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Finding God in the Ordinary

June 12, 2010 Length: 16:19

With a spring report from the monastery, Fr. Meletios talks about the Apostle's Fast and finding God in the ordinary quiet days of the fast.

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Transcript Transcript

This is Fr. Meletios speaking to you from the Monastery of St. John in Manton, CA, and this is number 12 in the series which we have entitled Jottings from a Holy Mountain. In these podcasts I’d like to share with you some of the details of what is happening in our monastery and to share with you also some of the most important features of our life, perhaps talking about things that may enliven your own spiritual interest and always with a view to putting you in touch with what is going on here.

I know some of you are able to visit the monastery on occasion. Some of you live on the other side of the planet and possibly will never actually be able to come here. But it is very gratifying when on occasions I get messages from people who hear this podcast all over the world and who send in little reports. Most of them, I have to say, are very positive.

The problem which I have outlined before lies in the fact that something very important in the monastic life is that the monastic life should be hidden. When somebody enters the monastery, they don’t expect their names or the details of their lives to be broadcast anywhere, let alone over the Internet. So I’m somewhat restricted in what I can tell you about our life, although there’s nothing to hide. Nevertheless, I’m not free to tell you all the details of everything that is happening, simply because it belongs to that secretness, that hiddenness, of life in Christ which is an important part of our life. The only person’s life that I can actually talk about in great detail is my own. But since I do that all the time, I try not to do that to the point where you might get bored.

Since I spoke to you last, and that’s actually quite a little while ago, I never quite manage to get the podcast done as frequently as I would like to. Quite a lot has happened. Spring has suddenly become summer. What an odd spring we had—a lot of rain. This means a lot of green grass, which is very, very nice at the moment, but I am told might be somewhat hazardous later on in the season, if it turns brown and we get a very dry period later on. All that stuff then becomes a fire hazard.

Since we lost the monk, not forever I’m glad to say, who specializes in clearing the ground here (he’s going to another monastery for awhile to help them out). And I’m a little bit worried as to what is going to happen to the ground cover. I’m hoping that some of the summer novices will come, the young men who come to visit us for weeks, sometimes months, at a time during the summer, will be able to help out in this particular way. There is always work to be done and there never seem to be quite enough hands to do it, but that seems to be part of God’s plan for this monastery like so many others. And I have a feeling that, the fact that we never quite seem to have enough money either, this is also part of his plan. Therefore, we can relax and not worry about those sorts of things too much.

In the Church, things have sort of quieted down. I always get the feeling that there’s a sort of a busy time of the year and a not-so-busy time of the year in Church. The busy time starts somewhere about December 1st and reaches some sort of little climax at Christmas and then Epiphany. After a short break, you pick up the tremendous power associated with the beginning of the preparation for Lent, Lent itself, and then Pascha which comes bursting through like nothing on earth, literally, which lasts all those weeks until Pentecost. Then we revert to some sort of ordinariness as Pentecost Week plays out and ends with All Saints’ Sunday.

The day after All Saints’ Sunday, we sort of go back to being ordinary. There isn’t a major focus of our spiritual life, liturgically. We just go back to relaxing in the relaxation of God and taking the nourishment we need from the daily services. These are then guided by the Octoechos, the sort of ordinary book of the year, and not by the huge, eventful days of Menaia of December and January, the Lenten Triodion during the whole Lenten period, and the Paschal Triodion, also called the Pentecostarion which governs the period until right now.

I don’t think that it is an accident that we start this period of feeling ordinary with a fast. In this case, it is the Apostles’ Fast. The Apostles’ Fast this year is extremely long, and that is because Easter was so early. The length of the Apostles’ Fast depends solely on the calendar. It starts the day after All Saints’ Day and goes on until June 29th. Of course, if you are on the Old Calendar, then what we call June 29th is in the outside world, I think, July 12th. So for us on the Old Calendar, it is going to be 13 days longer. When the Old Calendar becomes 14 days different, it will be 14 days longer, and so on. It is just 13 extra days because of the different ways of looking at the dates. So this is quite a long fast. It is almost as long as Great Lent, and someone actually told me that it was longer than Great Lent, although my math isn’t really up to that.

But this does mean that our sense of being ordinary is very much assisted by the fact that we start this ordinary time with a fast. And the very first function of the fast is to show that God is to be met in ordinary life. Very often we want to meet him in the grand, firework display of the big feasts. He is there, but it’s important also to find him in the quietness, in the silence, of being ordinary. The Apostles’ Fast helps us do just that. It gives a sense of purposefulness. The ego is told to “pipe down”. It doesn’t need to rule the roost anymore. During the period of feasting, the ego sometimes gets a little carried away with its own power. It’s sort of important that its influence become less. So our diet is restricted. In the usual way, we simply restrict animal products, with oil and wine being the last things to go. This allows us to find God in the ordinary, and that’s so important.

If we find God in the ordinary, then it means that we are not using our emotions to boost our sense of who God is. Whenever we do that, we are likely to be disappointed, because our emotions cannot actually surround God. They sometimes point in his direction, but that’s the best they can do. With the lack of emotion that we find in these quiet days, as the Apostles’ Fast goes into action, we are likely then to be able to see God clearly in the small print, in the details of life, in the ordinary food, in the rice and the beans, in the lack of noise, and the lack of shouts.
It is something like the prophet Elijah found when he was in that hole in the rock in the cave. The wind went by, the fire went by, and the thunder went by. God wasn’t in any of those, for he was in that barely audible breath of air that occurred after the noise was over.

That’s one important part of fasting and ordinariness. But the other part is very important, for Orthodox in particular, in that we concentrate not so much on the food of normal life, but on the food of eternal life. The Church at no point asks us to restrict our access to the Holy Eucharist. In fact, here in the monastery, of course, it’s a lot easier than for a lot of you out in the world. Even so, here we are called to meet God in the bread and wine on a regular basis, and that we are able to do. Focusing more on the Bread of Heaven than the bread of earth, we can see that God allows us to grow to be nourished and fueled by the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, in much the same way that our bodies are fueled by the bread and the olives, the lettuce, and the beans and rice of our everyday food. The contrast between those two is at once vivid and enormous, and then, at another level, they are quite connected. The bread of ordinariness meets the Bread of Heaven in a very gentle way. The Bread of Heaven teaches us to respect the ordinariness of ordinary food, in a way which we couldn’t learn otherwise.

Fasting also encourages us to renew the vigor of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. For most of us in monasteries and for a lot of you in the world, one of the things that we most desperately need to fast from is listening to our own logismoi, listening to that stream of thoughts in your head that try, if they get away with it, to rule your life and to divert your attention from the Kingdom of God, which is, in fact, the only important part of your life at all.

The logismoi are designed by the powers that lie within our own brokenness to lead us away from God and lead us towards despair. This notion of despair is something which we can obviously distract ourselves from. This is usually the state of most people living in the world. They are not necessarily aware that they are in despair, because whatever they are doing in their lives distracts them from the despair. It’s sort of logismoi plus distraction. So from the time we are young children, they wave rattles in our faces and then very quickly they show us how to use video games and then we’re shown how to use the Internet and watch television and listen to the radio. We get in the car and the first thing we do is turn the radio on. The possibility of listening to our own thoughts is shocking, so we hardly ever do it, except when we have no other choice—such as when we are lying in bed in the early morning. This is the sort of time when we listen to them most clearly.

But it’s the aim of the Christian not to listen to them either through distraction or when we are lying in bed in the early morning. Rather, our aim is to divert our attention away from those thoughts, not through distraction (that’s only cheap and has a very temporary quality to it), but by prayer. Prayer has an eternal quality to it which allows us to focus entirely on the person of God and to elevate us above the place where the logismoi can actually get to us in any serious manner.

So “just quit thinking” seems to be part of the rule of fasts. During the fast, we are particularly able to do that. It’s very difficult to do this when you are feasting, and sometimes you are called to feast (there’s nothing wrong with feasting). But fasting brings us back with a thud to this ultimately very important factor—either we let our logismoi to rule our lives or we have the chance to allow God to rule our lives. We have to choose between the two. Fasting from listening to our logismoi, from all that fear (usually verging on terror), from all that desire (usually verging on ego-mania), that so clouds our relationship with God and does so in a very disturbing way. So stop listening to your thoughts—a very good motto for any fast period—just as we stop putting certain food into our mouths.

Then the other thing, and I think this is just as difficult for monastics as for everybody else but just as important, is to fast from the misuse of what we can actually say. By that I usually mean things like gossiping, making comments which are either not necessary, or untrue, or simply unkind. Everybody that I know, starting with me, is prone to doing just that. It is a form of distraction that takes us away from some of the pain of the existential reality of who we are and all that. But we really do need to put the brakes on our tongues sometimes in order to give our hearts the chance to flourish.

If we are “in our hearts”, it’s very difficult to be unkind. To be “in the heart”, away from the hubbub of the logismoi, actually involves losing the ability to be unkind. That’s sometimes the way we can tell if we are “in the heart”—when we don’t seem to be able to be unkind anymore. When that happens, we just have to be grateful and, as ever, to turn to God and say, “Thank you.” We can do so much damage with what we say in an unbridled way, if we let our tongues loose, then we can do so much damage. And yet by guarding what we say, we are actively able to bring the Kingdom of God a little nearer, and that’s true for everybody everywhere.

Well, that’s about it for today—another podcast. We will continue to pray for you, all of our listeners and all of our friends, because that’s what monks do. In return, we would seek your prayers as we go on with our life here in Manton on the side of our own little Holy Mountain.

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