A Mountaintop Experience
By Ken Stevens
Our pilgrimage last September to Mt. Athos was, in a word, exceptional. I have pondered the journey a lot since we returned last October, and really dug into the literature describing the lives of saints and elders who have lived on The Holy Mountain over the centuries past.
The dozen or so monasteries we visited each had its own flavor and even within each, there was a range of personality types. One abbot has written, “All the monasteries on the Holy Mountain make up a garden with many different flowers. Each has its own beauty, its own character, its own scent.” That’s a very spot-on assessment. I personally gravitated toward the more extroverted, outwardly joyful monks as opposed to the more sober, introverted Fathers. Moreover, on the Holy Mountain there are many varieties of monastic expression, none being better than the others. All monasteries share the common vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with the cornerstone of this life, “be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And most monks don’t just sit and pray all day in worship and contemplative prayer. They are centers of pilgrimage and charity and spiritual healing. Many are engaged in teaching, preaching, and various trades. Yet many do in fact live an ascetical life, and this too is good.
At the risk of trivializing the experience, if I had boil down the spiritual guidance we consistently heard from the monks, I believe it would be best expressed as it was shared to us by one unpretentious monk father: “Do not despair; Be humble; Love everyone.” A few more key learnings from my experience on The Holy Mountain:
• Humility reigns: Humility is arguably the greatest attribute of man. According to the Holy Fathers, without humility man cannot be put on the right course for theosis (union with God). Humility is requisite for the realization that we are sick and full of weaknesses and passions. In addition, the path to theosis requires constant humility, with a dependence on the Grace of God. Before anything else, we need humility.
• Love trumps prayer: We learned that sainthood is not about how long one prays, but how one demonstrates love of God and man. As example, St. Dorotheus (6th century monk) was a humble servant who spent inordinate time in servanthood to others and little time in prayer, and yet was canonized a saint because of his exceptional service and caregiving to others. Furthermore, love and patience are linked. As St. Paul wrote, “Love is patient and kind.” Each virtue strengthens the other. During the trip I met a genuinely loving monk who grew up in Romania and spent ten years in the US teaching children; and now wants never again to leave the monastery. The noise, busyness and clutter of the outside world robs him of solitude and peace with God.
• Judgmentalism is forbidden: Never judging others is a critical fruit of humility. If we never judge others’ actions or gifts, we work towards conquering the passions of pride, envy, and jealously all at one time. St. Isaac of the Syrian said, “When is a person sure of having arrived at purity? When he considers all human being are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him. Then he is truly pure in heart.” Not easy to realize, to be sure!
During our Mt. Athos visit, one of the most oft-cited books (seemingly revered by the monastic community) was Wounded by Love: The Life & Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. Officially recognized as a saint in 2013, St. Porphyrios (1906-1991) was an Athonite hiermonk known for his gifts of spiritual discernment. He became a monk at age fourteen and throughout his life suffered from health problems, all the while remaining a totally devout monastic. During his lifetime, he served for 30 years as a hospital chaplain in Athens, but eventually returned to Mt. Athos, occupying the same cell which he had earlier in life been forced to abandon. The last words before he passed over into eternal life were, “That they may be one…” which refers to every man/woman’s “oneness or union with God.” He shares a myriad of wisdoms, but I thought his insights on “Holy Humility” are noteworthy:
• Without humility, we cannot love Christ...when we acquire holy humility, then we see everything and experience everything of His divine providence…Holy humility is complete trust in God, complete obedience to God, without protest, without reaction, even when some things seem difficult and unreasonable. This is what transfigures a person and makes him a “God-man.”
• The humble person is conscious of his inner state…he knows he is sinful and is grieved by the fact, but he does not despair. The person who possesses holy humility does not speak at all, that is, he doesn’t react. He accepts to be criticized and rebuked by others, without getting angry and defending himself. The opposite happens with the egotist, who seems to be humble, but if goaded a little, he immediately loses his calm and is irritated and upset.
• If you have love for your neighbor and for God, God will give you humility and He will bestow on you sanctification. If you do not have love for God and for your neighbor, Satan will tyrannize you, and you will find fault with everyone and everything and be forever complaining. The Christian religion transforms people and heals them. The most important precondition, however, for someone to recognize and discern the truth is humility. Egotism darkens a person’s mind, it confuses him, it leads him astray, to heresy. It is important for a person to understand that truth.
One of best books I read following my trip to Mt. Athos was Silence on the Mountain: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. This publication (2001) garnered generally positive reviews from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. I have a lot of empathy for the author, Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine, who has written several books on Christian mysticism. As an academic, he is highly objective and offers an unprejudiced view of Orthodox mysticism.
In any event, in several of his books, Markides explores Christianity through his association with a charismatic elder, Father Maximos (pseudonym for Metropolitan Athanasius of Limassol, Cypress), and formerly a monk from Mt. Athos. Father Maximos had the opportunity to spend substantial time with such holy men including Porphyrios (cited above) and others. He is incredibly gifted with wisdom and discernment. Allow me crystallize a few of his insights that speak to the import and relevancy of monastics and a clearer definition of the monastic life; The extracts below are verbatims and/or paraphrases that address common misconceptions about monastic service that so many of us in the secular world hold. Monastic life is certainly not a refuge from reality or a piece of cake.
• Monasticism is a mystery that can only be experienced…not completely explained. But the testimony of great saints have told us that monks are those people who have separated themselves geographically from everything and everybody and yet are invisibly connected with everything and everybody through prayer and the love of Christ. Monks are those people who have removed their minds from the world of material objects and through continence, love, prayer, and chanting, they become totally focused on God.
• The roots and foundation of monasticism began right from the inception of Christianity by Christ Himself through His life with the apostles. The apostles themselves lived communally…they gave up everything that connected them to the material world because of their exclusive preoccupation with God. They owned nothing individually. That is what monks try to do…and what Christ suggested; i.e. to leave everything behind to attain perfection…What is of extreme importance over and above all relationships is the monks’ relationship to God.
• Monasticism is traced to the 3rd century after the end of the persecution of the Christians and the beginning of the Christianization of the Roman Empire. The monks replaced the martyrs as the spiritual exemplars of the Christian faith…so the basic principles of monasticism were already set down by Jesus Himself and His apostles.
• The monk’s life is harsh and austere with very few physical pleasures and comforts. They wake up at 3:30 am and have liturgy until 8 am. During the particular period of Lent, they eat nothing until after a two-hour service, at 1:30 pm. At 6 pm they go to church again. The same will be repeated the next day. They constantly pray and make hundreds of prostrations in front of the holy icons. They have no personal property, no money. Monks will remain in a state of constant spiritual struggle. This is not a place to sit back in a corner passively enjoying the sun. Monks are obligated to keep up with the calendar of the monastery. It is in fact a humbling experience.”
• Monasticism offers the supreme gift to humanity that modern individuals may not recognize. Each person is assigned by God a specific task, a specific duty. I am a spiritual guide; another person, a doctor; another, a teacher…and so on. Each person leads a life in accordance to his or her providentially assigned life’s task. We must not evaluate human beings on the basis of their contributions and utility to society, but on the basis of who they are individually. This is the essence of Christian spirituality. Monasticism keeps alive the experience of The Christ. It is the space within which a human being is liberated from all biological and worldly concerns to redirect their focus and energy toward an exclusive preoccupation with the reality of God. Those who work “in the world” also have blessed tasks. But monks pray ceaselessly for the world-at-large, hear confessions of hundreds of people, and contribute sermons and discussions about the nature of spiritual life. I can do all of these things because I am not obligated nor bound by worldly concerns. Everybody, you see, contributes accordingly.”
Let me close by affirming that the teachings of these divinely inspired elders and saints throughout Orthodox history are integral to our understanding of the faith and how we as Christians must live our lives in order to find oneness with God. In other words, the instruction of these charismatic servants of God are as important to our growth in Christlikeness as other regimens of the faith, including reading the Holy Bible, prayer, fasting, and partaking of the Sacraments. In future musings, I would like to focus on more of the incredible wisdoms gleaned from these holy, gifted servants of God. They will pierce the heart and mind.
Each time I explore the writings of ascetics, holy fathers, church elders, and saints, I am further enlightened, and believe that Eastern Mysticism is best at expressing Christianity in its purest sense.
Before my journey to Mt. Athos, I was seeking to attain three primary goals: (1) Gain new insights and deeper depths for loving God; (2) Seek answers to developing a more meaningful prayer life, and; (3) Gain an appreciation and understanding of monasticism. With all three, I pray I have realized at least some growth. It was a lifetime experience that I am grateful to have experienced, and God willing, will experience again in this temporal life.
Do not despair; Be humble; Love everyone.