Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Elders and Eldresses - Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Forget your sins; our Christ has blotted them out from the Book of Life."  (Elder Amphilochios of Patmos)

I am currently reading the book Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit - The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece (2003). In this case. the title pretty well conveys the contents of the book. A further notation informs us that the material in this book has been "compiled, written, translated from the Greek, and edited with a preface, introduction, notes, and glossary," by H. Middleton.

There are eight such elders of Greece covered in the book, with each elder's life described in the form of a short biography. All of the elders lived primarily in the 20th c. Following the biography, there is an appended section to each chapter under the heading of  'Counsels'.  In this section, we hear the voice of each elder through a short sampling of their more memorable sayings. And this might be the heart of the book.

The elder (fem. eldress) are key figures in Orthodox spirituality.  Either male or female, these are great guides of the spiritual life known for the depth of their faith, the wisdom of their teaching, the perspicacity of their discernment, in addition to being living icons of the great virtues of humility, patience and love. All of the elders covered in this book had an air of sanctity and holiness about them.

In his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has an artistic version of an elder - Zosima by name - as a key character of the novel, whose presence pervades much of the novel's drama as a beacon of light and inspiration. In the process of developing his literary elder, Dostoevsky includes the chapter "Elders" in which he provides some background to this figure in Orthodox history and spirituality (he had occasion to visit and speak with the prominent 19th c. Russian elder Ambrose of Optina).  In attempting to capture the role of the elder, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

What is an elder? An elder is  one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and  with total self-renunciation.
A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom - that is, freedom from himself - and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

In the 20th c., we have a passage from Archbishop Kallistos Ware, who spent some time at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. While there, in his early years of spiritual formation as an Orthodox Christian, he was blessed with having met the first elder covered in this book, Amphilochios of Patmos (+1970). Archbishop Kallistos has left us a fine sketch of this living elder that is included in Precious Vessels:

What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, his humor, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. His smile was full of love, but devoid of all sentimentality. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried with sullen resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty.
It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: "They have left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy."
Two things in particular I recall about him. The first was his love of nature  and, more especially, of trees... 
A second thing that stands out in my memory is the counsel which he gave when, as a newly-ordained priest, the time had come for me to return from Patmos to Oxford, where I was to begin teaching in the university. He himself had never visited the west, but he had a shrewd perception of the situation of Orthodoxy in the Diaspora. 
"Do not be afraid," he insisted. Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy, he told me; do not be afraid because as an Orthodox in the west, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive, simply be yourself." 
(Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 48-49).

Together with some of you reading this meditation, I had the blessed opportunity to meet and speak (and serve Liturgy together with) another contemporary elder, Fr. Roman Braga of the Monastery of the Dormition in Rives Junction, MI.  His funeral a couple of years ago was a memorable experience.

Be that as it may, I would like to include a few choice "counsels" from Amphilochios of Patmos, as compiled in this book. Hopefully, these few words will pass on something of the great love of Christ the elder had within his heart and how this love had a profound effect on every other aspect of the elder's life, from creation to human persons - saints and sinners alike. Hopefully, everyone will find something here worthy of meditation and application.

From the "Counsels" of the Elder Amphilochios of Patmos

  • Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don't act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.
  • I was born to love people. It doesn't concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.
  • When a person partakes of Holy Communion he receives  power and is enlightened, his horizons widen and he feels joy. Each person experiences something different, analogous to his disposition and the flame of his soul. One person feels joy and rest, another peace, another a spirit of devotion and another an inexpressible sympathy towards all things. Personally, I have often felt tired, but after Holy Communion I felt myself completely renewed.
  • Love Christ, have humility, prayer and patience. These are the four points of your spiritual compass. May the magnetic needle be your youthful Christian heart.
  • We must love Christ; this is necessary for the life of our soul. We also need to love God's creation: animals, trees, flowers, birds, and above all, the most perfect of God's creation, men and women.
  • Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love, and has the blessings of God.
  • When someone opens your heart, I'd like him to find nothing there but Christ.
  • An egotistic person doesn't attract anyone. And if someone is attracted, that person will soon distance himself. The spiritual bond becomes indissoluble only when it meets a child-like spirit of innocence and holiness.
  • He who is without love cannot be called a Christian, lest we mock Christianity.
  • My children, I don't want Paradise without you.

From Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 51-61.

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