Wednesday, April 2:
Location: Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Saco, Maine
Theme: “If You Wish, You Can Become All Flame”: Learning from the Holy Mothers and Fathers of the Church
Friday, April 4:
Location: Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Saco, Maine
Theme: Experiences of Orthodoxy in South Korea, Greece and Newfoundland
Saturday, April 5:
Location: Saint Xenia Orthodox Church (ROCOR), Methuen, Massachusetts
Theme:“If You Wish, You Can Become All Flame”: Learning from the Holy Mothers and Fathers of the Church
This was delivered via Google+ to an audience at Apostle Paul’s Bookstore in Toronto.
Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for my many shortcomings. May we all, through the prayers of the holy Fathers, have a good and fruitful Lent!
Image from here.
(From Knot 26 of The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery, published by Ancient Faith Publishing [formerly Conciliar Press], 2012)
One afternoon Sr. Nektaria and I had the task of thoroughly cleaning the guests’ dining hall. I was washing the tables while she swept, and we got into a conversation about how she found out about the monastery. She told me her incredible story, a story I found quite representative of the opinion many share towards those they do not understand.
Sr. Nektaria was born and raised in Australia; she is not Greek and has no Greek ancestry. Her mother was of Ukrainian descent, so she and her four siblings were raised as Orthodox Christians. The church they attended in Australia had a mixture of Orthodox nationalities, including Greeks. Growing up, Sr. Nektaria did not have a good opinion of the latter.
“If we got tired during the Divine Liturgy, my mother wouldn’t let us sit down. We could only kneel! While the Greek children got to play outside until the Our Father and only then come into the church.
“I hated the way they always dressed up so much for church, the way they seemed to show off. I didn’t understand anything then. I didn’t understand that when they dressed up they did it because they felt like they were going to see the King.
“I thought they were always blaspheming, saying Panagia all the time. I didn’t realize that it was because they had true love for the saints and Christ. So they spoke of them with familiarity. In our family home, maybe you would see an icon high up in the corner of the living room, while Greeks had icons everywhere. But I didn’t understand them, so I didn’t want anything to do with them.
“When I decided to move to Albania for a short work contract, I never considered visiting Greece. A Greek man from my church heard I was moving and wanted to take me out for coffee with him and his wife to speak to me about visiting a monastery in Northern Greece. He wanted me to visit some women’s monastery that was only an hour west of Thessaloniki. He said there was another nun there from Australia.
“I didn’t want to visit Greece, so I kindly humored him but didn’t make any promises. He wrote down the directions to the monastery for me in Greek and insisted on giving me drachmas, the old Greek currency. I tried very hard to refuse them because I knew if I took them I’d be obliged to go.
“‘If you can stay there for two to three weeks it will be enough time for you,’ he told me. ‘No, no, you need about four weeks. Hmm, if you stay five to six weeks I’m certain it will be enough time for you.’ After saying this he gave me Abbess Thaisia’s book, Letters to a Beginner.* When his wife saw this she became upset with him. ‘How dare you be so presumptuous, assuming she’ll become a nun!’ she scolded him.
“I had never considered becoming a nun. I was a regular young adult who didn’t live any form of a spiritual life. His comments came completely out of nowhere. I sang in the choir, but I showed no signs of being spiritual in any other way. I took his directions to the monastery, the drachmas, and the book, but was not pleased about it all.
“Since I had a good job in Australia, I had saved a lot of money. Before leaving for Albania, I thought I better set some things up with my bank so that if anything happened to me, my family could access my savings. So I signed everything over to my sister.
“Once I was in Albania, I took out a map and was surprised to see how close I was to the monastery the man wanted me to visit. I really didn’t want to return to Australia with the drachmas he gave me and have to tell him I didn’t go. So I decided to give in and go to Greece. He told me once I arrived at the monastery to simply ask for Sr. Epomoni.
“After taking a bus to the nearby village and a taxi to the monastery, I arrived in the afternoon and immediately asked for Sr. Epomoni. To my great surprise, it was my catechism teacher from when I was a child! I had no idea she had become a nun. She was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She spoke to Gerontissa, and they invited me to stay for a week.
“Friday came and Gerontissa asked me when I was leaving. I asked to stay until Monday. On Monday I asked to stay until Friday, and it went on like this for a few weeks. Finally, I told Sr. Epomoni that I wanted to remain close to the monastery. So the nuns had some friends set up a job for me in Thessaloniki.
“The night before I was to leave the monastery, while walking in the courtyard with Sr. Epomoni I told her, ‘I really don’t want to go to Thessaloniki. I just feel like staying at the monastery.’
“‘I think it’s time we went and you confessed to Gerontissa,’ she told me.
“So, that’s what we did. I told Gerontissa everything I ever did in my life—which was extremely difficult and embarrassing to do through a translator—and they had a heiromonk come so I could confess to him and receive absolution.
“Gerontissa agreed to let me stay, and that is when I realized I had been at the monastery for exactly five and a half weeks.
“After hating Greeks my whole life, they became the ones that saved me!” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks.
* This book is mistakenly referred to as Letters to a Young Nun in the original version of The Scent of Holiness but has been corrected it here.
When I was in Ontario giving talks at a few different venues back in November, I received a variety of questions, good questions. In fact, I was quite impressed with the questions I was asked. I think good questions demonstrate the audience’s seriousness, their desire to learn and be instructed. I tried my best to offer good answers to those good questions. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.
Among all these questions there was one scribbled on a piece of paper that stood out to me because I believe it revealed an opinion many of us have our ourselves – an opinion, I would venture to say, which is misinformed and misguided.
The question went something like this: “How can we deal with the low spiritual level of others?”
I was a little taken aback by this and without a lot of thought I immediately responded: “By saying: Gee, I wish I was as spiritual as that person!” But truth be told the person asking the question was verbalizing the silent and unspoken thoughts many of us have from time to time, or at least have had in the past: that is, that we are more spiritual than others and that it is toilsome to have to “deal” with what we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the “low” spiritual state of others.
I went on to explain that if we think we are more spiritual than anyone else then we know, right off the bat, that we aren’t spiritual because a true spiritual person doesn’t think themselves spiritual. A true spiritual person knows how carnal, how flawed, how fumbling, and how sinful he or she is, because true spirituality – and by “true” I mean Orthodox spirituality – gradually opens the eyes of the heart to see one’s sinfulness, one’s mistakes, shortcomings, and more than anything one’s attachment to this world, this body, and the passions associated with the body, the “lesser pleasures” as they’re called: food, sleep, etc. revealing us to be far more carnal, in fact, than spiritual.
A spiritual person follows the rules of fasting set down by the Church; he prays a consistent amount everyday; he bridles his tongue, has humble thoughts; thinks he hasn’t yet made a beginning; feels, sees and understands his own worth, that he is nothing without Christ. A spiritual person looks at everyone beside himself as more spiritual, more holy, more worthy of Christ’s love and mercy.
(Source) St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”
He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:
“The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”
“To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.
“The cobbler will explain to you,” replied the same voice.
“The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.
His objections however could not be straightened [out] by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. As God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.
Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”
“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” replied the ascetic humbly.
The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”
“Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently,” replied St. Anthony.
“I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.”
“Thank you, O Lord,” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying: “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”
And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.
He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.
He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.
“Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise,” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man,” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.
He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.
“My God,” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?”
“Humility, Anthony. This can singularly deliver [one] from all of these [traps],” [the Saint] again heard the sweet, beloved voice [say] deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man.
So, I guess the simple answer I could have given to that question back in November would have been: Humility. Humility is how we deal with the “low spiritual state” of our neighbour.
May we make an effort, as Great Lent approaches, to struggle for such God-pleasing thoughts and opinions as the holy cobbler had, both regarding our own spiritual state and that of others!
By their nature, angels are active spirits endowed with reason, will and knowledge; they serve God, fulfill the will of His Providence and praise Him. They are incorporeal spirits, and because they belong to the invisible world, cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. St. John of Damascus writes: “When it is the will of God that angels should appear to those who are worthy, they do not appear as they are in their essence, but, transformed, take on such an appearance as to be visible to physical eyes.” In the book of Tobit, the angel accompanying Tobit and his son says of himself: “All these days I was visible to you, but I neither ate nor drank, this only appeared to your eyes” (Tobit 12:19).
But St. John of Damascus also writes: “An angel can only be called incorporeal and non-material in comparison with us. For in comparison with God, Who alone is beyond compare, everything seems coarse and material, only the divinity is totally non-material -and incorporeal.”