Staff Pick: “The Mountain of Silence”

Staff Pick: “The Mountain of Silence”

Recommended by Alexandros Pandazais, Campus Missionary

An acclaimed expert in Christian mysticism travels to a monastery high in the Trodos Mountains of Cyprus and offers a fascinating look at the Greek Orthodox approach to spirituality that will appeal to readers of Carlos Castaneda.

In an engaging combination of dialogues, reflections, conversations, history, and travel information, Kyriacos C. Markides continues the exploration of a spiritual tradition and practice little known in the West he began in Riding with the Lion. His earlier book took readers to the isolated peninsula of Mount Athos in northern Greece and into the group of ancient monasteries. There, in what might be called a “Christian Tibet,” two thousand monks and hermits practice the spiritual arts to attain a oneness with God. In his new book, Markides follows Father Maximos, one of Mount Athos’s monks, to the troubled island of Cyprus. As Father Maximos establishes churches, convents, and monasteries in this deeply divided land, Markides is awakened anew to the magnificent spirituality of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Images of the land and the people of Cyprus and details of its tragic history enrich the Mountain of Silence. Like the writings of Castaneda, the book brilliantly evokes the confluence of an inner and outer journey. The depth and richness of its spiritual message echo the thoughts and writings of Saint Francis of Assisi and other great saints of the Church as well. The result is a remarkable work–a moving, profoundly human examination of the role and the power of spirituality in a complex and confusing world.

There’s a Saint for That: The Seven Holy Youths of Ephesus

There’s a Saint for That: The Seven Holy Youths of Ephesus

The Seven Holy Youths (“Seven Sleepers”) of Ephesus

The 7 Holy Youths “Seven Sleepers” of Ephesus—Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodianus (Constantine) and Antoninus—lived in Ephesus in the third century. Friends from childhood, the Seven Youths all served in the military together. During the time of the youths’ service, Emperor Decius commanded all the people of Ephesus to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, and those who did not obey would be tortured and killed. Despite the threat of death, the Seven Youths refused to offer sacrifices to the gods. 

 

The Seven Youths were summoned by Decius, appeared before him, and proclaimed their faith in Christ. The Emperor, hoping the youths would change their mind while he was on his military campaign, released them. Meanwhile, the youths fled into a cave on Mount Ochlon and passed their time in prayer in preparation for martyrdom. 

 

When Saint Iamblicus, one of the seven, dressed up as a beggar to fetch bread in town, he heard the Emperor was back in town. Saint Maximilian implored them to present themselves to Emperor Decius. However, before they could turn themselves in, Decius learned where they were hidden. The Emperor, hoping the holy youths would die from hunger and thirst, commanded the entrance to the cave to be sealed. Two Christians, wanting the Youths to be remembered for their dedication to Christ, placed a plaque outside of the cave detailing their date of martyrdom and death. 

 

While everyone believed the saints to have perished, they lived on, for the Lord placed them in a miraculous sleep for almost two centuries. 

 

After 200 years, the Seven Youths woke up unaware that 200 years had passed since the cave they were hiding in was sealed. Their clothes and their bodies remained miraculously undecayed. It was only when Saint Iamblicus left the cave and paid for bread with coins bearing Emperor Decius’ image that they were found alive. Believing the saint to have a hoard of old money, the people detained him. 

 

On hearing his bewildering story, the Bishop of Ephesus opened the cave and discovered the rest of the youths in the cave. In sight of everyone, the Holy Youths all lay their heads down and fell asleep in the Lord until the General Resurrection. Their lives reveal the mystery of the Resurrection in Christ, which surpasses all wordly time. They are commemorated on August 4th. May the 7 Holy Youths of Ephesus intercede for us all!

 

Adapted from Orthodox Church in America, “Lives of the Saints.”

How can the Seven Holy Youths intercede for us?

The Seven Sleepers were brave in the face of certain persecution, and the Lord saved them because of their faith. Pray to them when you need courage facing hard situations. Ask the Seven Sleepers to intercede for you when you feel spiritually “dry” and to help you find your zeal for Christ. 

 

Apolytikion of Holy 7 Youths of Ephesus

Fourth Tone

Thy Martyrs, O Lord, in their courageous contest for Thee received as the prize the crowns of incorruption and life from Thee, our immortal God. For since they possessed Thy strength, they cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption. O Christ God, by their prayers, save our souls, since Thou art merciful.

Kontakion of Holy 7 Youths of Ephesus

Fourth Tone

They that scorned all things in the world as corrupted and found the gifts that nothing ever corrupteth, behold, they died, and yet corruption touched them not. Wherefore after many years once again they all rose up, burying all unbelief of malicious revilers. Ye faithful, let us laud the seven youths with hymns of praise on this day, while extolling Christ.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The Seven Holy Sleepers existed outside of normal time for a bit and in this sense, were preserved from the dangers of their fallen world. When we participate in the Divine Liturgy, it is said that we are worshiping outside of time, in a timeless space that is both past, present, and future. How does stepping out of time and into the Mystical life of the Church help preserve us from the dangers of our fallen world?
  2. Despite the threat of persecution, the Seven Sleepers held fast to God and their faith, risking their lives to do so. Yet they also sought to escape the dangerous persecution of the emperor by hiding in a cave. In what ways can we learn from the Seven Sleepers’ zeal for God? How can we explain their willingness to risk their lives like other martyrs while also taking into account their God-blessed efforts to preserve them?
  3. The Seven Holy Youths refused to sacrifice to Emperor Decius. What are some things in the world today that demand our attention/sacrifice? How can we pull our attention away from these false idols and shift it back to God?

Go Back to the Full List

Guided Discussion: “Time Management: An Orthodox Perspective”

Guided Discussion: “Time Management: An Orthodox Perspective”

This discussion is based on an article published by Dr. Albert Rossi and Julia Wickes in 2009 in the OCA’s Theology of Lay Ministries Volume III. The reflection sections are taken directly from the article, while the discussion questions are original to this content.

This discussion is made up of several parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.

Part I: Whose time is it?

Reflection

The first thing to say, from an Orthodox perspective, is that there is no such thing as time management. We don’t manage time. Time manages us if we allow the Lord to have a place in our schedule.

Christ is everything, including the giver and owner of our time. He is the Way we format our schedule, the Truth about the meaning of time, and the flow of Life that moves us through time.

C. S. Lewis makes a profound point about time. He says that we usually regard time as our own. We start our day with the curious assumption that we are the lawful possessors of an upcoming twenty-four hours. With that hazardous assumption we then plot a matrix for our day, filling in time slots with tasks or restful moments. We might hope that we are managing our time in a way that will somehow please God. But when we begin with the assumption that time is ours, inconveniences and unexpected interruptions become intrusions into “my time.”

By contrast, we can begin with the assertion that time is not our own. Time belongs to the Lord and He has a plan for time that He desires us to accept for our own peace and joy.

Discussion Questions

How does recognizing that time is not your own change the way you view your day-to-day activities and goals?

Dr. Rossi says that we don’t manage time but time manages us. Why do you think the Lord gave us time as a way of managing our lives? Is it bad to view Christ as someone who wants to “manage” us?

Part II: Adjusting our expectations

Reflection

Those who are trying to use their time to do the Lord’s will must begin every day, and every moment, with Jesus Christ. One question might be, “Lord, what do you want me to do, now?” But an even better question is, “Lord, what do you want to do through me now?” This takes the emphasis from the ego and places it on the Lord.

If we believe that God has a plan for each moment, we can then be sensitive to each moment as it unfolds in unexpected ways. When we receive each moment as from the Lord we will begin to experience our time on earth as a series of small deaths and resurrections.

Every loss is a gift that God gives us so that He can give us more. It might be saying goodbye to high school or college days, a move from the old neighborhood, the loss of a job, the loss of physical or mental health. We might lose loved ones through separation or death. In degrees, the reactive thought might be, “This is the beginning of the end.” A more truthful thought would be, “This is the beginning of the beginning.” Death is the beginning of a new relationship with Christ, a fresh beginning of an entirely new life. Each loss and little death is a new beginning towards our ultimate beginning—heaven.

As we adjust our expectations, time takes on a new meaning.

Discussion Questions

What are some expectations that you can change regarding your use of time if your goal changes from what you want to do to what God wants to do through you?

What might be a good way of trying to discern what God might be trying to do through you in the various aspects of your life?

Part III: Sacrament of the present moment

Reflection

Simple awareness of the presence of God is the power within the present moment. The present moment—now—is the only place where God is. He discloses Himself through the reality of the present moment. Nowhere else. This is a mystery we can participate in by simply trying to be aware of His presence.

Awareness, conscious contact with God, is the key.

Discussion Questions

Why do Dr. Rossi and Julia say that the present moment “is the only place where God is”?

What are some moments in which it is difficult to remember God’s presence?

What are some tools the Church offers that you find useful for remembering God’s presence in moments that are not explicitly directed to him (i.e. mundane tasks and parts of your day)?

Part IV: The Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret

Reflection

An Orthodox morning prayer by Metropolitan Philaret says: “In unforeseen events let us not forget that all are sent by Thee.” Here it is helpful to refine exactly what is meant by the idea that God sends all moments. God did not send terrorists to fly planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Rather, God allowed terrorists to fly those planes. What, then, is implied by the all in Metropolitan Philaret’s prayer? An Orthodox perspective would say that events outside ourselves are subject to God’s allowing will, and moreover are beyond our understanding. However, by faith we believe and confess that God sends all of the events that pertain to us. All events in our day, even those that we anticipate in a human way, can legitimately be described as “unforeseen,” because they bear a divine potential which is not revealed to us in advance. But even “unforeseen events,” in the most mundane sense of the term—the unforeseen phone call or the inconvenient request—can take on a new meaning, simply because our time is not our own.

Our freedom consists in embracing all that happens to us, exhaustion and all, as a blessing in divine disguise.

Discussion Questions

What is the connection that Dr. Rossi and Julia make between recognizing that time is not our own and coming to terms with tragic and evil events that take place in the world?

Compare a properly oriented use of our freedom in a moment of tragedy or evil to an improperly oriented use of our freedom in that moment.

Think of one of those moments in your own life in which you fell into the improperly oriented use of freedom. Why do you think you fell into that use of freedom rather than the properly oriented use?

Part V: Making the most of time

Reflection

There is a paradox inherent in the Orthodox approach to time. We do not “manage” our time yet we must be prudent and skillful in the way we use our time. We must plan without being a slave of our plans. So, we are back to basics. We need to allow the Lord to flow through us all the time, as best we can. Sometimes we must use the present moment to plan for tomorrow and the long-term future. But, again, it is the Lord doing the planning through us. When we finish the planning we can’t obsess about it or allow the plans to become larger than life. We must be stable in the present moment and flexible enough to change plans as the Lord directs, at a moment’s notice. One saint said she wanted to be a ball on a table top in the hands of the Lord, allowing Him to move her anyway He chose, for His pleasure.

The truth is that we have all the time we need, and abundantly more, to do all that the Lord has us on the planet to do. He gives us our tasks and ministry, and resources with sufficient time. “And my God will supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19)

We, however, often have other ideas. Enter stress and dissatisfaction. We make our own stress, in large part.

Discussion Questions

Why do Dr. Rossi and Julia say that “we make our own stress”?

If a high school student preparing for college asked you for advice on how to be prudent and skillful in the way they use their time without being a slave to their plans, what advise would you give them?

How can that advise apply to your post-college plans, including where you’ll live, what type of job you’ll have, and your relationships with others?

Part VI: Ready for virtually anything

Reflection

We can only be ready for virtually anything if we know what else we have to do and choose to not do. Then we can do or not do what appears in the moment, based on a deep intuition of what the Lord is calling for now. All too often we walk through life responding to the “latest and loudest” voice clamoring for our attention.

David Allen in his interesting book, Ready for Anything, emphasizes a few key points. We need to have some system where we have written down everything we need to do. These are called projects, anything that requires more than one step to accomplish. We also need a list of next action steps, those things that can be accomplished in one action. These next actions can be grouped into categories that make life better organized. We might group together all the next actions which require a computer, or the phone, or when talking with my boss. Then, when we are at the phone or have a slice of free time, we will know what calls we might or might not make on the spot. All this helps us think less about what we need to do.

The brain is a fine instrument for creative thought but a poor container to remember all the outstanding commitments and projects that are ours. When projects and next actions are written down, and backed up, in some trusted system, we can allow the system to remember for us. For computer users, an external hard drive can serve as a trusted backup system. For those who prefer pen and paper (and this number is growing), a copy should be made of all that is written down. A backup is necessary because we must feel free from the possibility that we wrote down everything we need to do and that list got misplaced, or thrown out with the trash, or mauled by a well-meaning pet.

The idea is to free our mind from worry about commitments we have made with ourselves and others. Then we can use our brain for other things. If we try to keep our commitments in our head, like a computer with too much in the memory, the entire system slows down.

We need to take copious notes and be willing to process and organize these notes at least weekly so we have more freedom in the way we use our time.

To be free in the Lord requires that we are as free as we can be from internal baggage and preoccupation. David Allen calls this “Mind like water,” that is, a mind ready to receive the next pebble thrown in and naturally allow the ripples to move out.

Discussion Questions

What tools/resources do you use to organize your tasks and projects?

If you don’t use a tool or resource to help manage your projects, what has your experience of “managing time” been like?

Part VI: Push Pause

Reflection

To let the Lord work through us means that we give him space, and, of course, time. All too often we act reactively. Our responses often take the form of a stimulus-response reaction. Too many times we want to say, “Yes” to all the requests that come our way, and they all may have great merit. But then, one can get so overloaded and overburdened. However, it is not always easy to discern to what we should say “yes” or “no.” It does require growing closer to the Lord, to hear His voice and His direction. Often, we do not go in the direction to which He has pointed. However, we take comfort in the knowledge that He is the Great “GPS”. He is always ready to “recalculate” and reroute us.

One handy suggestion is to push pause as often as we can. We can pause between the stimulus and our response, thereby gaining perspective. The pause itself is usually sufficient to break the reactivity cycle. We can become aware of something else going on besides the unconscious reaction. This is a fine opportunity to try to remember that we are in the holy presence of God.

A way to gain more conscious contact with God is to gently and quietly say, “Jesus.” His holy Name is an expression of belief, adoration, expectation of salvation and unity with Him and all the members of His body. His name is sacred and is a power He asked us to use. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23) We need to know that when we use His Name we are acknowledging that we are his disciples. We pause and say His Name, as an act of obedience and surrender of the present moment. We can match this with an awareness of our breathing, centering us more inside our body.

We can simply say the one word, “Jesus,” to transfigure what is in front of us, or in our minds. The name Jesus can be a filter through which our thoughts, words and deeds have to pass to be freed from their impurities. Needless to say, this is severe spiritual warfare. It requires a forgetfulness of the self, a dying to the negative thoughts the ego wants to indulge.

Discussion Questions

Explain why the name “Jesus” may be such a powerful tool for “pressing pause” between a stimulus and our response.

What are some ways that you’ve been able to give the Lord space so that he can communicate guidance to you in your life?

Part VI: Conclusion

Reflection

Time manages us because the Lord lives within the time He gives us. So, it is He, through the reality we call measured time, who manages, leads, nourishes and strengthens us. We don’t live life. Life lives us.

Time is our friend, not our burden to endure. We need only remember that we are in the holy presence of God. We can pause and say the Name of Jesus, thereby bringing us into His very life within us. While on earth we have an opportunity to “sanctify time.”

Discussion Questions

As a college student, would you agree that “time is your friend”?

Based on everything you’ve discussed up to this point, what opportunities do you have in your daily life to “sanctify time”?

Curated Discussion: “Monastic Time”

Curated Discussion: “Monastic Time”

Watch the video of Maggie’s first visit to a monastery and hear what some of the sisters at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Monastery had to say about the role of time in the Orthodox life and the way that monastics seek to “redeem time.” Then, discuss some of the questions below (if you don’t have time to discuss them all, make sure to finish your discussion with question #9).

    1. Mother Christofora says that the main difference between monastic life and life in the world is not that people in the world have more things to do than monastics, but that monastics are surrounded by reminders – the local chapel, church bells, iconography and prayers– that draw themselves back to God throughout each day. What are some reminders that you can add to your life to draw you back to God throughout each day?

    1. Mother Christofora discusses how prayer is something we can do within time that brings us outside of time and closer to God, but she says that we need to not only pray using Orthodox prayer books but also as the Holy Spirit moves us in our own hearts. Have you ever tried to offer a prayer from your heart? Which do you find more difficult: praying from your heart or praying pre-written prayers? Why?

    1. Sister Paula explains how Mother Christofora is responsible for managing the schedules of all the sisters in the monasteries. What are some benefits and what are some difficulties that may come from someone else managing your time? What do you think the burden of being responsible for the proper management of someone else’s time feels like?

    1. How do you think the story Mother Christofora told about St. Anthony and the balance between work, prayer, and rest applies to your own life?

    1. Have you ever thought of sanctifying a meal beyond just saying a prayer before the start of the meal? What new ideas might Mother Christofora and Sister Paula have given you for sanctifying your mealtimes?

    1. If time is part of the fallen world, how is it a gift?

    1. Mother Christofora said that a lot of our identity in America is determined by what we do, which often makes us proud and causes us to struggle if a circumstance prevents us from doing what we feel is essential to ourselves. What are the things that you think determine the way you view your own identity? What role does your work play in your identity?

    1. St. Benedict’s rule, pray 8 hours a day, work 8 hours a day, sleep 8 hours a day, is a way for monastics to maintain a balance between work, rest, and prayer. Is there a similar pattern that you can seek to establish in your own life, and are there any other categories that need to be added to the trivium of prayer, work, and sleep for you as someone living in the world?

    1. After watching the video and discussing these questions, what do you think about the differences and similarities between monastic life and life in the world? What aspects of the monastic tradition do you feel are the best sources of inspiration for striving to live a sanctified life in the world?

Conclude your discussion with the prayer shared by sister Paula , the prayer of the hours:

At all times and at every hour you are worshiped and glorified in heaven and on earth, Christ our God, long in patience, great in mercy and compassion, who loves the righteous and show mercy to all sinners. You call all to salvation through the promise of good things to come. Lord, receive our prayers at the present time. Direct our lives according to your commandments. Sanctify our souls. Purify our bodies. Set our minds aright. Cleanse our thoughts and deliver us from all sorrow, evil, and distress. Surround us with your holy angels so that, guarded and guided by their host, we may arrive at the unity of the faith and the understanding of your ineffable glory. For you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Guided Discussion: What to Do When Life Gets You Down

Guided Discussion: What to Do When Life Gets You Down

Part I: The Feelings Are Real

Reflection

“Despondency is the impossibility to see anything good or positive. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.” 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

“Great is the tyranny of despondency, and much courage do we need so as to stand manfully against the feeling, and after gathering from it what is useful, to let the superfluous go.” 

St. John Chrysostom

Part of our human experience in this fallen world is to suffer periods of sadness, hopelessness, overwhelming fear, loneliness, grief, and distress. Few escape the grips of what the saints often call despondency. They teach us that it can be brought on by a variety of life’s circumstances: facing the death of a loved one, illness, injury, loss of status or relationships, pessimism, attempting to find fulfillment in fleeting pleasures, seeing the sorrows and struggles of others, even realizing one’s own sinfulness—all these might cause bouts of despondency.

While nothing about our fallen experience is normal in the sense that it is not what we were made for, despondency is normal in the sense that we are all likely to experience it to varying degrees throughout our lives. While it is often said that joy is the sign of Christian life, joy should not be mistaken for simple happiness or outward cheerfulness nor should we feel obliged to put on a pretense of joy to prove our faithfulness. Joy is an inward gift of the Holy Spirit which is freely and mysteriously given to us and cannot be generated by any power of our own. Therefore, we must learn instead what to do when despondency invades our lives to make space for joy to arrive.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think the relationship between joy and despondency is? 
  • To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, how do you experience despondency? Are there things that trigger it in your life? 
  • Why do you think it is that we sometimes feel pressure to hide our negative feelings? 

Part II: Crying Out

Reflection

As we mentioned before, despondency is a real experience felt by most human beings. Many throughout history have expressed this experience in the form of poetry, giving voice to their grief. Putting despondency into verse is one way of acknowledging the feelings and crying out for help.

Select one or more of the provided poems to read. You can either let each group member choose a poem or two to reflect on individually or split your group into pairs or smaller groups and give each pair/small group a different poem to read. Repeats are allowed.

Discussion Questions

  • What struck you about the poem(s) you read and how they expressed despondency?
  • Was there anything in particular that resonated with your own experience?

Part III: Surrendering to God

Reflection

“In times of any sorrow, illness, poverty, need, disagreements, and any difficulty, it is better to spend less time in ruminating and talking to ourselves, and more often to turn to Christ our God and to his most pure Mother in prayer, even if it is only a brief one. Through that, the spirit of bitter despondency will be driven away, and the heart will be filled with joy and with hope in God.”

St. Antony (Putilov) of Optina

One notable aspect of many of the poems above is how the author both grieves and surrenders their grief to God. We need not attempt to “fix” our sadness but we can open ourselves up, raw and wounded as we might be, to the healing love of God and His saints in prayer. This prayer might be said in words, like the poetry of those we read earlier, or it might be offered as silence or weeping. We might simply repeat, “Lord, Lord.” Sometimes, we may find that we need help even to pray, and we can ask our friends and spiritual elders to pray for what we are not ready to pray for ourselves. 

Discussion Questions

  • Who in your life, among both the saints and your family, friends, and mentors, can you turn to for prayers when you find yourself caught in a period of despondency?
  • How will you approach feelings of despondency when they arise in your life?

Bonus activity:


Use the blank “Crying Out” document to write your own poems or letters expressing whatever grief, worry, or fears you may currently be experiencing. For the coming week, read your poem or letter as part of your daily prayer rule as a way to surrender your despondency to God.

Conclude your meeting with this prayer for despondency from Fr. Arseny:

O my beloved Queen, my hope, O Mother of God, protector of orphans and protector of those who are hurt, the savior of those who perish and the consolation of all those who are in distress, you see my misery, you see my sorrow and my loneliness. Help me, I am powerless, give me strength. You know what I suffer, you know my grief — lend me your hand because who else can be my hope but you, my protector and my intercessor before God? I have sinned before you and before all people. Be my Mother, my consoler, my helper. Protect me and save me, chase grief away from me, chase my lowness of heart and my despondency. Help me, O Mother of my God!