Saturday, October 20, 2012

In the Cell of Isaac the Athonite

Arabic original here.

The Cell of Fr Isaac (Atallah): "Heaven on Earth"

On the night of the Feast of Saint Isaac the Syrian (old-calendar), we headed into the deep wilderness of Mount Athos, toward the cell of the reposed Hieromonk Isaac (Atallah), in order to share in the table of prayer, the vigil that goes from nine at night until sunrise the following morning. We were a group of believers, eleven people, several of whom were accustomed to going to this cell on this exact night.

It was seven thirty in the evening. We went up in a bus from a nearby monastery on an unpaved road, like all the roads on this mountain. After about half an hour, we stopped at a bridge and went the rest of the way on foot.

It was very dark. We walked one behind the other, relying on flashlights, the sound of crickets filling the space around us.

At first, we were haunted by a feeling of extraordinary fatigue. How can a person spend the entire night standing and sitting without being overwhelmed by tiredness and fatigue?

In human terms, this might be true, but here is the surprise: If a person from the first moment simply leaves himself in the hands of his Creator, he discovers that he is a "liturgical being", carried on the palms of angels and the saints of this mountain, if he decides to be united to God, the intercession of the All-Holy Theotokos will not depart from him for a single moment.

The beauty begins. A few moments before the prayer starts, rows of ascetics walk into the place, as though they had come down from heaven, one group after another, human shadows as though they had come from another world, walking at a quick and steady pace, one after another. You cannot see them well, because the color of their robes mixes with the black of night. You distinguish them by the flash of their faces and their long white beards, since the cell is completely empty of any modern technology. There is no electricity and cars cannot go on its path. Some kerosene lamps, which do not exceed the number of fingers on a hand, are placed in the corners to help us move.

Upon our arrival, with the guidance and warm welcome of the monks who live there, those arriving take up a simple location for themselves to sit and rest a little before the prayer begins.

The seats are wooden boards supported by stone and mud. Overhead was some wood and straw.

At that time the heavenly hosts pass before you, the elders of the desert, moving briskly among the shadows. They are welcomed with warm voices and receive a blessing from those who preceded them in asceticism. You sense the angelic presence, a peace, calm, and joy that is not of this world.

You look at them reflecting the candlelight and the light of the moon and you behold faces upon which are traced ascetic struggles and prayer, a firmness that is not lacking mercy, wrinkles traced by the fingers of grace and brightness.

Total seriousness wrapped in happiness and joy, giving and sacrifice.

"Commandos" who are completely ready, conscripted under the banner of Christ, alert and seasoned in battle, patience, and victory through God's grace. Just their faces exude a power. They immediately expel from your soul any feelings of laxity, hesitation, or fatigue.

Those among them who are advanced in age surpass the young in enthusiasm. Amongst them is an obedience to the spiritually advanced, extreme humility, and things that surpass all consideration or analogy. A venerable elder receives a blessing from a young priest, while the latter bows before the elder like a son to his father. How not, when he is his spiritual father!

They are really a heavenly presence. They embody Christianity and initiate you in the fullness and profundity of theology without speaking a single word. Their eyes are filled with tears from repentance and consolation, whose shine is the light of the Resurrection and victory. If you embrace them, you are touched by holiness and the sweetness of heaven.

They are great elders, before whom heads bow and under whose feet fall all the false and empty pleasures of the world. You realize that you are truly nothing and everything that you revel in is also nothing, possessions, positions, titles. Indeed, everything in life that you consider beautiful and strive to acquire is "emptiness and void". Man has no glory or honor except in being in the presence of God, as a humble and simple human, but at the same time rich in Christ and in all the gifts and graces that God has given him.

The true Christian is this divine presence that takes prayer as nourishment and struggle as a way of life.

After being briefly received with a cup of coffee and a piece of fasting halva, the simandron is strikes for prayer and the ascetic monks' voices break the night's silence with the most beautiful melodies and tones.

You look around and there the elders have scattered around the cell's church, left and right, with a speed that you're eyes have never seen. They disperse and are undivided, as they make up one body in harmony with Christ, the head.

Each one of them knows what to do and what he must do, as Christ's armies standing at the ready. Their tongues surpass the language of the body, heavenly beings who witness with their eyes the spirit of the One whom they address, to whom  and with whom they pray.

My God, what splendor! It is something beyond description. The cell of Father Isaac has become an open heaven. Here the icons joyfully give praise with those chanting and dance with joy with the angels and saints who have come down from heaven so that heaven and earth may become completely as one, filled with the odor of incense and lit beeswax candles in which one savors a taste of the kingdom. You know longer know whether you are standing on earth or present on high.

In the middle of all this angelic buzz, "geronda" moves about like a shadow, circling around the chanters and readers in silence, gesturing. A single gesture from him is enough for everyone to know what must be done. One book is closed and another opened without you knowing how or hearing any commotion that would disturb the purity and holiness of the place. Despite the small size of the church, it has become more expansive than the seas and oceans. A light dawns in every place and you wish for time to grow longer, for tomorrow to not reach you, but you are compelled to depart.

So, if a moment of fatigue comes to you, you resist it and refuse to close your eyes or to take a "nap", lest any of this beauty, splendor and the charm of the place pass you by. Even if you doze off, the heavenly tones take you and incline you to come back, wake up, and discover that you have arrived in a state of the kingdom that surpasses understanding. Truly you say with the Apostles, "Nothing separates me from Christ." I am in the presence of God.

Compline, vespers, readings, matins, the divine liturgy, all of them make up a single prayer-rope, a complete and integral unity, an open and unending table. You no longer realize how it began.

At any moment that you arrive, it has gone on before you, but at the same time it awaits you and there is a place for you there.

In the final moments of the night before sunrise, the kolyva is placed in the middle of the church and a monk distributes candles to the priests. All of them line up side-by-side in a semi-circle, facing the altar, so that the memorial service for the reposed monk Father Isaac (Atallah) can begin.

Why candles? Because they are a sign of Pascha and the shining forth from the tomb. There is no death in Christ. It is falling asleep and being transported.

The service begins with its most glorious beauty within the church and is completed outside, before Father Isaac's grave.

The black of night changes into the daylight of the Resurrection, so you realize in your soul that Father Isaac is participating with you in the very service. He stands beside you and chants with the choir, singing with those rejoicing.

Yes, you feel that he is alive. You want to talk to him and to bow before him to receive his blessing.

The service ends and you are surprised that it is almost six in the morning, so all can share in the agape table. You say to yourself: how did the whole night pass in a single moment without me getting tired?! Truly, "a thousand years are in the eyes of the Lord are like yesterday which has passed." He is the Heavenly Bridegroom, accompanied by the angels.

This is the cell of Father Isaac (Atallah), who left his earthly homeland of Lebanon to enter into the paradise of the Theotokos, to join the caravan of God's holy ones, and to turn a plot of land on Mount Athos into a heavenly elevator, in which one recovers his true, original identity, which is the kingdom.

This is Mount Athos and this is Orthodoxy, a life lived in struggle and blood.

Truly the kingdom begins now. Its gates are wide open. If you attain the Athonite vigil with good patience, then you attain divine longing, you acquire the "art of arts"-- that is, prayer, struggle, repentance, hope, joy, and consolation. Then you belong to the caravans of those struggling. You praise the Lord in repentance and joy and say to Him, "Amen."

Fr Athanasius (Shahwan)
October 11, 2012
Mt Athos, Greece

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