The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine and Spiritual Culture (Part IX)

Venerable Bede, the Church Historian

Venerable Bede, the Church Historian

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

The Monasteries of Mount Athos

The famous Athonite monasteries fall directly under the administration of the patriarch of Constantinople for all religious matters. The twenty ruling houses, and other small dependencies, exist under special protocol as an autonomous region within the sovereignty of the Greek state.

Mount Athos, on the Halkidiki peninsula in Greece, is a remarkable survival of Byzantine religious life, over a thousand years old, a jewel of Orthodox monasticism, which once could boast of several such 'holy mountains,' whole areas of wilderness that been colonized by hermits and cenobitic ascetics. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Athos was able to negotiate it own continuance by paying taxes its new Islamic masters, and by fighting off as best it could the regular depredations of Mediterranean pirates. Its increasing improvement and obscurity took it far away from its former glory in the times of the Byzantine empire when it was a veritable center of intellectual scholarship and political influence (one of the great centers of imperial patronage and influence), but this also managed to ensure its survival. It is not only a great living museum of Byzantine heritage whose architectural and natural beauties are world-renowned, but it still continues with its most important function in the Orthodox world: the quiet living out of the monastic life. Athos in its heyday had an estimated monastic population of 40,000. By 1913 the years of decline had taken their toll. Its population then was just under 8,000. In a few years the large flow of Russian monks and pilgrims to the holy mountain would dry up. By 1954 their population of resident monks had fallen to 3,000. The decline seemed irreversible in the mid twentieth century. In 1969 there were only 1,350 monks, and in 1971, not more than 1,145. Since the 1980's there have been signs of a dramatic reversing of the tide, and the present state of the holy mountain is one of promising material and intellectual revival, though on certain issues (such as the patriarchate of Constantinople's involvement in the ecumenical movement) they take a very negative and hostile stand.

Athos is a renowned center for the strict observance of the monastic Typikon, and also for the advanced eremitical life of it solitaries and small groups of hermits. Its excellence in liturgical style, and matters of Church music is well known across the Orthodox world. Many of its elders are household names among the Orthodox of Greece, and many Orthodox from all over the world regularly make a pilgrimage to the holy mountain to visit the different monasteries and to consult the spiritual fathers on a variety of matters. Some of the Athonite elders (gerontes) have also had a wider impact, with monks having trained there and then coming out to other countries to reinvigorate the monastic life. One example is the patriarchal monastery of Saint John the Forerunner, at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, England, which was founded by Archimandrite Sophrony, the spiritual disciple of Saint Silouan of Athos. At the present moment there are twenty 'ruling' monasteries comprising Mount Athos, and these also have smaller dependencies, known as sketes (isolated houses where small communities live together) or kellia (even smaller cottages and chapels, and sometimes comprised of remote hermitages with an isolated monk living the solitary life). In former times, its intellectual life set a standard for the world. For centuries after the fall of Byzantium, however, its intellectual life dwindled, and the monks were more often drawn from the peasant classes.

The Administrative center of the mountain is at Karyes, and representatives of the ruling monasteries take turns to sit on the central council, presided over by the representative of the Great Lavra Monastery, the first-ranking foundation on the mountain. The current administrative protocol largely follows the typikon drawn up by the Constantinopolitan patriarch Gabriel IV in 1783. The Greek government administers the holy mountain under a protocol which allows it an autonomous governance. The readmission of Slav and east European ascetics (once the Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian monks had an extensive presence on the Holy Mountain, and the patronage of the Romanian princes sustained Athos in difficult times) is still heavily restricted. Only when this situation is remedied will Athos be able once again to be a true center of Orthodox Monasticism, a role which it aspires to. The patriarch has had the right to supervise all the monasteries of Athos since the time of Emperor Alexios Comnenos (1081-1118). The bishop of Ierissos is appointed as his representative to the Holy Mountain.

The monks, while following his spiritual leadership, are generally less ready to follow the ecumenical example, or the openness, which the ecumenical throne offers the wider world...Athos' role in the future of Orthodoxy will be secured more fully only when it rises to the challenges posed by the changed conditions of the modern world, and when it renews its intellectual life to the extent that it can take a powerful lead in Orthodox dogmatic and pastoral theology once more, as it did in times past. It also needs to make statements about the faith and the condition of the Churches which are not solely seen to be motivated by antiquarianism and fearful hostility to the world. When these conditions can be met, Athos may once again be a lighthouse to the whole Orthodox world. Its life of faithful prayer and worship, nevertheless, continues, quietly sustaining a world in the blessing of God, unknown to the multitudes outside who are busy in their own affairs.

(To be continued: Next: The Patriarchate of Alexandria)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George