Twelve Years with a Saint

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis was a gift to one of my children from godparents who far exceed me in wisdom and grace. I selfishly interrupted my child’s own reading of the book (just a chapter into it) to ask if we could read it out loud as a family (after our youngest, currently three years old, was in bed). We finished The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios as an entire family only one day before I finished reading Roland in Moonlight to myself.

If you’ve read my recent review of Roland in Moonlight, you’ll know that David Bentley Hart’s beloved dog, Roland, insists that David is actually a Hindu. It was a little disorienting—but good—to be reading these two books at the same time.

In full disclosure, several books that I’ve read recently point out substantial and meaningful points of common ground between ancient ways of understanding our world, each other and our origin in God. Vedic, Jewish and Greek traditions are all placed within a common larger context in the ancient world by books such as Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy by Stephen R. L. Clark and The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart (as well as, without the same depth of Chrsitian understanding, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies by Thomas C. McEvilley).

It was helpful to consider the experiences of a young man in Greece who found his fascination with a wide variety of far eastern traditions and new age beliefs (during the youthful cultural revolutions in Europe following World War II) to be entangled with dark and frightful experiences as well as controlling passions. In brief, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis is a translation from Greek of a book written by a man who knew Elder Paisios for 12 years (starting in the 1960s) and who was profoundly helped by the elder. Elder Paisios lived 1924 to 1994 and was canonized on 13 January 2015 by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as Saint Paisios of Mount Athos. Dionysios Farasiotis is a pseudonym used with the 2001 publication of The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, and the author has since identified himself as Athanasios Rakovalis (in a video posted online in 2018 and shared in several places since then). Following the publication of The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, Athanasios Rakovalis has published other books under his own name. These contain more collected teachings that Elder Paisios shared with him during their years together and that Athanasios kept in notebooks from his days with the elder. (Because Athanasios has identified himself, I will use his actual name for the sake of simplicity in the remainder of my review.)

The memories that Athanasios shares from his youth are gripping and heartfelt with an honesty, simplicity and sadness about them that are convincing and easy to relate to in terms of what it is like to be young and seeking earnestly for intellectual answers and for true love within the modern world. His experience of love and support from Elder Paisios are also wonderful (in the most literal sense), and I highly recommend the book for reading with young people because of these powerful elements.

As a young person in 1960s Greece, Athanasios was caught up in many sensational experiences of intellectual life as well as magic, new age and far eastern mystical teachings. He was clearly a charismatic and delightful young man who enjoyed many friends in diverse circles, but he ultimately found himself feeling false, unloved and unloving. At one point, he spent an intense period of months seeking to eliminate any false displays of meaningfulness, attractiveness or impressiveness from himself and his life so that he might find out what it would be like to be loved simply for who he was and not for any false pretenses of his own making. In the midst of such intense (and somewhat self-absorbed) experiments, he found that there was one person who loved him more deeply and profoundly than anyone he had ever known—even more than his own parents. This was a hermetic monk that he had met on a trip to Mount Athos, Elder Paisios, taken initially on a whim with a friend. This love that Athanasios experienced from Elder Paisios never left him despite his years of wandering and an extended trip to India during which he wanted to give the greatest yogis the opportunity to provide their own guidance and to demonstrate their own capacities.

Athanasios recounts these experiences with an admirable reserve and care. His narrative is convincing because you can feel the intensity of his memories but also his effort, in every sentence of his book, to be matter-of-fact and careful in his recounting. His content is sensational at times, but he makes every effort to avoid sensationalism and to withhold judgement. In some of his accounts, however, Athanasios is describing deeply personal memories from dark and confused periods of his early life. He focuses upon an intense contrast between dark and menacing spiritual powers and the love and light that he continually finds whenever he turns toward Elder Paisios.

This love for and from Paisios slowly gives way to a love for and from Jesus Christ, who Elder Paisios is continually pointing him toward. These words from Elder Paisios were a beautiful example of his teaching:

Man is worthy of being loved just because he’s in the image of God. It doesn’t matter at all if he’s good or bad, moral or sinful. Man is worthy of being loved for what he is. Christ loved and sacrificed Himself for sinful, corrupt people. ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ We should be the same way: we should love everyone without making any distinctions. Just like the sun rises on everyone, intelligent and unintelligent, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, our love should be like the love of God—love that’s like the sun and shines on His whole creation without making distinctions.

Elder Paisios even tells Athanasios that he has prayed for Satan himself when Satan came to harass him. However, Elder Paisios added, Satan had no interest in repentance. At home again, not long after recording this answer from Elder Paisios about the love of God, Athanasios shares about having this experience of God’s presence:

Then, on one of those evenings, when I was praying alone in my apartment, I felt Him approaching me. I came to know ‘the perfect love that casteth out fear.‘ …He touched me, but not just on the surface. He touched the innermost depths of my being, filling me and permeating me. He united Himself with me so closely that we became as one. I was intoxicated by God, and I became like fire so that my very body burned. I wanted to be completely open towards Him, without a single corner of my soul remaining hidden, no matter how ugly or filthy it was. I wanted everything to be known to Him, so I confessed to Him and showed Him all my crooked and filthy Ways, all of my vices. I longed for every corner of my soul to be visited by Him, by this vast infinite Love coming from all directions and filling all things. As Saint Symeon the New Theologian cried, ‘O Deifying Love that is God!’ This Love holds the universe together, connecting every part of it, giving it the strength to exist, and being the very cause of its continued existence.

Not long after this experience, Athanasios recounts his travels in India. Despite his deep love for the elder and multiple experiences of profound blessing, Athanasios still desires to find out for himself if other religious traditions offer similar blessings. He records his extended stays in three different ashrams in different parts of India. In two of these, the leading disciples are largely Westerners. Within both of these communities, and in connection to both of their leaders, Athanasios remembers several disturbing and negative experiences as well as several impressive and powerful ones. Some of these experiences pick up on experiences of demonic oppression from his youth and carry over into strong feelings of this same kind oppression and eventual relief under the ministry of Elder Paisios. Athanasios also has some more restful stays within a less prominent ashram, where the only residents are local India practitioners. This distinction is not made in the book, but I suspect that there is some degree to which the ashrams wrapped up with impressive international connections tend to involve more manipulative and spurious spiritual powers. Many instances of gurus in this book involve a highly commodified exportation of Hindu religious traditions, no doubt with some money and prestige heavily involved.

There is also a strong theme of competition from the author who was interested from a young age in finding the truth through manifestations of power as well as of love. One positive and dramatic example of this is posted here in which Elder Paisios shows Athanasios the sweet, immaterial, noetic light of God as an answer to his having been impressed with a light that was visible coming from a prominent yogi under whom he spent some time in India.

With these experiences of competition as well as manipulative and demonic oppression, I can see many important lessons to be learned regarding the ways in which we can become fascinated with spiritual powers. There is also much to consider in terms of how modernity invented the category of religion as an abstraction made up of competing ideologies rather than a universal aspect of our humanity (see books such as The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism by Tomoko Masuzawa or Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri or The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith). Among other problems, this false construct of religion allows us to turn religious or spiritual practices into commodities to be bought and sold in ugly ways.

One contrast to Athanasios and his experience of Indian religion is Christine Mangala Frost. The author of The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs, she brings to bear her own experience as a cradle Hindu who embraced Orthodoxy (via the Anglican Franciscans, who have an inculturated approach rooted in the missionary experience of founding a Christian ashram in India) to encourage nuance and give Christians the conceptual tools they need to navigate a foreign tradition with respect and honesty yet without compromising the integrity of their own faith or relativizing its commitments. Frost read The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios and spent what she describes as a long delightful evening with Athanasios and his family talking with Athanasios about his experiences. She did this while writing her own book on Hinduism and Orthodoxy which can, to some degree, be seen as a sympathetic response to Athanasios and his story, although it provides a different approach from an Orthodox Christian who has her own life story. While I have not read Frost’s book, I’m confident that it would be a valuable read alongside the account by Athanasios of his experiences in India.

In the end, one of the most meaningful passages in this book by Athanasios was his description of an experience with the elder outside of Mount Athos, when Athanasios was driving Elder Paisios from one place to another through a mountainous part of Greece. In a moment that Athanasios describes in hindsight as somewhat foolish and irreverent, Athanasios asked the Paisios to tell him what God was really like:

The elder didn’t say a word, so I simply continued to drive up the curving mountain road in silence. Suddenly, I began to feel God’s presence everywhere: in the car, out in the hills, and to the reaches of the farthest galaxies. He was “everywhere present and filling all things,” without being identified with any of them. He permeated everything, without being mixed or confused with anything. Being Spirit, the ever-existent God permeated the material cosmos, without ever being identified with changeable matter. Being Spirit, God dwelt in the eternity of an infinite present containing past, present, and future.

…Indeed, His power is everywhere present, yet beyond all perception and beyond the reach of arrogant human attempts to discover it, able to be known only when it reveals itself. This power is what brought the trees, the mountains, the stars, and man himself into existence and what sustains them. In a moment, this power could make them all vanish without any uproar, any tumult, or any resistance, as easily as the flick of a light switch can plunge a well-lit room into total darkness.

Simultaneously, I felt in my heart that God’s almighty power is also infinitely noble, with a refinement that could never allow His power or His presence to pressure anyone. Although He is so very near us, He remains unseen, so that we feel neither weighed down nor obligated even by His presence—for He in no way wishes to restrict us, but instead desires us to be completely free to do as we wish. He not only avoids compelling us through fear, power, and might, but He even avoids swaying us with His beauty, His love, and the irresistible sweetness of His presence. He does this out of an unfathomable respect for human freedom. Of course, He loves us with a fiery love and desires to draw us towards Himself, resorting to manifold other ways that reveal His boundless wisdom, personal attention, and tender loving care for each one of us. Indeed, the vastness of the universe which He watches over in no way lessens His love and concern for us. In turn, He seeks but does not demand, our love, which can be found only with complete freedom.

My soul felt such joy, contentment, and repose in the presence of Gods Who is so simple, yet so mysterious. I now understood what One of the Church Fathers meant when he write about how God becomes all things for those who love Him?

…In God’s embrace, I was filled with a deep calm that cast out all fear. Resting in the palm of His almighty hand, I had nothing to fear, for He knows all things in perfect wisdom and love. I felt a certainty about the origin of this world, its path through time, and its ultimate destination. And I rejoiced, forl knew that in the end He would be victorious and that His kindness and holiness would prevail.

I wasn’t in this state very long—perhaps for about two or three miles along the winding mountain road—but it was a very distinctive state, set apart from other altered states one experiences under the influence of alcohol, drugs, pleasure, pain, distress, or fear. It was as though someone lifted a veil from my mind, enabling my soul to live, not in a different world, but in the same world—the same world in its entirety. Like a deaf man who suddenly begins to hear the sounds of the world surrounding him, like a blind man who suddenly begins to see the images and colors of this world, hitherto invisible.

…I suddenly began to sense God in the world, with all the immeasurable wealth, beauty, and significance that this sensation contained. For a moment, I was taken out of thc tomb of my passions and lived as man was meant to live. I imagine that in an earlier age such a sensation was more common among the sons of men. In Paradise, before man’s Spiritual senses were damaged by the fall, Adam and Eve no doubt had an even more vivid sense of God’s presence than I did at that time, since Holy Scripture relates how they saw, heard, and spoke with God. Alas, the thick scales of vice have now coated my spiritual eyes and the muck of sin has stopped up my spiritual ears.

It is certainly worth noting that the elder responded to my request to hear a few words from him with fervent prayer that moved God to grant even a wretch like me such an inestimably rich and bountiful experience.

Whatever sophisticated commentary I might wish to make after reading this book by Athanasios, it is clear to me that this is an honest account by a humble man regarding a great love and profound gifts that he received from Elder Paisios over the twelve years that he knew the elder. What a blessing to us in the modern world to have witnesses such as Saint Paisios and those such as Athanasios who are willing to share these accounts.