The Witness of Monastics
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
This week seven young men from my church and I visited St Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery in Roscoe, NY. I’m sure most people have never visited a monastery and have no clue of what Orthodox Christian monks and nuns do. Why do these men and women renounce the world and go off to live in a secluded monastery?
Well, we asked the monks there this very question and they told us that the goal of life is to seek union with God and they strive to do this continuously with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, while they are also praying for the world without ceasing.
Imagine, every day from 1:00am-4:00am these 24 monks commune with God and pray in their cell for the entire world. Then they come together and worship God as a community in the Divine Liturgy from 4:00am-6:00am. 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! And when we asked them why in the middle of the night, they responded that many of the worst sins of the world happen in the middle of the night so they are there praying for God to have mercy on the world.
These monks 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 to begin their routine once again. Throughout the day they do whatever work they are assigned in the monastery, but they are constantly praying the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner). Remember, their goal in life is to be united with God at all times.
When I asked one of the newer members of our church what his impression was in 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. Their lives and witness remind us that there is something beyond this brief, temporary world.
They don’t waste their time on what’s happening in the world of sports; 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, for divine love.
They realize that the current events of the day are passing, no matter how serious they may seem for the moment – whether a pandemic or a war or some natural disaster or any other crisis. 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 spiritual and how serious we think we may be, monastics challenge us to really look at our lives and see if we are “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”
These monks live extremely disciplined live offering a witness that challenges us to look at ourselves and see how disciplined we are in our pursuit of God and His kingdom. These monks pray the Jesus Prayer continuously throughout the day and night, trying to keep Christ in their mind during everything they do. We saw monks on tractors; farming; gardening; taking care of beehives; in the kitchen feeding dozens and dozens of people daily, yet in all they did they would stay sober and vigilant in prayer. They made us realize that we also, no matter how busy and distracted our lives can become, could try to pray constantly and stay connected to God.
These monks have left the world, but they didn’t forget the world. They are praying for the entire world constantly.
They also 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. Some of the monks are well educated, like the Geronta Josif, who was formerly a pharmacist before he became a monk. But they also share stories of simple, illiterate monks who became enlightened saints.
As I was reflecting on this visit to St. Nektarios Monastery, I thought also one of the greatest monastics of the 20th century, Saint Silouan the Athonite, whom we celebrated two weeks ago. He is a fairly recent saint having died in 1938. He was an illiterate villager from Russia with a tumultuous past who fell into immorality and almost killed 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, listening to music and enjoying ourselves, while at this very hour on Mount Athos monks are 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 at that moment to leave 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 was enlightened by the Holy Spirit. His words simply reflected what we read in holy Scripture. For example, in today’s Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “love your enemies… and be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." Saint Silouan highlighted throughout his writings this love for enemy and this divine mercy. He wrote:
“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.' The first martyr 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."
"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."
“The person who knows the delight of God’s love knows that 'the kingdom of God is within us'.
Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life.”
Saint Silouan, along with contemporary monks like those at St. Nektarios, can inspire us to take an honest look at our own attempts to follow Christ and can challenge us to commit to a more disciplined, serious and sober pursuit for the kingdom of God above all else.