Basil Pennington, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk’s Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground
Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2003.
My first encounter with the Eastern Orthodox Church was in college. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized that there was something else besides Catholics and Protestants in Christendom. In Abilene, where I studied, there was a billboard that said, “Come to St. Luke’s Orthodox Church, the real first-century church!” It was a little good-humored slant at the churches of Christ who also claim to have embodied the church of the New Testament. I went one Saturday evening to the “Vespers” service and fell in love a little bit (a crush, as it were). Eastern Orthodoxy is on the ‘high’ end of “high church” and in some ways filled a great religious void in my life. As the sign implied, it was indeed a natural extension of a good deal of the foundational ideas of my own tradition. Unfortunately, it also embodied some of the worst qualities of my tradition, especially its hard-lined exclusivity. I soon became a scorned lover.
I have not fallen quite out of love with that church. Theologically it has been a well that I continue to draw from, and it has shaped my thoughts and actions in important ways. When I came across this book at a bookstore I knew it was something I needed to read: another outsider (this time a Roman Catholic monk) visiting the place Orthodox Christians consider to be holiest: Mt. Athos. I picked it up as a way of learning more about this very special place—a place I am not likely to ever be able to visit in person. I quickly found out that this was not just a book of interesting mysteries, it was a book for devotion, a book that called me to prayer, to rest, to contemplation, to peace.
This is (…was…) the private journal of a “hieromonk” (priest/monk) named M. Basil Pennington. He was a monk of the Trappist order, an order known for a fairly consuming prayer schedule and a restriction of speech—like an “almost” vow of silence. Pennington is one of the “higher ups” of his order. When he was called to a new set of responsibilities he had the opportunity to take a ‘retreat’. He chose Mt. Athos, a narrow, mountainous body of land that juts off the coast of Greece, close to Thassaloniki (Just Google it). The Orthodox Church has claimed it as the center of its spiritual life. There are a good number of monasteries there—each with its own distinct style, rule of life, and community.
The journal tracks Pennington’s private thoughts throughout his retreat. The entries range from personal introspection and examination, to reflection on the days events, to a narrative of the events he encountered and conversations he had. In eulogizing the late Pennington, someone said that if one wanted to learn Pennington’s true character, of his deep love and grace, he should simply read this book. That is certainly true. The self-emptying love of God is embedded deep within Pennington’s thoughts. It is really a pleasure to be able to experience what is, in some ways, the height of Christian community between people who have devoted themselves wholesale to God.
A major theme is the ecumenical question: how will a group that is religiously exclusive entertain an outsider? Through the course of the book the answer varies. Pennington discovers that each monastery is different. The place where he spends most of his time, Simonos Petras (Simon Peter) is full of monks who embrace him. Others are less enthusiastic about his presence, but every monastery and hermitage he visits—with the exception of one, a monastery that has since been deemed heretical by the Ecumenical Patriarch (the equivalent of the Pope in the West) of the Orthodox Church—treat him with dignity, respect, and hospitality.
This is not to say that everything is always wonderful. One of the most poignant parts of the journal is when Pennington reflects on the ways in which, even in his home base of Simonos Petras, he faces the inevitable wounds of exclusivity. Some of the older monks openly wonder why he has yet to “become a Christian” (meaning that he is not Orthodox), while some of the younger ones tend to try to convert him, subverting any real relationship that might occur. He is often asked to stand in a separate place reserved for non-Orthodox in the worship services. Anyone who has spent any time with the Orthodox church knows these wounds. It is so difficult to be with people who represent a tradition that has so much of God in it, a tradition which you consider yourself one with as a Christian, and yet for them to either reject your aspirations or at least to consider themselves somewhat above and beyond what you bring to the table as a Christian.
Yet the final and most beautiful theme of this book is something of an antidote to the poison of exclusivity. Pennington gives us glimpses into so many Orthodox scholars, priests, and monastics who see Christ within each person regardless of tradition. Pennington’s interactions and relationships with these saints is so encouraging. Here are conversations and interactions marked by love, respect, and true discipleship.
Several other themes run through this book, from Pennington’s frustrated desire to be able to be more present in the moment, or his humble reflections of his own insufficiency and failures, or his rich and deep insights into the Christian life in general and the life of prayer in particular. This book is a modern-day spiritual classic, but what makes it a classic is not just the quality of its prose or vitality of its rhetoric, but rather the way that it is itself a call to prayer, a summoning and kindling of the heart that compels one to seek and find God.
“But law must follow life, not make life conform to it. Renewal must begin in the hearts and the spirits of persons and communities.” (xxx)
“I have found here at Simonos Petras the kind of community I have always idealized—a community that really runs on love. There are no strict rules or expectations. The men come to Services because they want to, they do their work because they want to, they keep silence and pray because they want to. It is very much a family. And as Father Maximos put it, ‘Naughty children are not thrown out of a family.’ But I have not seen any ‘naughty children’ yet—though there is freedom to speak in church and refectory in a way that we would not feel comfortable within our Western monasteries.” (21)
“[The spiritual guide] should be a man who is always in the presence of God, never in the way, allowing God’s gifts to flow through, seeing all the need of his disciple and applying the Word of God to it.” (37-8)
“It was agreed that spirituality and practice do and should flow from doctrine. And therefore it is understandable that some Orthodox feel that Catholics should not use the Jesus Prayer or any of the writings and practices of the Orthodox Church. But Father Kallistos and Professor Sherrard felt that the massive bulk of our doctrine is one. The areas where we differ are comparatively small. A person truly seeking and guided by his Spiritual Father will surely draw out the good that God wants him to find in these writings and practices.” (47)
“When the heart begins to recite, the tongue should stop.” (49)
“I am so full of thoughts, projects, ideas, things to be done. I am hardly ever fully present. Distracted at Services, at prayer, at lectio—never there—dissipated, shallow. Lord, have mercy…To stay in attention in one’s stall through several hours and continue fervent prayer in spite of fatigue and physical pain calls for a bit. I am afraid I do not do too well.” (49)
“I see that in working with my sons I have been too eager to see them move on, too eager to impart knowledge. For the future I will try to move more at God’s pace, be content to give a word, and let it be used by him as he sees fit.” (50)
“I questioned Father Paisios on his life: I don’t remember; I am an idiot.” (52)
“God does not look to what we say but how we hold people and needs in our heart.” (53)
“I shared with him a very real question in my own heart. How, while remaining fully true to what we should be as monks—for otherwise we are of no use to anyone—can we be more to those who are seeking and searching? …Father Nicholas felt such a question would not even occur to an Orthodox monk. He simply lives his life as a monk.” (63)
“I think the Lord must be laughing at me.” (64)
“Each one will have to sustain his loss according as he has built. How have I built? Is so much of it stubble, needing to be burned away? I am afraid so.” (65)
“One of the things I think the Lord wants to teach me is to live freely and wholly in the now, with him, and not miss the present because I am in the future.” (67)
“I found one of the stout Russian monks working placidly with a tiny towel and a pan of cement patching some cracks in the stairway, seemingly oblivious of the mountain of ruins around him. His humble labor seemed something like a pebble in the face of a flood. Yet there was something serenely beautiful in his quiet labor.” (97)
“The way these old men continue during the long hours in choir praising God and praying for all says much of the meaning of monasticism.” (70)
“Deep down in some little corner of my soul there is a voice urging me to feel a bit guilty. It is perhaps that streak of Jansenism in all of us, a bit of fear. To be holy it has to be hard, painful. We tend to find it difficult to simply receive good things, especially when they are so completely undeserved. We have to learn to accept good things form the Lord, our loving Father, as well as bad. “ (75)
“I stressed that my desire to enter more into their ways and traditions was not so much to practice or imitate, but in the light of a different way, to see my own way more clearly and fully and also to appreciate more and glorify God for what he is doing in their midst.” (80)
“Rather than struggling to overcome all the sin and evil in us, all our bad tendencies, we seek to enter into the Divine Presence and be to God: “Be still and know that I am God.” Instead of struggling with self to kill the old man, we simply ignore him with all his beautiful or not so beautiful thoughts and feelings and desires and turn our whole attention to God…So by ignoring self and turning our attention fully to God in silent, attentive prayer, we truly die to self and live to God” (93)
“I sometimes tend to feel sorry for the humble laymen who work at lowly tasks here on the Mountain. Most monasteries have a few, working in the gardens or woods or in kitchens, etc. And there are the boatmen and the bus drivers who go constantly back and forth. That is what they have been chosen to do, just as we have chosen to be monks. I may feel infinitely more blessed in my vocation, and certainly it is a most beautiful gift from the Lord. But who his to say which is more significant in the working out of the divine saving dance of creation? Each has its place. Only the love of the dancer counts in the end.” (111)
“I must not allow any trafficking. I do need to search the Scriptures for that insight that will fuel the fires of love and self-sacrifice. But I must take care not to sell such thoughts and insights or to use them to make others think more of me or to write them in books to make money. I must have that purity of heart, the Lord must so cleanse my temple, that I seek only him and share only to help others find him. Lord, give me a clean heart and a humble, serving love.” (121)
“Lord, look into my heart, but first put there what you want to see. Amen.” (126)
“I like the way they do the Services. Usually one or a small group around the lectern does the reciting or singing. The rest are left free to follow along, moving with the theme of the prayer, carried as it were on the wings of the prayer of the Church, in a very simple prayer that can be very free and elevated. This is why they can have such long Services. Instead of everyone being expected to sing almost everything as it is with us in the West, the strong singers can carry the larger part of the burden, yet even they get time to rest while others recite the Psalms and the like.” (126)
“The assumption that is present in this, that all other Christians in some way are not open or not seeking Christ’s will, I find impossible to accept.” (132)
“Certainly I would be delighted if, in some very real way, the Lord would show me his Face, let me experience him. But then he does, but in no sensational or dramatic way but in a very real constant Presence of peace and joy and love. I cannot be sufficiently grateful for what I have which is so much more than I could ever deserve. Yet I know the Lord is pleased at my constantly wanting more.” (144)
“There is another form of self asserting itself, enjoying the imagined experience of being in control, mastering a situation, accomplishing, achieving, instead of living in the present moment before God, experiencing my own minuteness and incapacity, crying for the mercy and love of God.” (148)
“Twenty-five years of unlimited mercy—and all the years that went before, to prepare for it. How very far short I have fallen from the full potential of the life the Lord has given me. He alone knows and he alone can forgive. I can only ask pardon even as I say my humble ‘Thank you, Lord’. By your great mercy, may I die in the habit and in a state more worthy of it than I am in now.” (150)
“But anything that our small minds can master is very small indeed, certainly only a caricature of God and his wonderful doings, and not capable of drawing form us that wonder that falls down in admiration and rises up in praise.” (191)
“The monk who wanted me to be baptized [into the Orthodox church] spoke out of a faith-filled love, according to the ardor of his own faith conviction and the vision he had. A Westerner might be tempted to label it as prejudice or narrowness, but if he did, he would be missing the reality that was present, a beautiful reality, even if partial.” (199)
“Often others see the cross—all the monk or nun gives up—but also they see the evident joy, and they cannot understand. Such a life has to be lived. Until it is, even for the monk and nun it is a paradox; then it becomes a mystery of love.” (216)
“I was not tired after the Service. That is one of the things that has rather surprised me here on the Mountain; the long Services seem to have a certain rhythm to them, a time of quiet and a time of deep prayer that renew and refresh one not only spiritually but also physically. One can come out from them without a sense of fatigue but rather of having been well rested.” (235)
“What we do need is that kind of love experience that will transform and motivate us to seek, to be attentive, to be receptive, and to follow unhesitatingly. Love-knowledge, not brilliant concepts or flashy ideas.” (260)
“Isaiah says: ‘The idols will perish forever’ (2:18). Lord, grant that all the idols in my life perish, and without delay, and forever. Especially idols of my own image before men. Let me simply be before you in all nakedness and simplicity, and let men see what they will, and say what they will, and think what they will. Help me to be myself, go my own way—the way you beckon. As Dom Déchanet has put it, ‘Accept then to be yourself, to be ‘other’ than the others’. And he knowingly adds, ‘It is difficult’.” (261)
“For me I see the heart of Christianity in personal love of Jesus Christ. Until one gets to know him enough to be compelled by that knowledge to love him and want to do everything for him to please him, until, in a word, one has fallen in love with him, I fear one is centered on the one he knows best, himself, and has love of self at the center. He knows enough about Christ to know it is important to love him and please him by doing what he wants, but it is a dutiful sort of thing, ultimately motivated by self-love, one’s own good. I think the Lord accepts this, knowing it is a path, a way to true Christian life and love, but it falls short of it. And such a dutiful Christianity, while it brings a certain joy and peace from a sure knowledge that one is in the right way, yet lacks that fullness of joy and peace that makes the true Christian so attractive. Hence the practical importance of daily listening to the Gospel sand spending time in listening prayer using every other means we can to let Jesus reveal his most lovable Self to us.” (267)
“I see more clearly the selfishness, the lust, gluttony, and sloth in me. How little the love of inner silence and prayer has grown in these twenty-odd years. I can only try by God’s help to keep my schedule and my need, my unworthiness. And coming to know I have no claim, perhaps then he will come and I will really know that it is pure mercy, immense goodness, and be able to humbly accept it for that. Lord, have mercy and help. May I again give myself wholly to you. In spite of all my uncleanness and sin, please do not reject me, but take me and care for me and help me to be made worthy of the promises of Christ.” (285)