This icon is of Anthony of Egypt. It was written for me by a monk in Greece with whom I maintained a lively conversation about theology and monastic life. He was short and lively with bright eyes and a laugh which was a testament to his authenticity and his spiritual depth. His joy came from the Resurrection.
We had many long discussions about this icon in a cafe in Athens where he worked between trips to Athos. We argued about monastic life and it was he who first raised my awareness to the power of monastic tools in the life of the laity. He often said that we all have a small monk or nun inside us vying for the opportunity to express itself. And it was in those conversations that thye idea for the book I have just finished came to be regarding Rule of Life – the class which begins at the cathedral tonight and runs through mid May. My lecture notes come directly form the manuscript and this icon is an important one in the conversation.
Here Anthony seems stern but in fact is simply focused. Those eyes are simply not going to take any malarkey from anyone over anything. He will not be manipulated by anyone and he will sacrifice anything to retain his integrity and his focus on his mission.
There is an undenyable sadness in his eyes. many sacrifices have to be made in order to stay on task for the gospel and for his integrity. He runs from the church to the desert where his cave never seems to protect him from those who recognize his authenticity, reject the shallow charms of his contemporary spiritual leaders, and seek to harvest from him wisdom for which they have not been willing to make sacrifices and do hard work.
But mostly he is lonely. Am I projecting that or does his role as the first solitary seem to come through his eyes and forehead? When Costos wrote this icon for me I was soon to enter a monastery myself in which I would find equal measures of holy and evils – as its always the case in life. One only leaves when the one outweighs the other and begins to erode love.
The great challeneg is to be a monk in the world. Not to leave the world but instead to simply turn down the noise of the world by one’s Rule of Life. Monasticism comes from the word “monos” which simply means alone and implies alone with God. So a Rule of Life will create a balance and a sanity which makes possible space for alone-ness with God. And this solitude with the lover of souls is not a spiritual narcissism (when it is done right) but is simply the preparation for the spiritual equivalent of the bedroom – a place of intimacy, gentleness, caressing, “how was your day” conversation and the hard, private conversations which follow the inevitable betrayals in any relationship.
The integrity of great worship (and even sort of dull worship) is that it is paired with the hard, daily work of relationship-building with one’s God. That God is shy from God’s vulnerability makes the job even harder.
The other day I was with people begging me to teach them to pray. I explained how there was already prayer woven through their lives and they marveled at how simple it is to maintain a conversation with an ever-present God.
The spiritual life is not a sad life. But it is a focused one. It has its costs. It even demands some sacrifices as does running or hiking or parenting. And like them, it pays tenfold. Great spiritual leaders are not holy, they are just clear, focused, prayed and stable.