Saturday, July 12, 2014

Elder Paisios and the Aroma of Reverence

Once a reclusive ascetic, who had heard a lot about Elder Paisios, came to visit him. They talked for a while, and he ascertained that Elder Paisios was an exceptionally reverent man. Indeed, the elder had a rare reverence, which he had learned from his parents, and mainly his mother.

While at the monastery, he benefited from many of the fathers, and especially from a particular hieromonk. He would say, “We can't reach the reverence he had—impossible. He would celebrate liturgy every day, and he struggled greatly. Once, for half a year, he ate nothing but half of a small prosphoron and a few tomatoes dried in the sun.”

When he would serve out in the chapels, this reverent priest, like other priests of the monastery, preferred to have as a chanter the young Father Averkios (as the elder was then called).

The elder had an innate reverence, but he also cultivated it a great deal. He placed such emphasis on it that he once said that “reverence is the greatest virtue, because it attracts the grace of God.” To the elder, reverence was the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity. Reverent people behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.

The elder wanted reverence to be unaffected and internal. He turned away from mere external forms. Regarding a group of monks who had great order and discipline in their liturgical life, he commented, “I respect that, if it’s something that comes from within.” The elder’s conduct was reverent, but with a freedom that was alien to dry forms. If he didn’t feel something, he wouldn’t do it. He distinguished reverence from piety — a word he even avoided saying. He would say that reverence is like incense, while piety is just perfume.56

The elder’s reverence encompassed not only small and seemingly unimportant matters, but also spiritual and essential issues. “If someone neglects the little things,” he taught, “the danger is that he’ll start neglecting greater, holier things. And then, without realizing it, rationalizing it all to himself— ‘This is nothing, that doesn’t matter’ — he can end up, God forbid, totally neglecting the things of God and becoming irreverent, arrogant, and atheistic.”

His reverence could be seen in the way he prayed, venerated icons, received antidoron and holy water, partook of Holy Communion, held icons during processions, chanted, and arranged and beautified the small chapel of his hermitage. He paid attention to details, but in a way that wasn’t ritualistic or fastidiously formal. This was his own attitude toward God, which wasn’t laid out in advance by any typikon of the Church: it was his personal disposition. He felt that his whole hermitage, not just his chapel, was sacred space. He arranged his cell, where he prayed, just like a little church. There was an iconostasis with many icons and a lamp that burned continuously, and he would cense and light many candles there. He had constructed his bed so that it was like a coffin, and he would say, “This is the altar of my cell.” Icons and holy books never touched his bed, with the exception of an icon at its head.

The icon was rather tattered and faded, and a brother once asked him why it was in this condition. The elder tried to hide the truth, but the monk finally realized that it was like that because of his many kisses and tears. The elder reluctantly admitted, “I can get through an entire vigil that way”; that is, weeping.

He also treated the other areas of his hermitage with reverence — the workshop where he made the little icons, the guest-house where souls were reborn by God’s grace, the balcony, and even the yard. He thought that it was irreverent to have a toilet inside the hermitage. It was partly for ascetic reasons that he kept it at such a distance, but mostly it was out of reverence.

Once when he was away from the hermitage of the Holy Cross, the fathers of the monastery (out of love, so he wouldn’t be uncomfortable) made him a small outhouse, outside but sharing a wall with the hermitage. The elder never used it. At Panagouda, when his health had deteriorated toward the end of his life and he needed to go out frequently at night —in cold, rain, and snow —his spiritual children began to insist on building him an outhouse just clear of the balcony to make things easier for him. He refused. “That’s where the Panagia appeared,” he said. “How can I go to the toilet there?”

The elder’s life was fragrant with deep and unaffected reverence, just as the angels in heaven worship God day and night “with great reverence.” This was clear to see from his relationship with God and from the expressions on his face when coming into contact with sacred things. He reacted to sacred objects as though they were alive.

Once, when Elder Paisios was visiting the hermitage of another monk, his hernia was bothering him. The elder of the hermitage begged him to lie down and rest a little, but Elder Paisios declined. He was only able to lie on his left side, and, if he had done that there, his feet would have been pointing at some icons, which he thought of as irreverent.

Before entering the holy altar, he would make a prostration to the floor, remove his monastic cap, and kiss the cross on the altar-curtain; and then he would enter by the side door. During the Communion hymn at liturgy, if he intended to commune, he would make full prostrations. For a time, he had it as a rule to eat nothing for thirty-three hours before communing.

Because of his great reverence for the mystery of the priesthood, the elder never assented to ordination, even though, as he once said, “It’s been revealed to me three different times that I could become a priest.”57

Plainly, the elder saw reverence as a fundamental virtue for every Christian — although, rigorous as his criteria were, he considered it something rare. To the elder, reverence was greater than most of the other virtues.

He often used it as a criterion. If a reverent person wrote or said or did something for which he was criticized, the elder, even before forming a clear opinion on the issue itself, would go out of his way to propose mitigating circumstances. He would say, “He’s a reverent man —I don’t believe he’d do something like that.” The elder believed that this quality preserved a person from making errors, from deceptions and from falling —perhaps in the sense of the verse declaring that the Lord “will carefully guard the way of those who reverence Him.”58

The elder considered reverence to be extremely important in all of a Christian’s life and struggles, and especially those of a monk. A person’s reverence, he believed, acts as a steady factor in his life, affecting everything and raising his spiritual level.

He advised monks to take care to acquire reverence. “A new monk, especially, has to be reverent through and through. It helps for him to always have the Evergetinos open59 and to spend time with other monks who are reverent.” When a new monk asked the elder what it was that he should pay the most attention to, the elder replied, “Reverence and attention to yourself.”

A Russian bishop, presented with many candidates for the priesthood, once asked the elder whom he should ordain. “Those who are reverent and pure,” the elder answered —he did not say educated or energetic men, or candidates with good voices.

In chanting and iconography also, reverence was more important to the elder than technique. He was able to discern its presence in chanting or in an icon, and he would say, “If you pay attention to the meaning of a troparion, it’ll change you, and you’ll be able to chant in a reverent way. If you’re reverent, you might make a mistake while you chant, but it’ll come out sounding sweet. If you only pay attention to technique — I mean, going note-by-note, without a reverent spirit —then you’ll end up like a lay chanter I once heard: he was chanting ‘Bless the Lord, Ο my soul’ like a blacksmith striking an anvil. I heard it in a car, and it disturbed me — I told the driver to turn off the tape. When someone doesn’t chant from the heart, it’s like he’s running you out of church. A sacred canon says that people who chant with improper voices should be given penances because they drive people away from church.”

Concerning iconography, he advised, “You should make an icon with reverence, like we were going to be giving it to Christ Himself. How would we like it if someone gave us a photograph where our face wasn’t right? It’s not right for the Panagia to be depicted like Saint Anna —I mean, not to show her physical beauty. There has never been a woman as beautiful as the Panagia was in soul and body. How she transformed people’s souls with her grace!”

Of the icon of the Tenderly Kissing Mother of God, at Philotheou Monastery, he remarked, “technically, it’s not quite perfect, because Christ’s feet are wedge-shaped, but it works miracles and has such grace and sweetness. It’s probably because God rewarded the iconographer’s reverence.”

“The grace of God,” observed the elder, “comes to reverent people, and it makes the soul beautiful.” But he observed with sadness that contemporary people pay little attention to such things. “If a person’s not reverent,” he said. “If he scorns divine things, then divine grace abandons him. and he’s overcome by temptations, and becomes like the demons. Divine grace won’t come to an irreverent person — it comes to people who honor it.” As examples of irreverence, he mentioned the sacrifice of Cain and the behavior of the sons of Eli related in the Old Testament. Their disdain provoked the wrath of God, and they were punished.

The elder considered it irreverent to place icons, ecclesiastical books, antidoron, and holy objects in general on the seats of church-stalls, and even more so on chairs or beds (except on a pillow). He suggested that people put the little icons that he would hand out in their chest pockets. Once, he related, a pilgrim came holding his head crooked from neck pain. Through divine enlightenment, the elder realized that the man had suffered this at the hands of demonic powers, because he had put a cross the elder had given him, which contained a piece of the Precious Cross of the Lord, in his back-pocket. The elder forbade anyone who lived carelessly to carry the Precious Cross.

He once told us about someone who had become possessed because he had spit in an unclean place on a day when he had communed. The same had happened to a woman who had thrown holy water onto excrement. Another time, he related, a young man who was engaged to be married visited a conjurer, who told him to urinate on the wedding rings. Upon following the conjurer’s instructions, the young man became possessed, because wedding rings are holy. The elder also gave other, similar examples of careless and irreverent people being abandoned by divine grace and becoming possessed.

He didn’t think it was right to refer to the holy fathers of the Church simply by their first names; for example, as “Basil” or “Gregory.” “We talk about ‘Father So-and-so’ and say ‘Father’ to monks and clergy,” he commented, “and this is how we’re going to talk about the holy fathers?”

He didn’t want people to offer God candles made from impure or artificial beeswax or to fill their lamps with olive oil of poor quality or with seed-oil. On the contrary, he emphasized, “[we should] offer our best to God in worship. We should offer up our best efforts and our pure prayer — not our yawning.” He considered it greatly irreverent to use prosphora for the liturgy that was tainted with mold. “Christ gives us His Body and Blood,” he would say, “and we give Him moldy prosphora?” He would walk miles to find prosphora for the Divine Liturgy, and when he carried it he would hold it by the side, taking care not to touch the seal.

The elder tried to show gratitude and be pleasing to the One whom he loved. Out of his great love, he offered to God the very best, and he conducted himself with refinement, with spiritual sensitivity and reverence. And God, being pleased, bestowed His grace on the elder in abundance.

Excerpt from Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac.


56. “Reverence,” in Greek evlavia; and “piety,” evsevia. The latter word is used in the Greek of the Scriptures and Church Fathers to refer to Christian reverence and correct faith; and, especially in older translations, it has often been rendered as “piety.” By the elder’s time, the Greek word had taken on a negative meaning in a somewhat similar fashion as the word “piety” has come to do in English; to many, it was synonymous with pietism and formalism. — eds.

57. Most likely these signs were not commands — rather, he was presented with the possibility of becoming a priest. When he was asked about this, he answered, “Christ gives us gifts. Do we have to accept all of them?”

58. Prov. 2:8.

59. That is, to study it frequently. [The Evergetinos is a collection of anecdotes and teachings from the early Egyptian desert fathers. Unlike the Philokalia, a more advanced spiritual text that treats the way in which "the intellect [nous] is purified, illumined, and made perfect” (vol. 1, p. 13), the Evergetinos focuses on the practice of Christian virtues, a necessary precursor to the exalted attainments described in the Philokalia. — eds.]

Please Visit Our Sponsors