On Sunday night we prayed the evening service of Vespers with the sisters and mothers of Holy Dormition Monastery in the beautiful sanctuary of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids. The presence of these god fearing and holy sisters, was like being in the presence of the Divine, for these women renounce everything in life, and seek daily, through prayer, fasting, worship and labor to become the presence of Christ Himself. They give up the World, and yet they gain more than the world can ever possibly give! We all know that the evening hours on a Sunday night are so few and precious. We know that in a few short hours we would be retiring to bed, only to rise in the morning and face another long week of work – so we all try to “squeeze out” the most, the best of our limited time as we can. In spite of knowing all this – many chose to pray Vespers with the sisters from the monastery in Rives Junction Michigan; we chose to be in the Temple of God which was filled with other hungry people, who were fed with manna from heaven; the song of liturgy and the words of Mother Gabriella as she spoke to us about the beauty of Orthodox Monasticism.
Of all the choices I could have made last night … being there was the right one.
To be in the presence of Orthodox Monastics is to feel and experience the holiness and goodness of God as He works salvation in the lives of men and women who leave the things of the world in order to fully embrace the Creator of the entire Universe. To be in the presence of monastics is to understand the cessation of time, the negation worry and anxiety, and to know the freedom of receving permission to let go, and immerse fully and freely into the depths of prayer and meditation. Mother Gabriella is the Abbess of Holy Dormition, and listening to her speak after the Evening Prayer – was in my imagination, what it must have been like to listen to the apostle St. Paul, in the early church after many hours of worship, and conversation. It was dark, it was late, it was Sunday, we were sleepy… we had experienced Divine Liturgy that morning, we had just prayed Vespers – but to sit at the feet of this godly woman and to hear her gentle voice and the Spirit of Humility and Grace that poured from her heart – was to understand truly what we were created for. “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but Mary, she has chosen the best…” We , like Mary, sat at the feet of a Monastic nun, an Abbess, who led us to deep and refreshing fountains of water to soothe our souls – she led us to Jesus – the Living Water. This is what she said on Sunday evening… (I am paraphrasing as best I can remember)
“All people long for their soul to be filled with God. It is the inner desire of every person. The monastery in modern times, in all times, is an oasis, an island of tranquility, a place to work out your salvation, and to hear the voice of God. The monastic ideal is not easy, and it is not a retreat from the world, in fact, it is the very opposite. The monastery is only place on earth where men and women can engage in true living, as they battle their passions and work out what it means to know and commune fully with God. If the Church is known as a “hospital” for the cure of soul and body, then the Monastery is the “Emergency Room”, it is the place of profound encounter with the Holy, and it is the place where the soul can become free and whole again.
We are all created to be monastics (from the Greek “monos” singular) – to have a singular focus to know and love God. Not all of us called to become Monks and Nuns, but all of us are created to become monastic in our living. To pray. To fast. To meditate. All these belong to all of us, and not just to monastics. In the end the Church and the people need the Monastery, and the Monastery needs the Church and the people. Together in community we work out our salvation in love, and humility.
Without humility there is nothing. Without humility there is no love. Without love there can be no humility. Orthodox monasticism is about humility and love.”
So on a sleepy Sunday night, our infant son John, and our daughter Anna, became pilgrims with me to the desert. We went thirsty to a barren place, and drank of the water of eternal life. We left behind the things of this world, and we sought out the things of the world to come. No pyro technics were needed, no big praise band amplification, no jumbo-tron screen with lyrics pasted on it… just the quiet beautiful and gentle voice of a humble woman – a female warrior for Christ. The presence of the spirit of humility in the nuns – spoke louder and more meaningfully than any amp, drum set, film clip or ramped up sound system ever could.
Yes, it was hard. Yes, I was tempted to stay home and nap, and read, and watch football… but God has a wonderful way of blessing those who seek His face, and in the warm eyes, heavenly voices, and tender humility of Mother Gabriella and all the sisters – we experienced something the world cannot give.
Hesychia – “stillness” – silence for the soul.
Jesus Christ Our Lord and God, bless, protect, increase and flourish the monastics of this nation and Your monasteries around the world for they are oases for the souls of the nations. Enable us to live our lives in union with them, so that we might bring the monastic ideals to our homes, the ascetic struggles to quiet our passions, and give us through the great struggle, the gifts of humility and love. For You are a good God, and love all mankind. Amen.