Meeting Patir Awakum of Mount Athos
We were invited to the abbot's building for dinner in the evening. There was plenty, too plenty; Lawra is a wealthy, and, as the expression goes, idiorhythmic monastery, in which each monk lives, eats and drinks in his own way, without a common table; one is also allowed to have assets and service; it is undoubtedly a degeneracy, an apostasy from the old idea. So we sat in a low room, in the corner of which was the exit to the kitchen; one could see the vaulted ceiling and the open fireplace and the flickering fire where the meat was roasting. There were several heavy courses and a rather thick, fiery wine.
From the kitchen the servant spirits with bowls crowded; it amused us that the kitchen monk's name was Lazaros; whenever anything was missing was missing, they shouted 'Lazare! Lazaree!' - of evil foreboding, as we noted since this name evoked the memory of the rich man's table, on whose crumbs the poor swarm-covered Lazarus feeds on, the memory, therefore, of this inexorable, judging all the rich, excluding all the rich from salvation parable forced itself in such a way, that one asked oneself: does no one see this!?
We had finished eating when the abbot offered to send for Father Awakum from the courtyard at night. A bizarre idea: to call the ascetic to the satiated, that is, in the middle of their weakest situation. But the abbot apparently wanted the famous Athenian professor to see a peculiarity of the monastery. And already the secretary, an agile man prone to fat laughter, had given orders to the kitchen to ask Father Awakum. And immediately Awakum entered.
He came in through the kitchen door and seemed to be joking with the people who were busy there, because he laughed and everyone else laughed as he left the kitchen. The abbot said, 'Awakum, sit down here if you have nothing better to do; there are guests here, from Germany and from Athens, and they want to talk to you. Have a glass of wine with us, if you like.'
Awakum threw back his head in denial, let the offered wine glass pass and said :
'King Solomon says: 'Give wine to drink to those, whose heart is sad, so that they may forget their sorrow and do not think of their misery.' But I am not at all sad, not today and never, as you know, Abbot; so why should I therefore, drink wine? If you have melancholy you must drink, of course. Since you all drink, as I see, you must have sadness and sorrow, otherwise, you do not drink, just as I do not drink, because I do not do not need it.'
There was little to be said against it, we laughed and felt affected to some extent. The abbot also laughed, as if he wanted to say:
'What can you do? The fool is right in his own way.'
'So drink!' Awakum continued. 'To your health! “Get drunk,” as the prophet says, “but not on the wine! Reel, yet not from brandy!" "When the ‘Day of the Lord’ comes, the mountains will be dripping with sweet must.”
He quoted the passages from the Old Testament in the Septuagint language, that is, ancient Greek, while he added his own remarks in the vernacular of modern times, the Dimotiki. It was, in fact, that the strange saint belonged to those special people who knew the entire Scripture, both Testaments, completely by heart. One knows such from the eastern world from Dervishes and Buddhist monks, who memorize their sacred scriptures by heart in a word fidelity which is no longer imaginable to our paper memories.
Although such achievements are not in themselves proof of erudition or even of sanctity, it was from the punch and sharpness with which this monk applied his knowledge, even the humors, it was easy to feel that there was more at stake than mere memorization; one felt the blows that were coming from the rag man at the lower end of the table.
Because he was sitting at the lower end of the table, but all of a sudden that end of the table was up. He sat there, his face riddled with trenches, eyes slitted, the beard overgrown, on his head a potted hat of gray shabby felt, which was rather ridiculous, and all this would have been nothing special if he had not radiated this incredible joy.
'I am all joy, all joy, olo chara, olo chara', that's what he kept coming back to in his speeches. 'Would I have reason to say that if it were not really so?'
This last was, in fact, an argument that one could not be passed by: what had caused him and many other ascetics, who told us similar things, to assert it, if it was not really so? One cannot trust much that people say about themselves: especially most of them are not at all as bad as they think; but if one says again and again with emphasis that he is happy and feels himself well, it would be absurd to know better.
"The sun rejoices like a young man when it runs its course in the sky!" he continues”, says David, and Baruch says: "The stars are joyful, they shine with joy on their posts; the Lord called them, they answered: "Here!" and with joy they shine to their maker. "Joy is the ether that binds everything together, joy keeps God and creation together. Melancholy is, what distances them from each other, sullenness is the strangeness." "I rejoice that I am glad in you," says the psalm. Joy is connection with God, unity with him. Man is born to joy, not to sorrow. ‘Why does he get his joy from idols ? Believe it, children, they get their joys paid for. God's joy costs nothing, I, for example, could not pay for it - because I do not possess anything in the world. I am not the only one who speaks like this, all my brothers speak like me, who possess nothing but God. They are all full of joy.'
Thus spoke the rare man, quickly, with determination and sharpness, and from his lean arms the cowl sleeves fell back, exposing the flesh. 'I too was once sad, I too know the loathing, the pusillanimity, the emptiness and the melancholy, but that is long gone. I know now only of joy.' He had, as we learned later, lived for about twenty years as a hermit in the cliffs of the sacred mountain, the so-called Eremia, that is: desert. As a child he had not even finished the elementary school, not even the first four grades, and could hardly read. But now he had whole libraries in him. In the days before, we had often talked about the veneration of images, that is, about icons; Luvaris now took up this topic. Without hesitation, Awakum began to quote entire passages from the Fathers of the Church, which stated, in open contradiction to the Old Testament and St. Paul, that man can only look up to God's glory in images.
'He knows things,' Luvaris remarked, somewhat aggrieved, 'that are otherwise known only to university professors.' But, he could have added, they usually know them while he lived them. For he had based his life on it , and he had drawn the consequences. He knew only that in the world, which constituted his salvation, and everything else he did not know and did not have.
Science, however, which has always been content with its own knowledge and has its ascension in the moment of the printed word, leaves nothing out; it always wants to know more, still more, and it draws no consequences from it. No, the amount of knowledge was certainly not the concern of this Pater ecstaticus - the knowledge of the ‘non-knowledge’, which is the obsession of all of us, had, so much was certain, no power over him.
'I have made myself empty for Christos,' he exclaimed, 'there is nothing in me but the Lord. Nothing but the Lord and joy! Poverty is beautiful, for it makes light, it makes empty; empty one must be, if Christos is to move in. Is not emptiness necessary if there is to be fulfillment? This is not difficult to understand, is it?'
No, it was not difficult to understand, actually; I looked around, there was nothing of better information on any of the faces to read. Rather of envy, because the solution was so simple, so boundlessly simple and so infinitely far back, and each of us, in his own way, had failed to find it.
When asked how he came to know the Scriptures so intimately, he replied that he had asked God, without ceasing, to enlighten him. He had certainly not been able to carry and know the Scriptures and the Fathers in such a way on his own; it had just moved into him.
One day in the hermitage, he was seized by an irrepressible desire to serve, to be the last, and that is why he entered the monastery a few years ago. But it seemed the eccentric seemed to have his own healthy opinion of obedience. He did not go to church at all, not for twenty-seven years, which was at least remarkable for a monk in a monastery. Everyone's servant and subject to no one, that's exactly how it was with him. A hundred times he had given the abbot in reply to his reproaches: 'When Christos dwells in me and I in him and I talk to Christos at night in my inexpressible happiness, what need do I have for church? ‘
But what was astonishing was that this fool in Christ was allowed to continue without any break. We thought that this had to be highly credited to the church superiors; apparently here in the country they had only a little talent for burning heretics: in fact, in the Greek church they never, never burned heretics. One felt, therefore, still unhardened, still Christian enough, to let Christians, as they are now and then graciously sent to a church, to walk among themselves. Thus he was allowed to walk, although he, like his kind from time immemorial, was a nuisance by his mere presence, which continually embarrassed everyone: the wealthy monks living for themselves, the dignified abbot, the curious strangers, the curious strangers who came just to try him out.
He lived miserably; we saw it when we went to see him the next day. It was certainly the most squalid cell of the monastery, a windy room, located in a dilapidated wing; one got there by dilapidated stairs, galleries and nooks, so I remarked to Luvaris while asking and searching: 'I think we're in the right place, it really looks like it! like it's going to Awakum.’ Then, when we told him something related to his poverty, he replied:
'If Christos is in me, there is joy in me; in that case there will be joy in every cave.'
In the monastery he was busy making and distributing Raki, the Treber schnapps and distributing it, as he had offered to the arriving to the arriving guest as a welcome drink. We were a bit surprised when we heard about this business of the ecstatic priest, but even this trait quickly melted into our image of the miracle man.
With pleasure i think ofhim now, while I am reading and writing, as he is down there at the end of the world in the dark side room of the abandoned trapeza the dark side room of the abandoned trapeza, called by many, always cheerful and always on the spot, with his sleeves rolled up, and whoever arrives at the monastery, woodworkers, oil workers, strangers raki is offered, just as it was for us in those days, on the ancient old stone table, with the comforting words: 'Drink, drink! "Bread strengthens," says the psalm, "but wine ravishes our heart."
This much was certain: this Franciscan man attracted his fellow men like a spring of healing; in his presence everything appeared in a brighter light; there was something there, that compelled the sad person to seek his closeness and to receive a share of his abundance of joy.
Only that it would be wrong to see him in too mild a glow. For, as he sat thus at the end of the table of the half-lighted dining room, in the depths of the scene, and one had the feeling of having seen something similar somewhere it could have been in a dream or on a sheet of Rembrandt, yes, Rembrandt, since seers like him have the same thing in common with the old prophets, that they are heard and not heard, and that they fall into the hands of the changers, that is, in his case, the art connoisseurs and historians - : as sitting like that, it was good and also not at all good to be near him. For he sat and distributed the roles, he distributed them, with the freedom of the servant, without asking in the least. He threw a roll over everyone's head like a hoop and everyone took it - the very role that everyone should not have accepted at any price.
Luvaris became the scribe; with boundless amazement I noticed a trait of erudite condescension in him never seen before, as if he did not deny that it was possible that another might also understand something of theological matters. The abbot, for his part, great lord of Lawra, came out as a dignitary, as the magnificent one for whom there is no place in the Gospel except that of the recipient of taxes and interest. And the secretary, whose fingers suddenly had something obnoxiously fat and fidgety! How he laughed with laughter at the comical Awakum! And it was not even clear whether he was not enjoying it to the fullest, that the little brother said this and that, which was detrimental to his master. But as for the rest of us, there were Nicodemuses among us who were silent, and sleeping disciples, too. Thomases, which is the most common, and all in all we were rich young men, much too entangled in what they possess inside and outside to think of changing their lives. In the darkness of the court, Luvaris said, 'He can put any scholar to shame. The poor man is much richer than all the scholars and much wiser than all the learned of the world. He is truly enlightened.'
A Christian is a rare bird, Luther says. Far must one has to travel.
Christianity at last; no theology for once.
- translated from Erhard Kästner, 'Die Stundentrommel vom heiligen Berg Athos'
- no photo of Patir Awakum exists, our examples show St Paisios, another saintly Athos monk