Tomorrow I will go, and I want you to bury me. And I wish to give you my blessing.
For three hours that evening, he held his hands on my head, blessing me with great love, knowing that he was leaving the earth forever.
He said, “My sweet child! We will share the precious bond of love forever. For you will pray for me here on earth, and I will pray for you in heaven! I trust that the Lord will have mercy on me, a sinner. For sixty years, I have lived here as a monk and never stopped pleading with Him, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”
“Soon, I will be at his throne in heaven. Do not stop praying for me, and I will keep coming every year to see you. If you continue to live in my cell, I will be happy. May God’s will be done, my child. He waved his hand towards the stock of cans – six with sardines, and four with squid that one of his visitors had brought him and he had not touched. “See, I have enough food for you for three years!”
His supplies would not have lasted me a week.
Yet his last ten days were a precious gift from God. It was an honour to be by his side at the end of his life and attend his honourable departure. One thing that impressed me most of all was that Father Tikhon had prepared letters to all of the bishops whom he knew asking them to mention him in their prayers after his death. Father Tikhon asked for his body to be left in the grave until the end of time, and not dig it up after three years, as is the custom on Mount Athos.
God alone will know and can appreciate the spiritual accomplishments of His every saint. No said would ever be willing and able to evaluate them themselves, as they know how to see their sins, not their righteousness. Never in their lives were they looking for human praise of worldly glory. Their sainthood is visible to us only in the outward manifestations of their virtues, which alone are amenable to any description. Perhaps for the sake of His love of us sinners and our spiritual benefit, the Lord lets them reveal to us some of their experiences. That way, we can be inspired to oppose our sin and reach out for the immaculate beauty that was already given to them on this earth.
“I do not think that Father Tikhon will be upset with me for my discussion of his spiritual achievements, like the venerable elder Silouan was, whose life was so reverently described by the now-departed Schema-Archimandrite Sophronius. When the first book about his life by Sophronius saw light in Paris, elder Silouan remarked to Father Tikhon, “The blessed Father Sophronius made me famous, which I was hoping to avoid at all costs. Because the saints were shunning worldly fame, the Lord Himself is glorifying them in heaven.
May the blessings of Father Tikhon and the prayers of all the saints remain with us forever. Amen!
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds
Father Tikhon – the last Russian elder on Mount Athos. Lavra of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius, 1997
Mount Athos – the Holy Mountain Orthodox Calendar, 2008. – Minsk: Saint Elisabeth Convent