Tuesday, 30 August 2016

‘I was born to love people … I see in
the face of each person the image of God’

Flowers in Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

‘The more a person loves God, the more he loves other people. He loves them with holiness, respect and refinement, as images of God.’ So said Elder Amphilochios of Patmos.

Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia told the story of Father Amphilochios this morning at the summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Metropolitan Kallistos, who is the President of the IOCS and a monk of Patmos, was speaking on: ‘Elder Amphilochios of Patmos.’ They first met on Patmos in 1961, when there was only a boat once a week from Athens to the island, three taxis and a car belonging to the doctor.

Father Amphilochios said: ‘We must have Love, even if they do us the greatest harm, we must love them. We will be able to enter Paradise only with love.’

Metropolitan Kallistos said elders have a variety of gifts and charisms from the Holy Spirit. But they were often harsh and remote, and he gave the example of Saint Arsenios, a fifth century tutor to imperial children who withdrew to the Egyptian Desert. When he was asked by his former friends why he avoided him, he replied: ‘I cannot leave God to be with men.’

But Father Amphilochios was not like that, he said. He was an icon of the love of Christ, and did not force people’s free will.

The true elder appeals to people’s free will. He is not a substitute figure for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, but frees us to listen to the voice of God in our hearts and consciences. The spiritual father does not replace God, but acts as God’s usher, ushering us into the presence of God, so that we can listen to God in our own conscience.

Father Amphilochios (1889-1970) was a priest and monk who was born on Patmos when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. This was the island where Saint John the Divine received the Revelation in the Cave of the Apocalypse. The Monastery of the Apocalypse, founded by Saint Christodoulos in 1088, sits like a citadel on the top of the mountain, and Metropolitan Kallistos has many memories of celebrating the Liturgy in the cave in the monastery.

Father Amphilochios lived on Patmos, and after basic schooling he became a monk in the Monastery of the Apocalypse. He had a hearty sense of humour and lived a life of prayer. He taught the value of frequent Communion, regular Confession, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which he learned from a hermit who lived in a cave on the island and which he taught to all, giving prayer ropes to children.

Father Amphilochios wrote: ‘Cultivate the Jesus Prayer and a time will come when your heart will leap with joy, just as it does when you are about to see a person who you love very much.’

After a short time on Mount Athos, he was sent to be ordained deacon on the neighbouring island of Kos in 1913. But instead he travelled to Alexandria and on to Jerusalem to visit the holy sites and in search of a cenobitic monastery.

He was sent back to Patmos, where he was sent to a remote hermitage. There he learned inner prayer, based on the Jesus prayer in the Hesachyst tradition. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1919.

He was the Abbot of the Monastery of the Apocalypse (1935-1937) until the occupying Italians forced him into internal exile in Greece. He received hospitality from the Zoe brotherhood in Athens, and then travelled throughout Greece; first in Athens and later on Crete, where he became the spiritual father of many people on the island.

He returned to Patmos in 1939, but did not become abbot again. Instead, he was the spiritual father to the women’s community in the Monastery of the Annunciation. He died on 16 April 1970.

The Master’s Garden in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Earlier this morning, Elder Amphilochios was also referred to by Dr Christine Mangala Frost, who quoted him saying: ‘I was born to love people. It doesn’t concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.’

Dr Frost is a research associate at the IOCS, a published novelist and a leading voice in the area of interfaith dialogue, particularly in Hinduism and Orthodoxy. She was speaking on ‘Signs and Wonders: a Comparative Study of Spiritual Elders in Orthodox Christian and Hindu Traditions.’

We live in an apparently enlightened age, free of superstition and informed by scientific insights. Yet, she pointed out, people seek after holy men and holy women, who are often associated with signs and wonders.

In her paper, she asked what are the hallmarks of the Orthodox elders, what do the Hindu gurus offer, what have they in common, and where do they differ.

She began by looking at signs and wonders in the Bible.

Christ accepts that signs and wonders are expected of the Messiah. He often performs these out of compassion to make people whole so that they may turn towards God. But, as in the case of the feeding of the multitude and the miracle at Cana, these signs and wonders also prefigure the Eucharist, showing that Christ is the true bread and the true wine. His signs and wonders related to the whole message of the Gospel, and the core message of salvation.

He often refuses to be a mere wonder worker, and instead points people to his central messages of repentance, God’s forgiving love, and resurrection, and he warns of false signs and wonders.

In looking at the criteria for holiness in the Orthodox tradition, and asked whether these are shared by Hindu ‘holy men and women.’

She pointed out that all Christians are called to be saints, but some live lives that show how the Holy Spirit can transform sinful human life in the here and now.

Many are monastics, and not all are priests. They share a common spiritual bond and share the same goal of acquisition of the Holy Spirit. They talk in parables, paradox and poetic language, and their lives show deification by grace and the promise of spiritual transformation.

Elder Amphilochios Makris of Patmos once said: ‘I was born to love people. It doesn’t concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.’

She looked at the place of self-abasement or self-effacement, playing the holy fool, holy idiosyncrasies and humility in the lives of the Orthodox elders, and then compared this with the lives of holy men and women in the Hindu tradition. She suggested the mystery of repentance and the mystery of love come together in their lives.

Discernment is seen by Orthodox writers as the ability to perceive the secrets of another’s heart, often concealed even from that person’s own heart. It is not like telepathy, clairvoyance, or psychic gifts, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit for healing the wounded and scarred.

They live in the atmosphere of heaven, in the here and now. Spiritual practices are not ways of earning merit but of keeping Christ’s commandment of love.

Turning to Hindu holy men and women, she distinguished traditional gurus, who tend to be monastics, who have ascetic lives, traditional teachings, and are low-profile are self-effacing from the cultic gurus she described as ‘export gurus’ and ‘a curious tourist phenomenon.’

She compared the traditional gurus to the righteous figures in the Bible who may not know God, but God knows them, such as Cornelius. They are full of compassion and love, they deflect attention from themselves, they have a strong yearning for the love of God, and they want people to know of this love of God.

On the other hand, the cultic gurus emphasise self-realisation and often are not ascetic. She referred to Jaggi Vasudev or Sadhguru, who founded the Isha Foundation, and Swami Prabhavananda, who introduced Christopher Isherwood to Hinduism.

They emphasise positive thinking and self-help, while belief in God is marginal or dispensed with, so that belief in self is important, with the promise of continuous bliss in the here and now. The motto of the Isha Foundation is: ‘Be, breathe, blossom.’

These gurus offer ‘technologies of inner well-being’ and a message of total self-reliance and cosmic consciousness. They do not demand any explicit faith commitment, but instead offer an ‘easy, download-free message.’

They engage in a psychic feat to be obtained through yogic meditation, with Christ as an accessory who is recast as an avatar. All the old heresies are well and truly alive in the language of these gurus. Many of them deny the reality of evil, and the demonic is not a category they recognise.

This afternoon, Dr Razvan Porumb, Vice-Principal of the IOCS and a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer, speaks on ‘Father Nicolae Steinhardt,’ and the Romanian theologian and priest, the Revd Dr Liviu Barbu, presents a paper on: ‘What it takes to be a saint today? A tentative sketch of a profile.’

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (right) and Dr Christoph Schneider at the IOCS summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

1 comment:

Cindy Thomson said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing, Patrick.