I have not posted here since before Christmas. To answer the obvious question: no, I have not decided to stay on Athos – although, to tell you the entire truth, the real question in MY mind is not why I keep going to Athos, but why I keep leaving the Holy Mountain. The answer is simple, really. There is an ongoing, long-lasting battle in my heart, between what my heart wants and what my hearts knows. My heart wants to stay on Athos, because there, in the desert of the Mountain, it finds the peace and seclusion it longs for. But my heart also knows that God’s will for it is to return to the Isles.
And so, day by day, my heart has to make a choice between what it wants and what it knows to be God’s will. Like everyone, I am always tempted to chose the path my heart loves. It is especially difficult not to go down that path when there is nothing visibly wrong with it. What could be wrong in a monk’s choice to follow his desire for silence and solitude? What could be wrong in a monk’s choice to put himself under obedience to an Elder who has more years of experience than I have years of life? What can be wrong in a monk’s choice to abandon all and entrust Himself to God’s will?
Nothing. There is nothing visibly wrong in that, except that God’s will for me (at least for now) is to do something else, somewhere else. Athos seems to have this role in my life, to remind me always that to follow my heart can be just as dangerous as to follow my logic. God speaks to one’s spirit, not one’s heart and not one’s brains. Don’t ask me what the spirit is, or where it is ‘located’ – I have no idea; read the Fathers if that is important to you, they write at length about it. All I know is that there are at least three voices in myself: my brain (which I have learnt early on in my life not to entrust with spiritual questions), my heart (which I find the most difficult to fight) and a strange, third voice that feeds on my prayer, Communion and love.
This third voice – if I allow myself to listen to it – guides me in a way that is above my brain and my heart. In my life, I feel that the Mother of God has been using the Holy Mountain to remind me of this third voice. This is the voice I must obey, not my logic, not my feelings. When I finally received a blessing to enter a monastery to become a novice, I wanted to go to Athos, despite the fact that my spiritual father had directed me towards Bucovine. I told him I felt called to the Holy Mountain, and I was not telling a lie. I told him my heart was on fire when I thought of the Holy Mountain – and again, I was not telling a lie.
Eventually, my monastic brother and I bought two one-way train tickets to Thessaloniki and started the journey on the path our hearts encouraged us to follow. But we kept praying for God’s will (I remember praying every minute of that train journey) and I have no doubt that my spiritual father prayed with us. We travelled South through Romania, we crossed Bulgaria, and all was amazing. My heart was indeed on fire, my prayer poured out of me almost by itself. Then, we reached the borders with Greece and it all collapsed on us. For absolutely no reason, both of us were taken off the train. We had all the necessary documents, we had no other luggage except our clothes and some books – and yet, we desperately watched the train depart and continue its way to Thessaloniki, while we were forced to walk over the border and find our way back to our spiritual father. My heart had wanted Athos. God’s will for me at that moment was Bucovine.
That was the first time the Mother of God used her Mountain to teach me that what is pleasant to one’s heart is not always God’s will for us. It is a painful lesson. Incomparably more difficult for me than bypassing my brain and its will. The heart is a dangerous thing, as it becomes intimately close to one’s being, almost one with it. To let go of my heart’s vision for my life and entrust that vision to God’s will is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to do. Ever since that train ride, from my very first steps into the monastic life, Athos has been my teacher in this painful lesson: salvation is found in God’s will for me, not in the will of my mind, nor in the will of my heart.
Athos – the desert of the Holy Mountain – is the first love of my heart. Yet, once again, the Mother of God reminds me that Christ’s will is above the will of my heart. I have returned to the Isles. I have a mission here. The vision of this Monastery is not mine; I know that now. The vision belongs to Christ and the Celtic Saints. Like all of us, I also walk in darkness, I walk in hope, I walk in obedience. Slowly, in time, this vision reveals itself to me. I am grateful beyond words to the Mother of God for teaching me this difficult lesson. Only She, in Her motherly love and care, could have such patience with someone like me. I have left Athos having been reminded of a most valuable lesson, but also having been revealed a bit more of Her vision for our Monastery.
I’ll tell you more tomorrow, this is already way too long…
Dear Fr Seraphim, I am never really sure whether we have met or not (either at Madingley Hall or Tolleshunt Knights), but I always find your writings extraordinarily acute, illuminating and powerful, but above all honest and truthful, sharp as a sword, as you distinguish between all those elements of ourselves that we think are critical, but are not, and as you invite us to the same deep listening. I am so grateful to you for this most recent posting today and ask for your prayers as I head off for a ‘Holy Week’ retreat myself. Thank you for your faithful witness and quest. In Christ.
Dear Philip, if we have indeed met, it must have been at Cambridge – when I go to the monastery in Essex I usually keep myself to myself, and I stay mostly in my room or in Fr Sophrony’s crypt. Thank you for your kind (although exaggeratedly so) words. To my shame, I do take courage from the encouragement I receive. As you go to your retreat, please keep me in your prayer, as well. I envy you. I shall spend my Holy Week on Megabus, travelling to Glasgow and back to Oxford. Pascha itself will be in Manchester – I shall go through it all praying for the silence of next Pascha, which should (God willing) be at the Monastery. Yours in Christ, fr s
My dear Fr. Serafim,
I am happy that you came back. Although you probably don’t think so, we need you. The Isles need you. Please forgive us for placing this burden on you. But you have inspired so many, and will inspire so many more. You are bringing the Celts (we Celts) our Orthodox heritage back. Glory be to God!
Your words here are very moving to me. As you know, there is something I too have always wanted, something that my heart longs for. Now, I have a way to pray to find out if that is the same as what my heart knows to be God’s will. Perhaps I have been shutting out the answer. I don’t even know. But now I understand that sometimes what my heart wants is not what it’s supposed to have. It’s nice to know what the options are.
May God bless you during this Holy Week, Fr. Serafim. I miss the Isles so much. I may have to save up for next year….
Your servant in Christ,
And not just the Isles. I miss YOU, and pray for you a lot.
Dear Father Serafim,
Christ is risen!
Sorry for off the topic question. Please let me know if there is a way to contact you privately at all. I understand your time is limited and with God’s help I will do my best not to abuse it.
I trust you will have my email address from the form required to fill before any post can be submitted.
He is risen indeed. I am so sorry for being so slow to reply. Please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org – it is a private email, so it should be all right. In Christ, fr s
Dear Fr. Serafim,
I am a mature second year undergraduate degree student studying for a BA (Hons) degree in Religious Studies and Ethics. I would love to be able to speak more with you about your work in the Isles, the Orthodox Monastery and its connection with Celtic Christianity. I am preparing to start my dissertation topic and this is exactly the area I am interested in exploring. Would you be willing to talk with me at all please?
Very best wishes,
Dear Charlotte, please go ahead and send me an email with your questions (at email@example.com) – I’m afraid my experience and knowledge are mostly practical, so you may also need to consult other much better sources for theoretical information. But I shall very gladly share with you the little I know. Thank you for writing. May it all be blessed.
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