Published by Pemptousia Partnership, November 3, 2014
By Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaias and Lavreotikis
The spiritual influence of Mount Athos is indisputable and certainly stems from the fact that many men have attained holiness through their secret ascetic struggles there. In recent years many pilgrims have found peace of mind and repose on the Mountain, together with spiritual guidance and support.
The higher one rises, scientists tell us, the weaker the force of gravity becomes, the less one feels the pull of the earth, the looser one’s connection with it becomes, the easier one can shrug off its pressures and demands, the lighter one becomes.
The closer, too, one feels to heaven, which, though so vague, is so real and so desirable. Although less tangible, it seems more real than the earth. The higher one rises, the clearer the air becomes, the sharper one’s hearing, the broader the horizon, the closer one draws to the truth, and the truth is more convincing than reality.
The Mountain lives within a cloud of God’s graces. Sacred relics emit a sweet fragrance, holy icons exude myrrh, events take an unexpected turn, expectations are exceeded, rare surprises occur, God works with a power greater than the force of natural laws and logic. You enter the cloud of Athos as a visitor and, like Moses, you discover the tablets with God’s commandments in your hands. You find it easier to observe them. You are surprised by the presence of the cloud and are startled by the ‘sign’ of God’s grace flowing down like rain. You are struck by the cloud’s mystical character and ‘fall on your face in great fear’, like the disciples on Mt. Tabor. You behold the cloud and hear the voice of God the Father within you. You sense its intangible divine majesty and ‘gaze up at heaven’ like the Apostles on the Mount of Olives and you ‘return’ with great mystical ‘joy’.
If the Mountain of God’s presence illuminates with its apocalyptic visions, the cloud of the divine mystery fills the heart with the humility of uncreated grace. On the Holy Mountain you experience miracles, you perceive holiness, you are illuminated by whatever you can see, you are nourished by whatever lies within your reach, you have the ‘same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2: 5).
A long time ago I was approached by a young student. Very hesitantly, but with the intensity of someone who is determined to find out something, he declared that, although he was an atheist and found it hard to believe, he very much wanted to find faith. He had tried and searched for years but all to no avail. He had talked with professors and educated people but his thirst for something serious was not satisfied. He heard about me and decided to share his existential need with me. He asked me for a scientific proof of God’s existence.
‘Do you know anything about integrals or differential equations?’ I asked him.
‘Unfortunately not,’ he replied, ‘I’m an Arts student.’
‘What a shame! I knew a proof like that,’ I said in a deliberate attempt to be funny.
He felt awkward and fell silent for a while.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I teased you like that but God is not an equation or a mathematical proof. If He was, then all educated people would believe in Him. You know, there is a different way of approaching God. Have you ever been to Mount Athos? Have you ever met any ascetics?’
‘No, father, but I’m thinking of going. I’ve heard so much about it. If you tell me to, I’ll even go tomorrow. Do you know any well-educated person I could meet?’
‘Which would you prefer: a well-educated person who would confuse you, or a saint who might wake you up?’
‘I’d prefer a well-educated person. I’m afraid of saints.’
‘Faith is a matter of the heart. Try talking to a saint. What’s your name?’ I asked him.
‘Gabriel’, he replied.
I sent him to an ascetic. I told him how to get there and gave him the necessary instructions. We even drew a sketch-map.
‘You must go and ask the same thing,’ I said. ‘“I’m an atheist”, you must say, “and I want to believe. I want some proof of God’s existence”.’
‘I’m afraid, I’m too shy,’ he replied.
‘Why are you afraid and shy of the saint when you’re not afraid or shy of me?’ I asked him. ‘Just go and ask him the same thing.’
A few days later he went, and he found the ascetic talking with a young man in the yard of his cell. Opposite, four other young men sat waiting on some logs. Gabriel gingerly took his place amongst them. About ten minutes later the elder finished his discussion with the young man.
‘How are you, boys?’ he asked. ‘Have you had a loukoumi?1 Have you had a drop of water to drink?’
‘Yes, thank you, father,’ they replied with conventional worldly politeness.
‘Come here,’ he said to Gabriel, picking him out from the others. ‘I’ll get some water and you take this box with the loukoumia. And come closer so that I can tell you a secret: it’s okay being an atheist, but to be an atheist and have an angel’s name, well… It’s the first time I’ve ever come across anything like that.’
Our friend almost fainted with shock at this sudden revelation. How did he know his name? Who had told him about his problem? And what did the elder want to say to him?
‘Father, can I have a brief word with you?’ he uttered in a faint voice.
‘Look, my son, the sun is going down: take the loukoumi, have a drink of water and go to the nearest monastery for the night.’
‘Father, I’d like to speak to you, if that’s possible.’
‘What is there for us to say, my child? Why have you come?’
‘On hearing this question I immediately felt a huge weight off my chest,’ he told me later. ‘My heart began to overflow with faith. My inner world began to glow. My questions began to be solved without any logical arguments, without any discussion, without any clear answers. All the “ifs”, “whys” and “maybes” were banished at a stroke, leaving only the “hows” and “whats”.’
What the knowledge of educated men was unable to give him he gained from the kind allusion of a saint, who had completed only four years at junior school. Saints are very discreet. They operate on you without an anaesthetic and there is no pain. They perform a transplant without cutting you open. They raise you to lofty heights without using the steps of earthly logic to get there. They plant faith in your heart without tiring your mind.
‘Inviolate and God-trodden mountain’
The Holy Mountain is a training school of the heart, a place of healing for the inner man. It raises you up to spiritual heights which cannot be reached even by the most modern balloon of worldly reasoning. Here Grace expresses truth in unexpected ways.
The basic question on the Mountain is not whether God exists. This question seems to have been decisively resolved a long time ago. Neither is it whether our God is better than other people’s gods. Here ‘our’ does not have a possessive sense – as in the phrase ‘God is mine’ – but the sense of a child selflessly wishing to join its father – ‘I am striving to become His’. All efforts are directed at partaking of God’s divine nature (2 Peter 1: 4), at making the most of our kinship with Him, at gaining a sense of His presence, of learning the benefits and ways of experiencing Him.
The Mountain’s value does not lie in its individual charismatic monks, however many or great they may be. Its majesty is concealed in the fact that it is a resting-place for God. Just as, for reasons that remain unknown to us, in some icons that depict exactly the same figure as others God works in different ways, and imparts a special grace to some that He does not give to others; just as amongst His twelve beloved disciples the Lord had a favourite; just as from amongst all His peoples he selected His ‘chosen people’; just as He performed the miracles that revealed His glory only in certain places like the Pools of Bethsaida and Siloam, so too does He select certain places in His creation to be special expressions of His grace. The Holy Mountain is the Mountain of God.
~Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), https://myocn.net/holy-mountain-universal-presence-heavenward-orientation/.
Paper presented at the Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference ‘Russia and Athos: A Thousand Years of Spiritual Unity’ held in Moscow, 1-4 October 2006.
All photographs: Copyright Fr. Constantine Prodan (http://sfantulmunte.wordpress.com/)
1 A piece of Turkish delight, a traditional hospitality offering on Athos.
Of all the holy sites in the Orthodox world, Mount Athos is the place where for over a thousand years the monastic life has been lived in its most absolute form.
Published on www.pemptousia.com