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Archive for the ‘Tips from the Monastery’ Category

monastic silence

In an Orthodox monastery a visitor may perceive many things: fragrant smells, beautiful sights of flowers, trees and architecture, the sound of church bells chiming or wooden talatons being rhythmically knocked. But sometimes the greatest impression is made by the lack of sound, by silence. Silence in a holy monastery seems to permeate the air.

For some silence is a welcomed escape from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives in which we can’t buy groceries without pop music playing overhead. A great deal of white noise accompanies our every move, our every thought. For others silence may make our unaccustomed ears ring, having experienced it so infrequently.

For me the silence of a monastery was contrasted with the loudness of my voice, my thoughts and my feelings. In the face of the monastery’s silence I began to reflect on how loud I am both externally as well as internally. It was a liberating experience because I was recognizing a character flaw for the first time which had previously gone unnoticed, unchecked and unchallenged. I made a mental and emotional note that from that point on I was going to struggle to be more quiet, more silent. Of course it is one thing to will something and another to carry it out, but knowledge and will are important first steps in our battle with the passions.

In the Desert Fathers we are told that “Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 81)

Silence, hesychia in Greek, is not only the absence of speech, but a spiritual state of being. This is why the Abba said if the Bishop was not edified by his silence he would not be edified by his speech, because to be edified by his silence is to perceive and understand the higher spiritual state the abba occupied.

Incorporating more silence into our daily lives is not easy, but it is possible. A few things I noticed the sisters do may help shed light on the practical side of acquiring silence: They measure their words, they restrain themselves from speaking too much about superfluous things, they replace idle talk with prayer, they laugh in moderation, avoid gossip, they share spiritually uplifting stories and anecdotes, and they speak in soft voices to maintain the respect due to the grounds of a holy monastery which is dedicated to the glory of God and is an extension of the sacredness of the holy church temple. This creates a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. By imitating the sisters’ virtue and by paying attention to the measure of noise in our own lives (externally and internally) we too can begin to be edified by silence and offer a peaceful haven for others, our family and friends, who are no doubt weary from the noise of the world.

May the Master of All grant us His grace and mercy to not only be edified by silence but edify others by our silence also!

prophets

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prodromosSt. Basil the Great said, “Extirpate two thoughts within yourself: do not consider yourself worthy of anything great, and do not think that any other man is lower than you in worthiness. Learn humble mindedness which the Lord commanded in word and showed forth in deed. Hence, do not expect obedience from others, but be ready for obedience yourself.”

Humble-mindedness is a great Christian virtue. Christ was clothed in humility and His very words, actions and example were penetrated with this virtue. Humble-mindedness is not merely acting meek and timid, but genuinely believing that God is the source of all good while I am cause of much strife: the emphasis isn’t merely on appearing humble, but being humble, hence the humble-mindedness because it refers to the interior state of a person.

Humble-mindedness is believing whatever good exists in me is from God, whatever bad, is from me.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse.” Humble-mindedness is not thinking we are less than we are, but rather seeing and accepting exactly what we are: nothing “of the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7).

It is, of course, not easy to keep such humble thoughts in mind but all we do is show God our good intention and He does everything else. Like all Christian virtue, it takes effort to attain and maintain humble-mindedness.

By being obedience to our spiritual father; by condemning ourselves in our thoughts (blaming ourselves instead of others); by earnestly listening when someone else is speaking; and by struggling to only see the good in someone and cover the bad our actions display humility. When we keep the fasts of the Church we are acting with humble-mindedness. When we struggle to maintain the faith of our Fathers – without deviation or skepticism toward the god-seeing Fathers’ decisions – we act with humble-mindedness.  When we avoid worldly activity and conversation, when we  faithfully keep our prayer rule, and when we finally begin to put into practice the words of the Holy Forerunner: “He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30) not only in regard to Christ, but to our neighbour. Then we know we are not far from attaining authentic humility because we are allowing our mind, heart, and soul to be molded by the god-pleasing thoughts and actions of a humble person, always through the grace of God.

peacock

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I learned numerous tips from monastics – nuns and monks alike – with regards to reverence of small and great matters pertaining to our Orthodox faith. Although I have not always been vigilant when it comes to exhibiting this great virtue, I have nonetheless remained convinced of the utmost importance of this virtue in all faucets of our lives.

According to Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain reverence is “the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity”. He said that reverent people “behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.”

Reverence is a great virtue, a necessary Christian virtue. It is essential in our daily Christian struggle. Reverence with regard to little things is the foundation for acquiring and maintaining reverence toward greater, holier things. When we let our reverence for the little things subside, when we neglect to show reverence toward the little things, then we can be sure that we will very quickly begin neglecting the great things of our faith.

Some of the little ways in which I was taught we can exhibit reverence are:

-Being careful not to place icons or holy books in inappropriate places like piled on the floor or on seats or beds (except on pillows).

-Not hanging icons in washrooms

-Being sure to dispose of damaged or paper icons (even those from Church bulletins) by burning them

-Not disposing of blessed items in the garbage but being sure to burn anything brought home from the church which was blessed (ie. palms, pussy willows, flowers, bay leaves, etc.)

-Only pouring holy water in soil that people won’t walk on

-Not spitting or brushing one’s teeth for a set number of hours after receiving Holy Communion

-Fasting for a set number of hours from food and drink before eating antidoron (blessed bread)

-Never allowing a cross to be upside down, or placed on a floor or seat

-Being careful not to place paper icons or crosses, or any other holy object, in one’s back pocket

-Not eating or drinking anything apart from blessed food and drink in the church (ie. Holy Communion, holy bread, holy water, etc.)

-Dressing modestly for church services and while on the grounds of monasteries

-Struggling to be ever-mindful of the presence of holy saints and angels

-Making the sign of the cross before starting a task

-Saying a prayer before and after meals

“‘The grace of God,’ the elder [Paisios] observed, ‘comes to reverent people, and it makes the soul beautiful.’ But he observed with sadness that contemporary people pay little attention to such things. ‘If a person’s not reverent,’ he said, ‘If he scorns divine things, then divine grace abandons him, and he’s overcome by temptations, and becomes like the demons. Divine grace won’t come to an irreverent person – it comes to people who honour it.'” (Elder Paisios of the Mount Athos, by Hiermonk Isaac, pg. 420)

If only we would exhibit reverence toward the little things, perhaps we would acquire it with regards to the greater: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” (Lk. 16:10).

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Fr. John (as a deacon) with Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis, August 2012.

Christ is risen!

According to Wikipedia self-deprecation is the “act of belittling or undervaluing oneself”. But according to the behaviour of monastics (those who shine brightly as examples for us struggling in the world), self-deprecation is the act of knowing one’s self and revealing that knowledge in word and action.

Such statements are perhaps disconcerting when we first hear them. The first few times I heard a monastic say “I had the thought – with my stupid mind – that [insert opinion here]” it threw me off guard. And being the over-analytical person I am an inner dialogue began:

Does speaking like this draw unnecessary attention to one’s self ? Or is it prudent and constructive to speak openly and inexcusably about our weaknesses, our fallibility?

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov says: “Everyone who wants to dispassionately and seriously investigate the state of his soul will see the illness of insensibility in it; he will see its broad significance, its gravity and consequence, and will have to admit that it is the manifestation and witness of his deadness of soul.”

In one of his many “classes” (held in the church hall) Protoprebyter Theodoros Zisis said, “Self-knowledge was the virtue of paganism; self-abasement is the virtue of Christianity”. And what exactly is self-abasement? Isn’t it “a broken and contrite heart”?

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse”. Do you find that statement hyperbolic? I don’t, because the truth is the only thing that is good in us comes from God, having been made in His image, and the only good we do we do because God works through us. Therefore self-deprecating statements woven through our speech – and especially when we are stating our own opinions – are neither showy nor meaningless, but practical ways of reminding ourselves and others that without God “we can do nothing” (Jn. 14:5).

So the sisters approach conversation with a healthy dose of self-deprecating thoughts and words in order to acquire and maintain a “broken and contrite heart” which we know “God will not despise” (Ps. 50:19). They never speak as though what they say has authority. Everything is qualified by “in my opinion” or “the way I see it” so that they do not make the mistake of indiscreetly clinging to their thoughts and opinions, or worse still pressuring others to blindly accept what they say as the last word on the matter.

Elder Paisios says, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost; he hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. Therefore we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts.”

In making self-deprecating statements the individual never forgets the possibility that he can, and more than often does, err. So when it comes to their own thoughts and opinions they can call them “stupid” and yet when it comes to the doctrine of the Church monastics state the teachings of the Church unequivocally and with firm convictions, just as we in the world ought to do.

Practicing healthy self-deprecation is the perfect combination of self-knowledge and self-abasement. It is completely counter-cultural but perfectly in line with life in Christ, Whose divine self-abasement wrought salvation for the world: “In amazement angel armies lift up their song as they glorify Thy self-abasement, Lord”!

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(The following is an excerpt I translated from the fabulous Greek book Words οf the Heart – Λόγια Καρδίας – pp.176-177, a collection of sayings by Gerontissa Macrina of the Holy Monastery of Odigitria in Portaria, Greece)

An eternal Hell exists and an eternal Paradise exists. Eternal hell: I see it, there is gnashing of teeth. All day I see hell and I cry and I say: “Why do you cry?” [I cry thinking of] us being in that flame, in a frozen river, with maggots that never die. [I cry so that] we might be able, now during Great Lent, to pass our time peacefully and very spiritually.

Even above temperance and ascesis, the Fathers held up silence and they searched to learn how to fight their passions. They would say in their confessions: “This passion has grown, this trial has sprung up, the untamed beast [of such and such a passion], egotism wars against me, and I am not able to conquer it. Jealousy, envy, judgementalism, suspicion, and fault-finding all war against me.  What can I do with these demons? How can I fight them, Geronda? With what method can I fight these demons that war against me?”

Do we do thus in our own confessions? And these are the greater [or obvious] things we should be confessing. Or do we go to our spiritual father and, as one person did, say: “Geronda, so-and-so did this to me”? And since the person goes and tells the spiritual father everything so-and-so did when he kneels down for the prayer of absolution instead of saying the name of the one confessing “forgiven and absolved”, [the priest] says the name of the other person who was blamed [for everything]. Suddenly the man is startled: “Why, my father, did you say that name?”

“It’s him I confessed today, you didn’t say anything about your own sin, you weren’t humbled, so-and-so is at fault, he does everything [bad] to you.”

Forbearance is needed, patience is needed, whatever life we lead, patience is needed. We don’t have patience? We don’t have salvation.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany times the sisters at some of the monasteries I visit will try to commit one or more akathists or supplicatory canons to memory. Here is how they do this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome print off the prayers they want to learn and cut them into small sections to keep in their pocket. When they are doing some of the more simpler jobs or tasks around the monastery they take out one piece of paper at a time and lay it in front of them. Then they say that section over and over again until they have it committed to memory. Afterward they take out the next piece of paper, adding another stanza or ode and so on until they have memorized the whole thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOthers will use small prayer books to do they same thing – taking them out to read when they get stumped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the monastery there is always work to be done, rarely will a nun find herself idle. But in the world we are constantly waiting in lines at the grocery store, at the mechanic’s shop etc. And so, even if we don’t particularly care to commit a large prayer to memory, we can keep our mind occupied with prayer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted to memorize some prayers, so I took a tip from the sisters and made my own miniature prayer book. I thought writing out the prayers would help. So I that’s what I did. I keep it in my bag so that I have it wherever I go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I’m on the bus or waiting for something I pull it out and read an akathist. It only fits two akasthists and a few other favourite prayers but it is very helpful – mostly because it’s size makes reading the prayers in public somewhat discreet.

You don’t have to hand-write a prayer book, you could simply glue photocopies of prayers in a small book, or keep a larger prayer book with you. The point is to offer our attention – our nous – to God, to make an effort to “pray without ceasing”. I haven’t memorized any akathists yet, but I try to tell myself the point is to pray them, not accomplish something arbitrarily so I can feel self-righteous.

And besides, I love an excuse to try and make something look pretty. Having a notebook filled with prayers and icons and a little calligraphy makes the work worthwhile.

“Be thankful to God that this desire for the Prayer and this facility in it have been manifested in you. It is a natural consequence which follows constant effort and spiritual achievement…. Now you see with what admirable gifts God in His love for mankind has endowed even the bodily nature of man. You see what feelings can be produced even outside a state of grace in a soul which is sinful and with passions unsubdued, as you yourself have experienced. But how wonderful, how delightful and how consoling a thing it is when God is pleased to grant the gift of self-acting spiritual prayer, and to cleanse the soul from all sensuality! It is a condition which is impossible to describe, and the discovery of this mystery of prayer is a foretaste on earth of the bliss of Heaven. Such happiness is reserved for those who seek after God in the simplicity of a loving heart.” (The Way of the Pilgrim – a word from the pilgrim’s spiritual father)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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monastery“Orthodox monasticism is a life, an intense life, of prayer and asceticism removed from the world. In order that we ourselves grow in a deeper relationship with God. In order to serve our fellowman better. We believe that if we grow spiritually, if we deepen our spiritual relationship with God, if we deny ourselves, then we follow Christ’s example of sacrifice for the world. In this way Orthodox monastics sacrifice themselves for the whole world.

“What makes a good monastic is one who can bear in one’s heart the joys and sorrows of the world. Is one who has reached that level of identifying with the pain and suffering of the world, with the needs of every Christian who lives in the world. And because monastic communities are somewhat removed from the world, from the noise of the world, from the activities of the everyday world, then it provides a place also for pilgrims to come and find rest and peace, a word of counsel and of comfort.”

-Mother Gabriella, Abbess of the Holy Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God (Rives Junction, Michigan)

I transcribed the above from an interview, Life in a Monastery, with Mother Gabriella on Ancient Faith Radio from 2006. The whole interview is great but I found the above passage too special not to share.

For those who don’t know Mother Gabriella wrote the beautiful foreword for my book The Scent of Holiness. I had the great blessing of meeting her here in Greece (in 2009) and we’ve kept in contact since then. I’m honoured that she wrote such a wonderful foreword!

On a somewhat unrelated note: although I had plane tickets to leave Greece and return to Canada today (for good) due to some unforeseen (though entirely not surprising) circumstances I will be here for another two and a half months. So please keep us in your prayers!stylized peacock

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