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Living the Christian Life in a Secular Age

by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph

The following remarks were given by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph at the Ss. Athanasius and Cyril Symposium held at St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, CA on February 7, 2015. The Theme of the Symposium was "The City, a Desert – Living the Life of the Desert in the Midst of the World". Other speakers included Archimandrite Irenei, founder and director of the Institute, Archimandrite Gerasim, rector of St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, TX and former abbot of St. Herman Monastery in Platina, CA, Fr. Andrew Cuneo, rector of St. Katherine Mission (OCA) in Carlsbad, CA and V. Rev. Josiah Trenham, pastor of the host parish.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Reverend fathers and deacons, beloved faithful, and you who seek for the refreshing waters in the oasis of the Church, I extend the blessing to you in the name of the Lord. We take up a powerful theme in this conference, a theme which brings us to reflect upon the relationship of our Christian faith and life in this tempestuous and dynamic world around us with the simple quiet and solitude of the desert wilderness.

The New Testament begins the proclamation of the Gospel with the ministry of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner, "a voice crying in the desert." The holy Prophet Elias came with power in his ministry out of the desert. And Jesus Himself began his public ministry only after his 40-day contest in the desert. In the early Church, the high degree of discipline and the ever-present possibility--or probability!--of martyrdom, kept the pure spiritual climate of the evangelical way of life on a high level. However, after the masses began converting and entering the Church from the reign of Constantine the Great and onward, the spiritual climate in the Church declined somewhat. Deeply committed Christians could not live fully according to the Gospel in the urban churches, so they began leaving for isolated places. St. Antony the Great entered the desert in the year 270 and stayed there until his repose in deep old age, in the year 356. Abba Antony is our chief model here. He fled to the desert and perfected holiness in the fear and love of God. And countless many followed his example. St. Antony's spiritual son, another saint, Athanasius the Great, wrote Antony's biography, a spiritual classic, "The Life of St. Antony." In that great work, quite readable for anyone, St. Athanasius reported that great multitudes of men and women left the city in search of a more pure way of life according to the Gospel. Here are his words, "they made the desert into a city." We have many reports of this desert culture of the Gospel in the Apophthegmata ("Utterances") of the Desert Fathers, and many other books. We meet such greats as Paul the Simple, Poemin the Great, our holy mother, Synkletike, Abba Pambon, Abba Makarios, and more. So, this classical body of profound spiritual wisdom has passed down to us through the great centers of Orthodox Christian monasticism, to our day. But what of this for our life in the 21st century? Is there relevance to our great needs and our circumstances in life, especially with husbands and wives, children, careers, responsibilities, and more?

This conference takes St. Athanasius' words and inverts them, in a way of suggesting that our learning from the desert dwellers can transform our way of life in the city, into one emulating the deep and abiding spiritual life of the desert. So, instead of "the desert a city," as St. Athanasius said, we title this conference, "The City a Desert: Living the Life of the Desert in the Midst of the World." Our theme, then, takes seriously the task of importing the wisdom and spiritual life of the desert dwellers into our way of life, here and now. It is possible, with God's help, to make great progress in this endeavour. As we shall see, however, this requires of us great effort and commitment. I hope that you will find inspiration to make this effort, especially as we note the approach of the season of repentance. May this conference be blessed, as we consider these opening remarks.

Recently, an archaeologist was climbing into a submersible vessel for exploring the sea floor off the coast of the peninsula of Mt. Athos. He was looking for ancient shipwrecks and other signs of lost artifacts from the classical world. As he sat in his vessel, awaiting some other people, he scanned the holy Mountain and marveled at the sheer isolation of the monks and the precipitous location of their cells and huts. He thought to himself, "how we modern people run around with our agenda every day, always checking our cell phones, moving from one item of business to another, but that the monks live in such simplicity." Just as he thought further to himself, "surely, no one still lives in such an isolated place, high up, with no modern conveniences or entertainments!" -- as I said, just as he thought these words, a tiny lamp was lit in one of the simple huts high up on the southern, steep slope of Mt. Athos, high above the sea surface. With amazement he thought: "we run around without knowing ourselves in the moment, and the monk takes the long view of eternity!"

I hope this little vignette offers to you a small window into the spiritual pastures of the life of the desert fathers. It is a sweet life: "life is blessed for the desert-dwellers, who mount up on the wings of divine desire" (1st antiphon of anavathmoi, plagal of 1st mode). The desert dwellers lived in deep silence, constant prayer, an unremitting fight against the unruly flesh, and deep privation--they slept, ate and drank little, worked during the day, and prayed in the night. The sweetness of their spiritual path is bordered with the thorny ascesis reported in their biographies, all quite difficult for us to accept. It is difficult for us who live in these turbulent days to understand their way of life and its relevance to our circumstances in life. Yet, without the desert ascetic wisdom and their holy way of life, our parish culture can, and all too often is, easily upset and ruined. If we do not wish to live like them, at least let us respect their way, and seek to gain some small experience of it for our own improvement.

What is the desert experience itself? Before I make some application of this way of life to our world, let us take note of its ethics.

The desert experience is nothing other than a full application of the life of the holy Gospel, the full obedience to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ, utterly without distraction. As St. Ignatiy (Brianchaninov) emphasized over a hundred years ago in his chief legacy, The Arena, "The holy monks of old called the monastic life a life according to the commandments of the Gospel... The monks subject to St. Pachomios the Great had to learn the Gospel by heart so as to have the laws of the God-man like a continually open book in the memory (in order to) unfailingly fulfill them." Obedience is the chief virtue of the ascetic, and of any true Christian. But how can we obey what we do not know? Therefore, our life as strugglers begins, unfolds, and ends in the holy Gospel! But this obedience is never a private affair, cut off from others. Indeed, our desert tradition is filled with warnings against plani, or deception, based on our own judgments. The holy ascetic possesses years of submission to a spiritual guide, a pnevmatikos, a "spiritual father," or geron, "elder" who prepares him in every way. There is a wonderful story of an egyptian desert-geronta who told his disciple to plant a dead stick in the dry earth, far off from the hut where they abode. The elder told him to carry water every day to water the planted stick. After three years of such treatment, contrary to all reason, the stick blossomed and lived! The elder told his disciple, "this is the fruit of holy obedience, which vivifies the driest heart within a man!" St. Antony heard the Gospel read in church, "go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me." He put this teaching into practice, took advice from holy men, and went on to become a lamp of Christ for all time.

The desert experience is the summation of long years of intense spiritual struggle against temptations and the corrupting passions. Sometimes these struggles can seem quite impossible; however, the desert fathers teach us that all struggle bears fruit in faith: "have mercy on us who sin much against Thee at every hour, O my Christ, and before the end, grant them ways of repentance unto Thee" (1st antiphon of anavathmoi of 2nd mode). Some think that the ascetics are more free from struggle than we who live in the world, due to their holy way of life--in church so much, absent from the sinful environment in the city, and so on. The tradition relates that a monk saw in a vision the city, surrounded by its wall, at night. He saw sitting upon the wall, one small demon which was dozing off, apparently quite harmless. No one in the city was troubled; everyone seemed to be at peace. He then turned his spiritual eye to view the desert. There, in contrast to the former scene, he saw one sole old man, an ascetic carrying on his ceaseless prayer. All about him, and shooting arrows of every kind, were a host of demons, waging ceaseless war on the holy man! Abba Poimen offers, for example, detailed instruction about countering the base impulses of the flesh as a necessary prelude to purification and continual prayer. The fathers' many discourses and lessons give the disciple a sure path forward. This is the life of the desert; ceaseless prayer, silence, obedience, spiritual joy: "by the Holy Spirit, the streams of Grace overflow, watering all creation unto the establishment of life" (2nd antiphon of anavathmoi of the 4th mode).

The desert fathers struggled long and hard. They then became lamps of wisdom and spiritual solace for pilgrims who sought them out. It is said of St. Symeon the Pillar dweller (stylite) of Syria, that his spiritual counsel was so profound, that he became the living wonder of the world. Even the Roman Emperor came to hear his counsel. Jesus said, "let your light shine, so that men may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven." The desert dwellers perfected themselves in obedience and struggle, and then did not hide their light. The newly glorified, St. Paisius of Athos (reposed in 1994), kept a quiet and unadorned way of life for many solitary years. Pilgrims began frequenting his cell as he advanced in years, as they were drawn by his holy radiance. One young man (now a priest and professor at Balamand) tells of the great despondency he experienced in his youth, as he cast about to find his life's direction. He visited the kalyva ("hut") of St. Paisios. Unfortunately, he and his companions arrived too late to hear St. Paisios' teaching (which he offered, as he sat on a tree stump on that occasion). However, the saint summoned the young man and touched his head with a simple little utterance. The young man was filled with joy and his burdens fell from him. He went on to become a professor of theology and then a priest in our Patriarchate. The radiant lamp of holiness cannot be hidden. Men seek out the desert fathers as holy luminaries for counsel and direction. As a consequence, at every liturgy, we commemorate the desert fathers "who shone in the ascetic life" with a particle during the Proskomidi service, along with all the other saints.

So, to review, the desert fathers teach us obedience to the Gospel, struggle against sin, and evangelical radiance for the consolation of the human race.

The way of life of the desert fathers is quite alien to ours, in the comforts and worldliness of our urbanized and technological 21st century world. How can we emulate their good example in our world? Let us be content with a few directives, all achievable and blessed, if we undertake them faithfully and without slacking.

First, let us keep a fixed and unflagging "rule of prayer." We can take this from our pastor, or father-confessor, and be obedient to it, every day. We should not construct our own rule. St Ignatiy said, "the man who takes his own counsel has adopted a fool for his guide"! Let us form a close relationship with a trusted confessor and take his counsel seriously. The rule of prayer is especially important in the early morning, before the busy-ness (or, "business"!) of the day demands our attention. The prayer-rule should not be long, but it should be performed with attentiveness. St. Ignatiy used to teach that prayers said rapidly and mindlessly is a waste of time. Let us teach our children never to leave for school without at least saying "Our Father..." and that with attentiveness and care. This element of attentiveness can be applied as well to the making of the sign of the cross and to bows (metanias). During Lent, change the bows into prostrations and add the beautiful Prayer of St. Ephrem.

Second, we need holy obedience. I say it in the spirit of the desert fathers, not as in the world. Holy obedience is freely given and forms a bond of love in which one shows himself accountable. There was no desert father who was not first a desert subordinate! Then, in the desert tradition, after serving his spiritual father till death, he became a father. Now, it is enough for each of us to have some kind of spiritually accountable relationship with a spiritual guide. He does not "tell us what to do"; rather, he becomes a means of a blessing, so that we are set free from the tyranny of our own ego. The self-willed person shall never find Paradise. "He who loveth his life will lose it; but he who loseth his life for My sake and the Gospel, shall find it."

Third, let us give ourselves to spiritual reading. St. Paisius of Athos attended to this kind of reading every day. He said, regarding the Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, "One page of Isaac a day, no more, no less." The goal is not to get through the book, but rather to encounter the truth about God and about ourselves through what we read. Spiritual reading can be profitable in one or two sentences, or a waste of time over a whole chapter! It depends upon our obedience to what we hear. "First do, then teach, according to the example of our Lord Jesus"-- St. Isidore of Pelusium. Abba Pambo of Egypt said, "I know not that I have ever eaten the bread of idleness, or bread which did not come from the labour of my own hands; and my soul repenteth not that I have ever spoken an empty word in my life." Let us read much, study what we read, put it into practice, and then, with fear and trembling, say little.

Fourth, like the fathers, let us develop a love for (spiritual) labor, or struggle. Since our soul is wounded with inordinate self-love, or worship of self, which is the basis of all the other corrupting passions, struggle or effort must be expended, in order to put our faith into action. In this way, divine Grace assists us in the struggle and we experience purification from the passions. God wants it this way, so that we become full participants in salvation and eternal life. The one who eschews struggle, rejects salvation! St. Paul said, "I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." One nun offers her brilliant insight from the monastic culture: "when you've given up everything (to live the ascetic life as a monastic), that last cookie becomes very important!" St. Gregory the Theologian speaks about the struggle of priests in their environment, especially against the passion of jealousy: "the disease which priests are prone to, a remnant of that first sickness, I mean unceasing jealousy, that inborn evil." How greatly does some certain passion wage war against us! Once a wealthy woman pilgrim brought a load of silver as a present to Abba Pambo. The elder sat weaving palms into mats as his handiwork, as he prayed in his nous. As the pilgrim placed the offering before him, the elder said to her, "God give thee thy reward!" and then kept his peace. He turned to his subordinate and told him to take all the silver and to distribute it to several of the poorest monasteries. The pilgrim noted that he never so much as looked at the load of silver, but rather that he kept his eyes downcast. She said to him, "Master, do you not notice that there is some three hundred pounds of silver here in the basket?" Abba replied, "My daughter, if you had given it to God, to Whom all things great and little are the same, what need is there to tell the weight? The Lord valued the widow's two mites, so hold your peace!" So, Abba Pambo was completely free of self-esteem, and its ugly sister, greed and love of money.

St. Isaac the Syrian, that great teacher of ascetics, tells us that "the man who craves esteem (this is self-love!) cannot be rid of the causes of grief." If we will acquire that "long view on eternity," we must busy ourselves with the struggle now in our life, and take it as a blessing from the Lord. This struggle against self-love begins with benevolence to our poor neighbor.

Finally, faithful struggle begets compassion and love of the brethren. This is why the desert fathers are so attractive to us. They are deeply compassionate and selfless. This profound desert-ethic of compassion is the fruit of long and unremitting struggle. The fathers kept their struggles to themselves and did not talk about them easily. So, let us not be quick to speak about what we do not know firsthand from our experience of struggle. Indeed, our experience itself will teach us... and others, by good example. It is better to hide the details of our struggle from others, and to show the fruit of struggle, which is love for our brother. The test of love is the demonstration of selfless service to others. A pilgrim brought a rich cluster of big, delicious grapes to one of the desert-dwellers in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt. After the pilgrim left, the solitary looked at the beautiful offering and thought of his struggling brethren. So, he carried the grapes the long mile to the next cell and gave them to his fellow-struggler. He, in turn, thought of his other brethren. After carrying the grapes onward, they passed hands, until finally, one father brought the grapes, unknown to him for the origin, to the father who first got them from the pilgrim. He marveled as he gazed upon the sweet grapes, untouched by any mouth out of love for others, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity!" Near our times, not in the desert of Egypt, but in the desert of the 20th century war-zone, as a young soldier, long before becoming a monk, St. Paisius tells how he watched out for his companions, while in the army. The bullets were flying, and someone had to take a chance to run for a certain objective. As one soldier was about to do so, St Paisius, turned him aside, and said to the others, "he has a family who will be looking for him to return home. But I am not attached; I should go." St. Paisius was a lover of struggle even then, and the fruit already showed.

I think, that in closing, it is best for us to take counsel from St. Basil the Great, who loved the desert intensely, and organized the monastic rules which are still in use in our holy Church. After teaching us about the very great importance of establishing an organized and fixed rule of good habits in life, St. Ignatiy of Russia reports St. Basil's counsels. St. Basil had been asked by Libanius, the head of the rhetorical school of Antioch, to provide a lecture to his students. Here is what St. Basil said: "(you should) have a modest gait, not talk too loudly, observe propriety in conversation, take food and drink reverently, keep silence in the presence of your elders, be attentive to the wise, obedient to your superiors, have a sincere love for equals and juniors, avoid the wicked and those who are infected with passions and who love to please the flesh. Speak little, be careful to gather knowledge, do not speak without thinking beforehand what you are going to say, don't talk much, do not be quick to laugh, and make modesty and other virtues as your outward adornment"

St. Ignatiy goes on to say that St. Basil distilled the wisdom of the desert into a set of manners or ethics, expressed in outward conduct, demonstrating a good spirit within. How can we become vessels of grace, if our outward vessel is cracked and thus not worthy to contain the precious myrrh of divine Grace?

As for the inward ethic of the desert, to comport with the outer behaviour, that great Syrian can once again come to our aid with a good counsel: St. Isaac said, "This is virtue: that in his mind a man should be unbusied with the world. The heart cannot become tranquil and be without imaginings as long as the senses are active. Outside of the desert [and the wilderness] the bodily passions do not abate, nor do evils thoughts cease" (1st homily). So, of course, it is necessary for each and every one of us to find that desert every day-- a few moments in solitude to collect oneself and breathe spiritually. Spiritual breath is prayer; and the Prayer of Jesus, the invocation of His holy Name is the very heart of spiritual breathing. "Whosoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved."

If we attend to these things, "keeping our eye upon the Prize of our high calling", we shall gain the "long view on eternity" and inherit, by Grace, the good word of the Master who pays the workers, "come and receive the reward of faithful servants."

Let us now take heed to the teaching of the fathers who have carefully prepared themselves for this conference. Let us take notes for our own improvement and develop a plan with God's help, to put what we learn into practice.

The Lord gives grace; let us give repentance.