The youngest abbot on Mt. Athos, Archimandrite Methodius (Markovic) of the Serbian Hilandar Monastery, speaks on life as Liturgy, which is incomparably higher than any divisions that are now imposed upon Orthodox peoples.
“Something is amiss,” and what to do about it
—Fr. Methodius, how did you wind up on Mt. Athos?
—Once during Great Lent I saw something that upended my entire life. It was a monastic tonsuring. It was the first time I saw it firsthand. I understood that it was the way for me. I bowed and saw myself just like the one crawling towards God. I clearly realized: I will be a monk, although before that I had lived a simple secular life. I was born in the Serbian city of Chachak (87 miles from Belgrade), where St. Nicholai (Velimirovic) served at one time, and where the present primate of the Serbian Church Patriarch Irinej was born—but I learned about all of this later. I was just an electrical engineering student at Belgrade University then, hanging out with friends, playing basketball. But something was amiss…
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica At the time, I was struck by the story of Elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I had already read a lot of Patristic literature about monasticism—but it remained just writings for me. But my presence at the monastic tonsuring became an impetus! This was in Decani Monastery in Kosovo. I would have stayed there if it was a men’s monastery [laughs]; especially since the spiritual father there was the notable ascetic Hieroschemamonk Savva (Cirovic). But they told me in Decani: “If you want to be a monk, ask Elder Thaddeus for advice.”
—Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica? We really love his books Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, and others, in Russia.
—Yes, him! I was very impressed by his works, and went to see him for advice. I was ready to hear anything—no matter where he sent me, I would go without delay. I already felt, according to the word of St. John Climacus, a fire. “You must go to the Holy Mountain!” the elder blessed. So I went. It providentially worked out that I ended up at Hilandar on the feast of St. Symeon the Myrrh-Streamer, the patron of Hilandar Monastery.
Man is a liturgical being
—I met Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi. I was also close with Elder George (Kapsanis) who was the abbot of Grigoriou on Mt. Athos for forty years. I learned cenobitic monasticism from these two elders, and their teachings help me, as I myself am a rather young abbot; thanks to their experience I know how and when to act.
—What did the elders teach you?
—Elder George (Kapsanis) taught that we have to arrange our life in accordance with the will of God. He generally spoke of man as a liturgical being. We are created for worship. And it is precisely in this service that man truly comes to know himself. Man’s entire life in Paradise, the Elder would say, was liturgical. But the New Testament Liturgy, he believed, is even higher than that of Paradise. Imagine, God became incarnate to be slain for us and for our salvation.
The elder said that man can, of course, live according to his own will; the Lord allows this, not wanting to force the will of His creation. But man thereby excludes himself from the life-giving expanse of the Liturgy. He could even be a priest, but if he doesn’t offer himself and the entire world to God, he will remain outside the mystery, even standing at the altar with raised hands. Of such nominal Christians, even though they be present at every service or even celebrate them, the book of Revelation says, thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead (Rev. 3:1).
Thus our life becomes Divine-human
—How can we offer ourselves and the whole world to God?
—We have to see the gift of God in everything, never attributing anything to ourselves, not trying to take possession of it. This is the poverty of spirit that is commanded to us (cf. Mt. 5:3). Then our entire life—not just in church, but also outside of it, as well as beyond the bounds of this earthly life itself—will be a Liturgy. This is what we must return to.
—Yes, there are some wonderful discussions about this in the book of Archimandrite Vasily (Gondikakisa), the abbot of Iveron, Hymn of Entry. He writes there that people who are selfless—which is the essence of the Christian life—give, give, give, and death for them is no more than the usual expense—the soul brings its last sacrifice—the body to the earth. This is where the ease of a Christian’s dying comes from—when he can say, “I did everything I could; I gave everything I had…”
—Yes, the Christian life is an unceasing gift, an offering, a sacrifice, communion, thanksgiving—that’s what Elder George taught us. Life is thus sanctified, becoming Divine-human.
—How can we learn the will of God for ourselves?
—We have to constantly, every day, perhaps even for a year or more, pray to the Lord to reveal His will, and when He reveals it, we have to arrange our lives in accordance with it. The Lord also did not ascend the Cross of His own will: He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8).
—Is God’s will revealed through an elder, a spiritual father?
—Yes, on Athos that’s how everything happens. The elders, of course, taught us as monks to practice prayer, to say first of all the Jesus Prayer. “In order to be a monk of the Holy Mountain,” the elders would say, “you must be obedient, then prayer will happen.” That is how the will of God is revealed in the conditions of our life.
“The main thing in life is purpose”
Elder Joseph of Vatopedi —“When Heaven is silent, undertake nothing,” we were once directed on Athos, when the first delegations of pilgrims started going to the Holy Mountain at the end of the soviet regime. Can you tell us anything about Elder Joseph of Vatopedi?
—Elder Joseph of Vatopedi often repeated: “The main thing in life is purpose.” What is the purpose of your life? It’s one thing when you’re acquiring the Holy Spirit, and quite another when you are fixated on acquiring something that, in fact, you will never take away from this corrupt world. What are you saving up? Knowledge? Impressions? Money? Everything that is not an experience of the Liturgy—bringing down the Holy Spirit even to our seemingly simplest everyday tasks, when we dedicate them to God and we deny ourselves for the sake of others—has no point. It will all rot away here—even those things that are good by human standards. “Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ's sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ's sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this life,” St. Seraphim of Sarov said in his conversation with Nicholas Motovilov. He also quoted the words of the Lord there: He that gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad (Mt. 12:30).
All of us Orthodox are one family
—Did the elders instruct at all about the temptations of our times?
—Now monks, like, I think, all Christians, are saved by patience. Even all the disorders that have befallen world Orthodoxy—we just have to endure.
Those podvigs that our predecessors undertook are inaccessible to us now. Today’s Christians endure sicknesses and various temptations.
—I know that Athonites joke: “We used to be saved by our prayer ropes, but now by the refrigerator.” Is the abundance of pilgrims not a temptation? Or are there fewer now?
—Many pilgrims come to the Holy Mountain, as they always have. We work to receive everyone who comes to us. Perhaps some temptations arise, but we try to make sure that no one leaves uncomforted. Hospitality is also a podvig, pleasing to God. As the apostle Paul said: Some have entertained angels unawares (Heb. 13:2).
—What do modern people come with? What problems do they have?
—Many in their everyday lives now are purely concerned about the [economic] crisis—especially Greeks, who come to Athos in rather large numbers. Our Hilandar elder Kirill (Veshkovac) once spoke with Archimandrite Justin (Popovic), now glorified, who called the communist persecutions against the Serbian Orthodox Church a “penance,” that is, a kind of punishment for our correction. The Russian Orthodox Church also experienced its own “penance” in the twentieth century. At that time, Abba Justin noted that the same awaits the Greek people. Perhaps the difficulties the Greeks are now experiencing—financial problems and harassment from the government officials—are the same “penance.”
Although, we are mostly still asked questions that concern the spiritual life. They ask about confession, about Holy Communion, and for advice on how to raise their family in the Orthodox faith.
—They say that every monastic community, like every parish community, strives to become a family. How is this achieved?
—Love one another (Jn. 13:34). If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mk. 9:35), the Gospel states. In the monastery we only embody the commandments, making them tangible. Pilgrims coming to such a monastery are truly saturated with them through the image and spirit of obedience to one another and harmony. Everything should be peaceful in an ideal family. It’s the same in our pan-Orthodox world family.
Our cross is to preserve the Orthodox faith and Church Tradition
—In light of what you said above about penances given to an entire peoples, with the Greeks it’s clear, but what is the cross of the Serbian and Russian people now?
—The Serbian cross is to preserve the Orthodox faith and Church Tradition. It’s the same for the Russian people, and for any Orthodox people!
In Serbia, as probably in Russia as well, there is still a lot of oppression: The enemy acts, if not directly, then surreptitiously, trying in every way to instigate the faithful to change the Tradition and leave the Orthodox faith. The enemy tempts: Believe, but somehow differently. Such pressure is exerted systematically. I think every believer, whether Serbian or Russian, feels it for himself.
We Serbs today need to be as steadfast as were our ancestors under Ottoman enslavement. And the Russians’ cross today is to be as faithful to Christ as the New Martyrs and Confessors of your Church. Russians also have many temptations now. A good beginning to the return of the people to the Church after seventy years of theomachism has been placed. But efforts must be made ceaselessly for faith to increase. It is impossible to stand still in the spiritual life—it is a constant podvig of ascent to Golgotha.
All cross-bearers, I repeat, need patience, and to acquire it, we have to be more interested in how our great grandparents lived—this is a very effective tool.
In the Russian Church you have the most powerful support in the host of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church. We, fraternal Orthodox peoples, look today at the Russian people as a soldier, a knight of Christ, able to defend Orthodoxy in this secular world that aggressively dictates its pseudo-values. You Russians have a very serious spiritual rear corps, strengthened by the providence of God during the last century.
To be at peace, we must keep the commandments
—“To whom much is given, much will be required,” we say.
—There is a parable I think many people know, about how someone complained to the Lord: “My cross is too heavy!” His guardian angel appeared to him and said, “Man, why are you crying? The Lord has sent me to offer you the cross which you choose for yourself.” And at that moment, a great multitude of human crosses were revealed to the gaze of the grumbler; going through them, he constantly felt some kind of discomfort until he stopped on a fairly orderly cross, which fell upon his shoulder. “This is the cross you already have,” the angel told him.
In his teachings, Abba Dorotheos instructs: If you accept everything that happens in your life as from the right hand of God, you will always be peaceful and calm: No matter what happens, God sent it! Glory to God for all things.
However, to be at peace, we must keep the commandments, otherwise we shift responsibility for our own stupidity to God. It is such people who often blaspheme God—remember the thief crucified to Christ’s left. The Cross and repentance are the door to the Heavenly Kingdom. After the Wise Thief confessed: Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy kingdom (Lk. 23:42), Christ said: Today shalt thou be with me in paradise (Lk. 23:43), but the Lord did not remove him from the cross immediately; the thief still suffered torment, his legs were broken; that is, he suffered for his sins.
And here we can say the opposite: From whom much is required, the same will be rewarded with interest.
The modern world fears and shuns the cross. But the Lord sends a cross for salvation. If there is no cross, there is no resurrection with Christ. After all, the meaning of God’s cruciform mercy towards us is found in Paschal joy, which already continues into eternal life.