I have just returned from five weeks in Greece, where, with my colleagues from the University of Missouri, I led a group of 19 graduate and undergraduate students on a "study abroad" venture in Athens and on the unspoiled island of Serifos. We spent our days reading and writing, strenuously ingesting Greek life in general, and Greek literary life in particular.
Students worked on modern Greek in the mornings and collaborated in writing workshops -- poetry, fiction, travel writing, or playwriting --in the afternoons. Our program (MU Summer Seminars in Greece) takes a group every year, so if any of that sounds interesting to you, you should plan to join us in June 2011, when Pam Houston will lead our fiction workshop, Christopher Bakken will lead our travel writing/food writing workshop, Aliki Barnstone will lead a translation workshop, and I'll lead the poetry group.
In any case, I've been making my way to Greece for many years, and this past trip was my eleventh. In a surprising way, however, as satisfying as this trip was, it feels oddly incomplete in retrospect. I'm supposing that this is because each of my previous ten visits to Greece included pilgrimages of varying lengths, from five days to four weeks, among the monks of Mount Athos, a unique region of northern Greece known also as Agion Oros, "the Holy Mountain."
Summer teaching duties here in Missouri didn't leave me any time for my customary journey to the monasteries this year. In fact, I was obliged to return to the States on the Monday after our Greece program ended, and taught an early afternoon class on Tuesday. I won't let that schedule crunch happen again, for it feels very strange to have been in Greece for weeks without at least touching base with the fathers on the Holy Mountain.
In any case, I continue to think of my visits there as pilgrimages, expeditions into something of a new world, even if the world of Mount Athos may seem to be the odd vestige of a very old world. As I say, I have journeyed to that amazing enclave 10 times to date; I hope to make that pilgrimage a recurrent practice.
Initially, I journeyed to the Holy Mountain for guidance toward what is traditionally called interior prayer, or the prayer of the heart. That is to say, so I might better learn to pray, and -- not to put too fine nor too grand a point on it -- to do so ceaselessly.
While I may have picked up a thing or two about the practice of prayer during my time with the monks and their mountain, I learned something else as well; I like to think of it as a bonus.
I learned, from firsthand encounter with contemporary ascetics, a little bit about affliction. And I learned an additional bit about its unexpected benefits.
Moreover, I realized -- experienced, even -- at long last, that "the Body of Christ" is a good deal more than a figure of speech; it is an appalling truth and mystery, uniting us beyond our knowing with one another, and uniting us with an ever greater mystery, the perichoresis ("circling dance") of the Holy Trinity Who is our One God.
I do not expect to comprehend, much less ever to explain, the particular mystery of, as I come to speak of it, the One Holy Essence whose mystery is expressed in relational, interpersonal terms, but I do hope to share something glimpsed among the struggling monks on their holy mountain, something gleaned from their ongoing written tradition, and something I have labored to acquire as my own.
I have spoken the words "the Body of Christ" for decades without thinking much about what those words demand. Lately, I have seen how our greater awareness of and our intentional performance as the mystical Body of Christ might assist in our apprehension of suffering's purpose, as well as its end.
St. Simeon the New Theologian, writing in the tenth century, offers his own first-hand experience of one amazing aspect -- one face, we might say -- of our neglected mystery when he writes of Christ:
He was suddenly completely there,
united with me in an ineffable manner,
joined to me in an unspeakable way
and immersed in me without mixing
as the fire melds as one with the iron,
and the light with the crystal.
And He made me as though I were all fire.
And He showed me myself as light
and I became that which before me I saw
and I had contemplated only from afar.
I do not know how to express to you
the paradox of this manner.
For I was unable to know
and I still now do not know
how He entered, how He united Himself with me.
Through the mystery of the God's hidden agency, we are united with Christ, and, according to Saint Simeon, we are united with him quite literally; this is not, it would appear, a mere intellectual solidarity, nor is it merely an agreeable affiliation. As Saint Paul writes, mystically we "put on Christ," adopting His holiness as He adopts our humanity.
This is astonishing, this is appalling, though these are words that many of us have no trouble affirming.
From what I have gathered over the years, we generally have so little trouble affirming it that we seldom bother even to think of it, much less to consider its vertiginous implications. As oblivious as fatted cattle munching a numbing cud, we are likely to squander an inestimable gift, unawares.
We are, in no uncertain terms, called to be like Christ, and if we will choose to allow it, we will grow into His holy likeness, increasingly and forever. The fact that His holiness is unending and inexhaustible means that each of us has an exhilarating and endless journey ahead.
Even so -- and more to the point of the difficult moment -- we often neglect how, if this delicious mystery should apply to our own beloved persons, it necessarily must apply to other persons as well, which is why, as I indicated in an earlier post, we must understand every failure as "an important failure," every occasion of human suffering as our own.