SAINTLY AND ASCETIC LIFE IN THE CHURCH OF ALEXANDRIA
by Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya
"Sainthood; a prayerful contact with the divine; the name (saint) signifies one who is prudent and pure. One who is free from every stain and passion. Sainthood; a high calling, indicating perfection and signifying the presence of all virtue." (St Nektarios of Pentapolis)
Today, as never before, even though the opposite may appear to be true, saintly life and asceticism are returning to their original form. How many saintly ascetics has the twentieth century yet to show us? I refer both to those who live in seclusion and those who live in the world but who, with inner love for God were faithful and dedicated to the canons and way of life of the great anchorites and ascetics of the desert. Unchanged and unmodified, the original guidelines to perfection and deification remain as immutable principles for all who wish to dedicate their lives to the emulation of this angelic path. In this way, inspired by the example and embracing the unique spiritual way of the anchorite's and fathers, they are guided towards virtue and perfection. There is no new movement in the Orthodox monastic life, which is why it does not require secular modification and "updating." The great lions of the desert and eagles of the peaks do not need to adapt to the ways of the world. The monk decides to abandon the world and retreat to the mountains and caves of the earth where he rediscovers the splendour and beauty of life in Christ and discipleship. Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, a life hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).
It is in this way that the monk, through the ascetic and reclusive experience, discovers the saintliness which dematerializes him and places him at the highest boundaries of this God-given institution of the Church, which has endured for as long as our Church itself.
The ascetic life as it was taught, lived and organized by the first God-fearing Fathers of Egypt, is revealed in the words of St Anthony the Great who said to his monks: "First of all, you must heed this: do not give up what you have started, nor be overwhelmed by the exertion of your task. This must not be said. We have lived the ascetic life for so many years, but your willingness has grown, as if every day were a new beginning. Because all human life, in comparison with eternal life is very short, so short that all our time on earth is nothing when compared to eternity."
Characteristically, Athanasios the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria, tells us that the monasteries of Alexandria were few and far between, and so anyone who wished to follow the ascetic life had to train himself. And so the ascetic life, or anchoritism, finds its full expression in the first ascetics of the Christian Church, such as Elias and John the Forerunner. Others, the ascetics of the desert regions of Nitria and Thebes, independent of the evangelical sayings, introduced the same ideal, inspired by divine grace. Thousands of hermits and recluses flooded these areas, living the splendour of God's glory on earth, as Ieronimos writes so beautifully, " O desert adorned by the blooms of Jesus Christ! O solitude, which relishes greater familiarity with God! What is accomplished in our time, brother, by having a soul which is higher than the entire world? Believe me, here I see more light. How long will you keep yourself in the shadow of the roofs, imprisoned within the smoky towns?"
These lovers of the desert heard the voice of God commanding them to "leave the noise, leave society and save yourself." The response to this ideal way of life, which brought man so close to God and brought the heavens to earth, was so great that from the very beginning, men and women, not only of a humble and unworthy background, but of rich and well-bred families, dignitaries, scientists and the elite of society, flooded the monasteries. These souls became humble, and entering the realm of God, were bathed in the grace of the Spirit and tasted the first fruits of sainthood. As Saint Makarios of Egypt notes most correctly: "The saintly souls are moved and guided by the driving power of Christ.. wherever it wishes to take them. The Kingdom of Light and celestial icon, Jesus Christ, mystically enlightens and reigns in the souls of the Saints."
The Holy Spirit becomes co-traveller and companion in the ascetic life of monks and anchorites. This coupling and participation results in the theosis of the human being, and so brings about the union of man with God. This achievement, which equates with the Pearl of Great Price, is attained by constant practice, fasting, prayer, sleepless vigil, obedience and internal struggle. As a result, every virtue is acquired and the saintly anchorite achieves the blessing of perfection; the mystery of the saintly condition is established within him. St Anthony of the Desert gives this characteristic definition.: "A saint is someone who is free of evil and sin." This holy way of life was glorified by the saintly anchorites and ascetics that we might sing in their processional hymn: "In you, Father, the faithful image of God was preserved, for you carried your cross and followed Christ. You taught by your deeds how to spurn the body, for it passes away, and how to value the soul, for it is immortal. Wherefore your soul is forever in happiness with the angels."
Arsenios the Great, who also contributed to the development of the monastic ideal in Egypt, says: "Take care and make every effort that your inner works are done according to God, and be victorious against all external passions."
The motivation to withdraw from the world was a phenomenon which appeared just prior to, and at the beginning of the Christian religion. In the Old Testament there are references to people who chose quiet and solitude. Even Christ Himself appears frequently to have withdrawn from the world to rest in the desert, where man's communion with God becomes more real, where love for perfection and the genuineness of man is discovered. In this solitary state the anchorite is clothed in a superhuman and angelical form in which he knows the uncharted and never-ending presence of God within him. As Palladios, author of the "History of the Monks of Egypt" writes: I have seen new prophets who lead a godly, admirable and virtuous life, performing saintly deeds, as true servants of God, not caring for earthly matters and unconcerned with temporal things; while living on earth, they became citizens of heaven." He goes on to explain the growth of Christian monasticism in Egypt "Even more than the army that an earthly king can muster, there is not one village or city in Egypt which is not surrounded like a fortress by monasteries, and through their prayers to God the people are strengthened."
Saint Kassianos, the great ascetic and expert on coenobitic monastic life in Egypt, talks of those who wish to live the angelical way: "Within the communal life we must live with the form and the shape of the cross upon which, for our sake the Master was nailed, as Our standard, and in the same way it should be our prayer to God 'Nail down my flesh for fear of you'. Just as he whose flesh is nailed to wood cannot move and cannot act as he desires, so he whose thoughts are nailed to the fear of God cannot move towards any carnal desire. He who is nailed to the cross does not think of the present, he is not concerned by his wishes, he is not troubled by any desires, he does not worry about how he will become rich, he does not bloat himself with pride, he is not engrossed in disputes and envy, he does not dwell on current humiliations, he does not contemplate past insults because he is expecting to leave this life as soon as he suffers death by crucifixion. And so he who has truly renounced the world and has become nailed to the cross of the fear of God, as if it were a cross of wood, and looks day by day to his escape from this life, holds all his desires and bodily inclinations unmoving and inactive..."
Let the fact not escape us, that the life of the Alexandrians was full of opulence and comforts. Sin and idolatry multiplied and heresies distanced man from God. This is why the monastic ideal developed so quickly in the deserts and inaccessible regions of Egypt. Few other cities or communities could equal Alexandria for vileness and sin. "But where sin was thus multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it" (Romans 5:20.). This was why the angelic way was consolidated so rapidly, according to Isidoros Pilousiotis: "The Kingdom of God is not subject to anyone's passions, rather it is the contemplation of things above and the achievement of heavenly deeds." The saintly and ascetic life in the Church of Alexandria was not only a response to corruption and sin but also to the holy invitation which raised the enthusiastic motivation for the achievement of a higher ideal in man's life, love and obedience to the will of God, the renunciation of the world, freedom of the spirit and naturally, the evangelical dictum: "He who is able to accept this.. let him accept it" (Matthew 19:12).
One anchorite alone in the desert, or living a communal life with others, "alone with God", laid the foundations and basis of the ascetic canon. This blessed life fed the physical and spiritual being of the ascetics, and so very soon, the way of life spread. Another supporter of the monastic ideal from Egypt, Serapion Thmoueos, a close collaborator with Athanasios the Great, says: "Your goodness is becoming universally known; what town has heard of your Virtuous and apostolic life and would not wish to know you?" And truly, "As God calls and multiplies, other ascetics have gathered and the brothers have multiplied." The life of those first ascetics of the desert was not yet charismatic or like that of the angels, a sacrificial love. It was a virginal way of life, which was its first "resurrection". This stage of sanctity of the soul expresses man's direct apostolic quality, which is steeped in the Holy Spirit; this quality displays and witnesses the great love of God towards man. In this way, the anchorite of those early times in the desert of Egypt tasted the fruits of this perfect new creation, and so made himself worthy, transforming himself and being re-baptized, so completing the cycle of his life, ascribing to him the necessary strength and the expression of new life. Within this new state in which the ascetic continues, there is also temptation, in particular by the devil protesting against the denial of his values and rights. Anthony the Great, having withdrawn from the world and living alone in the desert, caused an unusual rebellion among the demons who cried, "Leave our place." They complained because they saw the multitude of the saint's followers and protested: "We have nowhere to go ... There are Christians everywhere, and all the desert is full of monks." Indeed, these great ascetics of the desert had the strength and the courage to be confronted by demons without fear of their wicked intentions. Saint Kassianos, the lover of the desert, dumbfounded them by saying: "Wishing passionately to fight the demons and not hide from them, the monks do not fear to enter the vast solitudes of the deserts.
This invisible but often tangible and lively battle with the demons played on the ascetics' weaknesses, particularly the physical ones, but they knew that, through prayer and will?power, they would not be seduced and fall into the trap of temptation, and that the "hater of good" would have to confess in humiliation, "We did not cease to tempt him with immodest ideas and with wounds, and yet he appears even more defiant of us; we must attack him by some other method."
How difficult it must be to confront evil in the solitary state in which the recluse of Egypt lived. No matter how close one may appear to come to perfection and true virtue, perhaps at least, towards the end of life, even so, temptation and weaknesses nest in the soul and pester constantly. How much faith does the ascetic need to be able to reach perfect catharsis and blessedness? In retreat, Anthony the Great confronted the devil and conquered him, despite the traps which were laid to lure him, and yet he confessed his weakness at the end of his life — even though he was thoroughly and gloriously enlightened — saying: "I have not even begun my penance. " Clement the Alexandrian added: "Passions are an abnormal motion of the soul. " Only by eradicating the ego can the ascetic of the desert know God and keep Him close to him all the days of his life. The Alexandrian way of dealing with passions and cultivating the soul, using ascetic penance as much as possible as a form of catharsis, was later used by all the spiritual fathers and wise teachers of the ecumenical Christian Church. In this way man is set free, and in particular, the ascetic is set free from evil passions which continuously come to try to nest around and within his soul. Freedom from action and deeds of the worldly environment strengthen the ascetic and create in him a stable and abiding condition, which, in other words, strip him of the selfish ego and everything concerned with his worldly existence. There is no comparable condition to that in which the ascetic finds himself in the desert, because it is a world which joins him to the reality of God; it is a world full of "the resurrected crucified", a mystical life, a mystical marriage - deification - to use the expression of Saint Mark of Egypt. This is the life of the ascetics who preserve the same style and opinion of the angelical way. Heilos the Ascetic notes charismatically: "Blessed is the monk, who sees the salvation and the advancement of all joyfully, as if it were his own. Blessed is the monk who considers as God does, all men as God. A monk is someone who has withdrawn from all men, and at the same time is united with all men.
With his saintliness, Anthony the Great honoured not only the ascetic way of life, but also the newly-born Church of Alexandria. He was a model of piety in his youth because, from his childhood in Egypt, he was close and united with his most devout parents. How glad was the Church of Alexandria, when a true son from the village of Koma in Upper Egypt decided to serve the Church with a new and previously unknown way of life, which he himself had introduced. Various biographers and students of his life, in particular Saint Athanasios of Alexandria, elegantly refer to his life an8 thoughts in order to stress the wonderful way in which he worked zealously in order to win his struggle and achieve his efforts towards the perfection of man through specific practices and holiness. The close relationship and association with his parents, his perseverance in remaining with them at home and in learning only the road to and from the church, gave the young Anthony the necessary preparation for the great road which opened up before him and which was to guide thousands of souls to their personal salvation and penance.
One day when Anthony was in church - he must have been about 21 years old — the Gospel was being read in which the Lord said to a rich man: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven" (Matthew 19.21). Anthony, assuming that this was the voice of God speaking to him, rushed out of the church as soon as the service was over to share out his possessions to the poor and those around him, because he realized that this was the only way for him to get closer to God and become His faithful and inseparable friend and companion. People marvelled at him and he became an archetype of holiness and the ascetic life, adorned with all virtues. He was the first who set the example, as Athanasios the Great emphasized in his famous speech: "The life of Anthony is the standard of practice for monks." Gregory the Theologian, who was expert on the life of the great ascetics of the desert notes: "Anthony was the law of the monastic life."
Let us here pause to examine just why Anthony the Great is considered to be the patriarch and founder of anchoritism. When the saint lived in Egypt, the Church was struggling against two bitter foes: her persecutors on the one hand, and the heretics on the other. The situation was not at all good. The persecution instigated by the Emperor Decius (249-251) resulted in thousands of innocent Christians falling victim to his cruelty and hatred of Christianity. Egypt was at that time filled with monks who were drawn from every corner of that desolate land to practice the ascetic life in prayer, abandoning worldly possessions and practicing abstinence. The whole remote area of Nitria became flooded with people who, led by Anthony the Great, had abandoned worldly things and given themselves to the struggle for discipline and prayer. Thousands of faithful followers of the monastic ideal inhabited the desert "and they did this either for the kingdom to come, or on account of many sins, or because of their love of God." Athanasios the Great, himself a supporter of this form of anchoritism, notes "In Egypt there were not yet many monasteries, so whoever wanted to exert special care ... he had to do his training all by himself."
In the meantime, the persecutions continued. But even after they had come to an end, the monks remained within their bastions in the remote regions of the desert, practicing the virtues and struggling daily with the strategems of the devil. The caves of the desert expanses of Nitria and Thebes became home to God Himself, as the monks practiced piety, love concord and justice. These dwellings of the monks of God seemed like heavenly monasteries inhabited by the saints and angels of God. The monks' presence there is similar to a heavenly worship, where the main point is not where but how it is celebrated. The athletes of the deserts, mountains and caves of the earth showed obedience and submitted themselves to the will of God and the practices of asceticism in order to be able to resist the temptations and assaults of the devil, who tried constantly to win them over.
Anthony the Great, who first devised this form of anchoritism, created then, a spiritual system which endures to the present day. The system resists the secular tide which runs through the ages, and is radiant in its teaching while making the souls of men pure and saintly. "This holy fragrance, as a heavenly balm, is dispersed everywhere and fills troubled souls with confidence and encourages them in the arena of virtue." Anthony the Great advised the monks: "Let us try to embody the ascetic life more and not be taken in by those whose works are carried out with deception. Neither should we fear them, even as they appear to be attacking us, or threaten to kill us, because they are weak, and they can do nothing but threaten."
The originator and founder of the coenobitic communal system of life was Pachomios the Great of Egypt, who worked to establish this system which was born and developed in Thebes, Egypt. His parents were idol worshippers, and he himself was a soldier, until he came to know Christianity, abandoned worldly things, was baptised as a Christian and began to search for a way to the deeper things of God. Early in his Christian life, Pachomios turned to the monk Palamon, who initiated his monastic training.
From the start, Pachomios relished the monastic life with its practice and worship of God, and he took to it with great zeal. Slowly, through profound faith and complete devotion to God, he became a paragon of the monastic ideal. His love for God and continuous communion with Him, his humility, love, selflessness and his desire to show others this road which he himself had travelled, led Pachomios to found, after seeing a divine vision, the coenobitic system. He attracted new monks who held him in great respect and who followed and obeyed him. They lived with him and he revealed the mystery and splendour of the communal way. And so Pachomios established the first coenobitic monastery. It was situated in Tavennisia, Upper Thebes. His brother John was the first to follow him and expressed his desire to follow with him the same difficult path. In order that the life of the monk should be better organised, Pachomios drew up the rules of monasticism which direct the coenobitic system of monastic activity. According to Pachomios's contemporaries, his efforts were so successful that very soon the number of monks under his jurisdiction reached seven thousand (witness of Palladion). Hieronymos quotes an even greater number.
There is no doubt that the example of Saint Pachomios was quickly imitated by many anchorites and ascetics in both East and West. Coenobitic monasticism, soon acquired a universal character; the noble work of the founder caused all to honour him as the pioneer of a wholly new and profoundly significant branch of Christian piety.
Before his death in 346, Saint Pachomios had established nine monasteries for men and one for women. Women were strictly excluded from the male monasteries. Each monastery was fully coenobitical with every aspect of its communal life being governed by detailed rules and regulations. The founder favoured establishing them in isolated areas.
Men and women seeking the deeper life in Christ were enabled to find it in communities which were governed by love, by lives lived in the spirit of the gospels, and where the ultimate aim was the quest for salvation.
St. Pachomios's monks and nuns followed the path of sacramental living, discipline, obedience, silence, prayer, meditation and work. In other words, comprehensive education in the ascetic life to ensure the progressive growth in holiness of his spiritual children.
Among the thousands of monks and nuns who followed St Pachomios, countless numbers attained to the highest levels of spiritual achievement, becoming pillars of Orthodoxy, even during his lifetime. One such was St Theodore of Alexandria, who was one of the most faithful and dedicated of his disciples and imitators of St Pachomios.
Such was the influence of Pachomios that there was established in his memory the so called Pachomian remembrance in the West as well as in the East. His coenobitic principles directly influenced the monastic rule of Saint Basil in the East as well as that of Saint Benedict of Nursia in the West. From the Alexandrine Church and the deserts of Egypt there arose the glory of coenobitic monasticism, which is also Pachomian monasticism. Of this, the essential genius is Christocentric life and activity.
The impact of this new form of monastic ideal can be seen in the number of anchorites who wished to follow Pachomios's model, in the inner canons, but also in the liturgical and sacramental experience which it offered for the creation of "a perfect society" of monks.
Pachomios so inspired the followers of his ideology that, in admiration, they said "Listening to the words of our father Pachomios we benefit greatly, we are stimulated with a desire for good works... He comes from Greek parents, yet he became so devout and is vested with all the commandments of God. Should then all of us not be able to follow him, as he follows the saints?"
The renown of Pachomios's coenobitic system surpassed all expectations. As God called and multiplied, other ascetics gathered and the number of brothers and sisters multiplied until nine monasteries and two nunneries had been established. The Superior of the convents was Pachomios's sister Maria, who had followed him from the beginning. Speaking of Pachomios, St Anthony remarked: Truly I tell you, he served God with a great service, uniting all the multitudes of those who wished to attain perfection in Christ. He walked the way of the apostles, imitating their conduct. He was a luminary to all who were in darkness." When St Athanasios visited the coenobitic monasteries after the death of Pachomios, he recorded experiencing an overwhelming sense of joy in those sanctuaries of salvation and holiness.
A lesser known but no less eminent acetic of the Church of Alexandria was Saint Arsenios the Great, from Al Kasir or Al Kosaiyer. At this place there was a famous monastery near the White Port of the Ptolemies. A manuscript in the Patriarchal Library notes that a House of Muslim dervishes had been located on the site of the monastery of Saint Arsenios. "There are deep caves Cut into the rock (an ancient quarry) which the dervishes used as a cemetery."
The Church of Alexandria is proud of the existence of such an important monastic centre which thrived, not only in Byzantine times, but even under the Arab domination of Egypt. Both Saint Arsenios and his monastery received protection and favour from the Islamic rulers in times which were difficult for the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Mark.
What were the significant characteristics of Saint Arsenios which relate directly to the Orthodox ascetic life in Egypt? He came from elder Rome, where he had studied Greek and Latin learning and where, because of his academic abilities and humble and virtuous life, he was ordained deacon. On the recommendations of both the Roman emperor and the pope, he became teacher to the sons of Theodosios the Great, Arkadios and Onorios. When Arsenios left Byzantium and arrived in Egypt, he settled in the hermitage of Nitria, where he received the angelic state and was supervised in spiritual training by the then eminent monk, Ioannis Kolovos. It is said that Arsenios lived in solitude in Nitria for forty years. After spending several years on Mount Troy, near the eastern bank of the Nile, he came to the modern day Abuquir, where he lived for three years before returning to Troy where he fell asleep in the Lord. According to the accounts of biographers, Saint Arsenios had around him a whole monastic community which followed him on his occasional travels. The Byzantine emperor, according to the writer Ephtychios, Patriarch of Alexandria, built a magnificent monastery on the site of the grave of Saint Arsenios. It is noteworthy that this monastery was still flourishing at the time of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) when Egypt was under Arab rule. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Politanos, was represented at the Council by the prior of the monastery, who signed the minutes "Thomas, by the grace of God, presbyter and prior to the holy Father Arsenios, located in Egypt, Upper Babylon, covering the area of the holy Apostolic Thrones of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem." Thomas later became Metropolitan of Thessaloniki. We are told that due to the beautiful location where the monastery of Saint Arsenios was built, various Patriarchs of Alexandria stayed there from time to time.
Because of the significance of this monastery, it became a centre of worship with ten churches. The relies of Saint Arsenios were also kept there. According to descriptions given by visitors to the monastery, the number of Orthodox monks at one time reached six thousand. The last details which we have about this renowned monastery, which was the property of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, come from old monthly periodicals which are* to be found in the Patriarchal Library of Alexandria. The monastery subsisted until the sixteenth century. Many of its relics and icons may have been transferred to the monastery of Saint George in the Old City of Cairo, or to Saint Nicholas in Hamzawi.
A contemporary of Saint Anthony the Great was Saint Makarios the Great of Egypt. Even though early in his life he was married, after the death of his wife, and at the suggestion of his father, he abandoned the world and retreated to the desert. For sixty years, he trained and cultivated himself through discipline and fasting, so that soon he was known as a saint and a miracle-worker, even in his lifetime. His wisdom and the charisma which adorned him from early on, caused him to be called "paidagiogerontas", which was an expression used at the time to describe a monk who stands out early in his monastic life. Makarios left behind him an invaluable spiritual work in his valuable writing of the textbook Fifty Spiritual Lectures, which is a true treasure of the mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. On three separate occasions during his lifetime Makarios was blessed by God in raising people from the dead.
There were numerous saints and ascetics of Egypt who upheld Orthodoxy and lived the angelic life in the deserts and isolated regions of Thebes and Nitria. We refer in particular to Onoufrios the Great, Makarios of Alexandria or Politikos, Paisios the Great, Abbot Apollos, Monk Serapion, Ammonas or Ammonios, Theodoros, Orisios, Abbot Kassianos, Daniel of Skitiotis, Palladios, Stephanos, Abbot Isidoros, Mark, friend of Saint Athanasios, Saint Marinos of Egypt, Theonas the Ascetic, Dorotheos of Thebes and many more, named and unnamed, who were martyred for their faith in Christ. Here is how the life of those ascetics and saints of the monastic way are described "The life of the ascetics in the deserts was a perennial battle of the spirit against the flesh. Many of them practised strict abstinence throughout their whole life, for fifty and sixty years, with the object of destroying every impulse and physical need. The body had to submit as a tool of the spirit. To do this it was subjected to various harsh tortures, valiantly with stoic patience. Usually the ascetics would eat once a day, some of them once a week and others were reported to fast for forty days as Christ had done."
But in Egypt models of great ascetics and examples of saintliness are not found only in Nitria and Thebes; there were also Patriarchs of Alexandria who are examples of saintliness. Although they lived in the cities, they lived as ascetics, and through their lives were an example to the Christians around them. What the more recent of these ascetics of the world experienced, often under tragic conditions, in no way differs from the experience of the monks of the desert, and through their lives they confirmed daily the words of Isaac of Syria; "The path of God is a daily cross, for no one can enter heaven with ease."
There were also champions and witnesses of the faith, who far from worldly comforts, tried to stress the importance of the spiritual battle for perfection of the individual and his final theosis. But the driving force which motivated those saints, Bishops of the Church of Alexandria, is summed up in the following statement written by a Patriarch of the seventeenth century, who says characteristically: ... and also the saintly, glorious and renowned apostle and evangelist Mark, who planted and founded this humble but holiest Patriarchate of Alexandria, and also those great and saintly Hierarchs and Patriarchs who laboured in it, Such as Athanasios and Kyrillos and John the Merciful..." In other words, the memory and example of the saints and great teachers and ecumenical hierarchs of all the ages, who lived their lives like true monks, to spread solace to the heavy-hearted among the faithful. Their pure ascetic character and holiness was an uplifting and vitalizing experience for all. Their brilliant presence, lively within their isolation and submission ' spread light and strength and brought about the metamorphosis and theosis of man. In this way, the life of saintly father Gerasimos, Patriarch of Alexandria (also called Palladas) who was from Crete, former Metropolitan of Kastoria, projects an image of protest against worldliness and lays the foundation of the extreme and superhuman theory which is, however, both creative and dynamic. The account of this "foolish" and extreme form of holiness of Saint Gerasimos, concludes thus: "It is obvious that he excelled towards God, and through his life in Christ he multiplied the evangelical talents he had received, by word and deed. For who, by thinking differently and following a contrary way of life could accomplish such laborious and difficult deeds? For hypocrisy is exposed through words. But for him his speech becomes true by his life, and his life becomes speech. Furthermore the godly and blessed ending of his life confirms both of these facts; and not having any negative feelings he left and settled in the holy mount of Athos when in a short time he departed for the eternal and blessed abodes of the just, where he enjoys the heavenly light, having been enlightened beforehand by the Holy Spirit, as he also has taught us. . . "
Another saint and ascetic of the Church of Alexandria, who does not differ in sanctity from the personalities of the founders of Christian ascetic life and anchoritism, served in this holy place in which we find ourselves today. He is the Saint of Our Century, our holy father Nektarios, the miracle-worker, Bishop of Pentapolis. He conducted the Liturgy in this very church and practised the ascetic life in this area while suffering isolation and contempt. Although he lived in this centre, his life was dedicated to the reassuring and wholehearted experience of the love of God, in spite of the fact that the Patriarch under whom he served, misled by human weakness, tormented Nektarios daily with his words and letters. The saint knelt here and forgave his persecutors, wept and punished himself with severe fasting and constant prayer. He knew the way of life of the saintly fathers of the desert, the ascetics, patriarchs and teachers of the demanding ascetic theory of the ideology of angelic form, which originated in Egypt.
In the difficult course of the history of the ancient Throne of Saint Mark, the presence of a contemporary ascetic and monk-saint emphasizes the significant contribution of this monastic ideal to the development and strengthening of, Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Saint Nektarios cultivated in himself the way of the great ascetics of the desert, and although he was still living and working in the world, his thought was apart from the world in serenity and solitude. He lived in the world but always desired peace in body and soul, far from the noise and futile speculation. He desired and dreamt of a life of toil. Even though he was Dean of the Rizareios School for fourteen years, he practiced the rules of the monastic life with strict discipline and obedience, and he devoted his income to the establishing of a female monastery of the Holy Trinity in Aegina. "He was naturally attracted to the monastic way of life. That is why at the end his irrefutable strength and love of solitude led him to the monastery." Let it not escape us that he began his life alone and fell asleep in the Lord a humble monk, and alone once again, even though he had borne the title of Bishop.
One of the first sermons which the saint delivered in this church in 1886, concludes thus:
"With these two commandments: the love for God and the love for neighbour, man is led by the hand and guided to the perfection that is possible for him, since he is the icon and likeness of God.
"Love for our neighbour is then the guide which leads our steps toward the Love for God and develops ethical values and spiritualises human beings. This is necessary if we wish to possess the ultimate good, which our soul longs for and desires. In order to possess eternal life, we must become ethical and moral by loving God and loving our neighbour. 'And the reason for this demand is the holiness and purity of the spiritual and heavenly kingdom." Because the Kingdom of God, in which eternal life exists, as a spiritual kingdom demands spiritual and in some way perfect partaking of the love of God and of perfect human beings as well. Because both are interconnected in such a way that the practice of expressing one brings experiences of the other, and overstepping one brings forth transgression against the other.
"It is then necessary, either to keep the Law intact in order to be saved and have a chance for eternal life, or let no hope lull us. Because there is no other side road. 'One way and at that a narrow and saddened one. ' We must walk through it; otherwise we jump into a bottomless pit.
"Already, the future choice is laid before us, A total life choice that is, obviously, the one way between salvation and perdition, Let us take care not to suffer deprivation of great and eternal gifts for the sake of small corruptible things. Let LIS not for a small pleasure beget eternal sorrow. Do not exchange things on earth for those which are in heaven! Let us pay attention in our life contract not to substitute the priceless with the paltry, because the loss is irreversible.
"The enjoinders of God to LIS are not heavy, nor unbearable. They are the lightest and most natural. What is more natural than love? What is more bearable than love? Who could ever defend the abolition of such a law? What law founded upon love, dictated by love and commanding love, cannot be considered kind? Our Lord Jesus Christ witnessed to the kindness of this Law by saying,, "For my yoke is easy and my burden light.' Let Lis pay attention, my brothers, not to be judged guilty and lose eternal life for not keeping the command of love. The trespasser of this most sacred, most noble of God's Laws will remain without defence because he has no reason for setting it aside.
"The example of the exact execution of practising and expressing this Law is given in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Let his act become our practical paradigm that guides us to the fulfilment of the Law. Let us imitate Him so that we can safely go on to eternal life. Our Saviour confirms this: "Do this and you will live."
Let us work at the task of love, because the repetition of beneficence has an influence upon the sensitivity of the heart, as we have come to say, of the benefactor, rendering it more receptive to greater love. In this way we come upon the perfect love that assures us of possessing eternal life, and securing us in it.
"It is for this reason that God commanded us to observe this Law as the only means for the salvation of man. Having now this knowledge, let us keep the divine Law of Love and cultivate its work, so that we can treasure life eternal, of which pray that we all become worthy."
Saint Nektarios, Saint of Our Century, Bishop of Pentapolis, the Miracle-worker, without referring exactly to the mission of anchoritism and the ascetic life, emphatically stresses, firstly, the love for God, and then the love for our neighbour, in order to accomplish the monastic ideal which, by the grace of God, he possesses. The virtue of the fear of God is created in the soul of the monk. There is no other path for him to take in order to forget all that is related to earthly life. He is not even concerned with his blood relatives and others close to him, who remind him of the world and worldly things. In this way the monk acquires the humility which controls him, and thus he is guided, without his realising it, to the heights of all virtues of love.
Let us return to the type of love which our Father, Saint Nektarios of Aegina whom we now venerate and honour, describes. In the atmosphere of that perfect condition, we walk towards the height of the heavens, without reservations or hesitation. The application of the verse from David: "but as for me, like a deaf man I beard them not, and I was a speechless man who opened not his mouth. And I became a man who hears not and has no reproofs in his Mouth" (Psalm 117:13,14) corresponds perfectly with the Christological basis of the monastic life and practice.
The monk in this way is elevated to other planes which bear no relation to the material world, but where the Holy Spirit resides, prevails and enlightens, blesses and uplifts, raises to the angelic state and guides, as the divine Paul, the Apostle of Love stresses: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit (Gal.5:25). Spirit (Gal.5:25). A basic rule for the acquisition of these virtues and of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual exercise is, as the Fathers tell us: "You must shed blood to gain the Spirit." It is here that divine love for God is created within the ascetic" — "The toils and struggles of spiritual people — in this case, monks — are the labours of people who love profoundly, and who have been led to this wonderful conduct by the arrows of Christ and His appeal. " Without fear or any other thought, the monk is inflamed in the spirit of ascetic love — the divine love which burns within him, enraptures him, and with inexplicable joy, communicates to him the holy light — he beholds the glory, splendour and beauty of God: "I open my eyes and see the unseeable in the depths of my heart. And I marvel and wonder at His unspeakable beauty. And all the parts of my body are illuminated in the uncreated holy light" writes a holy Father of our Church. This fair and beautiful world is the ideal, which raises us up to those heights of ascetic sanctity which Saint Nektarios, the Miracle-Worker, lived and envisioned. We invoke his intercessions to help us to imitate him and be as much like him as we can during our transient presence on earth. Amen.