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The Holy Mountain: A place with ecumenical coordinates and a celestial orientation
By the Rev. Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, fr. Nicholas*
Source: Magazine “Pemptousia”, issue No. 22, December 2006 – March 2007.
Preparation/typing (Greek text) by S.M.
The spiritual radiance of the Holy Mountain is undeniable; this is attributed to the fact that innumerable souls have attained sainthood there, with their secluded ascetic labors on its singular terrain. Innumerable pilgrims over the years have also found spiritual repose and peace, as well as spiritual guidance and support.
The higher one climbs, the more –we are told by scientists– gravity weakens; the less one can feel earth’s pull; the more one’s ties to earth are loosened; it becomes so much easier for one to depart from earth’s demanding and contending presence. One becomes so much lighter.
However, one also feels so much closer to the heavens, which, albeit undefined, nevertheless feel so real and so desirable. Albeit less tangible, the heavens appear more real than the earth. The higher one goes, the cleaner the air becomes, the more perceptive one’s hearing becomes, the horizon becomes broader, and one’s association with what is true, intensifies. Truth is far more convincing than reality.
The Holy Mountain is the par excellence place in Orthodoxy where monasticism for more than a thousand years is being lived in its most absolute form. The centuries may have left their secular imprint on its body; it may be (and it is natural) that the people there show their flaws, even their vices; it may also be that today’s civilization has caused some damage, however, the Mountain in some inexplicable secret way manages to preserve its blessed mien, its continuous and unique proofs of Grace, its rare and unique spiritual power, its larger-than-life association with the site of God’s Kingdom and with God’s “timeframe”. Its ideology is not endangered by wrong choices; it is not harmed by ill-meant modernization; it is not deteriorated by seasons and by people – any people. Its truth is resistant.
It resembles a rock, where the only thing accomplished by the breaking waves of political influence, the thoughtless use of technology, tourism, the inter-monastic quarrels, rivalries, even hatreds, or the localist perceptions and the various kinds of enemies is that these all temporarily wash over it, or simply glide over its exterior, leaving its interior literally intact.
There is something there that does actually safeguard it. It could be its monastic multiformity; perhaps its perennial endurance; perhaps the natural feeling behind its monastic expression; perhaps it is the maternal shelter and protection of the Theotokos; perhaps its special charm. Despite its theocracy, the mighty “Byzantium” finally fell, after 11 centuries of glory. The Mountain is currently covering the 14th century of its life, yet it is still pacing along with the pace of the aeon to come, giving one the feeling that it is a place not of this world (John 18,36), whose association with Time is equivalent to the contact of its surface with the air, while its polity is found in heaven (Phil. 3:20).
….majestic mountain, rugged mountain…. (Psalm 68)
By retaining a loose association with secular and ephemeral things, and by perpetually looking towards the End of Time and upwards at the heights, it resembles an embrace that accommodates everyone, and a gaze that discerns the beyond, of both Time and Logic. The Mountain may have its geographical coordinates in Hellas, but it does not belong to her.
It might just be the par excellence part of Orthodox life, which underlines the catholicity and the ecumenicity of the Church; among its monasteries, it has a Russian one, a Serbian one and a Bulgarian one. It has two Rumanian scetes and it offers hospitality to monks from such faraway civilizations as Peru and Colombia. Divine Worship is performed within its geographical terrain, in a number of languages; a variety of cultures are expressed; numerous traditions are displayed; there exists a wonderful and balanced variety. None of these factors hinders the unity of faith, the catholicity of the Orthodox spirit, or the ecumenicity of ecclesiastic witness.
On the contrary, they all prove that the word of God is not confined by languages; it is not enclosed by borders; it does not asphyxiate from the various cultural expressions – perhaps not even from other religions. It is interesting to note that out of all the members of the “Friends of the Holy Mountain” association, only one third of them are Orthodox. The non-Orthodox authors who deposit their impressions and their suspicion of the Mountain’s secret power are continually increasing in number. The Mountain touches every heart.
Space and Time acquire another dimension and perspective. One’s association with everything mortal, ephemeral, corruptible, is entirely conventional. Notions such as ‘money’, ‘possessions’, ‘’wealth’, ‘investment’, ‘entertainment’, ‘competition’, ‘interest’, all degenerate into totally secondary terms. Of all the temporal things, only the absolutely necessary ones are selected. The soul soars towards the heavens. What dominates here is a concern for the eternal; for the kingdom of God. History does not exist in order to be worshipped, but only to lay the foundations of the Present. The Future is not portrayed for the purpose of relieving one’s suppressed feelings, but to transform the Present. Time itself is condensed, in the Mountain’s embrace. The Mountain observes the old calendar, fully aware that it is inaccurate, but without this being an annoyance and with the thought that it is intended for a tested place. Even the Byzantine daily schedule – which is so awkward in practice – appears to have a reason here. The Mountain lives in its own Time; it has slipped away, even from the tightest clutches, and it has conquered even the almightiest of dominions.
Time is not binding. Tradition does not confine. The liturgical rubric does not imprison. National identity and language are not absolutized. Education does not constitute a privilege. Discriminations are nonexistent. Comparisons are avoided. What prevails is one’s incessant presentment before God and the embracing of the entire world.
Let us lift ourselves up to the mountains, my soul, from where help will come (Psalm 121,1)
The first characteristic of Athos is that it is a Mountain, and in fact an intelligible one. It is a high place. It represents a life that is approached as an ascent; it is enjoyed by lofty minds; it reports to the heart that gazes upward, that seeks the One who lives aloft – the Lord on High. It is interesting how – in the Tradition of our Church – there are four scriptural references to mountains, on which revelatory events had taken place:
Mount Sinai – Moses received the ten commandments there; the expression of Divine Will. Moses conversed with Him; he heard His voice, and he had sight of His back. (Exodus, ch.19 and 20)
Mount Carmel – The Prophet Elijah prayed there; his voice was heard, he received God’s reply and could feel His presence. He was given a taste of His power. (Kings III, ch. 18, 19 and 20)
Mount of Olives – where the event of the Divine Ascension took place - of the Lord who deifies that which He had taken on, and, by lifting upon His shoulders the deluded human nature did present it to God the Father. Here can be discerned the glory and the honor bestowed on human nature. (Acts, 1:12)
Mount Tabor – Finally, the Mountain on which the Lord revealed His glory (to the degree that human nature was able to perceive it) and emanated His Divine Light. (Matth. 17:1-8)
The Mountain is a mountain of the divine commandments; it is the place of a practiced lifestyle; a place of patience, humility, love; a place for divine investments. It is a place of perpetual constraint on one’s nature and an uninterrupted guarding of one’s senses; it is a place of extreme, incessant and unrelenting asceticism and renouncing.
It is a place of prayer and of signs. Praying is incessant, by many, extensive and lengthy. Ascetics begin their night-vigil at sunset; the coenobiates (monastery dwellers) take over at midnight; in the morning, the Divine Liturgy is performed; during the daytime are the services of the Hours; in the cell, during their quiet time and their pious chats, one hears the repetition of the divine meanings of the Prayer, continuously, and by many. Tongues pray; the architecture of the temples underlines the intensity of prayer; the program, the long services, the hearts of the monks, are all overcome by the fragrance of melodious praying.
The Mountain reveals the extremity of human conditions. It has on average the discerning ethos, with the divine extremeness of an absolute and uncompromising lifestyle and ideology, but without any unjustified extremes. The daily vigils, the absence of feminine consolation, even as an image, the given obedience, the lifestyle without any choices, all underline the natural feeling of a situation beyond nature. On the Mountain, the majesty of human nature is highlighted. The place functions as a workshop for theosis. The Athonite community chants: «Your life in the flesh had astonished the angelic hosts», thus honouring its father, saint Athanasios the Athonite. Human measures are taken to their limits. Here, saints like saint Gregory Palamas become observers of Godhood. Saints, like saint Maximus the Hut-burner, shed their temporal gravity, so that they stand suspended above the ground. Saints, like saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite, express their intelligence as enlightenment and they transform their knowledge into a revelatory word. Saints, like our contemporary father Paisios, father Ephraim, the Elder Joseph the Hesychast, all combine constraint along with Divine Grace in their lives, just like the olden-time elders in ascetic literature. Saints, like saint Kosmas of Aetolia, or our contemporary father Sophrony and Porphyry, draw strength from the Athonian fountain for a certain number of years, then are transformed into universal reformers and preachers and lifelong theologians.
But the Mountain is not only a place for Man’s spiritual glory. In all four of the aforementioned Mounts, the presence of God is indicated by the appearance of a cloud – on Sinai, as a dark fog-like cloud, in which Moses entered, thus feeling but not seeing the Lord (Exodus 19: 16 & 24). On Carmel, the cloud breaks the silence of the heavens and brings forth rain in a miraculous manner (Kings III, 18:44). On the Mount of the Divine Ascension, a cloud lifted up the Lord to the heavens (Acts 1:9). Finally, on Mount Tabor, a bright cloud ‘overshadowed’ the disciples and a voice from within the cloud saying ‘this is my beloved Son, in Whom I have shown favor; hearken unto Him’ are a positive indication of the co-presence of God the Father (Matthew, 17:5)
The Mountain lives within a cloud of God’s Graces. Holy relics of saints exude fragrance; holy icons exude myrrh, the expected is overturned, the anticipated are transcended, surprises go beyond customary events, God acts far more powerfully than the natural laws or logic. In this Hagiorite cloud, you enter as a visitor and you realize, just like Moses, that in your hands have been placed the tablets with the divine commandments. You are enabled to keep those commandments. You are surprised by its presence and taken aback by the sign of God’s grace raining down. You can sense it as a mystery, and you fall prostrate on your face, in great fear, just like the disciples on Mount Tabor; you look upon it and you hear God the Father’s voice inside you. You can feel it, as an intangible divine majesty and you gaze towards heaven, like the Apostles at the Mount of Olives, and you return, with an immense, secret joy.
If the Mountain of divine presence illuminates with the sight of revelations, the cloud of divine mystery fills the heart with the humility of uncreated Grace. On the Holy Mountain, you live the miracle, you perceive sanctity, you are enlightened by everything you can see, you are nourished by everything you cannot reach, your attitude is that of Jesus Christ (Philip. 2,5).
Some years ago, a young student had approached me and with immense hesitation, stated that he was an atheist who however wanted very much to believe but couldn’t. For years and years he had tried and had searched, but without any success. He had spoken to professors and other educated people. But his thirst for something more serious was not quenched. Someone told him about me, so he decided to share his existential concerns with me. He asked me to give him scientific proof of God’s existence.
-Do you know anything about integrals or differential equations? I asked him.
-Unfortunately, no, he replied. I am in Philosophical studies.
-Shame! Because I was aware of a proof of that kind, I said – obviously jokingly.
He felt somewhat uneasy, and for a while remained silent.
-Look, I said to him. I apologize for teasing you a little. But God isn’t an equation, or a mathematical proof. If He were something like that, then all the educated people would believe in Him. You must know that God is approached in a different way…. Have you ever been to the Holy Mountain? Have you ever met an ascetic?
-No, father. But I am thinking of going there, I’ve heard so much about it. So many things… If you tell me to, I will go there, even tomorrow. Do you know any educated person that I can go and meet there?
-What do you prefer? An educated one who may bewilder you, or a saint who may awaken you?
-I prefer an educated one. I’m afraid of saints.
-Faith is a matter of the heart – go ahead and try a saint. What is your name? I asked.
-Gabriel, he replied.
I sent him to an ascetic. I described how he can get there and gave him the appropriate instructions. We even made a diagram.
-You will go there, I said, and you will ask the same thing. You will say I am an atheist and I want to believe. I want proof of God’s existence.
-I’m scared, I’m embarrassed to do that, he replied.
-Why be embarrassed and afraid of the ascetic and not of me? I asked. Just go, and simply ask him the same thing.
A few days later, he went there and he found the ascetic talking to a young man in the yard. Opposite them, there were four others sitting on some logs. Gabriel discreetly sat himself next to them. No more than ten minutes had passed, and the Elder’s conversation with the young man ended.
-How are you all, my children? he asked. Did you all help yourselves to a sweet? Did you drink some water?
-Thank you, Father, they replied, with conventional, secular politeness.
-Come over here, he said, addressing Gabriel after isolating him from the others. I will go and bring the water, and you take this box of sweets. And come closer, so that I can tell you a secret: It’s fine to be an atheist, but for someone to have the name of an angel and be an atheist? Well, that’s a first for me!
Our friend nearly had a heart attack, with this revelatory surprise. How did the Elder know his name? Who revealed his problem to him? And most of all, what was the Elder trying to tell him?
-Father, can I speak to you for a minute? He could just barely mumble those words.
-Look, its getting dark; take the sweet, drink some water and go to the nearest monastery to sleep overnight.
-Father, I want us to talk – isn’t it possible?
-What is there for us to talk about, my young man? What was the reason you came here?
-On hearing this question, he told us, I immediately felt my breath relaxing, my heart being flooded with faith, my inner world becoming warmer, my queries solved without any logical argument, without any discussion, without the existence of an explicit answer. Inside me, all the ‘ifs’, the ‘why’s’ and the ‘perhaps’ crumbled, and the only thing that was left, was the ‘what’, from now on….
Everything that the thoughts of the educated had not given him was bestowed on him through the polite innuendo of a saintly person – a mere graduate of the fourth grade of primary school. Saints are very discreet. They perform an operation on you without anesthesia and you do not feel any pain. They perform a transplant without opening up your belly. They take you up to inaccessible heights, without the ladders of secular logic. They plant faith in your heart, without tiring your mind.
Untrodden and God-trodden
The Holy Mountain is a university of the heart; it is the infirmary of inner man. It provides hospitality on spiritual summits that you cannot approach – not even with the most modern aerostat of secular cogitation. Here, Divine Grace gives unusual expressions to the truth.
The basic question on the Mountain is not whether God exists. That seems to have received the definitive reply, a long time ago. Nor if our God is better than the others’. That word, ‘our’, is in no way perceived possessively, i.e., “God is mine”; it is formulated in a filial sense, ‘vacatingly’, i.e., I strive to become His. What one strives for, is to partake of His divine nature (Peter II, 1,4); it is the advantageous use of kinship with Him; the acquiring of that sense of His presence..
The Mountain's worth does not lie in its isolated charismatic monks – regardless how many or how great they may be. Its majesty is found in the fact that it is a resting place of God. For reasons unknown to us, in certain icons (which depict the same person as in other ones), He condescends differently and gives a special grace to those icons, which He does not give to the other icons, just as among the twelve dear disciples, He had one beloved one; just as among His people He had selected a chosen one; just as only in specific places, such as the Bethesda or the Siloam Founts, did He perform the miracles that revealed Him, so He selects places in His Creation that express His Grace particularly.
The Holy Mountain is God’s Mountain.
*Introduction to the Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference «Russia and Athos. A millennium of spiritual unity» which took place in Moscow on 1-4 October 2006.
Article published in English on: 4-5-2007.
Last update: 4-5-2007.