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A Lutheran on Mount Athos

What a Protestant pilgrim to the Orthodox holy mountain learned on his journey

Josh Jeter, a young Lutheran  Presbyterian, spends ten days on pilgrimage among the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos. You can’t read his entire long essay, most of which is paywalled, but you can read a lot of it. Here are a few excerpts I especially liked:

Something one notices almost immediately about Athos is the way the monks revere holiness. On Athos, the holy monk is an object of great respect. During my trip, I hear countless stories about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the grandfather of Vatopaidi, and about Fathers Paisios and Porphyrios. For the monks, holiness is less a debate about sanctification than something one is meant to achieve. The story of the road to Emmaus—where Jesus appeared to two disciples after the Resurrection—is important for many Athonites, because it reminds them that contact with God through holiness is a warmed heart, a fire which can be lit and transmitted in living contact. Technically, the monks don’t seek this holiness, but they see it as the result of what they do seek—the obedience and humility of Christ. Holiness, in this sense, is the fragrance of a Christ-oriented heart; the outflow of a life in tune with God. Therefore, when the Athonites honor saints, they see it as honoring the reality of Christ, as his work has been made manifest in particular lives. The saints, in this respect, are like shards of glass before the sun: little fragments which—in the obedience and humility of Christ—became reflective of his greater light. Yet the monks don’t see this as something that happens on its own.

Protestants tend to emphasize the point of conversion, the Orthodox tend to see a more gradual, lifelong process (which only begins upon conversion). A friend once explained to me that, rather than a courtroom or a judicial metaphor (think penal substitution), the primary metaphor for the Orthodox is one of a hospital. Every patient is welcomed in, without condition. But then, through grace, the soul becomes more and more healthy with time. In other words, the monks agree with Protestants about the free nature of grace: the unmerited forgiveness which welcomes the prodigal before he does anything to deserve it. However, in the Orthodox view, after the prodigal is received, he comes to know and experience that grace more deeply as he learns to seek God’s kingdom first, and as he learns to love God with more and more of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. (And for many Orthodox Christians, this is where the ascetic practices enter in.) In this sense, the Orthodox see grace and human effort as more deeply—though mysteriously—intertwined. Grace and human effort don’t oppose each other, as some Protestants articulations imply, but rather love and obedience together produce a deepening experience of God. The saints provide the exemplars of this process, of what a heart can become through grace. And the truly holy lives are those who become radiant in the grace of God.

Jeter arrives as a Protestant and leaves still committed to Protestantism. But his time on Athos gave him some new things to think about:

After Vespers, in the courtyard, I meet a Protestant pastor from Brazil. He is the only Protestant I’ve met on Athos so far. The pastor says he’s having a hard time here, which doesn’t surprise me. He came to Athos with a friend who wanted to study New Testament manuscripts. But he struggles with the reverence for the saints and relics, and for Mary (both common hangups for Protestants). He said the icon-kissing is making him grateful for Luther, although he finds the monks themselves compelling. “You don’t have to talk to them long to see how much they love God,” he says.

I ask him how he feels about the state of Protestant practice back home. For example, what does he think of the rise of celebrity pastors?

He says, “Oh, I’m very concerned about that, and we have loads of it in Brazil. Very troubling. Pastors are turning into brands, and I wonder where it will end.”

He laments the fact that just a few days before he left, another pastoral empire in America had imploded. He said he knew all of us are human, but wondered if we were creating conditions for our pastors to fail. In contrast to that, the pastor said, the Athonites take a rather different approach. Humility is considered essential for growth in Christlikeness, and the monks live remarkably quiet lives. By custom you couldn’t even write about a saintly monk until after he was dead, because the praise was seen as so dangerous to a monk’s humility. (From the Philokalia, the de facto handbook of Athos: “To speak humbly is one thing, to act humbly is another, and to be inwardly humble is something else again.”) In essence, if you were prominent in Protestant circles, you probably had a big church and followers on social media. Whereas if you were well known in Orthodox circles, there’s a fair chance you were dead, after spending your life in a cave.

The pastor didn’t think we needed to become monks, and he wasn’t planning to convert—“the reverence for Mary is a problem for me”—yet there was something interesting about the contrast. “We could stand to be a bit more courageous about humility,” he said. I couldn’t help but agree with him. “True humility creates an opening in the heart for God,” one monk told me. “And this is why we need to follow Christ in his humility. Nothing nourishes humility like the perception of God, yet humility itself provides a deeper form of sight. Humility is both the foundation and the result of a closer sense of God.”

And at the end of his stay, this reflection on a conversation with Father Grigor, a monk:

The two of us agree on almost nothing: ecclesiology, baptism, the meaning of repentance. And yet it’s clear there’s something shared between us. Separated by differences in dogma and practice, we admire the luminous Christ.

Again, you can’t read the whole thing, but you can read some of it. 

I admire Josh Jeter for making this pilgrimage, which was, by his account, physically and spiritually arduous — and, at times, marked by monastic criticism of Protestantism. I confess that I am a bit afraid to go to Athos — afraid of the spiritual intensity. Afraid of discovering, among their rigorous asceticism, how truly slothful and worldly that I am.

I do believe, though, that all of us American Christians would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the ancient, and once-universal, Christian discipline of fasting. On my Facebook feed today, someone shared a October 2014 piece by the Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia, who, noting a trend of Hispanic Catholic women converting to Islam or Mormonism, says that  these religions offers in part a sense of ascetic rigor that contemporary Catholicism has abandoned. Excerpt:

The “relaxations” of the [Second Vatican Council, which relaxed rules on fasting and other practicies], poorly implemented and largely untaught, replaced all of that with a nebulous sort of “do your own thing, make it meaningful for you, and we’ll see you on Sunday, then,” and that came up empty. Rather than making things “personally meaningful” for people, the church strangely gutted itself. Having lost a very stable structure, people were left feeling unsure of boundaries, bereft of their place. Untethered in the large universe of infinite spiritual sensibilities and choices, they either either chose poorly or passed out.

Parents know that children need and want boundaries; they need and want disciplines that make life sensible and orderly and safe. More and more I’m convinced that ending meatless Fridays took away something sensible and orderly — and culturally and communally unifying, which brings its own safety — and replaced it, essentially, with nothing, because when you leave people to find something “personally meaningful” to do, they often settle for what is new or capricious or vapid, or all three. Or they do the easiest thing of all, which is nothing.

Perhaps that has a great deal to do with why the strictures and obligations of Islam are Mormonism are now attractive to some who have been raised Catholic, but catechized poorly and left unsure as to what any of it means, from the kneeling, to the Crucifix, to the Trinity, and the Communion of Saints.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the worry was that Catholics were rote-bound, existing within the church but only shallowly nourished within the inauthentic constraints of duty and obligation. In light of these conversions, perhaps those lines were absolutely necessary, in order to help focus us and free us.

We are more inclined to cast ourselves out into the deep, after all, when we know our we are well-tethered to the barque.

We Americans don’t know how to deny ourselves anything.

UPDATE: A reader points out this Vanity Fair article from a few years ago exploring financial corruption and the Vatopaidi monastery. I had forgotten about it, but boy, is it tough.



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