Friday, February 4, 2011

Archimandrite Elisha in an-Nahar

The Arabic original, by Hala Homsi, can be found here.

His abode is a monastery hanging over the sea and his ammunition “divine light”

Archimandrite Elisha: “I have found quiet…. how close is God to us?”

For a monk to leave Mount Athos in Greece is really something rare, “difficult”, says the abbot of the monastery of Simonopetra on the Mountain, Archimandrite Elisha, “since the ideal goal of a monk is to not leave it.” But he found that this difficulty was less stressful for him and the monks accompanying him “because our leaving was in order to go on a visit of love,” as he put it to an-Nahar. Lebanon was his destination and “sometimes love is stronger than desire [to not leave].”

The archimandrite came from the southwestern coast of the peninsula of Mount Athos. There lies his monastery, built in the year 1364 by the ascetic Saint Symeon at the top of a rocky cliff towering like a column 230 meters above the sea. It is one of the most famous of the 20 monasteries on the mountain and is ranked 13th among them. One who leaves the Holy Mountain “bears in his heart divine light and transmits it to the world,” the archimandrite says, “Likewise he bears boldness and gives it to people, regardless of the problems they are facing. He also bears a sense of absolute reliance on God.”

More than a thousand years have passed since monasticism appeared on Mount Athos, which is one of the three Chalkidiki peninsulas in the Aegean Sea. In the opinion of the archimandrite, its continued presence into the 21st century is a sign of “its power of endurance and that it carries meaning and values that transcend time and historical changes. Thus it remains a beacon to the world, into the current century.”

He has been a monk of the Mountain for 37 years. “I do not feel the passing of all these years. It is as though I became a monk yesterday,” he says. What he has found there causes him happiness: “I found quiet and contemplation and the return to the self that helps us to grow spiritually in a way that is not easily possible in the world. On the mountain, we can find a joy that a person in the world cannot find.”

The monks know very well the cares of the world and the problems that people face. “We are not in complete isolation and we have a profound feeling of the unity of the body of the Church,” affirms the archimandrite, “this happens through our connection with visitors coming from various corners of the world.” Though the visitors are only male—because entrance onto the mountain is forbidden to women—they bring to the monks the latest developments. Technology has made its way there: electricity, computers, the internet, but not television. “We do not oppose technology,” he says, “the Mountain always takes care that there is a moderate path without going past the limits. I wish that the whole world adopts this attitude, since man must know the limits within which he can use this technology and use his time in a good way to his benefit and development.”

The archimandrite’s status as being one of the leaders of the Mountain causes him to realize the profundity and importance of what he lives: “First of all, love of the monastic life and joy in it is followed by ascetic struggle. Love alone without joy does not work.” He says, “It is a way of life. When we love something profoundly, we triumph over all the difficulties that we face. Thus we always pay attention to reaching the end, and in this way life becomes easy. When they say that monastic life is hard, this is not true.”

After 37 years, he is tickled by the beautiful feeling that, “I have become closer to God. The thing that I learned on the Mountain is how close God is to us. The secret of this relationship is simple. “I speak to Him in all simplicity. We must express to Him what we feel in our heart. It is certainly possible to use some helpful methods in prayer, fasting, and the services of the Church, but the basic thing is that we express to Him what is in our heart and that we be able to remember Him in every place we might be.”

In the opinion of the archimandrite, what God is saying to mankind in the 21st century is that “we must have zeal and courage in this life. Otherwise, we lose hope in Him. God Himself is yesterday, today and tomorrow. What he expected of man in the first century remains what He expects of him in the 21st century, regardless of all the changes that have taken place.”

The archimandrite follows these changes, and he realizes the anxiety about the existence of Christians in the Middle East, “with the hope that matters will improve.” In his opinion, what will help is “good relations and mutual assistance, so that these Middle Eastern and Islamic countries will see in Orthodoxy an image of openness. Through this, they will see that religious freedom exists and that in order for anything to be true and sincere, it must be free. This is what must be learned more in a real, practical way, and that we be faithful and live our faith sincerely and are true to it.”

The archimandrite offers the Holy Mountain as a model of Orthodox openness. He says, “We believe in our tradition and at the same time we speak with everyone, Christians and non-Christians. We welcome them and tell them about our faith and explain its true meaning. We have many things in common.” When asked about the historic visit made by Pope John Paul II to Greece in 2001 and the monks’ demonstrations against it, he points out that “it is natural for there to be various voices among the Orthodox but it was not very hard for us to see what took place in Greece took place through cooperation between the Greek state and the Church. There will be difficulties, but we will go forward.”

Returning to Greece, the archimandrite takes with him “beautiful memories of the holy places I visited and the different world that I saw, in addition to great thankfulness.” Lebanon will not disappear from his mind, and “we are with you every day,” he says, “and when we pray the Psalms that speak of Lebanon and Mount Hermon, we remember this country every day. As a monk, I say that I desire to return here and to pray for the sake of Lebanon.”

*Archimandrite Elisha visited Syria and Lebanon as the leader of a delegation of monks at the invitation of Metropolitan Basil Mansour of Akkar from the November 28 to January 11.


Brian said...

Welcome back, Samn.

Sava said...

"We must have zeal and hope in this life. Otherwise, we lose hope in Him."

I love his hopeful perspective. Though I would have great trouble selling Mt. Athos as a model of Orthodox openness (though I understand his point). The technology info bit was also pretty interesting, I guess I didn't know what to expect, what is there makes sense though.

NOCTOC said...

Well, having visited Mt. Athos myself, I cannot say that it is a place of openness. This claim sounds almost like a joke. Things are not like that at all. It is like stepping into the Middle Ages, mentally and other wise.
Among other things, which are contrary to this claim is the fact that non- Orthodox visitors are not allowed to eat at the same table as the Orthodox during meal time, but are seated at a saparate table and in some monasteries they are put to eat isolated in a different room. This happens because they are heretics, as the monks there like to stress out.
Also, non Christians are not allowed to visit the Holy Mountain.

Mount Athos is a very special and unique place on earth. A place of deep Monastic Prayer.The monks there live a very strict life filled with solitude, prayer, obedience, service, fasting and they never take a bath or shower or eat meat.
However, it is not a place of openess.

ofgrace said...

NOTOC, perhaps this depends upon where upon the Holy Mountain one goes or who one goes with. I read one account by historian and travel writer, William Dalrymple, who journeyed on Mt. Athos for several weeks and met with quite varied attitudes and responses from the monks, depending on which monastery he visited. As best I recall, Mr. Dalrymple, a Scot, who resides with his family in India, is not a Christian, though he has an interest in spirituality in general. I have also read of a Buddhist monk from India visiting the Holy Mountain (in Mother Gavrilia's biography). There is also the account of the "The Gurus the Young Man and Elder Paisios." The "young man" of this memoir was definitely not a Christian when he started visiting the Holy Mountain and Elder Paisios. Probably what these monks mean by "openness" could be better explored, given the traditional practices of Eastern Orthodox monasticism designed to preserve and protect their prayer and solitude. Despite what you have said, I would characterize a mature Orthodox monk/nun as infinitely more open-hearted toward the other than those of an Islamist mentality that seem to be coming to dominate in many parts of the Middle East today. Perhaps that is the proper context in which to understand these comments.