12 January 2012
The film is available for purchase here.
03 October 2011
By Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra
Many times believers are scandalized by the happiness of the impious and faithless. Indeed, when we take a look around us, we see that God, according to human logic, very unfairly distributes His good things. Where He should be giving happiness He gives misfortunes. Where He should be giving riches He gives poverty, and where He should have given poverty He gives riches. When we await His blessings, then He gives us a heavy blow, while simultaneously He maintains a perpetual smile on others. We are led to say, using a modern phrase, that God always discriminates. We are scandalized by this. Why?
Simply because our heart is directed towards all these things, is stuck on them, loves them, and longs for them. But the release from catastrophy should be sought elsewhere. We should not seek the removal of this apparent discrimination of apparent injustice. The change should occur within us. We must become total strangers towards everything human, towards human logic and human thought, and towards all good things. We must be indifferent towards everything. When estranged from everything, then God can be everything for us, for God alone to remain with us. This will give us the deep peace from within. Otherwise, even if there is something in our heart which is not of the other life but of this one, we should know that we will be continuously tormented.
Source. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.
10 October 2010
This remarkable narrative provides us with a rare glimpse of how a young monk was transformed into a charismatic elder. Embedded within this same narrative, moreover, is the foundation upon which the elder reconstructed the spiritual tradition Simonopetra. The story of the monk, therefore, is a document bearing a double significance: on the one hand, it describes what is arguably the central moment in the life of Elder Aimilianos, and, on the other, it contains a kind of diagram for the vision of monastic life he put into practice, first at Meteora, and later on the Holy Mountain. Given its importance, then, it will be worthwhile to spend a few minutes carefully considering its basic features.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes us about this story is its biblical character. The progressive unfolding of the monk's experience closely corresponds to the pattern of divine revelation recorded in the Bible. This pattern, with which our story is deeply marked, is essentially a progression from darkness to light, followed by the revelation of God's word.
The darkness with which our story begins is both physical and spiritual. In it we see a solitary figure descending into the dark night of divine abandonment. This is therefore a kind of passion narrative, a crucifixion scene, during which the sun is blotted out, and we are enfolded in a thick, impenetrable darkness, such as that which settled on Sinai as a prelude to the establishment of God's covenant with Moses.
In the story of the monk, the darkness is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a divine, unearthly light. In the language of the Bible, this light is the divine 'glory' (kavod, doxa), which typically manifests itself prior to the revelation of God's word. And this is what we see once again in the Sinai theophany, and in the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, namely: a progression from the vision of glory to the hearing of the word. This same pattern continues in the New Testament, pre-eminently in the Transfiguration of Christ, where the vision of the divine light precedes the sound of the voice of the Father (cf. Mk 9:2-7; Mt 17:1-9; Lk 9:28-36). And again in the conversion of Paul, which begins with a blinding light flashing from heaven, after which Paul hears a voice (Acts 9:3-4). Our story's narrative structure, then, which will continue to occupy us, is a movement from primal darkness to the light of revelation, measured in the distinctive cadences of sacred scripture.
The second thing that strikes us about this story is its deeply ecclesial character, which brings us to the question of charisma and institution. The movement from darkness to light does not terminate in the revelation of the word, but rather culminates in the communal celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The monk's experience, therefore, should not be construed as an instance of 'private mysticism', set in motion by a psychological struggle resolved by the stars in a mystical union with nature. Like the conversion of Paul, what our monk undergoes is not simply an event in the life of a particular individual, but is rather an ecclesial event with far-reaching implications. The subject who receives God's revelation is always, and can only be, the Church in its fullness. God's glory may be revealed to a particular individual, but always for the sake of the larger community: 'for if one member is glorified (doxazetai), all the members rejoice with it' (1 Cor 12:26).
That the narrative begins in the privacy of a monastic cell, of course, can hardly be denied. Such cells have long been understood as a symbolic projection of the monk's body.13 Thus the monk's departure from his cell represents the burgeoning ecstasy of his mind; it marks a going outside of himself. (Much in the same way that the figure of Abraham, sitting outside of his tent, was interpreted by the church fathers as an image of the mind in a state of ecstasy, awaiting the manifestation of God as Trinity.) Entering into the space of the courtyard, the monk sees the night overtaken by a light brighter than day. He beholds, as we said, the glory of God, the glorious majesty, which St Paul said is visible in creation as a whole, for those who do not darken their heart by turning away from the truth (Rom 1:19-23; cf. Wis 13:5).
Precisely at this very moment, however, the divine light flooding the courtyard becomes newly manifest to him, and at a much deeper level. Vision yields to hearing, and the monk listens in amazement, for he hears all of creation praising the divine name, singing the words of the Jesus Prayer. The glorious light of God, which lately dispelled the monk's darkness, is now revealed to be Jesus Christ himself, the 'light of the world' (John 8:12).
In response to this revelation, the monk's heart opens, and joins in the chanting of the prayer. The saving name of Jesus Christ, the name that is 'above all names' (cf. Phil 2:9), now comes to dwell deep within the centre of the monk's beings. He has received the gift of the Prayer of the Heart.
But even this is not the end of the story. As the monk's progression from his cell to the monastery church suggests, the revelation of the Prayer of the Heart is an event that does not stand on its own but is connected to the liturgy. The gift of the Jesus Prayer functions, not as an end in itself, but rather as a prelude, an overture, a rite of passage to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The courtyard event, in other words, functions as a kind of matins service, in which creation literally responds to the call of the Psalmist: 'Praise Him all you stars and light - Let everything that has breath praise the Lord' (Ps 148:3; Ps 150:5, i.e., the lauds, read or chanted at every matins service).
This liturgical interpretation of the courtyard event finds support in a series of comments the elder made in 1975 regarding the daily celebration of the matins service (orthros). The meaning of that service, he believed, was summed up in the words of its initial, psalmic hymn:
The first part of the matins services is strongly marked by the expectation to see God in the darkness. And this is the case until the moment when the words of that beautiful hymn break forth: 'The Lord is God and has appeared unto us' (cf. Ps 117:27). We must love this hymn, and intensely experience it when we hear it chanted, but within our hearts, because this is the meaning of matins: the vision in light: of the God who can be seen.14
In this passage, the inner meaning of the matins service becomes clear in light of the vision of God. Here, instead of undermining or invalidating the rituals of the Church, mystical experience confirms and authenticates them. If we think of the charismatic individual as an anti-institutional radical or revolutionary, we are forgetting that, more often than not, his radicalism is balanced by an equally strong conservatism. In and through his religious experiences, the mystic rediscovers the inner meaning of the sources of traditional authority. In seeking to understand and convey the content of his experience, the mystic finds his way back to language, to devotion, and to liturgy, which is also the way to community.
It was thus one of Elder Aimilianos's most deeply held convictions that mystical experience and liturgy are dynamically related. The liturgy of the church always implies and includes the living liturgy of the individual's existence, and thus there can be no ultimate separation of charisma from institutions, of spirituality from organized religion, or of private from corporate forms of prayer. In the elder's own words: 'It is pointless for me to go to church if I am not continuously at prayer. And it is pointless for me to pray if I have no part in the liturgy and the sacraments... There is no church without prayer and no prayer without church.' Indeed, prayer and liturgy are not simply interdependent, but like 'faith' and 'works', neither can be said to exist in separation from the other.15
This principle is closely related to the elder's remarks on the meaning of the daily matins service. There, as we saw, the experience of God in prayer was directly related to liturgy, because liturgy in various ways represents that experience, and in a certain sense is that experience. Liturgy and worship grow directly out of the experience of revelation, because the revelation of God's glory is always necessarily answered by the glorification of God. As in the eucharist, God's gift to man, and man's return of that gift to God, become inseparable.
13. See St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent 27: 'Strange as it may seem, the hesychast is a man who fights to keep his incorporeal self shut up in the house of the body... The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him, and within him is the dwelling place of knowledge' (PG 88.1097CD). See also the response of St. Silouan of Athos, when asked why he did not relocate to a cave, in order to avoid the trouble and noise created by visitors to the monastery: 'I do live in a cave: my body is the cave of my soul, and my soul is a cave of the Holy Spirit' (cited in the Athonite periodical: Hosios Gregorios 30 : 24). Following Elaine Scarry, the cell/body analogy can be extended to include the furnishings of the cell, which are themselves 'forwardings' or 'projections' of the self outward: 'The simple triad of floor, stool, and mat, for example, makes spatially and therefore steadily visible the collection of postures and positions the body moves in and out of, objectifies its need continually to shift within itself the locus of its weight, objectifies, finally, its need to become wholly forgetful of its weight, to move weightlessly to a larger mindfulness', The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, 1985), 39.
14. 'Preparation for Worship' (a spiritual talk given to the priest-monks of Simonopetra, 5 January 1975) (= KL 4:116).
15. 'Catechism on Prayer' (given at Simonopetra, on 4 February 1974, shortly before the beginning of Great Lent) (= KL 1:227, 230; SIAD 1:196, 198; and The Church at Prayer, 9, 44).
01 September 2010
'The Liturgy is our family, and our family is not simply our children and relatives - it is rather all of us, all humanity'
Because we know and believe that God is our Father, we view the church, especially when we celebrate the Liturgy, as our true home. We come in and go out freely, we are happy to be here, we make the sign of the cross, we light our candles, we speak with out friends, and it is easy to see that the Orthodox feel that the church is their home. And the church is our home. Our family is the gathering (synaxis) of the church. Our family is not simply our children and relatives, however many we have. It is rather all of us, all humanity, including all those who have turned aside to the left or to the right, or who have perhaps not yet even thought about God, or dared to admit that their heart is filled with cries and groans, and that, with these, they hope to open heaven, or that God will answer them, but they are hesitate and are ashamed. The Liturgy is our family, our gathering, our house. And what a spacious house it is! Together with us are those who are absent, along with sinners, and the wicked, and the dead, indeed, even those who are in hell, but who may yet remember something about God. And who knows how many of these will find relief, be drawn out of Hades, and even dragged up from the depths of hell, thanks to the prayers of the Church, her memorial services, and divine liturgies.* This is our home. We believers have such a large house!
- Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, "Our Church Attendance: Reflections on the Divine Liturgy of St. James" a sermon delivered in the Church of Our Lady Katholike, Limassol, Cyprus on Sunday, October 23, 1988 in The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart, ed. The Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), pp. 83-4.
* Synaxarion of the Matins of the Sunday of Orthodoxy; cf. Gregory of Rome, cited in Evergetinos, vol. 4 (Athens, 1966), qu. 30.1, 11-14, p. 499.
31 August 2010
We know that marriage is an institution established by God. It is "honorable" (Heb 13.4). It is a "great mystery" (Eph 5.32). An unmarried person passes through life and leaves it; but a married person lives and experiences life to the full.
- Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, "Marriage: The Great Sacrament" in The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart, ed. The Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), p. 111
God did not put Adam to sleep or in a kind of trance, because what God did required Adam’s consent. How God respects our freedom! Adam was able to see what was happening, even though he didn’t fully understand it. God opened up his side, removed one of his ribs, and from it fashioned a new human being, Eve, whom God gave to Adam (Gen. 2:23).
When God showed Eve to Adam, he was amazed; completely dumbfounded. At first he thought he was seeing another version of himself, and said, this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Gen. 2:23). It’s like seeing your brother or sister, whom you haven’t seen in many years, and saying:”But that’s me!” But when God said Let us make a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:18), Adam realized that there was a mystery here. And thus he said, “I Adam (‘ysh), will call her Eve (‘’ysha),” “Eve” being the feminine form of “Adam,” as if my name was Paul and I called you Paula. Adam and Eve were one, each being an image of the other, and so were not ashamed of their nakedness, because it’s only in the presence of others that our nakedness becomes a source of shame. But they were one flesh, just as we read at the marriage service: The two shall be one flesh (Eph. 5:31, citing Gen 2:24). And this is why they were always together, and why there was no hostility between them, for no man hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it (Eph. 5:29).
When they sinned against God, however, what happened? They realized that they were naked and so they covered themselves up with aprons made of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). Do you see what happened? The unity that existed between them was broken. Their personalities were divided; they became strangers to each other, and so they covered themselves in order to conceal their bodies. And this is what sin does to us: it cuts us into pieces and divides us from ourselves and from others. Sin splits people up. It cuts them right down the middle. And thus Adam was ashamed, both before Eve and before God, and went off to hide. God, of course, went to look for him…
And when the little god sinned, God wept. God wept! But Adam ran off and hid. What did God do then? He humbled Himself. He acted like nothing was wrong. He approached quietly, feigning ignorance, hoping gradually to come around to the subject of what had happened. Adam, He called out, where are you? (Gen. 3:9). No answer. Just a trembling behind the trees. But God finds him, and says: “Why didn’t you come out to meet me? Why didn’t you come running to see me, as you always do? What’s the matter? What’s that you’re wearing?” By this time however, Adam had thought up an excuse, and blurted out: The woman that You gave me, she deceived me (Gen.3:12). It’s as if he had said: “this is all your fault, God. This all happened because of the woman that you gave me.” No humility here. And it was Adam’s utter lack of humility that sealed the verdict of death against him.
To all of this, God said something like: “The woman that I gave you? Do you mean Eve? But you and Eve are one person, aren’t you? How, then, can you blame this on her and say that you had nothing to do with it? How can you divide yourself, your nature, in this way? How did Eve become a separate person? Wasn’t it you who said she was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh? Didn’t you call her by your own name? When did the one become two? How were you separated?”
Despite the fall of man, God did not, and never will, abandon the human race. Unlike the woman in pain who forgot her baby at the dentist’s office, God will never abandon us. Through His prophet, He tells us: Even if a mother forgets her child, I shall not forget you (Is. 49:15), because you are a god that I have made.
So this is our God! I have stretched out my hands all the day long to a disobedient and contrary people (Is. 65:2). We have no time for God. We’re too busy. We don’t think about Him because we’re tired. But all the day long, Christ, the Great High Priest, stands with His hands outstretched on the cross, on which the little gods have nailed Him. And from that lofty vantage point, He supplicates His heavenly Father on our behalf. Though we crucify Him every day, God prays for us! That, my beloved, is humility.
- Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra in The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), p. 305-309
The Son of God does not come in symbols, or in clouds or still breezes. Instead, He removed his garments of light (cf. Ps. 103.2) and clothed Himself in the garments of human nature. Long ago, God made man a little god. Now, God Himself becomes man, and this is beyond anything that man could ever have imagined or hoped for.
Until now, God built bridges, so that He might cross over to us, and we to Him. Now He abolishes all distances, removes all boundaries, and comes to dwell with us forever. Unable to endure the loss of His creation, he sets aside his unspeakable glory and humbles Himself, definitely taking on our condition.
- Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra in The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), p. 309, 310
30 August 2010
Why, though, doesn't he look at us, but looks instead to the sanctuary? When the priest stands in front of the altar, he is praying, and imploring, and calling upon Christ as our intercessor. And, afterwards, when the priest make the Entry, he will again pass through our midst without so much as glancing in our direction. It is he who goes ahead of us, who ascends, who leads us on the road to heaven.
What is the significance of this behavior? Why does the priest always go in front of us without looking at us? Pay attention to this in order to understand.
Have you ever been up to the monasteries of Meteora? Have you gone, for instance, to the Monastery of the Great Meteoron? In the old days, people had to be pulled up there in a net. The gate-keepers would put them in it, close [the visitor's] eyes so they wouldn't get dizzy, and the monks would haul them up with a winch. Later on, they built a little path, extremely narrow, and wedged tightly up against the rock, which ran in the direction of the Metamorphosis mountain. So when a visitor came, how did he manage to climb up this very narrow pathway? If he looked down, over the edge of the precipice, he would surely have collapsed and been lost. But in those days a monk used to come down, and he would offer the visitor his cassock to hold and say to him: "As I climb up and look upwards, you hold on to me. We'll go up together. But don't look down. If you look down you'll fall, and you'll pull me down as well". And so the monk would take him up the narrow, little path, with the visitor's heart pounding, because he knew that below was the abyss. [The monk] took [the visitor] up, circling round and round, and when they arrived at the summit, [the monk] would say: "Ah! Here is Christ!"
This is precisely what the priest does. He takes us up the narrowest pathway. Be careful. Don't look down, lest something earthly should lead you astray. Keep your heart on high, your mind like an eagle, so that it can cut through the clouds and fly up into the heavens! Land animals can't fly, so be an eagle! Look up!
- Archimandrite Aimilianos (Vafeidis) of Simonopetra, "The Divine Liturgy: The Window of Heaven", a sermon delivered in the church of St. Nicholas, Trikala, Greece, 31 January 1971 in The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart, ed. The Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), pp. 76-77.
09 March 2010
8 My soul clings closely behind You,
Your right hand has upheld me.
Now the mutual feelings of tenderness and love, along with the power of union, reach their culmination in a sweetness and a delicacy that is like the gentle breath of a mild breeze or the fragrance of perfume. My soul clings closely behind You. “I am attached to You, my God. I follow You. I never want to be separated or apart from You.” This is the expression of a common life lived together over a long period of time, an expression of unity, identity, and mutual assimilation. “You and I, together forever, so closely united that we could never live apart from each other, for we are one. My “I” has been submerged and lost in the boundless depths of You. And this is because Your right hand has upheld me. Your power and Your grace continually help me.” For our spiritual lives to bear fruit, two things are necessary: the exercise of our free will, which is expressed in the first part of this verse, and divine grace, which is expressed in the second.
Think of a small child who with great tenderness and affection loves his father. He takes hold of his hand, embraces him, clings to him, just as the father loves and holds the child. Let us also call to mind the icon of the Glykophilousa, in which the Theotokos is depicted holding the child Jesus with infinite tenderness. The two of them are caught up in a reciprocal embrace so that their bodies appear to merge and form a single body; their cheeks pressed against each other as if to form a single face, a single person. That, my beloved, is the exercise of free will.
David says nothing here about the need for strength or human struggle. His inner disposition is simple, namely, not to be separated from God: my soul clings closely behind You. The strength necessary for such a union comes directly from God, which is why he says Your right hand has upheld me, which means “Your grace upholds me: working together, my free will and Your grace can accomplish all things.” Saint Athanasios of
understands this verse as follows: “Not even for a moment, my God, can my spirit be separated from You, for I am afire with ardent love, and, as if my mind were a mass of glue, I adhere to You in desire.” It is the movement of our free will, of our desire, which attracts and draws down divine grace. Alexandria
The Holy Forty Martyrs, whose memory we celebrate today, said: “We have one honor and one life; and there is one gift, one grace, and one assurance: to die for the sake of Christ.” Why did they believe that dying for the sake of Christ was an “assurance”? Because Christ assures them of an eternal dwelling place with God, and this is why they said: “Let our feet freeze here, so that they may dance in paradise. Let our hands now tremble and shake, so that we might raise them boldly in supplication before God. Let us cast aside our garments so that, stripped naked like Christ, we might be clothed in His grace. Let us offer our bodies as a sacrifice for the love of Christ.”
Today is also the Second Sunday of Lent, when we celebrate the memory of Saint Gregory Palamas. He was the son of a Byzantine nobleman, but renounced the world and became a monk, persuading his mother, siblings, and servants also to be tonsured and enter monasteries and convents. Every day he drank only a little water and ate only a little bread. He avoided sleep as much as he could, because it robbed him of precious hours for prayer, which for him was communion with God. For a three-month period, he slept only for a short interval around mid-day, after consuming a small amount of bread. He was a “heavenly man and an earthly angel.” For five days of the week he remained secluded in his cell, leaving it only on Saturdays and Sundays in order to attend the Divine Liturgy. There he sought the face of God, an experience essential for his assimilation to the divine, for his growth in likeness to God. Like the psalmist, his constant wish was to be with God, to be united with Him. As he was dying, he appeared to be speaking, although his voice was little more than a whisper. One of his disciples drew near and heard him say the following words: “The things of heaven are destined for heaven.” And this he repeated, his biographer tells us, in a rhythmic fashion until the moment when his “heavenly soul was released from its natural union with the earth, and joined the company of the angels, with whom he had long consorted.” Saint Gregory could not imagine himself to be merely a creature of the earth, because all his thoughts, his heart, his desires, and his whole being were of heaven. He was completely united with God. “Grant that I may see You, my God; that I may be filled with You, delight in You, and be united with You.” Moved by the same desire, the exiled and persecuted psalmist continues with assurance:
9 But as for them, in vain they sought after my soul,
and they shall descend into the lowest parts of the earth.
10 They will be given to the edge of the sword;
they will be served up to the foxes.
“Those who pursue me are not my enemies, my God, but Yours. And thus it is in vain that they seek to kill me. In the end, it is they who will descend into the lowest parts of the earth, and be given to the edge of the sword.” The Septuagint says they will be given over to the “hand” of the sword, which is a personification of death in the form of a lethal weapon. They will be served up to the foxes, or, in the Hebrew: “they will provide nourishment for the jackals.”
 Compare St. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge 16: “The righteous, who are still in the process of being purified, are characterized both by fear and a moderate measure of love; perfect love, on the other hand, is found only in those who have already been purified and in whom there is no longer any thought of fear, but rather a constant burning and clinging of the soul to God through the energy of the Holy Spirit. As it is written, my soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand has upheld me (Ps 63:8)” (Philokalia 1:257); St. Kallistos Angelikoudis, On Prayer 2: “The soul dominated by divine eros cannot turn back, for as David says, my soul clings closely behind You (Ps 63:8)” (Philokalia [Gr] 4:298); id., On the Contemplative Life: “Blessed are they who, with all the power of their soul and with all spiritual knowledge, are raised up to visions and contemplations of God . . . for they cling with ardent desire closely behind God (Ps 63:9), and are overcome by unbearable longing, for they contemplate the inexpressible beauty of the divine face” (Philokalia [Gr] 5:55).
 The words “behind” and “right hand” in Psalm 63:8 are paralleled in Exodus 33:20-33, where God covers Moses with His hand, which He then withdraws, allowing Moses to see His back; cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Life of Moses 2.250: “When David heard and understood this (i.e., that Moses was “covered by the hand of God”), he said, concerning himself, my soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand has upheld me. Here you see how Psalms agrees with Exodus. For the one says that the right hand upholds the person who has joined himself closely behind God, and the other that the hand touches him who waits in the rock for the divine voice and prays that he might follow closely behind it (Ex 33:20-33)” (trans. A. Malherbe & E. Ferguson, 119); and Evagrios, On Psalm 62: “My soul clings closely behind You: to be ‘behind’ God is to be with God, as Moses teaches, having seen the back parts of God (Ex 33:20-23)” (ΒΕΠΕΣ 80:100).
 In addition to these images of parental love and concern, the Hebrew verb “to cling closely” (or “to hold fast to”) also occurs in Genesis 2:24, where it describes the intimate community of life between husband and wife.
 On Psalm 63 (PG 27:280). The image of the “mass of glue” (oἷον τινι κόλλῃ τῆ μνήμῃ) resonates with the phrase “my soul clings (ἐκολλήθη) closely behind You.”
 The Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia were a group of Christian soldiers sentenced to death under the Roman Emperor Licinius (who was himself executed in 325). Angered at their refusal to worship the gods of Rome, Licinius ordered that they be stripped of their clothing and left naked on a frozen lake where they perished from the cold. The martyrs’ last words, cited above by the elder, are taken from the hymns of the vesper service (9 March).
 St. Philotheos Kokkinos, The Life of St. Gregory Palamas 3; 14 (ed. D. Tsamis, 429, 441).
 Ibid., 21 (449).
 Compare St. John Chrysostom, Sermon on Repentance: “The Apostle Paul is a citizen of heaven, yet he is clothed in humble attire. He is a heavenly man and an earthly angel. Gladly do I spend my time reading his Epistles, contemplating the beauty of his virtues” (PG 49:291)
 Life of St. Gregory Palamas 26 (454).
 Ibid., 115 (563).
 For a corpse to remain unburied, to be consumed by scavengers, is an ultimate curse in Biblical literature, as it was among the ancient Greeks. The psalmist’s desire for revenge against his enemies constitutes a provocative contrast to the images of longing and intimacy of the rest of the psalm, and captures the political violence out of and in which this psalm was born.
08 March 2010
1 O God, my God, to You I rise early at dawn.
My soul has thirsted for You;
how often my flesh has longed for You,
in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
David calls out to God twice, adding in the second instance the possessive pronoun “my.” His heart is wholly consumed by the love of God; he can find no rest. He seeks to satisfy his desire by invoking the divine name over and over. In order to express the depth of his relationship with God, he says “O God, my God” with the same love and devotion that a small child might say “Mamma, my Mamma.”
Psalm 63 is a love song, a canticle of desire for God. For the singer of such a song, God is an utterly concrete and compelling reality. And so David calls to Him, cries out to Him, and at the same time searches after Him, as if he were crying: Have you seen Him whom my heart loves? (cf. Song 3:3). Where is God? Where has He gone? The psalmist is deeply troubled. God had been his friend; he knew Him well and encountered Him often. His only desire was to live with Him always. That’s why he cries out to Him, why he calls upon Him so simply and so directly, saying my God, my God.
To You I rise early at dawn. “Early in the morning I address myself to You; I pray to You.” [i] What does it mean to rise early at dawn? In the first place, “dawn” (ὄρθρος) was the name given to the second-to-last shift of the night watch, kept by the ancient Israelites. [ii] Thus David is speaking to God very late at night, just before the break of day, before the rising of the sun. But David is a king, burdened with the cares of his office: shouldn’t he be sleeping at such an hour? Of course he should, for sleep is sweet. But is there anything sweeter than prayer, which is an encounter with God? [iii] The Hebrew text lends further nuance to this, since the phrase, to You I rise early at dawn, also means, “even though it is still night, I search for you with warmth and ardor.”
Sleeplessly, therefore, the psalmist seeks God. He can find no rest. [iv] He searches for God in the small hours of the night, in the early hours of the morning. And where is David at this time? Is he safe in his palace, attending to the affairs of state, meditating on God throughout the day, and now searching for Him at night? No. He is in the desert, pursued by Absalom, his son. He is being hunted like an animal by a band of conspirators and rebels (cf. 2 Sam 15:1-23). [v] He is hungry, thirsty, stripped of his royal clothing, and in peril from desert storms and violent men. And yet he asks neither for deliverance from this desperate situation nor for the just punishment of his enemies. He seeks only God.
In the arid desert, David’s desire for God flourishes. [vi] To be sure, all the things that he might normally have wished for, that he once might have wanted, are now without meaning or purpose. In the depths of the night, he senses that he needs only God and nothing else. He realizes, moreover, that prayers said during the day, if they have no root in prayers said at night, are very weak and suffer, as it were, from lack of nourishment. Take a small sapling with no roots and plant it in the ground. The first storm will quickly knock it down. If, however, it is deeply rooted in the earth, it will survive the violence of the winds and rain. In the same way, our spiritual life must have roots in the night. The life of the Christian begins and is formed in the night, in the vigil of prayer offered to God. Do we interrupt our sleep, rise at night, and raise our hands in prayer to God? If not, our experience of God during the day will be shallow and superficial. [vii]
My soul has thirsted for You. “Like a parched throat, my soul thirsts for You; my entire being longs for You. I have always thirsted and longed for You.” The Hebrew says “My soul, O God, desires You.” “It is melting with the thought of You, wasting away, suffering, filled with anguish. Anxiously awaiting you, my soul has melted away.” [viii]
How often my flesh has longed for You,
in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
From this it is clear that, not only does David’s soul long for God, but also his flesh, which likewise suffers on account of God’s absence. [ix] How often: in other words, “very often, endlessly, without ceasing, my soul and body have sought You. With all my heart and soul, with all my mind and strength, with all my psychological, spiritual and bodily energies (cf. Mk 12:30) I seek after You, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.” According to another version of the text, David says “I thirst for You, O God, like a thirsty land, which is parched and impenetrable.”
The psalmist compares his spiritual state to that of soil before the start of the rainy season. Such soil is hardened and dry; when furrowed by the plough it breaks into pieces and turns to dust. It needs water. “In the same way, my God, I thirst for you.” The
, which is David’s external, sensory landscape, enables him to contemplate the inner desert of his soul. [x] And what is the soul when God is absent from it, if not an arid desert? But because of his prayers at night, the psalmist is emboldened to seek a living, personal encounter with God. Judean Desert
In these days of the Great Fast, we chant: “O Giver of Life, open to me the gates of repentance.” [xi] On what basis do we ask God to do this for us? The hymn itself gives us the answer: “For early at dawn my spirit rises to Your holy temple.” From the depths of the night, my God, I direct my spirit to You. This is what gives us the assurance and the courage to approach God. And so it was in the case of David.Endnotes
[i] Compare St. Athanasios of
, On Psalm 63: “To You, he says, I rise early at dawn, and send forth my prayers and hymns” (PG 27:277); and Eusebios of Caesarea, On Psalm 63: “This was David’s first prayer, which he offered to God early in the morning, at the first hour of the day” (PG 23:1392). Some modern interpreters classify Psalm 63 as a “psalm of vigil” (along with Psalms 5, 17, 27, 30, 57, 59), and associate it with the practice of nightly devotions practiced by individuals during private visits to the Alexandria . Temple
[ii] See Exodus 14:24; Numbers 18:3-5; Ezekiel 44:8-16; and 2 Samuel 17:22. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Inscriptions of the Psalms 2.51: “The ‘dawn’ is the boundary between night and day, at which time the one is disappearing and the other is beginning. In many passages of Scripture, evil is enigmatically signified by darkness, and the beginning of the life of virtue as the dawn, and so Paul says the night is far gone, the day is at hand; let us then cast off the works of darkness and walk becomingly as in the day (Rom 13:12-13)” (trans. R. Heine, 136).
[iii] See St. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Holy Martyrs 3: “Imagine the darkest of nights, when all men and all living creatures are fast asleep in the midst of the greatest silence, and you alone are awake, speaking freely and openly with God. Is sleep sweet? And yet nothing is sweeter than prayer” (PG 50:711).
[iv] The soul’s intense desire for God overcomes not simply the body’s need for sleep but bodily desire itself; compare Theodoret of Kyrrhos, On Psalm 63: “When he says, to You I rise early at dawn, he means that ‘my desire for You, O God, has driven away sleep, and has raised me up to worship You’” (PG 80:1336B); Eusebios of Caesarea, On Psalm 63: “The words, to You I rise early at dawn indicate the purity of David’s night, for those who defile themselves by immoral behavior at night do not rise before dawn to pray” (PG 23:604B); Didymos of Alexandria, On the Psalms: “If one has passed the night committing sins of the flesh, how can he rise to God early at dawn? For this phrase does not describe a change of location, since God is not limited by space, but rather a change in the soul’s disposition, a change in its relation to God” (ed. E. Mühlenberg, 635); and St. Theodore the Ascetic, Spiritual Chapters 94: “Whatever a man loves, he desires at all costs to be near to continuously and uninterruptedly, and he turns himself away from everything that hinders him from being in contact and dwelling with the object of his love. It is clear therefore that he who loves God also desires always to be with Him and to converse with Him. This comes to pass in us through pure prayer. Accordingly, let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our power; for it enables us to become akin to God. Such a man was he who said: O God, my God, to You I rise early at dawn; my soul has thirsted for You (Ps 63:1). For the man who cries to God at dawn has withdrawn his intellect from every vice and clearly is wounded by divine love” (Philokalia 2:35).
[v] Psalm 63 has many lexical features in common with 2 Samuel 15, including the “desert land” (Ps 63:1; 2 Sam 15:23, 28; 16:2); the “parched land” (Ps 63:1; 2 Sam 16:2, 14); the “seeing” of God in the sanctuary (Ps 63:2; 2 Sam 15:25); and the “sword” of retribution (Ps 63:10; 2 Sam 15:14).
[vi] Compare Evagrios, On Proverbs 21:19: “David says, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable (Ps 63:1). The ‘desert land’ is the place of virtue, and this is why the devil can find no rest there, and so he passes through parched, waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none (Mt 12:43), for he is the king of all things that dwell in the waters (Job 41:26)” (SC 340:227).
[vii] Compare St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 64: “When the good order of the night’s discipline is disturbed, then during the labor of the day the intellect also becomes confused; it travels in darkness and it does not take delight in reading, as it is accustomed to do. The delight given to ascetics by day pours forth upon their pure intellect from the light obtained by their night’s activity” (Homilies, 308).
[viii] This is the first of three occurrences of the word “soul” in this psalm, each of which marks an increasing intensification of the psalmist’s relationship to God: from the soul’s passionately thirstingcontentment/satiety (v. 5); to the soul that clings to God, being clasped and surrounded by God’s right hand (v. 8), in an intimate community of life with God. for God (v. 1); to its experience of
[ix] According to Evagrios, On Psalm 63: “Not only does David’s soul thirst for God, but also his flesh (Ps 63:1), having learned of the hope of its resurrection which is in God” (ΒΕΠΕΣ 80:99).
[x] On the spiritual significance of the desert, see Elder Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, 58, 104.
[xi] A Lenten hymn sung at the Sunday Matins immediately after Psalm 51.
Volumes 1 and 2 of the collected works of Elder Aimilianos are:
- Spiritual Instruction and Discourses, Volume 1: The Authentic Seal (Ormylia, Halkidiki, Greece: Ormylia Publishing, 1999), and
- The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), Preface by Archimandrite Elisaios, Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Simonopetra, and published by the nuns of the Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece.
Drawings of Simonospetras by Patrick J. Quinn in his Drawing on Mount Athos: The Thousand-Year Lesson published in Places 2 (1), 01 September 1985 by the College of Environmental Design, University of California - Berkeley and retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5wt2g9xk.
07 October 2009
"She will walk next to Christ in paradise, even if it is only the paradise of her desire to walk with Him"
- From "The Eternal Marriage" by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra in The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), p. 205.
Editor: To be forthright, I substituted 'Christian' for 'nun' as this passage didn't seem to necessarily refer to a female monastic alone.
- From The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), p. 152, n. 16.
- From The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), p. 181.
06 September 2009
There hasn't been much activity at the Elder Aimilianos blog of late. My bad. That's changing, though, as I have just received a copy of volume 2 of his collected Spiritual Instructions and Discourses in English.
The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009), Preface by Archimandrite Elisaios, Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Simonopetra, Mt. Athos is published by the nuns of the Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece.
The publisher's description is as follows:
Elder Aimilianos played an important role in the contemporary revival of monastic life on Mt. Athos, where he served as the abbot of the Monastery of Simonopetra from 1973 until his retirement in 2000. His remarkable gifts as a spiritual guide and teacher are evident in this outstanding collection of twelve talks, which uniquely illuminate the mystery of the human encounter with God. The struggle with the self, the deeper meaning of asceticism, the dynamic nature of spiritual growth, the centrality of Scripture and Liturgy, and the relationship of believers to the Holy Spirit, are among the many themes explored in this challenging and thought-provoking book. The energy and immediacy of the original texts are well captured in this superlative translation, which is supported by a wide-ranging introduction, extensive notes, and indices.
I will be posting various excerpts and quotations from what promises to be a wonderful book,
From the Preface to The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, tr. with an Introduction by m. Maximos Simonopetrites (Athens: Indiktos, June 2009) by Archimandrite Elisaios, Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Simonopetra, Mt. Athos:
This book is an offering to our brothers and sisters throughout the world, for love does not seek its own, but desires communion with others, teaching us to sing in other tongues. We cannot say we have no need of you, for without you, our joy will not be complete (1 Cor 13.5, 12.21).
Elder Aimilianos was our guide, teacher and father in Christ, and remains so to this day. We lived with him for many years, traveling together in the way of the Spirit. The discourses collected in this volume give expression to his personal experience of God, which was always real, living and dynamic. We believe that they will fill you with joyful hope....
Read this book in a spirit of peace, with no anxiety about understanding new concepts or learning things under pressure. Let your reading and attention be unforced, a form of prayer.
...it will be helpful to say a word about the nature of the texts which appear in this volume. The way we read and respond to a text is in large measure conditioned by what we bring to it, not least by our shared cultural assumptions concerning the kind of work we have in front of us. We do not read a poem in the same way that we read a newspaper. Neither do we read and respond to an instruction manual as we would to a long-awaited letter from a friend. In each case, we approach the text in question and enter into its world of meaning with different presuppositions and expectations, with different levels of energy, attention and consciousness.
What sort of texts, then, do we have here, and how might we best approach? What will be helpful to bring with us on our journey, and what is best left behind?
Of the twelve talks collected in this volume, three are sermons or homilies that were originally delivered in parishes before large, public audiences (chapters 2, 3 and 10). They focus on the Gospel reading of the day, or some aspect of the liturgical year, such as the beginning of Great Lent, which provide both structure and a point of departure for related themes and subjects.
An equal number (chapters 9, 11 and 12) were delivered in a non-liturgical setting to small groups of lay theologians and teachers of religion. They tend to combine elements of traditional theological teaching with the inspirational character of homily.
This will all be relatively familiar territory to anyone who has heard a sermon or listened to a discussion on theological ideas, as as such presents no special problems to the reader.
The remaining six talks (chapters 1 and 4-8), however, are special forms of discourse addressed to monks and nuns, given at special gatherings of the community known as a synaxis. At its most literal level, the word synaxis denotes a gathering or assembly, especially for public worship and teaching. It is traditionally used to designate the eucharistic liturgy and the gathering of the Church in a particular place. A synaxis, then, is the realization and revelation of the Body of Christ; a being present with Christ, which necessarily involves the presence of the entire community....
That the elder was plainly aware of the special character of the monastic synaxis is evident in the following passage from chapter 7:As you know, we do not come together in these assemblies [synaxeis] to discuss matters of doctrine or problems in ethics. Neither is it my purpose here to offer you personal counseling or advice.
Instead, we are here to participate in an event of communion. Our eyes are all focused on the same thing: a particular point or moment in the life of Christ. And because we are all looking at Christ, we are able to behold our imperfections and accomplishments; we see our movement forward or our disengagement and retreat. And thus our assemblies are communications with God Himself, Who sometimes reveals one thing to us and sometimes another.
A the elder makes clear, the purpose [and values] of the synaxis... are neither intellectual nor even moral, but existential... The community does not gather in order to 'learn' anything, but rather to enter into and experience the mystery of Christ. Like the eucharists synaxis, of which it is an extension, the monastic synaxis is an 'event of communion', a moment in which the community 'looks at Christ', is illumined by the vision of God, and in so doing attains heightened self-knowledge as it becomes the bearer of divine revelation.
Understood in these terms, the monastic synaxis does not have immediate parallels within our ordinary experience of language and communication. In essence, it is an encounter with Christ in and through the community, concentrated in the charismatic word of the elder, who seeks not to instruct his listeners but to transform them by conforming them to the form of Christ (cf., Rom 8:29; Phil 3.21)....
The monastic discourses of Elder Aimilianos are thus the record of a pilgrimage, in the truest sense of that word: to 'saunter' means to visit the 'sacred places' (saint-terre), not in a pre-determined, rigidly laid-out plan; not with a relentlessly pursued aim or goal, but rather as an organic unfolding, a spontaneous movement of love and knowledge, forever exceeding its boundaries, and, like living things, growing beyond its momentary form in fulfillment of its destiny in God.