Himalayan Ascent to Christ
By Ryassophore Monk Adrian
When we come to know God as Person, we begin to see His hand at work not only in the circumstances of our daily lives, but also in the events of our past which have led us to the present moment. We see how from partial truths He has led us to the fullness of Truth, and how He continues to lead us into a more profound realization of that Truth. As Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote, when we come to Christ “no real truth we have ever known will ever be lost.”
Surrounded by five of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, I was standing at 14,000 feet gazing at the Annapurna mountains as the sun rose. My trek in Nepal had begun a few weeks previously and this was its culmination. As I stood staring at the pristine beauty soaring above me, a thought entered my mind and refused to budge: “What’s the point?” My ego immediately retorted to this random thought, “What’s the point! What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’ The point is you hiked all this distance to see these mountains, now enjoy it!” Still the thought plagued my mind. Yes, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I was joyful at the moment, but where would those feelings be tomorrow when I was no longer so greatly inspired? The happiness of this world could never bring me satisfaction. It should have been apparent throughout my life, but it took my climbing to the top of the world for me to finally accept it. And that was my first step toward Christ and Orthodoxy.
Until that point my entire adult life had been a secular one devoted to satisfying sundry passions. I had finished University at the age of 21 with plans of going into business while at the same time pursuing a career in art. Within a year I seemed well on the way to reaching my goal. I was then living in London, employed by IBM. My position was secure and a promotion was imminent. My private life was similar to that of many of my generation: casual relationships, pursuit of comfort, and constant diversions to preserve myself from any self-reflection.
At about the same time my older sister became an Orthodox nun in Alaska. Whether it’s a coincidence or not I’m not sure, but from that time on my passion for worldly pursuits began to wane. Surveying my co-workers, no one seemed to be truly happy or content. That elusive quality of satisfaction was never present but always tantalizingly just around the corner. Travelling, sports, drinking with the “lads” all became more and more mundane. Every Monday the same question: “How was your weekend?” Every Friday again: “Any plans this weekend?” London became greyer and greyer and the steady drizzle never managed to wash away the grime.
Instead of looking deeper into the causes of my boredom, I placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of corporate culture. I assumed that my disdain for the world was due to the pursuit of monetary gain. So I quit IBM, packed my bags and returned to America. Cherishing my disdain for prosperity and social acceptance, I began my descent into Bohemia. Oddly enough, I failed to notice that the same rules that govern acceptability in corporate life were applicable to the alternative scene. Substitute a leather jacket for a suit, a tatoo for a rolex, and a pierced eyebrow for cufflink and you still have the same man.
I began the pursuit of a Masters degree in art and found a job at the Museum of Modern Art. My artwork consisted of large custom-made canvases covered in thick layers of tar. Tar had not been used as an artistic medium before, so my work was instantly popular. I strove to be passionate about obscure modern philosophers, post-punk shows and late-night parting, but it all wearied me. I assumed that something was wrong with me. Why did I find it impossible to seriously discuss a gallery exhibit featuring a basket of crushed aluminum cans and underwear stretched on pieces of wire? Why did I find no joy in watching a performance artist squawk like a chicken for fifteen minutes? Fortunately, I quickly wearied of my “alternative life-style,” and right then a friend phoned me asking if I wanted to go to Japan. I had always had an interest in Asian cultures, and I esteemed myself a floater par excellence, so within a month I found myself in Kyoto, Japan.
I quickly acclimated to my new surroundings. Within two weeks I was enrolled in a language course and had found a position teaching English. It was peculiar to be in a country where one could leave their car running while they went into a store and not worry about it being stolen. Honesty was the norm and it initiated a change in me. My conscience began to return to life. I felt an immense relief, when I began to do simple things like paying the proper toll on the subway. It was a mere adherence to the law without any deeper understanding, but it was the catalyst for subtle changes, and I began to breathe more easily.
Living in the ancient capital of Japan exposed me to two thousand years of tradition on a daily basis. I had grown up in the suburbs of southern California (the oldest building in my neighborhood being ten years old); here I was living next to a thousand year-old temple which had served countless emperors. The temples, gardens, and customs began to feed a soul that had consumed far too much tar. Naturally attracted to the beauty of the traditions, I commenced upon a phase of dabbling in Zen Buddhism. For my easily distracted and impatient mind it was too much. In a Zen temple there is only one correct way of performing any action and it must be done precisely. My bows were too violent, my posture never erect, and my socks never clean enough. The priest shuddered at my appearance. Perfection was demanded and I came up far short. I finally stopped not because of my inadequacy, but because of the utter lack of joy I felt there. It was all too mechanical: push the right buttons and attain enlightenment. There was a calmness I felt after meditating, but did this really help anyone else? I supposed I could attain this state with much less effort through a tranquilizer.
Three years passed, my Japanese was adequate, and I felt I had gleaned everything useful from the culture. The challenge of surviving in a foreign culture had disappeared, my salary was high, my job easy, I could see myself becoming complacent. It would be very easy to pass the next forty years in this very warm niche that I had carved out. I quit my job, gave up my house and began my slow journey back to America.
I travelled all over Asia from Vietnam down to Singapore with no clear destination in mind. The excitement of new places and travelling companions kept me distracted most of the time, but before bed the dull pain of emptiness would return. I was still desperately searching for that element that was missing in my life. I travelled to the remote sacred places of the Buddhists and the Hindus; by the time I reached them I was already planning the next stage in my trip. During my travels through Burma, I visited a temple on the edge of Mandalay. Thousands of steps led up the side of a mountain to the temple which overlooked the entire city. As I made my ascent, I perceived a Buddhist monk next to me matching my stride. He was in his fifties, short, slightly plump, with a ruddy cheerful countenance. He introduced himself and we continued our climb. Arriving at the summit we sat on a wall of the temple talking as the sun set over Mandalay. After some introductory pleasantries, I turned the subject to the political situation in Burma (Burma is presently under a harsh military dictatorship) which murdered a large segment of the population after riots against corrupt policies in the late eighties). He sighed and looked upon me with a disappointed gaze, “Why do you want to talk about that?” I mumbled an excuse to cover the true reason, which was to display my knowledge of serious subjects. He steered the conversation in a completely different direction. “Last week I saw a movie called ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ What a wonderful life!” For the next ten minutes he extolled the virtues of Christ. I was being proselytized by a Buddhist monk, not to convert me to his religion but to Christianity. I was dumbfounded. I had thought myself far above Christianity since I was in high school, and here was a pagan giving me back what I had rejected. Because of the words of a simple Burmese monk, I was awakened to the fact that perhaps there was something more to Christianity than the veneer I had rejected. I still was not compelled at that point to make a serious investigation into Christianity, but the seed-bed was being prepared.
A short time passed and I travelled on to Nepal, where I was to meet some friends for a trek in the Himalayas. I arrived some time before them, and decided to spend the interim in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. I found one a short distance from Katmandu, which offered courses in English. I went as a cultural tourist, sampling the next dish at the smorgasbord of world religions.
I arrived skeptical of everything, expecting to find lots of spaced out new-agers. After the first few days my opinions were completely altered. This wasn’t a feel-good chiliastic religion; these were people honestly struggling to attain the truth. I was astonished to learn that they believed in hell. Who in this modern age believes in hell? But for them it was the natural outcome of a wasted life. I was intrigued. I began to listen more carefully as further doctrines were disseminated. The core of the religion is the idea that all beings live in a transitory realm of desire and suffering. All suffering is created by chasing after that which is impermanent; instead one must look toward that which is permanent: the truth. The only way to attain this is to cease clinging to ones ego, and instead to live for others. Only when we put others’ happiness above our own can we have happiness ourselves. I was stunned: after 27 years of being told, “Do whatever feels good,” the Tibetans were telling me that whatever feels good will probably make you miserable in this life or the next. This was a revolutionary idea to me, but at the same time I had a vague feeling I had heard it somewhere before.
After a few weeks at the monastery, I left to go trekking with my friends who had now arrived in Nepal. We took a bus across country and began our trek into the Annapurna mountain range. With full packs we ascended to 14,000 feet over the next two weeks. The scenery was stunning, the terrain changing from fertile valleys to dense forests, to snow covered summits. The hiking was drudgery at times, as we would ascend 1,000 feet and then enter a valley where we would descend the same amount. The beauty of creation was astonishing, but every night as I lay down to sleep that old feeling of missing something reappeared; I assumed this would vanish once I arrived at the base of the Annapurnas.
We reached our destination one afternoon, breathless and more than a bit disappointed. The entire area was swallowed by a huge cloud bank which we were inside. We explored the glaciers and spent time huddled next to a stove in a small tea hut. By night there was no sign of a cloud break. We went to sleep and were awakened just before dawn with the news char the weather had cleared. I came outside and one of the most astonishing sights in the world greeted my eyes. The sun slowly rose over the top of the world, which I felt I could reach out and touch. Then that dastardly thought arose in my mind, “What’s the point?” Then it dawned on me: this whole trip had been done for my own gratification. As soon as the momentary high was gone, I would be back in my own normal state. I had struggled with blisters, bad knees and giardia, and for what? To see an exalted, but in the end just another pretty view. Had this improved me as a person or helped anyone else? No, it had merely fed my ego; I had acquired excellent fodder for conversation at parties. Where had all my high Buddhist ideals gone? At that moment I realized my life had to be dedicated to some higher principle than earthly pleasure. I decided to return to the monastery.
I spent the next few months studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques. Still there were certain elements I had trouble accepting. The doctrine of Karma seemed to allow for no free will in man; ones decisions to do good or evil were always controlled by previous actions. How would it be possible to break free, if every decision was predetermined? If one had sinned since beginningless time as they believed, how could one ever purify oneself in such a short life? In some ways, what was so difficult was that it was so logical; it seemed devised by a human mind. Still the philosophy of self-sacrifice had rooted itself in me, even if I had failed to act upon it; I knew I could no longer live the life I had.
While at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I began reading The Way of a Pilgrim. I saw in the pilgrim the manifestation of self-abnegation and compassion that I had found in Tibetan Buddhism, yet it came from the Christian tradition I had been raised with. Why had I never heard about this in my Catholic church growing up? Stranger still was the fact that my sister was a Russian Orthodox nun and yet I knew nothing of the religions mystical qualities. I decided that perhaps I was not ready to become a Buddhist and that I should inquire further into my own heritage.
After being hit on the head enough times, I finally came to the conclusion that all of my travels were rather pointless and that I needed to return home and anchor myself. I had plans to meet friends in Egypt for Christmas, but I found a cheaper flight to Istanbul and thought that would be a good departure point for Western Europe and the U.S. The carrier was Aeroflot. A few days later it registered in my mind that Aeroflot was the Russian airline and my sister was living in Moscow. I thought perhaps they might have a stop-over in Moscow. It turned out they did. Within a few days I had a three-week stopover and a visa for Russia. I flew into Moscow on St. Herman’s day.
My sister greeted me at the airport and thus began my three-week crash course in Orthodoxy. A new world began to open to me. I was in a land where people died for Christ, and the intersession of the saints was a normal event. This was not an empty Christianity viewed as a social obligation. These were people who had endured incredible hardships in suffering for the truth.
I began reading volumes on Orthodoxy, visiting churches, and civilly discussing with my sister the differences in Orthodox and Buddhist tenets. She kept on coming back to the same point: Christianity has the truth in the form of a person. I failed to understand the importance. Force or person, I could not see the difference.
Then I met Fr. Artemy, a well-known Moscow priest with a huge congregation. He is a self-sacrificing man, whose entire life is dedicated to Christ and the spreading of the Gospel. We arrived at his church during the Saturday-night vigil. We found him hearing confessions surrounded by a crowd of fifty to a hundred people waiting to confess. I stood at the edge of the circle and before much time had passed I was pulled into its center by Fr. Artemy. With eyes closed, hands on my shoulders he began speaking to me. When he wished to emphasize a point, he would ram his forehead into mine. As he spoke to me in a highly florid English, I had the overwhelming impression that this priest, whom I had never met, knew much more about me than he should. What truly shook me was the feeling that he was urgently concerned with my soul, as though he had a personal stake in it. He spoke to me for ten minutes while the babushkas impatiently began tightening in on us. He continued talking, telling me that my experience in Nepal had been given me by God to pull me out of materialism. Then he told me why Christianity was the true faith: only it had a personal God. I still failed to understand the importance of this fact, but I left feeling lighter, although I had said almost nothing.
In the barren sepulchre of Moscow a new world began to open to me. The oppression of the city weighed little on me, as I realized that the heavenly realm of God and His saints was actually closer than the gray slab buildings dominating the city. I visited the St. Sergius Lavra and for the first time was able to venerate the relics of a saint. In those “dead bones” there seemed to be more life than in all of southern California. My stay culminated with Nativity at the Valaam Metochion. I felt as though I was surrounded by what appeared to be ordinary people, yet they remained with one foot in heaven. Christianity may be a religion of intangible faith, but I seemed to be receiving tangible verification everywhere I turned.
A few days later I left Moscow. Before my departure, my sister chastised me, saying, “My dear, if you can spend three months sitting with the Buddhists, you can at least spend one standing with the Orthodox.” Which is exactly what I did. Increasing the pace of my return, I arrived in California two months later. On the eve of Annunciation I travelled up the rough dirt road to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. The first thing that struck me, having just come up from San Diego, was the fact that these monks were anachronisms in the twentieth century. Who heard of giving up comfort and possessions in these times? It was the middle of Lent and it was clearly visible that these men were in the midst of spiritual warfare. Sobriety permeated the monastery. They seemed ready to die for the truth, and that was not something I had seen at IBM, Art School or in Japan. There was suffering in those places, but were they willing to give everything for the one thing needful? After all I had seen, I still did not have a firm belief in God, but I knew these monks saw something and I wanted it.
Lazarus Saturday arrived. On this day the Church commemorates Christ raising Lazarus from the dead after four days. I was awakened early to attend Liturgy at a nearby convent, followed by a meal there. After I awoke, I immediately fell back asleep. When I finally did rise from my bed, I found the entire monastery empty. Not a soul remained. As I wandered through the monastery, the verse, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom he shall find watching,” ran through my head. And chat was exactly what had occurred both physically and spiritually. God had knocked and offered me a feast, but I had remained reticent. Had God finally closed the door on me? I began the descent down the mountain, hoping to hitch-hike to the convent. As I walked I contemplated the events of the morning, and it seemed obvious that God had allowed me to be left behind to rouse me from my indecision. Then it finally hit me, what was meant by a personal God. Why would an impersonal force send me such a clear message for the salvation of my soul? If it was impersonal, why should it care what happened to me? Love cannot exist except between people. A force cannot love (and I challenge you to try to love an impersonal force). Therefore I came to the conclusion that God had to be a Person. As I arrived at this deduction, I heard a car approaching me from behind: it was our only neighbor on the mountain. I flagged him down and by a strange “coincidence” it happened that he was making his once-a-week trip to the store which neighbored the convent. I arrived in time for Liturgy.
Two years have passed and I am now a ryassophore monk, an anachronism if you will. My struggles have not ceased) but my days of wandering are at an end. I sometimes mourn over my wasted past, but when I look more closely I see God’s hand guiding me through even the most barren of times. Now He has brought me here for a reason, but that must still be revealed.
Originally published in Orthodox Word magazine No. 190