One of the books I am reading is called Beauty For Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community by Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press. The author is a professor of religious studies at a state university in California. He writes from the perspective of a sociologist who is interested in religion and culture. He writes as a scholar, not as a promoter of Orthodox Christianity. Nonetheless, the story he tells has inspired me to no end.
The story–well it’s written more like a dissertation than a story–is about a Metropolitanate in Greece that fell into terrible scandal in the 1970s, so much so the city’s name became a byword throughout Greece for hypocrisy, cynicism and corruption in the Church. In 1980, Archimandrite Meletios had gone to Mount Athos with a handful of his disciples to found a small skete and quietly devote the rest of his life to prayer with his five or six young followers. However, God had different plans. He was elected metropolitan of this troubled metropolitanate; and taking up his cross (he could have refused it), he with his disciples went to serve this scandal-ridden and spiritually impoverished community. Over the next twenty or thirty years, the community was indeed transformed. Today, according to Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, this same metropolitanate has the reputation of being the most spiritually vibrant community in all of Greece.
How did this transformation take place? That’s what the book is about. To summarize:
Bishop Meletios’ “program” (or perhaps “anti-program”) hinges on the single belief that lasting change in an individual follows from an encounter with genuine holiness. Clever promotions may fill churches; dynamic oratory may bring people to the altar; institutional discipline may make the Church appear effective. However, all these things do not produce a lasting change within an individual compared to one moment with a genuinely holy individual. The clergy, and especially the monks, must seek to become these lights. The value of the representative of the Church is measured by his holiness or at least by his continual struggle to become a pure vessel of God….For Bishop Meletios, any “program” is an imposition of a human-derived scheme on the work of God. It is destined to fail, no matter how successful it may appear. The “anti-program” of the Church is to actively seek to be passive; that is, to continually strive to allow Christ to work through the Church without self-will interfering.
Yes, just one moment with a genuinely holy person accomplishes more than a thousand programs. Holiness, that’s what people are hungry for. Why are people hungry for holiness? I think it is because the Spirit whom God has put in our hearts is the Holy Spirit. All the flashy stuff is just that: noise, flash, and distraction. Even as a young man, I began to wonder whether or not what, as a Pentecostal, I used to call the manifestations of the Spirit, whether or not they really were manifestations of the Holy Spirit. How could they be? Shouldn’t the principle evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit be holiness–no matter what else the Holy Spirit might be doing? I grew to be hungry for holiness.
My first real encounter with genuinely holy men and women was through reading the lives and writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian and Palestinian wilderness (fourth through sixth centuries). Then, to my shock–really, I was completely surprised–I discovered that this same holiness could be found in a few holy people in ninetieth century Russia. Slowly I began to realize that the eastern Christian way has always nurtured and produced these holy men and women–not many perhaps, but consistently, and in every generation. And even today, we can read about and be inspired and instructed by the writings of twentieth century holy people such as St. Silouan, St. Nectarios, Mother Gavrila or Elder Paisios.
I have even been blessed to meet a few holy people–or at least people who are continually struggling to become pure vessels of God. The words they have spoken to me have been words that have changed me. However, more than that, just knowing that there are holy people “out there,” that there are people who are actually striving for and living a holy life, that Jesus’ promises are true even if I don’t live them out very well at all, just knowing that holiness is possible: this is what makes all of the difference for me. I may be a beginner on the path to holiness–a reluctant beginner at that. But I know that I am on the path. I know I am on the right path because I have met a few people who are much further along the path than I.
This, I think, is what can transform any Christian community. This is what I think every Orthodox Christian–or Christian of any stripe and probably just about every person of good will regardless of religion–is looking for. We are looking for an example. We are looking for someone, anyone, who is actually living it, who is actually striving for and attaining some evident degree of holiness. We want to know that it is possible. We want to know that goodness and holiness are possible even if we ourselves can barely pull one arm and half a leg out of the pigsty of our confused thoughts and dark passions. We want to know it is worth the effort, that our baby steps toward God, toward the life our hearts tell us is true and good and beautiful, that our effort, as pitiable as it is, is worth it. I will probably never attain anything near holiness in this life, but I can start out on the road with hope–and I know it is the road because others have walked it and become holy. This is the hope that will transform a community.
Holiness: the anti-program.