August 9, 2016

The Experience of the Transfiguration in the Life of the Athonite Monk (3 of 5)

The Transfiguration of Human Society. This light, which shone then from the face of the Lord, was the three-fold ray of the Holy Trinity, the unique and deifying energy of the glory of God's grace, which gave to the three Apostles the lived knowledge of the great mystery of the one Godhead in three Persons, and which rendered them "participants of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4) while uniting them one with another. In this light, therefore, Peter, James and John cease to be three separate individuals and become instead, and in accordance with the model of the Holy Trinity, three persons, distinguished from each other by their free will and unique characteristics, but united in charity and concord. So it is that on the mountain of Tabor the Holy Trinity was revealed as the shaping principle of the divine-human (theandric) society of the Church. "Where two or three are gathered together in My name" - that is, in the light of My presence, as on Tabor - "there I am in the midst of them," says the Lord (Matt. 18:20).

It is the same in the monastery, where everyone has come in order to offer himself freely as a "reasonable holocaust," where the other man is not the enemy, my "hell," but where the light of Christ makes him instead my neighbor, my brother, the son of the same heavenly Father, a unique member among the other members of Christ's Body (1 Cor. 12:27). Here there is no place for any antagonism whatever, because there is nothing here which is "mine" or "yours," but all is in common. Even the spiritual progress and divine charisms of one become the joy of all the body, and the consolation of those who are weak or enduring temptations. "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is glorified, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:56). This is the admirable teaching that Saint Makarios applies to the monastic community when he writes: "This is truly the angelic life on earth, when we live together without jealousy, with simplicity, love, peace, joy, complementarity, considering the progress of our neighbor as our own loss... The surplus of those who persevere continually in prayer makes up the loss of those who place themselves at the former's service, or of those who rest, and likewise, the surplus of those who serve and work makes up for what is lacking for those who spend their time in prayer...."26

Becoming of "one body" (Eph. 3:6) with Christ through communion in His body, the monks are joined together in a single soul (cf. Phil. 2:2), as in the Church of apostolic times where "the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common" (Acts 4:32).

Joy, peace, concord, participation in the same breath of common life and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit bear fruit here in the illumination of His deifying energy. The life in common with the other brothers, in unity (epi to auto) is sweetest light for the monk, "like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore" (Ps. 133:3). Light is as well the discipline and hierarchical order that is obtained in all the expressions of the common life, thanks to which the confusion and scattering of the world of corruption are abolished. Everything is done "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40), as in heaven, and all our activities, like the sun rays, derive from the uncontested authority of the abbot and are referred back to him. The abbot occupies the place of Christ. He is the living icon of the Lord. This is why obedience to the superior (which often gives the worldly person the impression that the monk has deprived himself of his personality and is simply being exploited), this absolute and unmurmuring obedience of the monk, is in fact the principle means of freeing him from death and his separation from God, to which he had been given over by egoism and a spirit of "autonomy." Obedience is the imitation of Christ's "self-emptying" (kenosis, cf. Phil. 2:6). It is communion in the will of God and in the divine power of personal resurrection. It makes a monk a son of the Most High. The abbot is no mere director for the monk. Rather, the former has no other goal than the salvation of his disciples' souls. He is thus far more their father than their master, and as such, the monk can and does bow before him - or before his throne when he is absent - because the abbot's place is the "place of God." It is obedience that sheds its light in the souls of the monks, and that makes their faces shine with untroubled joy.

Light is also the work of the monastery, which is here not servitude but service (diakonia), a serving of the community that is without profit-seeking, without constraint or haste. It is a sacrifice pleasing to God that is illumined by prayer, and that is a collaboration in the transfiguration of the world and the things of the world. It is a continuation of the Divine Liturgy outside of the walls of the church. For here, in the monastery, both the contemplation and the use of the physical world become light, in as much as that usage is devoted not to pleasure, but in response to the needs of the community, not for a destructive consumerism aided by technology, but in order to render nature a participant in the glory of the children of God, that she may join in their song.

Light, again, is the study of Holy Scripture and the works of the Fathers of the Church. This study is not engaged in by the monks for reasons of vainglory, nor in order to simply pile up knowledge. Rather, they feed on the words of the Word, drink them, in order for themselves to live, and to convey to their brothers the hope of life everlasting (Rom. 15:4).

The monks do not preach. They do not go out into the world, in spite of the needs of the Church. But this city of God which is the monastery is radiant. It become light for men, a lamp of the Church, the latter's unmoved mover, and the mystical center that binds her to heaven. This city shines even to the ends of the world through the unceasing prayer of the monks, and it illumines every pilgrim whom it receives and welcomes as an angel of God (Heb. 13:5) and an icon of Christ (Matt 25:35).

Living as it were in a perpetual feast day, the monastery is the realization of the perfect city, the "Republic" dreamt of by the philosophers and poets of every era. It is a little world, a society in miniature, which has already been transfigured and, thus, which offers to men, from the height of the "high mountain" - as from Tabor - an anticipation of the world to come.

The icon of the New Jerusalem is adorned like the Bride who stands at God's right hand "with gold-woven robes; in many colored robes" (Ps. 45:13-14). It is there that Christ stoops and cries: "You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you" (Song of Songs 4:7). It is there that God bows the heavens (Ps. 18:10) and comes down to visit us. It is there that He dwells and reveals all His glory, not for a moment, but for always. Thus now, after the Crucifixion, the monks are enabled, like the Apostles once before, to say: "It is good for us to stay here" (Matt. 17:4), without fear of hearing the Lord reproaching them for sentiments all too human,27 because they live on this Tabor as ones who are crucified and dead to all that concerns this world.


26. Makarios of Egypt, Great Letter, 0 and 29, ed. Jaeger (1963), 286 and 284.

27. "Not knowing what he said" (Lk. 9:33).