The hymns that we chant just before the start of Great Lent lament the loss of paradise. They present us with the figure of Adam, who was stripped of the garments of glory woven for him by God. In one of these hymns, Adam, exiled from paradise, strikes up a lament, and cries: “I shall never more see the Lord, my God and Maker, for now I return to the earth from which I was taken. O merciful and compassionate Lord, have mercy on me, for I am fallen.”’ In the midst of his suffering, however, Adam could not have imagined that such a terrible fall would prove to be the greatest blessing. It would have been even more difficult for him to imagine that the damage he had done to human nature would become the cause for his descendants to meet God on earth, more so than Adam had done in paradise.
In Orthodox monasteries, prior to the start of any service, we strike a large, wooden plank, known as the talanton, in such a way as to reproduce the name of Adam. The two syllables of the name “Adam,” in other words, provide the basic beat by which the talanton is rhythmically and repeatedly struck: “A-dam, A-dam, A-dam.” By striking the talanton in this way, the sacristan is calling Adam home from his long exile. He is in effect announcing to the whole monastery’, and to all the earth and to heaven itself, that the gates of paradise, which once were closed, are now open. No longer does a cherubim stand guard, with a flaming sword, barring the way to the tree of life (Gen 3.24). Instead, that same angel now keeps guard over our souls, so that now we can remain within paradise.
Adam no longer weeps. When Christ descended into the realm of death and the devil, He preached to the spirits in prison (cf. 1 Pet 3.19), and released them from their bonds, shattering the bronze gates and breaking asunder the iron bars (Ps 106.16). It was then that he seized Adam, and the whole human race, and led them into the earthly and heavenly paradise of the Church, which is a paradise much more sublime and delightful than the first. In my remarks today, I would like to approach the mystery’ of paradise from a number of passages in Scripture and the Church Fathers. At the same time, I want to develop a comparison between paradise and the life of the Church as it is lived in an Orthodox monastery’. In a monastery’, not only does one see the full expression of the Christian life, but it is also the place where such a life can be lived with the greatest simplicity and ease.
We know that monasticism is the daily and unceasing assembly of the Church. It is thus the type and pattern of paradise in action and in power. And that’s how we’ll generally approach our theme, which will not always be easy, for we are dealing with matters that are both human and divine. From the outset we need to realize that these are not so much ideas or concepts, but rather facts and events, which are best understood by the heart. If we’re just a little attentive, we’ll feel the truth of these things, because it is the Holy Spirit who has planted them in our heart.