The Monks of Mount Athos (1978/2003)

Impressions:

I was often struck by how Abbot Pennington spoke about the “now” in The Monks of Mount Athos. He chides himself over and over again during his four-month stay for his anxieties about where he would go on the Holy Mountain and for imagining plans for his return to America. This resonated with me because I am constantly going over the “what-if” anxieties in my head, especially when I travel. Yet, Pennington says at one point, God is not in the future; God is not in the past; God is now. Certainly God holds the past and future in God’s hands, but to be connected to God, we can only look for God in the now (148).

I was also often struck by how he would describe the beautiful view he had out his window at Simonos Petras—the steep, rocky decent down to the blue green waters of the Aegean. Yet he often reminded himself that it in the the darkness of his inner self that the light of Christ resides. Thus he wanted to spend much time with his eyes closed, in silent companionship with the Lord.

His reflections on Eastern/Western Christian relations also helped me understand the issue more deeply. Some of the Orthodox monks welcomed him; some cast him out of churches during Services. It depended on which monastery he was at. The monks of Simonos Petras certainly seemed welcoming, even somewhat ecumenically minded—at one point confiding to Pennington that it was going around that Simonos Petras was now the “Catholic monastery” on the peninsula. Some monks tried to convert him to Orthodoxy. Some were hostile to him. And Pennington himself received whatever treatment he got with gratitude, which I found most instructive. He wrote several prayers and pleas for Christian unity, which again should be instructive.

And I was struck by the overall holiness of the Holy Mountain. Pennington wrote with admiration of the deep love that existed between monks and from monks towards guests. While reflecting on his stay, he noted that he wanted to take the love he had experienced on the Mount—the real Christlike love—and share it with his brother monks in his own monastery and with the guests that visit them. Abbot Pennington’s journal has renewed my longing to experience something of the Mount someday.

Quotes:

“Today I saw an unusual russet bird gliding effortlessly for all the time I could see it. I thought of it as myself in this time [of retreat], gliding effortlessly on the mercy and love of God, free from all care and effort, just moving along with his grace. It all seems almost too good to be true” (27).

“Above all, we need to become as little children and not depend on our own plans and efforts, but freely receive of the abundance the Father wants to give us” (27).

“I sat on the balcony reading Genesis and watching the three pilgrims of the night leave. As they wended their way down the steep winding path and got lost among the olive trees I thought: how like life. We are all wending our way along. Each tends to experience himself as the center of it all. But seen in perspective, we are but pilgrims, each, on the path. And a loving Father looks down with love and concern and blesses us” (28, cf. 93).

“…who is his friend and made the prayer cord he is using, a very nice one. That seems to me a very meaningful way to bind friends together” (41).

“Silence is the very Presence of God—always there. But activity hides it. We need to leave activity long enough to discover the Presence—then we can return to activity with it” (43).

[His prayer rule for his time on the Mount, p. 48 and 55.]

“Reading, he said, is important but practice is more so—’Be a “philosopher” not only in your mind but also in your life'” (53).

“In order to walk, one must take the first step; in order to swim, one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the Incarnation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly” (57).

On Jeremiah 4:3—”The mind is filled with thoughts that create a gulf between us and God. Empty the mind; in the stillness you will find union with God” (58).

“While there is much that can be criticized about Mount Athos, what better has anyone to offer the world today?” (74).

“Do not trouble about the number of times you say the [Jesus] prayer. Let this be your sole concern that it should spring up in your heart with quickening power like a fountain of living water. Expel entirely from your mind all thoughts of quantity.” —Theophane the Recluse (78).

[“medieval Benedictine foundations” on Mount Athos? (80).]

“When we are completely ignored, we simply cease to exist. It is a step beyond death. So by ignoring self and turning our attention fully to God in silent, attentive prayer, we truly die to self and live to God. We come to taste him, understand him, be familiar with him, enjoy him” (93).

What a man the Lord must have been—a real vir—to clear the temple the way he did. …’Do you not know that you are God’s temple?’ I must not allow any trafficking. I do need to search the Scrptures for that insight that will fuel the fires of love and self-sacrifice. But I must take care not to sell such thoughts and insights or to use them to make others think more of me or to write them in books to make money” (121).

“Orthodox often question our use of Byzantine liturgical prayer, but the Catholic rightly feels all these belong to him as a Catholic. His outreach to and use of methods of meditation, from Hindus and Zen Buddhists, are even more difficult for Orthodox to understand. And some Catholics find them difficult, too. But all things are ours and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Anything that is good or true, in any way, is, to that extent, of Christ, and the Christian may claim it and use it in his service” (127).

“Father Dionysios said the monk in his cell sleeps, reads, makes prostrations, prays, and is simply present to God as God is to him, forgetting all the past, not planning the future, but being in the ‘now’ with God which is the eschaton” (141).

[The Photian Synod of 879–880.]

“This is the heart of ecumenism—love, prayer, openness to the Spirit of Love. Doing the truth in love” (165).

“The daily cross:
“The vertical—following Christ to heaven.
“The horizontal—my own tendencies and desires.
“I can escape the cross by not following Christ, forgetting his call, dropping the vertical out of my life. But the horizontal has no destination; only ultimate frustration—that is hell.
“To carry the cross daily—consciously choose to be a Christian” (178).

“It does little good to come to Athos or any other monastery if one is still going to keep his mind and imagination full of the world and its doings” (208).

“It is not a question of who we are, but who we are to become. Life is given to us to grow and become. We should never be satisfied but always want more. We are called to the full maturity in Christ. But Christ is such a giant that each of us live but an aspect of his greatness. In discerning vocation we seek to discern our aspect” (210).

[The Palamite controversy]

The Name of the Son of God is great and immense. It is this Name which sustains the entire world.” —Hermas (220).

“…it is too easy to forget we are strangers and exiles on earth. We tend to feather our nests too comfortably and forget we are meant to be constantly flying toward the heights” (230).

“Father Antonios asserted that Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants—we were all the same, all Christians. Holy families, he said, are formed everywhere” (237).

“The Lord is behind our failures, to make them his kind of success. Ever at the heart’s center of Christianity is a cross, a Crucified, a failure, who alone is the truly successful One, and in his success, we all can know success, even when we continually fail miserably” (246–247).

“The important thing is not to neglect the opportunity to become a saint” (258).

“…what is essentially a Marian vocation—Mary’s vocation of pondering in her heart and mothering Christ” (266).

“But these are things that grow in us very subtly—the seed planted that grows night and day without our measuring it until it is harvest time. All important, but more his business than ours. We can do little but want. His Spirit must work them in us. And he will in the willing heart” (267).

Bibliography of books mentioned in the text:

  • William of Saint Thierry’s Golden Epistle
  • St. John Climacus
  • St. Gregory Palamas
  • St. Symeon the New Theologian
  • Evagrius Ponticus / St. Nilos
  • St. Dorotheus of Gaza (for novices)
  • St. John Climacus (for novices)
  • St. Theodore the Studite (for novices)
  • The Gospels (for novices)
  • St. John Damascene
  • The story of Barlaam and Josaphat
  • The life of St. Nectarios
  • The Young Elder: A Biography of Blessed Archimandrite Ambrose of Mildova
  • Sydney Loch’s Athos, the Holy Mountain
  • St. Antony’s Hundred and Seventy Texts on Saintly Life
  • John and Barsanuphios
  • Early Fathers and the Apothegmata
  • [Leo Tolstoy’s Kingdom of God is within You]
  • Joseph the Hesychast
  • Henri Nouwen’s Pray to Live
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