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Nun Margarita Hoogewoud
HOW TO LOOK AT THINGS HONESTLY

 

This is the first time I will be sharing publicly about my personal contacts with Metropolitan Anthony. I got to know Metropolitan Anthony during my student days how it happened I cant remember, but what I do remember is, that he was a person to take account of, so one listened to what he had to say.

In Amsterdam a custom had developed, originated by Jewish students, to demonstrate at the Portuguese Synagogue, which was in the heart of the pre-war Jewish quarter, at Chanoeka, which falls in December, for the release of dissidents/refuseniks that were held in prisons (GULAG) in the Soviet Union. The comments made in the international press and Metropolitan Anthonys remarks, he being the Exarch of the Moscow Patriarchate, were all taken into account by us. When it became very clear that world/public opinion had a great influence on the Soviet authorities, the demonstration movement grew in great numbers. Especially in relation to Dutch history, it seemed unthinkable and totally wrong to imprison people for their thoughts or beliefs.

While in the Cathedral I never looked for Vladika so to speak, or made any attempt to meet him as such. Of course we knew one another, and I would ask his blessing upon meeting him (e.g. in the corridors).  The move, so to speak, came from him. One day when I was, in what I thought to be in a more or less empty Cathedral, venerating the central icon, he seemed to doom up out of nowhere!, took me by the hand, led me to the back of the church where we sat down together and talked. For those who know Vladika, nothing unusual that was of him! 

That is what I thought initially, nothing unusual, but it was most extra-ordinary, however, as the way he approached me, the way he addressed me, and held my hand, and how he led me to the back of the Cathedral to sit down together, and the way our conversation developed, was just as if I was talking to my own father, who I had loved very much and with whom I had had a very good relationship, but who had died many years before!  What I thought I never ever would find again, this deep rapport and understanding of one another, just happened there and then!

There are a couple of examples I would like to share with you that have had a great impact if you like on my life. The one is about Vladika sharing how he in his life at some point had had difficulty praying a particular line in the Our Father. His approach, being thoroughly honest with himself and that consistently, has helped me to pray Thy Will be done. I became aware that I found it difficult to pray these words.  It raised all sorts of questions, Thy Will.  How can I know what Gods Will is? How do I distinguish between my Will and His Will?  and I thought but how can I say the words Thy will be done without having a real inkling what they are about? In the end, I found a formula that I could pray, I just added a few sentences, Thy Will be done God how often do I say these words without really knowing their meaning, forgive me for saying them like that; I ask You, guide me and show me Your Will. Let me recognize and when I recognize, I pray give me strength and courage to follow. And slowly slowly, things started to shift, it seemed if gradually something became unplugged, like a stream that had been blocked off and started flowing again, ever so gently, but surely.

There was someone I disliked greatly. Of course this put me at loggerheads with the Commandment to love, and with Gods Will.  How to overcome? Here I recognized what Gods Will was, but how to follow? So I looked at it from every side, and finally came to the conclusion, that even if I could not LIKE the person, I could wish the person well, and that good things would happen to him.  And so it continued. In the end the person became very dear to me, as through him I had learnt, slowly, simply to love. It brought me over and over again to the foot of the Cross and at other times it put me ON the Cross. In other words it made me aware of the radical message of the Gospel, and Gods infinite love!

The other example is about the advice Vladika gave to a young woman with regard to overcoming vanity.  She apparently was very pretty, and liked to look in the mirror at her features. When she came to Vladika she must have looked very worried and disgusted with herself. Vladika suggested that every time she looked in the mirror, and she saw, for example, that her eyes were beautiful, she would say the following: Oh, look - my eyes are beautiful, thank You, God, for creating me with such beautiful eyes, for I have done nothing to deserve these; and do forgive me for putting such a horrible expression on such a beautiful face!

And Vladika continued saying that we dont know anything about Pride, but all about Vanity, and nothing about Humility, only as something to aim at, BUT he said between Pride and Humility there was a halfway house: Thankfulness! Now this advice I found I could put into practice in totally different circumstances. I had been very ill with viral meningitis, and often suffered from severe back pain and headaches, due to an old injury. In those days it was very difficult to concentrate on anything.  It was said that one always should try and read the Gospel; to have a book of the Gospel in ones room would already keep the devil at bay, in the sense that the Gospel is an icon of Christ written in Words. So I tried to read, but found I could not concentrate, halfway through a sentence I had to start all over again, because I had lost track of the meaning of what I was reading. And I did not know what to do.  And somehow I became aware, what pride I had to think that I HAD to understand what I was reading, as the Gospel contains mysteries So rather than concentrating on what the sense was of the words, I started to give thanks to God that I was able to read at all, that I was able to see, that I was able to recognize the characters etc. and so I struggled, and struggled. Lots later in time and much to my own surprise I found that what I had been reading had sunk in, somehow or another I could remember passages that at the time were totally oblique. And this gradually affected other things. 

Close to the railway station in Central London from where I would catch the train home stood a church. Sometimes, having just missed my train and having to wait half an hour, I would go inside this church to pass time, trying to turn it into prayer.  At times it appeared very difficult to concentrate, because of the sheer noise that was going on outside, traffic, sirens of ambulance, of fire engines, of police cars, of demonstrators, what have you.  In the beginning I thought that they were really hindering MY prayer, and MY trying to be quiet. But as I had been applying thanksgiving to reading and understanding, I started to apply this to trying to be quiet.  So at first I started to give thanks that I had my hearing, as I was convinced that if I WAS deaf, how much would I love to hear all the traffic noise, sirens etc. Then after a while I became aware that the sirens were not an intrusion in my prayer, but a signal to pray with even more fervour Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon, and then rather than saying ME, A Sinner, to say upon all those who are effected by this accident, as it is so obvious from the sirens something major is going on.

At work this prayer of thanksgiving affected deeply my relations with my colleagues: some were very nice and easy to get along with and others were not.  How to change? So I started to go at lunchtime to a nearby Church, and prayed there maybe for about ten minutes, just as time allowed.  And again, and again to give thanks for my colleagues, and especially the ones I found to be more difficult to like,  and then would pray briefly the Jesus Prayer, ending with have mercy upon so and so, and repeat this three times, in honour of the Holy Trinity. Gradually and unobtrusively the Jesus Prayer and the Thanksgiving started to permeate my whole life and through it all my relationships with the people around me were deeply affected too.

Totally unaware to me there were those who would glamour to sit at my desk on my days off, or even for the time I would be out for lunch!  I had a photograph of Vladika sitting at a hidden spot on my desk; you only could see it by sitting on my chair.  My colleagues loved to look at it! Now I had no idea about this whatsoever, I in fact was quite irritated if I caught someone sitting in my chair, and just getting off, because they saw me coming in!! And here they were looking at something they thought was beautiful and peaceful! They thought my desk was the most peaceful spot, and everyone wanted to sit there from time to time! They confessed all this when I had left the Company and had to go back once to collect some documentation.  So I was so surprised, and not having anything on me, but an icon card of St Seraphim praying on the stone, I offered this, because of the light and peace that streamed from it. About a year later, I found this card was still in place, and my ex-colleagues said they would go and sit and look at him, if things were difficult or if they were in turmoil inside, and that it calmed them down/gave them new inspiration.

On the monastic life. May I begin by saying that it has been said, I dont know about here in Russia, but definitely in Britain, and I was told so by many different people, that Vladika was not in favour of monastic life, in fact he was anti!  He knew what was being said, but he told me it was not true. He said that he always felt very sore there was no monastery in the Diocese. In the other hand he also recognized very much the calling to the solitary life, and it is clear that he never excluded that, and those who had a true calling to this way of life found protection under his omophorion. He himself had lived as a solitary monk, at the back of the Cathedral. He became a monk, as we all know in France, and at that time there were no Orthodox monasteries as such, and also with his father having died, he had responsibilities towards his mother and his grandmother. In a monastery one has to be obedient to ones superior, he was told he had to be obedient to his mother and grandmother.

We talked about Life, Christian life, and if there was a difference between a monastic and a lay person and if so, what it consisted of. And I think that our conversation on this subject could be summed up in this quotation from an Introduction of The Fathers of the Desert: It is most true that Christian life may be divided in two states, the secular and the monastic.  Both, however, though by a different route, tend to the same end, and as far as the practice of virtue, contempt of the world, poverty of spirit, and love of the cross, the condition of each is identical, with this only difference, that MONASTICS BEING BOUND BY TIES OF SOLEMN VOWS AND RULES, are obliged more strictly to perfection than those who live in the world. In other respects, one and the same way of life is required of both, one and the same Gospel has been preached to both since God commands nothing but Charity, forbids nothing but self-love, there is no difference as far as that is concerned, no exception of persons.

Now when we listen to and study Metropolitan Anthonys teachings, we will find that they are permeated with this profound understanding, that we, that is each one of us, from Patriarch, priest, monastic to one of the faithful, are called to LIVE the Gospel, there where we are, where God has called us, in the circumstances of our day-to-day life. So I hope you wont be too surprised, if there is not a whole body of texts on monastic life of Metropolitan Anthony. This does not mean that he did not say anything. That he held the monastic life in high esteem, I reiterate this against those who think he was anti, and that it was a totally turning away from the world, was expressed on different occasions, when he would say, that when someone decides to leave the world, he must turn and close the door firmly behind him and forget about it, that is, the world and everyone in it so to speak. Those who have done this will understand the importance of these words. And how important it is to forget (the world), and to concentrate on the one thing necessary, in poverty of spirit, was again stipulated by Vladika, when we were talking about the things that were difficult, and how to go about it. 

Talking about the Cherubic Hymn, for example, how in it we say: let us now lay aside all the cares/things of this life/world.  He saying, yes, E V E R Y T H I N G, also the legitimate things. Or saying: That we often needed patience, and just put things down before Christ, or at times to be watchful (which meant practice patience), to see things grow: we cannot pull at things, like flowers you cannot pull them out of the earth! Yes, you can put manure on them, tend them etc., and of course that is what we must do to make them grow, but you cannot pull them out. They need to grow by themselves!

A lot of his advice was geared to this practicing of patience. In this context he also mentioned what had happened to him. He always thought he wanted to be a priest and it never seemed to happen. So he then renounced it all (after 17 years, mind you) and was made a priest within the year. But he also said, that he was made a priest for the wrong reason: because he had a job, and could travel and pay for his journeys, as he could visit the outlaying parishes. And then when he was made a Bishop, he discovered it was decided this way, because they had learnt he was a good administrator. In order to make clear that the monastic life could also be tough (some people in the West might say unjust) he added that he had asked, if they had ever considered what impact that (being a Bishop) would have on his spiritual life; well, they hadnt. So you see, he added, I was made a priest and Bishop totally for the wrong reasons.

On how forgetfulness could be extreme poverty of spirit. One day we sat talking and Vladika was saying how he became so forgetful, and how he could not remember the names of the Fathers on certain sayings etc. And how we came to the conclusion that this was such poverty, but that still we could give thanks to God for what we could remember and ask Him to help us remember the things we should, because as such we did not own our own mind, our memory, they belonged to God, as everything else.

On poverty and being a monk in the world: He was told he had to be obedient to his mother and grandmother. Well, the government (in France) had decided on Vitalis i.e. the minimum means of existence, and his mother had said, Well now that they have said what we can live on that is what we do. Everything we have more, we give away.  So we lived at absolutely rockbottom! said Metropolitan Anthony.

On our one aim in life: to be in Gods presence. Talking about this subject, Vladika recounted the story of the old man, who would come to church and just sit there and seemingly not doing anything.  One day the priest asked him about this, and the man replied: well, it is like this, Father, I sit and I look at God and He looks at me. (This story comes out of the life of the holy Cure dArs, him being the priest in this story).

On how to pray for others, and those who request our prayer, and how to keep the balance. Vladika explained that so many people asked him for his prayer and how difficult it was in the end to pray for each one constantly. But how he found that people were brought to mind and how he then said the Jesus Prayer for them there and then. Another time he told me, he would pray the Jesus Prayer and say at the end have mercy on So and So. Also sometimes he was too tired to pray and did not have any more time. And his spiritual father had told him, then to make the sign of the cross (i.e. cross oneself) and to commend oneself into Gods hands and entrusting/relying to be carried on the prayers of others.  At first, he thought, well, who would pray for me, but then when he applied his mind he found that faces came to him and so he discovered that that is at times how we are carried in prayer to God. And I assure you this is not a lazy option; and that it can take some struggle to put it into practice, I learnt through experience.

On Fear. He said: never show your opponent that you are afraid. On the contrary act with courage, and pursue him/hunt him down to the end till he has been defeated. In relation to this he told the following story: A man had come to the Cathedral and asked Vladika to give him 50. Vladika did not want to give it. When the man asked why not, Vladika said: Because you are a thief and a robber. Upon these words Vladika tried to close the door. The man quickly put his foot in the door. Vladika looked, hesitated for a moment and then stood on the mans foot with all the force he could muster. The man shot away across the street and started to threaten Vladika with words like: Dont worry, Ill come back and I will wring your neck! And other words to this effect.  Vladika decided to close AND to lock the door behind him and went over to the man and said with a menacing voice: Well, if youre going to wring my neck, why dont you do it now?  But I warn you, I have been trained in the Army and I first will break all your teeth! The man fled never to be seen again. So you see, never show your fear, but pursue the enemy till he has fled/has been defeated.

On Fear in relation to Death and Resurrection. Vladika shared the story about the boy in a game of Cob and Robbers. A young boy did not want to play Cob and Robbers, because he was afraid of being dead. When you are touched by the Cob, you would have to fall dead. So Vladika Anthony, made an arrangement with him, that he, Vladika, would fall dead i.e. die instead of the boy.  After a while this boy found he could play the game; he was not frightened anymore. Vladika: You see so me dying for him, gave him courage in the end to die himself, so the fear had gone.

On being open-minded. When we set out on a road, he said, we dont always know how things will go and how they will turn out. Vladika talked about his coming to Britain for two years and stayed! So youll never know.  He repeated, we dont always know: sometimes we might be sent somewhere so we might learn, sometimes we might be sent for others that they will learn or simply for us to later share our experience. It could be each each one of these, or any combination of these or all three of them. So be openminded!

On how to keep peace within. Vitally important, said he, outward circumstances, in many ways, do not matter, but the HEART does.  (So exclude everything, close the door, to only know Christ, and guard your heart).



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