Odds and Ends from Athos

A Hymn to the Theotokos

The Lord Who dwelt within thy womb, O pure One, hath both deified the whole of human nature and through sanctification hath drawn to Himself a multitude of the venerable.  (Theotokion of Ode 6 in the Matins Canon to St. Peter the Athonite—see June 12th in the Menaion)

Odds and Ends from Athos

In this post I plan to begin sharing some excerpts from conversations that I’ve had with various monks from the HolyMountain.  This post will have conversations with a certain Fr. Jeremiah.  He will be introduced as I begin with my notes below:

Father Jeremiah appeared to be a genuine disciple of his elder, Vasileos.  Elder Vasileos was formerly the Abbot of Stavronikita Monastery, afterwards that of Iveron Monastery, and now is retired spending most of his time in solitude in a kelli (or cabin) outside of Iveron Monastery.  During our conversations, Father Jeremiah, often referred to his elder, and so I felt that I was receiving the teaching of Elder Vasileos through a true spiritual child.  Here, now, are some memories from our conversations:

The elder emphasizes the Liturgy as the center of our life.  This is in accord with the greatest commandments of the Gospel: the first, love of God, and the second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. To live the Liturgy is to live for others more than ourselves and therefore it is the fulfillment of this commandment.

In the Orthodox Church we have two ways of life: married and monastic.  If you do not have a monastic calling then normally you would marry.  The Church does not like to have unmarried people in the world because a Christian should be a part of a community.  The married life is a community life, and the monastic life is a community life.  Christianity is a life of sacrifice. In a community, whether monastic or a family, we sacrifice; we learn humility by cutting off our own will before others and serving them. An unmarried person in the world usually lives a self-willed and selfish life; he lives for himself, and this is not Orthodoxy. There are families which can actually be living an idiorythmic life and the same can be said for them, i.e., that they are not living in a true Orthodox manner.

In a monastery our work is called diaconima which is taken from the word deacon which means to serve.  We do not use the worldly term “work” because those who work in the world work primarily for themselves, for something they want which can be very self—centered.  In the monastery we use the word diaconima because we are working for each other and not ourselves; we are serving the community.  In this way even eating becomes a liturgical act because you are sustaining yourself in order to serve others.  Our program should not be to seek the things we want, or to have time for ourselves, but rather to help others without any resistance when we are asked. In this way we attain humility, that is, by serving the community.  By thus serving the community our diaconima becomes a prayer; whether that might be through physical work or speaking to a visitor who is in need, we are at the same time inwardly moved. And if anything we desire to undertake either disrupts the community or does not benefit the community in some way, but is done only for one’s self, then you only appear to be benefiting yourself but in reality you are not.  This is not in accordance with God’s will; and this is how we can tell if something is in accordance with God’s will: when you benefit others, you also benefit yourself.

Father Jeremiah spoke much about the monastery being a family and the importance of the elder being a living example of self-sacrifice in order to win the love and respect of the brotherhood.  This should not be by force or compulsion, but should come as a voluntary act on their part, a spontaneous response, a mutual exchange of love.

We also spoke about prayer. I said the services seem long and confining, and that I was told that if you cannot say the Jesus Prayer and listen to the services at the same time, then leave off the Jesus Prayer.  Fr. Jeremiah replied, “The Elder emphasizes the fact that everyone is an individual and has a different gift to offer.  One man serves in the altar, another sings, and another takes care of the ordering of the services.  One man stands in the front of the church and listens more to the service, while another stays in the back and attends more to the Jesus Prayer than the service.  But the person who attends to the services does not need to spend much time reading; he learns from the services and thus fulfills this need.  The elder emphasizes listening to the services with humility.  To some extent there is freedom to do what you desire but if what you are doing sticks out like a sore thumb or causes disruption in the community then it is self-centered.”

I asked Fr. Jeremiah if a monk should cut off his will before his spiritual father and in an impersonal way be given a rule of prayer to fulfill? He answered with an abrupt and firm, “No, the Elder does not do that, and he considers it wrong. Prayer cannot be forced, it must be a personal offering, something spontaneous; it must develop naturally. If a person does not have it within him to pray he cannot be forced.  One man prays more, another reads or writes, while another may serve the community by doing a little extra work.”

I learned the following about their schedule: At Midnight a bell is rung and they say the Jesus Prayer for one hour with prostrations and bows according to one’s strength. At one o’clock they begin services with Midnight office and finish with Liturgy at about 5 AM. Then, they rest in their cells; and at 7 AM they have their first common meal. At 2:30 PM they have Vespers, dinner and Small Compline which finishes about 4:30 PM.  From thereon until midnight they have time for sleep, prayer or reading without any rule.

Confession at Stavronikita Monastery is usually in the form of informal talks with the Elder, and the prayer of absolution is read once a week in the Church.  Fr. Jeremiah said, “Confession consists primarily in telling the Elder the things that create obstacles to prayer in order to make the mind free to pray.  In the beginning a person needs much guidance from his spiritual father; but, as he progresses and develops he is moved more and more by God as to the path he should take.  He is guided more by God and needs less guidance from his spiritual father.

When I mentioned to Fr. Jeremiah that I have often wondered why the Gospel which is so important takes up such a small portion of the monastic program while the psalms and even other portions of the Old Testament are read more, he answered: “That is true, but we do have a Gospel and Epistle reading every day. Yet the whole Gospel is contained in one reading.  There is much food for meditation in one reading and it is enough for one day.  The Elder emphasizes reading the Bible but he says it is better to pray than to read.  The Elder says that we should read the daily gospel and epistle again in our cells along with the tropar and kondak hymns of the day and meditate on them. Many of the services are commentaries on the Gospel.  In the dining hall we also read commentaries on the Gospel and the lives of the saints. The Gospel is the center of our lives. This is symbolized by how it is placed in the center of the altar.  It is brought out during the entrance in a procession and held up high; it is covered with gold, and rightly so.  The Elder says that our life must become a book; it must become a Gospel. The lives of saints are theology in action.  A theologian is one who lives according to the commandments of God.  Keeping these things in mind we can rightly say that reading the lives of the saints is like reading another gospel-a fifth gospel.  Fr. Jeremiah is moved at how on every page of the Gospel we see self-sacrifice and self-denial but always interwoven with joy and hope.

The Elder emphasizes cultivating the virtue of humility.  Though one man may live in solitude, pray long hours in his cell and fast strictly, he may easily become proud of it.  While another, who lives in a community, may eat more and pray less – yet if he has acquired humility – has progressed further.

The above notes were from conversations on my first visit to Athos in 1986.  On a return visit in the early 1990’s I spoke to this same father about functioning as a spiritual father.  This conversation is not only for priests, but has much for all to consider.

I said to Father Jeremiah that I had some questions concerning spiritual fatherhood and counseling which I wanted to ask.  He replied saying that he first wanted to speak in general and later on if I still wanted I could ask particular questions. And so he began:

In general, when I’m likely to be hearing confessions I like to emphasize that according to Orthodoxy the Gospels say that the main purpose in life is theosis, that is, to arrive at union with God; everything else in life is a consequence.  And that God came in the person of Jesus Christ so that man could become God, of course, by grace.  And just as all the saints who reached union with God can also be like Him, so we, too, should try to become like the saints and become holy.

As an example for us in life we have first of all Christ Who is in a certain sense the first saint—He deified our human nature, He enriched our human nature with His divinity.  Then we have all the saints after Him; divine, human beings.  In this sense they are examples of proper human beings, true and authentic and sort of spontaneous, genuine human beings.  Yet all of us are sort of far away from Christ and the saints.  We are all—to some degree—false; and in our relationships with other people we are false and we live in a society which is false.  And I think that a lot of people who are well disposed, who have a good disposition will understand this.  And when you look at the saints you see what holy people are; the saints are true authentic human beings and we all tend to be false.  I think that this falseness can be overcome within the Church.  We should not do something apart from the Church just because other people are –that is, not living as the Church teaches.  They live their life away from the Church and from the life of the Church; therefore they are only in a superficial way actually sensing the life of the Church.  In the Church we have contact or communication with Christ and with all the saints.  But we have to sense that the Church really is that place of communion with all the saints.  And the fact that we have this contact with Christ and the saints  should be for us a comfort and consolation.

I asked: If someone does not sense this, how can such a one participate in this?  Father answered:

That depends on the person’s disposition, the heart, whether they have a good disposition of heart.  And I think Christ talks a lot about this, that is, the heart—like in the parable of the sower.  He is talking about the heart, how some people have a hard heart and they can’t accept the word of God. As Christ also says to those who were concerned with tithing their herbage, they had a hard heart, and they would not allow the Word of God to penetrate it.  Other people might have a good heart and they can accept the word of God, but within their heart also there are the passions and the desires for worldly things and knowledge.  These things we have to uproot.   Then there can be a battle between the faith and the world, and sometimes desires can overtake their faith.  But there are other people who have a good heart and their heart is very receptive.  Then the Word of God takes root and grows.  So we don’t have to worry about anyone who has a good disposition for God will help them. 

And you can say, “Well why do some people have a good disposition or a better motivation than others?”  Well I think that’s a question we can’t answer.  In the life of Saint Anthony he once asked, “Why is it that some people will be saved and others won’t?”  He was basically told that you can ask if you like but you are not going to get the answer to the question.  Remember that even in the case of Christ Himself—Who is God and Who was true and genuine—there were some people who He could help and others He could not help, because He is the Truth, and Truth is a two edged sword. And when you say what is true or genuine or holy, it means that some people will love you and others will hate you just like with Christ.  You can see this exemplified in the Gospel: Christ had dealings with people who superficially or externally seemed to be sinful people like harlots and so on, yet they repented and became holy people.  On the other hand there were the so-called religious leaders who came to see Him, but this was just superficial.  Deep down in their hearts it was another story.  And as Christ said they were hardened in heart and because of that they did not want to receive the truth—the truth about Him.  And because pointed out to them their hypocrisy they wanted to eliminate Him and they wanted to kill Him.

In the end, the best way we can help other people is – as far as possible – we ourselves must be holy, that is, true and authentic.  If we are, then we will be able to help other people not just individually as spiritual fathers, but also in their relationships with wives, children, friends and whoever.  When you think of it, a lot of people probably have problems in their personal relationships due to a lack of spiritual depth or a lack of holiness.  More or less, it is a deficit of holiness.  And that in accordance with their lack holiness—that is, in the sense of being a proper human being, that means true and authentic, genuine and spontaneous and not being false or artificial—so too, in their personal relationships there is this deficit.  But just try and you will see that because many of us are already desolate and sha1low within the relationships that we build, these relationships are false and superficial and just based on physical appearance or things like that.

I will end here with this and continue on in the next post.