An oasis in the midst of devastation...

In our previous newsletter, for Fall/Winter 2012, we told you about the fire that happened toward the end of the summer. It left a lot of burned trees up and down Ponderosa Way and all around our monastery, but our property remained untouched for all practical purposes. Since that time the loggers have moved in and clear-cut many areas. We now hear bulldozers, logging trucks, and chainsaws nearby. When we drive down the road we now see bare earth and open, distant vistas where we once saw trees. What a difference from this time last year!

It seems that the trees in those areas were scorched and killed, but the timber industry could still use the wood inside the trunks. So now we see piles of logs where a forest used to stand, and it becomes all the more clear how miraculous was the sparing of the Monastery of St. John.

From another part of the town of Manton we can get a glimpse of what the area around us will look like a few years from now. After all, there was a fire in this area in 2005, the year before we moved up here from Point Reyes Station. Down near the elementary school, across the street from the playground, new pine trees now grow where blackened stumps and branches had covered the flat space and the ravines for the first few years after the fire. At this point they look like little Christmas trees, waist-high or a little taller. But we can already envision the new forested area from its beginnings.

From death, rebirth. The two contrasting areas near our monastery give us something to think about as Pascha approaches. ◊

Approaching and Entering Great Lent

As we approach Great Lent, the Church instructs us through parables and stories focusing on repentance and forgiveness. We have already, like Zacchaeus, earnestly desired to have a personal vision of the Lord, desiring this vision to the point of radically transforming our mode of life because Christ has accepted us despite our sinful state; and like the publican, the tax collector, we have abased ourselves and have asked for God’s mercy because we have clearly seen the self-deceit, the rationalization of sin, which can trap us when we are too easily conformed to the world, measuring it by our own fallen standards—when, like the Pharisee, we measure our “righteousness,” our spiritual progress, against others and at their expense, not comparing it to the absolute perfection of God, and not humbly seeking through contrition for our shortcomings to strive for perfection as much as is humanly possible.

“But I say to you,” the Lord says, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.

—St. Maximus the Confessor

We have heard what the proper form of human expectation should be—the knowing, like St. Paul, that in this fallen world it is the Christian’s lot to suffer in order to discover and acquire joy, to be illumined by joy—and that sincere and deep repentance bears the fruit of justification by God and lays the foundation for a steadfast superstructure of spiritual growth. We learn that when we hope for the least glorious lot because of our fallen state, God’s merciful, loving forgiveness rewards our true humility with the gift of the glory of His inheritance, with sonship by adoption. We are admonished not to grovel in the bestiality of the fallen world in which we are exiled because of our perverse and headstrong will, not to serve as a swineherd for the Prince of this world and be forced, against our initial expectations, to eat the common fare meant for beasts, and not even to find that offered at times by a world where all meaningful experience has disappeared, where tasks and pleasures are disjunctive, contradictory, incoherent, and unsatisfying through their inherent deceit, sin, and alienation from the Truth that brings light and joy, meaningful purpose, purity, beauty, and communion with God, the source and giver of real life.

We are enjoined not only to mortify our flesh, our passions, during the fast, but also to keep ourselves from enslavement to anything, whether it is a necessity of life, such as food, or something which is lawfully permitted but not spiritually profitable. We are exhorted through the epistles of St Paul and the Parable of the Prodigal Son to remember the life with our Heavenly Father which we have forfeited, having defiled the gift of spiritual beauty with which He has adorned our body, and to desire a return—indeed, the ability and power to do so—to our true fatherland where we were members of the household of God, fellow citizens and heirs with the saints. We are reminded that our bodies, our lives, are not our own but are entrusted to us as a precious gift by God, Who will restore them in the even greater glory of the Kingdom, adorning them with the best robe of grace available, and Who will bestow on us the eternal, glorious ring of sonship, the inheritance of His bounty, if we but take proper survey of ourselves, repent, and uphold the vision of our bodies and lives as sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as purified and redeemed through great sacrifice, as crowned by a Father Who awaits eagerly each day for our return from abject exile, and Who showers us tenderly with His mercy, compassion, and joy.

Finally, the Church offers us in this vision a subtle revelation of herself. St. Paul’s affirmation that our bodies are members of Christ recalls another passage in which we are taught that we are members of one another in the mystical Body of Christ, that we should care for one another, live in harmony, without envy, without the griping of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who takes for granted the great benefits of his patrimony, resents the freedom of his father to give as his wisdom and love prompt, and would deprive his younger brother of a share in what cannot be selfishly appropriated. We are offered a vision of the Kingdom in which joy, unity, and love are predicated of a life lived in interdependence and cooperation if it is to be a well-functioning, spiritually corporate and mystical reality. Incorporating this lesson in our own spiritual lives, let us repent, confess our sins, and return to the reconciling arms of the Church, which anticipates on earth here and now the joy and eternal unity of the heavenly Kingdom which awaits us. May we see in one another the image of Christ and the mystical purity of the indwelling Spirit, and be beacons of light to one another, that we may all coexist and share in the promised life to come. ◊

Glory be to God for all things!

In particular, glory to God for the recent developments in my health.

Those of you who have seen me over the past five and half years will know what I’m talking about. The lumbar fusion that was administered to me after my July 2007 car accident left me in a severely bent position that some doctors felt could be relieved by sufficient physiotherapy and exercises. Other doctors throught I was simply stuck with it. That was the conclusion I drew myself, since neither therapy nor exercises were of any help.

But in July 2012 I was returning from a trip to Los Angeles after a week-long visit with my family and friends when my flight was unexpectedly cancelled. After a harrowing process of finding available seats on another flight, I finally reached Burbank Airport in the late afternoon and boarded a flight on standby. Upon reaching Sacramento, I headed for the baggage carousels and was approached by a neurosurgeon who said he could tell what was wrong with me and that he could fix my problem. I soon got in touch with him to make arrangements to meet with him, which took a while, since he was in the process of moving part of his practice from Cedars-Sinai in LA to UC Davis Hospital in Sacramento. Eventually I did get to see him for a pre-op session, when he explained that he would be putting a wedge in my spine to restore its natural curvature.

“Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.” —St. Isaac of Syria

So I went in on the 19th of December, with two surgeons operating on me, one going in from the front and the other from the back. The procedure lasted ten hours, and I was in ICU for several days afterwards. After that I was placed in a “penthouse” ward on the fourteenth floor once occupied by Arnold Schwarzenegger. A couple of days later I was already walking the perimeter of that floor with the aid of a walker and with my posture completely straight! Soon afterwards I was back at the monastery.

It’s now been several months since I returned from the hospital. By the time my pain medication was depleted, which was on January 25, or about four weeks upon my return, the pain in my legs (especially the right one) subsided and I was moving around with the aid of either a crutch or a cane rather than a walker. At this point I can walk around unassisted, but since the straightening isn’t complete I still use the crutch from time to time. I am deeply appreciative of all the prayers that have been offered on my behalf.

God has been exceedingly gracious to me on numerous occasions, but this one outdoes them all, since by any measure, the probability of this happening by chance are extremely low. I know that many of you have had me in your prayers as the time of the operation approached, and God certainly heard those prayers. As my healing progresses, my pain levels and all the other surgery aftereffects are easing, so please keep praying for my continued improvement. Even Dr. Johnson, who got the whole thing started, was amazed to see how I was functioning as I was getting ready to leave. I am still at a loss for words over this miraculous event. God has done for me much more than I could have dreamed of!

May God bless all of you,
The unworthy hieromonk Alexis

On Listening

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” —Luke 10:38-42 RSV

It is hard to overestimate the value of the skill of listening; it seems to be one of the most important things we humans can do.

In the passage quoted above there are many things to look at, but one thing to notice is that Mary listened to Jesus, putting this listening before anything else, in fact—to her sister’s chagrin. Whatever Jesus might have been saying would certainly have also been important, but Mary couldn’t have begun to hear it without first plunking herself down and listening.

How many conflicts, disasters and wars often result simply from our failure to listen to one another? If we are careful to be good listeners we will often be able, when attacked or challenged, to reinterpret the attack in a positive way, depriving it of its power to harm us and even deriving benefit from it, since it sometimes turns out to be something we needed to hear. Without listening, however, we might easily jump to the conclusion that an attack was being fired before even giving ourselves the chance to discover if that’s what it really was. It may happen that we get so used to “attacks” (or perceived attacks) from a certain person or group that we either shut ourselves off from them entirely or we doom ourselves to hearing an attack even if there isn’t one coming!

The skill of listening remedies these problems. And it is definitely a skill; it takes practice. But what is often most difficult is getting ourselves to do it in the first place, especially if we are used to having to defend ourselves. Another tricky thing about listening is that it isn’t always something we do with our ears. Listening takes innumerable forms; it might be hearing, but it might be seeing as well, or perhaps just simply encountering, however that might take place. Ultimately, listening is something done with the heart.

When we pray to God, very often what we do is simply to listen attentively. Here again, things get tricky, because it may be that God isn’t saying anything. Silence can present a formidable challenge. What are we even supposed to listen to, if we hear nothing but silence? We might be tempted to say that, well, silence is what we are supposed to be listening to! There is much truth in that. Sometimes, though, the silence is a hint that we need to change our perspective somehow, sort of like tuning a radio. Then, by listening to God in some different way, perhaps by having let go of some hidden assumption or other, we begin to hear something after all. Openness to such changes of perspective, then, is very important, since by forcing ourselves into one particular mode of listening, we may not only fail to hear God’s message, but could even damage ourselves in the process.

Whether we are listening to God, to a brother or sister, or even to ourselves, what we are doing is giving that person the space to be freely whoever they are. When we begin to acquire some skill at this, then we have the opportunity to watch the person light up in joy that someone is actually hearing what they are saying. Such a gift of listening has tremendous capacity to produce, or rather invite, change and healing, both in us and in others. Furthermore, this is a gift we can give not simply to other people, but to any living thing, or even objects or concepts.

It might be tempting to think that God, Who is impassive, immutable, and unchanging, is unaffected by our faltering, haphazard attempts to listen to Him. However, if we observe the joy that other people show when we listen to what they have to say and offer them the space to be themselves, we can imagine how much more God, who is perfect and ultimate in every way, glows with joy and gratitude when His people offer Him the gift of their ear. He is not likely to withhold blessing to such ones.

The good thing about listening is that anyone can do it, and at pretty much any time they choose. And the more we do it, the more skilled at it we are bound to become.

Try this: sometime today, make an effort to listen to something you don’t normally pay much attention to. Give it a few moments, and experience attentively whatever there is to experience. Your object of listening could be anything—a piece of music, the wind in the trees, or a homily. Or you might look, rather than hear—a painting, the sky, or even some ordinary object sitting on the table. If you are up to the challenge, try it with a person. The results can be surprising! ◊

You may notice something a little unusual about this icon. It is an icon of the Resurrection, but the writing on it is in Gagauz Turkish, and was sent to us from our friends overseas in Moldova.