Most people know that the famous ‘Fr. Maximos’ in the well known book Mountain of Silence is the Metropolitan of Lemessos, Athanasios. He was a monk on Athos, who had the opportunity to spend time with such holy elders as Elders Paisios and Ephraim of Katounakia and others. He was, at the time of the writing of the book, the abbot of the monastery of the Panaghia Machera. Since then he was consecrated bishop of Lemessos (or Limassol). His Eminence gives talks almost weekly and these talks—in the thousands—have now circled the globe, being reproduced by his spiritual children.
Transcript of a tape-recorded homily
by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus
Having promised yesterday that we would say a few words on the topic, I will say a few things, just so that I won't be untrue to yesterday's promise. As a follow-up to all those things, one wonders: all these things that take place—everything that we do—our pilgrimages, our candles, our night-vigils, our prayers, our fasts, our gestures of charity—everything that we do in our life—are for what purpose and what is the reason that we do them? The answer to this question is very important, because our correct or incorrect spiritual life is dependent on it.
Let me give you an example: I ask the children at the summer camps that we have now: What is God's greatest commandment? What is God's most important commandment, my children? And all the children—all of them—quote various commandments: do not steal...do not lie....do not be unjust to your fellow-man....respect your parents.... how should I know?......love your neighbour... but not one child has suspected that none of these commandments is God's first commandment.
People think that the first commandment is ‘love thy neighbour,’ and when I'd tell the children ‘no, that is not the first commandment,’ a child would reply ‘yes, yes, I know which one it is...’ ‘Which is it?’ I would ask. ‘Increase and multiply.’
Well, of course that wasn't the first commandment either, right? God's first and only commandment—the first and only one, as all the other commandments are the result of this first one—is to love God with all of your heart. Christ Himself said that the first commandment is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all of your soul, with all of your heart, with all of your might and with all of your mind.’ And a second commandment—a second one, similar to the first—which springs from within the first commandment—is the one that says ‘love your neighbour.’ Everything else is a result of these.
If you love your neighbour, you will not rob him, you will not lie to him, you will not be unjust with him, you will not take his things, you will not tamper with his wife, you will not interfere with his home, you will not censure him... that's what we mean by ‘results of the first commandment.’ The ‘love your neighbour’ is likewise a result of the first commandment.
If you truly love God, it is impossible to not love your neighbour. A person who loves God will have—as a natural result of his love towards God—a love towards his brethren also. Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose. And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, why we do everything: it is our way of loving Christ.
Now, where is the mistake? The mistake is that unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people.... to become better people....and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over. Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn't be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world.
Why do you think we aren't able to understand the saints? Or, to say something simpler, why we can't understand those who love God? We tend to say ‘is it necessary to do this thing in order to be saved—to be near to God? Is it necessary—let's say—to depart to the mountains? Must we go and do all these things?’
Of course not. It is not a necessity. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints also and why they did the things they did (which can't be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic. Even secular love—the way that one person loves another person—for example when one wants to get married he loves his wife; he loves the young lady that he will wed—and the same applies to the young lady—then they do things that seem totally irrational.
If, for example, you were to ask her or him who is the most beautiful or handsome one in the world, they will probably say it is their beloved. Naturally, they are seeing the other through their own eyes.... Our eyes see other things.... If, for example, you were to ask her who the best man in the world is, she will describe the man she loves with the finest words. She sees no flaws in him, no faults... she can't see anything bad about him, because love transcends all these things.
Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God's love is. God's love surpasses human logic. That is why we can't judge with logical criteria those people who love God. That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own—they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the logic of love.
So, the church does not teach us just to become good people—not in the least. It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don't, then what have we succeeded in doing? These are nursery school things.
Our Church teaches us to love Christ—to love the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ—no—not with the Gospel. The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of loving Christ, the Gospel will no longer be needed. Nothing will be needed... all these things will cease... only man's relationship with God will remain.
That is the difference between the Church and religion. Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let's say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before.... Our heart doesn't change. We do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties—to religious duties. And you must know that such people—you know, ‘religious’ people—are the most dangerous kind in the church. Those religious people are truly dangerous. May God preserve us from them...
Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words ‘Lord, save the pious,’ a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: ‘Lord, save us from the pious...’ In other words, God save you from those ‘religious’ types, because ‘religious person’ implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God does not say anything about this type of person. And I too must confess that—from my own experience—I have never seen worse enemies of the church than ‘religious people.’
Whenever the children of religious people, or of priests and theologians—or even of those who in church act like theologians and with self-importance—tried to become monks or priests, they [the parents] became even worse than demons. They would become exasperated with everyone. They became people's worst enemies. I remember parents who would bring their children to homilies, and when their child moved one step further, they became the worst of people, who would say the worst about others. And I would say to them: ‘But you were the ones who brought the child to the homily; I didn't bring it.’
One other time, I told a father whose daughter I could tell had a zeal for the church: ‘Make sure you don't bring her again to any homily. Don't bring her to talk with me, because your daughter will become a nun and afterwards you will say that I was to blame.’ He replied: ‘Oh no, father, far be it! We adore you!’ And his daughter did in fact become a nun.... It has been seven years now, and he still isn't talking to me...
People who wouldn't miss a homily—not a single homily—those who were always the first... at homilies, night-vigils, reading books.. I don't know... at doing everything.... they would also bring their children along, but when the time came for the child to exercise its freedom—to decide by itself which path to choose—then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts.... They were merely ‘religious people.’ That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church. Because, you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God. Sinners, on the other hand—the ‘losers,’ so to speak—at least they know they are sinners.
That is why Christ said that publicans and whores will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: ‘You, who are 'religious', shall not enter the Kingdom of God. Because the word of God had never changed your heart.’ They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities.
Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God's love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of ‘vinegar’ inside.
How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to say “I have been in the church for so many years”—either as a monk or a priest or whatever—and yet, where is that alpha and omega, which is love? Where is that patience—showing some patience towards your brother? By not embracing that, it means you have accomplished nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues, because what they didn't have was love. Because He would have wanted to tell them that ‘you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn't achieve the essence of that which is the most important.’ If you can't achieve that, then what do you need the rest for? What's the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don't?
I may [fast and] not eat olive oil, for example, but I devour my brother from morning to night.... They used to say on the Holy Mountain ‘Don't ask if I eat fish; as long as one doesn't eat the fisherman, he can eat fish’; or, ‘As long as you don't eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat’...
To devour someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil. And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil—we don't eat oil; we eat fish—we don't eat fish... I don't know what to say... someone may dip his spoon into another dish and this could be the cause of an argument—a cause for a huge quarrel with another person, just because he dipped his spoon earlier on into another dish... You can see how ridiculous these things are and how the demons make fun of us, as well as they who are outside the Church.
And when they do approach us, instead of seeing the people of the Church transformed into Jesus Christ, into sweet-natured people and mature people—well balanced, fulfilled people—full of harmony inside them, unfortunately, with all those passions of ours and all that sourness, they will inevitably say: ‘What? And become like one of them? I'd rather not!’ You, who are a churchgoer, tell me how the church has benefited you. As we said yesterday you went to the pilgrimage sites, you saw the fathers, you saw the holy relics, you saw the Holy Mountain, the Holy Mother at Tinos Island—all those places that we went to, and returned.
What was the end benefit of all those things? Was our heart transformed? Did we become humbler people? Did we become more sweet-natured? Did we become meeker people in our homes, our families, our monastery? Or at our place of work? That is what counts. If we did not achieve those things, at least let us become humbler... from within our repentance.... let us become humbler... If we didn't manage that either, then we are worthy of many tears—we are to be pitied. Because unfortunately, Time flies, and we are counting years....
When asked how many years he had lived on the Holy Mountain, the Elder Paisios used to say: ‘I came here the same year as my neighbour's mule.’ (His neighbour, old Zitos, had a mule—and you know how every cell on Mount Athos has an animal, a mule, for carrying their things. That animal has a long life span; you don't buy a mule every day—they are too expensive).
‘Well, the year that I came here, to the Holy Mountain, my neighbour purchased his mule in the same year. We have the same number of years on the Holy Mountain, and yet that poor beast remained a mule, but then so did I. I didn't change at all.’ So, we quite often say ‘I've been here for forty years’—and we priests and monks tend to say these words: ‘I have been in the monastery for forty years.’
But what you don't realize is that those years are not in your favour. God will say to you ‘Forty years, and you still haven't managed to become something? You are still angry after forty years, you still censure, you still contradict, you still resist, you still don't submit? You've had forty years, and you still haven't learnt the alpha—the first thing—about monastic life, about Christian life? What am I supposed to do with your years? What am I to do with you, if you have spent fifty years with confessions and you can't respond to another person with a kind word? What use are all these things to me?’
These all weigh against us. And I am saying all these things, firstly about myself. Because they apply to me first... And because I know these things from myself, that is why I'm telling you about them (and why you must think I'm saying them to each one of you). People think that I'm referring to them, but it is not you I'm referring to. It is firstly about me that I mentioned these things... about me first.... We need to say these things to at least humble ourselves; to keep our mouth shut, as all those egotistic and other displays unfortunately ridicule us and make us look foolish in the presence of the Lord.
If we humble ourselves and cease to have grand ideas about ourselves, maybe then can a person begin to correct himself gradually through repentance—which is born out of humility. A person who doesn't strive to justify himself truly repents. He who keeps justifying himself will never repent; and that person who always justifies himself—either externally or internally—will never learn what repentance means. That is why we should always examine ourselves.
‘Test yourselves, brothers,’ the Apostle says. Test yourself, to see if there is a love of God inside you. And not so much that, but more so if we are living within the realm of repentance, so that God can cure our existence—so that this kind of association with the Church can heal us, and so that we can become people who have been cured of their passions and their sins.
Many ask how we can reach that point. How do we get there?
Well, when we leave ourselves in the hands of the good physician—God; when we leave ourselves trustingly in God's hands; because when we are in various circumstances, in difficulties, God knows what is best for each one of us and will lead us along those paths that will slowly, slowly, slowly over the years perfect us—they will perfect us... All we need to do is give ourselves to God with trust, the way we give our trust to a doctor, or—say—the captain of a ship.
We show trust. He leads us, and we don't worry about the destination and when we will arrive, because we know that the one steering the ship is mindful, vigilant, and he knows the way and is careful.
Another important element that I would like to say something more about (also because some of you have asked me to) is the matter of time. Did you notice during these days that we have been spending on this ship, how we had no external distractions? We had nothing to draw our attention elsewhere, like at home—for example television. Did you see how much time we had available? We even conversed among ourselves. You who are married had time to talk to each other—the spouses and the children. The children played together, they talked amongst themselves, and we had lots of time to ourselves and we communicated with each other, and that is the most important element of all: that we could communicate.
The most tragic thing is at home, when everyone is sitting in front of the television and they don't talk to each other... time slips away and people do not communicate with each other. And the worst of all? It is the things we see on television... that's the source of the worst corruption for the ones close to us, our children and our souls.
One of these days, when we had disembarked and were walking about the place, I noticed in one of those places where the youngsters serve different things, where they are offered refreshments, that they had a television switched on which was playing, and even though nobody was paying attention to it, it was still on. So I stood there for a moment, to see what it was showing—although I don't know what kind of film it was... I guess it was something... it was showing some people who were chasing after some other people all the time, and there was a constant chase....there were guns, bullets, cars, explosions, jumping from one house to another... But these are things that your children—your young children—sit and watch; so much violence... and I'm not even talking about all the other obscenities that I don't want to mention, which have even destroyed elderly people.
And don't you tell me that it's not like that, because I know it is, first hand: these are admissions that we hear during confession. Elderly people, very old people, who are otherwise very respectable, have been ruined by television, from all that vulgarity that they are exposed to every day. I'm not referring to that specific damage right now; I am referring to all the other things—all the violence that the television projects.
How do expect the children to not become familiarized with violence? They will naturally become unruly and disobedient and do things that are entirely foreign to their nature! Have you any idea what an ugly sight it is, when you see young children mimicking older people? They mimic adults, and they destroy their innocent childishness.
Sometimes, when I'm invited to an event, they bring along tiny toddlers and tell them to dance. And you see these little girls or boys, ten or twelve years old, full of innocence, making dance moves that they have seen older women do—women who are entirely disgraceful, with another morality altogether. You can actually see how those children are being destroyed, with their emulations of the adults that they see on television. And also doing all sorts of things and entertaining themselves with choices that are catastrophic. And I am not saying this from the spiritual aspect only, but from every aspect—psychological and social and family.
Keep them as far away as you can from all these things. Help your children to not be dependent on television, because they will be filled with all those obscene images, and so will you. If you don't allow your children to watch obscene movies, but you the adult does, then what's the use? And what about those silly warnings that they write on screen—that the movie is not suitable under 18 or something... or whatever else it says... younger than 12 or something like that.... Does that mean that if they turn 12 the sight is a suitable one?
Of course those warnings only arouse the youngsters' curiosity and every one of them will inevitably watch the film. They think to themselves that if this movie is forbidden for those younger than 12, it must have something that is deserving of every curiosity... In my opinion, the destruction that is inflicted on people's inner world is incalculable. Because, as we said yesterday, all positive images, all the good images that one absorbs are extremely beneficial in one's spiritual life. The same applies in reverse, with the bad images that a person observes—they create so many bad situations, that the damage caused is literally incalculable and sometimes we can't tell if it can be cured.
But if someone were to observe matters and study them, he will see just how great a catastrophe television can wreak on a person's psyche, and especially in younger people. But it is not only that; you see, one evil will bring on another. It will be a whole chain of evils, because it destroys communication, it destroys time, it destroys the innocence of a person's soul, and then man becomes exhausted, and being exhausted, he has no desire to do anything. Because his soul was filled with things that wearied him, and then he wonders why he is tired - he can't understand why...
Try to experiment, by eliminating or at least minimizing these evils, and you will see how much more relaxed you will become and how much free time you will have at your disposal, which will be far more fruitful for anything else that you may do. Naturally, these things are not unrelated to our spiritual life, because a person's spiritual life is a product of all the activities that a person has. By this, I don't mean to say stop watching television altogether. I am not against it per se; it's just that things like these make our life more difficult instead of making it easier, and they destroy it, the way it was destroyed by technological ‘progress’ which has otherwise facilitated our lives.
You catch a plane, and you're there. You get on a ship, and you get there quickly—you don't need to row with oars like they used to do in olden times.... or a thousand other conveniences... which in the long run are conveniences that may have facilitated our lives, but they also trapped us inside one big difficulty and made us lose ourselves, they made us lose the beauty of our life and we eventually destroyed the world we live in, and now we want even more sciences and discoveries, to see if we can salvage what is left of it...
Of course all these things that constitute the tragedy of our Fall and the mangling of our personality make it abundantly clear just how impossible it is to humanly tackle the problem, and yet, if one turns to God, then we will see that which Christ had said: that whatever is impossible for man to accomplish, is possible by God. Whatever seems impossible for people is possible for God—and we can see around us that miracle by God, which, even in our day, with all the information and all these provocations taking place around us, and the accessibility to sin, still, there are people who love God and from among the thorns, we see roses spring forth... Roses blossom from among the thorns, and the immense miracle of man's salvation becomes reality, regardless of our own human weaknesses, our wretched state, our problems, the difficulties with our self, our church, our family, our society and the other elements that unfortunately bombard every person.
That is why—to return from all these things—we need to return where we started from, when we said that the solution and the answer to all problems is for man to turn towards loving God, and that when man loves God, then God will cure him, God will resurrect him—even if that person is dead and decomposing—God will restore him, provided man discards from inside him all that is useless and put in his heart a love for God, and build his life around that love for God, and atop that love for God—to build his life, his marriage, his family, his path, his studies, his course.
If man does that, then he will truly come to enjoy life and his life will become a paradise, because paradise is nothing more than God's love, whereas ‘hell’ is nothing more than the absence of God's love. So, it is my wish, as a conclusion to our broadcast, that the love of God will always accompany all of you, and that we should not forget that everything we do, we must do for that reason, and not just to be religiously behaving people. We must become God-loving people, so that our lives can be transformed correctly and we ourselves be transformed into Jesus Christ our Lord.