Friday, September 6, 2013
The first and most important thing to remember is that we do not bring anyone into the Church – its not our job. We do not attract people to the faith, we do not convince people of the Truth, we don’t do any of that. God is the One Who attracts people, Who brings them in the door, Who convicts their hearts, Who brings them to repentance, Who convinces them of the Truth!
We do none of this.
Too often the individual person is made responsible for doing God’s task, but in attempting to do God’s work, he neglects his own!! What is our task? Our task is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit (St. Seraphim), our task is the working out of our salvation, our task is to repent and weep for our sins, our task is to enter the Kingdom of God. This more than anything else is what we must do. This is an evangelistic task – indeed the primary evangelistic task.
There are other “tasks”, however, which derive from this one which are a bit more specific to “evangelism”. It is God who brings people to the door of the Church and who convinces them that they should enter – however, we must keep the door to the Church open and visible!!! Hence, Orthodox evangelism must center on the Church – the beauty of the building, the beauty of the services, the frequency and availability of the services. Orthodox evangelism is served by beautiful icons, gold onion domes and crosses rising against the sky, the smell of incense, the pious and holy singing of the services. Orthodox evangelism is served by our visibility as Orthodox Christians in the world – the clothing of the clergy (and in these days the modest and humble clothing of the laymen as well) – the sign of the cross as we pray at each juncture of our lives – beginning and ending a task, eating and finishing a meal, starting and ending a trip, etc. Orthodox evangelism is the keeping of icons in our homes, in our offices, in our cars. Orthodox evangelism is keeping the fast without excuses or compromises. Orthodox evangelism is setting our priorities to forgo the allures of the world in order to be at divine services whenever they are held. Orthodox evangelism is denying ourselves and bearing our cross. Orthodox evangelism is keeping the door of the Church open and visible. While the Holy Spirit is the one who draws the world to Himself, it is you and I who keep the doors of the Church open and who welcome all who come.
The second specific task that we as Orthodox Christians have in evangelism is the practical expression of God’s love to mankind. Orthodox evangelism is greeting visitors as they come to the Church and then modeling (neither instructing nor condemning the visitor) for them proper behavior and demeanor in the Church. Orthodox evangelism is hospitality offered to share meals, to provide shelter and clothing as needed. Orthodox evangelism is to pray for our neighbor and to love our neighbor as ourself. Orthodox evangelism is going to the soup kitchen and serving there – Orthodox evangelism is giving to the poor without regard for “how the money will be used”. Orthodox evangelism is visiting the sick in hospitals and praying for them. Orthodox evangelism is going the prisons (contact your local prison chaplain regarding how this might be done) and offering comfort and kindness to the imprisoned. Orthodox evangelism is loving your enemies (Elder Silouan of Mt Athos says that this is the true mark of a Christian – the love of one’s enemies). Orthodox Evangelism is loving your neighbor as yourself. If we all did these things (and I am a wretched sinner and fall short of all that I have just said) then our Churches would be open and filled with light and glory drawing all who see her by the grace and action of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. We don’t have to preach on street corners, we don’t have to have “events” or revivals or seminars as evangelistic tools – we simply have to be Orthodox Christians “to the max” without reservation or compromise. That is Orthodox evangelism!!!
St. Seraphim of Sarov
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Church of God is not an institution, it is a miracle and it is a mystery. It is a miracle because how could we expect that closeness of God which is revealed to us in the Church. And it is also a mystery in the original sense of the world, something which cannot be either explained or conveyed in words, something that can be known only through a spellbound communion with God. The English word “God” comes from a Germanic root that means “him, before whom one prostrates in adoration”.This is where our knowledge of God begins – the sense of the divine presence that forces us down to our knees, spellbound, silent, not with an empty silence that is ours at times but with a silence which is nothing but intent worshipful listening, listening to the presence, listening to that presence which is at the core of the silence. And he who speak to us within this silence is the Holy Spirit, who unveils before our minds and hearts what the words spoken by God, revealed to us in the Gospel truly convey. It is only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can both believe and understand what Christ spoke because words in themselves are always equivocal, they may be clear or obscure, they may be made to mean what they never meant. And this is the role of the Holy Spirit – to make us understand God’s word as it was born in the divine silence and unfolded before us in words which we could understand. But these words are not a prison, they are an open door as Christ is the door leading to the Father and leading to eternal life. It is the Holy Spirit who according to the promise of our Lord unveils for us the meaning of the Scriptures, it is not scholarship, it is worship and a worship that allows us to commune with the mind of God and the heart of God. The Spirit of truth, but also Him whom the Scripture calls the Paraclete, a complex word as so many of the words of ancient languages. It means “the Comforter”, Him who gives consolation. It means ‘Comforter’ in the sense that He gives us strength, it means also “Him, who brings joy”. And these three meanings are important but He can be to us the Comforter in these various ways only if we are in need of His comfort.
What kind of consolation do we need? Most of us feel perfectly comfortable in our lives and indeed in our worship and our spiritual life, and who of us is in a position to say with all the intensity and depth with which St. Paul spoke these words, “For me life is Christ, death would be a gain because as long as I live in the body, I am separated from Christ”? Can we honestly say that for us life is Christ, that all that He stands for is life-giving, all that is contrary to Him, to us is death? Can we say that we have died with Christ to everything which is alien to God? Can we say that we are alive only when the things of God come our way – prayer, deep meditation, the kind of understanding which the Spirit of God reveals to us? And so we must ask ourselves very sternly a first question: is Christ my life or not? Would it be enough for me to feel that life is fulfilled, complete to be at one with Christ in all things or do I feel that there are so many things which I love and which I am not prepared to let go off even to be with Christ?
And again, Christ is in the midst of us invisibly, mysteriously. Yes, but He is not with us in the way in which He was with the Apostles. We cannot say with St. John that we speak of what we have seen, what we have heard, what our hands have touched. We know Christ in the spirit, no longer in the flesh, and yet Christ rose in the flesh, Christ ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father in His body glorified. Paul longed to be with Him in this companionship full of veneration, of reverence, of love. He wanted to be at one with Him without anything separating from Him. “Who shall make me free of this body of corruption?” – of this body against which my thoughts and my prayers and my best inclinations, and my most passionate impulses for good break down? Can we say that? Is death what we expect longingly because it will unite us to Christ? Or are we still pagan at heart and do we wish to flee from death? And instead of saying, “Lord, Jesus, come and come soon!” aren’t we prepared to say, “Tarry, o Lord, tarry, give me time,” in the way in which Augustine prayed to the Lord after his conversion, “Lord, give me chastity but not just now.” Isn’t it that our condition – not concerning chastity alone but everything in life: not just now, o Lord, the time will come when all my energies will be spent, when age will have come and made life much less attractive or unpalatable – then take me. No, this is not it. And so when we think of the Holy Spirit as our Comforter, as one who consoles us from the absence of Christ by making us to commune with the essence of things, where do we stand? Is He our Comforter while we need no comfort?
And again, in our ministry how often do we feel that we are totally, ultimately helpless, that what we are called to do is simply beyond human possibilities? In the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration in the Orthodox Church, when the priest is vested, when he has prepared the Holy Gifts, when he is about to give the first liturgical exclamation, when in his naivety he may think, “Now I will perform miracles on earth,” the deacon turns to him and says, “And now, father, it is for God to act.” All you could do, you have done, you have prayed and prepared yourself, made yourself open to God, you have vested yourself and become an image – but only an image, not the thing. You have prepared the bread and the wine and now what is expected of you is something which you cannot do, you cannot by any power including apostolic succession make this bread into the Body of Christ, this wine into the Blood of Christ, you have no power over God and you have no power over the created world. It is only Christ who is the only celebrant because He is the High Priest of all creation who sending the Holy Spirit can break through into time, open it up so that eternity can flow, indeed, make eruption into it and within this eschatological situation in which eternity fills time make possible the impossible, make bread into the Body of Christ crucified and risen, the wine into the Blood of Christ crucified and risen.
And all our function depends only on the Holy Spirit. Strength? St. Paul hoped for strength, he prayed for it and the Lord answered him, “My grace suffices unto thee, My strength is made manifest in weakness.” And Paul rejoices in his weakness, so, he says, that all should be the power of God. Not the weakness of our slackness, of our laziness, of our timidity, of our cowardice, of our forgetfulness, no, not that weakness but the frailty recognised, which is given to God, the surrender of ourselves.
If I may use an image, it is that of the sail of a sailing ship. Of all the parts of the ship the sail is the frailest, the weakest and yet filled with the wind, and the word “wind” in ancient languages is the same as “spirit” “ruah”, “pnevma” it can carry the heavy structure of the ship to its haven. This is the kind of weakness, of frailty which we have got to offer to God, such frailty that He can use it freely, without resistance, and then our strength will be stronger than anything which the created world can possess. The martyrs were frail, as frail as we were, but they abandoned themselves to God and they lived and died in the power of the Spirit. We need that strength.
And then the Paraclete is the one that gives joy, the joy of entering already now into eternity, the joy of being joined to Christ in the communion of the one body, the joy of giving our lives for Him and if necessary – our death, a joy which the world cannot give but which the world cannot take away.
I will end on one example of this joy of the Spirit. I met a few years ago in Russia an elderly priest who had spent 36 years in prisons and concentration camps. He sat opposite me with eyes shining with joy and gratitude and he said, “Do you realise, can you imagine, how infinitely good God had been to me? The Soviet authorities did not allow a priest either into prisons or into camps; and He chooses me, a young, inexperienced priest and sends me first to prison and then to camp to look after His lost sheep.” There was nothing in him but gratitude and joy. And that joy, that kind of gratitude against the history of his life was truly an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Let us therefore in all our life, whether we pray, listen to the unutterable groanings of the Spirit within us, teaching us ultimately to call the God of Heaven our Father if we are in Jesus Christ, in the words of Irenaeus of Lyon, sons of God in the Only-Begotten Son of God. Let us open ourselves and listen intently when we have got to preach, so that it should not be a work of our intellect or learning but a sharing of something which we have learnt from God. However poor, childlike, simple it may seem, let it be God’s. And when we come to the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, let us remember that we stand where no-one can stand but the High Priest of all creation, the Lord Jesus Christ and let us turn to the Holy Spirit calling Him to make the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in an act Divine which we can only mediate by faith and in obedience to Christ’s own command. Amen.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
ο Hypericum perforatum είναι το γνωστό σε όλους μας βότανο του Αγίου Ιωάννη του Προδρόμου, το οποίο μπορεί να έχει και ποικίλες άλλες ονομασίες όπως βάλσαμο, βαλσαμόχορτο, σπαθόχορτο, περίκη, λειχηνόχορτο και υπερικό.
Αποτελεί ένα βότανο ιδιαίτερα διαδεδομένο στη χώρα μας και απαντάται ευρέως στα νησιά μας και στη Μακεδονία.
Το όνομα του φαίνεται να προήλθε από τις σταυροφορίες όπου οι ιππότες του Αγίου Ιωάννη το χρησιμοποιούσαν για να γιατρεύσουν τα τραύματά τους.
Οι ευεργετικές δράσεις του στην υγεία οφείλονται στα συστατικά του, τα οποία περιλαμβάνουν ναφθοδιανθρόνες, φλορογλυκενόλες, διάφορα φλαβονοειδή και φλαβόνες, προανθοκυανιδίνες και φαινολικά οξέα. Ένα από τα περισσότερο μελετημένα οφέλη του είναι η δράση που μπορεί να ασκεί στο νευρικό σύστημα.
Μετα-αναλύσεις μελετών έχουν δείξει ότι το βότανο του Αγίου Ιωάννη είναι πιο αποτελεσματικό στην αντιμετώπιση της κατάθλιψης σε σχέση με εικονικό σκεύασμα. Το βότανο είναι αποτελεσματικό για την αντιμετώπιση ελαφριάς έως μέτριας μορφής της νόσου, ενώ παράλληλα δεν έχει τις σημαντικές παρενέργειες των αντικαταθλιπτικών φαρμάκων.
Η δράση του βοτάνου έγκειται στο ότι αναστέλλει το μεταβολισμό των νευροδιαβιβαστών όπως της νορεπινεφρίνης, της ντομπαμίνης και της σερετονίνης με αποτέλεσμα να αυξάνει τα επίπεδά τους στον εγκέφαλο. Αυτό οδηγεί στο να αυξάνονται τα κύματα των διεργέσεων που προέρχονται από τον εγκέφαλο. Επίσης, φαίνεται να επιδρά στην ευαισθησία των υποδοχέων στους νευροδιαβιβαστές και στην επαναπρόσληψη αυτών.
Σύμφωνα με τα δεδομένα της επιστημονικής κοινότητας το βότανο του Αγίου Ιωάννη και εκχυλίσματα αυτού, σε δόσεις έως και 1000 mg την ημέρα, θα μπορούσαν να ανακουφίσουν άτομα με συμπτώματα ελαφριάς κατάθλιψης.
Το βότανο μπορεί να βρεθεί στην αγορά σε ταμπλέτες, κάψουλες και τσάι.
Φεβρουάριος του 1988. Στις Καρυές κάνει αρκετό κρύο. Έχει σημαντικό υψόμετρο· έχει και υγρασία που δυσκολεύει τα πράγματα. Σήμερα όμως είναι ξερός ο καιρός. Έχει κι ένα αεράκι που αν είσαι καλά ντυμένος το απολαμβάνεις. Είναι απόγευμα. Μόλις έπεσε ο ήλιος πίσω από το βουνό. Προχωρούμε στο μονοπάτι μαζί με τον π. Παΐσιο. Στον δρόμο συναντούμε τον π. Καλλίνικο από τη Σκήτη του Κουτλουμουσίου.
Φθάνουμε στο ξύλινο γεφυράκι του. Γύρω μας φουντουκιές γυμνές χωρίς φύλλα. Μόνο κλαδιά.
«Μπα, ποιός έφερε μανταρίνια;», ρωτά έκπληκτος ο π. Παΐσιος.
Στο βάθος, σε απόσταση μεγαλύτερη από εξήντα μέτρα, διακρίνεται η πόρτα της αυλής του και κάτι που ροδίζει στη βάση της, ίσως να ‘ναι χρώματος πορτοκαλί. Η απόσταση δεν αφήνει περιθώρια για περισσότερες λεπτομέρειες.
Σε λίγη ώρα πλησιάζουμε. Πράγματι,βλέπουμε μία μεγάλη σακούλα διαφανή, πορτοκαλί χρώματος, γεμάτη μανταρίνια.
Που τα είδε ο άνθρωπος! Πως διέκρινε ότι είναι μανταρίνια και όχι πορτοκάλια! Αφού δε και η σακούλα είναι πορτοκαλί, θα μπορούσε να περιείχε και μήλα.
«Πως μ’ αρέσουν τα μανταρίνια!», λέει με εμφανώς προσποιητή λαιμαργία, ο γέροντας. «Θα κρατήσω για τον εαυτό μου τρία… Καλύτερα, ας τα κάνω πέντε… Μια που βρήκα την ευκαιρία, θα πάρω επτά», λέει με ένα πολύ χαριτωμένο χαμόγελο και σταματά.
«Πάρε τα υπόλοιπα, π. Καλλίνικε, και πήγαινέ τα απέναντι στον γερό-Ιωσήφ».
Ο γερό-Ιωσήφ ήταν ένα γεροντάκι στην Κουτλουμουσιανή Σκήτη, 103 ετών, που όμως καθημερινά καλλιεργούσε τον κήπο του.
Ο π. Καλλίνικος έβαλε σχήμα, ζήτησε ευλογία και έφυγε. Εμείς με τον π. Παΐσιο μπήκαμε στο καλυβάκι του. Καθίσαμε στο ένα κελλί και μου ζήτησε να του διαβάσω κάτι χειρόγραφα κείμενά του.
Πέρασαν περίπου είκοσι λεπτά και χτυπάει το σίδερο της αυλόπορτας. Κάποιοι ήλθαν για να τον συναντήσουν.
«Να ανοίξω, γέροντα;», ρωτώ.
«Άσε καλύτερα. Αν είναι περίεργοι θα φύγουν. Αν είναι πονεμένοι η διψασμένοι θα επιμείνουν».
Συνεχίζουμε την ανάγνωση. Σε λίγα λεπτά ξαναχτυπάει το σίδερο.
«Τι κάνουμε τώρα, γέροντα;». ξαναρωτώ.
Στο παράθυρό του, αντί κουρτίνας κρεμόταν ένα κομμάτι από σεντόνι.
«Κοίτα λοξά, να μην σε δουν και δες πόσοι είναι», μου λέγει.
«Δεν μπορώ να τους μετρήσω, δεν φαίνονται», απαντώ.
«Καλά, δεν ξέρεις ούτε αριθμητική; Τι έκανες τόσα χρόνια στην Αμερική; Ας περιμένουμε, αυτοί θα ξαναχτυπήσουν».
Πράγματι, σε λίγα λεπτά, χτυπούν για τρίτη φορά.
«Τώρα θα προσπαθήσω εγώ να τους μετρήσω. Μπορεί να μην τελείωσα το Δημοτικό, αλλά θα τα καταφέρω», μου λέγει.
Σηκώνεται και ανοίγει την πόρτα της καλύβας.
«Τι πάθατε παλικάρια, τέτοια ώρα; Τι ήλθατε να κάνετε;».
«Πάτερ, θέλουμε λίγο να σας δούμε. Γίνεται;».
«Να με δείτε γίνεται. Αλλά τι θα βρούμε να σας κεράσουμε. Πόσοι είστε; Για να σας μετρήσω ένας, δύο… επτά. Για να δω τι θα βρούμε στο μαγαζί, τέτοια ώρα».
Μπαίνει μέσα και επιστρέφει με τα επτά μανταρίνια.
Τι φοβερός άνθρωπος, σκέπτομαι έκπληκτος από μέσα. Που το ήξερε και κράτησε τα μανταρίνια ! Το προγνώριζε; Τον φώτισε ο Θεός χωρίς αυτός να το συνειδητοποιεί;
«Από που έρχεσθε, παλικάρια;», ρωτάει με ενδιαφέρον.
«Είμαστε από την Αθήνα. Και ο Βruce με τον John από την Αμερική».
«Από την Αμερική; Μα αν τους κεράσουμε ένα μανταρίνι, αυτοί θα μας ρεζιλέψουν σε όλο τον κόσμο. Για να βρούμε κάτι Αμερικάνικο στο… supermarket».
Ξαναμπαίνει μέσα και επιστρέφει με ένα πακέτο αμερικάνικα μπισκότα και ένα κουτί ξηρούς καρπούς διαφόρων ειδών Ρlanters, της πιο φημισμένης δηλαδή μάρκας στην Αμερική. Έκπληκτοι αυτοί εκφράζουν τον θαυμασμό και τον εντυπωσιασμό τους.
«Πάτερ, τι συμβολίζει το τάλαντο που χτυπούν στα μοναστήρια;», ρωτάει δειλά ο ένας.
«Δεν ξέρω τι συμβολίζει. Ούτε και έχει καμιά σημασία. Αυτό που έχει άξια δεν είναι να χτυπάει κάνεις το τάλαντο του μοναστηρίου, αλλά να πολλαπλασιάζει το τάλαντο του Θεού. Ακούστε, παιδιά! Επειδή η ώρα πέρασε, πρέπει να πηγαίνετε. Ένα μόνο να πω: το πρόβλημα με τους Αμερικάνους είναι ότι στα Αγγλικά το “εγώ” γράφεται πάντοτε με κεφαλαίο, ενώ εμείς στην Ελλάδα το γράφουμε πότε-πότε και με μικρό».
Γέλασαν με τη χαριτωμένη παρατήρηση και ρωτούν οι Αμερικάνοι:
«Αυτό τι σημαίνει; Εμείς τι πρέπει να κάνουμε;».
«Να διαγράψετε το “εγώ” από το λεξιλόγιό σας, παιδιά. Ο εγωισμός είναι ο μεγάλος μας εχθρός. Αυτόν πρέπει να πολεμήσουμε όλοι ανεξαιρέτως».
Η αγιότητα έχει μία ευγένεια, μία λεπτότητα, μία χάρη πάνω της. Δεν είπε σοφίες ούτε θεολογίες ούτε έκανε εντυπωσιακές αποκαλύψεις. Γέμισε όμως όλων την καρδιά. Προνόησε διακριτικά, κάλυψε το χάρισμά του, ευγενικά κέρασε τους επισκέπτες του, όμορφα πρωτοτύπησε με τον τρόπο του, οικοδόμησε με τον λόγο του, ανέπαυσε με την παρουσία του. Χωρίς να προσπαθεί να πείσει για κάτι κανέναν, πείθει για τα πιο μεγάλα όλους. Δίπλα του φωτίζεσαι, χαίρεσαι, αναπαύεσαι. Αισθάνεσαι σαν τη Μαρία «παρά τους πόδας του Ιησού». Σαν τους αποστόλους στο όρος της θείας Μεταμορφώσεως -δεν θέλεις να ξεκολλήσεις με τίποτα.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, St. Kosmas Aitolos foretold that a time would come when a person would have to travel for days to meet another person whom he could embrace as a brother. We are living in an age where this is already happening. Contemporary man, in his loneliness, experiences pathological anxiety, anguish and suffering. He is tormented and, in turn, torments others.
Why? This essay will attempt an answer by bringing the fragrance of community found in the desert to the loneliness and the desolation found in cities.
Loneliness is the absence of communication and relationship- the inability to develop and maintain associations with others. Contemporary culture and the structures of society, the mass media reflecting prevailing ideologies, even children’s games, lead to social alienation, political estrangement and personal isolation. The individual person begins, early on, to be possessed by an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, to lose the meaning and purpose of life, to live without principles and discipline, to be constantly suspicious and in doubt.
Alone and insecure, anxious and disorderly, modern man and particularly the contemporary young person attempts to build bridges, to raise flags, to shout slogans. But without a guide or with bad guides he is readily disillusioned and becomes hard and aggressive, a plaything for political exploiters and power-hungry anarchists. The desire for freedom becomes the bitter death of his freedom.
The young, who earlier had declared that they would never compromise with anyone, are now themselves compromised. They take refuge in demonstrations and sit-ins, becoming rebellious in an effort to relieve themselves of the weight of their loneliness, not realizing that they are thrusting themselves into an even more unbearable slavery.
It is particularly unfortunate that all this is happening where least expected even with young people of good education, exceptional intelligence, energy and talent. Unsatisfied with material prosperity and disillusioned by the hypocrisy of their elders, these young people struggle for simpler life, for quality in life, for a better way of life but unfortunately they do not manage to make the right beginning.
Modern art is a good example of the spiritual alienation that we see. Instead of shedding light and opening windows toward others and toward heaven it tends to shut us in and to plunge us, ever deeper, into obscurity and darkness.
It is not long before isolated man begins to talk to himself, to the irrational animals, to the shadows that surround him, and to the dead. By now he is seriously sick. Melancholy, phobias, suspicion and mistrust have made him a psychopath. A most appropriate observation characterizes our time as the century of the psychiatrist. According to World Health Organization statistics for 1985 there are more than 400 million people in the world suffering from deep depression, with about 400,000 committing suicide each year. And these statistics refer only to the developed countries!
In his isolation man is plagued relentlessly by egotism and pride which are the natural parents of his loneliness.
Humility — An Antidote to Loneliness
If egotism and pride foster this kind of loneliness, then true humility — even though the term is misused and loses meaning among those who merely talk about it — produces the climate in which this loneliness is not permitted to thrive. Behold how the desert that good mother, excellent philosopher and theologian speaks about holy humility, silence and peace.
The humble person, according to Abba Poimen, is comfortable and at peace wherever he may find himself.
Abba Isaac tells us that he who makes himself small in everything will be exalted above all. And his discerning voice continues:
“Hate honor and you will be honored indeed. He who runs after honors causes honor itself to be banished from him. But if you merely disdain yourself hypocritically in order to appear humble, God will reveal you.”
In the Gerontikon, which contains a wide variety of spiritual writings from the Fathers, it is repeatedly made clear that:
“The humble-minded and lowly in heart is not the one who cheapens himself and talks about humility, but the one who endures joyfully the dishonors which come from his neighbor.”
In another place the Gerontikon states that:
“The person honored more than he deserves is actually harmed, while the person who is not honored at all by his fellow human beings will be honored in heaven by God.”
Abba Poimen gives us this advice:
“Every possible sorrow that comes to you can be overcome with silence.”
Abba Isaiah agrees with him:
“Until your heart is at peace through prayer, make no effort to explain anything to your brother.”
In studying the writings of the holy fathers of the desert, one can easily observe a common mind, a common noble spirit, a humaneness, an understanding, a wisdom. These are dew drops of the Holy Spirit, which fall in the arid desert after long struggles, which make fragrant flowers grow among the communities of faithful committed totally to God, and which make fragrant the souls of those who truly thirst for God.
Abba Isaiah, that great mind, notes with particular grace and subtlety:
“He who humbles himself before God is capable of enduring every insult. The humble person is not concerned about what others say about him. The person who bears the harsh word of a rude and foolish man for the sake of God is worthy of acquiring peace.”
Abba Mark, on this important topic — our relationship with ourselves and with others, in which we find ourselves stumbling on a daily basis — goes on to note the following:
“When you become aware of the thought in your mind dictating human glory, you should know for sure that this thought is preparing you for shame. And if you discern someone praising you hypocritically, expect also his accusation some time soon.”
And with the daring precision of a surgeon of the soul, the holy Abba continues:
“When you see someone crying over the many insults he has received, you should know that, because he was overcome by vainglory, he is now unknowingly reaping the crop of evils in his heart. He who loves pleasure is grieved by accusations and abuse. On the other hand, he who loves God is grieved by praises and other superfluous remarks. The degree of our humility is measured by slander. Don’t think that you have humility when you cannot forbear even the slightest accusation.”
Abba Zosima goes even further:
“Remember the one who has ridiculed you, who has grieved you, who has wronged you, who has done evil to you, as your physician, your healer. Christ sent him to heal you; don’t remember him with anger.”
Evagrios considered those who spoke badly of him as benefactors.
The divine wisdom of these physicians of the desert has tremendous significance to our topic. It has been said that these remarks are addressed by monks and for monks, but this is a superficial view. The epidemic of loneliness and depression that we are discussing results from proud minds lacking in humility, from failed interpersonal relationships, from unsatisfied egotistical aspirations, from self-aggrandizement, praise-seeking and self-love. This loneliness is strong enough to weaken a person and to make him sick. But love is stronger, capable of healing and regenerating the whole world.
Man has an irrepressible need to communicate, but communication must be properly developed. Initially, we must strike up a conversation a sincere, honorable and courageous conversation with our unknown self. We must rediscover in the very depths of our soul the hidden innocence of our childhood years. Next we must learn to have unmasked face-to-face conversation with the only, true living friend our heavenly Father and God. Only then will we be able to effectively communicate with others, whoever they are — the worst, the best, the neighbors, the distant, our brothers and sisters in Christ. In this manner the webs of loneliness are removed, the inaccessible and sunless dungeons of the heart are illumined, the shell of our ego is broken. When we have rejected the loneliness of miserable, self-centered egotism we can begin to rejoice, to be free, to breathe, to live.
Natural Loneliness: A Sanctuary of Knowledge of Self and of God
There is another type of loneliness — natural loneliness which is not pathological but creative, life-giving, full of grace. It is exemplified by the natural separation of monastics from the world. It is a loneliness to which we all should devote much time. We must be able to withdraw ourselves from the noisy crowds which are so superficial, so distracting, and so counterproductive in a withdrawal which is healthy, beautiful and good. It is important that we learn to shut off the constant communication with the many, which does not allows us to be alone with our self and as a consequence, we are not able to be with the One who is always waiting, the incarnate Logos and God. We must make the time and find the way for this other kind of sacred communication of natural loneliness. And we must pursue this knowledgeably, with an orderly, disciplined program.
Please keep in mind that we are not talking about those who seek to escape from preoccupations with the world in order to find rest, to view beautiful sunsets, to gaze at star-studded skies. Such activities are not spiritual. Neither are we talking about those who seek to meditate using techniques of doubtful origins to achieve dubious results. Nor are we discussing those who devote fleeting moments to superficial daydreams and who presume to have repented when they feel sentimental emotions as they remember indiscretions of their past. And we certainly are not talking about the well-meaning but naïve who think the spiritual life of sacred quietude consists of strolling at the sea shore with a komboschoini (prayer beads) in hand. Furthermore, we are not referring to the spiritual tourists who visit holy places and converse boldly with holy persons, but who do not deny their ego nor sacrifice their will. Activities such as these are only superficial attempts to escape from life, through shallow day-dreaming and capricious imagination.
What we are talking about is sacred quietude achieved with ascetic effort which liberates us from the loneliness of the world, even though we find ourselves in a noisy city or a disorderly household. We are talking about the persistence and the patience which help us probe the deepest roots of our existence and understand its limits, and which dispel the darkness that tires and discourages us.
We need to learn to pray. We need vigils constant vigilance in a posture of immobility and calmness.
When I am near God what do I have to fear? He has guided me to where I may be guided by him. Despairing of friends and acquaintances — sorely disappointed with the arts, the technologies, the ideologies — disenchanted with social chatter and vacuous etiquette — I come to the privilege of ultimate despair. I become aware that, in my nakedness, God himself is there to vest me with authentic hope. And in this miracle the blessed Panaghia and all the saints are present to lend their support.
In this natural loneliness — this divine loneliness — I find relief. The actor’s masks which I had felt obliged to put on or which had been put on me have been discarded. It had been a dreadful state. Every night I needed to go to another gathering, to be part of another group, for I had to be included somewhere. I was constantly changing my mask. Now, however, by turning inward I begin to live, to become aware that I am a child of God, to unveil my unique and irreplaceable identity, my face, my person. I begin to observe the activities of the passions. I can see my strengths and my limitations. I am redeemed from errors, fantasies, excesses, and languid apathy.
A firm resolve helps guide our steps to this lonely sanctuary of knowledge of self and of God. In this sanctuary the loneliness the aloneness which had been feared becomes a delight. For the person who is with God can never be alone since he is in dialogue with himself and with God. Here we find ourselves with less individualism, and greater love for others. We find tears for the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters, and strength for greater efforts that will help them. For the voice which arises from the depths of the lone person cuts through the clouds and reaches the Triune God, who always listens and always responds.
The Divine Loneliness of Man in Communion with God
The man in communion with God knows how to make his voice more fervent and to rejoice while standing in second place. He knows how to be a friend even with the stranger and to be satisfied with little. Moreover, he knows how to become tired in his diligent efforts and how to wash with tears those who are grasping and prodigal. And he knows how to do these things without complaint or dissatisfaction, even if abandoned by relatives, friends, colleagues.
Far from the tumultuous crowds and the confusion of the public arena, in the privacy of your room, choose freely and without coercion. It may appear that you are not offering anything to others and that you are being self-centered, particularly when others are saying that they need you, as they suffer from painful loneliness. This loneliness which you have chosen for yourself is an arduous task, requiring great strength, heroism, persistence. It is a long and endless undertaking. And sometimes it can be preparation for a return to those whom you have left out of your life, although this should never be the purpose of your ascetic commitment.
All the saints of our Church, the most fervent and active missionaries, even the Lord himself in his earthly life, experienced the mystery of divine loneliness. Remember those great personalities, the prophets of the Old Testament Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and John the Forerunner.
Returning to our century, we find it tragically alone, in despair, pessimistic. In spite of efforts to the contrary, the world is in conflict with everyone and everything countries, governments, races, colleagues, parents, friends, children, books, lessons, work. And being in conflict with itself it is also in conflict with God, to whom it never speaks, never says anything.
The most painful loneliness is to be next to your spouse and yet be unable to transmit your inner feelings, even as external messages are transmitted instantaneously from one hemisphere to another. It is painful loneliness for married couples to keep secrets from each other for years. It is painful when dialogue is non-existent between children and parents, between children and teachers, between children and clergy. There is no more cruel loneliness than for a family to sit for hours in front of the television without speaking a word among themselves. We live in a difficult time. Loneliness is at an all-time high. Man is lost. God is silent.
In this loneliness, in this desolation of the cities, in this apparent absence of God, man is called to gather his thoughts, to come to his senses, to put aside his many worldly preoccupations and to retire to his place of prayer speechless, naked, a child so that God may speak to him, clothe him, and endow him with spiritual maturity. Then his loneliness will become the divine loneliness of liberation and he will achieve a sense of fullness. Only such radical loneliness leads to a fundamental understanding and experience of God, destroying every hesitation, doubt and torment.
In this sacred loneliness man finds himself face-to-face with his existential poverty and the fear of death which it provokes. Yet, even here, there is the danger that he may choose procrastination as a solution and, for a time, set his panic-stricken self at ease. He may resume running back and forth endlessly, expanding social activities, and seeking a variety of entertainments a program of extreme busyness. Other people, other things, work and extensive involvements may serve as a cover for his spiritual impoverishment for a time. And he may continue wandering aimlessly, driven by circumstances, tormented, flirting with one thing and another, fighting, being torn and finally annihilated.
A life of work without the liberation of communion with God is slavery. The struggle for excessive wealth is an incurable, tormenting disease. Fear of the future can stimulate greed, miserliness, hoarding. And God can be easily forgotten.
Here is what Abba Markos says, on how man can avoid the slavery of misguided work and instead become a free servant of God:
“The one who casts off anxious cares for ephemeral things and is freed from their every need, will place all his trust in God and in the eternal good things. The Lord did not forbid the necessary daily care for our physical well-being; but he indicated that man should be concerned only for each day. To limit our needs and cares to what is absolutely necessary is quite possible through prayer and self-control, but to eliminate them altogether is impossible.”
In the discerning remarks of Abba Markos which continue, let me call your attention to a subtle point which applies to many faithful:
“The necessary services which we are obliged to carry out, we must of course accept and carry out, but we must let go of those other purposeless activities and prefer rather to spend our time in prayer, particularly when these activities would lead us into the greed and luxury of money and wealth. For the more one can limit, with the help of God, these worldly activities and remove the material which feeds them, the more will one be able to gather his mind from such anxious wanderings. If again someone, out of weak faith or some other weakness, cannot do this, then, at least, let him understand well the truth and let him try, as much as he can, to censure himself for this weakness and for still remaining in this immature condition. For it is far better to have to give an account to God for omissions rather than for error and pride.”
Let me repeat this last point:
“It is far better to have to give an account to God for omissions rather than for error and pride!”
A drama is played out in man wherein he continuously and intently seeks peace and knowledge externally. But when he comes to his senses he realizes that true hospitality exists in an unexpected place. For it is precisely within himself that he discovers and experiences the particularity of his personhood. It is here that the divine loneliness of liberation, based on the knowledge of his individual personality, is to be found. It is here, in mystical quietude, that he measures, decides, and takes on his responsibilities.
Achieving the mystical experience of what we are, what we should seek, and what we can do, involves troublesome effort which, nevertheless, is critical. It is within us that we rescue ourselves from the loneliness of ego and where we find the way to the light and joy of communion.
Much of the world is governed by sophistry, wisdom has been ostracized, and decency has been lost. Lies and deception abound, revisionism has made history counterfeit, the Gospel is misinterpreted, schoolbooks are political tools mouthing the ideologies of those in power. There is a tendency to mimic false western ideologies, including sentimental pietism and painless social neochristianitiy. The life of the Church and its life-giving Sacred Traditions are ignored.
The only refuge is for each of us to set up our own sanctuary wherever we can. To a world which considers deception to be intelligence and honor to be weakness, we must dare say “Do not touch me!” We must choose to remain voluntarily and responsibly alone, even though such aloneness requires great courage in a society which aggressively seeks our applause and urges us into amalgamation. The weariness over vanities, bitterness, constant motion and joyless joys that has filled our lives, helps us come to the realization that this is the best form of resistance to the general disorientation.
By restoring our inner world, we increase our resistance, and in time become invincible to, the organized attacks of evil. By placing our whole life at God’s feet and seeking the authentic life he wants us to live we begin to have a foretaste of immortality, where we are never alone but in the company of Christ and his saints. All loneliness is dispelled by inner self-sufficiency.
And it may help you to know that there are many, out of sight, who are assisting you with their prayers. These are the monastics, dedicated totally to God, who keep vigil. Even though you have not met them they pray for you, with arms raised and with knees and knuckles callused by their prostrations.
The Supreme Loneliness of Believers Today
It has been said that each person carries his own loneliness. The mentally unbalanced individual has a dangerous loneliness. The sick person has an agonizing loneliness. One who has unjustly accumulated wealth has a bitter and ugly loneliness. But the believer carries a permanent, incurable and supreme loneliness, the loneliness of the way to salvation.
We have become accustomed to referring to the loneliness of late evening, of mourning, of living abroad. And each of us deals with our own individual circumstances as best we can. But, how long will we continue to go around in circles, examining the subject externally yet never entering its reality? Standing before the eternal enigma of existence, when will we the sons and daughters of God by grace and participation, created in his image and likeness, the children of light when will we dare to cast aside worldly ideas and discussions and, standing face to face before God, make the decision to fundamentally change our lives?
Our movements remain uncertain. We talk about God, yet God remains someone we do not really know. We desire to be with God, we advance toward him, yet at the last minute we find an escape route and evade him.
We love ourselves excessively, beyond measure. We are unwilling to bear God. We are afraid of him, and we try to deceive him — although in fact we only deceive ourselves — with excuses which appear to be convincing. We have come to love our deceptions to the point of no longer being ashamed of them. And yet God himself never tires of seeking us out discreetly, reminding us of his presence in our sufferings and in our joys, in our mistakes and in our victories.
It is necessary for believers to begin again the way of the Lord. Let us abandon the crowds and their excited shouting; let not their words entice and influence us. The way of the Lord is narrow, uphill, demanding, lonely, but it is also salutary, as he himself has promised us. The believer must at last attach himself with love to what is essential to his personal existence, setting aside decisively and irrevocably the secondary and superfluous.
The message of the Book of Revelation is truly awesome. The lukewarm believers will be spewed out of the mouth of God! (Rev. 3:15-16) The term used is most expressive of God’s dissatisfaction with those who are indecisive and ambiguous, neither hot nor cold.
To be in the company of God is both a joy to God and the greatest liberating blessedness to man. But reconciliation with God cannot be detached from reconciliation with ourselves and with our brothers and sisters. These always go together the friend of God is a friend of himself and of others.
The relationships that result have no room for conceit or isolation. Love of God must never degenerate into Pharisaism, nor love of neighbor into sterile duty. Openness in three directions — toward self, God and neighbor — is achieved symmetrically, with balance, with knowledge, with freedom and with love.
The great fourth century teacher of the desert, Abba Isaiah, reminds us that
“the pathological love of self and of others is an obstacle to our relationship with God.”
Cicero used to say that
“a great city is a great loneliness!”
This loneliness produces boredom, lack of appetite, pessimistic bitterness, a constant looking to the future and doing nothing today, dissatisfaction, a desire to escape, cowardice. These conditions, collectively referred to by the ascetic literature as accidia, mercilessly plague many, including the careless monastic.
Here is how St. Maximos the Confessor, the great Byzantine theologian, speaks about accidia:
“All of the powers of the soul are enslaved by accidia, while almost all of the other passions are also and immediately aroused by it, because, of all the passions, accidia is the most burdensome.”
St. John of the Ladder, who knows profoundly even the most subtle movements of the soul, described accidia to monks who inquired with characteristic harshness:
“Accidia is the breakdown of the soul, the disorientation of the mind, negligence of ascetic practice, hatred of monasticism, love of worldliness, irreverence toward God, forgetfulness of prayer.”
Evagrios mentions that this unbearable condition of the soul devastates its victim,
“who does not know what to do anymore, seeing the time not passing and wondering when the mealtime will come which seems delayed.”
Antiochos, who lived in the seventh century, is even more vivid and precise in his definition of accidia:
“This condition brings you anxiety, dislike for the place where you are living, but also for your brothers and for every activity. There is even a dislike for Sacred Scripture, with constant yawning and sleepiness. Moreover, this condition keeps you in a state of hunger and nervousness, wondering when the next meal will come. And when you decide to pick up a book to read a little, you immediately put it down. You begin to scratch yourself and to look out of the windows. Again you begin to read a little, and then you count the number of pages and look at the titles of the chapters. Finally, you give up on the book and go to sleep, and as soon as you have slept a little you find it necessary to get up again. And all of these things you are doing just to pass the time.”
St. John of Damascus says that this struggle is very heavy and very difficult for monks.
St. Theodore of Studion says that the passion of accidia can send you directly to the depths of Hades.
Dostoyevski, who had a patristic mind, offered a solution to this problem when he had the Starets Zosima tell us we must make ourselves responsible for the sins of the whole world:
“This understanding of our salvation through others helps us to realize that love is not exhausted only in doing good, but in making the agonies and the sufferings of others our very own. The monks pray daily for the salvation of the whole world. Created in the image of God, we are all his, we are all brothers, his children. Loneliness is abolished in God. We are all ‘members of each other’ according to St. Paul. Thus, our sins and our virtues have a bearing upon the others, since, as we have said, we are all members of one body. Accidia provides a reason for more fervent prayer, and the difficulties are an opportunity for spiritual maturity and progress.”
Let me repeat. Separation from the world, maligned by some as desertion, is courageous and necessary, a resistance to the general leveling of all things. Man finds his authenticity, the beauty of his uniqueness, within the sacred silence of quietude, standing apart from the crowd. His suffering in solitude prepares him to return to the common and familiar, revitalized and ready for whole-hearted service.
Abba Alonios once said:
“Unless a man can bring himself to say to his heart that he alone and God are present in this place, he will never find peace and rest of soul.”
St. John Chrysostom said: “Quietude in solitude is no small teacher of virtue.” Elsewhere he also said:
“No matter where you are, you can set up your sanctuary. Just have pure intentions and neither the place, nor the time will be an obstacle, even without kneeling down, striking your chest or raising your arms to heaven. As long as your mind is fervently concentrated you are totally composed for prayer. God is not troubled by any place. He only requires a clear and fervent mind and a soul desiring prudence.”
St. Makarios of Egypt, in his spiritual homilies, becomes a little more affectionate:
“Even if you find yourself poverty stricken of spiritual gifts, just have sorrow and pain in your heart for being outside of his kingdom, and as a wounded person shout to the Lord and ask him to make you also worthy of the true life.”
Further on, he says:
“God and the angels grieve over those who are not satisfied with heavenly nourishment.”
Finally, St. Makarios makes this significant and remarkable observation:
“Everything is quite simple and easy for those who desire to be transfigured spiritually. They need only to struggle to be a friend of God and pleasing to him, and they will receive experience and understanding of heavenly gifts, an inexpressible blessedness, and a truly great divine wealth.”
Being inexperienced in these more profound spiritual conditions, I should simply work in the beloved desert to uproot my passions. But there is a need to speak of men I have seen and heard, who live on the peaceful mountain sides of the sacred Athonite peninsula, who experience the mysteries of God. They are charismatic monks consumed by heaven, bearing Christ in their hearts and loving God, devotees of quietude, of solitude, thunderous workers of silence, alone but without loneliness, who, in their solitude, remember the loneliness of the whole world. While some in the world suffer involuntarily sleeplessness and others spend their nights without love in strange places, the monks of Mt. Athos keep a voluntary vigil, praying for the health, mercy and salvation of the whole world.
An amazing book by a contemporary hermit, which circulated recently, describes the famous ascetic of Mt. Athos, Hatzi-Georgis, as a faithful friend of quietude in the caves of the desert, an honorable and noble fighter, a great faster who found his rest in vigils, in prayer and in solitude. The desert did not make him wild and harsh like itself. On the contrary it refined and beautified him. His reverend biographer writes as follows:
“Hatzi-Georgis had much innocent love for all. He was always peaceful, tolerant and forgiving. He had a great heart and that is why he had room for everything and everyone, just as they were. In a sense he had been rendered incorporeal. Living the angelic life on earth he became an angel and flew to heaven, for he held on to nothing neither spiritual passions nor material things. He had thrown everything away and, consequently, flew very high.”
The Elder Gerasimos, the hesychast from Katounakia, remained for seventeen years, as noted by his fellow ascetic, at the peak of Prophet Elijah struggling with demons and the elements. He remained an immovable pillar of patience. His tears were flowing constantly. He completed his carefree and quiet life in the sweetness of the constant vision of Christ.
Another hesychast from Katounakia, Fr. Kallinikos, loved pain, toil and quietude beyond measure. He bathed in his tears and perspiration. The last forty-five years of his life he passed in seclusion, praying without ceasing. His face attained the grace of shining like that of Moses when he descended from Mt. Sinai.
The spiritual Father Ignatios had the peculiar habit of closing the shutters of his cell so that he would not notice the coming of the new day, but could continue his prayers. It was his custom to beseech his visitors in this manner:
“Love God who has loved you!”
He would sometimes forget to wash, to comb himself, to eat, but prayer beads were always in his hand and prayer always on his lips and heart. When he lost his eyesight, he became even brighter. He was fragrant in life and he was also fragrant after falling asleep in the Lord.
The remarkable priest and father confessor, Fr. Savvas, from the Little St. Anna, drew his strength from the daily Divine Liturgy which he celebrated in tears. During Liturgy, and during his all night vigils, he would take hours to commemorate thousands of names.
This is the nature of the community of the desert silent, praying, serene, blessed. This is the life of the desert. If a monk does not possess an intense spiritual life and a constant vigilance, he will certainly fall into a myriad of temptations. Accidia will lead him to a barren isolation when, mocked by angels and demons, he will become the worse of the worst, and the loneliness of the desert will become unbearable for him.
Summing Up the Paradoxes
The cities become more and more desolate and they will continue in this direction, while the deserts will become inhabited and will again blossom. No one who remains unrepentant will be able to block the repentance of the willing, the prayer of the faithful, the supplication of the poor. No one can prevent the free person from self-imprisonment, self-exile, from living the mystery of the living God. This miracle is experienced in martyrdom and in humility, where the Orthodox way of life always blossoms in quietude, in silence, in anticipation. We are called to experience the transcendence of Christianity, which is not so much the abolition of evil as it is the honorable acceptance of ourselves and of others, living the wealth of poverty, the health of illness, the blessing of tribulation, the power of weakness, the joy of patience, the victory of defeat, the honor of dishonor, the freedom of seclusion, the majesty of meekness, the resistance to death, the incarnation of God, the deification of man. And we should expect all these spiritual realities, not from the authority of the leaders of this world, but from the authority we exercise over ourselves, and from the creation of healthy and bright spiritual hearths which we call parish, family, cell, workshop, office, auditorium, room.
In this way, though the desolation and loneliness of the cities will continue to exist, it will not penetrate into our hearts. In this way the world can be changed, not from without, but from within and from above.
Do not consider great the missionary to Africa or the significant inventor. Great is the little person who forbears the madness, the injustice, the persecution, the pain of his neighbor and of his own life. According to Abba Isaac, the person who recognizes and overcomes his passions is greater than the person who raises the dead.
All who seek redemption from pathological anxiety, from sorrow and sadness, from emptiness and loneliness are invited to a rendezvous with themselves and with God. And when you do meet, remember the humble person who has offered these thoughts.
— From Athonite Flowers: Seven Contemporary Essays on the Spiritual Life by Monk Moses. The author was born in Athens, Greece and has been living the monastic life on Mount Athos since 1975. He is the Elder of the Kalyvi of St. John Chrysostom at the Skete of St. Panteleimon of the Koutloumoussiou Monastery. He devotes much of his time to studying the lives of saints and poetry, to writing articles and books.
Father Paolos, a member of St. Catherine's Monastery's Holy Council, walks out of the farm for an interview with Al-Monitor on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. He has been living in the monastery since 1972. (photo by Mohannad Sabry)
By: Mohannad Sabry for Al-Monitor Posted on September 4.
ST. CATHERINE'S — In the Sinai city of St. Catherine, a few thousand people and around 800 camels have been left struggling since the first week of August, when Egyptian security authorities ordered the total shutdown of the town's 1,500-year-old monastery. Bedouin residents of the mountainous area were forced to sell their camels, which they cannot feed, to feed their families.
Over the past 50 years, St. Catherine's Monastery closed its gates twice, in 1977 when former President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, and in 1982 when the Egyptian military entered Sinai after the withdrawal of Israeli forces. This time, the shutdown, which wasn’t explained by any official statements from either the Defense or Interior Ministry, was allegedly ordered after a failed attempt to kidnap a monk traveling in South Sinai in June and rising suspicions of a possible attack on the monastery.
"This is the third time we've closed since the early 1960s before the Israeli occupation. And even during the occupation, we remained open," Father Paolos, a member of the monastery's Holy Council who's been serving in St. Catherine's since 1972, told Al-Monitor on Monday, Sept. 2 "After the attacks on churches around the country in the past two months, we received orders from security authorities to shut down for security reasons."
"Despite having more time to pray and practice, our priests live without crowds of visitors, we are suffering a major financial crisis, and we cannot cover the monastery's expenses and dozens of families that we constantly support," said Paolos, who wore his farming clothes covered in mud.
St. Catherine's Monastery employs 400 workers from the surrounding community at its olive groves, grape farms, honey bee farms and several processing facilities including an olive oil press. As of the beginning of September, the monastery reserves decreased to a level that is barely enough to cover two months of expenditure.
"We respect the Egyptian government, and we will continue to close if they require the closure," said Paolos, "But we will have to drastically cut down salaries and other expenditures. We are saddened to lose the income we shared with the Bedouin community."
Meanwhile, the state authorities haven’t moved to help rescue the ailing community despite generating millions of dollars in revenues from hundreds of thousands of tourists who have visited St. Catherine's over the past two decades.
One example of the income generated by the state is the entrance tickets imposed by the Ministry of Environment in 2004. Since then, every single tourist is required to pay $5 to enter the town of St. Catherine's.
The monastery's administration told Al-Monitor that it operated at full capacity between 2004 and 2011, receiving 4,000 visitors — mostly foreign tourists — five days a week. And even on the monastery's days off, the town received hundreds of tourists climbing Mount Sinai and venturing around the mountains on Bedouin safari trips.
"We demanded the Egyptian government allocate a portion of those profits to the development of the local community to resolve its long-standing issues, but our requests were never answered since the entrance tickets were imposed," said Paolos.
Akin to the rest of Sinai's Bedouin communities, and despite being a bustling, internationally known tourist destination, residents of St. Catherine's have no other sources of income and their infrastructure remains considerably substandard, even non-existent. Until today, potable water hasn’t reached St. Catherine's houses, and those who don't have enough capital to dig wells are forced to buy water or carry their jerry cans to public taps built by other residents who have operating wells on their farms.
Since the January 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's 30 years of dictatorship, the prosperous, tourism-dependent life St. Catherine's Bedouins once enjoyed started dwindling as Egypt descended into political and security turmoil, but no other time was as devastating for this community as the two past months since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
Sheikh Mousa al-Jebaly, the founder of Sheikh Mousa Lodge that was built yards from the monastery in 1982, hadn’t received a single guest since the first week of August. Sipping boiled anis at his lodge yard, Jebaly spoke on behalf of his 7,000-member Jabaleyya tribe.
"Everyone is out of business since the monastery's shutdown. The lodges, the camel stables, the safari guides and even the supermarkets and restaurants," said Jebaly. "If a foreigner appears in town now, it’s those living in the beach towns on the southern shore. They are not tourists, and they don’t stay or shop in town."
Jebaly said that the government turned a blind eye to the town's deteriorating situation.
"The tourism sector workers in Luxor have been compensated for the losses they sustained over the past two and a half years. But here no one even paid us a visit, not even the Tourism Ministry and the Tourism Development Department."
The Jabaleyya tribe — which moved from Upper Egypt to St. Catherine's around 1,600 years ago and is committed to the protection of the Eastern Orthodox community and the monastery — is composed of four clans, known locally as quarters. A few decades ago, they imposed a system of dividing all incoming businesses among the four quarters, and each quarter organizes its members to take turns in providing the services and reaping the profits. A strict ban on monopolies is imposed by the tribal chiefs.
Ahmed Mousa, a 17-year-old Bedouin of the Jabaleyya, sat at the coffee shop in the town center. A couple of weeks prior, he sold his camel after he could no longer buy it food. His father passed away seven years earlier, and he has taken responsibility for his mother and two sisters since age 10.
"Feeding a camel costs around 600 Egyptian pounds per month ($85). [This amount was] covered when I worked every day, giving rides and tours to visitors of the monastery," said Mousa, who has worked tirelessly since his father's death to save extra money for his marriage. But his life and future plans were gradually destroyed by several factors: deteriorating tourism conditions since 2011, the monastery's closure last month and, finally, the sale of his only camel.
"Thanks to God, I sold the camel for a fair price," said Mousa, "but this camel was the family's only capital. Now we are spending its money to live and when tourism returns I will not be able to work."
At the town's coffee shop, Mousa, as well as several others who have sold or struggled to feed their camels and a few tribal elders, agreed that the town's main request for the government is for it to provide townspeople with food for their camels, the community's most precious possession.
A simple calculation made by the Bedouin gathering proposed that one month's food for the town's 800 camels would cost the government around $68,000 if bought at retail prices the Bedouins normally pay, an amount equivalent to that paid by 13,600 tourists for entrance tickets, which according to the monastery's estimates was collected in less than four days until January 2011.
"We are not asking the government for millions of dollars, we are just asking it for camel food, which would cost it nothing in comparison with the fortunes it made with the help of this community," said Mousa. "We don’t mind suffering until the tourism crisis is over, but selling our camels means destroying our lives permanently."
The Bedouins' calculation was made yards from the town's local grocery shop, where hundreds of residents opened account tabs to register their accumulating debts as they bought food for their houses and camels. On Monday, the debts had reached 70,000 Egyptian pounds ($10,000) since the monastery shut down last month.
Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/st-catherine-shutdown-monastery-sinai-unrest.html#ixzz2eA1hrdPU