Jottings from a Holy Mountain:
Today you find the monastery in the 3rd week of Lent and things seem to be going reasonably well. Our Lenten program is somewhat different from the rest of the year. We tend to eat less and go to church more. Although that doesn’t necessarily sound terribly attractive, at least if you’re not used to doing that sort of thing, it is actually something that the monks look forward to each year.
We start off with quite an effort really, at least compared with what most people are able to do in the outside world. From the Service of Forgiveness evening until Wednesday evening, we keep a more or less complete fast. The monks can drink water, of course, and sometimes they drink tea and that sort of thing. But we don’t actually eat until after the Liturgy of the Presanctified on that first Wednesday evening in Lent.
Presanctified Liturgies are one of the most spectacular aspects of our Lenten observance. Named for a Pope of Rome—I don’t really think he probably had very much to do with composition of any texts that we actually use on these occasions, but nevertheless his name is there—Pope Gregory the Thealogos.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified is actually a Vespers service with a Holy Communion service joined on. It has many interesting features. The result is a very beautiful service, Lenten in character, which we are able to serve in the monasteries twice a week—usually on Wednesday evenings and Friday evenings—during the entire Lenten period. In many parishes also they will do the same thing.
It’s a distinctive liturgy in that there is no offering of bread and wine. The offering of the bread and the wine takes place on the previous Sunday. On those days, the Priest has to remember to put aside more bread than usual. Actually, it’s not just any bread, it’s the lamb, part of the offering loaf, the prosphora, on which is marked the letters ICXC—Nika, Jesus Christ, conquerors. Usually in Lent we put aside three lambs on Sunday morning—one for the Sunday morning liturgy, so that people can have Communion on Sunday morning, and then two are put aside (having been dipped in the wine) for the liturgies of the Presanctified on Wednesday and Friday. Well, dipped isn’t actually quite the word, but for now that will do.
One of the more beautiful aspects of this is that Jesus is present on the altar, in this form, simply waiting for us to come back to church to be with him. I’m reminded always of that saying of our Lord to his disciples on Thursday night when he said, “Can’t you wait with me just one hour?”
There was a church near my home, where I grew up. It was a Catholic church and, in those days, very definitely out of bounds to me, because I was brought up in a Protestant household. The inscription above this church read, Magister adest et te vocat. It’s actually the Latin for the expression “The Master is present and is calling for you.” And those of you who know the story of Lazarus very well will realize it’s from that story.
That is something which I think is very important in our Lenten observance, that the master is present, waiting for us. We go back to church time and time again and, every time we go back, we enter his presence yet again. He’s waiting and waiting and waiting—that’s true throughout the year, but at Lent it seems particularly important.
So the first couple of days in Lent we meet in the church very often. It sort of helps the fasting go if we’re kept busy and we’re kept busy by doing services in the church and then prayers in our own rooms, in our cells. The first three days of Lent are spent either in church or in our rooms. We don’t do any socializing at that time. We try to keep as quiet as possible. We don’t even answer the phone unless it’s absolutely necessary. We spend a great deal of time in silence.
During this period the Psalter is read. A very great deal of the Psalms are read out loud in church. The Psalms are wonderful for many reasons, not least because they were very well known to Jesus himself. He quotes them so often that one can imagine that he probably knew most of them, if not all of them, by heart. But they also provide us with a very, very beautiful barometer of human experience. Everything is covered, from extreme joy to extreme anxiety.
The psalms take us to these different places in their poetry and allow us to be completely human in that way before God. In our theology, to be completely human is something which appears to be of interest to God. He seems to be fascinated, if one might use that somewhat anthropomorphic expression, in what it means to be human. So much so that he was prepared to change the way the universe runs, to change the way the universe works, by becoming man some 2,000 years ago.
So, the first three days are rather intense. I would say that most of the monks not only look forward to these days, but find some satisfaction in them. The experience of Lent itself is something which gives birth to a sort of quiet joy—difficult to explain really in words—but the joy is real nevertheless. It’s a joy which is felt particularly in the northern hemisphere with the coming of spring. This year Lent is so early that there certainly isn’t that much evidence of spring, although if you look carefully at the trees and the buds in the garden, you’ll see little shoots beginning to show themselves. The general idea that life is waking up again is something that goes hand in hand with Lent. What they do in Australia, I’m not sure, but that’s not the problem we face here in North America.
I’ve been travelling a lot, again. Recently I was in New Mexico visiting the little skete of St. Michael’s in Cañones, in the company of Metropolitan Jonah. Next week I’ll be in Colorado speaking at different churches in Denver. So my Lenten observance sometimes gets a little bit chopped up simply because Lent seems to be a time that parishes, in general, like to have outside speakers. So that’s what I go to do.
Coming back to the monastery is like immersing oneself once again in this quiet joy. There are no rules and regulations that can make this happen. It’s something which happens by the combination of services and the life of the brotherhood quietly getting on with its Lenten tasks.
Really, an awful lot of monasticism is like that. You can write rules and regulations if you like, but in the end, there’s a quality of monastic life which has to shine through the rules and regulations, because the rules themselves are not where life is. You get to the point where you can see that certain things are monastic in quality and certain things are not monastic in quality. We even use the expression, “something is very M” when something is monastic, or something is “non-M”. This is based on a book by Nancy Mitford who talked about “U” and “non-U” use of English in—I think—the 1930’s and 40’s. It was to do with language snobbery. Well “M” and “non-M” are nothing to do with any sort of snobbery. They’re simply the adjectives we use—somewhat carelessly—to denote things which have a monastic quality about them, or do not. Watching the news on television does not. Listening to spiritual reading as you’re eating does, for example. Almost everything we do can be judged on that criterion—whether it’s a monastic thing or not. In a monastery there are going to be some things which are not really terribly monastic, but they should always be in the minority, so that anyone coming here, even for a brief visit, should be able immediately to feel the dimension of monastic life even if it’s only from afar.
The fact that monks will sometimes fail at being good monks is, I’m afraid, part of what it means to be a human being. But certainly, if the brotherhood is focused on being as monastic as possible all of the time, then the individuals within that brotherhood are brought to monasticism by the sheer force of the love which exists in the brotherhood.
One thing that we notice, or not, in monastic life is the attachment to doing even simple tasks as well as we can. There’s a very great importance in monasticism that no task is unworthy of our attention. First of all, it is important that we do things one at a time. There is almost no multi-tasking in a monastery. You do one action until it’s completed and then you can start a next. But to do two makes the prayer, which is behind our life, almost difficult to see. It’s the prayer which counts. That’s to say, when you wash a dish, then you wash the dish itself as well as you can. And that is, in some senses, the prayer. Whether it is accompanied by special words or not. Then when you’ve washed the dish and dried it and put it down, you either pick up another dish or go and write a book or you go and see someone.
Everything that you do should be in this form of prayer. If you multi-task, then this becomes rather unobvious and the prayer can get lost in the many tasks going around us. Believe me, in a monastery, life is no less chaotic—at least in theory—than it is in a normal family. In some respects, it’s worse. There are about 20 of us here most of the time and most families are smaller than that. So you can imagine that if everything is going full tilt there’s an awful lot happening. But nevertheless if each monk is simply doing whatever he is doing, one thing at a time, to the best of his ability, then there is at least a chance that there will be some characteristically “M” part of this life. That looking at it from afar you can say, “yes, that is the mark of a monk. That is what a monk does.”
Part of our joy, the quiet joy I mentioned, associated with Lent at the moment, comes in the form of the spring rains. Having grown up in an island which is used to getting a very great deal of rain, I find that living in places where there isn’t so much rain sometimes can be rather depressing. I know in this respect I might be different from the rest of the human race, but frankly I’m quite used to being different at least in some aspects of life.
Today it’s raining. My dog, Zosia, loves the rain so she is quite happy bouncing around. When it rains she reminds me of that dog in the Peanuts cartoons, called Snoopy, who managed to sort of dance about a foot and a half off the ground with all his legs flapping. Well, she seems to manage to do that, not quite as well as Snoopy, but almost.
I well remember when I was in Patmos, the first monastery that I belonged to, when it began to rain there after a very long, hot summer. Patmos is a very beautiful island, but it’s starkly beautiful. It’s a rock in the middle of a very blue Aegean sea. During the summer there was no rain at all. I arrived in August, and it wasn’t until the end of October that we saw any rain. For me, growing up in England and partly in Scotland, I have to say that was the longest period of my life ever without rain. When I was growing up, people carried umbrellas every day just in case. If you do that here in the United States, unless you live in Seattle, people look at you oddly or at least tend to.
One day, I saw the clouds approaching and I went up to the roof of the monastery. The monastery has a flat roof and you can climb up there—at least if you know how to do that. It’s made difficult for the tourists to do that for obvious reasons. But I was able to get up there and watch these clouds come in. I think it wasn’t that day, but the following day it actually started to rain. I went up to the monastery roof, and I pretty much danced—not as efficiently as the dog, Zosia, dances— but something along those lines. I was very happy indeed.
The other thing I remember is that all of a sudden it happened that we had water again in the faucets. I hadn’t been aware until that point that what we were drinking out of the faucets was actually rainwater. Once that had dried up, there was no more water until the rain started once again, and we had to go somewhere else to get water by the bucketful for our daily needs. By the time it rained, and it rained sufficiently, then the systems in the bottom of the monastery were full once again and we had water in the faucets. But in Manton, the only time we don’t have water in the faucets is when the electricity is down. That’s because our water is pumped from a very great depth up into our house and so, when the electricity is out, we don’t get any water, which makes life a little bit inconvenient.
This brings me to that last, final topic. We’re still waiting for the fire department to tell us exactly what we need to do in terms of pumps and generators and all the other things that are so important to our well being and the opening of our new cell block—the Mt. Athos block of monastic cells. If I have any news on that I’ll let you know. We probably need to do some fundraising. Not that you necessarily will personally be on the receiving end of our supplications as it were, but you might know people who could be, and that’s the way things go much better within our church life—when people share such information around. We still don’t have access to the new building and we’re waiting. When we’re through with waiting, I’ll let you know, and I’ll probably let you know how much it’s going to cost. But that’s enough for today.
I wish you a very beautiful Lent for the rest of this beautiful journey that we take each year. I look forward to speaking to you again soon.