On the Monks of the Last Days

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"On the Monks of the Last Days", Chapter Talk

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I thought this morning I should like to share with you, for being so generous in your hospitality and brotherliness, a few crumbs from a Russian bishop whom I would always have loved, even if I had never seen the portrait of his very sensitive face which came my way recently, which tells, I think, its own story, for he lived late enough in the 19th century to have a credible portrait made of him. He died in 1867. I'm speaking of Bishop Ignatius Bianconinov, who completed his last work in 1861 and called it really the relics of a feast. And so I'm giving the crumbs of the relics. It's a very remarkable book indeed. I knew a bit of it, first of all, because I think it's perhaps the wisest work on the Jesus Prayer


I've ever seen. And one goes back to it very frequently. But, and it's full, it's intended to be, he says himself, and it's very credible through his face, which was very kind, but very sensitive, that he had a very difficult life and he'd gathered a lot of things from his reading and he wanted to pass these on as his last testament. And I suppose the chapter I find I go back to again and again, on mornings when it's either raining or seems to be, I go back to chapter 30 on the afflictions of the monks of the last times. Looking through it again last evening, I felt no need to change my idea of speaking about this, this morning. It's for me a fascinating fact, which I've always wanted to look into,


but I didn't, perhaps some of you have. As far as I can see, quite early in the lives of the Zenith Fathers, people began to say, of course, we aren't quite what people were before even. This begins quite early in the life of the Church. And I suppose it's partly because on one side we have to feel things are getting worse, then generally aren't they getting different. I personally very much bless the Lord that he's made me spend, by obedience, so much time with younger people, because if I didn't have them to teach me things, I should probably never have done anything. The Bishop begins the chapter by saying that, of course, and I'm sure


this is true of us really, if I look at some of the photographs I've seen of people in Jesus' life in the middle, in the late of the 19th century, they all look like great rocks sitting on chairs. And I feel rather relieved I didn't have to try to compete with them. He says we shan't have the, either the psychological or spiritual forces which these former people had, and so it would be quite difficult for us. And then he collects a lovely little story from John Colobos. The Fathers of the Seat were speaking prophetically about the next generation and saying, what have we done? And one of them, the abbot, Iscariot Hillion, replied, we have accomplished the commandments of God. And they said to him, what will those do come after us? And the abbot said, they'll


accomplish the half of what he did. And so they pressed him a bit further, and what will those who do come after them? Abbot Iscariot Hillion replied, they won't accomplish any monastic labour, but they'll be tested by tribulations, and those among them who persevere to the end will be much greater than we are and our fathers. And that's followed by a very charming story from a predecessor of Priyanka Nenov, the Archimandrite Arkady of the Monastery of Saint Cyril Novozersk, who died in 1847. And it's told of him that one day he went to Vygoz, plunge in inflection. And he was only really preoccupied with what he felt and how tormented he seemed to be. And he didn't really know quite what happened. He just closed his eyes, and he had an experience


of a sort of absence. It wasn't that he went to sleep, because he heard every word of the offices that were being read. But suddenly he found before him the patron of the monastery, Cyril. And he said to him, why are you so cast down? Don't you know that the monks of the last times are going to be saved by afflictions? And in hearing these words, the Archimandrite came to himself, and the vision left his soul. He was a very simple person, the Archimandrite Arkady. The vision left his soul in very great peace. There follows a long and very lovely passage, which is very hard to summarize very briefly, about the way the devil works. And it's something that the young ones and I have been thinking


about a bit in the last two or three days, in connection with very real theological principles. And he says that, of course, the devil, being very shrewd, discovers that really light afflictions are much more useful than heavy ones, because heavy ones tend to make people put on their guard, and tend to arouse them, to oppose them, and to encourage their zeal. But if you give them a whole lot of little tiny ones, they hardly notice it. Sometimes they almost go to sleep. That's the way he gets through. So that really, these afflictions which come every day, are going to be approximately the same as those of the big struggles of the early monks, if only we are aware of what is going on.


Because it's light afflictions, born with great fidelity, that will save us. If we can see through the devil's ruses, then indeed we shall triumph. It's something, I suppose, of an analysis of things which are really very fundamental for our own particular time, when the challenge to live our lives more fully humanly is so very real. The whole of this rather long analysis concludes by saying, of course, that really true spiritual reflection means living an attentive life. And in interior ascesis, it's so very little known.


I suppose at all times there are those who want to do very ferocious and difficult things, and sometimes don't look towards interior ascesis. And then there's a lovely passage in which the bishop goes on to speak of, I suppose, something that in a certain way tends to renew itself. I think one must again remember that, I suppose about the year 1000, people thought the world was coming to an end. And St Thomas More also thought that this was going to happen. Of course, in a way he wasn't wrong. His world was coming to an end, but it wasn't going to be the end of the world. And in all these times of change and difficulty, there are enormous kinds of trials which do lead


to a good deal of apostasy, because iniquity abounds in these times, because things are being re-evaluated. Love grows cold very, very easily. And so we ought to be aware of this in all times of change, that there's always a way through. There's a way through a way living continuously in love, through all the things which puzzle us, which we don't understand, which make some people fall away. And the bishop then says, of course, that if we live with this sense of vision, that we shouldn't be anxious about the changes and difficulties. Witnessing this vision of things in which lamps must be kept alight when the world seems to be getting dark in some places,


we should really manage to climb up with the three young men into the flames of temptations and share their confession of faith, which of course we've just sung as the second canticle of the Lord's today, from the third chapter of Daniel. And he says something which I'm sure is extremely important. It's one of the things we're going to think about a bit together tomorrow, those of us who have been looking at some fundamental theological things. It's then, he says, that we should unite ourselves by love with the whole of mankind, dispersed over the whole face of the earth. And in its name, as the representatives of God, we should proclaim this confession, this doxology, which we've just sung, which of course in one way or another


we can always sing in our hearts. Sometimes, of course, we won't always feel very tough about it. But the last note is a note which all those who profess to the rules of Benedict will cherish. Because, of course, the saints of the last times, the monks of the last times, the real ones, will work a truly loving God in a very hidden kind of way. And they won't accomplish very many signs and miracles in our time. But they'll follow the narrow way with a very great humility. It's on that extraordinary note of humility that the chapter ends, so true to the spirit of St. Benedict, who of course puts the love that casts out fear at the end of the ladder.


And provided we can keep this kind of a vision, or come back to it when we feel we've lost it, I suppose God will give it to us in the end. We shan't be afraid of what happens. We shan't be afraid of the fact that things seem to be breaking down, things seem to be getting worse. Who are we to know? It may be the beginning of some quite new thing, and the lamps of love will be passed on if we keep them burning in faith and love in very little things, not making a fuss about it. God bless you all. Pray for us. I'm sure I feel immensely grateful to you, and so do my brothers. Pray for us as we will pray for you.