I was again reading through a chapter called “Illnesses of the Heart” from the book The Mountain of Silence. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for those interested in learning about the deep roots of Orthodoxy especially in its monastic communities.
One passage of the book describes the practice that the monks have of bowing and kissing each other as they pass by each other. The entire passage is worth quoting in full. Father Maximos is currently a revered monk on Mount Athos in Cyprus where the book takes place. This is his story of the first time encountering the kiss.
“I remember the first time I saw two monks make deep prostrations and kiss each other’s hand as they passed one another on a path. At that time it appeared to me to be very funny. I barely controlled my laughter. Of course, I soon learned that this behavior is based on the belief that whatever you meet someone on your way, in reality you meet God. And as you honor God you must honor the other because you have in front of you the presence of God. You don’t turn the other way to avoid someone you don’t like.” He hesitated for a second and then went on. ‘That’s what I usually do myself.” Then Father Maximos went on to narrate another episode in the life of elder Paisios of the right attitude in such circumstances.
“One day old Paisios was visited in his remote hermitage by a group of five obnoxious young men, full of pride and arrogance. He patiently spent several housrs showing them extra attention. But a theology teacher who was present became irritable and impatient. ‘How could you tolerate them?’ he asked him. And the elder replied, Have you ever wondered how God could tolerate you?’” (pp. 63-64)
Several weeks ago I pondered the uncomfortable feeling we all have of passing someone in the hall. The U.S. custom is in general to wave or say “Hi” with little to no eye contact as we quickly avert a conversation with a stranger. It’s kind of like the custom of shaking hands which originated as a self-defense strategy to ensure the other person was not going to shoot you. Apparent there were no southpaws in the wild West. We almost have to make some sort of gesture to ease the tension. It is an obligation not a delightful exchange of the will.
(L)et’s say (I am passing) someone I don’t know and this is the third or fourth time I have seen him or her in the hallway that day. There is this awkward moment of making or not making eye contact and then figuring out what to do. Usually people look away until the last second when the pass happens, then they make brief eye contact, say “Hi,” smile and walk on by.
Here I’m thinking, why did I say hi to this person? I don’t know who that is and I’ve seen them twice already? Isn’t one “Hi” sufficient? What if I am just done smiling? Do I do it to keep things pleasant?
We have such awkward social conventions to be nice. It’s almost like being nice to each other feels unnatural.
Why are we so protective of our boundaries that even a simple gesture of peace as we pass each other is uncomfortable? Think of it another way. If we are so uncomfortable with this kind of mundane social interaction, is there really any wonder why most Christians seem to have a very hard time ministering to the less fortunate? Just because getting to know people is often difficult and time-consuming does not absolve any of us from the clear call to do so.*
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25: 44-46).
*Note to self.