The Witness of Monastics
This week seven young men from our church and I visited St Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY. This is one of the twenty monasteries that Elder Ephraim of Arizona established in North America over the past 25 years. I’m sure most of you in the church have never visited a monastery and many people question what monastics (monks and nuns) do. Why do they renounce the world and go off to live in a secluded monastery?
Well, Elder Joseph and some of the other monks we spoke with answered clearly:
- - They seek union with God continuously with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and they pray for the world without ceasing.
- - Every day from 1:00am-4:00 they commune with God and pray in their cell for the entire world (when they say that worst sins of the world happen in the middle of the night)
- - Then they come together as a community and participate in the Divine Liturgy from 4:00-6:00am (every day uniting w Christ through the Holy Eucharist)
- - Imagine, every day, 365 days a year without ever taking a vacation or break they spend their entire nights communing with God while praying for the world!!!
- - They sleep maybe six hours a day (two hours after the Divine Liturgy in the morning and maybe four hours (but often less) in the evening before they wake up at 1am.
- - Throughout the day they do whatever work they are assigned, but they are constantly praying the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner)
- - Remember, their goal of life is union with God
- - When I asked one of the newer members of our church, Jesse, what his impression was visiting a monastery for the first time in his life, he responded, “It’s like we’ve left our country and gone to another world.” Yes, the monks do reflect a different reality; they live in this world but are no longer a part of this world;
- o Their lives and witness remind us that there is something beyond this brief, temporary world
- o They don’t waste their time on what’s happening in the world of sport; they don’t worry about the celebrities and world of entertainment; they don’t fret about the business world and the stock market; they realize these things are all fleeting and superficial. They strive for what is eternal
- o They realize that the current events of the day are passing, no matter how serious they may seem for the moment, and they remind us all that God is ultimately in control. Evil will not prevail but God will have the final word.
When one goes to a monastery, we see how the monastics offer a testimony challenging the world’s perspective with another eternal reality, one we often forget in the midst of all that distracts us and occupies our lives.
- - No matter how sober we think we are as Christians, monastics challenge us to ask ourselves how serious we truly are in “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”
- o As they live extremely disciplined live, their witness asks us how disciplined we are in our pursuit of God and His kingdom?
- o As these monks pray the Jesus Prayer throughout the day and try to keep Christ in their mind during everything they do – we saw monks on the tractors; farming; gardening; taking care of beehives; in the kitchen feeding dozens and dozens of people daily – their witness asks us how sober and vigilant are we in our prayers?
- - Monastics pray for the entire world – “In all times and in every place you are worshipped and glorified, Christ our God…” – and their witness ask us how much do we pray for the world?
- - Monastics reveal how Holy Wisdom comes not simply from the intellect and mind but from a heart enlightened by the Holy Spirit and a disciplined spirit that opens itself up to God’s illumination.
- o They offer the witness of simple, uneducated monks becoming enlightened elders;
- o We see other well-educated monks, like Abbot Joseph who was a pharmacist for many years before becoming a monk, discover something greater than their worldly profession and studies, and forsake all for the “pearl of great price.”
As I was reflecting on our visit to St. Nektarios Monastery, I thought also about how we celebrated this past week one of the greatest monastics of the 20th century, Saint Silouan the Athonite. He is a fairly recent saint having died in 1938. He was an illiterate villager from Russia with a tumultuous past (having fallen into the temptation of fornication as a young man and then almost killing someone in a fight). Yet when he was 27 he realized the vanity of this world – “I’m thinking that here we sit in a tavern, eating, drinking vodka, listening to music and enjoying ourselves, while at this very hour on Mount Athos praying all night. And I’m wondering which of us will put up the best defense before God’s Judgment Seat – them or us?”
He decided to leave shortly thereafter for Mount Athos. Although barely literate he received the grace of unceasing prayer and had visions of Christ. After long years of spiritual trial, he acquired extreme humility and “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” He constantly prayed and wept for the whole world as for himself, and he put the highest value on love for enemies. Here are a few of his words of wisdom:
“If you see a man who has sinned and you do not have compassion on him, the grace of God will leave you. Whoever curses bad people and does not pray for them will never know
the grace of God.”
"Christ prayed for those that crucified Him: 'Father, count not this sin against them; they know we not what they do.' Archdeacon and protomartyr Stephen prayed for those who stoned him so that the Lord would not judge this sin against them. And so, if we wish to retain grace, we must pray for our enemies. If you do not find pity and compassion on a sinner who will suffer in hell, then you do not carry the grace of the Holy Spirit, but rather an evil spirit; and while you yet live, you must free yourself from his clutches through repentance."
“What joy is ours that the Lord not only forgives our sins but allows the soul to know Him, as soon as the soul humbles herself. The poorest wretch can humble himself and know God in the Holy Spirit. There is no need of money or possessions in order to know God; we only need humility. The Lord gives Himself freely, for His mercy's sake alone. I did not know this before but now every day, every hour, every minute, I see clearly the mercy of God. The Lord gives peace, but without God there is no peace in the soul.”
“The man who knows the delight of the love of God - when the soul is warmed by grace she loves both God and her brother - knows that 'the kingdom of God is within us'.
Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life.”
"If we love our enemies, pride will have no place in our soul…If you have compassion for all creatures and love even your enemies, and if, at the same time, you judge yourself the worst of all people, this shows that the great grace of the Lord is in you."
Saint Silouan, along with all the contemporary monastics like those at St. Nektarios, should inspire each one of us to take an honest look at our own feeble attempts to follow Christ and to commit to becoming more serious and sober in our pursuit for the kingdom of God above all else. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be taken by force.” The monastics challenge us to become more disciplined and serious in our pursuit for union with God.
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