Academically speaking, I travelled to the Holy Monastery of the Archangel Michael to ask questions and conduct research for a series of essays. Existentially speaking, I was prodded by some vague longing to dive deeper into the mystical world of Orthodox Christian spirituality.
Now, I leave with the feeling that my journey is only beginning, as my monk brothers bid farewell to a man called Porphyrios. Dane, it seems, has been swallowed up by a new mode of existence.
Father Silouan saw fit to expand my curriculum beyond that of The Little Prince – though no one is ever truly finished learning from that sacred text. He began stacking books on ontology, existentialism, ecumenical history, and spiritual formation in my arms during this, my second, visit. Within this stack began a cerebral odyssey into the topics of holiness, Truth (capitalized because of its reference to Jesus), and history, written by the Serbian bishop (Maxim). He writes, “it’s no use having the right answers if you’re not asking the right questions.” I reviewed the initial questions I’d prepared for the monks and realized they were limited in scope, full of preconceptions and judgments, and confined to a Western view of spirituality and Christianity. But hey, you got to start somewhere, right?
Gracious as these monks are I was never made to feel ignorant, even though I am. Instead, over the time I've spent here we’ve developed a playful rapport where they call me “heretic” and I sarcastically compare their rituals to those of the Roman Catholics, or even summarize some of their explanations on mystical topics by saying, “Oh, just like Buddhism!” – all in good fun.
These brothers have demonstrated piety detached from religious airs and rote asceticism. They have shown their devotion to God through their love for each other and their humble service to all those who cross their path; of which I’m a grateful recipient. During my stay here I’ve been privileged to see two distinct sides of the monastic life:
On the one hand, I was with them during the Lenten season, which is marked by fasting, penitence, and, in this monastery’s case, silence.
For forty days we uttered not a word, except on Sundays (the Lord’s day). We fasted multiple days a week, and ate one meal a day on the days when we did eat. Services were held three times daily, each lasting anywhere from one and a half to four hours, and the first beginning at 4am every morning. The bodily deprivation and social isolation gave me plenty of time to learn how to be. In fact, it provided ample time to observe the mind chatter (logismoi) that has dominated my thought life for years. This Lenten season was a time to release all that wasn’t me, leaving behind all that bolsters ego-identifications and self-will.
On the other hand, I was also with them at the resolution of this austere time, which is the most joyous time on the Orthodox calendar, Pascha (Easter). In Father Silouan’s words, “Holy Week (the week leading up to Resurrection Sunday) is a time to walk through the mystery of our salvation.” It’s a time when the Church relives all the recorded events of Christ’s final days on earth.
In his aged simplicity, and with a Texan accent to boot, Father Andrew explained that all of the Paschal services, with their symbolism, readings, hymns, and rituals, are used to help us recall the significance of what was accomplished on the cross. “To remember is to make the past, present,” he said. I’m learning that being and presence are prerequisites to grasping anything of infinite worth.
After remembering, we celebrated for a week straight (Bright Week), which meant that the wine bottles were uncorked, beer flowed liberally, dairy products were back on the table, two meals were consumed daily and with joyful conversation abounding, hikes to the mesa resumed, and upon entering a room one would declare, “Christ is Risen!” To which all present would reply, “Indeed, He is risen!” This phrase was regularly shouted in Russian, Greek, Swahili, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Hawaiian – it became a kind of linguistic challenge as we tried the phrase on in a foreign tongue and waited to see if the brother could accurately reply.
Now (and forever, and unto ages of ages), it’s time to live a resurrected life because, through death, Christ destroyed death. So, for the Christian, death no longer exists. This understanding transforms everything. Forgive me, as I’m purposefully being vague and general in those last few statements. Here is not the place to unpack such life-altering perspectives. I’ll only briefly explain what’s transpired in my own being these last few months:
With an intellectualized and Western spirituality, I’ve spent many years attempting to “define my relationship” with God. But, by doing so, I’ve neglected the intimate energy of being in relationship with the divine.
People often ask, “How do you know that God exists?” and I’ve felt responsible to give some sort of evidence to make a case on His behalf, as if He weren’t up to the task. My replies are often rambled and scattered, though passionate enough, because I have no doubt that He does, in fact, exist. Yet, what are the facts? Even better, what are facts?
Rather than speculating over the existence of God, I’ve begun wondering how I’ve understood my own existence. How do I know I exist? This is not a new question for humanity. We’ve been asking ourselves, and driving ourselves mad by it, for millennia.
Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” This ideological approach permeates all of Western civilization’s scholastic, objective, and cerebral methods of understanding self, humanity, and the world. From this perspective, I conclude that because of my rationale, intellect, and reasoning abilities, I am. Yet, how do I account for the soul and the spiritual beyond within this view? It doesn’t fit in. Mystical reality breaks logical molds and confounds the worldly wise.
I’ve been trying on a new phrase, coined by the French philosopher, Simone Weil, who said, “I am loved, therefore I am.” The consequences of this statement are many and questions follow suit, such as:
Who loves me?
Am I lovable?
Is a fuller existence contingent on one’s capacity to accept and offer love?
If God is love, can I know of His existence apart from knowing love?
Does loving more make me more like God?
My fierce pride in my own individuality isolates me from the love of God and from being able to love others, yet my existence depends on them. I do not exist without the other because it is in the “other” (God, humanity, and the world) that love is made manifest.
I am loved and loving, so, therefore, I am.