That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Tag: Monasticism

Never too late

This potent tale from Archimandrite Tikhon’s Everyday Saints comes as a good reminder not to judge my fellow believers and to consider myself the worst of my brethren.

Somewhere in the depths of Russia before the Revolution there was a monastery that had a bad reputation in the neighborhood. It was said that its monks were all idlers and drunkards. During the Civil War the Bolsheviks arrived in the town that was closest to the monastery. They gathered together its inhabitants in the market square, and then they dragged the monastery’s monks out in a convoy. The commissar loudly yelled at the people as he pointed to those men in black: “Citizens! Townsfolk! You know these drunkards, gluttons, and idlers better than I do! Now their power has come to an end. But so that you will understand more fully how these vagabonds have fooled the workers and peasants for centuries, we will throw their cross and their Scriptures into the dust before them. Now, before your very eyes, you will see how each of them will stamp upon these tools of deceit and enslavement of the people! And then we will let them go, and let the four winds scatter them!” The crowd roared. And as the people cheered, up walked the monastery’s abbot, a stout man with a meaty face and nose all red from drinking. And he said as he turned to his fellow monks: “Well, my brothers, we have lived like pigs, but let us at least die like Christians!’ And not a single one of those monks budged. That very day all their heads were chopped off by the sabers of the Bolsheviks.

Everyday Saints, p. 215

Everyday Saints can be ordered directly from the publisher, Pokrov Publications. It may also be available on Amazon, though it wasn’t when I ordered the book recently.


Earlier this month my family and I took part in the annual St. Panteleimon Pilgrimage at Holy Cross Hermitage in Wayne, WV. I’m happy to see that they’ve published a gallery of photos from the pilgrimage. Some are quite beautiful: the image here, for example, is taken from the gallery.

From long before our family’s conversion to Orthodoxy, the search for a spiritual community has been important to us. I can’t say that we’ve ever found the kind of believing community that we dreamed of, and I doubt that we ever will in this life. But visits to Monasteries, and especially pilgrimages like this one, always feel to me like a full immersion in the Church as I’d always hoped it would be. I come away refreshed, strengthened and grateful.

The askesis of the laity

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote that monastics are like hothouse flowers: they can bloom more fully and beautifully than those in the world, but those in the world are often hardier and may stand up to trials better than their monastic brethren.

In a recent interview, Mother Christophora, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, spoke of her appreciation for the unique askesis of Orthodox Christians who struggle to live their faith in the world. Here is an excerpt.

Now, we [monastics] work, of course; we have to do things all day long, like everybody, whatever it is, whether it is shopping or cooking, or doing office work, answering the phone or writing or sewing or gardening. There is always work to do; everybody has to keep busy. Even St. Paul, a great preacher, had his profession. But we do not usually have to do it off the property, in the stress of the world, on the highways or in traffic, as so many people do. When I want to go to church, it takes me one minute to get there. If I visit a parish or stay with my family or someone, I say, “Oh! You’ve got to be up and in the car 45 minutes before the Liturgy starts because you have to drive. And maybe you have to go down to the basement and set up the coffee.”

I have no reason to be absent from church, but people who have families have to load them in the car, drive them and deal with weather and other things. Maybe it is an evening service and they want to go — it adds extra time to their day. People might have left their home at six, six-thirty in the morning, finish their workday, get home, maybe change clothes, freshen up, go to Presanctified Liturgy at six or seven in the evening and finally get something to eat, and get home at nine or ten o’clock. That is a big sacrifice. I find that extremely imprssive and very much ascetical — an asceticism that I am not subject to. I have other ascetic struggles, but we do have a little cushion here from some difficulties the laity goes through.

Another cushion — we live with other Orthodox Christians who believe the same thing, and the people who come here are mostly at least Christian or they are seeking. During Lent, I go to the refectory to find a very nice, fasting meal prepared for me at lunchtime or dinnertime. I do not have to smell hamburgers and pizza like kids who go to school. I do not have to make choices or think, “Here I am with my peanut butter and jelly again,” while other kids are having pepperoni pizza. There is this kind of protection; there is a bit of truth to that. I really want to say how much I respect the Orthodox people who are faithful, living in the world and participating in their parish and still dealing with all those things that I mentioned, whether it is traveling, jobs, work or other responsibilities.

We should not think that somehow monks and nuns are the Holy People. People see us in our habits and say, “There are the Holy People.” I think the holy people are the good, faithful Christians who raise their children, pay their bills, who go to work, support their parish, say their prayers, read their Bible, sing in the choir, and do all of that while still struggling in the world to meet all their expenses and even to keep their families happy. God bless them all!

— From Life Transfigured: A Journal of Orthodox Nuns, Summer 2012

A little fish for the brother

Not long ago I posted a reflection on how our habits of rationalism prevent us from recognizing the miracles that sometimes occur right in front of our noses.
I’m now reading a fine book, Elder Païsios’ Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters. The Elder, who reposed in 1994, had mixed feelings about the modern-day revival of monasticism on the Holy Mountain. He rejoiced in the influx of monks, but felt that much of the simplicity and unreserved faith of previous generations was being lost.
In his book, he returns several times to the thought that miracles were once common and taken as part of everyday life among the brethren, but that the growth of a modern, rationalistic spirit now actually prevented miracles from occurring so easily. In writing about this, the Elder relates one delightful story that I’m happy to pass along:

When I was a beginner at the Monastery of Esphigmenou, I was told by the God-fearing Elder Dorotheos that an elder of great simplicity used to come to help at the monastery infirmary. He thought that the Ascension, the feast which the monastery celebrates, was a great saint, like Saint Barbara,* and when he prayed with his komboskini [prayer rope] he used to say “Saint of God, intercede for us!” One day, a sickly brother had arrived at the infirmary, and since there wasn’t any nutritious food there, the elder hurried down the steps leading to the cellar, stretched his hand out of a window overlooking the sea and said, “Saint Ascension, please give me a little fish for the brother.” What a miracle! A large fish leapt out into his hand. He took it quite naturally, as if nothing had happened, and happily went off to prepare it so as to strengthen the brother.
— Athonite Fathers, pp. 17–18

So, as I read, I’m continuing to ponder the “unbelief is the air we breathe” theme of the earlier post. Do our mostly-unconscious habits of unbelief not only prevent us from recognizing the miracles around us, but actually stand in their way — hinder the flow of divine grace in our lives and in the world?
I remember the very sobering words from the Gospel, of how in Nazareth Christ “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Mt 13:58; emphasis added).

* This makes more sense in Greek than in English: Where we say “Saint Nicholas,” Greek (like most languages) says “Holy Nicholas”; hence the simple elder’s confusion in thinking that “Holy Ascension” is the name of a saint.