Odds and Ends from Athos Part 2

A Hymn to the Theotokos

O unwedded Virgin, whence comest thou? Who is he that begat thee, and who is thy mother? How bearest thou thy Creator in thine arms? How hath thy womb escaped corruption? In thee we behold great marvels, O all-holy one, and dread mysteries wrought upon earth; and we prepare beforehand thy worthy due O earth, we offer the cave; and we ask Heaven to provide its star. And the Magi come for the East of the earth unto the West, to behold the Salvation of mortals as a suckling Babe. (The hymn of the forefeast at the Vespers Aposticha of St. Nicholas of Myra, The Menaion Volume Four, The Month of December, p. 36, Translated from the Greek by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston Massachusetts, 2005)

Odds and ends from Athos, Part 2

Here I will continue my conversations with Fr. Jeremiah. There will be a subject heading or question then his response.

The problem of recurring despondency.

This can have a lot to do with the way a person has been brought up and the character of a person. We all are particular persons with our own character traits and our environment has an affect on us. In the end we all have some particular Cross to bear. For one person it might be despondency, while another might have his temper—he gets angry; one person has this and another person has that. It’s a bit like St. Paul says, “The thorn in the flesh.” Sometimes God allows us to have some kind of a defect in character to become humble. But it’s a question of placing our faith in God and not to let it get the better of us. It helps when you’re living in some sort of community or a community of people rather than to be living on your own in isolation. When you’re living in some sort of community this can help to keep one on a moderate course, not to go out and to depart either to the right or to the left. It may be that some people allow particular things to get them down because of some type of a lack of faith. We are to place our faith in God and not to despair, as, St. Silouan used to say, “Keep your mind in hell and not to despair.” I think sometimes life might just seem like you’re going through hell, but we cling to faith in God and do not despair.

When one is offended or hurt by another again and again and there is resentment or fear in that relationship, how can one overcome?

I think there are a number of different things here. It is possible that there is someone with whom you just don’t have a good relationship. Yet this does not mean that you have to feel any evil against them or anger or hate. If we do, that shows that there is still some sort of egotism and self-centeredness. If someone has sort of written themselves off and consider themselves to be really nothing, then if someone does you some harm, or does something evil that’s not true or whatever, if you don’t consider yourself anything, sort of nothing, if you’ve written yourself off, you won’t get upset. What will it matter to you what other people think about you or what is your reputation—this can be just pride and vanity. Nor should we have any anger or hold anything against anyone, we should always give forgiveness even to people that do us harm and injury and our enemies. In a sense we should feel sorry for them, in the sense that they do this to us, because there is something not right with them and they are sick. If anything they need our prayers so that they can repent. If a person seems to be against us maybe there can be a break down in faith in that person. So if we say a prayer after the bad things they do or they say, we both help them and guard ourselves.

Some people, when they sin, get angry with themselves and are unable to repent; when they go to pray, there is no penitence but anger with themselves.

Well, this can be a certain pride or egoism. And this can get down into and affect the disposition of the heart. So the proud and egotistic heart is hard and can be depressed or angry at seeing its sinfulness. But if one considers himself to be nothing and, as I said before, has written himself off as nothing; then the heart would not be affected in that way. So one must strive to acquire humility with the help of their spiritual father, and this is a long process which really never ends.

What is the difference between a good healthy self love and self esteem and pride?

I think we can have pride or self-esteem when we sense that God, Christ, and the saints love us; and we sense their love and comfort and consolation. We have been able to establish a communication or link with Christ and all the saints. Basically, we can look to the saints for comfort and consolation and we receive help not only from others but from Christ, His most-pure Mother and the saints. It is in this that we exult and rejoice.

So if someone has faith and trust in Christ and the Mother of God and the saints, then that person lives in another world—the world of the Church. Then through the icons and the relics and services one enters into this world of the Church. Like in the services to Christ and the Mother of God and all the different saints, and through the reading of their lives and writings one actually senses that he has established some contact or communication with them. So the Church is in fact the place where we can transcend the barriers of time and space. And in the end I think this is what the icons signify, that is, that we can have this contact with holy people who lived in another time and in another place.

All this brings us back to something we touched on before, that is, relationships with others. When we are thus integrated into the Church and receiving help from Christ and the Mother of God and the saints, we can then give to other people without expecting anything in return. A saint or a holy person does not give on the basis of how he can profit, that is, “I give so much and I expect so much in return.” A holy person gives and expects nothing in return. That is why he can be on good terms or have good relationships with everyone. He doesn’t get upset or whatever when other people don’t show him respect or love or confidence, because he understands humanity and how human beings are disfigured by sin. And so, in relating to others, he is aware that people are imperfect and vulnerable to being hurt; we think differently from each other and problems do occur. Therefore he is patient and peaceably disposed towards others even in difficult circumstances.

I told Fr. Jeremiah about my intention of helping to build a skete together with another monk at my former monastery, so he spoke about establishing community life. Although this was spoken about monastic community, I believe it is easy to see how this can relate to a family community.

Fr. Vasileos is interesting in the line he takes concerning the ordering of the life of his monks. He does not like the idea of a hard fast set of rules that each monk must fit into. Fr. Vasileos is very flexible in respect to each monk, more or less to respect the character of each monk. For we are all a particular person with a distinct personal essence and so the way each of us develops a relationship with God is not exactly the same. So there needs to be a certain flexibility in respect to each person’s character or personality. Some monks have more of an ascetical impetus while others are less capable. Yet in a community we should be able to have confidence in each other, that everyone is well motivated and that all are sensibly trying to do the best they can. And we must not feel that asceticism is an end in itself, but rather a means to an end, that is, to acquire the virtues such as humility, contrition, purity, simplicity and genuine love. The important thing in a community is that there exists love and harmony and understanding among its members.

There are those who are obsessed with rules and believe they should build a community according to the textbook or even the way they want to. But this shows a lack of spiritual maturity: when people are trying to create something based on their own particular ideas. This is a fallacy or a basic delusion to think that because we are abbot or abbess that we are right or we’re infallible. Whereas the whole idea of a community in the Orthodox Church is that one person does not constitute a community or Church. It is always two people or more in relationship with each other. And these two or more people have to discuss and come to an agreement as to how the life of their community is put into effect. This is the way of the Orthodox Church, it is not run like a despotism where one person makes a particular decision and says that is the way it is going to be. For instance, Fr. Vasileos discusses problems to be solved with the elder fathers or sometimes the whole community. In the end he sees himself as really nothing, but he is only a facilitator of the good of the community.