On Tempting the Lord

There were two monks on Mt Athos that shared a cell their whole monastic life. They knew each other so well. They never had an argument. Everything was so good that they thought something was missing. They felt that there was no temptation or provocation in their situation with each other. One day, they decided to have a mock-argument in order just to test themselves, so that they might profit spiritually from the exercise. The topic in itself wasn’t important to them. They believed their spiritual balance was stable enough to undertake the exercise without harm to their spiritual condition.  However, it secretly allowed the evil one to introduce a contentious spirit into their situation. This contention didn’t go away. It eventually led to disrespect and condemning of each other. The rift widened to the point that they could no longer live together. They were not in fact able to preserve their spiritual balance. What started as an exercise became a real fall for both of them. What can we say? We can say they were correct that things were indeed originally missing in their original situation when everything on the surface seemed fine to them. But they were wrong. Firstly, they had stopped relying on the providence of God Who knew they were so weak and were unable to bear certain temptations and Who was shielding them from these temptations all the while. Then they prescribed spiritual medicine to themselves without a blessing, listening to no-one. All of this came about through their inner negligence, their forgetfulness and through their spiritual insensitivity. Step-by-step, they fell into a fall because they were not faithful to their cenobitic way of life that was designed to shelter them from their own presumption and delusion. Their lack of inner vigilance was at the root of their fall. It allowed the evil one to whisper into their hearts that same temptation of our Lord in the Desert (Mt 4: 5-7) Who said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut 6:16.)


Geronda Makarios

Someone recently related to me his recollections of Geronda Makarios at skete Marouda on Mt Athos about 10 years ago. Here is what he remembers: I turned up at skete Marouda with a letter of introduction from a Serbian monk who knew Geronda Makarios. I was a novice at that time in Serbia with the blessing to make a pilgrimage to Mt Athos. Geronda Makarios received me graciously. I stayed there for a week or so by his gracious hospitality. He had 2 or 3 monks with him. While I was there, Geronda Makarios was serving at the Protaton in Kareyes. One of his brethren, the young Hieromonk Pavlos, stayed behind at the skete to do the services while Geronda was away. Fr Pavlos was of a very quiet and self-controlled disposition. He had the unusual blessing to go unshod, in any weather, including snow. His feet were in terrible condition and looked like cauliflowers. The other young novice brother, forgive me, whose name I forget, was required by Geronda to telephone his mother. This was clearly extraordinary, but that day was his mother’s birthday. He clearly didn’t ask for this blessing on his own behalf, but also clearly obeyed Geronda with unquestioning alacrity. It seemed like Geronda was sensitive to the psychological bond between such a young novice and his presumeably pious mother. Geronda Makarios was extremely popular with the troubled youth of Greece, especially those mixed up by and recovering from the disturbances of hedonistic life. His skete was full of young, urban men seeking his guidance. They were clearly able to find a way out of the mess of their lives by his counsel. They also gladly lent their strength to the labours of construction at the skete, as a new chapel was being built at that time. Constructive, physical work as an indispensible accompaniment to repentant prayer is ideal for men, especially young, modern men who often lack such opportunities in typical city life. Geronda’s disposition was very quiet and he had a direct way of listening. When he spoke, he was very frank and matter of fact, often with a light touch of humour that dispelled anxiety. He always quickly found a point of view that psychologically pierced the heart of the matter. He seemed to dispense with worries that were of a neurotic concern, say, with social pressures within Church life, etc. His fluency in English displayed a high degree of functionality. I understood that he entered monastic life on Mt Athos when he was 17 years old. I wondered how he could develop such fluency in language except by the Lord’s providence and grace. One felt an ease of expression and communication with him. This aspect no doubt contributed to his popularity as a confessor and spiritual guide. Geronda hardly seemed to eat yet was solicitous of his guests and brethren at trapeza. He was as generous with his food, time, hospitality and counsel as he was in strict in ascesis towards himself. He tried not to draw attention to his oikonomia towards others and his akrivia towards himself but it is something that a novice like myself who was seeking to learn from the example of his elders would definitely notice. Geronda’s quietness and brevity of speech was reflected in the disposition of his few brethren. In spite of the sheer number of visitors, the brethren were themselves very laconic and able to guard their inner solitude. Their love and obedience to their elder was palpable. They knew what was needed of them at any time, seemingly without ever being told. They seemed to be able to practise their inner quietness even while the skete was full of guests and visitors. This is not an easy thing to do. I think that maybe the Lord rewarded Geronda’s disciples with this grace of inner quietness as a response to their love for their elder in the conformity of their disposition towards his wishes. This is a rare grace and probably accounts for the small number of his disciples. I am grateful for having witnessed it in action. Usually, novices like myself fail to love and are bound up in our own selfish concerns. We deprive ourselves of such grace and would not allow ourselves to bear such privations. The obedience of which I had the privilege to share was to make komboskini using the seed “Tears of the Virgin” that grows exclusively on Mount Athos. This small, grey seed has a natural channel in the centre that easily takes a wire through it. The work is a little painful to the fingertips, which seems appropriate somehow. There was a long-standing, returning guest present while I was there. A Greek layman, iconographer, married but whose family was disunited, and who himself lived in the world like a ‘secret’ monk, obviously under the guidance of his Geronda. This man had had the blessing to restore and regild the Portaitissa icon of the Panaghia at Iveron monstery which I had just visited and venerated a few days before. Years later, I had some historical information from a monk who knew Geronda Makarios from their mutual days together at Philotheou monastery. This monk had been there for 17 years. Geronda was part of that generation of elders from Philitheou monastery that fanned out into the rest of Mt Athos and elsewhere, bringing with them the grace, influence and charism of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. For example, as we know, Elder Ephraim eventually went to Arizona, Elder Joseph went to Vatopedi while Elder Makarios went to Marouda, etc. This dramatization shows the Elder to be a lot older from what I remember, but with that same frank but gentle touch in his dealings with people, always going to the main issue in a practical way whereby we have the real opportunity to express our will in a concrete and constructive way for the improvement of our spiritual condition. Here he is dealing with a group of American, probably ex-Protestant clergy. Geronda’s novel use of language, i.e. so-called “Protestantism” within Orthodox Church life as an expression of an overly-prescriptive approach to piety, would have cut to the core of his sensitive guests but without antagonizing them or provoking resistance in them. Geronda seems to allow others to grant licence to themselves to be themselves because, quite frankly, no progress can even begin except from a sure and honest appraisal of one’s own fundamental, psychological formation. Maybe for this same reason, the licence to begin spiritual life each day on the basis of one’s present but deplorable condition, that Geronda received an injection not out of concern for his own mortality for his own life’s sake, but as a show of trust, whether guided or misguided, in the teaching of his present medical authorities on Mt Athos, while still attributing all factors and circumstances to the providence of the Lord. I remember myself experiencing a severe bout of influenza in Serbia at the time of the so-called “Swine Flu” in Europe. I very nearly died at that time. I had no-one dependent on me and could have died with no regrets, but I can believe that Geronda Makarios would choose to maintain the conditions of his life, as much as he understood them to be, according to the circumstances of his responsibilities towards others. Although I perhaps differ from Geronda in my understanding of pharmakeia, I believe his motivations maybe sprang from his own taste of death, especially if he had experienced a flu more severe than mine, and that he in his compassion towards others would hope to shield them from the taste of such corruption. This taste of death and corruption is a bitter and ugly thing, with no goodness in it. I can believe that if a soul can return itself to the Lord without knowing such bitterness directly or too soon, then perhaps a Christian can mature in his life without being crushed by the despair from which we all generally emerge. Bitterness and despair is the secret food of monks, and is entirely appropriate for them, for they live as dead men. But monks will not expose frail laymen to this experiential knowledge of death, because most laymen, especially the mixed-up, modern youth of contemporary urban culture, are so defective in their formation that they have not yet even begun to live and do not know how to begin. Geronda Makarios in his compassion understands this psychological condition, and it is his great gift to help another man to locate within hjmself that exact point from where his spiritual life might necessarily have to start.


On Monastic Writers

A monastic writer is an anomaly. He writes apologetically. His words are pedagogic. The desert fathers write briefly. Their words are lapidary. Their aphorisms and narratives are memory-pegs, and are merely complementary to personal, verbal instruction, as from an elder to his disciples. Under his direct guidance, misinterpretation is avoided. The elders structure their sayings to be understood on two levels. They can be received without harm by the simple and inexperienced, whose comprehension is shallow; and they can be understood by grace when disciples are making progress in the depths of practical life. The same holds true when monks write for general, popular use, although this is an extraordinary and dangerous situation, both for him and his readers. Such books should be read under instruction, along with empirical knowledge gained through liturgical experience. Even rarer are holy monk-philosophers who can write true theology, explaining dogma with precision. The best that bloggers (like myself) can do is be a cautionary presence in the internet’s wastelands, warning you to leave this place. There is no Church here, neither in books, videos and podcasts. Without Church life, without spiritual instruction, all monastic literature is vainly imaginative, conceptual and figurative, wherever you find it.