My mother encouraged me to post this story, and so out of filial obedience I am presenting it to you!
I spent Forgiveness Sunday on Mt. Athos. Some of my first thoughts and assumptions when I decided to do this were from the life of St. Mary of Egypt (a story that I have heard every year since I can remember when she is remembered during Great Lent) where we find a beautiful picture of the monastic traditions encompassing this profound and pregnant event:
“Many days passed and the time drew near when all Christians fast and prepare themselves to worship the Divine Passion and Ressurection of Christ. The monastery gates were kept always locked and only opened when one of the community was sent out on some errand. It was a desert place, not only unvisited by people of the world but even unknown to them.
“There was a rule in that monastery which was the reason why God brought Zosimas there. At the beginning of the Great Fast [on Forgiveness Sunday] the priest celebrated the holy Liturgy and all partook of the holy body and blood of Christ. After the Liturgy they went to the refectory and would eat a little lenten food.”
“Then all gathered in church, and after praying earnestly with prostrations, the elders kissed one another and asked forgiveness. And each made a prostration to the abbot and asked his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before them. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open, and singing, "The Lord is my light and my Savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 26:1) and the rest of that psalm, all went out into the desert and crossed the River Jordan. Only one or two brothers were left in the monastery, not to guard the property (for there was nothing to rob), but so as not to leave the church without Divine Service. Each took with him as much as he could or wanted in the way of food, according to the needs of his body: one would take a little bread, another some figs, another dates or wheat soaked in water. And some took nothing but their own body covered with rags and fed when nature forced them to it on the plants that grew in the desert.”
So this was my picture of what Forgiveness Sunday would look like. In many ways, it was naive and somewhat idealistic, in other ways it was VERY close to reality.
Arriving on the Thursday before the first week of Great Lent I stayed at the monastery together with around 50-70 other pilgrims. The monastery was very full and if you didn’t arrive early to services, you were lucky to find a seat.
The food was delicious and simple as usual, but especially delicious as it was the last days of dairy products. Thus at every meal there was something cheesy and creamy to be had. I had heard from one of the monks that on Sunday evening there would be a very nice meal after the Vespers service.
After a few days of meeting some of the local Greek pilgrims (which is a story in and of itself, and a VERY good experience) we arrived at the Sunday of Forgiveness. Vespers ended and we went into the Trapeza (Refectory) as usual. The tables were set with extra special food for the final meal (last supper? :)) before the Trimera (3 austere days of the beginning of Lent). The meal began and the reading, of course, that was proclaimed aloud from the amvon was on the theme of the day. After everyone had finished, the abbot (who is a well-known figure in Greece, previously a professor at the University in Athens, author of many books and a spiritual man) addressed everyone on the theme of the day as well. After this was over, however, something happened which really made an impression on me.
The monks have a tradition of singing various hymns during this particular meal in teams. Thus, one table would come up with a commonly-agreed upon hymn and would chant it for the rest of the brethren and pilgrims. This went on for 45 minutes or so, various tables of monks sharing hymns. Then the abbot would say “Father so-and-so...” come up here and chant “such-and-such” a hymn for us.“ And Fr. So-and-So who could very well have been in his 70’s would come up, accompanied by a few other monks to make the ison, and pour out his soul by chanting this hymn. Sometimes the abbot would ask if anyone had anything to chant that they were interested in chanting, other times someone would just begin. There were hymns in various languages as there were some Romania workers present and some other foreigners. One very poignant part was the relationship between the monks. They expressed their deep joy in being together and their love for one another in a sober, somewhat muted, but authentic manner. The quietude of the event allowed the reality of this love to come through that much more. As was the case so long ago in the Deserts of Egypt and Syria and elsewhere, the monks were preparing to embark on a serious journey. Surely, the austerity was a bit more pronounced in the earlier centuries where monks did not know if they would return alive from their pilgrimage into the desert, but the sense of beginning was very tangibly present.
Thankfully, I was not only able to witness the festive celebration, but also the actual beginning of the fast. Services lasted for the greater part of each day and monks (unless they were unable for health reasons) fasted from partaking of anything to sustain them for the first 3 days. They ate the spiritual food of the services, of the readings from St. John Climacus which were proclaimed in the morning service in the katholikon (main church), and from their collective prayers, but ultimately and primarily, they were preserved, in their weakness, by the Grace of God.
It is difficult to fully capture this event--yes, even in impossible--but I pray that you would at least get a glimpse into the sobriety of the practice that I witnessed. My mind rested on the thought that despite the fact that they are not in the Egyptian desert and don’t necessarily have the immediate threat of death impending as they embark on their journey, these Athonite monks robe themselves with a similar spirit. They have sacrificed their entire life for the Lord, and ideally, they have died to the world. Thus the epidemy of this vow, a full expresion of it, it seems, can be found in the Lenten journey. Just as we, in the world, use it as a time to re-focus our lives on Christ and repentance, they too do this, keeping in mind their vows of renunciation of one thing and acceptance of another. No, there is no difference in the expectations between a monk and layman regarding salvation, but this experience emphasized the fullness of this expectation that we are all called to. The full renunciation of the ”world“ (as we Orthodox Christians phrase that which is sinful, corrupt and tears us away from God) and acceptance of Christ.
St. Nikolai Velimirovic highlights this point, and quotes St. Isaac the Syrian as well:
"Every day and every hour, proof of our love for God is required of us," says St. Isaac the Syrian. God shows His love for us every day and every hour. Every day and every moment we stand positioned between God and sin.” (Prologue reading March 17).
No need to try to sum up this experience too much. May God give us the strength to remain close to him and the strength to love Him!
with love in Christ,