At some point in every man’s life, he must declare the road he wishes to follow. This statement may be openly verbal, or it may be spoken indirectly, through actions and deeds. It does not matter how the statement is made: the point is that it is made, whether the man is aware of it or not. There exists a need in every human heart to declare itself to the outside world, and this need cannot indefinitely be suppressed. It must find a voice.
One of the noted Orthodox saints of Mount Athos in Greece is Euthymios the Younger. He originally went by the name Niketas, and is said to have been born in A.D. 823 or 824. Not much is known about his early life. He apparently was married for a time, but this life did not take with him: he felt a different calling, and directed his attention away from worldly cares. He soon took monastic vows on Mount Olympos in Bithynia. He then spent a period of time (859–864) at the monastery in Mount Athos, and would eventually found his own monastic community (dedicated to St. Andrew) in Peristera in 871. He was famed for his kindliness, generosity, and considerable mental powers. Euthymios understood the meaning of suffering and redemption: his biographer tells us that he spent three years in a cave in the wild, subsisting entirely on what he could collect for himself.
His biographer relates an anecdote about him that is worth retelling. Euthymios was often traveling in the performance of his holy duties. One time he found himself passing through the city of Nicomedia, and he had the opportunity to make inquiries about his family. He had left them many years earlier in order to pursue the religious life; but they did not know what had happened to him, or whether he was still alive. The anguish of not knowing what had happened to him had tormented his family for a long time. But Euthymios was a man of compassion, and felt the need to get in contact with them, and let them know that he was well. So he sent a trusted advisor to speak to his mother and sisters. These were the words that he asked to be conveyed to his family:
Let none of you beat her breast or mourn for me as if I have accidentally suffered some evil fate; for by the grace of God I am alive and leading my life. But when I realized that the form of this world is passing away and that heaven and earth will pass away, I also heard the apostle saying, “Let those who have wives live as if they had none…and let those who buy live as though they had no possessions, and let those who sell live as though they have no power to do so,” and I also heard the gospel verses, that everyone who has left his father or mother or wife or children for my sake will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life.
For this reason, not out of hatred for you (May God forbid!), but in my yearning to attain the unending and eternal life, I dedicated myself to God who has promised this, He who can console you on my account and achieve for me the realization of my desire. If then you also wish to undertake and strive for the same goal as me, God is most ready to assist you in your wish, He who out of His boundless goodness always anticipates the purposes of those who always endeavor to reach Him. And I may be an important example for you of this good renunciation, inasmuch as I began my journey from your household. In any case, having declared to myself the words of the scripture, “Save thine own life by all means,” I will continue to seek the best way of life and divinely inspired conduct as I can. [Trans. by Alice-Mary Talbot]
This was the message that the holy man Euthymios conveyed to his mother and sisters. Now it is true that his road, the road of the religious life, is not for everyone. But this fact is not the focus of this essay: it is irrelevant. The quote above is really a declaration of independence. What matters is that Euthymios had the conviction, and the unambiguous sense of purpose, to state his life’s mission. He did not hesitate; he did not equivocate. He knew who he was, and where he was going. It seems to me that this should be an important lesson for all of us. How many of us can clearly state what he believes, and where he is going? Should it only be monks who have such a sense of purpose? Should not all of us have, to some degree at least, a similar consuming life-mission? I think the answer is yes. Every man’s road will be different: what is the way for one, will not be the way for another. But only we can find it, and only we can state it. We cannot expect someone else to assume this mantle.
And while I have no intention of following Euthymios’s career, I can still draw admiration and inspiration from his courageous sense of purpose. The robes of the great saints and scholars brush the ground behind them as they walk, and we must see what patterns are left on the dust behind them.
Read more in my newly-released, photographically illustrated translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: