Monasteries are the Fortresses of the Church

Venerable Athanasius the Abbot of Syandemsk, Vologda

Venerable Athanasius the Abbot of Syandemsk, Vologda

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Saint Paisios of Mount Athos


"The Monk Is a Beacon of Light Upon the Rocks."

---Geronda [Elder], what is the work of a monk?

---The work of a monk is to become a vessel of the Holy Spirit. A monk must make his heart as sensitive as the gold leaf used by iconographers. The entire work of the monk is love (agape), just as he became a monk out of love for God, which includes love for one's neighbor. The monk meditates upon the sufferings of society, his heart is pained and he prays from the heart constantly for all the people. Thus he helps the world through his prayer. There are monks who help the people more than the whole world together could help them. For example, a worldly person may give a couple of oranges or a kilo of rice to some poor person, often just to be seen by others, while all along criticizing others for not helping. But a monk can silently offer tons of help through his prayer.

A monk doesn't make his own, worldly plans for missionary work, but proceeds without any plan of his own, and the Benevolent God takes him into His own divine plan and, in His divine way, He will send him to do missionary work if needed. God doesn't ask monks to go out into the world to hold people's hands and help them walk; He asks them by their life to provide a light to guide people to eternal life. In other words, the monk's mission is not to help people by being in the world. A monk flees far from the world, not because he hates people but because he loves them, and only by living far from the world will he be able to help them with his prayer in whatever cannot be done by human means but only through divine intervention. This is why a monk be in constant communion with God, to receive messages and to show people the way to God.

I couldn't understand how the Roman Catholics justify certain things. My query was answered a few years ago when two Roman Catholic architects from Rome came by my Kalyvi (hut). They were ignorant, but meant well. They asked me, "What are the monks doing by staying here? Why don't they go out into the world to do social work?" I said, "Aren't beacons always set upon rocky heights? Why should they go to the cities and be added to the streetlights? Lighthouses have one mission and streetlights have another." The monk is not a small streetlight to be put in the city at the side of the street to light pedestrians so they don't stumble. A monk is an isolated beacon, positioned high on the crags of a rocky shore, to provide light and direction for those upon the seas and the oceans, so that they may guide their ships to reach their destination, to reach God...

--When worldly people visit a monastery and see proper monks, then even if they are unbelievers, if they are well-disposed, they can become believers. Many atheist scientists, who came to the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos) just for a visit, have changed their way of life. They are troubled, in the good sense, by what they see and hear, and are helped. They see young men, who are joyful, who had every opportunity to succeed in the world, but who have abandoned wealth, position, and so forth, to live ascetically, with prayer and vigils, and they ask themselves, "What is going on here? If indeed God exists, if there is another life, if there is a hell, what am I doing with my life?" So they rein in their sinful way of life, or correct it altogether. I know of one case. A young woman of twenty attempted suicide by cutting her veins, but was saved in time. After that, a monk took her to a monastery. The poor thing was wild. But when she saw the nuns there, she quickly recovered.

"I see another world here," she said, and asked, "May I stay here?"

This is the silent preaching of the monks. Many preach, but few inspire confidence in what they say, because they don't practice what they preach. A monk doesn't deliver sermons out loud to be heard by others, but preaches Christ silently with his life and helps with his prayer. He lives the Gospel, and the grace of God gives him away. Thus the Gospel is preached in the most effective way, something which people thirst to see and hear, especially today. And when the monk speaks, he doesn't simply offer a thought; he speaks from his experience. But even if he does express a thought, even this is enlightened.

--Geronda [Elder], some people say that young men and women enter the monastery because they are disillusioned or have some disability, or even because they are weak in the head.

--It seems that these people have one or two such cases in mind and then go on unfairly, out of spite or envy, to malign ninety per cent of the monks. But if they look closely, they see that this is not the case, and they will admit that there is indeed something higher here, that God does indeed exist.

This is why a monk must always set a good example for other people. "Let our light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (St. Matthew 5:16). A true monk is the light of the world. What does Saint John Climacus (of the Ladder) say? "The Angels serve as "light to the monks, and the monks serve as light to the people of the world." When the monk can be distinguished from the people of the world, then he can have a positive effect upon them. What helps the people in the world, who are suffering over vain things, is holiness, which, through its simplicity, teaches them to grasp the deeper meaning of life and dispel the heaviness in their heart.

The Monks and the Renewal of the World

Monks are Christ's regular army, and that's why they're not paid. You see how many people who come to visit the Holy Mountain can never forget it. Wherever else they go, people will ask them for money, and so on, while on the Holy Mountain all they have to do is present their visitor's permit and after that they can go anywhere they wish without paying anything. They will eat free, they will sleep free. They find something different and are helped spiritually. When I was at the Kalyvi (hut) of the Precious Cross, someone came who had many problems. We spoke for an hour and a half. Then he took out a five hundred drachma note. "What's that?" I asked him, "For a simple visit to the doctor we pay at least this much," he told me. "Please forgive me, is it perhaps not enough?"

Some European Community officials, who came to the Holy Mountain after the last fire to assess the situation and see how they could help, came by the Kalyvi (hut). In our conversation I told them, "We came here to give, not to receive." "This is the first time we have heard this," they told me and made a note of it immediately. We didn't become monks to receive material goods; we became monks to be able to give spiritual things, without any material benefit. To be free of worldly cares so we can devote all of our time to our spiritual responsibilities. We left the world and went into the ascetic life for the love of Christ, to liberate ourselves from passions and to liberate others as well.

Our goal is to help people with our prayer and through our example, so that they may experience a spiritual rebirth. When someone leaves the world and enters the monastery, he or she becomes a spiritual Father or a spiritual Mother. When a young woman becomes a nun, she is "married"; she becomes a bride of Christ, a spiritual Mother, and helps people to be spiritually reborn. For example, with her prayer she helps in the creation of good Christian families. But besides prayer, in certain circumstances she must also offer assistance to people on the human level. Every good nun, besides the prayer she offers for people, provides great help with her manner, with the right approach, with a few words of spiritual guidance she speaks to a pilgrim (Orthodox Christian believer), to help him grasp the deeper meaning of life, or to a mother to encourage her. But for a nun to want to communicate with the world is useless, because such social contacts conflict with the spiritual laws and as a result we suffer. As much as you can, seek to be active in obscurity. I make a comparison and it pains me: Some monks enjoy going to festivals, visits and having spiritual friendships. When I am forced to go somewhere for spiritual work, I feel as if I am going to be tormented, and I see it as a waste of time...

--Geronda [Elder], Saint Neilos the Kalavros says that from the moment someone is tonsured to be a monk, he will become either an Angel or a devil. Does this mean that there is nothing in between?

--What he means is that a monastic person must seek to do the very best possible work in his calling. This is why when a monk of the Great Habit (Μεγαλόσχημος) falls into mortal sin, God allows a rod to fall upon him for the purpose of expiation. Sometimes we imagine that Grace can be obtained by external means, in an artificial or magical manner. But this way neither God nor the person himself is at ease, and others are also not put at ease by such superficial spirituality. Some monks, for example, make broad and long Great Habits reaching down to their feet, with red crosses, roses, red branches and many letters...And they open their cassock to reveal the Habit, like the Pharisees who "make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments" (St. Matthew 23:5), to show that they pray a lot! But in the past one could barely see the Habit under the cassock of a monk as he walked. In fact, many wore a small Habit underneath to hide it altogether. Now we have vain and empty things. Is this how they will receive grace from the Habit? The Habit abhors them and grace departs. The goal is to become a monk of the Great Habit from within. And anyone who is a monk of the Great Habit from within will hide his external Habit. An external object does not bring about the inner transformation. Thus, man remains one the external plane, and in the end Christ tells us, "I know you not" (St. Matthew 25:12).



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George