Feb 27, 2011

The Monk and Fighter Pilots

I found this marvelous account on the Mystagogy website.  The original article was posted on the website of a church school on Patmos Island.

Monk Joseph: Athonite Protector of the Greek Air Force

Monk Joseph, known in the world as Christos Bairaktaris, is 49 years old. He comes from the village of Agios Vasilios in Corinth, though is considered by the Greek air force to be a part of their own family. All pilots of the Phantom, Corsair and F-16 aircraft's know him, who daily embark in the dangerous struggle to preserve the dignity of Greece and preserve the Greek identity of the Aegean Sea.

Father Joseph has been a monk on Mount Athos since the early 1980's. Since 1989 he has withdrawn by himself to live as an ascetic on the rocks of Cape Akrathos, over a cliff 300 meters deep. Alone with God, he reads, does manual work and saves his soul.

"He is a saintly man, a biblical personality, who, that if anyone comes to meet him, opens a window to a world of goodness and love," says George Vazouras, a pilot who visits him often, to Press Time.

Father Joseph, a hermit on Mount Athos, monitors the air battles of the Aegean and blesses the fighter pilots.

Since 1990 nearly all Greek pilots after each engagement with the Turks fly over Mount Athos to get the blessing of the venerable elder.

"Every day, when I hear the sound of airplanes, I dash from my cell. I go out and wave the Greek flag. I weep with emotion, as these young kids always, following any mission in the Aegean, come to greet me that I may give them my blessing."

On one occasion, four Turkish F-16's pierced through the clouds and poured out over the Aegean. When they entered Greek air apace, they broke off into pairs. One pair turned to the right towards Thaso and Samothraki, while the other went straight towards the northern Cyclades (Andros, Tinos, Mykonos). The Tactical Air Force in Larissa issued an alarm signal. Four Greek fighter planes, with an experienced captain and a first lieutenant, went off to engage in their daily mission.

When the Turkish pilots saw they were being pursued, they united in the northern Aegean near Limnos, Mount Athos and Mytilene. It looked as if these Turkish pilots were not there to "play", since the airplanes with the crescent on the tail were heavily armed. A few minutes later, off the coast of southern Mount Athos, a virtual dogfight began. The Greek pilots, in a masterful way, took the advantage by getting behind them and leading them back to the Turkish coast. They did this at a low altitude right over the sea, with dangerous and tight maneuvers and engines at maximum power.

The four Greek F-16's, before returning to their base, then did what all Greek airmen have done in the last thirteen years. They went to get their blessing from their patron! Elder Joseph, from the cliffs of Mount Athos, had watched the dogfight with tears in his eyes.

"May you have my blessing! Return now in health and as victors always..." he said to them as he waived his Greek flag over the icy air of the Aegean until the planes were lost in the skyline.

"I love them all like my children. I have also met some up close", said the hermit Joseph in a conversation. "Every day, when I hear the sound of airplanes, I dash from my cell. I go out and wave the Greek flag. I weep with emotion, as these young kids always, following any mission in the Aegean, come to greet me that I may give them my blessing. I have watched too many battles. I felt fear and pride. But the feeling I get after each engagement when they pass over my hermitage to greet me is indescribable ... Some of the pilots came here and found me. We embraced, we talked, they opened their hearts. They revealed their problems. I feel that my words are words of God, and will make them even more courageous to defend everything in our Greece."

The leader of Aviation, Gen. George Avlonitis, is one of the officers who have met the monk Joseph. And like the others, is impressed by the peaceful nature and wisdom of his words. Pilots from all martial squadrons have sent to the hermit's hermitage prayers, gifts, but above all their love, because they know that after a difficult time in any flight over the Archipelago, their contemporary 'protector' is there on the rocks, in order to bless them and to animate them from the Hermitage of Saint Menas.

How did this all begin?

The Hermitage of Saint Menas is a dependency of the Holy Monastery of Great Lavra. One day the Abbot of Great Lavra, Philip, told Joseph to go to Skyros for the feast of Saint George. He did not want to go. He was too busy with his work and his prayers. His purpose in going to Skyros was to gather stones for the overhaul of the monastery. Fr. Joseph was obedient.

While in Skyros, after the feast, he visited the air base. One of the air force officers approached him and said that he had once seen him as he was flying over the Aegean near the cliffs of Athos as he was talking with two people. He said that he saw him with a man and a woman. Joseph began to laugh. The one whom the pilot thought was a woman was in fact a monk with long hair. He explained this, along with the fact that Mount Athos neither allows women to step in its land nor allows the monks to even think about women. This pilot then began the tradition that whenever he passed by the area of the Hermitage of Saint Menas, that he would fly by and send his greeting. From that time forward there was never a time when this pilot did not do so, but rather he would fly low near the hermitage and send his greeting. In turn, he would receive his blessing.

Since other pilots were also flying in the area, they learned of this beautiful relationship between the pilot and the monk, so they began doing the same thing. Monk Joseph, in order to make sure that he could be seen and in order to encourage them, decided to get a flag and from a steep and high part of the cliff he waved it as they would fly by doing their cross. Later he got two flags, one Greek and the other Byzantine with the two-headed eagle.

This is how the Greek air force established a spiritual relationship with Monk Joseph the Athonite, their patron.

Feb 20, 2011

Limitless Compassion

This is the Sunday of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As with so many of parables Jesus told, there are many layers of truth contained within this particular parable, and much can be learned from each of the three main characters. From his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, St. Cyril of Alexandria focuses on the elder brother.

Prodigal Son (Coptic Icon)
What then is the object of the parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; for so we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke therefore had himself said a little before of Christ the Saviour of us all, "And all the publicans and sinners drew near unto Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats " with them." As therefore the Pharisees and Scribes made this outcry at His gentleness and love to man, and wickedly and impiously blamed Him for receiving and teaching men whose lives were impure, Christ very necessarily set before them the present parable, to show them clearly this very thing, that the God of all requires even him who is thoroughly steadfast, and firm, and who knows how to live holily, and has attained to the highest praise for sobriety of conduct, to be earnest in following His will, so that when any are called unto repentance, even if they be men highly blameable, he must rejoice rather, and not give way to an unloving vexation on their account.
For we also sometimes experience something of this sort. For some there are who live a perfectly honourable and consistent life, practising every kind of virtuous action, and abstaining from every thing disapproved by the law of God, and crowning themselves with perfect praises in the sight of God and of men: while another is perhaps weak and trodden down, and humbled unto every kind of wickedness, guilty of base deeds, loving impurity, given to covetousness, and stained with all evil. And yet such a one often in old age turns unto God, and asks the forgiveness of his former offences: he prays for mercy, and putting away from him his readiness to fall into sin, sets his affection on virtuous deeds. Or even perhaps when about to close his mortal life, he is admitted to divine baptism, and puts away his offences, God being merciful unto him. And perhaps sometimes persons are indignant at this, and even say, 'This man, who has been guilty of such and such actions, and has spoken such and such words, has not paid unto the judge the retribution of his conduct, but has been counted worthy of a grace thus noble and admirable: he has been inscribed among the sons of God, and honoured with the glory of the saints.' Such complaints men sometimes give utterance too from an empty narrowness of mind, not conforming to the purpose of the universal Father. For He greatly rejoices when He sees those who were lost obtaining salvation, and raises them up again to that which they were in the beginning, giving them the dress of freedom, and adorning them with the chief robe, and putting a ring upon their hand, even the orderly behaviour which is pleasing to God and suitable to the free.
It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick; He raises those who are fallen; He gives a helping hand to those who have stumbled; He brings back him who has wandered; He forms anew unto a praiseworthy and blameless life those who were wallowing in the mire of sin; He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered the spiritual death. Let us also rejoice: let us, in company with the holy angels, praise Him as being good, and loving unto men; as gentle, and not remembering evil. For if such is our state of mind, Christ will receive us, by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.

Feb 15, 2011

Living in the Present

Our culture and our very nature continually draw us away from living in the present. The majority of our thoughts are in the future, and the rest seem intent on reliving the past - good or bad. God is known in the present. Why would we want to live anywhere else?

The following entry from Fr. Michael of Holy Nativity Orthodox Church was a great encouragement to me.

We are all tempted at various times to think that if the conditions of our life were different, we could serve God better. This is not wisdom. Right now, where you are, in the condition of your life today, you not only can serve God, but it is also the only way you can serve God. A sick man can not serve God as a healthy man, for he is not a healthy man. To put off full-hearted devotion to God until circumstances change is to waste your life in procrastination. - Fr. Michael

"The general gifts consist of the four elements and all that results from them, all the wonderful and awesome works of God outlined in Holy Scripture. The particular gifts are those gifts which God bestows upon every man individually, whether it be riches for the sake of charity, or poverty for the sake of patience with humility; whether it be authority for the sake of justice and the strengthening of virtues, or subjugation and slavery for the sake of the expeditious salvation of the soul; be it health for the sake of helping the infirm, or illness for the sake of the wreath of patience; be it understanding and skill in gaining wealth for the sake of virtue, or weakness and lack of skill for the sake of submissive humility. Even though they appear contrary to one another, all these are very good according to their purpose." - Saint Peter Damascene

Feb 12, 2011

Silent Forests

 In our fast-paced society, some would question the value of monks and monasteries. Yet, there is much going on in these forgotten places of the world. Some of the greatest battles are fought and won in a world that is invisible to us. The following excerpt is taken from an interview with Hieromonk James (Deschene) who is abbot of Christminster monastery in Hamilton, Ontario. Note: FJD refers to Fr. James Deschene and OC refers to Orthodox Canada.

FJD: Our essential need as monks is for the freedom and opportunity to devote ourselves to prayer. Where we do this is to some degree irrelevant, so long as there is a measure of quietness, recollection, and a regularity of life. A rural setting is nice, allowing one to be in touch with nature and creation in ways not possible where we live in Hamilton...

If I may quote myself here from an article I wrote some time ago: "Monks (it has been observed) are like the great and silent forests of the earth. In silence and stillness the trees grow, unremarkable and unobserved in their forest wilderness, silently but effectively purifying the air of the whole world, removing, in their unmoving, unimpressive activity, the poisons and carbons that would otherwise destroy the world of cities and nations. It is for others to be the primary movers and dramatic doers. Monks, like trees, will do the world far less good by removing themselves from the purifying task of prayer and monastic observance. The world in its folly sees no usefulness in its rain forests - or in its monastics. But destroy either of these - and the world is ever ready to destroy both - and the world will strangle itself and die, poisoned by its own toxins."

Saint Silouan said something similar -- that when there are no more monks in the world praying, the world will come to an end.

OC: What do you say to people seeking advice about living an authentic Orthodox spiritual life?

FJD: To live an authentic Orthodox spiritual life, one must be faithful to the basics: daily prayer, the sacraments, the ascetical disciplines of fasting, abstinence and almsgiving, and feeding the mind and heart with holy reading. All of this must be done within the context of a lively and faithful church life and under the guidance of one's spiritual father or confessor. The essence of becoming holy is learning to become totally open to and submissive to God, utterly malleable to his will and his wise and gentle moulding of us into the saints he has created us to be. There are no gimmicks or shortcuts to this end - only the patient struggle each day to lay aside sin and all that keeps us from God, who is the true and only source of our joy and who seeks nothing more than to give us the fullness of his joy. But regrettably, we have so many ways of blocking and refusing his gift. We need his help even to stop resisting his help - that's how messed-up we are.

But God is good and full of mercy and loves us unfailingly. It is such foolishness to resist such goodness, but there you are - we're fools!