Testimonies and Experiences
Talks about Elder Porphyrios
Professor at the Theological School of the University of Athens
Excerpts from a radio program dedicated to Elder Porphyrios broadcast by the Radio Station of the Church of Greece, on the 19/12/91.
Published here with the permission of the speaker.
Before referring to certain characteristics of Elder Porphyrios' personality, I would like to express two reservations of mine.
My first reservation is that we can't talk about spiritual things, about spiritual figures, about the friends of God, easily. Only saints talk about other saints or the same saints talk about themselves. When we talk about people who have left their mark on the lives of many fellow humans, there is the danger that we might become garrulous. There is the danger of saying things that are completely superficial, precisely because, concerning spiritual matters, the words of St. Gregory the Theologian hold true, "Understanding is difficult, expression is even more difficult." How can one talk about that which so many people experienced near to Elder Porphyrios? It cannot come across in a radio program. I say this, because it is necessary for our listeners.
I remember that two highly placed individuals (not Greeks) had once asked me to take them to the Elder. They spoke Greek and remained in pappouli's cell for about an hour. Later when they had returned to Athens, one of them turned to the other, and asked:
"How do you feel?"
"Full of joy, great joy. And you, How do you feel?"
"Full of joy, great joy."
That kind of experience doesn't come across on a radio station. The joy which was experienced by hundreds and thousands of people when near to pappouli can't be felt over a radio network.
Consequently we are now in some way endangering something. Instead of drawing the Elder's image as it should be drawn, we are in danger of distorting it. Our listeners must realize that when we speak, our words pass through human mediocrity. We use conventional language. We mention a few things, whatever we saw with our blind eyes, nothing more.
This is my first reservation, that we can not talk about spiritual matters easily.
My second reservation is that the Elder didn't want, to put it simply, publicity. He was a man who lived in his cell, in his Church. Humbly. Quietly. It is precisely this quietness, this living in absolute peace, that shows in his death. There were no strangers there, only the monks of Kavsokalyvia. A true passing of a humble hieromonk.
With these two misgivings I can now go on to say something.
In answer to the question about who the Elder was, one could say something very simple. He was a man of God. What does 'man of God' mean? He was not just a man of God in the everyday sense of the word. He was also a man of God in the fundamental sense of the word. What do I mean? 'Man of God' was the name given to a prophet in the Old Testament. 'Man of God' in the New Testament is the saint. Men of God were people vested with His Spirit. The complete man, as Paul puts it, the man of God.
His whole orientation was towards God. In the letter which he wrote to his spiritual children, it is typical of him to have emphasized precisely this: "I pray that my spiritual children will love God, who is everything." His concern was God, who is everything. Nothing could come between them. Nothing could cut off this relationship, this communion. His whole being was soaked in God's presence. God was the center of his interest. His only concern: God. His love for the study of theology was unbelievable. He hadn't studied theology, or rather he studied theology in the desert, in the great school of the desert. He loved to read theological texts. For example, from hymnology he liked the hymns to the Trinity, or the hymns of Theoctistus the Studite from the Canon to our Lord Jesus Christ. These troparia are representative of those which he liked.
I can mention one: "All that is divine sees and foretells through the Holy Spirit. He works the highest wonders, praising One God in Trinity. For although thrice-brilliant, the Divinity rules as One."
He read it and re-read it and his soul rejoiced. Or the other one, about Jesus, "O Sweetest Jesus, the joy and gladness of my soul..."
God was the center of his being. He would typically say, "God is the most ultimate desire, the unending end. We love many things, we want many things. God, however, is the most ultimate desire."
The Elder had divine love (eros). The divine love that truly has spiritual meaning. Divine love doesn't have any connection with passionate human love. It's another order of reality, another actuality.
This divine love finally led him to, what? It led him to the glorification of God. He constantly glorified God. Indeed, I shall use one of St. Symeon the New Theologian's terms. His glorification was maniacal.
When he received divine grace, at Kavsokalyvia, while still a young man, he knelt down in the wilderness and shouted, "Glory to You, O God. Glory to You, O God." Maniacal, with excessive enthusiasm.
Therefore, the first attribute of his spiritual personality is love of God.
If I may mention a second attribute: The Elder was Church centered. The Church was the basis of his whole life and works. In fact I often saw him dissolve in tears, when talking about the Church. He was full of absolute respect for the official Church. The bishop was in the place and type of Christ. He was unbelievably upset when he saw people criticizing the bishops and denouncing them in writing. The bishop is the head, whatever he may be. This was a sacred matter for the Elder.
He spoke about the Church. How did he see the Church? He would characteristically say, "The Church is uncreated." Why is it uncreated? Because the Church is theanthropic, it is God in History. And we, the faithful, are called to be uncreated, to become partakers in the divine energies of God, to enter into the mystery of Godliness, to overcome our worldliness and to become transcendent. The Church is uncreated. It's characteristic of him that he put it into practice. He received everybody. His door was open to all. He was not biased. He received whosoever went there, regardless of where they may have belonged. He himself didn't belong anywhere. He belonged to the Church and he accepted everyone.
Certainly, the Elder didn't say everything to everybody. Why? Because he often felt that someone wasn't ready for him to tell them something. He didn't say it then, but waited for them to be prepared, before he told ihem something. What he said when at the end of his earthly life is impressive, remarkably impressive. What did he say? He said the prayer of the Lord, the prayer of Christ on the eve of his crucifixion, "That they may be one." With his holy lips, he closed his life story here on earth, with the phrase, "That they may be one".
That is to say, that the Elder's prayer was identified with Christ's prayer. What did the Elder mean? Did he mean that his children should be one? Did he mean that the Orthodox Churcn should be one? Did he mean that the world, Christianity, should be one? Whatever he meant, you can see his ecclesial, his Church centered frame of mind.
Certainly, many misunderstood him and even used his name to express their own opinions. As could possibly happen now after his death. Those of us who knew the Elder can confirm without doubt that he was faithful to the Church.
One more factor of his spiritual personality is that the Elder was an ascetic. He was vigilant. With his humble little cassock and his humble little meals! Nothing else. He was an ascetic. He started off from Kavsokalyvia and as many people have said, when he came to Athens he brought the desert with him. What the Elder did was original.
We knew about monasticism. We knew about the angelic life from ascetic works, from books. We saw it in the Elder's face in Athens. Can I make a confession? I saw him for years and I had the impression that I had an angel before me. An incarnate angel. That's the monastic demeanor, the angelic life. That is what the Elder brought to Athens. He brought the Jesus prayer into Omonia Square! Yes, the Jesus prayer in Omonia Square! It is characteristic that noetic prayer is not only confined to monks, but he believed that people in the world can practice it too. Somebody went to see him. He would stop for a while and say, "Lord Jesus Christ..." His whole life was an unending prayer.
Someone can certainly talk about humility, obedience, and fasting. These are the very elements of his personality that truly made him wise and sober.
I can specifically talk about his love and his obedience. Besides, it is something which he himself wrote about in the letter that he left to his spiritual children. He went to become a hermit out of love. He read the life of St. John the Hut-dweller and went to Mt. Athos out of love. He says that he was obedient to his Elders, that he gave them absolute obedience. Absolute obedience.
That 'absolute' means blood. It means struggle. Spiritual things don't happen without suffering. Spiritual things don't happen just like that. Here I must add that the Elder certainly didn't seek after gifts. No. He sought after the love of Christ, nothing else. The goal of a monk, the goal of a Christian is not to receive gifts from God. It is love. This movement, this exodus from selfishness. This exodus and loving communion with God. That's it and that's what the Elder did. The gifts came later, presents from God. This is the way he saw it.
These gifts are truly the fruits of patience and suffering. He had all the illnesses you could think of. He never prayed for God to make him well. He didn't pray for his own relief. He glorified God. Whatever God brought his way, he glorified Him. He was in a lot of pain and had many illnesses but he never asked God to take an illness away from him. This is characteristic of him. It showed us a man who had surpassed the realm of the human experience. We hurt a little and we want the pain to leave us immediately. The Elder didn't have that mentality. He glorified God while suffering in pain, because he thoroughly believed that our life is a period of preparation. He would say that we must start from here. We must start now.
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Article published in English on: 23-2-2009.
Last Update: 23-2-2009.