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Bishop NICHOLAS Leads Pilgrimage to Mt. Athos

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Yazen Ziad Fakhouri, a second-year seminarian at St. Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan, PA, joined five other seminarians on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos led by His Grace Bishop NICHOLAS from December 2017 to January 2018. Yazen's hometown is suburban Detroit, Michigan, and his home parish is St. George Orthodox Church, with The Very Reverend Joseph Antypas. Yazen's report describes this life-changing experience.

Ring finger meets thumb while index, middle, and pinky are elevated in imperfect symmetry. A single hand with fingers positioned to represent the Holy Trinity and the dual natures of Christ move north to south, west to east conferring a millennia old blessing consistent with Holy Tradition. The recipient of this blessing was a stray dog weaving between an interminable sea of people queuing to board a ship to the holiest of mountains.

To the monks on Mount Athos, all of God's creation is sacred and worthy of His blessing. When Christ boldly proclaimed to Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hades shall never prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18), it's inconceivable that Mt. Athos was not envisaged. The prayers uttered and the angelic voices of chant that proceed from this rocky peninsula have persisted for millennia in the face of relentless attack and innumerable attempts to subjugate it. It is the grace of God and the intercession of His blessed mother that have preserved Mt. Athos in the face of successive empires which have attempted to pillage and destroy the Holy Mountain and force its capitulation.

Setting out from the port of Ouranopouli with His Grace Bishop NICHOLAS of Miami and the Southeast and accompanied by five other Antiochian seminarians, God's preserving grace was palpable. Mindful of the somberness and sobriety with which these unwaveringly devout monks work out their salvation and aspire towards sanctification, I could not wipe the smile off my face. Accompanying God's grace was our collective hope for the restoration of a humanity plagued by discord and an increasingly visceral disdain for the name Jesus Christ. It became abundantly clear that the vision our beloved Metropolitan JOSEPH has for his Archdiocese manifests in his desire to reinvigorate a spiritual appreciation for monasticism is providentially, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Arriving at the Monastery of Xenophontos, I was overcome by the immediate serenity and hospitality we encountered. Father Zosimas, a former Antiochian seminarian born in Florida who has resided on the Holy Mountain since 1996, met us at the port. Experiencing the warmth of Father Zosimas amongst the backdrop of the aesthetic beauty of the Holy Mountain with its mountainous terrain cascading over ornate iconography that litters the monastery, I couldn't help but be reminded of the words of our Lord when He says in the Gospel of John, "I have given them your word...for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world" (John 15:19; 17:14-15). These are holy men that are simultaneously in the world and outside of it. The pleasantly sensible stimulation that characterizes time on the Holy Mountain belies the arduous spiritual struggle that defines it.

The Holy Mountain is, in the same moment, an encounter with bliss and exasperation. Ears hear the rhythmic tapping of the semantron summoning the monks to prayer followed shortly by the euphoric beauty of transiently resounding Byzantine chant. The illumination of the Catholicon with its dazzling display of candles radiates throughout the physical structure of the Chapel and, indeed through the very hearts of men, accompanied by the fragrantly effervescent smell of incense that simulates the experience of Heaven. The delectable taste of monastery grown coffee and vibrant fruit amidst a cacophony of other pastries and foods offered to inhabitant and visitor alike feels tepid and slightly incongruent with the simplicity and restraint demonstrated by the monks of Mount Athos. At moments it feels like heaven on earth only to inevitably be reminded by its inhabitants that heaven remains afar and, that we must devote ourselves to realizing it.

The unquantifiable import of the Holy Mountain was perfectly characterized in our meeting with Geronda (Elder), Abbot of Xenophontos. With a sagacity and perspicacity that befits a man of intense prayer and relentless salvific pursuit, Geronda proclaimed with piercing eyes, a plush white beard, and a deep billowing voice that, "the problems that plague humanity are precipitated by our own movement away from God and towards ourselves. We believe we have the answers and try to impose our own vision and will upon the world. We must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. We must above all else, seek the kingdom of Heaven." For the prayers bellowed from the mountainous peninsula of Mount Athos are intended to unify all of mankind in the midst of disparity, division, and dystopia.

The apex arrived when, Geronda, growing visibly emotional as his voice cracked, perhaps cognizant of the precariousness of his own salvation, recounted a story pertinent to all who seek the salvation of their souls and the kingdom of God. A monk was approaching the twelfth hour. He had devoted his life to Christ through prayer and obedience. The devil came to him in the night and appeared to surrender proclaiming to the monk that his obedience to God proved unshakable and that he, the devil, was resigned to defeat. The monk, realizing the evil machination of the devil and recognizing the devil's last effort to get him to let his guard down by appealing to his ego that he may fall, fell of his own volition to his knees and began to pray intensely.

Sitting in the presence of Geronda, a man who has heeded the words of Christ as literally as one can, who has eschewed a world characterized by consumption and self indulgence, it occurred to me that monasticism is not an antiquated, archaic, or anachronistic practice ill equipped to confront the problems that afflict the contemporary world, but is indeed the remedy, the very antidote to the virulent virus of egotism that characterizes our time. The importance of Mount Athos is not merely in its beauty and history, in its icons or relics, in its chant or services, but in its prayerful example to a world looking for answers. As Geronda says, "all this spiritual awareness, the prescription for mankind, God's economy and His desire to reveal Himself in the heart of man comes not through a scholastic approach to Christianity, but through prayer, through that which the monks on Mount Athos endeavor to realize, not only for the salvation of each of their respective souls, but for the collective salvation of mankind. The Monks of Mount Athos and indeed monasticism teach us how. It remains indispensible to Orthodoxy and to our hope for salvation.

We remain indebted to our beloved Metropolitan for his recognition that if Orthodoxy is to persist in the face of insurmountable odds, monasticism must remain indispensible. And to His Grace Bishop NICHOLAS, for being the embodiment of this monastic resurgence in the Antiochian Archdiocese through his passion for monasticism, manifested through his yearly trips to the Holy Mountain. For the monks of Mount Athos are on the front lines of an existential spiritual war for the souls of mankind and the survival of the Holy Orthodox Church. Let us thank God that our beloved Metropolitan JOSEPH, through the grace afforded to him by God, remains steadfast, resilient, and courageous, ever ready to preserve the sanctity and tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church and to do what is necessary to ensure its spiritual health and well-being.