A youth finds himself in the monastery of the great Saint Antony. It’s not a normal occurrence, as this youth tends to dislike monasteries. It’s not that he has anything against monks or monasteries themselves, but rather that he finds them remarkably boring.
A few weeks earlier, his friend, an ultra-religious dude who loves to take retreats, invited the youth to come with him. For reasons unknown to himself, the youth said yes. It was puzzling to him that he agreed, because he was not particularly interested in monasteries, he was struggling a lot with doubts about God and the Church in general, and what’s more than that, he valued his sleep. Why would a youth with little interest in God at the moment want to be on a retreat? The Youth wasn’t sure.
A few days earlier, his friend had cancelled on him, yet the Youth found himself desirous to go all the same, and again, this was confusing to him. So, off one morning he went. Up before the crack of dawn, he made his way to the bus stop, hopped a ‘superjet’ heading to Beni Suef, and not long after, was at the beginning of the trail to the monastery of Saint Antony.
A few other youth were sitting on the mastaba, the concrete bench in the gazebo set up at the head of the trail. They were waiting for the water trucks that came a few times a day to bring the monastery’s water supply to hitch a ride. The Youth waited with them, as he had no idea how this retreat thing worked. He had managed to get a recommendation letter from a priest who only knew him superficially, and that was supposed to be his ticket, but he heard that sometimes even that wasn’t accepted, and he was petrified that they would not let him stay.
The water vehicle came, the crew climbed on top and held on tight, but when the youth got to the gate of the monastery and looked up, he was in awe. Towering before him were beautiful mountains. These mountains, he later learned, were home to hundreds of cells of monks, living as anchorites in the desert. They were majestic and they were inviting. The mid afternoon sun still illumined them as yellow, by evening it would be a glowing orange, then red, then they become dark shadows. Nested in front of this mountain, were the tops of palm trees. Yes, beautiful palms that stood by, antagonising the devil by bringing life to the barren desert. In his face, were two steeples with crosses above them. He walked through them and felt a calm come over him. He had entered somewhere different.
Following the other youth to the retreat house, the Youth was overcome by silence. He was so overwhelmed by the place that he could not speak. A young man was taking his ID and letter and the Youth was so petrified he’d be denied. Instead, he was given a registration book to sign, and showed to the rooms.
“There will be vespers at 5:00,” said the young man (later a monk), “we will pray it in the Church of St. Mark the Antonian. After this you may rest, then we will have a meal together, a spiritual word, then some retreat time, and you can go to bed.”
The schedule looked hard:
4:00 am – Midnight Praises (3:00 am for Sunday praises)
6:00 am – Liturgy
8:00 am – quick breakfast
8:30 am – work for four hours
12:30 pm – Lunch
12:30 – 2:00 pm – Work
2:00 – 5:00 pm – Retreat time
5:00 pm – Vespers
5:30 – 8:00 pm Retreat time
8: 00 pm – Dinner
9:00 pm – Spiritual word
10:00 pm – Meditation hour
11:00 pm lights out
The Youth was wondering how he would do on five hours of sleep. He wondered what on earth people have to meditate on for that many hours a day. The odd thing, was that he found himself less sarcastic about it, but intrigued. Something was different and he felt that it was a wonder that he was even allowed to be there. Vespers went by too quickly for him. He found himself distracted from prayer because he was mesmerised by the church itself. It was obviously very old. Incorrupt relics of some saint he had never heard of were in the southeast corner of the Church. Ostrich eggs, not just one, but a few, hung from various places, and as the sun set, you could see the rays of light shining through ancient beams of wood, and he wondered if this same scene was observed for centuries before. The domes were perfect. Intricate workings in the wood caught his eye. Paintings on the wall of previous patriarchs from the monstery hung proudly, a vigil lamp was lit in front of the niche of the Pantocrator, and another in front of the relic of the church’s patron. The most mesmerising aspect to him, however, were the monks. Men in black, standing firmly in the first chorus, cowls on their heads, and peaceful, joyous faces.
This is the first monastery in the world, he thought to himself, and what’s up with these monks? How are they so happy? They were filing out of the Church as he was just getting into the prayers. He went back, unpacked his bag, and looked at the room full of youth on retreat. From the looks in their eyes, their demeanor in church, their knowledge of what to do and when, it was clear that they were experienced in this retreat business. He took their lead, and asked some questions about the schedule.
“Don’t fall asleep during tasbeha, or they’ll send you home.” One youth said matter of factly. “You’re not here to sleep, you can do that at home.”
“Oh yeah, don’t talk during meals, we listen to the recordings of the Paradise. If you talk, you could get sent home.” Said another.
Usually the Youth would have been annoyed at there being such trifle rules, but for some reason, he was content with them. What is happening to me?
The Youth could barely fall asleep with so many of the day’s sights and sounds replaying in his mind as he tried to process each one. It felt like no sooner had he closed his eyes, that they were opening again. The young man he met earlier was waking them all up for the praises. Who gets up at this ungodly hour?
He stepped outside, and was floored. The moon shone from behind the mountain, illuminating the wilderness enough that you could make out the silhouettes of all the mountains of the region. The stars were more luminous than he had ever witnessed in his life, and everywhere you could spot shooting stars with real clarity. The stillness was the loudest he had ever heard. There was no noise. None. Not the hum of a generator, not the distance sounds of someone’s car. To his untrained ear, it was a deafening silence. The experience was seared into his consciousness. He took in the silence until it was interrupted with the sound of bells. Four short rings, and then a continuous one, then four, then continuous. He made his way with the group to the Church.
The next four hours were celestial. Truly, he had no idea if he was really on earth or not. He was by no means versed in any hymns or melismatic chants, in fact, he couldn’t read the Coptic that was being chanted. It was the spirit of the place and the glow in the church, the unmistakable joy in the voices of the tens of monks, their communion with one another and God, that had the youth unaware of his being. Their antiphonal songs were so alive that it felt like they were dancing. Though he had attended midnight praises before, he had not to that point ever seen what it was like to praise from the whole heart. These were lovers speaking to their God, not slaves to a tyrant. The doxology of prime was actually a doxology, not by title but in actuality. It was an ecstatic praise full of excitement, so intense was it, that he wondered if the saints invoked were singing in the choirs invisibly. The Liturgy, prayed in the monastery’s ancient fortress was so intimate. It was not a dead ritual, it was alive and pulsating.
All of this both amazed and confused him. This is not what he had understood his whole life. Religion was distant and dead. Religion was about God somewhere in some place and humanity in another and their interaction between one another being based wholly on rules. How, then, was this loving and living exchange so very real? How were these monks happy? They had no possessions, wealth, they even vowed celibacy, what was there to be so joyous about? Something in their connection with Him was real. This was dumbfounding to the youth who did not think that any of this was possible.
Later in the day, still trying to fathom what was going on, some of the boys in the retreat house went to the canteen to get a drink and some snacks. Actually, the store seemed out of place with the ancient edifices enclosed in front of it. In the snack shop, the youth eyed the monk who was overseeing some young men running the place. Something connected and they began to make small conversation, where the youth was from, random things that had nothing to do with his experience so far. In fact, the youth was finding himself unable to articulate anything cohesive and thought that the monk would think he was a fool. Instead, the monk invited him to go for a walk in the evening, as though he understood that the youth wanted so very much to open up his heart and pour forth something that he could not grasp. Something was overtaking him in this monastery. He was being undone by something, or someOne.
That evening, the sky alight once more, the youth found his way to a garden where he was to meet the monk. To the youth, it seemed as though the monk was glowing in the dark because of the joy and peace that emanated from him. It was the stuff of books, not of reality, and he was too overwhelmed to even try and process anything. Instead, he wanted to talk, and he did not know of what he wished to speak. The monk started speaking of monasticism, of the desert, of the presence of Abba Antony among them. He spoke of the joy and love he felt toward His God and that his life felt whole, that he would be happy to buried in this place.
Without warning, the youth that usually was stoic, was weeping. He was embarrassed by the tears, it was completely out of character and incomprehensible. The stony heart that had been growing over the previous years in reaction to ‘religion’ was suffering a violent assault. They found a place to sit. The monk pulled out a cross from his pocket and signed the bench three times before sitting.
“Always carry a cross with you,” he instructed, “it’s the power against the enemy and we are never not under warfare.” This was said so so factually and without pretention and accompanied with stories about the power of the Cross. He lived this religion, it wasn’t just a philosophy.
“Anyway, why are you weeping?” Asked the monk.
“I don’t know,” The youth answered, “I just wasn’t expecting this. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here.”
“Sometimes we cry but we have joy within because the Lord is comforting us.”
“Yes, but I’m not like you. You’re holy, you’re into God…I’m not, I’m…I’m really bad.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes I am, and you have no idea how sinful I am, I do lots of sins.”
“Yeah? Well, so do I, actually.”
This frustrated the youth. “No, you are not the same, you are not doing the same things that I do! I’m a really terrible person! In fact, I…” The youth began to accuse himself in front of the monk. He spoke of all the things he saw as being terrible in himself, of the things he felt were incompatible with Christianity and religion, his inability to attain any degree of righteousness and the darkness in which he found himself.
“My brother,” The monk began, and it was shocking that an Abouna was calling the youth a brother, “I don’t know what your problem is. We are all sinners, so what? I was so mischievous in the world, and even here!” The monk went into narratives about his escapades and pranks that he played, and was intentionally soothing the youth and bringing him to tears of laughter instead of shame. After addressing the youth’s pain, the abba continued.
“We are all mischievous. We are all going to fall short, but this is not a problem, The Lord loves us!” Something about this proclamation struck the youth. Yes, in Sunday School and as children we were all taught that “Jesus loves us”, but it had become so cliché with the rest of the things that came with it, that he had trouble really believing that it was true, but this was the first time that he felt that he was seeing a real live expression of that love.
“Not only does He love you, but He is accessible and real.” The monk told him stories, stories of how he never cared much about formal service or looking like the typical image of a “good Christian”. He just loved Him simply. A book about the blessed saint, Pope Kyrillos VI had deeply impacted him. He found himself saying so many short prayers that he was caught praying in his sleep. This is the same person who used to get into fights in the playground, beat up a bunch of youth, and boasted his six-pack abs! He spoke about how the Lord so actively guided him and called him to this path, and that nothing in the world shakes the confidence he has in the Lord’s love.
“Allow me to suggest something,” the monk said, somberly. “I think it is good that every youth live his life as though he were going to be a monk. In doing this, the person will care about a loving relationship with God, that person will care about learning psalms and praises, that person will take very careful watch over his purity, he will work his hardest to be the best for His God. This will make him the perfect spouse or the perfect monk, he will have lost nothing.”
Once again, the youth could see the earnestness of the love in this monk’s heart toward his God. He was not just saying words, he was meaning them. He was truly in love with God and something in him was different. What he saw, but could not articulate, what he had experienced in those forty-eight hours, was holiness. He had never encountered it so intimately in his life, and for the first time, he saw that it was not only real, but attainable. It’s not glossed up in formalities, it’s a state of being, it’s being like God Himself. It is something that doesn’t preclude mistakes, errors, or even mischievousness, but that it’s a transfiguration, a change, a struggle.
The youth’s heart was on fire. Create in me a clean heart, O God, he found himself crying out. In the depths of his heart he heard a Voice, he believed again, for the Father had revealed Christ in him. Holiness was no longer to be scoffed at, holiness is God, and God is real. This, for him, was the first step on the road. He was ready to carry a cross.