Elder Porphyrios Is Canonized
On December 1, 2013, the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Patriarchate of Constantinople glorified as a saint, the Elder Porphyrios of Mount Athos, Greece. St. Porphrios is one of a number of contemporary holy men who sought God on the Holy Mount of Mount Athos and wer filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Mount Athos is a peninsula in northeastern Greece that is called “The Garden of the Theotokos”. This sacred ground has been reserved for the practice of the monastic life for over 1,000 years and is the home of 20 major monasteries and numerous small sketes and hermitages.
This new saint of our Orthodox Church was born on February 7, 1906 in Greece and was baptized with the name of Evangelos. His parents were poor but pious farmers, his father serving as the village cantor who at times chanted the services with St. Nectarios. Due to their poverty, the Elder’s father was forced to emigrate to America to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. The young Evangelos only attended the village school for two years, starting work at a young age first in a coal mine and later in a grocery store in order to help support his family. Under the influence of his pious parents and from reading the Lives of the Saints, young Evangelos was determined to follow the examples of these holy saints. At the age of 15 he set off for Mount Athos to devote himself to the monastic life, living at the Skete of Kafsokalivia. There, under the guidance of the elders in the monastic life, Evangelos devoted himself to prayer, fasting, and struggle against the sinful passions. During his nighttime prayers, he would at times strip to the waist in order to help him pay attention and to keep from falling asleep. He immersed himself in the liturgical services of the Church which he participated in for hours each day, learning many of the prayers and hymns by heart. With only two years of formal education, the Bible and the services of the Church became his tutors. Young Evangelos was eventually tonsured a monk and given the name Nikitas.
While still a teenager, Nikitas was blessed to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He was able “to see” people who were arriving at the monastery while they were still a long distance away. He was able to bring God’s healing to people with a touch. The hidden thoughts of people were revealed to him. He was able to see the past, the present and the future at the same time. He confessed these experiences to his spiritual father who advised to him to be cautious about this gift and to tell no one. The experienced monk knew well the warning of St. Paul that “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11) meaning that mystical experiences and visions can be temptations of the devil to lead a person into pride and delusion.
By the age of 19, Nikitas’ health problems forced his elders to move him to less remote monastery: the Monastery Lefkon of St. Charalambos. There at the age of 21 he was ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood and given the name Porphyrios. At this monastery and in several parishes, he functioned as a spiritual father hearing confessions often for hours each day. His spiritual gift of discernment, the ability to read the hearts of those who came to him, led many to genuine repentance and a new life.
With the outbreak of World War II, Father Porphrios was assigned to the Athens Polyclinic in the heart of the city. Here he served the sick for thirty years, making his rounds through the hospital wards, celebrating the sacraments, praying with and guiding the sick. In February, 1970 he retired from his position as hospital chaplain and began work on his lifelong dream: to establish a monastery in which his pious spiritual daughters could completely devote themselves to the Lord. In 1981 the Holy Convent of the Transfiguration of our Savior was formally established and it was here that the Elder began to live. As he advanced his years, Elder Porphryios suffered from numerous health challenges: kidney disease, heart attack, loss of vision and in 1987 becoming completely blind. Knowing that his end was nearing his one desire was to return once more to his little hut on the Holy Mountain – Mount Athos. After receiving Holy Confession and the Holy Eucharist, the Elder departed this life on December, 2, 1991.
Monastic Life For Us?
The life and example of St. Porphyrios seems to have little to say to us who live in this world, raising a family, paying a mortgage, holding down a job. The lives of monks and nuns like the Elder seem far removed from mine. On my pilgrimage to Mount Athos several years ago, I felt surrounded by holiness, prayer, peace and quiet. There were few distractions: no television, radios, newspapers, cars, internet. Arriving back into the town of Ouranpolis after a week in this environment, it literally felt as if I had arrived on a different planet: cars, trucks, radios, music, people everywhere. The temptation that sets in is this: If only I were living in a monastery, then I could live a true Christian life... If only I were in such a place of holiness as Mt. Athos, then I could really pray…. If only….. If only….. We make a grave error if we think that only monks and nuns are called to fulfill Christ’s commandments and way of life. St. John Chrysostom wrote:
You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the laymen and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities…Because all must rise to the same height (of virtue); and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of laziness.
If we claim to be disciples of Jesus and desire salvation we must commit ourselves to prayer, fasting, and struggling against our sinful passions. All of us are required to keep the Lord’s commandments but it requires effort and work. Our sinful human nature tends toward pleasure, selfishness and avoiding any kind of discomfort. Our Lord Jesus said:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
The only difference a monastic and a lay person is that monk and nuns are in an environment that nurtures and encourages their commitment to live as disciples of Jesus. Our battle is much more difficult, we are surrounded by a culture that inhibits the practice of prayer, humility, chastity, struggle against our sinful passions. May the life and witness of the Holy Elder Porphyrios help and inspire us as we walk on this narrow path that leads to life.
“When someone injures us in whatever way, whether with slanders or with insults, we should think of him as our brother who has been taken hold of by the enemy. He has fallen victim to the enemy. Accordingly we need to have compassion for him and entreat God to have mercy both on us and on him, and God will help both….We should feel the malice of the other person as an illness which is tormenting him and which he is unable to shake off. And so we should regard our brethren with sympathy and behave with courtesy towards them, repeating in our hearts with simplicity the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ…’ so that the grace of God may strengthen our soul and so that we don’t pass judgment on anyone.”
“Devote yourselves to the Scriptures. Love reading and studying them. Read clearly and distinctly, word by word. Read the words aloud and listen to them; that’s a great help. And where you come across a particularly meaty passage, read it again to understand to understand it better…..On the Holy Mountain they didn’t use to allow you to read The Philokalia and the other ascetic fathers –only Holy Scripture and the lives of the saints.”
“The divine services of the Church are words in which we converse and speak to God with our worship and with our love. The hours spent closest to Paradise are the hours spent in the church together with all our brethren when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, when we sing and when we receive Holy Communion…..But the snares of Satan are many for those who worship God. Temptation manages very successfully to ensure that we pay no attention to the worship. We go to church frequently, only to continue our sleep….Think what we are missing when we are in church in this thoughtless state!”
- Father Edward Pehanich