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Stylites, Lent, and Forgiveness

February 11, 2010 Length: 19:28

Fr. Meletios gives a helpful description of the Stylite ascetic life as well as thoughts on Great Lent and forgiveness.

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Hello, this is Father Meletios, speaking to you from the Monastery of Saint John in Manton, California. And this is the ninth in a series of podcasts which we have entitled Jottings from a Holy Mountain.

I actually felt a little embarrassed about that title the other day when I got an email from a monk on the real Holy Mountain, the Mountain of Athos in Greece, and I realized that our little play on words was perhaps not in the best taste, but I hope that he and you will forgive me for that. We are, after all, coming up to the main forgiveness season in the church, as we prepare to start the great Lent. And so, I hope that, that, and any other indiscretion, you have heard in these podcasts, will find your forgiveness.

Actually, I have just come back from a trip to Texas, and I was able to visit Austin and Dallas, and to give talks in both places. In Dallas, I was there at the invitation of the Diocese of the South from the Orthodox Church in America to talk to the clergy who gather once a year to contemplate pastoral issues.

They had invited me to speak, first of all, about the place of monasticism in the contemporary world, with particular reference to the Orthodox Church in America. Then to give a talk—which I know a number of you will have heard elsewhere—on the mind and the heart. Thirdly, I was asked to talk about dealing with depression.

Depression is a very important subject, and something that all pastors have to face, whether in their own lives, which unfortunately, is too often true, or in the lives of those that they are trying to help. And I was quite pleased with the response and the participation of the audience, which I always find to be an energizing factor whenever I am giving a talk.

The same cannot be true, however, of giving a podcast, because to do a podcast, I sit on my own in a little room, in part of the space allotted to me in the monastery, and I have to isolate myself from noise, of course, and other distractions. But it means that I do not get any feedback at all from the surrounds. And if there is going to be any feedback, it comes from you, who are listening to this podcast, writing me emails. And of course, I am very pleased to receive them, but they usually take some weeks to arrive, since the podcasts are made sometimes way ahead of the time that they are actually put on the internet.

So there is no immediate feedback in podcasts and I am aware that my delivery is not quite as, well, upbeat as it can be in public when I am talking to a live audience. So that is something else, I perhaps have to ask forgiveness for.

One of the monks pointed this out to me in no uncertain terms earlier today the fact that my podcasts are not quite as exciting as they might be. But of course, being of an open disposition and coming up as we are to the main period of forgiveness, I forgave him.

A larger issue, though, still remains about how often I am allowed to leave the monastery, and why. In principle, I do not want to leave the monastery at all, because my place is here with the monks. I am also here to receive guests who come to the monastery in ever increasing numbers. But we have to be realistic about a couple of other things, as well.

First of all, that the monastery has to earn money in order to keep afloat, to keep open, and sometimes that would involve my going out in order to give talks, because when I do that, people are often generous enough to give me an honorarium, which helps us balance our books a little better.

Of course, most of our income simply comes from the kindness of others, and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who is able to send us a donation, even small donations, from time to time, since it is, in fact,  that money which has kept us open until the present time. Going in the direction of self-sufficiency has nothing to do with being ungrateful for those who are able to donate money to the monastery, of course.

But it does mean that I am pulled in two directions at once, and sometimes when I go away from the monastery for any length of time, the sort of problems that pile up for me when I get back are something which I do not particularly enjoy. So the rhythm of my life has to take into account that I might come back tired from a journey, but very often, the next couple of days after that are going to be very tiring, as well, and so there is no prospect of sort of taking it easy, for quite a while.

So, I am not actually complaining. That is just a comment, and I am very happy to do what I am doing, and I hope I will be allowed to carry on doing what I am doing for a very long time.

One group of saints that sometimes cause eyebrows to be raised are the ones who are denoted by the name stylite. A stylite is someone who lives on top of a pillar. In the past—and I am talking about the distant past; I do not know of any modern stylites, really, that can be taken seriously—it has involved people living on a small platform at the top of a pillar which is then climbed by means of a ladder, and the ladder is removed, and the person living that particular life then remains on his platform for the rest of his life.

The books never go into details of practicalities about how this works. Certainly one might assume that very often at the top of the pillar there is a platform upon which a little hut can be built, for example, to shield the stylite from the worst excesses of weather, and so on, and also to give him at least a minimum amount of privacy, particular in the areas of human existence which we tend not to share with other people.

However, having climbed to the top of one’s pillar, it is pretty much true to say that the life of a stylite is led in the public gaze. And although some stylites fled from cities, others actually built their pillars right in the middle of cities, as it were, creating a desert all to themselves at the top of the pillar. Of course, they attracted disciples, and some stylites actually founded little communities of stylites. That may sound a little bizarre to us, but then this was also in an age when people were endeavoring to live life up trees—they were called dendrites—and other circumstances which we would find, at best, bizarre, and at worst, downright ridiculous.

Some stylites were, however, greatly valued for their sanctity. One such stylite was Simeon, but there were others, and they usually gathered, not only disciples who wished to live their lifestyle, but also other disciples whose job it was to support them in their own ascetic struggle. Most hermits, when you think about it, require quite a lot of upkeep. They are, what you might say in the modern world, fairly high maintenance. And those who have been involved with looking after hermits realize that there is actually quite a lot of work involved.

Hermits, in the modern situation, are usually only allowed to take up that lifestyle once they have lived in a coenobitic setting, that is to say in community with other monks, for a good long period. And by that I mean something like 30 or 40 years. Becoming a hermit toward the end of one’s monastic life, is for some, a possibility, although it is by no means for everyone.

Nor is it a question that people are made to be hermits. The only way to become a hermit is to choose to do so, and then seek the blessing from the spiritual father to lead that particular way of life.

In the Russian tradition, this approximates, also then, to the reception of the Great Schema, a point at which a monk will then lead a very ascetic life, speaking very little, and praying a very great deal.

The stylites do cause us to focus our attention on the fact that in our Orthodox tradition, the presence of the body in prayer is very important. Far from trying to discard the body as something unnecessary, or at least inconvenient, the Orthodox Christian is asked to prepare his, or her, own body for spiritual living. The body actually participates in our contact with God.

If you think about it, we cannot actually receive any of the Mysteries of the church, including the most frequent, that of Holy Communion, if we do not have a body. The Body of Christ in the challis meets the body of a member of the Body of Christ in you as you go towards receiving communion.

And that is the way that God appears to have planned it. Although some liturgical texts appear to suggest otherwise, the Orthodox Church is not particularly interested in the immortality of the soul. Rather, she is interested, in the resurrection of the body. And the part that the body plays in prayer is, for an Orthodox Christian, immensely important. And that is why we have such an attachment to asceticism.

We even use the expression “ascetic struggle,” but I would prefer that people not think of struggle in that sense to be, as it were, struggle to the death, but rather struggle in a lighter sense. It answers to a Greek word which suggests competition, rather than struggling to the death. So that we can look at ascetic discipline not as a way of punishing the body, far from that, but rather of preparing the body for its important role within spiritual living.

And that is essentially what Lent is all about. In Lent, we do not punish ourselves, but rather we train ourselves, our bodies as well as our, as it were, inward spiritual anatomy, in order to get ready to receive Christ. This is a point about which monks come to again and again, since it is something that cannot be forgotten.

It has enormous consequences. For example, in our theology of icons, it has to do with whether the created world is actually capable of being God-bearing or not. And the Orthodox Church resolutely has decided that that is exactly the case—that the created world, that God’s created world, is capable of being God-bearing.

We sometimes look at icons as if they are protrusions from another dimension, in this case, from the Kingdom of Heaven, into our own dimension. But it is also true to say that icons are what we offer to God from our dimension that can become parts of His dimension, in much the same way, as a rather more figurative sense, the human race offered Mary, the Mother of God, as the highest of example of what humanity can be in order that she might be received by God into His Kingdom.

I have wandered quite a long way from the stylites where we started, but nevertheless, I did want to talk about their importance. And although the modern period is not really in any great hurry to recreate the sort of lives that stylites lived, we necessarily have to admire them for their ascetic effort.

We have already started the countdown to Pascha. It starts, in fact, on the evening when you open the book called the Triodion, or the Lenton Triodion for the first time, several weeks before Lent starts, itself. The week that starts with the Gospel reading from the Publican and the Pharisee is a fast-free week, a sort of a, well, sort of a freebie, as if to say, “This week you do not have to fast, but be careful, the fasting is going to start in earnest quite soon.”

The following week, in one of those strange Byzantine balance things that are so often found within the Orthodox tradition, there is a normal week, when fasting is as normal—Wednesdays and Fridays for most people; Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for most monastic.

The week after that, the one in fact we will embark upon next Sunday, is a very extraordinary week indeed, since, in terms of eating, we are allowed to eat everything except meat. Since, here in the monastery, we do not eat meat anyway, then it actually does not make much difference to our way of life, accept that we do get to eat dairy products on the Monday, the Wednesday and Friday, as well.

I have heard this now somewhat lightly referred to as “cholesterol week,” and can only assume that that is possibly part of the deal, since the following week, the first week of Great Lent, we hardly eat at all. Well, that is not quite true. Here in the monastery, we keep the first two-and-a-half days, say, as a strict fast, and we do not eat. People are allowed to drink water and tea and that sort of thing. But on the whole, they do not eat, unless they have to for medical reasons. And we go to all the services, and then return quietly to our rooms, to ourselves. We speak very little.

And then on the evening of the Wednesday, we get together to serve, for the first time in the Lent period, the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified, And after the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified, when we have all had Holy Communion, then we eat together in our dining room, which is called by us the trapeza, for the first time.

Of course, the food is Lenton, but nevertheless, it can be very filling and substantial. So Lenton food does not necessarily mean starvation, although it does mean that the choices that we have are very much reduced.

Of necessity, Lent, in the Orthodox tradition, starts with a very heavy emphasis upon forgiveness, which is the subject with which I started. The fact that Jesus insists that we forgive each and every person in our lives on a regular basis, has to be taken seriously. You cannot actually pay lip-service to forgiveness. It requires something more than that.

And so it is, that in the Orthodox tradition, the buildup to the beginning of Lent focuses most precisely on that very theme. And everyone is invited to ask forgiveness of everyone else, whether that is of a sort of formal nature or whether it is very real indeed.

Here in the monastery we ask forgiveness of each other much more frequently. But then in monasteries, you can do that sort of thing. In the outside world, there is one day set aside for that, and that is Forgiveness Sunday, with its specials Vespers, at which everyone is invited to ask forgiveness of everyone else.

In that spirit, then, I reiterate something I said earlier in the podcast, and I seek your forgiveness for everything and anything that I have done to offend or hurt you, and in turn, of course, I assure you of my forgiveness, too.

I will be speaking to you next time from the place of a monk in Great Lent, and I hope by then God will have shown me something to share with you at that time.

I look forward to being with you soon.


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