Abbâ Muthues used to say that there were three brethren who were in the habit of coming to Abbâ Antony, and that two of them used to ask him questions about the thoughts, and about life, and redemption, and the discretion (or intelligence) of the soul, whilst the third one held his peace continually. And after a long time Abbâ Antony said unto him, “Brother, thou comest here each year, and askest nothing!” And he answered and said unto the old man, “It is sufficient for me to see thee.”
The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Vol. 2, p. 189)
I am writing this after sitting for 2.5 hours with a great Abba. Yes, I still believe in those and actually confess and consult. The discussion sparked the zeal in me that had been dormant for some time, and reminded me of my first retreat at this monastery about sixteen or seventeen years ago. It reminded me how holiness is a far more effective agent than anything else.
Like in the story above, simply seeing Abba Antony, the old man, was sufficient more than the questions and answers were to others. Something in Abba Antony’s visage was completely striking to this silent, staring visitor monk. I, too, have had this experience. The first time I sat with a certain elder that I am convinced is a modern saint, I could not contain myself for what I saw. I had heard many stories about this elder, but none of that mattered when I met him nor could those stories do justice to what I saw in him.. In being near him, I felt like I was in the presence of Christ. Something radiated from the elder’s face, the same way that is described in this anecdote from the Paradise. That something, more specifically, is holiness.
Holiness is a remedy for people. It can stir a person to repent, change, convert, find hope, break pride, lift one up or give one a reality check. It can give meaning in despair and expose vanity when living loosely. It can bring a person to tears and brim one up with the most fullest of joys. It is more effective than seminars, lectures, sermons, satellite stations, and diocese conventions. The reason is because holiness is God. Holiness is the identity we are supposed to be, and when our spirits see it, they become aflame with joy. Think of a person who is parched because of drought. Seeing water in front of him and reachable brings more joy to him than winning the lottery might bring to others. The body is in a state in which it knows that that thing in front of it – is life. It’s survival.
When I first came to this monastery, years ago. I was in a state of shock. I came in with an identity, I left with a different one. People who knew me well saw changes in me. I cannot say I was suddenly a better person because I was not. I was, however, different. Something had changed within me because I saw something real. I saw it and it burned in me and I longed for it more than I ever longed for anything in my short life.
A person who loves sports wants to do well at his sport. How the person ever got into that sport, however, was through some kind of exposure to it. After that exposure, the person may begin to strive to improve his skill in that sport. He will consult, he will look for coaches, and he will probably watch professionals play. I want to talk only about these professionals today.
The professional is the embodiment of the best; it’s a visible display of what the potential is after going through all the drills, exercises, practices and all the other sacrifices and commitments needed to ‘get good’. Seeing the professional gives the sport enthusiast joy, and it also gives him hope, something to aspire to, and a sense of value to the effort.
This is what I discovered in my first retreats, and this is what I saw in the eyes of the elder, the Abba. The holy ones are the professionals when it comes to religious life. Be it this Abba I saw, a ’tunt’ (aunt) at Church, the ’giddo’ (grandpa) making Korban or the garbage collector on your street. I will not forget the first feeling in the presence of those righteous people I met: joy. Inexplicable joy. I remember thinking to myself, “Wait, if this is what it looks like to be holy – if this is what it looks like when you have actually become good at this religion thing – then I want that.” I wanted their peace, their joy, their contentment, their stability. I wanted their lack of concern or care for anything that I felt was so necessary. I could just see goodness and I loved it. I wanted to be holy.
Today, hearing this Abba speak words of wisdom and pointing out to me where I fall short, was a source of great contentment. Yes, it is possible to have someone hold a mirror in front of you, and rather than disparaging, to feel hope. With simple truths of the Gospel he was able to rightly divide the word of truth for me. He was able to point out where I fall short, as well as what is stable and good. The sincerity of his heart, however, and the paternal look in his eyes, would make any sceptic uncomfortable. The sceptic would be uncomfortable because of the unmistakeable authenticity of the man.
While I will not elaborate on most of what we spoke about, given the very personal nature of it, one thing that stood out to me was the clarity of the Gospel to him. He points out how often in wanting to appear kind and gentle, we use the “ma3alish factor”, or, the English equivalents: the “that’s alright” or “it’s okay” factor. I mean the kind that excuses wrongs or tries to make a wrong seem acceptable. Like, “I have been trying so hard to stay pure but I just cannot do it.” The answer to this is not, “That’s alright”. Yes, God forgives sinners – but, as the Abba asked today, Does the sinner want to change? Or does the sinner want to be confirmed as being justified in their state and left to sit there? He points at the Lord Himself. When the woman caught in adultery is brought before Him, He responds saying, “Sin no more”. He doesn’t console her that she was in a good place. Yes, He grants her hope and gives her love and compassion, but He does not dress up sin as being acceptable. Sin is sin, and it is an offense against God.
Even writing these words may appear to some to be harsh. We are uncomfortable being told that we are wrong, yet there is such a thing as right and wrong. If you were to have sat with this elder, and I have many-a-time for seventeen years – you would not be hurt by the words, but enlivened. You would know that in spite of his strictness to the letter of fighting the devil and sin, that he is overwhelmingly understanding and compassionate toward the human condition, confessing even his own faults. He is real. His understanding and compassion for the human race, though, do not nullify right and wrong.
What he achieved, however, is some level of holiness. I am filled with iniquity, I am well aware of many of my sins, though I am sure there are many more of which I am totally oblivious. Yet, being in the presence of this holy man did not fill me with dread, but hope. Seeing the functionality of holiness in his person made me ask, “How do I achieve this?” and from him, I got instruction. Because I saw in him a man of prayer, I could ask him how I ought to pray. Because I saw in him Biblical knowledge, I asked him how to read the Bible. Because I saw in him humility, I asked him how I could attain humility. You see, if I never saw these virtues in practice, I would have no thought or idea other than theoretically on why or how I ought to aspire to these things. One would think that in talking about these things I would either be bored or miserable. On the contrary, I was aching for the conversation to last longer. Rather than feeling despair at my inadequacies, I left with the desire to fight myself, to fight my will. I left determined not to surrender myself to every whim that the old man in me craves and desires.
This Abba, and those monks of my first retreat…they taught me university courses without even speaking. Them and this abba, were able to show me that holiness is graspable and livable, They were able to show me that there for which we must strive. They showed me how much I did not know by being that living knowledge. They made what could have been a boring system, a living and loving relationship. I think the reason there is so much doubt in the world and so much disinterest in religion, is because there is not enough living holiness around us or in us.
I may devote some blogs in the future to specific lessons from today and from other days, but I wanted to write about the importance of even seeing holiness first. I challenge you all to go out and look for holiness, and when you find it, cling to it. Find the person in whom you see the living image of Christ, and emulate that. If possible, ask that person how they arrived at their virtue or what obstacles they faced in getting there. Ask the person how they were able to get out of themselves and living more for others. Watch that person and take notes in a journal. You might find hints of holiness in many normal everyday people, write what you see down for yourself and start trying to live like them.
A year ago today we celebrated the martyrdom of 21 Christians in Libya. The holiness of their act brought faith to the forefront of our minds, because we all wondered if we would be able to do what they did. Why their testimony was so real, was because they lived it, demonstrated it, and were willing to die for it. This is the living witness of holiness, it speaks the loudest because it is authentic. Strive for holiness and fulfill the divine command:
“…consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”