April 3, 2012

From the Goddess of Death to the Emperor of Life (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One...

Not long before that, I had listened to Swami Shivamurti, an initiated Indian master, Swami Satyananda’s disciple. In the late 1970’s she had been sent to Kalamata to impart yoga teachings to the Greeks. In 1984 she had set up ”the ashram”, a yoga monastery at Paiania, close to Athens. I met Swami Shivamurti in a private house where she had decided to see a limited number of yogis. I asked her if I could live an ascetic life in her ashram and she answered with much kindness that I certainly could. Although I wished she were a man looking like a traditional master – old, with a long white beard, and with a peaceful countenance – I decided to be her disciple and followed her to Bulgaria where she had been invited to give several conferences.

At some point, she assigned a yogic name to me, some sort of baptismal Indian name. Although I expected a famous name, like Mahashiva or Milarepa, I was given an apparently commonplace name: “Bhaktimurti”, meaning “the form of devotion”, “the form of piety.” In other words, for me the shortest path to illumination was worshipping someone – a deity or a cosmic power… So, I chose to worship Christ. I think that God had put the name of “Bhaktimurti” into Swami Shivamurti’s mind; even if she was not serving Him but the powers of darkness, God spoke through her just as He had spoken through Balaam’s donkey. Yet, I doubt it that she knew she had benefited me greatly by choosing that name for me.

I had made up my mind to join her ashram and she told me that she would definitely have me in it, but since I had not come of age I needed my father’s written consent. In Bulgaria, something of a great consequence for my future occurred… A yogi woman took me to some well-known churches in Sophia, one of which being a Russian church in whose basement there were the holy relics of Bishop Seraphim Sobolev, a wonder-worker. By his coffin there were small pieces of paper on which people were writing their wishes and prayers to the deceased pious hierarch. I stood by the coffin and entreated him with all my heart to help me. I said to him, ”Help me that not my will be done but that God’s will be done with me!” In those moments, I felt that something did change, something that I cannot even put into words. At the time that I was practising yoga, I felt sick whenever I walked into a church; it seemed to me there was no air at all and I could not breathe; besides, I could not stand the liturgical services except with very great difficulty… However, there in that Russian church which housed the bishop’s relics, it was as if a fog was lifting from me. Although he has not been canonized, people worship him as if he were a saint.

I came back to Romania terribly excited about my oncoming trip to Greece. My father gave me permission to go to Greece because he knew I had no intention to graduate from high school anyway. The class mistress begged me to come to school so that the teachers would see me and give me a pass lest I would fail to get me removed, but all I was interested in was how to make progress as a yogi. In fact, even when I used to go to school yoga was my only concern. School studies seemed such a waste! Although I was attending the Computer Science High School, which was the best in Bucharest at that time, and although I was very proud to have passed the entrance test – after all, I had been captivated by computer science all my life – yoga was my great big passion. It had subjugated me so completely that I could not concentrate on anything except for asana and meditation techniques. In all honesty, I had been brainwashed into thinking that I could only read and study yoga materials – nothing else but that.

The departure date was getting near. I had made up my mind that before reaching the ashram, which was near Athens, I would visit Mount Athos where, I had heard, the holy fathers were practising the Jesus Prayer. I wanted to be initiated into the practice of the Jesus Prayer too… My father suggested we should call on Father Constantin Galeriu, a well-known priest in Bucharest, who had suffered for Christ in communist prisons.

Father Galeriu sent me to Father Ilie Cleopa of the Sihastria Monastery in Moldavia, which suited me perfectly since I was already thinking about visiting some monasteries to see how monastic obedience was practiced – as a sort of preparatory stage before the ashram. However, Father Cleopa was so adamantly opposed to the yoga practices and my relationships with the monks at Sihastria were so tense because of their disapproval of my being a yogi that I left the monastery after a very short stay.

After I had returned to Bucharest I joined another New Age spiritual group, called ”The Alliance for Spiritual Integration in the Absolute”, which combined Orthodox teachings with spiritualistic teachings and taught people to see auras, angels and whatever else had to do with the so-called spiritual world. In fact, all they did was make people fall prey to demonic deceit, for the devil can sometimes appear as a good angel too… In this new group, the devil could work much more efficiently than in the yoga group, or, to put it differently, he was much more visible. While practicing yoga, one can visualize the spiritual world only after many years, in this group, one could see it on the spot… Although I, for one, did not actually see many paranormal things, I had the power to make others see them; all I had to do was put my hands on top of their heads, say a prayer, and they began to see things right away…

At school, I even initiated a class in acquiring paranormal powers… We would get together in the festivity hall and do our paranormal studies there. Going camping at one time, I taught most of the children that I met there to see the spiritual world… I had no way of knowing that what they saw was coming from self-suggestion or demonic influences. At camp, I wanted to see if I could hypnotize anyone. I tried and… I did succeed. It was easy, much easier than I expected…

One of the instances that made me think about what I was doing was my meeting with a hieromonk. The people in the New Age group had convinced me that there was no point in my going to Greece to be a disciple of Swami Shivamurti Saraswati; in a female monastic community of our country, there was a priest, a saintly man who was a reincarnation of Saint John the Evangelist. I wished to see “Saint John” with my own eyes, so I went to the monastery together with my girlfriend and tantra yoga companion, who was twenty-four. I was almost eighteen. As we approached the monastery fence, we saw the reverend father standing next to the fence, as if he had been waiting for us. He asked us, “You are yogis, aren’t you? Go away, you, lost souls! Here is a monastery and this ground is sacred… What are you doing here? Who has heard of such a thing – boys and girls coming together to a monastery…? You, sinners, aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? How dare you come here, of all places? You, followers of Steiner, theosophists and God only knows what else…”, he muttered, entering the building that housed the monastic cells. My girlfriend had indeed read many of Rudolf Steiner’s writings and other theosophical works. The reverend father could see right through us… Only later did I understand why he had scolded us for having come together to the monastery – he was referring to the fact that we were lovers, but at the time I had no idea that what we were doing was fornication and that it was a sin.

My girlfriend and I stepped inside the church, thinking that he would not chase us out of there. When he entered the church, he pointed his finger at us and asked us, “You believe in reincarnation, don’t you?” – “Yes,” I answered, being convinced that I had to stand up for the truth in front of Christians who were not familiar with the truth. Then, he added, “And you think that I am John the Evangelist, don’t you?” – “Yes,” I answered with conviction. “Get out, you lost souls! Here is the House of the Lord, and if you do not renounce your madness it means that you do not belong here!” I did not expect him to drive us out of the church. I knew that both the Christian tradition and the Oriental tradition demanded that the patience of the disciple should be put to the test in the most unexpected ways, so I was not going to give in. My girlfriend, who was older, felt bad at hearing the priest’s rebuke and burst into tears…

It would have been natural that I should be converted to the Orthodox faith right then and there… My friends from the “New Alliance” group had repeatedly told me that before accepting me as his secret disciple, the priest would put me to a very difficult test indeed and I thought it was all a trial. Having been manipulated and indoctrinated through and through, I did not realize that the reverend father really meant what he said. We returned to Bucharest, but my wish to see that priest again was getting stronger by the minute. I went back to the monastery and he asked me to choose between the Church teachings and the New Age teachings I had formerly believed in. I refused to let go of my erroneous spiritual commitments and I decided to take off on a pilgrimage to the Moldavian monasteries. A strange thing happened to me at the Sihla Skete. While I was standing in front of a monastic cell with the Bible in my hand, a priest came up to me and asked me to read a certain passage to him; his hair and beard were white and he had a gentle face; in the passage, it said that heretics would be punished for their erroneous ways. Then the priest walked away and I thought, “Yes, heretics would be punished, that’s for sure, but why did he ask me, of all people, to read that passage? Does that mean I am a heretic?”

Close to the Sihla Skete there is a cave where Saint Teodora lived the harsh, ascetic life of a hermit; ravens were providing for her, carrying food to her in their beaks. I wanted to spend a night in that cave, pray there, and ask God to help me choose the right path. The monastery abbot gave me his blessing, so one night I started making for the cave. On the way through the forest, I heard all sorts of strange noises. Someone had told me that three years before a man was eating raspberries from a bush and on the other side of the bush there was a big bear… I could not wait to reach the cave where I thought it would be nice and peaceful; during the day, I had gone there several times to pray and it had been so quiet…

Yet this time it was not so at all… That night was going to be the most awful night of my life… I thought I would stay up all night and say the Jesus Prayer, but the temptations came very fast. First, there were the bats – many bats flying so close to me, flapping their wings, that I felt the cold draught of air made by those dreadful wings blow right into my face. I was scared stiff and I felt sick. I was afraid one of those bats would try to cling to my hair. Although I had had my head shaved a year before in order to look like a true yogi, my hair had grown in the meantime, so I covered my head with my leather coat to keep the bats off. At some point, I thought that maybe God wanted to punish me for my sins and I uncovered my head, but the bats did not touch it… After a while, there was another temptation: mice started climbing my boots. It was a terrible feeling… Some of the people who had been in that cave before told me that there were no bats and no mice in it, but I saw them… On the other hand, perhaps what I saw was a demonic sight… It was so difficult to tell…

I was getting more and more scared. I felt that the nervous tension was reaching breaking point; I actually thought I would go out of my mind. I also thought that if I fell asleep the devil would get hold of me. It is so difficult to explain but it was what I felt and what I thought… I kept dropping candle wax into my palms, on different spots, so that the burns would keep me awake. I prayed and prayed, “God, by the grace of the hegumen’s blessing, have mercy on me! God, by the power of obedience, have mercy on me!” I could not say the Jesus Prayer at all; all I did all night long was to read prayers from a prayer book from beginning to end; as soon as I finished it, I started reading the same prayers all over again…

Then, there was another temptation that really topped the previous ones. All of a sudden, I saw this huge animal walking into the cave through its very narrow entrance; he stepped in and took three big steps. The first step made me lift my head, the second step made me quite apprehensive, and the third one was the pits. It was a big animal alright and it could only have been a bear. I thought, “I do not have room to get out of the cave, not even if I tried to slide by him. If I try to fight him, I do not stand a chance of defeating him. Best thing is to die in prayer.” I was positive that I would die right then and there – so I just prayed without turning to look at the bear… Realizing that there was no longer any noise behind me, I turned to the cave entrance, but there was no animal anywhere in sight… It had been a demonic temptation that had frightened the daylights out of me… Maybe there were bats and mice in that cave but there certainly was no bear, because a bear could not get out of that cave without making the same kind of noise it had made when stepping inside it – since the entrance was so very narrow… Those who are familiar with the cave know what I am talking about and will definitely agree with me…

God did see that I had not entered the cave to brag about my ascetic efforts afterwards, but that I was desperate and I wanted to pray to Him and entreat Him to show me the right path. I was afraid that the Orthodox faith was not the true path either and that I would have to look for another spiritual group. I had rather die than exchange an erroneous path for another one. I prayed to Him, “God, let me die rather than live far from You and teach others to take the wrong path”…

The night after the terrifying night spent inside the cave, I had a dream that changed my life. I dreamed I was looking in a canonical book on the expiation of sins, searching for a canon that would be suited for my sins. In the dream, I heard a clear and powerful voice, which woke me up. It said, “Here is your canon: you shall teach the others about the philosophy of the Church Fathers.” I awoke at once, trying to understand why the canon I had been assigned, which I had perceived as a divine message, did not refer to my teaching other people about the theology of the Church Fathers, not about their philosophy. An experienced father confessor explained to me what that meant: God did not want me to think that the dream had been induced by self-suggestion, so that was why I heard the word “philosophy” instead of “theology”. To be sure, at that time I did not know that the philosophy of the Church Fathers was in fact their theology, i.e. speaking with God and about God…

The divine voice that came to me in that dream marked a turning point in my life. I went back to the reverend father that had chased me away twice and told him I wanted to embrace the Orthodox faith and become a churchgoer. I prepared myself for confession – I wrote out my sins on paper (there were seven pages overall) and then I went to confession. I felt that my soul was cleansed from sin and that my life changed completely… Although I was still unworthy of it, I received the Holy Eucharist, following the reverend father’s advice and with his blessing.

Since then I gave up my belief in reincarnation, the yoga practices, and sexual debauchery. There were some hard times, some very hard ones, but I always felt Christ was near me… Saying these words to you and thinking about my past feels as if I were telling someone else’s story. It is difficult for me to remember that I was a yogi; it seems it had not been me… In truth, repentance purifies the mind and cleanses the soul.

After a few years, I got married and I had the feeling that I was a virgin; I really had the feeling that I had not known any other woman before and that my wife was the first woman in my life… In fact, a life of sin does not resemble a family life – not in the very least. Although on the surface they may seem similar, they are two altogether different things.

What happened after my first confession of sins? I started attending church services, I went to college and studied theology, graduating from the Department of Orthodox Theology and then taking a master’s degree in Denominational Studies and Ecumenism (focusing on the aberrations of the New Age Movement). When I was in high school, I met a priest who lived like a saint; at present, a book is being written about his life and about the miracles that he performed. He told me that I would write very many books, which would meet spiritual needs… After having written my first books – by now their number has exceeded twenty – a fellow Christian I met when visiting a monastery told me, “You know, ever since you were in high school Father X (and he named the saint-like priest) said that you would write many books. I see that his words turned out to be quite prophetic…”

I started writing in order to convince those who are far from the Orthodox Church that they are far from the Truth, from beauty, and from inner fulfillment. My first books were against aberrations and spiritual delusions, against astrology and horoscopes, against belief in reincarnation, against the Gnostic Gospels. A Journal of My Conversion – From the Goddess of Death to the Emperor of Life - describes my conversion to Orthodoxy, while one of the latest books I have written, The Gospel according to Judas, attacks not only the Gnostic Gospel attributed to Judas, but also Judas’s way of thinking as it is reflected in the contemporary theology, iconography and literature. I have realized that writing for those who have been deluded by the New Age Movement is not enough: those who are “lukewarm” [Revelation 3:15] and lead a mediocre Christian life need help too. I have written books for young people, as for instance, The Wedding Book – How to Start a Family and Young People and Sexuality, pointing out the way in which debauchery perverts the minds of young men and women in our day and age… I have also written books for mature people, dealing with ways in which one should face troubles and disease, and commentaries on the Paterikon

I am fully aware of the risk I am taking… In Orthodoxy, it is not the young people who should speak up, but the elderly who have a solid spiritual experience… I write because I owe obedience to my spiritual father who said that he regretted that I did not have four hands so I could write more… He also said that I had to write because my redemption depended on it. When I came to Greece for my Ph.D., the first thing I asked a reverend father here was, “Is it all right that I should write so many books, taking into account the fact that I am so young and inexperienced, just because I owe obedience to my spiritual father and because I am under his spiritual authority?” His answer was, “If your spiritual father prays for you and he sustains you by his prayers everything will be fine. Show obedience to him and everything will be all right.”

I had my doubts about obeying: should I or should I not follow the path of obedience? I was even tempted to leave my spiritual father because it seemed to me that he was not the best guide and advisor I could have. One night I had a dream. I dreamed I was inside a church in which there were the holy relics of Saint Nektarios. My spiritual father was praying on one side of the coffin and I was standing on the other side. The saint started moving in the coffin… and I asked him to give me his blessing. He had a big metal cross in his hand and started making the sign of the cross on top of my head. He did it several times, saying, “Bless you, bless you…” On awaking and recalling the dream, I was afraid it might have been sent by the devil, so that I called my spiritual father on his cell phone. I said to him “Father, you know that I do not take dreams seriously, but here is…” – and I related my dream to him. Then I asked him, “Do you think it came from the devil, from my subconscious or from God?” He answered, “How could it have come from the devil when this very morning I was praying for you over the relics of Saint Nektarios? I am in Greece, don’t you know that?” No, I had no idea he was in Greece. I thought he was in Romania, but he had activated his roaming and had answered his cell phone from Greece… I also told my dream to an elder leading a saintly life in a monastery in Greece and he said to me, “Your spiritual father could not have come out and say outright to you that your dream had come from God, lest he fell into the sin of pride – particularly as you saw him next to the saint’s coffin. It was indeed a dream from God. Saint Nektarios wants to encourage you to walk right on along the path of being a witness to Christ…”

That dream was the encouragement I needed in order to go ahead. The road is bumpy, the temptations are great, but I nurture the hope that Christ will help me take another step and then another one…

My life in Christ has been extraordinarily beautiful… The greatest thing for me has been that I came to know the Truth and to know that the Truth is love… In the Orthodox Church, I have learned to love. Christian love is warm – it is not like yogic love, which is cold and superficial… I have discovered the beauty of family life, which is indeed a treasure. Next to my wife and to our three children I have the distinct feeling that I am in the middle of a beautiful dream… It seems to me that people speak and write too little about Christian families. Getting married was almost like a bet in a way: I was hoping that it would be a beautiful life, but I was not sure. My family life has been much more difficult than I had anticipated but also much more beautiful…

I give witness to the beauty of the Orthodox faith because some of those who have practised yoga have serious communication problems and are socially maladjusted although they have formally converted to the Orthodox faith; they have received the Christian teaching but they still have a yogic behaviour.

I confess that I am overjoyed at being an Orthodox believer… In the past, I was afraid that I would get bored with it and I kept asking myself, “Will Christian life become commonplace for me?” Moreover, I have discovered that a life lived in communion with God, with the Theotokos, with the saints and martyrs of the Church can be anything but boring.

On the contrary, I believe that the life of a Christian is extremely captivating. In addition, one should be a real hero in order to live like a Christian in this world, which is so full of sin and so fond of heresy.

My purpose has been to convince you to reach out to those who are far from the Church. Usually after a conference, people collect funds for the poor or for Christian missionaries in African countries or for various and sundry social activities.

I shall not ask you to put money in a box but to put a part of your soul in it and to realize that right next to you there may be so many people who have been deluded by different religions and denominations. You could make a difference. You could help them through living a truly Christian life.

These people have had enough of empty words and unconvincing Christian sermons. They need shining examples of a Christian way of living. They want to see in you a living icon of Christ.

Do not force anyone to come to Christ, but win them over with your Christian love. No one can resist love. Today’s world looks for love in the wrong places and all that people find is fake love.

Offer them true love, sacrificial love, and you will change them. Even those who have decided never to change will start out on the path of conversion – slowly, but surely.

Look, I am just sending out to you this unseen box, inside which I am not asking you to put money but I repeat, something far more precious – a part of your soul. Are you up for such a donation?

You would make so very happy! May God assist you in all your good works and bestow His grace on you. Amen.