by Abbot George Kapsanis of Gregoriou, Mount Athos
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is glad tidings [Gospel= gōd ‘good’ + spel news], because it brings into the world not only a new teaching, but a new life to replace the old one. The old life was dominated by sin, passions, corruption and death, and ruled by the devil. Despite its ‘natural’ joys, it leaves a bitter taste, because it’s not the real life that people were made for, but a life corrupted and diseased, which is why it’s marked with the feeling of absurdity, emptiness and anxiety.
The new life is offered to people by our theanthropic Christ as a gift and a potential for everyone. The faithful are united with Jesus Christ and so they partake in His divine and immortal life, that is eternal= real life.
A prerequisite for people to be united with Christ and to be resuscitated is that they should first die, through repentance, as regards the people they formerly were. People have first to crucify and bury their former selves (i.e. egotism, passions and selfish will) on the Cross and in the Grave of Christ, so that they can arise with Him and ‘walk in the newness of life’ (Rom. 6, 4). This is the work of repentance and the acceptance of the Cross of Christ. Without repentance, that is the continuous crucifying on one’s former self, it’s impossible for the faithful to believe in a Gospel manner, that is to give up the whole of themselves to God and to love ‘the Lord God with all their heart and with all their soul, with all their mind and with all their strength’ (Mark 12, 30).
This is why the Lord made repentance the foundation of His Gospel message and a condition of faith. “Repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mark 1 15). Nor did he conceal the fact that the life of repentance is a difficult, uphill struggle. ‘Narrow is the gate and full of sorrow the path that leads to life (Matth. 7, 14). And that by treading it you reveal that you’ve taken up the Cross of repentance. Because our former selves don’t retreat without violence, and the devil isn’t defeated without a hard-fought battle.
A monk or nun promises to follow the narrow and sorrowful way of repentance throughout their life. They wrench themselves free of the things of the world in order to acquire the one thing they desire, to die to their former life in order to live the new life, which Christ offers them through the Church. Monastics pursue perfect repentance through continuous ascetic effort, vigils, fasting, and prayer, together with the cutting off of the will and unwavering obedience to their Elder. With all of this they force themselves to deny their own egotistical will and to love the will of God. Monastics are ‘a continuous forcing of nature’. In this way they fulfil the saying of the Lord: The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence and people of violence seize it’ (Matth. 11, 12). Through the birth-pangs of repentance, the new person who lives according to God is gradually born.
Integral to the struggle of repentance is the fight for continuous vigilance over thoughts, so that they [monastics] can cast off every wicked and diabolical thought that attempts to sully them. In this way, they keep their hearts clean, so that they may behold God, in accordance with the Beatitude that says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’.
Victory over egotism and the passions makes monastics gentle, peaceful and humble, literally ‘poor in spirit’, and participators in all the virtues of the Beatitudes. It also makes them like children, such as those Christ blessed and asked all of us to imitate if we want to enter His Kingdom.
The whole life of monks and nuns is a study in repentance, their moral bearing that of penitents. Monastics are experts in the science of repentance, those who ‘inscribe the life of repentance’ (Canon 43, Sixth Ecumenical Synod) for the whole Church. Mourning and tears of repentance are the most eloquent sermon.
Their whole way of life [or ‘habit’, a play on words by the Elder] judges ‘people in the world’. And unless those people who are silently judged by the monastics share in the repentance of the latter, it repels them, they scorn it, hate it, consider it foolish. But God chose what is foolish in the world, what is weak, what is low and despised, in order to shame the wise (I Cor. 1, 27).
Indeed, monastics, wise in the ways of God and foolish according to the world, are strangers in the midst of the world, as was the Son of God. He came to his home and His kin didn’t receive Him (Jn. 1, 11), didn’t understand Him. Sometimes even people in the Church, the wise and active, don’t either.
Their mystical and silent lives are a seven-sealed mystery for those who don’t share in its spirit. The latter think that the former are socially useless and bereft of any works on the missionary front. So their lives are hidden with Christ in God and will be manifested in glory when Christ, their life, is also made manifest (Col. 3, 4).
Only the heart of a person who is continuously being cleansed by repentance from egotism, selfishness and the passions can really love God and other people. Egotism and love are irreconcilable. It’s often the case that egotism believes it’s loving, but this ‘love’ is merely a patina of love that conceals selfishness and self-interest.
Monastics in repentance burn with Divine love. God’s love holds their hearts together, so that they don’t live for themselves alone, but for God. The soul/bride continuously seeks its bridegroom with pain and desire and finds no rest until its united with him. It’s not content to serve God as a servant (out of fear), nor as a hireling (with Paradise as a reward). It wants to love Him as a son, that is with pure love. ‘I never fear God, because I love Him’, says Anthony the Great. The more monastics repent, the more the desire for the love of God increases within them , and the more they love God, the more profoundly they repent.
The tears of repentance ignite the fire of love. Desire for the Lord is nourished by prayer, especially the unceasing prayer of the heart, the continuous invocation of the most sweet name of Jesus through the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, sinner that I am’. The prayer cleanses them and guarantees union with Christ.
In the Church’s worship, monastics also surrender themselves to God and God surrenders Himself to them. Monastics spend many hours a day in church worshipping our beloved Lord. Their participation in worship isn’t an ‘obligation’, but a need of the soul that thirsts for God. On the Athonite monasteries, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated every day, because there’s nothing better for them to do than to be in communion with their Redeemer, the Mother of the Redeemer and the friends of the Redeemer. And so the service is a feast and a joy, an opening of the soul and a foretaste of Paradise. In other words the monks live in an Apostolic manner: ‘And all who believed were together in one place and had all things in common. And, day by day, they bore up with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God…’ (Acts 2, 44-7).
Even after the end of the service, monks and nuns live in worship. The whole of their lives in the monastery, the obedience they’re appointed to, the refectory, prayer, silence and rest, relations with the other members of the community and the hospitality towards strangers are tasks all offered to the Holy Trinity. The architecture of the monasteries reveals this reality.
Everything starts from and returns to the Katholiko [Main Church] and its Holy Altar. The corridors, the cells and everything else have the main church as their reference point. The whole of life is offered to God and becomes worship of God.
Even the material elements that are used in worship testify to the transfiguration of the whole of life and of creation through the grace of God. The bread and wine of the Divine Liturgy, the blessed oil, the incense, the talanda [wooden sounding boards] and the bells that mark the appointed hours, the candles and the icon-lamps, which are lit and extinguished at particular points in the service, the movements of the canonarch [roughly ‘precentor’] and the ‘vergers’ and so many other movements and actions, envisaged by the centuries-old monastics rules are not dry forms nor psychological motives for affecting emotions, but points, echoes and manifestations of the new creation. All those who visit the Holy Mountain see for themselves that worship isn’t static, but has a dynamic character. It’s motion towards God: the soul ascends to God and takes up with it the whole of creation.
At an Athonite vigil, the faithful enjoy the unique experience of the joy which comes into the world through Christ’s redemptive work and they taste the sublime quality of the life that He offers the world within the Church.
The priority given by monasticism to the worship of God reminds the Church and the world that, unless the Divine Liturgy and worship once again become the centre of our lives, our world has no chance of becoming united and transformed, of overcoming the rupture, the imbalance, the vacuum and death, despite the best efforts of humanistic systems and programmes for its improvement. Monasticism also reminds us that the Divine Liturgy and worship aren’t merely ‘something’ in our lives, but the ‘centre’, the source of the renewal and sanctification of all the facets of our lives.
The immediate fruit of God’s love is the love of the image of God, that of people and all God’s creatures. Through years of ascetic effort, monastics acquire a ‘merciful heart’, which loves as God does. According to Abba Isaak the Syrian, a merciful heart is ‘a heart burning on behalf of the whole of creation, that is people, birds, animals, demons and every other creature, at the remembrance or sight of which the eyes shed tears and, from so much fellow-suffering and mercy, the heart of the merciful person recoils and is unable to bear or hear of any hurt or any sorrow that has been dealt to creation. This is why such people pray with tears and at every hour, even for irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, for those who do them harm, that God will preserve them and have mercy upon them. They also pray for reptiles out of the excess of mercy which flows beyond measure in their hearts (Discourse 81).
In the Gerontikon (the Collection of the Sayings and Works of the Desert Fathers), we encounter figures of sacrifice and love, who recall and manifest the love of Christ. Abba Agathon used to say that he wished he could find a leper and assume his body. ‘Perfect love, do you see?’ comments Abba Isaak the Syrian.
Moreover, the organization of a coenobitic monastery is founded on love, on the model of the first Christian communities in Jerusalem. Like the Lord with His twelve apostles, and like the first Christians, monastics have in common their possessions and their lives in Christ. The abbot owns no more than a young novice. Nobody has any money to dispense as they wish, except what they receive as a blessing from the abbot for a particular need.
Common ownership, equality, fairness, mutual respect and the sacrifice of one for all and all for one elevates life in a coenobium to the realm of real love and freedom. Those who’ve lived even for just a few days in a real coenobium know the grace there is in the mutual love between members of the community and how much this relieves souls. You feel as if you’re living with the sons of angels.
The organizer of the coenobium system, Basil the Great, speaks pointedly of the love in Christ that abounds in monasteries: ‘What can be compared to this style of life? Is there anything more blessed? What’s more true than conjunction and union? Or more civilized than a mingling of characters and souls? People start out from various countries and from different races and adapt to life together in one place, with such punctiliousness that they seem to be one soul in many bodies and instruments with one and the same voice. Those with a bodily illness have others to suffer alongside them. Those of a sick disposition who are weak in the soul, have many others to cure them and to correct them. Each of them is a servant to the others, each is master of the others and all, with unassailable freedom, vie with each other to be the most punctilious in their duties. These duties do not force any great discord, nor do they cause anxiety among those in charge, but rather have been created from a free expression of opinion. Love makes those who are free subject to one another, and ensures freedom by the individual choice of each person. This is how God wanted us initially and this is why He created us. Monastics render again our ancient beauty, because they remedy the sin of our forefather Adam, since there would be no division, no estrangement, no war, had sin not rent our nature in twain. They therefore imitate the Saviour and His incarnate life. Just as He, for example, when He assembled His group of disciples, made everything to be held in common by the Apostles, even themselves, so monastics- those who observe the life carefully, of course- in their obedience to the Abbot, imitate precisely the life of the Apostles and the Lord. They envy the life of the angels, because they observe carefully the common life of the latter. Among the angels there’s no strife, no discord nor doubt: everything belongs to each one, and all of them store up for themselves the blessings of all’ (Ascetic Ordinances, 18, 2).
In coenobia, monastics can experience apostolically and purely the mystery of the Church, as a mystery of communion and union of God and people, they can experience the unity of faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit, which is the desire of all Christians. They know from experience that the Church isn’t a religious foundation or an institution, but a community in Christ, the Body of Christ, the Assembly of the formerly scattered children of God (Jn. 11, 52), their family in Christ. This ecclesiological experience gives monastics the opportunity to see their fellows as members of the same body and to honour them as they would Christ. This is the explanation for the generous hospitality offered to pilgrims and visitors, and the continuous, tearful prayer on behalf of living and departed fellows, known and unknown.
Monastics fulfill their love for people in the world in different ways, such as the refreshment of the soul and spiritual support which they provide. Many people who are burdened and weary in soul have recourse to monasteries, and particularly the Holy Mountain, in order to find peace for their souls with Elders and Spiritual Fathers who have already found peace with God. And it’s not at all unusual for experienced Athonite spiritual fathers to go out into the world, to relieve other Christians and to support them in the faith.