Friday, July 3, 2009

Isaac the Athonite, part III

The completion of parts I and II.

On his return to Lebanon, he was ordained as a priest at the Patriarchal Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Balamand by the laying on of hands of the patriarch Elias IV (Mouawad), with the name Philippos. He then lived in the period between 1973 and 1975 in the little monastery dedicated to the memory of the Holy Greatmartyr George the Victory-bearer, a dependency of the Monastery of the Mother of God at Hamatoura, in the region of Zgharta in North Lebanon, a metochion of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon on the territory of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and Koura.

Father Philippos took to his assignment at the monastery of Saint George with much enthusiasm. He immediately put himself to work restoring the monastery's church and the monks' cells which circled it. He also cared for the neglected fields, re-planting olive trees and grapevines. Father's personality and the work that he did began to bear fruit and the monastery little by little became a well-known place of spiritual renewal that attracted more and more souls to the Lord. It is worth noting that Father Phillipos served during his stay in that monastery the parish dedicated to the Holy Archangel Michael in the village near Ras Kifa.

But the Grace of God had forseen a different destiny for him. Thus, under pressure from the war in Lebanon, he had to leave his monastery, located as tradition demands on a mountaintop, which had become a valuable military position, and to seek refuge once more in Thessolonica where he was raised to the rank of Archimandrite in 1976. He exercised his priesthood in the city itself, at the church of Saint Barbara and he had charge of the theology students from the Patriarchal Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Balamand for the faculty at Thessalonica.

In 1978, he obtained permission from +George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, upon whom he still depended, to join the monastic life on Mount Athos. He moved to the Monastery of Stavronikita and received the name of his patron saint, Isaac the Syrian. He could thus follow more closely the teachings of his spiritual father, the elder Paissios, who lived in the hermitage dedicated to the Venerable Cross not far from the monastery.

Father Isaac would speak of his encounter with Saint Isaac in the introduction to his Nuskiyyat, his translation from Greek into Arabic of the Ascetic Discourses and Letters of Saint Isaac the Syrian. He reccounted to us that a venerable monk of Mount Athos said to him, when he still knew very little of the saint, "Have you come here from a land that has produced so many saints like the virtuous Isaac the Syrian in order to learn the fundamentals of the monastic life?" Father responded, "Yes, holy father, for the experience of our fathers has been transmitted here and I have come to recover it in this place."

One year after arriving at the monastery of Stavronikita, he retired to what would become his refuge, the hermitage of the Ressurection which he himself restored in the region of Kebssala, not far from Karyes, the capital of the Holy Mountain. He lived there alone for four years, a life of hard asceticism and struggle. He was confronted with many temptations and trials that sought to make him leave his solitude, until one day when, overwhelmed from the tourment of his thoughts, his fatigue, and his sufferings, he discovered a small grave while he was walking nowhere in particular. He stopped in front of it and prayed fervently, calling up within himself the memory of death. Then he said with a resolute voice, "Here I may die." From that moment, the thoughts which were tormenting him completely disappeared. This memory of death never left him again, since according to the monastic tradition, he dug a grave of his own size with his own hands in the garden of his hermitage. He censed this grave every day until his body was laid to rest there after his falling asleep in the Lord Thursday, July 16, 1998.

He remained on Mount Athos from 1978 until 1998, the year of his repose, and was known for his asceticism and spiritual combat. He became, by the grace of God, a renowned spiritual father on Mount Athos and in Greece, demanding of himself and a fervent promoter of the assiduous practice of the sacrament of confession.

In his lifetime, he also became a living bridge between the Church of Antioch and the Holy Mountain. He often said, "I represent Antioch on Mount Athos," and he was proud of it. Lebanese, but also arabic-speaking Christians of the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, as well as others who came from the New World came to receive his blessing and to ask his advice. He also made a number of short trips to his country of origin, Lebanon, as well as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

May his prayers accompany us, amen.

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