Fourth Thursday of Pascha. Holy Mountain: A Universal Presence and a Heavenward Orientation (Part 3)
By Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaias and Lavreotikis
The Mountain reveals the extremity of human situations. It is moderate in its discreet character but also displays a divine extremeness – though without foolish extremes – in its absolute and uncompromising lifestyle and philosophy. The daily vigils, the absence of a comforting female presence (even in pictorial form), the customary obedience, the life devoid of personal choices emphasizes the naturalness of the ‘supernatural’ state. The Mountain is a place where the majesty of human nature is displayed. It functions as a kind of training ground for achieving deification. ‘The angels’ ranks were awed by thy life in the flesh’, chants the Athonite world, in honour of its father, St. Athanasios of Athos. Human limits are pushed to their utmost. Here saints like Gregory Palamas become beholders of divinity. Saints like Maximos the Kafsokalyvitan cast off their earthly gravity and appear to fly. Saints like Nikodemos Hagioreites express their intelligence as light, while their knowledge assumes the character of revelation. Saints like our modern-day saints Païssios, Ephraim and Elder Joseph the Hesychast combine rigorous discipline in their lives with grace, like the old elders in our ascetic literature. Saints like Kosmas the Aetolian or Fathers Sophronios and Porphyrios, also from our own time, draw strength from Athos’s springs for a few years and then become lifelong reformers, preachers and theologians of worldwide renown.
But the Mountain is not only a place for man’s spiritual glory. On all of the four mountains mentioned earlier God’s presence is marked by the appearance of a cloud. On Mt. Sinai as a ‘dense cloud’ which Moses enters, sensing but not actually seeing the Lord (Exodus, chapters 16, 19 and 24). On Mt. Carmel the ‘cloud’ breaks the silence of the heavens and brings forth rain in a miraculous manner (I Kings 18: 44). On the Mount of Olives, the Mount of the Ascension, the Lord ‘was taken up into a cloud’ and carried off to Heaven (Acts 1: 9). Finally, on Mt. Tabor ‘a bright cloud overshadowed’ the disciples and the voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: listen to Him’ shows that God the Father was present there with them (Matthew 17: 5).
The Mountain lives within a cloud of God’s graces. Sacred relics emit a sweet fragrance, holy icons exude myrrh, events take an unexpected turn, expectations are exceeded, rare surprises occur, God works with a power greater than the force of natural laws and logic. You enter the cloud of Athos as a visitor and, like Moses, you discover the tablets with God’s commandments in your hands. You find it easier to observe them. You are surprised by the presence of the cloud and are startled by the ‘sign’ of God’s grace flowing down like rain. You are struck by the cloud’s mystical character and ‘fall on your face in great fear’, like the disciples on Mt. Tabor. You behold the cloud and hear the voice of God the Father within you. You sense its intangible divine majesty and ‘gaze up at heaven’ like the Apostles on the Mount of Olives and you ‘return’ with great mystical ‘joy’.
If the Mountain of God’s presence illuminates with its apocalyptic visions, the cloud of the divine mystery fills the heart with the humility of uncreated grace. On the Holy Mountain you experience miracles, you perceive holiness, you are illuminated by whatever you can see, you are nourished by whatever lies within your reach, you have the ‘same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2: 5).
~St. John the Forerunner, http://stjohntheforerunnerblog.blogspot.com/2020/02/holy-mountain-universal-presence-and.html Paper presented at the Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference ‘Russia and Athos: A Thousand Years of Spiritual Unity’ held in Moscow, 1-4 October 2006.
Of all the holy sites in the Orthodox world, Mount Athos is the place where for over a thousand years the monastic life has been lived in its most absolute form.