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On the Wings of Divine Love: Antiochian Seminarians Visit the Holy Mountain

Mount Athos — a place where heaven bows down and touches the earth. It is where the veil between this world and the next is thin and translucent. Its soil bears the footprints of countless ascetics and has been watered by the tears of our most beloved saints. Since biblical times, it has been a land that flourishes under the mantle of the Mother of God. It is her garden, where she waters the souls of all those who flock to her, raising them past the Mountain's peak and into heavenly abodes. For well over fifteen hundred years, Mount Athos has been a place of pilgrimage and spiritual retreat.

Last year, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph blessed the Antiochian seminarians to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos as part of our seminarian education. Under the pastoral care and supervision of His Grace Bishop Nicholas, we boarded flights to Greece and before we knew it we were sailing along the Athonite coastline, gazing at the small hermitages and castle-like monasteries that dot the rugged terrain. As the boat's gate opened and we stepped foot on the Mother of God's garden, we could hardly believe where we were. Not only have we read about this place in countless books, but we have heard the chanted hymns to great saints who have lived there. Spiritually we have visited it, but to be there physically on the same soil was something unique. Our daily life on Athos consisted of many long candlelit vigils and prayer services in front of miracle working icons and sacred relics. As the sweet-smelling clouds of incense billowed up through the air and chant filled the hollow domes and crevices of the churches, heaven became palpable.

It is a common question to ask what us seminarians could benefit and learn from bearded monks in black robes that live on a mountain somewhere. What sort of further seminarian education could this be? Among many lessons learned on Mount Athos, two of them stuck out to us the most. The first of them being prayer—the abundant fruit that grows and is nurtured on the Holy Mountain. Some of the monks we met there were unlearned, yet many were extremely educated and teach at prestigious theological universities, but in church the unlearned monk is no different than educated. Prayer from the heart and carried within the heart is something that is cultivated in the monasteries. It does not matter how many books one reads or how much he can memorize, if he does not tend to the garden of his heart then it is all for nothing. Soil must be turned, weeds must be pulled, troughs must be dug, and the spiritual seeds given to us at baptism must be watered. The monks focus on cultivating an inner life, becoming Christians not merely by name, but by lifestyle. The second most prominent lesson that we learned is a direct consequence of this lifestyle of prayer and inner cultivation. It is the tangible manifestation of a heavenly culture among the community of believers. The effects of prayer on the monastic community, transform it in a way that gives us a taste of heaven on earth. This is why, in many patristic writings and in our hymnography, the monk is likened to an angel. It is not to say everything at the monastery is perfect and exists in perfect harmony, but that when one wrongs another or offends someone, they more quickly act to ask forgiveness than we often do. Prayer unites a community and transfigures it into a culture of heaven. On Athos, we saw fulfillment of what we chant during the Anabathmoi of Sunday Orthros in the fifth tone, "For those in the desert, life is blessed, in that they soar with divine love." We truly felt carried up on the wings of the ascetics in the Athonite desert.

As we zig zagged across the Holy Mountain's dirt paths and participated in prayer services, we were accompanied by His Grace Bishop Nicholas who facilitated time for us to ask questions and glean pastoral advice. It is one thing to study books at the seminary, which is of benefit, but it is another thing to live the life we read about. A medical physician cannot perform surgery after just reading a book, but they must go through a grueling education both in the classroom and under a learned surgeon's guidance in the surgical room. As the Archdiocese forms us to be pastors and spiritual physicians of the future, we have been blessed with a seminary to study and now a pilgrimage to learn under experienced spiritual surgeons on Mount Athos.

All of us seminarians have hearts filled with gratitude to His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph and His Grace Bishop Nicholas for blessing us with this pilgrimage to foster our pastoral development and to aid us in our spiritual life.

For further reading regarding our trip, look forward to more detailed article that will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Word.