Remember Thou Art Dust

Ash Wednesday

“Remember thou art dust, and to dust, you shall return” Genesis 3:19

These are the words spoken as ashes are placed on our foreheads on this day that the season of Lent begins in the Church.  This is a reminder that our time here on this earth is limited, we are mortal, and one day will no longer exist.  These words should call us to the remembrance of what we have done during our lives here on this earth.  What will our legacy be?  If we were to die tomorrow, how would people remember us, or would they?

Historically, fasting was a large part of the Lenten journey.  Christians would benefit fast from meat products; meat was seen as lavish in a world where things were hard to come by.  This gradually was relaxed over time and reduced to only a few days a year if any at all.  However, we tend to fast, or give up things, during this period of the year.  Most of the time it is something of little consequence like giving up chocolate or coffee, although that would be a great sacrifice for me.

However, the Prophet Isaiah gives us a hint of what we actually should be fasting from not only during the Lenten season but all year long:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, here I am.

Isaiah is very precise with his words about how we are to live our lives.  It is not to give up something of little consequence, but it is about making a difference in someone else’s life.  Doing something for someone, without looking for a reward, is what we are called to do.

Why should we do this?  Well Isaiah has the answer for that question:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If we do what Isaiah is suggesting, God will bless us.

As we continue this journey through Lent lets us resolve to do something for another person each day, not matter how small it is.  If we do this God will bless us and we will be remembered as a person of great faith.

I Went to a Wedding and This Happened


For the past few weeks, I have been leading a Bible study on the Gospel of John.  We have been working our way, verse by verse, through this most important Gospel.  John’s Gospel has always been a favorite of mine.  He does not write from a position of names and places and dates but rather a story if spirituality.  John’s image comes from above the whole picture, and so we get a bird’s eye view of everything that is going on.  John writes as someone who has listened to the heartbeat of God.  This comes from the image of John leaning on the chest of Jesus at the Supper in the Upper Room.

When Scripture is studied in context and verse by verse way things tend to jump out, that may be obscured in another study and the Wedding at Cana is one of those stories.

On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

What we see here is the first of the seven signs (we can also call them miracles) that John will write about in his Gospel.  The setting of this story is necessary. In the Old Testament, the marriage feast was a symbol of the union of God with his bride Israel. Cana, located in Galilee, had a large Gentile population and sign that the Gospel would reach to the ends of the earth. The wedding took place on “the third day” this sets a resurrection tone to what is going to follow.

In this passage wine is symbolic of life, and there is a double meaning to Mary’s statement that “they have no wine.”  First, marriage is not complete without the presence of Christ in the lives of those who are married and second the old covenant was unable to bestow everlasting life even on the most faithful of people.

This story is a bridge passage or an ending and a beginning.  When the discovery that they had run out of wine is made, Jesus tells the servants to fill the empty stone pots with water.  These pots have a great significance to the story.  They are made of stone so as not to be ruined by ritual impurity according to the Jewish law.  There are six of them, six is an imperfect number, seven is a perfect Scriptural number, and this indicates that the law, the very law that would make these pots impure, is imperfect and incomplete, and unable to bestow life.  This water, the water of the law, is changed into wine symbolizing that the old covenant has been fulfilled in the new, perfect, covenant of Jesus Christ and this new wine will bestow life on all who drink it.

But we cannot stop there.  There is an overabundance of this wine, “they filled them to the brim” so that as they drew the wine out it spilled over the sides.  Here we see the overabundance of the grace that Christ grants to all.

This is but one example of Jesus pointing out that the old covenant has been fulfilled in him, but sometimes one has to drill down a little deeper to find it.

A Celtic Prayer at Rising

St. Columba of Iona Fr. Peter Preble Fr. John A. PeckBless to me, O God
Each thing mine eye sees;
Bless to me, O God,
Each sound mine ear hears;
Bless to me, O God,
Each odor that goes to my nostrils;
Bless to me, O God,
Each taste that goes to my lips;
Each note that goes to my song,
Each ray that guides my way,
Each thing that I pursue,
Each lure that tempts my will,
The zeal that seeks my living soul,
The Three the seek my heart,
The zeal that seeks my living soul,
The Three that seek my heart.

From the Carminal Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael

The First Step of Humility

The first step of humility is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it. He must constantly remember everything God has commanded, keeping in mind that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and all who fear God have everlasting life awaiting them. (Rule of St. Benedict)

Saint Benedict took Lent so seriously that he dedicated an entire chapter of his rule to the subject. Further, he declared that “the life of a monk ought to have always the character of a Lenten observance.” For Saint Benedict, Lent is the season that mirrors most exactly what the life of the monk should be at all times.

Keeping in mind Saint Benedict’s views on Lent, I decided during this holy season to concentrate on reading and meditating seriously on what Saint Benedict wrote in Chapter 7 of his rule. The chapter is dedicated entirely to humility, which obviously connects to the attitude or spirit we must seek to cultivate during Lent.

Humility’s first step, as enunciated by Saint Benedict, seems clear and evident. It is a basic principle of all spiritual life. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Benedict makes us realize that God knows each of us through and through and that nothing escapes from his eyes. To him, we are like an open book where he can read every word, every line, every sentence. Humility’s first step teaches us how to live in God’s holy presence: in spirit of a humble repentance for our shortcomings and weaknesses, and in a spirit of gratitude for God’s infinite patience with each of us.

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avil-Latourrette
Blessings of the Daily: A Monastic Book of Days

The Fourth Step of Humility

The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience, under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape. Rule of St. Benedict
 The practice of the fourth step of humility, according to Saint Benedict, is very demanding and painful.  It is only in light of the mystery of the cross of Christ and of his supreme obedience to the Father that we can begin to apprehend the hardship entailed in this form of following the Lord.  If we think that physical suffering is difficult to endure, we shall soon find out that mental and emotional suffering is many times more painful.  Only those who have endured unjust persecution and the mental anguish that sort of suffering carries with it have experiential knowledge of how painful it is to assent to God’s will under such circumstances.
We shall not be surprised, if in a moment of weakness and fear, we try to escape from the practice of this step.  Jesus Himself prayed: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.”  it is precisely at this moment, though, “with a quiet heart” as counseled by Saint Benedict, that we try to submit to God’s wishes as we utter the remainder of Jesus words: “Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.”  In this submission, all natural resentment emanating from the source of this suffering begins to lessen, and a deep inner peace – a sure sign of the healing presence of God – settles in.

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette

The Third Step of Humility

The third step of humility is that a man submits to his superior in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: “He became obedient to the point of death.” (Phil 2:8) Rule of St. Benedict


The mystery of monastic obedience, and its only justification, is based on Jesus’ submission to his heavenly Father.  Throughout his thirty-three years on earth, he not only obeyed his heavenly Father but also his mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph.  This submission to his Father was carried out to the end of his life, as he obediently accepted even death, death on a cross!
Following the example of Christ, the monk promises to remain obedient “even unto death” in the monastery.  The monastic obedience implies fidelity and daily submission to the will of God, to the Church which is Christ’s Body, to the Rule, to the monastic tradition, to the Father of the community, and to one another.  Obedience allows the monk to become a servant as Christ became for our sake.  Obedience, for the monk, is expressed ultimately in the humble respect he shows towards the abbot, the brethren, and all those he comes in contact with, seeing Christ in all of them.

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette

Blessings of the Daily, A Monastic Book of Days

The Second Step of Humility

The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  Rule of St. Benedict

The essence of the Christian life consists in the imitation of the life of Christ.  He is the model.  He is also the master and we are the disciples to whom he utters the invitation: “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and then follow me.”  In order to follow Jesus, we must embrace the cross, the small crosses of everyday life, and follow the path of self-renunciation.  This path is not easy, for we know it to be so contrary to human nature.

Jesus never promised us that the way to heaven would be easy.  What he promised was to send us a Comforter who would remind us of Jesus’ teachings and, at the same time, give us the strength and the necessary fortitude to follow the ways of the Gospel, no matter how perilous they may seem to be.

In the Our Father we pray daily, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is precisely what Saint Benedict encourages us to seek through the practice of humility’s second step: acceptance of the will of God in our daily life and in all of our actions.  In accomplishing the will of the Father, we shall discover our true freedom, our only joy, our perfect peace.  I think it was Dante who towards the end of his life stated, “In your will is my peace.”

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette
Blessings of the Daily, A Monastic Book of Days


By St. Nikolai VelimirovichThat God may forgive us, let us forgive men.

We are all on this earth as temporary guests.
… Prolonged fasting and prayer is in vain
Without forgiveness and true mercy.
God is the true Physician; sins are leprosy.
Whomever God cleanses, God also glorifies.
Every merciful act of men, God rewards with mercy.
He who returns sin with sin perishes without mercy.
Pus is not cleansed by pus from infected wounds,
Neither is the darkness of the dungeon dispelled by darkness,
But pure balm heals the festering wound,
And light disperses the darkness of the dungeon.
To the seriously wounded, mercy is like a balm;
As if seeing a torch dispersing the darkness, everyone rejoices in mercy.
The madman says, “I have no need of mercy!”
But when he is overcome by misery, he cries out for mercy!
Men bathe in the mercy of God,
And that mercy of God wakens us to life!
That God may forgive us, let us forgive men,
We are all on this earth as temporary guests.


I am in the second week of an adult education program here at the church on prayer. We are using the book,  Beginning to Pray by Archbishop Anthony Bloom. This is a great little book and I highly recommend it if you are looking for something on prayer. It is written for the beginner and not to heavy on the theology.
During the class the topic of humility came up in reference to prayer. I have always thought of humility as being the pile that everyone heaps stuff on and you just take it. You’re the guy who sits there and never says anything and walks around with their head down never looking anyone in the eye. Well I guess that is one aspect of humility but not one that I find helpful.
Just because I like facts, the word humility appears seven times in Scripture. Mostly in the Hebrew Scriptures but is does make an appearance or two in the Christian Scriptures as well. Humility is not a virtue that is taught these days, at least using the definition that I used above.
In the first chapter of beginning to pray, Archbishop Anthony gives us another view of humility and one that I find a bit more palatable. Humility comes from the Latin word Humus ~ fertile ground. He goes on to say that this is the condition of the earth. “The earth is humble, always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, it’s there silent and accepting everything.” He says that this is how we should be before God. If we are abandoned, surrendered, ready to receive anything then we are ready to stand before God and accept whatever His will is. After all that is what we are going for here, God’s will not ours.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, before the crucifixion, Jesus was just this before God. Yes He knew what was coming and He knew the price He was about to pay. But in His most human moment He was naked and empty before God and finally He was ready for God’s will. He knew what He had to do, but he needed to be empty and ready.
That’s what it means to be humble before God. That is the position that we all must seek and strive for to be naked and empty, fertile soil ready to receive what ever God wants to plant in us. If we are guarded and only a little ready to do His will maybe saying things like, “okay whatever you want but with these conditions.” No, that won’t work. We must be ready and will for anything that God will throw at us.
In the end this will only happen if we have faith and fear of God. We need to shed all of our selves before Him and be genuine as we stand in the presence. We need to acknowledge that God is God and Master of All including us. Once we are that open with God then we will truly be humble and we will truly be able to obtain that perfect love. Love of God and love of neighbor.

On The Lonliness Of Cities

by Monk Moses

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, St. Kosmas Aitolos foretold that a time would come when a person would have to travel for days to meet another person whom he could embrace as a brother. We are living in an age where this is already happening. Contemporary man, in his loneliness, experiences pathological anxiety, anguish and suffering. He is tormented and, in turn, torments others.

Why? This essay will attempt an answer by bringing the fragrance of community found in the desert to the loneliness and the desolation found in cities.

Contemporary Loneliness

Loneliness is the absence of communication and relationship- the inability to develop and maintain associations with others. Contemporary culture and the structures of society, the mass media reflecting prevailing ideologies, even children’s games, lead to social alienation, political estrangement and personal isolation. The individual person begins, early on, to be possessed by an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, to lose the meaning and purpose of life, to live without principles and discipline, to be constantly suspicious and in doubt.

Alone and insecure, anxious and disorderly, modern man and particularly the contemporary young person attempts to build bridges, to raise flags, to shout slogans. But without a guide or with bad guides he is readily disillusioned and becomes hard and aggressive, a plaything for political exploiters and power-hungry anarchists. The desire for freedom becomes the bitter death of his freedom.

The young, who earlier had declared that they would never compromise with anyone, are now themselves compromised. They take refuge in demonstrations and sit-ins, becoming rebellious in an effort to relieve themselves of the weight of their loneliness, not realizing that they are thrusting themselves into an even more unbearable slavery.

It is particularly unfortunate that all this is happening where least expected even with young people of good education, exceptional intelligence, energy and talent. Unsatisfied with material prosperity and disillusioned by the hypocrisy of their elders, these young people struggle for simpler life, for quality in life, for a better way of life but unfortunately they do not manage to make the right beginning.

Modern art is a good example of the spiritual alienation that we see. Instead of shedding light and opening windows toward others and toward heaven it tends to shut us in and to plunge us, ever deeper, into obscurity and darkness.

It is not long before isolated man begins to talk to himself, to the irrational animals, to the shadows that surround him, and to the dead. By now he is seriously sick. Melancholy, phobias, suspicion and mistrust have made him a psychopath. A most appropriate observation characterizes our time as the century of the psychiatrist. According to World Health Organization statistics for 1985 there are more than 400 million people in the world suffering from deep depression, with about 400,000 committing suicide each year. And these statistics refer only to the developed countries!

In his isolation man is plagued relentlessly by egotism and pride which are the natural parents of his loneliness.

Humility – An Antidote to Loneliness

If egotism and pride foster this kind of loneliness, then true humility – even though the term is misused and loses meaning among those who merely talk about it – produces the climate in which this loneliness is not permitted to thrive. Behold how the desert that good mother, excellent philosopher and theologian speaks about holy humility, silence and peace.

The humble person, according to Abba Poimen, is comfortable and at peace wherever he may find himself.

Abba Isaac tells us that he who makes himself small in everything will be exalted above all. And his discerning voice continues:

“Hate honor and you will be honored indeed. He who runs after honors causes honor itself to be banished from him. But if you merely disdain yourself hypocritically in order to appear humble, God will reveal you.”

In the Gerontikon, which contains a wide variety of spiritual writings from the Fathers, it is repeatedly made clear that:

“The humble-minded and lowly in heart is not the one who cheapens himself and talks about humility, but the one who endures joyfully the dishonors which come from his neighbor.”

In another place the Gerontikon states that:

“The person honored more than he deserves is actually harmed, while the person who is not honored at all by his fellow human beings will be honored in heaven by God.”

Abba Poimen gives us this advice:

“Every possible sorrow that comes to you can be overcome with silence.”

Abba Isaiah agrees with him:

“Until your heart is at peace through prayer, make no effort to explain anything to your brother.”

In studying the writings of the holy fathers of the desert, one can easily observe a common mind, a common noble spirit, a humaneness, an understanding, a wisdom. These are dew drops of the Holy Spirit, which fall in the arid desert after long struggles, which make fragrant flowers grow among the communities of faithful committed totally to God, and which make fragrant the souls of those who truly thirst for God.

Abba Isaiah, that great mind, notes with particular grace and subtlety:

“He who humbles himself before God is capable of enduring every insult. The humble person is not concerned about what others say about him. The person who bears the harsh word of a rude and foolish man for the sake of God is worthy of acquiring peace.”

Abba Mark, on this important topic – our relationship with ourselves and with others, in which we find ourselves stumbling on a daily basis – goes on to note the following:

“When you become aware of the thought in your mind dictating human glory, you should know for sure that this thought is preparing you for shame. And if you discern someone praising you hypocritically, expect also his accusation some time soon.”

And with the daring precision of a surgeon of the soul, the holy Abba continues:

“When you see someone crying over the many insults he has received, you should know that, because he was overcome by vainglory, he is now unknowingly reaping the crop of evils in his heart. He who loves pleasure is grieved by accusations and abuse. On the other hand, he who loves God is grieved by praises and other superfluous remarks. The degree of our humility is measured by slander. Don’t think that you have humility when you cannot forbear even the slightest accusation.”

Abba Zossima goes even further:

“Remember the one who has ridiculed you, who has grieved you, who has wronged you, who has done evil to you, as your physician, your healer. Christ sent him to heal you; don’t remember him with anger.”

Evagrios considered those who spoke badly of him as benefactors.

The divine wisdom of these physicians of the desert has tremendous significance to our topic. It has been said that these remarks are addressed by monks and for monks, but this is a superficial view. The epidemic of loneliness and depression that we are discussing results from proud minds lacking in humility, from failed interpersonal relationships, from unsatisfied egotistical aspirations, from self-aggrandizement, praise-seeking and self-love. This loneliness is strong enough to weaken a person and to make him sick. But love is stronger, capable of healing and regenerating the whole world.

Man has an irrepressible need to communicate, but communication must be properly developed. Initially, we must strike up a conversation a sincere, honorable and courageous conversation with our unknown self. We must rediscover in the very depths of our soul the hidden innocence of our childhood years. Next we must learn to have unmasked face-to-face conversation with the only, true living friend our heavenly Father and God. Only then will we be able to effectively communicate with others, whoever they are – the worst, the best, the neighbors, the distant, our brothers and sisters in Christ. In this manner the webs of loneliness are removed, the inaccessible and sunless dungeons of the heart are illumined, the shell of our ego is broken. When we have rejected the loneliness of miserable, self-centered egotism we can begin to rejoice, to be free, to breathe, to live.

Natural Loneliness: A Sanctuary of Knowledge of Self and of God

There is another type of loneliness – natural loneliness which is not pathological but creative, life-giving, full of grace. It is exemplified by the natural separation of monastics from the world. It is a loneliness to which we all should devote much time. We must be able to withdraw ourselves from the noisy crowds which are so superficial, so distracting, and so counterproductive in a withdrawal which is healthy, beautiful and good. It is important that we learn to shut off the constant communication with the many, which does not allows us to be alone with our self and as a consequence, we are not able to be with the One who is always waiting, the incarnate Logos and God. We must make the time and find the way for this other kind of sacred communication of natural loneliness. And we must pursue this knowledgeably, with an orderly, disciplined program.

Please keep in mind that we are not talking about those who seek to escape from preoccupations with the world in order to find rest, to view beautiful sunsets, to gaze at star-studded skies. Such activities are not spiritual. Neither are we talking about those who seek to meditate using techniques of doubtful origins to achieve dubious results. Nor are we discussing those who devote fleeting moments to superficial daydreams and who presume to have repented when they feel sentimental emotions as they remember indiscretions of their past. And we certainly are not talking about the well-meaning but naïve who think the spiritual life of sacred quietude consists of strolling at the sea shore with a komboschoini (prayer beads) in hand. Furthermore, we are not referring to the spiritual tourists who visit holy places and converse boldly with holy persons, but who do not deny their ego nor sacrifice their will. Activities such as these are only superficial attempts to escape from life, through shallow day-dreaming and capricious imagination.

What we are talking about is sacred quietude achieved with ascetic effort which liberates us from the loneliness of the world, even though we find ourselves in a noisy city or a disorderly household. We are talking about the persistence and the patience which help us probe the deepest roots of our existence and understand its limits, and which dispel the darkness that tires and discourages us.

We need to learn to pray. We need vigils constant vigilance in a posture of immobility and calmness.

When I am near God what do I have to fear? He has guided me to where I may be guided by him. Despairing of friends and acquaintances – sorely disappointed with the arts, the technologies, the ideologies – disenchanted with social chatter and vacuous etiquette – I come to the privilege of ultimate despair. I become aware that, in my nakedness, God himself is there to vest me with authentic hope. And in this miracle the blessed Panaghia and all the saints are present to lend their support.

In this natural loneliness – this divine loneliness – I find relief. The actor’s masks which I had felt obliged to put on or which had been put on me have been discarded. It had been a dreadful state. Every night I needed to go to another gathering, to be part of another group, for I had to be included somewhere. I was constantly changing my mask. Now, however, by turning inward I begin to live, to become aware that I am a child of God, to unveil my unique and irreplaceable identity, my face, my person. I begin to observe the activities of the passions. I can see my strengths and my limitations. I am redeemed from errors, fantasies, excesses, and languid apathy.

A firm resolve helps guide our steps to this lonely sanctuary of knowledge of self and of God. In this sanctuary the loneliness the aloneness which had been feared becomes a delight. For the person who is with God can never be alone since he is in dialogue with himself and with God. Here we find ourselves with less individualism, and greater love for others. We find tears for the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters, and strength for greater efforts that will help them. For the voice which arises from the depths of the lone person cuts through the clouds and reaches the Triune God, who always listens and always responds.

The Divine Loneliness of Man in Communion with God

The man in communion with God knows how to make his voice more fervent and to rejoice while standing in second place. He knows how to be a friend even with the stranger and to be satisfied with little. Moreover, he knows how to become tired in his diligent efforts and how to wash with tears those who are grasping and prodigal. And he knows how to do these things without complaint or dissatisfaction, even if abandoned by relatives, friends, colleagues.

Far from the tumultuous crowds and the confusion of the public arena, in the privacy of your room, choose freely and without coercion. It may appear that you are not offering anything to others and that you are being self-centered, particularly when others are saying that they need you, as they suffer from painful loneliness. This loneliness which you have chosen for yourself is an arduous task, requiring great strength, heroism, persistence. It is a long and endless undertaking. And sometimes it can be preparation for a return to those whom you have left out of your life, although this should never be the purpose of your ascetic commitment.

All the saints of our Church, the most fervent and active missionaries, even the Lord himself in his earthly life, experienced the mystery of divine loneliness. Remember those great personalities, the prophets of the Old Testament Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and John the Forerunner.

Returning to our century, we find it tragically alone, in despair, pessimistic. In spite of efforts to the contrary, the world is in conflict with everyone and everything countries, governments, races, colleagues, parents, friends, children, books, lessons, work. And being in conflict with itself it is also in conflict with God, to whom it never speaks, never says anything.

The most painful loneliness is to be next to your spouse and yet be unable to transmit your inner feelings, even as external messages are transmitted instantaneously from one hemisphere to another. It is painful loneliness for married couples to keep secrets from each other for years. It is painful when dialogue is non-existent between children and parents, between children and teachers, between children and clergy. There is no more cruel loneliness than for a family to sit for hours in front of the television without speaking a word among themselves. We live in a difficult time. Loneliness is at an all-time high. Man is lost. God is silent.

In this loneliness, in this desolation of the cities, in this apparent absence of God, man is called to gather his thoughts, to come to his senses, to put aside his many worldly preoccupations and to retire to his place of prayer speechless, naked, a child so that God may speak to him, clothe him, and endow him with spiritual maturity. Then his loneliness will become the divine loneliness of liberation and he will achieve a sense of fullness. Only such radical loneliness leads to a fundamental understanding and experience of God, destroying every hesitation, doubt and torment.

In this sacred loneliness man finds himself face-to-face with his existential poverty and the fear of death which it provokes. Yet, even here, there is the danger that he may choose procrastination as a solution and, for a time, set his panic-stricken self at ease. He may resume running back and forth endlessly, expanding social activities, and seeking a variety of entertainments a program of extreme busyness. Other people, other things, work and extensive involvements may serve as a cover for his spiritual impoverishment for a time. And he may continue wandering aimlessly, driven by circumstances, tormented, flirting with one thing and another, fighting, being torn and finally annihilated.

A life of work without the liberation of communion with God is slavery. The struggle for excessive wealth is an incurable, tormenting disease. Fear of the future can stimulate greed, miserliness, hoarding. And God can be easily forgotten.

Here is what Abba Markos says, on how man can avoid the slavery of misguided work and instead become a free servant of God:

“The one who casts off anxious cares for ephemeral things and is freed from their every need, will place all his trust in God and in the eternal good things. The Lord did not forbid the necessary daily care for our physical well-being; but he indicated that man should be concerned only for each day. To limit our needs and cares to what is absolutely necessary is quite possible through prayer and self-control, but to eliminate them altogether is impossible.”

In the discerning remarks of Abba Markos which continue, let me call your attention to a subtle point which applies to many faithful:

“The necessary services which we are obliged to carry out, we must of course accept and carry out, but we must let go of those other purposeless activities and prefer rather to spend our time in prayer, particularly when these activities would lead us into the greed and luxury of money and wealth. For the more one can limit, with the help of God, these worldly activities and remove the material which feeds them, the more will one be able to gather his mind from such anxious wanderings. If again someone, out of weak faith or some other weakness, cannot do this, then, at least, let him understand well the truth and let him try, as much as he can, to censure himself for this weakness and for still remaining in this immature condition. For it is far better to have to give an account to God for omissions rather than for error and pride.”

Let me repeat this last point:

“It is far better to have to give an account to God for omissions rather than for error and pride!”

A drama is played out in man wherein he continuously and intently seeks peace and knowledge externally. But when he comes to his senses he realizes that true hospitality exists in an unexpected place. For it is precisely within himself that he discovers and experiences the particularity of his personhood. It is here that the divine loneliness of liberation, based on the knowledge of his individual personality, is to be found. It is here, in mystical quietude, that he measures, decides, and takes on his responsibilities.

Achieving the mystical experience of what we are, what we should seek, and what we can do, involves troublesome effort which, nevertheless, is critical. It is within us that we rescue ourselves from the loneliness of ego and where we find the way to the light and joy of communion.

Much of the world is governed by sophistry, wisdom has been ostracized, and decency has been lost. Lies and deception abound, revisonism has made history counterfeit, the Gospel is misinterpreted, schoolbooks are political tools mouthing the ideologies of those in power. There is a tendency to mimic false western ideologies, including sentimental pietism and painless social neochristianitiy. The life of the Church and its life-giving Sacred Traditions are ignored.

The only refuge is for each of us to set up our own sanctuary wherever we can. To a world which considers deception to be intelligence and honor to be weakness, we must dare say “Do not touch me!” We must choose to remain voluntarily and responsibly alone, even though such aloneness requires great courage in a society which aggressively seeks our applause and urges us into amalgamation. The weariness over vanities, bitterness, constant motion and joyless joys that has filled our lives, helps us come to the realization that this is the best form of resistance to the general disorientation.

By restoring our inner world, we increase our resistance, and in time become invincible to, the organized attacks of evil. By placing our whole life at God’s feet and seeking the authentic life he wants us to live we begin to have a foretaste of immortality, where we are never alone but in the company of Christ and his saints. All loneliness is dispelled by inner self-sufficiency.

And it may help you to know that there are many, out of sight, who are assisting you with their prayers. These are the monastics, dedicated totally to God, who keep vigil. Even though you have not met them they pray for you, with arms raised and with knees and knuckles callused by their prostrations.

The Supreme Loneliness of Believers Today

It has been said that each person carries his own loneliness. The mentally unbalanced individual has a dangerous loneliness. The sick person has an agonizing loneliness. One who has unjustly accumulated wealth has a bitter and ugly loneliness. But the believer carries a permanent, incurable and supreme loneliness, the loneliness of the way to salvation.

We have become accustomed to referring to the loneliness of late evening, of mourning, of living abroad. And each of us deals with our own individual circumstances as best we can. But, how long will we continue to go around in circles, examining the subject externally yet never entering its reality? Standing before the eternal enigma of existence, when will we the sons and daughters of God by grace and participation, created in his image and likeness, the children of light when will we dare to cast aside worldly ideas and discussions and, standing face to face before God, make the decision to fundamentally change our lives?

Our movements remain uncertain. We talk about God, yet God remains someone we do not really know. We desire to be with God, we advance toward him, yet at the last minute we find an escape route and evade him.

We love ourselves excessively, beyond measure. We are unwilling to bear God. We are afraid of him, and we try to deceive him – although in fact we only deceive ourselves – with excuses which appear to be convincing. We have come to love our deceptions to the point of no longer being ashamed of them. And yet God himself never tires of seeking us out discreetly, reminding us of his presence in our sufferings and in our joys, in our mistakes and in our victories.

It is necessary for believers to begin again the way of the Lord. Let us abandon the crowds and their excited shouting; let not their words entice and influence us. The way of the Lord is narrow, uphill, demanding, lonely, but it is also salutary, as he himself has promised us. The believer must at last attach himself with love to what is essential to his personal existence, setting aside decisively and irrevocably the secondary and superfluous.

The message of the Book of Revelation is truly awesome. The lukewarm believers will be spewed out of the mouth of God! (Rev. 3:15-16) The term used is most expressive of God’s dissatisfaction with those who are indecisive and ambiguous, neither hot nor cold.

To be in the company of God is both a joy to God and the greatest liberating blessedness to man. But reconciliation with God cannot be detached from reconciliation with ourselves and with our brothers and sisters. These always go together the friend of God is a friend of himself and of others.

The relationships that result have no room for conceit or isolation. Love of God must never degenerate into pharisaism, nor love of neighbor into sterile duty. Openness in three directions – toward self, God and neighbor – is achieved symmetrically, with balance, with knowledge, with freedom and with love.

The great fourth century teacher of the desert, Abba Isaiah, reminds us that

“the pathological love of self and of others is an obstacle to our relationship with God.”

Cicero used to say that

“a great city is a great loneliness!”

This loneliness produces boredom, lack of appetite, pessimistic bitterness, a constant looking to the future and doing nothing today, dissatisfaction, a desire to escape, cowardice. These conditions, collectively referred to by the ascetic literature as accidia, mercilessly plague many, including the careless monastic.

Here is how St. Maximos the Confessor, the great Byzantine theologian, speaks about accidia:

“All of the powers of the soul are enslaved by accidia, while almost all of the other passions are also and immediately aroused by it, because, of all the passions, accidia is the most burdensome.”

St. John of the Ladder, who knows profoundly even the most subtle movements of the soul, described accidia to monks who inquired with characteristic harshness:

“Accidia is the breakdown of the soul, the disorientation of the mind, negligence of ascetic practice, hatred of monasticism, love of worldliness, irreverence toward God, forgetfulness of prayer.”

Evagrios mentions that this unbearable condition of the soul devastates its victim,

“who does not know what to do anymore, seeing the time not passing and wondering when the mealtime will come which seems delayed.”

Antiochos, who lived in the seventh century, is even more vivid and precise in his definition of accidia:

“This condition brings you anxiety, dislike for the place where you are living, but also for your brothers and for every activity. There is even a dislike for Sacred Scripture, with constant yawning and sleepiness. Moreover, this condition keeps you in a state of hunger and nervousness, wondering when the next meal will come. And when you decide to pick up a book to read a little, you immediately put it down. You begin to scratch yourself and to look out of the windows. Again you begin to read a little, and then you count the number of pages and look at the titles of the chapters. Finally, you give up on the book and go to sleep, and as soon as you have slept a little you find it necessary to get up again. And all of these things you are doing just to pass the time.”

St. John of Damascus says that this struggle is very heavy and very difficult for monks.

St. Theodore of Studion says that the passion of accidia can send you directly to the depths of Hades.

Dostoyevski, who had a patristic mind, offered a solution to this problem when he had the Starets Zossima tell us we must make ourselves responsible for the sins of the whole world:

“This understanding of our salvation through others helps us to realize that love is not exhausted only in doing good, but in making the agonies and the sufferings of others our very own. The monks pray daily for the salvation of the whole world. Created in the image of God, we are all his, we are all brothers, his children. Loneliness is abolished in God. We are all ‘members of each other’ according to St. Paul. Thus, our sins and our virtues have a bearing upon the others, since, as we have said, we are all members of one body. Accidia provides a reason for more fervent prayer, and the difficulties are an opportunity for spiritual maturity and progress.”

Let me repeat. Separation from the world, maligned by some as desertion, is courageous and necessary, a resistance to the general leveling of all things. Man finds his authenticity, the beauty of his uniqueness, within the sacred silence of quietude, standing apart from the crowd. His suffering in solitude prepares him to return to the common and familiar, revitalized and ready for whole-hearted service.

Abba Alonios once said:

“Unless a man can bring himself to say to his heart that he alone and God are present in this place, he will never find peace and rest of soul.”

St. John Chrysostom said: “Quietude in solitude is no small teacher of virtue.” Elsewhere he also said:

“No matter where you are, you can set up your sanctuary. Just have pure intentions and neither the place, nor the time will be an obstacle, even without kneeling down, striking your chest or raising your arms to heaven. As long as your mind is fervently concentrated you are totally composed for prayer. God is not troubled by any place. He only requires a clear and fervent mind and a soul desiring prudence.”

St. Makarios of Egypt, in his spiritual homilies, becomes a little more affectionate:

“Even if you find yourself poverty stricken of spiritual gifts, just have sorrow and pain in your heart for being outside of his kingdom, and as a wounded person shout to the Lord and ask him to make you also worthy of the true life.”

Further on, he says:

“God and the angels grieve over those who are not satisfied with heavenly nourishment.”

Finally, St. Makarios makes this significant and remarkable observation:

“Everything is quite simple and easy for those who desire to be transfigured spiritually. They need only to struggle to be a friend of God and pleasing to him, and they will receive experience and understanding of heavenly gifts, an inexpressible blessedness, and a truly great divine wealth.”

Being inexperienced in these more profound spiritual conditions, I should simply work in the beloved desert to uproot my passions. But there is a need to speak of men I have seen and heard, who live on the peaceful mountain sides of the sacred Athonite peninsula, who experience the mysteries of God. They are charismatic monks consumed by heaven, bearing Christ in their hearts and loving God, devotees of quietude, of solitude, thunderous workers of silence, alone but without loneliness, who, in their solitude, remember the loneliness of the whole world. While some in the world suffer involuntarily sleeplessness and others spend their nights without love in strange places, the monks of Mt. Athos keep a voluntary vigil, praying for the health, mercy and salvation of the whole world.

An amazing book by a contemporary hermit, which circulated recently, describes the famous ascetic of Mt. Athos, Hatzi-Georgis, as a faithful friend of quietude in the caves of the desert, an honorable and noble fighter, a great faster who found his rest in vigils, in prayer and in solitude. The desert did not make him wild and harsh like itself. On the contrary it refined and beautified him. His reverend biographer writes as follows:

“Hatzi-Georgis had much innocent love for all. He was always peaceful, tolerant and forgiving. He had a great heart and that is why he had room for everything and everyone, just as they were. In a sense he had been rendered incorporeal. Living the angelic life on earth he became an angel and flew to heaven, for he held on to nothing neither spiritual passions nor material things. He had thrown everything away and, consequently, flew very high.”

The Elder Gerasimos, the hesychast from Katounakia, remained for seventeen years, as noted by his fellow ascetic, at the peak of Prophet Elijah struggling with demons and the elements. He remained an immovable pillar of patience. His tears were flowing constantly. He completed his carefree and quiet life in the sweetness of the constant vision of Christ.

Another hesychast from Katounakia, Fr. Kallinikos, loved pain, toil and quietude beyond measure. He bathed in his tears and perspiration. The last forty-five years of his life he passed in seclusion, praying without ceasing. His face attained the grace of shining like that of Moses when he descended from Mt. Sinai.

The spiritual Father Ignatios had the peculiar habit of closing the shutters of his cell so that he would not notice the coming of the new day, but could continue his prayers. It was his custom to beseech his visitors in this manner:

“Love God who has loved you!”

He would sometimes forget to wash, to comb himself, to eat, but prayer beads were always in his hand and prayer always on his lips and heart. When he lost his eyesight, he became even brighter. He was fragrant in life and he was also fragrant after falling asleep in the Lord.

The remarkable priest and father confessor, Fr. Savvas, from the Little St. Anna, drew his strength from the daily Divine Liturgy which he celebrated in tears. During Liturgy, and during his all night vigils, he would take hours to commemorate thousands of names.

This is the nature of the community of the desert silent, praying, serene, blessed. This is the life of the desert. If a monk does not possess an intense spiritual life and a constant vigilance, he will certainly fall into a myriad of temptations. Accidia will lead him to a barren isolation when, mocked by angels and demons, he will become the worse of the worst, and the loneliness of the desert will become unbearable for him.

Summing Up the Paradoxes

The cities become more and more desolate and they will continue in this direction, while the deserts will become inhabited and will again blossom. No one who remains unrepentant will be able to block the repentance of the willing, the prayer of the faithful, the supplication of the poor. No one can prevent the free person from self-imprisonment, self-exile, from living the mystery of the living God. This miracle is experienced in martyrdom and in humility, where the Orthodox way of life always blossoms in quietude, in silence, in anticipation. We are called to experience the transcendence of Christianity, which is not so much the abolishment of evil as it is the honorable acceptance of ourselves and of others, living the wealth of poverty, the health of illness, the blessing of tribulation, the power of weakness, the joy of patience, the victory of defeat, the honor of dishonor, the freedom of seclusion, the majesty of meekness, the resistance to death, the incarnation of God, the deification of man. And we should expect all these spiritual realities, not from the authority of the leaders of this world, but from the authority we exercise over ourselves, and from the creation of healthy and bright spiritual hearths which we call parish, family, cell, workshop, office, auditorium, room.

In this way, though the desolation and loneliness of the cities will continue to exist, it will not penetrate into our hearts. In this way the world can be changed, not from without, but from within and from above.

Do not consider great the missionary to Africa or the significant inventor. Great is the little person who forbears the madness, the injustice, the persecution, the pain of his neighbor and of his own life. According to Abba Isaac, the person who recognizes and overcomes his passions is greater than the person who raises the dead.

All who seek redemption from pathological anxiety, from sorrow and sadness, from emptiness and loneliness are invited to a rendezvous with themselves and with God. And when you do meet, remember the humble person who has offered these thoughts.