A Smile from Eternity

Honorable Mr. Papanikolaou,

A few hours after the entombment of elder Joseph, you posted at your website an article with the title «Funeral of Blessed Elder Joseph of Vatopedi – A Smile From Eternity«, describing in a few words the event aided by a few pictures.

The photograph of the reposed, who is smiling not only with his lips but with all the expression of his face, made  a great impression on people, which we can see  from the articles and comments in numerous web-sites.

One can indeed come across dead people with a glowing face, a peaceful expression, but with never a smile. On the one hand all the spiritual fathers say that the time of death is horrifying for man. On the other hand we read in the book of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that even the most advanced ones , out of humility, did not let down their guard before entering eternal life, where there is no longer any danger.

In addition, Elder Joseph had a major heart problem and he was very debilitated by this illness. So how did he repose smiling?

The answer is: NO, he didn’t repose smiling, but HE SMILED AFTER HIS REPOSE.

After a conversation of us with some fathers of the monastery, we convey to you the story of the event.

The two monks that were with him until the very last moment, sprinted to the abbot, Elder Ephraim, to let him and the rest of the fathers know about the repose of Elder Joseph and the former two didn’t pay attention to the reposed, who was left with his mouth half-open.

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Thus, they came back to the cell, to prepare the reposed according to the monastic order. Elder Ephraim ordered them to leave his face uncovered. The fathers tried to close his mouth, but as it was quite late, his mouth remained open. They even tied a gauze around his head, so that his mouth would remain closed, but after they removed it his mouth opened up again. About 45 minutes had already gone by, since he had passed away.

-Elder, what should we do, it looks bad with the  mouth open?

-Leave him as he is, do not cover his face!

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They sewed him inside his monastic mantle as according to monastic custom. The whole procedure so that he was put inside the mantle and sewed in took another 45′. Then, they cut off the cloth around his face –according to the order- and found the elder as everybody can see him now, smiling.

Did he listen to them and granted them this litle favour, so that he didn’t hurt their feelings? Or, was it that he wanted to grant us an indication what he saw and let us know the state in which he is now?

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The smile of elder Joseph of Vatopedi, is the First supernatural event after his repose and has become a great consolation for everybody.

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Panayiotis Koutsou

Source: Diakonima

 

Eldress Theosemni: a Quiet and Hidden Ascetic

The life of the beloved Eldress Theosemni is a Synaxarion account of perfection in self-emptying and martyric asceticism in silence and humility. Her personage and her venerable example cannot be appreciated through the description and listing of her virtues, for it is impossible to explain, through words, the balance and grace of a person who spoke through her silence.
By the Nun Theoxeni, Abbess of the Holy Monastery of Chrysopigi, Hania, Crete

The Eldress Theosemni, Anastasia-Aristea Dimtsa in the world, was born in Larissa in the year 1938, the third child of pious parents. When she was just four years old, she lost her father and the care of the family fell to its newly widowed mother, who was from Eastern Romylia and was wholly dedicated to God.

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From the time she was a child, she received profound love from Christ and the Church, and she would hasten to attend the services and all-night vigils with a zeal that was unusual for her age. She also participated with great zeal in the youth activities at church and, from a very early age, expressed her desire to serve as a missionary.

She studied at the Red Cross’s School for Nursing, from which she graduated with highest honors. She chose this path out of zeal to serve humans in pain.

In 1966 she became a nun at Meteora. It is widely agreed that her monastic path was a model of obedience and asceticism. Unforeseen difficulties arose at that time, at the beginning of her monastic path, with which she dealt prudently, quietly, and humbly.

In 1976, Eldress Theosemni went to Hania (Crete) with two other nuns and, with the blessing of his eminence Metropolitan Irenaeus of Kydonia and Apokoronos, she took on the reconstruction, from its foundation, of the ruined Chrysopigi Monastery. Over the course of twenty-four years she worked in silence, with perfect self-renunciation. Her spiritual presence and her ascetic example encouraged many souls to dedicate their lives to the Bridegroom Christ, and she led them and established them in the Lord.

The abbess was an ascetic, a lover of struggle, and prudent. She restored the Holy Monastery of Chrysopigi from ruins, along with its miraculous icon of the Life-Giving Spring, and gave the monastery a spiritual foundation. She also restored the neighboring monastic dependency, the Monastery of St. Kyriaki. In her final years, she sought a more deserted place for the sisterhood. She established the Monastery of the Transfiguration on a rock, under the fatherly care of the venerable Elder Porphyrios.

At the age of forty-eight she became seriously ill with cancer and was miraculously cured by Elder Porphyrios, who had an especial love and respect for her. Ten years later, her sickness returned to her, during the four final years of her life. She accepted her sickness with great courage and perseverance, immense patience, gentleness, and deep peace, unceasingly fulfilling her duties until her final breath.

Her end was a blessed one, as her life had been. She fell asleep in the Lord on the 31st of May 2000, at the age of sixty-two.

Quiet and Hidden
Eldress Theosemni was a model nun, according to the teachings of the Fathers. In everything she did, she combined gifts that are seldom given, with great capability, on both the theoretical and the practical level. She was hard working and energetic, but simultaneously ascetic and hesychastic. By nature quiet and reserved in her relations with people, she was able to hide her great gifts and virtues even from the people around her, and to ascribe successes to others. Although she was very mature, organized, methodical, clever, and observant, she always managed to ascribe the result of any work to everyone involved, as though it was wholly a team effort. In this way, she taught the sisters not to seek after personal glory.

“That which moves me more than anything else,” she would say, “is the example of the Panagia. Her humility, obedience, and silence. An angel went and told her that she would give birth to Christ, God, and all she said was, ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.’ She didn’t say anything else. Only obedience. And she was hidden. My prayer is that we will acquire these virtues….”

The Eldress never believed in her many spiritual gifts. She was marked by a profound humility, not just simple “humble words,” or pietistic comeliness.

She managed the monastery’s affairs without any discord. She had the discernment to know which sister should undertake any given job, or a particular responsibility, and made use of the talents of all. In whichever place or job in the monastery she provided oversight, she was observant enough to know what needed to be fixed or improved, and this always took place with propriety and with a quiet explanation.

The Eldress herself took care of various jobs in the monastery, and did not limit herself to just the fulfillment of the duties of the abbess. She made good use of her time with remarkable creativity.

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The Holy Monastery of Chrysopigi in Hania, which the Eldress Theosemni renovated and where she quietly worked for twenty-four years

When she realized that some aspect of the monastery’s work was running behind or was unsuccessful, she got involved herself, without getting upset or uptight, and with her remarkable simplicity saying, “let’s have a look, sisters, with patience, at what other way we can do this….” And, of course, she always found a solution.

The Eldress had immeasurable respect for all of the sisters, and no one ever heard her speak in an offensive manner. Unless she was asked, she did not counsel anyone, and only infrequently would she give her nuns unsolicited counsel. And when she did, she would censure herself, saying that she was not worthy to teach.

Humble, Merciful, and Ascetic
Let us have a humble spirit. May we be careful to never see the sins of others, only our own sins. We, however, want to fix other people, but don’t want to fix ourselves. Eh…does this happen, though? No, we don’t fix ourselves! Our brother is not to blame for whatever happens, our spiritual condition is to blame. It’s this condition of ours that upsets us, which makes us judgmental, which causes us to get angry. We mustn’t blame others for these things. The causes are within us. If we ever do or think something good, let us not regard it as our own achievement, but the achievement of God. And let us say, “You, my God, You gave it to me. It’s yours and You allowed it and gave me the strength to do it.” In this way, we chase thoughts of vainglory far from us.

She had the spiritual gift to administer and direct  the sisterhood without getting upset, without raising her voice, without having to check up on, or to threaten by giving her nuns a rule of penance. She generally did not give rules of penance. If she did it on occasion, she was very sad about it, which is why she would be the first to fulfill the rule of penance that she had given to the sister. As abbess, she never accepted special attention or honor.

The Eldress was exceedingly merciful. She loved and honored, without distinction, people in need and in difficult situations. No one left the monastery with empty hands. She did not even overlook those who, for whatever reason, were not able to make it all the way to the monastery. She experienced such great joy when she gave, that she felt like she should be the one giving thanks. “We mustn’t ask anything from people,” she would say, “but we should give them everything.”

The Eldress loved to hide within the sisterhood. She would generally not appear to visitors, especially when large groups would visit the monastery. She always sought to remain far from crowds. While she shared in the people’s pain, and would pray a great deal for their problems, she systematically avoided social contact with them. “This,” she would say, “is the work of the guest master,” and in this way she taught the nuns not to seek social relations and conversations with pilgrims, whether acquaintances or relatives. She would say, characteristically, that “the spiritual life of the monastic progresses through isolation and silence.”

She carefully examined every part of the monastic life and did not ignore anything as though it were unimportant or too detailed. She never allowed herself to make changes, remaining always faithful to the spirit of the Fathers. It is characteristic that she never gave a blessing for a loosening of the fasting regulations unless such a loosening was indicated in the Orologion. Even when she was sick, she kept the fasting rules precisely. On one occasion, she found herself outside of the monastery at the very beginning of Great Lent, for radiation therapy, and she still kept the first three days of Lent with precision [a complete, strict fast], and then had the first round of radiation therapy on Wednesday afternoon of the first week of Lent, after the Presanctified Liturgy.

During her whole period of sickness, despite the insistent requests of the sisters, she never asked for any specific kind of food, but accepted with thanks whatever food she was offered.

“As monastics, we must practice asceticism. We shouldn’t eat until we’re full. We should arise from the dinner table and be hungry; in any case, this is what we promised. Even Christ practiced asceticism. He ate little, he had only one tunic. And He taught his disciples not to have anything. Let us do the same. Asceticism: in food, in sleep, in standing for long periods. Let’s try to do these things and we’ll see what a blessing we have.”

The blessed Eldress Theosemni never protested for anything, to anyone. She regarded martyrdom and being crushed as part and parcel of the monastic life, with the certainty that God allows trials for our salvation.

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The Transfiguration, the new monastery that was built under the fatherly oversight of Venerable Porphyrios

Full of Love and Untiring Prayer
The Eldress would always cover over the failings of others, she never blamed anyone and never judged, criticized, or complained about someone who had done her wrong or had slandered her. She forgave and loved all people from her heart, effortlessly, which is why everyone felt at ease with her, despite her serious and careful demeanor. For her part, she did not feel as though she was doing anything more than fulfilling the obligations of a nun.

Let us have love. When we reproach someone, we don’t love them. They will only understand through love, not through being gloomy, angry, and judgmental. We’re mistaken if we think that other people have wronged us. The problem is within us. Only let sweet words come from our lips. And if we don’t have anything to say, a smile suffices. Let’s gift others with our smile, with our love. When we don’t love our brethren, we don’t love Christ. It’s no good for us to say we love Christ if we don’t love our brethren.

Humility is to make excuses for our brethren in all things and for all things. The humble person cuts off her own will.

Once, near the end of her earthly life, reference was made to instances where she made remarkable sacrifices and was particularly humble, and she responded laconically, “Sisters, let’s not transform our daily duties into some kind of achievement, if we have at some time, by the grace of God, done something….”

The Eldress struggled for the salvation of the whole world. She prayed unceasingly for the known and unknown, small and large, Christian and non-Christian, for all people.

Most of our prayer should be for the world. We should pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” but this “me” should refer to the whole world. If we pray for others, God gives us more grace than He would have if we were just praying for ourselves. And whatever good things we ask on behalf of others, God also gives to us. Let’s say the prayer continuously. This softens the soul. It makes it soft, so that it loves all people. All people seem good to it and nothing upsets it.

She was once walking down a street in London, after a visit with a professor of oncology, who had just told her that the mass in her lung had returned and that she would have to undergo more therapy. She was thoughtful and, in answer to the question posed by the sister who was with her, as to whether she was upset by the problem of her health, she answered, “No, I have left this concern completely to God. What I was thinking about just now, and it’s for this that I’m concerned, are those young children we met on the corner who were begging. I noticed that they were pale and their hands… oh, my… how their hands were! I feel terrible. I’m afraid that they’re taking drugs. And that girl, how beautifully she played guitar and sang! She also could have sung….”

Patient in Her Sickness
Her serious long-term sickness was a source of pain for everyone else, but not for her. While she suffered, no one noticed any sadness or disappointment on her face or in her words because of the bodily trials and pains she suffered and endured. She continued her life with psychical strength, remarkable patience and meekness, courage and boldness, endless faith and obedience to the will of God. She continuously transmitted to everyone the joy and hope of communion with Christ, and the strength of the foretaste of eternal gifts, which her blessed soul experienced already in this life.

“Let us hymn and glorify God in trials,” she would say, “Let’s not be beggars and only ask things from God, ‘Give me, why won’t you give it to me?’ May our lips be used to glorify God. Let’s not be sullen and self-absorbed. Let’s say a ‘Glory to Thee, oh God!’ We must not forget.”

And referring to her own sickness:

My sisters, don’t be saddened that I’m sick. Think that whatever God gives is for our good. Whatever He allows is for our salvation. Whatever this is…and let us thank Him. Do you know what joy and what peace comes from thanking Him for all things, and from glorifying Him? Submit everything to God. This is the work of a nun: prayer for everything, for everyone. Haven’t you heard what Fr. Porphyrios said, “With joy, leave all things to God.” Let us have our minds constantly on Christ. This is the only way we will be patient in our sorrow and in whatever trials come to us.

The peace that exuded from Eldress Theosemni’s face gave comfort to the insecurities of everyone and her peaceable speech was therapeutic for the souls of those who listened to her. Her whole life was a harmony of spiritual vision, teachings, and action. The Eldress incarnated the humility of the holy Fathers, which is why people near her experienced peace and an otherworldly joy, the same kind that we sense when we are near Saints.

Her Repose
While still in this life, the blessed Eldress had already truly lived the foretaste of heavenly blessedness in silence and humility, and through her repose reconciled people with death. The people that came to Chrysopigi from Crete, from Greece, and from overseas, to pay their last respects and to venerate her relics, all witnessed to the same experience: they described the sweetness and absence of fear that they felt before her relics.

The two days that preceded her burial were a touching experience, full of blessings for everyone, not only for those that knew and loved her, but also for the whole Church. Parents who had lost young children in tragic accidents described with tears how, for the first time, they felt comforted. Others touched their infants to her, as they would to the relics of the Saints. Children both young and old approached her coffin and touched her again and again without fear, for they saw her smiling, as she had unceasingly smiled even when in pain.

The funeral of the blessed Eldress was uncommon. It was a triumphant funeral service, a revelation for everyone, a tangible revelation of the mystery of sanctity. There was no despair and sadness, but victory over death, the joy of the Resurrection. A young person said, “It’s like Holy Friday when we bury Christ with the certainty of tomorrow’s resurrection.” Everyone felt that the reposed Eldress Theosemni had passed to heavenly blessedness from a life in which she had had a foretaste of, and had grown accustomed to, the joyful feeling of immortality. She had experienced this to such an extent that she was able to communicate psychical comfort and the overcoming of sorrows to everyone, along with the reality of the approach of eternity.

The blessed Eldress Theosemni departed in light from the present life, during which she had lived within the perspective of the future age. Her grave had become a source of consolation, hope, and an education in eternal blessedness, not only for the nuns of her monastery, but also for all of the pilgrims, known and unknown, who thronged from near and far. And a story, well-known to the Church, was repeated: of how a person who lived in obscurity and silence became a preacher, an inspirer, and an initiate, not of human words and actions, but of the mystery of eternity.

 

Source: Pemptousia

Holy Monastery of Zavorda of Saint Nikanor

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It is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! Pascha! The Lord’s Pascha! For Christ our God has brought us from death to life, and from earth unto heaven, as we sing triumphant hymns!

 

 

Holy Monastery of Zavorda of Saint Nikanor

After about 80 years the Holy Monastery of Zavorda of Saint Nikanor seems that it will once again revive its old and religious and historical splendor.
 
It has been reported that 8 hieromonks, until now, have immediately expressed their interest to continue their asceticism in the historic Monastery in Grevena.
 
In this case they will re-establish the avaton, which prohibits females from entering the Monastery.
 
The avaton of Zavorda Monastery was abolished in the year 2000 by the late Metropolitan Sergios of Grevena, and from that time no hieromonks lived there in asceticism.
 
Zavorda Monastery was founded in 1534-1535 by Saint Nikanor and dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. It is famous for its icons of exceptional artistic quality and hosts the grave of Saint Nikanor.
 

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The Angel cried to her who is full of grace: Rejoice, pure Virgin! And again I say, Rejoice! Thy Son has risen on the third day from the grave. Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee. Now dance for joy and be glad, O Zion! And thou, pure Mother of God, rejoice in the rising of Him Whom thou didst bear.

Monastic Tonsure

ΚΟΥΡΑ ΔΥΟ ΝΕΩΝ ΜΟΝΑΧΩΝ ΣΤΗΝ Ι. ΜΟΝΗ ΑΓ. ΝΙΚΑΝΟΡΟΣ ΖΑΒΟΡΔΑΣ

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*The Paschal Canon was composed by the great Saint and Father of our Church, Saint John Damascene and is described as the most glorious of all hymns in the Orthodox Church; it has been called the Queen of canons because it exclaims the richness of Orthodox theology surrounding this great and holy feast.

 

Christ is Risen!

 

 

Father Ilarion and the Suffering Horse

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Source: Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses

The sequel to Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father

“There are many times when we read the words “the best book I have ever read”….well, this book is certainly the benchmark by which you can measure all the others you will read. If you are spiritually hungry and thirsting for that one drop of spiritual water….then read this. It will open your heart. The words in this book will feed your soul. If you are reading this because you are undecided…..then why don’t you ask your heart to make the decision for you? I did…..!”

Orthodoxy and Animals

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Why Be a Monastic? (II)

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Why be a monk?

What is a monk? One who strives to love God with all his heart, all his soul and all his mind and all his strength, and to love his neighbor as himself.

Monasticism is the heart of the Christian Church. It is radical discipleship to Christ, taking the Lord at His word in the Scriptures, and striving to live by it in an integral way.

Monasticism is about living the Gospel without compromise. It is about living in Christ by the Holy Spirit, and growing by grace to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Monasticism is about life lived in obedience to Christ, in self-denial and bearing the cross of whatever suffering God sends us to help us work out our salvation. Monasticism is about working out our salvation in a community of like- minded men, by learning to love our brother “who is our life” (St Silouan).

Who can become a monk? Anyone. BUT, that does not mean that everyone is called to it. It is a calling, a charism, a gift. There are no impediments to becoming a monk. But not every community is able to receive everyone.

It is important to remember that monastic life is about striving for Christ. A monastery is not a psychiatric hospital, not a poorhouse, retirement home, group home or halfway house. To use it as such is to abuse it. To try to use it as a means to escape the responsibilities of life, or in order to be taken care of, will only lead to disappointment. This does not mean that the monastery does not take care of the ill, elderly or those in need. Those are important ministries of a monastic community. But to join the monastery to try to escape the necessities of living, working and relating in the world is to come to it for the wrong reason. The only reason to join the monastery is for the love of Christ, and the desire to follow Him.

Preparation for Monastic Life

St Ignatiy Brianchaninov writes that God-pleasing life in the world is the most important preparation for monastic life. This means to fulfill all one’s responsibilities,

and live according to the commandments, working to support oneself, and being merciful to the needy. And, of course, one must go to church, receive the sacraments, and live a life of prayer and fasting.

To join the monastery, on a practical level, one should have all one’s debts paid off. Bankruptcy, for the sake of convenience or laziness, is not an option. It may be best to live close to the monastery while paying off one’s debts, and do whatever it is that will pay them off as quickly as possible, and honorably.

We must battle to overcome consumerism and worldliness while living in the world. The Lord calls us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” If one has children, or ill or elderly parents, one cannot simply abandon them. Their welfare must be seen to. This is an essential Christian duty, which as the Lord tells us, cannot be abolished. It also means that one might have to put off monastic commitment until such issues are
resolved. Those issues have to be dealt with before one enters the community.

One cannot “retire” to a monastery. A monastery is a place of intense struggle, work and constant, demanding effort. Monks often work harder than those who are in the world, with hours per day of services on top of the work load. St Benedict’s motto was “Prayer and work.” We must strive to earn our own living by the work of our own hands. Everyone has to work, to contribute, to share the burden. The difference is that in the monastery, work is sanctified, and work sanctifies us, as our contribution to the life of the whole body. It is a means of serving one another, and of overcoming our selfishness.

Neither can one escape his problems or “issues” in the monastery. In contrast to living in the world, where there are endless distractions to keep us from confronting our problems, emotional and psychological issues, there are no distractions in the monastery. In the monastery, there are no television, movies, radio, newspapers, novels or friends, parties, alcohol or narcotics. There is only the silence, the services, our quiet work, and our prayers. And in the normal course of spiritual development, all our issues come up and hit us squarely in the face.

When to enter the monastic life

The virtually universal consensus of monastic spiritual fathers and mothers is that the younger one enters the monastic life, the better. It becomes harder and harder as one gets older.

In the past, and still in the “old countries,” it was not uncommon for children to enter the monastic life, either with their families or by themselves. Several prominent figures in the Orthodox churches in America became monastics at 11 or 12 years of age: Bp Jovan, Mo Benedicta, Fr Roman. Others entered in their late teens or early twenties.

The best time is generally from 18-25, because one’s identity has not yet crystalized, and one is looking for one’s place in life. From 25-29, one’s identity has

begun to solidify, and one gets into patterns that will be with him for his whole life. The early twenties are a time of great idealism and energy, while the older one gets, that becomes more and more moderated by experience. After 30, and especially after 35, it becomes more and more difficult. Some spiritual fathers recommend that people in their late 40’s and beyond simply remain in the world, in their own homes, and keep to the rule of life given by their spiritual father, a kind of “white monasticism.” Contemporary Roman Catholic monasteries seldom admit people over 40 or 45.

The old Orthodox tradition of retiring to a monastery is a wonderful thing, if one has resources that one can contribute so that he will not be an undue burden on the community. Still, it will require an enormous adjustment for an older person, who has either been on their own or had a family, to adjust to community life.

The Biggest Obstacle

To read about the biggest issue for people joining a monastery, the three ways men are called to the monastic life, according to the Fathers of the Church, how you choose a monastery, the distinctive features of Life in Common, the Koinobion, the Way of Spiritual Growth from Psychological Religion to Authentic Spirituality, the three levels of human life: the carnal man, the natural (“psychic” in Greek), and the spiritual man, spiritual healing and various psychological/ psychiatric health Issues, the Monastic Vows and Gospel Virtues: Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and Stability, and a lot more go to Monastery of St. John Articles and read the article in full.

 

 

Why be a monastic? (I)

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Monasticism in the Twenty First Century: A Viable Alternative or a Forgotten Ideal?

A brother went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,(subscript: )”Abba, as far as I can I say my prayer rule, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

This is what monasticism is: a longing for God that knows no limits. It is the beginning of the Age to come, of the Kingdom of Heaven still here on earth. The Church calls monasticism the Angelic Life. According to Holy Tradition, in the 4th century an angel appeared to St. Pachomius, the first of the monks struggling out in the Egyptian desert to establish a monastic community, and gave him a bronze tablet, inscribed with a Rule for his monks to follow. From Apostolic times to the present day thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people have left everything they had and scorned everything that this world has to offer in order to follow Christ and to live the Gospels more fully.

At times this impulse has been stronger, at times weaker, and the Holy Fathers speak of monasticism as a barometer of spiritual life in the Church. When monastic life flourishes, the faithful are really striving spiritually, and conversely, when few people find inspiration in the monastic ideal, monasteries diminish and are ignored, spiritual life amongst the faithful is on the decline. At the end of the 4th century, when persecution of Christians ceased and the Church knew peace for the first time, but the zeal of converts hadn’t cooled, and many Christians desired to give everything to Christ, monasticism even became a mass movement.

One of the travel writers of the period, St. Palladius, tells of his visit to “Oxyrhynchus, one of the cities of the Thebaid (in Egypt). It is impossible to do justice to the marvels, which we saw there. For the city is so full of monasteries that the very walls resound with the voices of monks. Other monasteries encircle it outside… The temples and capitols of the city were bursting with monks; every quarter of the city was inhabited by them… The monks were almost in the majority over the secular inhabitants… and there is no hour of day or night when they do not offer acts of worship to God… What can one say of the piety of the… people, who when they saw us strangers … approached us as if we were angels? How can one convey an adequate idea of the throngs of monks and nuns past counting? However, as far as we could ascertain from the holy bishop of that place, we would say that he had under his jurisdiction 10,000 monks and 20,000 nuns. It is beyond my power to describe their hospitality and their love for us. In fact each of us had our cloaks torn apart by people pulling us to make us go and stay with them.”

Closer to our own time, in Russia in 1907, towards the end of the spiritual revival of the 19th century and before the Revolution there were 24,000 monks and 66,000 nuns, about 90,000 monastics, living in 970 monasteries.

On the bleak side, the countryside of France, where my monastery is, is peppered by empty monasteries in ruins, remnants of the Age of Faith, as historians call the Middle Ages. They are testimonies to the spiritual barrenness of France, where more people believe in astrology than in Christ, and people spit at me on the streets because they think I’m a Moslem. It would never occur to them that a woman wearing black might be a nun. The scene at the airport here in Ottawa when I arrived was nothing like the scene in Oxyrhyncus when St. Palladius walked through the gates, and you could probably travel clear across Canada or America and not see a single monastery nor meet a single monk or nun.

But is monasticism completely a lost cause today? True, to modern eyes, the monk is increasingly a figure of yesterday, someone silly and eccentric. People think of roly-poly Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or of the sinister, murderous monks in the novel “The Name of the Rose”. The word “nun” brings to mind Mother Theresa or silly movies about nice but rather dumb women wearing strange, uncomfortable clothes. Even in someone with a more Orthodox frame of mind the word “monastic” applied to our times calls up the image of St. John of Shanghai, of Fr. Seraphim Rose, or the New Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, and we wonder what can these saints possibly have in common with us?

Is anything from their lives and experiences at all relevant or applicable, and how can we, Orthodox Christians of the 21 century, even dare to aspire to imitate them? The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the lives of the founders of monasticism abound with dire warnings that monasticism, especially the strict asceticism of past centuries, will be just about impossible in the latter days. Once, when “the Holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation, they said, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” They said, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers”.

Reading St. Ignaty Brianchaninov’s instructions for contemporary monastics, first published a little over a century ago and known in English as “The Arena” can be downright depressing. “We are extremely weak,” he says, “while the temptations that surround us have increased enormously… Spiritual activity is quite unknown to us. We are completely engrossed in bodily activity and that with the purpose of appearing pious and holy in the eyes of the world and to get its reward. We have abandoned the hard and narrow way of salvation… we monks are diminished more than any nation, and we are humbled in all the earth today for our sins….” At the end of the Arena, St. Ignaty uses the image of beggars eating the scraps left over from a sumptuous banquet to describe the monks of the latter days, where the Lord says to them, “Brothers, in making my arrangements for the banquet, I did not have you in view. So I have not given you a proper dinner, and I am not giving you the gifts which have all been given away according to a previously made calculation which only I can understand.” If someone today so much as even dares think of monasticism everything around him, both worldly and Orthodox, of the Church seems to say, “Forget it! Don’t even try! It’s absolutely useless!”

In spite of the hardships and the off-putting advice of even the most authoritative Orthodox sources, many people still do choose to leave everything and everyone behind, to take up the cross of monastic struggles and to follow our Saviour. I don’t think that it’s too optimistic to speak of a sort of revival of monasticism in our times. In the 20 years that I’ve been struggling to be a monastic my monastery has doubled in size. Every week we get letters and phone-calls from women and girls that want to come, to enter or to learn more about our life. They are clearly searching for a deeper, more intense spiritual life and some form of dedication.

Our monasteries in the Holy Land are growing and flourishing. Since the years of Perestroika in Russia hundreds, if not thousands of monasteries have been opened. When I travel there, on the street every few feet of the way someone comes up to ask where I’m from, what monastery, for prayers, for a word of advice or consolation. They weep at the very sight of a nun and press lists of names into my hands, and their last kopecks and rubles. A very serious writer noted in surprise that in Russia more tourists visit monasteries than exhibits, museums or zoos.

What is it that continues to draw people to this way of life that is essentially a mystery, something that even the holiest monks speak of with awe and trembling?

Above all, monasticism is the way of repentance.

Not of the sort of repentance when we stop to sigh and feel sorry about the bad things we’ve done and then quickly move on to the next item on our list of things to do, or mumble a list of sins at confession so that we can go to Communion, but the sort that means a complete turn-about, a conversion, a profound change of lifestyle. This is the repentance of the Prodigal Son of the Gospels, who comes to realize that his entire way of life has been very wrong, and who leaves it all behind to go home to his father to ask forgiveness.

The service of monastic tonsure begins with a stichera paraphrasing this parable: “Make haste to open unto me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the Prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Saviour, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee.” It is this longing for our Heavenly Father’s embrace, for His forgiveness, and for a home with Him that still makes people turn their backs on everything and trudge along this rocky road.

The first step along this road is renunciation of the world, leaving it behind.

This does not mean simply quitting school or your job, closing your bank account, moving to a monastery, putting on black and saying your prayers. According to the Holy Fathers the term “world” means the sum total of all our passions, attachments, opinions, petty likes and dislikes; everything that distances us from God and prevents us from discerning His Will.

“No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure of the body, but departure from the world’s affairs”, says St. Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest monastic fathers of all time. “…No one who has communion with the world can have communion with God, and no one who has concern for the world can have concern for God”, he continues.”

“If you truly love God”, begins St. John of the Ladder, another monastic guide, “and long to reach the Kingdom that is to come, if you are pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgement, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed, for anything of earth… Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ…”

At this point the most common question is “how do I know?” How do I know that I’m called to the particular form of renunciation of the world that monasticism represents? All of us have to leave the world in the sense of struggling to overcome our passions in one way or another; there’s no question about that. But how can a person be sure that the Lord means for him to do it by embracing the monastic life? How can we discern the will of God in this case? It’s very true that there’s no specific “monastic type” or particular character trait that defines someone as a candidate. My monastery has all sorts of people: fat, thin, old, young, outgoing, very shy, well-educated, high-school drop-outs, of the sweetest disposition, and some can be downright nasty at times. They did all sorts of things: one was a magazine editor, another a seamstress, someone was a semi-professional ball player, another sister has a PHD in philosophy, one of the youngest sisters came to us practically off the streets. Some of them had happy childhoods, others hated their parents, some of them were extremely successful at what they did, others hated their jobs. But all of them at some point in time became convinced of the necessity of dropping everything and starting along the road home to their Heavenly Father.

People often talk of vocations and callings, assuming that there has to be some sort of mystical experience to convince you to become a monastic. It’s true that a lot of monastics can look back to a particular event that was the turning point in their lives. 9 times out of 10 there’s nothing really otherworldly about it. If you hear voices or see angels probably the last place where you belong is a monastery! One of our sisters made her decision during an akathist before a miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God. All of her friends had gone dancing that night, but she chose to attend this akathist, and in the middle of it, it dawned on her that she was having a really good time; much better than she would have had dancing, and that it would make sense to do this full-time, as it were. Another sister was moved by the example of 2 nuns she met at the Synod Cathedral in NY. They were there to collect money for the Holy Land. Someone from the parish attacked them for no reason, accusing them of taking food from the kitchen without permission. Most of us would have tried to reason and explain the mistake, but one of the nuns, in a beautiful example of monastic humility, simply made a prostration and begged forgiveness. The fact that there really are still people today who try to do what the Gospels teach was a real revelation, and within a year this girl was a novice. Someone else was moved by a passage from St. John Cassian. One of our older nuns made her decision when her parish priest asked her if she knew anyone that might consider entering being a nun. This was soon after World War II, and this person had assumed that there were no longer any monasteries left, that monasticism wasn’t even a possibility. And when the priest asked, everything fell into place for her.

Even if there is such a moment, the choice and the decision to follow a monastic path is almost always a period of real struggle, of doubts, fears and temptations. A lot of the monastics I know, when the thought first came to them, wanted nothing to do with it and were quite shocked by the idea. The Holy Fathers emphasize that there is nothing that the evil one hates as much as monasticism and he will do everything possible to turn someone away from this path. If one is at all spiritually alert you can practically see and hear him at work at this point. I’ve known people to get incredible job offers, receive huge amounts of money, marriage proposals from tall, dark, handsome and rich men. An older nun I knew had her husband, missing for 20 years, turn up on her doorstep the day before she left. Another one had her son threaten to shoot himself, someone else’s mother starved herself for 6 weeks. If you speak to monastics you truly will find that fact is stranger than fiction! In spite of the trials, there’s a growing conviction that there is nothing else that you can do, that no matter what, the monastic life is the only viable alternative. And this nags at you until there’s just no other way out.

Once a monk escapes from the world he begins to try to finally think clearly and to concentrate on the things that will determine his eternal fate. He begins to really understand and to feel that we, wretched sinners, really are perishing, that we desperately need a Redeemer and Someone to heal our souls, and that in Him alone is life, that everything besides is empty and senseless. He begins to really feel and experience this, not just to say the words. Only when a person stops listening to the noise and clatter of the world, turns his eyes away from its wild, psychedelic colors, and when he gets over the hangover that the world leaves you with does he begin to see himself clearly and to discern the meaning and aim of life on this earth and to struggle against his enemy, the evil one. St. John of the Ladder tells us, “All who enter upon the good fight, the monastic life, which is tough and painful, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they…expect the heavenly fire to dwell within them…let everyone test himself, and then eat the bread of the monastic life with its bitter herbs.. .and drink the cup of it with its tears… Yes, it’s true. The monastic life is not “fun”. Most of us, especially those that had to go through a severe trial to leave the world, experience a “honeymoon” period, when you finally take the plunge, make the break with the world and get to a monastery. It’s such a relief to have all that behind you and to have finally started out on the way. Everything and everyone seems wonderful, you’re full of zeal, and you can practically see the grace, it’s so abundant. For some monastics this stage can go on for years. But sooner or later reality strikes and you see that everything that’s been written about the hardships of monastic life is not just fancy words or symbolic phrases or allegory. It’s not the physical side that’s hard. With some effort and discipline anyone can learn to get up early and to stand through long church services, to make prostrations and to work and work hard at jobs that you don’t necessarily like. A lot of people in the world have a much more difficult life in that sense. It’s the encounter with yourself and who you really are and the struggle to change that, that is the slow but painful, day by day, minute by minute work of the monk. The work is done largely through our contacts and conflicts with other people. St. John of the Ladder is very blunt about this: “…Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned.” For most of us the most difficult element in all this is giving up your own will. In one of the most quoted monastic sayings Abba Dorotheus, another great teacher of the monastic life says: “I know of no fall that happens to a monk that does not come from trusting his own will and his own judgement… Do you know someone who has fallen? Be sure that he directed himself… nothing is more grievous… nothing is more pernicious.”

When I was a young novice I would get really annoyed at the writings of the Holy Fathers and the constant repetition that in the latter days monks will not be able to perform any podvigs, or great ascetic feats, but will work out their salvation through patience and long-suffering. “How boring!” I would think, “Surely if we set our minds and spirits to it, we can do it, too? How come all we’re allowed is to sit around and be patient?” The secret here is that this is truly a great mercy of the Lord. Today we are not only unchristian in our approach to life, in our thoughts, words and actions, we are outright anti- Christian. Were the Lord to grant us the grace and give us the strength to perform even just 1/10 of the ascetic feats of previous times, we would not only not profit, but the resulting pride and vain-glory would lead us straight to perdition. This is especially true in monasticism, where, for the inexperienced, the intense work on one’s self is very easy to confuse with the self-analysis that so many self-help/’feel-good-about-yourself” guides teach today.

Take, for example, the concept of “moods”. This is not an Orthodox concept; we do not have moods, we are inflicted by passions and we strive to acquire virtues. “Being in a bad mood” can never excuse your behavior in a monastery. This can be very hard for a novice to accept. Likewise, we do not have any “rights”; we have obligations and obediences, and we owe it to the Lord Himself to fulfill them, but no one owes us anything. Similarly, we cannot expect to be “happy” and “fulfilled”; we come to a monastery to weep for our sins. Today just about everything is “boring”. We’ve tried everything, we’re stubborn and very self-assured. To cure the boredom, some people decide to try monasticism. Young people especially want nothing more than to make an impression, cause a sensation. What could be more sensational than to suddenly have all your friends see you 30 pounds thinner, draped in black, clutching a prayer rope, expounding spiritual wisdom? Worst of all, in our times people are prouder than ever before. We take pride in our imaginary virtues, we even take pride in our sins. And most of all, we are proud of our minds. We see ourselves as great thinkers, understanding psychologists, brilliant philosophers, who of course can understand all the finer, most profound monastic truths much more deeply than those that came before us. The notions of humility, obedience, self-condemnation, meekness and renunciation of one’s will used to “go without saying” for Orthodox Christians, but today they have to be learned. One of the Russian new martyrs, Vladyka Varnava Beliaev, wrote that it takes 30 years for someone to start being a monk. That was said 80 years ago; today it probably takes 40 or 50!

So why bother? Is it really worth it? I remember Metropolitan Philaret, paraphrasing St. John of the Ladder, saying, “If everyone knew how hard it was in monasteries, no one would ever go. But if they knew the joys and rewards of monastic life, they would all come running. And it’s true, the rewards and the blessings really are there. One of the Optina Elders, St. Barsanuphius, taught, “True blessedness can only be acquired in a monastery. You can be saved in the world, but it is impossible to be completely purified.. .or to rise up and live like the angels and live a creative spiritual life in the world. All the ways of the world, …. laws destroy or at least slow down the development of the soul. And that’s why people can attain the angelic life only in monasteries… Monasticism is blessedness; the most blessed state that is possible for a person on this earth. There is nothing higher than this blessedness, because monasticism hands you the key spiritual life.” In what do we find this blessedness? There is the knowledge that every day of your life and every minute of your day are sanctified and significant before God. Even your “bad” days and your really low days having meaning before Him. As long as you live the life consciously there is no wasted time. There is the solemnity and beauty of the Divine Services of our Church, which is truly the beginning of the life of Heaven still here on earth. In the world our attendance in Church is always time stolen away from the world’s affairs, a welcome respite, a sort of spiritual treat. In the monastery the services determine the very patterns of life, and they are the real life; everything else is time stolen away from them. They nourish us, instruct us, and in a certain sense even entertain us. When I was entering the monastery one of my greatest fears was that eventually I would find the services boring-the same thing, year in, year out, forever. Instead I find that they contain such vast wealth and so many levels, each more profound than the one before it, that a lifetime is nowhere near enough to begin to appreciate them. The saints have become my close friends and mentors, I experience the feasts differently each year, every Great Lent and every Pascha are a completely new revelation. Above all, in monasticism there is what St. Theophan the Recluse called “being sure that God keeps you as His own”. If you accept the ways of the Lord as your life your conscience will soon be lit up with the knowledge that He, too has accepted you as His own. I remember the night I spent in church after my tonsure, after making my monastic vows. I had such a vivid sense that the Lord was with me, it seemed that Heaven was literally just around the corner, that if I opened the door of the church it would be right there. This wasn’t a feeling; I knew this.

There is nothing more beautiful than the way monastics die. Most of our sisters die having received Holy Communion, surrounded by the community, with prayers and chanting and tears. Not the desperate tears of the world, but tears at parting with a friend and sister, even if just for a while. The funeral service of a monk, which is quite different than that of a lay person, is a lesson on the monastic life and the solidly grounded hope of eternal life that it represents rather than a meditation on death. For those that spend their life on the threshold of the Age to Come death is merely stepping into the next room.

We do give up a lot in monastic life. My arms have ached after holding my friends’ children, knowing that I would never hold my own. But the Lord has given me many children of the spirit amongst the young novices that I work with in the monastery. A monastic will never know the special intimacy and closeness that is the blessing of an Orthodox marriage. And a married person will never know the spiritual kinship of a monastic community. There are no vacations from monasticism, no sick days, no time off. But every day is a feast.

“Monasticism”, one of the Optina elders said, “supports the entire world. And when there will be no more monasticism the Dread Judgement will be upon us.

And for those of us that are drawn to this way of life there simply is no other way to live. One writer described it like this: “Some people are very single- minded by nature. And there are ideas that permeate the lives of such people down to the very last detail. Everything beautiful, joyous and of consolation in this life is overshadowed for them by the memory of one thing, by a single thought: that of Christ Crucified. No matter how bright the sun might be, how beautiful nature, God’s creation is, how tempting faraway places might seem, they remember that Christ was Crucified, and everything is dim in comparison. We might hear the most beautiful music, the most inspired speeches, but these souls hear one thing: Christ was Crucified, and what can ever drown out the sound of the nails being hammered into His flesh? Describe to them the happiness of a family life, of a beloved husband or wife, of children, but Christ was Crucified, and how can we not show the Lord that He isn’t alone, we haven’t deserted Him. There are those that are willing to forget everything in the world so as to stand by His Cross, suffer His suffering and wonder at His Sacrifice. For them the world is empty, and only Christ Crucified speaks to their hearts. And only they know what sweetness they taste still on this earth by sharing in the eternal mystery of the Cross and only they hear what He says to them when they come to Him after a life full of incomprehensible hardships and inexplicable joy.

By Mother Ephrosynia of the Convent of Lesna, France, Lesna Monastery, Provemont, 5/18 December 2000. St. Sabbas the Sanctified

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