The word of the ever-memorable abbot of the Athonite Monastery of Konstamanitou, Archimandrite Agathon on the topic, “The Greatness of Orthodoxy.” Pascha 2009.
The greatness of Orthodoxy is impossible to express in words. It must be personally experienced. Orthodoxy is what an Orthodox Christian lives by, what he experiences and touches, thanks to which he partakes of eternal life, right now, at this very moment, and in every moment of his life. The life of the future age is Paradise, the Heavenly Kingdom. Orthodoxy isn’t something abstract or indefinite. Orthodoxy is when every one of us whom God has vouchsafed to be baptized in the holy Orthodox faith lives by this faith, senses it, communicates with the invisible world in prayer, and at the same time, abides here, on Earth. A man who lives by faith does not look at it as some kind of abstraction; he does not try to squeeze it into some definitional frameworks or laws of logic, or to find an intellectual, rational explanation for it. Everyone has their own communication with God, hidden and personal, unseen by others. No matter how much you want to convey it in words, in short or lengthy explanations, movements or some kind of actions, its essence remains inexpressible.
All other religions except Orthodoxy are the subject of intellectual knowledge. Only Orthodoxy is known by the heart. What does it say in the Gospel? For out of the heart proceed … thoughts (Mt. 15:19). Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8). We have good hope. Our faith isn’t something abstract and vague we’ve heard from others. I have touched it myself. And from the moment I touched it, no one could prove to me otherwise.
You well remember the story of the Apostle Thomas. When the other disciples told him that the Lord was risen, he doubted, and he said: Except I shall see … I will not believe. Then, on the second Sunday after Pascha, on Thomas Sunday, Christ appeared again before His disciples, who had gathered together as we are now. Christ stood in their midst and turned to Thomas: Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing (Jn. 20:27). Thomas exclaimed: My Lord and my God! and with that, all of his “logical reasoning” came to an end. He stopped thinking about faith from the outside, seeing it as something abstract and unclear. “No matter what you do to me, you won’t change my mind: kill me, beat me, cut me with knives… but Christ is Risen! From this minute forward, all logical arguments fall to the wayside. They don’t exist for me!”
Such is our Orthodoxy, such is the spirit of the holy Orthodox faith, I repeat again and again. It’s not a matter of cold logic and dead reason, like all other religions. It is that which is known experientially. And if someone happens to experience this in his life, then then question of faith is no longer a topic of discussion for him. The matter is closed.
And, of course, this faith is the greatest gift that our All-good God has bestowed upon us. It is to Him alone that we owe the fact that we are Orthodox Christians and that He vouchsafed us, monks, to dwell in the Garden of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is a unique and invaluable gift. And, again, it depends on each of us personally how much we can appreciate this gift and thank and glorify God for it; to prostrate before Him and renounce all worldly and vain things.
At the same time, it’s very important to remember that theory is one thing, and practice quite another. This is why the Holy Fathers, from the moment they began to taste, sense, feel, and personally experience what faith is, went to caves, to the desert, to silence, just so no one would distract them from that which they lived by—because every communication is a distraction. Get distracted, and God imperceptibly leaves. How’s the old folk saying go? If you chase two rabbits…1
St. Joseph the Hesychast Of course, as I have already said, this is a personal matter. As for our brotherhood, the All-good God has shown us the greatest mercy. I don’t know why He gave this gift to us: He accounted us worthy of the honor of knowing St. Joseph the Hesychast, who became the spiritual “root” from which a new branch of Athonite monasticism grew, and who taught us the “science of sciences.” This is a special blessing, and God alone knows why He granted it to us sinners. Thy judgments are as a great deep! (Ps. 35:7). Many have come to Mt. Athos, to the Garden of the Most Holy Theotokos, many have labored in the monasteries, kellias, and sketes, but not all were given to discover the secret of noetic work, which Elder Joseph possessed. And by the grace of God, he taught us this art, that we might not waste our time in fruitless searches.
Traditionally, all the Fathers were divided into two camps: Those who follow the path of physical podvig and external work, and those who follow the path of noetic work. As the people say: “Work fears a master.” You can, of course, do so-called “menial work,” the work of a mover. There’s nothing wrong with this—the doer of external podvigs also receives a reward. But Elder Joseph the Hesychast found a shorter path, which is open to everyone. This is why there will be no excuse for us—and especially me—if we don’t follow this path. The All-good God honored us to live with this blessed man, who together with Elder Arsenios performed the greatest works. He led a reclusive life in dark caves, enduring the bitter cold of winter. The Elder plowed, cleared the land, sowed, and tilled; and we, his spiritual children, reap his labors.
Elder Arsenios After the blessed repose of Elder Joseph, the fathers persuaded Elder Arsenios to become the head of the monastic brotherhood, and he in turn also left successors: the ever-memorable Fr. Charalampos, my elder, and Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia—so the succession was preserved. There is no doubt about the correctness of the chosen path; there is no need for new searches. This is the greatest and inestimable good. It’s one thing when someone has already paved the way and you’re walking a well-trodden path, and it’s another when you’re in front of an impenetrable forest and you can’t see a thing. Fr. Stefan, my successor here on Mt. Athos, said the same thing to me once when we were having a heart-to-heart. “Do you think,” he said to me, “that I would have gone over the ravines and mountains myself had you not trod the trail ahead of me with the mules? I don’t even know how to explain it to you in words.”
This is why personal example and work on yourself, the work of every brother, and especially the elder, is of no small importance. After all, one day our All-good God will call us to account and will ask how we used His greatest gifts: “I sent you to this elder, and he taught you everything—both activity and contemplation.” And we will have no excuse if we don’t bring forth good fruit, if we do not feel, do not experience this communion with God that allows us to get away from dry and fruitless theory and from cold, rational faith based on other people’s writings, on other people’s words, on what we heard from others. I emphasize: We will have no excuse.
This cannot be called anything but the grace of God because, living in the world, I knew nothing about Elder Joseph. I had a friend (the ever-memorable Elder Ephraim of Xeropotamou—Ed.) who left to labor on Mt. Athos. He told a friend of ours about it, but he didn’t say anything to me, so as not to unsettle me, because I had just opened a store and hired my brothers to work there. I asked this friend: “Do you know how or what he’s doing? He told us he was going to serve in the army. A whole year has passed and he still hasn’t sent a single letter.” And this friend couldn’t resist. He responded: “When our friend said he was going to the army, he wasn’t lying, he just meant he would be a soldier of Christ. He’s on Mount Athos.”
This firmly stuck in my head. I usually went to see my parents in the village three times a year—at Nativity, Pascha, and the Dormition of the Theotokos. One day I told my father not to expect me at Pascha because I was going to Holy Mount Athos. My father was displeased: “What kind of nonsense is this? I thought the kids would come, the whole family would gather for the feast, and you’re going to Mount Athos?”
I was twenty-six then, so my father couldn’t force me and forbid me to go. On Holy Thursday, Demetrios Aslanidis, the future Hieromonk Kosmas (the ever-memorable Fr. Kosmas of Grigoriou, the missionary to Africa—Ed.), and I were already on Athos. I found my childhood friend and we spent several days with him in the monastery, from Holy Thursday until Bright Monday. I told my friend: “How nice it is here, how quiet, how calm!” And my friend, who had been living on Holy Mount Athos for three years at that point, replied: “Stay, right now.”
The abbot wasn’t there at that time—he’d gone to confess his spiritual children in Athens, and then to visit the convent in Volos. His return trip to Athos lay through Thessaloniki. My friend advised me: “Go find Geronda there.” And I did find him. The day before, on Pascha, I had confessed to Fr. Charalampos, his late brother, and communed of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, so I just spoke with the Elder, without confession. And I asked him the same question that I had asked my friend before: “Am I fit to be a monk?” He answered me: “Yes! But leave the world right now! Immediately!”
I had a spiritual father, Fr. Iakov (Pavlakis). I went to him and told him I had decided to become a monk. He asked: “Have you thought long and hard about it? The monastic cross will be three times heavier than what you carry in the world!” I said I was going to the monastery for the sake of love for Christ. There are no external circumstances forcing me to take this step. I’m not an invalid, not down on my luck, not suffering from failed love. I have a store, I’m young, I still have everything ahead of me. Thank God, I’m not in need of money; I’m going because Christ is dearer than anything in the world for me, and I believe that He won’t abandon me. Perhaps my spiritual father was just testing my will? Again he tried to dissuade me from monasticism: “You only went to Athos for two days, and you want to stay there forever? Where are you planning to go? You think it’s that simple?”
By the grace of God, I stood my ground, and I went to the monastery to my friend and Geronda. So I ended up on Mt. Athos and became what I am today. It never even occurred to me that I would be a priest, much less an abbot—no. I had no such thoughts. But the Lord had His plans for me, a sinner. And now—I say this from the bottom of my heart—I have no words to express all my gratitude to the benevolent God, and especially today, on the most glorious day of the Resurrection of Christ, upon which rests the greatness of Orthodoxy. Because if there were no Resurrection, if there were no eternal life, there would be no basis, no foundation for our faith. If, God forbid, we’re shipwrecked in faith, then we—I’m speaking about myself first of all, and then everyone else—will have no excuse. We’ll have nothing to say at the Dread Judgment.
Based on the little experience I have today—from what I live by, what I experience, what I hear, what I feel—if we renounce the faith, we will have no excuse. This is the small but very important thing I want to tell you. Amen.