I want to share with you a beautiful story from which we can draw both encouragement and inspiration. This story was told by Geronda (a Greek word meaning “elder”) Nikon of St. Spyridon’s Cell to the New Skete on Holy Mount Athos. Geronda Nikon was a disciple of Elder Ephraim of blessed memory.
And now, the story…
Do you know how many saints there are among laypeople! I know saints living in the world, married saints. One man has visited Mt. Athos for many years now. He is married and has many children. During one of his stays he went to a skete to meet an elder in its cell. This man arrived to the skete late in the evening. It took him a long time to get there on foot. Night was falling, and he sat down to take a rest. He came to the elder’s cell very late. The skete monks saw him walking along the road and went out to meet him. The elder loved this man dearly. After talking with him, the elder said:
“Take this prayer rope!” And he gave him a large prayer rope. “Sit down on a chair and pray for a while because we have some work to do! Today I won’t be able to talk to you anymore!”
After visiting the elder’s cell he came to my cell, I let him in and we talked. He related:
“I sat down on a chair and started praying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!’
“Half an hour passed, then an hour, two hours…, and night fell. I got tired of sitting. Three hours passed. It was dark in the cell. I could hear nothing.”
“Well, didn’t you think that the elder may have simply forgotten about you and gone to sleep?” I said to him.
“No, I didn’t.”
“And what did you think about?”
“Well, I thought that you don’t celebrate Church festivals here the way we do… You may be commemorating some saint today, so I prayed on the prayer rope for four or five hours running at night.”
I looked at him.
“Well, hold on! Did you pray on the prayer rope for five hours?!”
It is not pronouncing the prayer that matters—what makes sense is focusing on the prayer, its words, and that the mind shouldn’t wander off somewhere.
“All right. What did you think about all that time?”
“I didn’t think about anything. When we pray, the mind shouldn’t get distracted.”
“Do you want to say that you prayed for five hours nonstop and your mind wasn’t distracted by anything?”
“Perhaps it was distracted once.”
He said, “It was distracted once” in five hours! Try to repeat inwardly, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” for five minutes, and not five hours—without imagining anything, without thinking about anything—and you will understand whether you can do it or not.
“And what did you think about?”
What did I expect to hear? And what did he say to me?
“That I am holding a rod in my hands and fishing at sea!”
Listen, such an innocent thought it was!
“But I picked myself up right away and said to myself, ‘I am here to pray and my mind should stay focused.’ And I concentrated on prayer again,” he continued.
I said nothing to him. Even Athonite monks don’t perform this kind of podvig. And he proceeded with his story:
“At some point at night, a noise was heard—the monks had awoken.
“The elder got back to the cell, washed his face, and saw something black on the chair. He lit the lantern, shone it on the chair, and seeing a man with a prayer rope, asked:
‘Ah, you are already awake?’
‘No, Geronda, I stayed up.’
‘Why didn’t you sleep?’ Geronda asked.
‘You said that you would tell me when I should stop praying.’”
Indeed during their earlier conversation, the pilgrim had asked the elder how long he should pray and the elder had replied that he would tell him about that later on.
And he prayed for five hours. We monks are unable to perform such a podvig, such an obedience, display such humility and simplicity. It was an extraordinary podvig. And he risked it. What if he had realized that?
He would have become proud of what he had achieved. The elder understood that at once and in order to prevent the man from falling into pride and protect him from the demon of pride who destroys everything he joked at him:
“Silly Billy! Anyone would have understood that I forgot about you! Can pride give you any more intelligence so you can grasp the simplest thing anyone can grasp? Can egoism help you understand that?! You’d better go to sleep!”
“The elder was right,” he said to me.
And I pretended to be strict too:
“He certainly was right! You should have figured it out!”
What else could I tell him?
Wow! What a story. Of course, the thought of truly focusing while reciting the Jesus Prayer for that long is mind-boggling, but what sticks out more to me, since I have failed to purify myself enough to employ such focus, is his complete guilelessness in recounting what had taken place. He truly didn’t realize the feat he’d just accomplished, which is what allowed him to do it in the first place.
St. Paul admonishes us, in his epistle to the Philippians, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” (Philippians 2:3)
And to the Colossians, he says:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Col 3:1-Col 3:4 NKJV
Simple obedience, combined with a pure and undefiled heart, took this man to heights far above the monks of Earth’s Holiest mountain, all while seemingly sitting in the dark waiting for Geronda’s return.
Our Lord said:
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40
He stated to his Disciples,
Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 18:4
St Jerome, commenting on this verse in the third Century said that Christ implies here “that anyone who imitates me and humiliates himself following my example, so that he abases himself as much as I abased myself in accepting the form of a servant, will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This simple layman, despite all the worldly cares of being a husband and a father to many children, had removed from himself, his sense of self-will. His complete trust in and love for the elder was demonstrated by his literal and childlike submission. By his obedience, he transformed what appeared to be a mistake into a cross upon which he offered himself as an acceptable sacrifice to God.
Let us also look for opportunities to do likewise. And May our Lord find us also obediently toiling away amidst the darkness when he returns on the last day.