A conversation with an Orthodox Christian monk sharing his perspective on God, existence, and the meaning of life. This is the first digital letter in a series dedicated to the exploration of existential questions.
There wasn’t an immediately obvious place to clip on the mic, so we managed to secure it to his beard. Putting it there happened to deaden the open air sound of the tile-floored room where we were prepared to conduct our interview. This was an unintended bonus.
Jon, my videographer friend, had flown down to meet me in New Mexico with a large crate filled with camera equipment to help capture sights and sounds from the monastery where I’d been living for nearly three months. Unfortunately, it turned out that the monks refused to be filmed, so we resorted to recording some audio of them instead.
When asked why they wouldn’t be filmed, Fr. Silouan, the monastery’s superior, said that he and the brothers had died to the world. In short, they didn’t exist anymore.
Jon went into his habitual mode of checking audio levels, asking Fr. Silouan to clap a couple of times in front of the mic, which saw him clapping directly in front of his face as if he were catching a fly before it entered his mouth. After Jon asked for Fr. Silouan to state his first and last name, Jon and I looked at each other uncomfortably. Does he have a first and last name as a monk? Would he say his birth name? Did that identity still exist?
“Father Silouan,” he said. Then followed up with, “Monk Silouan.”
When Jon asked him for the date, he replied as one who has truly been separate from the world for the better part of his adulthood.
“Today is May 9th?” He wondered. We affirmed his guess, which prompted him to repeat it back with more conviction: “Today is May 9th, the year of the Lord, 2014….AD.”
For years, Fr. Silouan had been a Dead Head, traveling wherever the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead were scheduled to play next. He had also been a wandering devotee to Krishna, which saw him singing and dancing all over the world as his white linen robes flowed all around.
Until one day, while walking along the dirty sidewalks of Manhattan, he saw a paper icon of the Virgin Mary lying on the ground. To him, this was a motherly mandate to return to the faith of his youth. So, with the same abandon he’d entered into his vagabond vocations, he returned to Catholicism. And then, soon thereafter, he would join a brotherhood of Carmelite monks.
There are a lot of details that I’m intentionally leaving out about Fr. Silouan’s life because it is not his journey that I wish to highlight in this letter, but instead his perspective.
As an individual who has dedicated his remaining years of life to prayer, repentance, sobriety, celibacy, and sharing all things in common with his brothers, I believe that his point of view to be particularly insightful, flowing from a place of humbled spirit that many of us may never know in this life; and, if we do experience that depth of humility, we may not desire to maintain it for any extended period of time. But, as I witnessed while living with the brothers, that’s what monks do, bowing every night before one another to ask forgiveness for their known and unknown offenses. All of their life is repentance.
Now, Fr. Silouan belongs to a brotherhood of Orthodox Christian monks who pray in a small adobe church in the New Mexican high desert near Lake Abiquiu.
After peacefully enduring the Lenten season with he and the brothers (a time of fasting, silence, and solitude), Fr. Silouan agreed to be recorded while fielding some of the questions that had led me to the monastery in the first place.
My first question: How do we know God exists?
Rather than paraphrase his reply, I hope that you’ll enjoy hearing from the monk himself:
Peace and good,
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