Contemporary Spiritual Testimony of Mount Athos
Priestmonk father Maximos Agioritis, speech regarding Elder Paisios,
Rome 18 May 2013.
Holy Fathers, dear brothers in Christ and friends of Mount Athos monks,
Introduction. We Orthodox Christians believe in the one and only true Trinity God, as was passed down to us by the Holy Apostles and taught by their successors the Holy Fathers and practiced by the saints of our Church until today, whose teachings and example all of us currently try to follow and practice.
We try and endear ourselves to God, believing and obeying the Law of Christ, and we pray and ask for divine mercy. And our Heavenly Father answers via the Divine Grace. That is exactly what happened in the case of the centurion Cornelius (Acts of the Apostles, 10th chapter). That is how we try to live under the blessing of God and care to the best of our ability for the salvation of our soul in eternity, namely to achieve our endless happiness close to our Heavenly ones (Christ, Panagia, the Saints)!
It is not only enough to believe correctly and rest in the knowledge that we have been baptized Orthodox Christians, but we also battle to act right. We strive to subdue our flesh to our spirit, we implore the divine mercy, and wait for the blessing and grace of God, not only when we die or in the Second Coming of our Lord, but every day and every moment of our earthly life. That was and is the eternal effort of all Saints, and all of whom want to be saved in the eternal Life.
One of those Saints of our Orthodox Church was the Holy Elder Paisios (1924-1994), whom God allowed to be acquainted with the one who is talking in front of you from the time he was a young student of Orthodox Theology. God enlightened me early to understand that the books teach good things on the one hand, but, if they are not also accompanied by the experience of the divine Grace, they are very poor and meaningless.
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God grants happiness. Therefore we visited Mount Athos around 1970 to confirm with our eyes: is it true what the books teach? or just words, philosophies and tales? And actually, with lots and indescribable happiness we saw it, we heard it, we lived it, that the full of Grace Holy Fathers are the strongest proof that God actually exists, that He is very very good, very very philanthropic, merciful, rich in divine Grace and happiness, is a true and affectionate Father, who exceedingly loves his creatures, and especially those who sacrifice the earthly goods for His sake and strive to be dear to Him, observing the divine order given to Abraham «be pleasing for me and become blameless» (Genesis 17,1)
When I first visited Mount Athos, Elder Paisios was an ascetic near the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, where he would attend church on the feast days and receive Holy Communion, and after the table (the food) returned to his hermitage. I went close to him, kissed his blessed little hand and begged him that I may follow him. I was very happy that I was escorting a saint! I was floating on waves of happiness! He was talking to me about heavenly experiences and situations, which I didn’t really understand. Every time he had Holy Communion in the Liturgies, like that Sunday morning, he felt inside him such great happiness and the rich Grace of God, that he would beg Him: «take from me, my God, your great grace, as I cannot endure it, I am melting from happiness»! I would listen to him in surprise and look at him in wonder!
At the time I was not thinking of becoming a Monk, and told him my query: «Elder, for someone to taste the grace of God, must they become a Monk at Mount Athos»? And he answered me with a question: «tell me, does God exist outside of Mount Athos»? He meant of course that, if a layman can live a christian life, it is not necessary to become a Monk. But the truth is that the diligent monastic life (and especially at Mount Athos) presents eagle’s wings, whereas in the world, and especially today, we walk in spiritual matters like a tortoise.
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A Monk supports society. Elder Paisios used to say: «Many say: why do Monks sit up on the mountains, and do not come down to the world and help society which has needs»? But the struggling Monk, first perfects himself, and then helps the world with his example and his prayer. The Monk protects society from every evil, as the lighthouse protects ships from the shoals and the reef. Due to the Monks the mercy of God is extended and the divine Grace is drawn to the world, as the ten righteous ones would have protected the sinners of Sodom in Lot’s time (Genesis 18, 23-32).
The Elder also mentioned events which happened to him, when he was serving in the Greek army during the civil war. He himself was a radio operator, when his regiment was once surrounded by the enemy forces. His fellow soldiers who were on a hill, defended themselves desperately, swearing and shouting to father Paisios to help in the struggle, but he was trying to contact his army base, to inform them and ask for direct and effective help. Which he finally achieved. Aeroplanes arrived and solved his colleagues’ problem. The same happens now, the Elder would say, the priests of the Church help people as much as they can, but need the fervent prayers of the holy Monks. That’s what God teaches us through the prophet Isaiah, «no-one will I notice or hear, but only he who is humble, peaceful and takes my commandments seriously» (Isaiah 66,2)
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Relocations. The holy Elder Paisios had problems with his lungs. One lung had been removed and also some of the other one! Therefore he sought a place to live with a dry climate. Due to this reason for a period he lived in the desert of Sinai, at the hermitage of Saint Episteme.
Around the Monastery of Saint Catherine, as it is known, live Bedouins, from which, when the Elder was there, some two thousand children, who ran around barefooted. The Elder pitied them. Father Paisios was not only a very good carpenter, but a master woodcrafter. Therefore he thought to fix enough handicrafts and sell them, so he would be able to buy shoes for the 2.000 Bedouin children!
He began the attempt, and to speed it up donated more time, until he was tired, mainly because his prayer time decreased. Whereas he begged in his prayer: «My God, you know and you have the ways. I beg you, you help the barefooted children»!
As it is known, the top of Sinai is the place, where God presented the plaques of the Law to the Prophet Moses. That is why it is a holy place of worship for Christians and Jews and Moslems. That is also why very many, going to the top, would also pass the hermitage of Elder Paisios. Whom, so they will not annoy him, fenced off his area and put pictures of skulls, where he wrote: do not enter! minefield!
Therefore he prayed so God can look after the Bedouin children, and in a few days, an officer (maybe even an Angel) came to him, gave him some money, and told him: «Take, Elder, this money! Pray also for us who don’t pray, and leave everything else to God! He knows, how to act in every situation»!
At Sinai there is little water. Therefore every morning, he would take his little jug, to get water from the spring. On his way there, he would ask God, to supply him one more time with a bit of water. With patience he would fill his little jug, and return to his hermitage, glorifying God for presenting him with some water for another day! Whereas at Mount Athos, where there is plenty of water, there is no need to ask for water and glorify God, for the good he does to us. However it is understood that, really we must ask God for everything and glorify him for all his gifts.
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At Mount Athos the Elder also lived at the Holy Skete of Iviron, where two young theologians from the University of Athens who had also studied in Paris, went and placed themselves in obedience under his guidance. After a while all three of them together went, to populate the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, where more young monks came. The Elder wanted them to sort of look after the buildings of the Monastery, but later for all of them to dedicate more time to prayer. But the brotherhood would begin big and never ending renovations, hindering the time for prayer. We believe that this was the main reason, which upset the Elder, and forced him to look for another hermitage.
And he went to Panagouda, opposite the Skete of Saint Panteleimonos (of the Holy Monastery Koutloumousiou). He would ask himself if the place was suitable, because he saw it damp (it had moisture). But Saint Panteleimon appeared to him and encouraged him, that he will support him! «Who are you»? the Elder asked him. «I am across from here at the Skete»! answered the Saint! Between Panagouda and the Skete there is a ravine.
When the Elder had gone there, Panagouda only had the walls and slabs on the roof, without a floor and without a roof. People he knew bought him the necessary timber, and he made that deserted workhouse livable with personal skill and work. This was also the last residence of the Elder at Mount Athos, a big blessing and arrangement of God, because very many pilgrims and Christians with problems could easily visit him there, who asked for enlightment, encouragement and the Elder’s prayers!
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The Monk prays fervently. There were a few of us Priests who would beg the Elder, to invite us to do a liturgy for him. A few times I also had the blessing to do a liturgy for the Elder. I had to go at midnight to his hermitage, so we can finish early in the morning, because with the light of day pilgrims would start to visit him.
Before the Liturgy starts the priest must have time, to put on his vestments and to get the Offertory ready. One time the Elder said to me: «what should we say, Father, until the Liturgy starts»? I said to him: Elder, should I tell you? You know.. «No»! he said, «here we do what the priest suggests»! I said: from what should we select? -«Should we read the Hours? Or the Paraklisi prayer, or the holy Communion prayer, or say the Jesus prayer»? –The Jesus prayer! I said immediately.
And then, my brothers, I heard the prayer from the mouth of the holy Elder, in a way I had never heard before, nor could I imagine it. I lived sacred moments, listening to the holy Elder very very slowly saying the words from inside his soul, «Lord Jesus Christ, have meeeercy on me». He said it very pleadingly, with a lot of piety, with exaggerated zeal, with tears! You would have thought his heart would come out! Especially on «have mercy on me» his tongue would stick!
That morning God granted me a very big and important experience. I already knew about prayer and I had said the Jesus prayer many times, but with Elder Paisios I also understood the word of the Bible, that God is «the giver of the blessing to the one that wishes» (1Kings 2,9). In other words we pray to God, and we ask Him to give us the gift of the perfect prayer, since the good always has its better, and if God himself does not fulfill our effort with His divine Grace, our own strength is very poor to approach the divine Grandeur.
The Elder had a lot of humility! That is the basic characteristic of all Saints! Whereas the heretics, like the devil, are proud. I would beg him, tell me, Elder, something impressive and miraculous. And he would answer, «to how many will you go and say it»? He did not want mention of his name. Also, he would be very saddened, when he would hear his words, which he had said to people and they would change and distort them.
Someone visited father Paisios, and said to him: Elder, I beg you, listen and solve for me a big problem that I have. And the Elder answered: «Who am I blessed one? A mathematician to solve your problem»? But he himself was a mathematician! That is how the Elder was accustomed. He would not say, I know this and that about you, but his words showed, that he knew a lot of other things about everyone, even if there had not been a specific mention about them!
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The contemporary reality. Elder Paisios also told me the following: «Because many times certain people come here not to benefit, but out of curiosity, I asked God to give me the gift, that, when someone approaches, I can see in their soul if they are coming with humility, to learn and to benefit, or if they are just coming out of curiosity, whereas I will be wasting my time with them. And God gave me that gift, and accordingly with the situation I judge, whether it is worth opening my door to them».
There were also many times when he would talk to us accordingly not with what our mouth would say, but what concerned us internally. In other words, he would read our soul and thoughts! Some would ask him to do miracles for them! And he would answer: «For miracles to happen, you must first live spiritually, do confession, hate sin, take holy communion, live according to the church, pray fervently, glorify God for everything He has given you, known and unknown, thank Him even for the bad which with love he has allowed to happen to you».
Outside his cell he had treats and water and a paper which wrote: «Take a loukoumi, and drink some water! I prefer to pray, rather than act the teacher. I help more with my prayer, rather than my words»!
It so happened, that when the Elder was leaving Mount Athos with the boat for the last time, sick and in pain, I was also near him. Together with other brothers we paid close attention to his words, so we can benefit as much as possible. There in front of us came someone around 70 years old. With reverence he kissed his hand and said: «Elder, I have also come to Mount Athos other times. Every time I went back to my family and friends, they would ask me, did you go to Elder Paisios? No, I would answer. And then they would say to me «you went for nothing, your poor man». So now that I see you and received your blessing, I am very happy. That which I wanted for so long has happened». And the Elder answered: «yes! Now you are saved»!
In other words, it is not enough that we got the Elder’s blessing or that we got to know him, but we must strive spiritually, to become worthy of the eternal salvation and the divine blessings, which are reserved for all battling orthodox Christians.
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Conclusion. We consider that this brief report of ours regarding the contemporary holy Elder Paisios should not upset and despair us, because we cannot reach his big standards, but solidify our faith and increase our purpose, so we can care for as much as possible to please our heavenly Father, with faith, bravery, humility, fervent everyday prayer, without any trace of conceit against things irrelevant to spirituality. In contrast, with all humility we should tend to our personal perfection, and pray for the salvation of the whole world, especially those who ask for our prayers and our advice.
Also, if we feel that all of us the faithful are members of the one body of the Church (1Corinth.12,12-20), we respect everyone, especially the hierarchs, and we support them as much as we can in their material problems and the needs of the Monks and especially the ones from Mount Athos. In that way we fulfill the recommendation of Apostle Paul, that every believer contributes to the body of the Church whatever they have, on the one hand spiritually (prayer and the word of God), on the other hand materially (respect, service, charity) (1Cor.9,11, 2Cor.8,14). We require the material things, not just to live and pray, but to maintain our ancient hermitages.
The elderly Symeon had prophesized that Jesus Christ «is destined for the fall and rising of many» (Luke 2,34), depending on the stance each one takes against Him. The same happens with all the Saints and Elder Paisios. Whoever wants benefits, and whoever is scandalized is doomed. The benevolent ones are saved, and God enlightens them to confront all of life’s difficulties. They remember the word of our Lord «do not fear anyone else, but only Him who has the authority to punish eternally in hell» (Matthew 10,28, Luke 12,5). Near Christ we don’t fear any Turk, Jew, fascist or German. And whoever thinks they can be saved without Christ and the Saints, even if they have achieved a lot in their life, should also remember the ancient Greek wise man who used to say, «it’s not over till it’s over».
Thank you for listening to me. I hope the example of the holy Elder Paisios and his prayers, help us in our eternal salvation, we feel the blessings of God, and to be proud (2Corinth. 10,17) that we are good orthodox Christians.
fr.Μaximos, Τ.Θ.49 ΚΑRYES, 630.86..MOUNT ATHOS, e.mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hieromonk father Maximos of Mount Athos the from Elder Joseph Vatopaidinou was born in 1949 at Halkida Euboea. In 1972 he graduated from the Theology School of Athens University. During the time of his studies he visited Mount Athos three times, where he met Elder Paisios and other holy Elders. In 1974 he placed obedience in New Skete, to Elder Joseph from Cyprus the later Vatopaidino, and in 1976 was ordained a Priest. He served as Chaplain of Protato, as Secretary of the Holy Community and Professor of the Athoniados Academy. From 1984 he is a hermit in a Cell near Karyes where he has written and published 15 books. Sometimes he conducts mass and speaks at Churches outside Mount Athos.
fr.Μaximos, Τ.Θ.49 ΚΑRYES, 630.86..MOUNT ATHOS, e.mail: email@example.com