St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, A Pan-Orthodox Christian Mission Parish, Murphy, North Carolina

St. Simon of Mt. Athos

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Invariably, I find myself after the fast thinking of things I should have thought of during the fast. For the forty days of the Nativity Fast, I was so busy with one thing or another that I failed to focus on the important things. Things like, say, love and how it is expressed. Just like last year, however, all of that changes on December 28, when I turn the page of the Synaxarion, and find that it is the day that we commemorate St. Simon, founder of the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos.

I sometimes find myself with a disconcerting tendency to start to take the saints for granted. After a while, I read the hagiographies, and start going “yeah, yeah…miracles, visions, healings, yada, yada, yada’. I become out of touch with the stories because I am out of touch with the miraculous, and am unacquainted with sacrifice. On one level we appreciate the lives of the saints, even as we tidily file them away in that drawer which we reserve for things that are interesting, but we can’t quite figure out how to apply them to our lives. Even if we make a pilgrimage to venerate their relics, we are unable to capture the full import of who and what that saint was. They may be resting, incorrupt and palpably holy, in a monastery or cathedral. But how do we draw that tangible connection between the life of the saint and life in this world as we know it?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to St. Simon. First, a portion of the entry from my favorite Synaxarion, compiled by the Hieromonk Makarious of Simonopetra Monastery. This is my favorite reference for the lives of the saints, bar none. This is not his entire entry on a saint who must be close to the hieromonk’s heart, but it is an important part:

Saint Simon flourished in the Garden of the Mother of God during the thirteenth century, in the years when the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was weak and divided after the Crusades, had been transferred to Nicaea. Fleeing the vanities of this world, he made his way to the Holy Mountain in order to labour beside a spiritual father for the salvation of his soul. The Elder he chose was not only experienced in ascesis but also severe and demanding, and he submitted to him body and soul as to God Himself. His exemplary obedience, humility and love for his spiritual father, who spared him neither rebukes nor blows, soon raised him to a high degree of virtue, which attracted the admiration of the monks of Athos and the respect of his elder, who in the end came to regard him as a fellow soldier in spiritual warfare rather than as a disciple. But marks of respect did not suit one who had chosen to embrace the dereliction and Passion of Christ; and so, by dint of entreaties, he was allowed to go live alone. At the end of a long search he chose a small, damp cave on the western flank of Athos 1,000 feet above the sea, for his habitation. He persevered there day and night, exposed to incessant attacks from the Devil, armed only with faith, hope and invocation of the all-powerful Name of the Lord.

One night, some days before the Feast of the Nativity, he saw a star suddenly leave its place in the sky and come down to station itself above the precipitous rock opposite his cave. Suspecting another snare of the Evil One who often disguises himself as an angel of light, the ascetic attached no importance to it. The apparition was repeated several nights running, and on Christmas Eve, when the star took its position over the rock like the star of Bethlehem, there came a voice from the sky, “Be in no doubt, Simon, faithful servant of my Son. See this sign, and do not leave this spot in search of greater solitude as you have had in mind, for it is here that I want you to establish your monastery, for the salvation of many souls.” Reassured at once by the voice of the Mother of God, Simon was transported in ecstasy to Bethlehem into the presence of the Christ Child with the Angels and Shepherds. On coming to himself again, he addressed the task of building the New Bethlehem without more delay.

Icon of St. Simon
There is a lot more, and those of you familiar with it will recall, for example, the story of the rescue of the youth who fell from the cliff during the construction of the monastery. But for my purposes, let’s stop where we are.

You see, it would be easy to read this like any other hagiography. You might leave it with feelings of awe, of respect, of great thankfulness for the glory of God, but if you are like me you would not leave it with a deep appreciation of who St. Simon is, and how he lived and suffered, or what his life means to you and I. Even if you visited Simonopetra itself, a beautiful monastery soaring high above the blue Aegean sea, you would gain respect for Simon’s works, but not necessarily for him.

Unless, of course, you left the monastery and followed the narrow gravel road around the curve of the mountain, crossing a small bridge above a roaring stream that plunges swiftly down a deep and precipitous ravine, and finally reached a spot almost exactly opposite the monastery. If you look back across the ravine, you can see Simonopetra, standing on the huge rock that gave it part of its name. If you turn around, you see a small opening in a smaller rock on the hillside. This opening is the entrance to the cave in which St. Simon lived.

Inside, you enter a very small chamber, about the size of a broom closet. There is a small rock ledge, on which there is an icon and an oil lamp. Cross the chamber, and climb through a very small opening into a slightly larger chamber. It is perhaps four feet high, and the size of a closet — not a walk-in closet, a regular closet. There is a rock ledge, just big enough for a person to lie down , although not comfortably. It is here that St. Simon lived, and it was from the small opening of the ante-chamber that he watched to star shine over the top of the huge rock across the ravine. At that place, the wind roars up from the sea almost incessantly. Without the monastery there, it would be a dark and lonely place, one where it would be easy to take a misstep, and fall to your death.

It helps me to remember that cave. You could look at it and say that a person would have to be crazy to live there. But a crazy person could not undertake to build the magnificent and beautiful monastery that now stands on that rock. A crazy person could not live in such ascesis, could not live in such dedicated and concentrated prayerfulness, could not be so wholly devoted to God so as to fold his body each night onto a cold and uncomfortable ledge of rock. To see that cave is to understand what a saint is.

Not all saints lived in caves, but all of them struggled mightily to pursue God. Fr. Seraphim Rose, not officially a saint but venerated by many, lived in a ramshackle hut, not much bigger than St. Simon’s cave. St. John Maximovitch, his spiritual father, was a bishop, but never slept in a bed, only napping in a chair.

Sometimes it is difficult to focus on the necessity for struggle during the fasts. I am not as focused as I should be. But every year, by the grace of God, during the days of feasting following Christmas, I run upon St. Simon and I am humbled. We don’t need a lot to seek holiness. Arguably, we need to dispose of a lot if we are serious about our faith. Every time I get whiny and feel needy, I need to remember that cave. We can live in a beautiful and wonderful place, like Simonopetra, or like western North Carolina. But for the sake of our souls, we cannot forget the cave.

One Response to “St. Simon of Mt. Athos”

  1. ariane montemuro Says:

    Glory be to God!! Keep growing and praying….we need more Orthodox monasteries there! How wondereful a location you have found!!!!

Leave a Reply