The Monks of Athos

Lesson 19 – The Monks of Athos

Scope:  Since the 19th century, Mount Athos and the peninsula on which it is located in northern Greece have been the home to Orthodox monks.  In fact, no one can go today without permission from both the Greek government and Orthodox officials, and women are never allowed.  These monks represent a variety of Orthodox traditions, including Greek, Russian, and Bulgarian.  For the most part, monastic life has survived there despite several hundred years of Turkish rule and modern secularism in Greece.  Monks there live in a kind of radical separation from “the world” that is far greater than even the most contemplative of Catholic monasteries.  Some of the most important Orthodox thought, especially concerning prayer and the mystical life, has originated on Mount Athos.  Professor Cook had the opportunity to visit the Holy Mountain twice, and in this lesson, we’ll look at the forms of monastic life that have been practiced and continue to exist there.

  1. As we move to examining Christianity in the modern world, it may seem strange to begin with a group of men whose way of life has changed little over the past several centuries.
    1. Many Christians today believe it is important to remain in contact with the traditions and practices of Christians of the past
      1. There are those who find, for example, that it is easier to pray in a Gothic chapel with stained-glass windows that in a building of modern design.
      2. Struggles always arise among Christians when leaders of churches seek to make liturgical changes.
        1. For instance, some Catholics still prefer the mass to be said in Latin rather than in vernacular languages.
        2. When the Episcopal Church modernized the prayer book that dates back to the 16th century, there were great outcries.
      3. Some people pray with their hands extended, imitating the way early Christians prayed and rejecting the “new” gesture of prayer with palms held together that became widespread in the 13th century.
    2. In the area of theology and doctrine also, there are people who believe that the answers of the past are sufficient for the present.
      1. Later in this series, we will discuss such ideas as religionless Christianity and the concept of a Christian’s call to oppose sinful social and political structures.
      2. When john A.T. Robinson, an Anglican bishop, published a book called Honest to God in 1963, calling for a revolution in Christian thought, he faced ggfreat opposition from both clergy and laity.
  2. Until now, we have not examined any Christians from the Orthodox tradition, which split from the Roman Church in 1054.
    1. In general, Westerners are ignorant of the Orthodox world, although they may be acquainted with the thought of the Greek and Latin fathers of the church.
    2. For most Western Christians, Protestant and Catholic, the Orthodox tradition seems quite foreign and even bizarre.
      1. The use of icons, for example, is quite different than Western uses of art in churches, although more so for Protestants than Catholics.
      2. We may picture Orthodox priests and monks with long beards and heavy, black robes.
    3. The “otherness” of the Orthodox tradition was dramatized by the fact that most practitioners of Orthodoxy were closed off from Western Europe and the United States for more than 40 years by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.
  3. The monks of Athos are Orthodox and quite traditional, although not completely impervious to change.
    1. In about 962, a major monastery was established on Athos, a peninsula that juts into the northern Aegean Sea.
    2. Other monasteries, including for a brief period a Latin monastery, were soon established there.
    3. The so-called Holy Mountain established a set of regulations that all the monasteries were to live by and a legislative council.
    4. The monasteries received a great deal of patronage from the emperors and powerful families of the Byzantine Empire.
    5. In the later Middle Ages, the monasteries sought protection from the Muslims who had come to rule in Greece, more or less ensuring their survival after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
    6. Although the monasteries are all Orthodox, it is important to note that Orthodoxy is different than Catholicism.  Instead of a “central government” of the church, the Orthodox have a head whom they all accept, the patriarch of Constantinople, but there are several essentially independent churches.
      1. These churches tend to be national in character, for example, Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, or Syrian.
      2. There are monasteries on Mount Athos from many of these “national” churches.
    7. Although there have been periods of flourishing and decline, the major monasteries and many hermits have been present on Mount Athos for more than 1,000 years.
  4. Visits to Mount Athos require multiple permissions from both the Orthodox Church and the government of Greece, which protects Mount Athos in its constitution.  In the Professor’s two trips, he had an opportunity to see up close the ancient forms of Eastern monasticism lived out in the modern world.
    1. Visitors immediately recognize that they have entered a different world when they discover the monks still using the Julian calendar and dividing the day into 2 hours of day and night.
    2. Women are not permitted on the Holy Mountain, and even all domesticated animals used there are male,
    3. There is a road from the port to the administrative center of the Holy Mountain, but there are no roads, only paths, between monasteries.
    4. When the Professor was last there, only one monastery had electricity and a telephone.
    5. He was once denied shelter in a monastery late in the day solely because he was not Orthodox.
    6. Even the most modern decorations are in a traditional style.
    7. Although some monks live in large monasteries, others live in groups of small houses of two or three monks, while still others live as hermits.

i. There is no equivalent in the East to the Rule of St. Benedict.

ii. There is a greater variety of lifestyles – or, as we might better say, monastic vocations – in the East than in the West.

  1. John Wesley came into contact with a group called the Moravian Brethren, some of whom lived in London. 

                        a).  The Moravians had been much inspired by the Pietist movement in Germany.

b).  John Wesley’s self-described conversion experience occurred when he heard                one of the Brethren read from Martin Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.

c). Wesley was quick to grasp the implications of Luther’s key concept of justification by faith.

d).   He traveled to Germany to delve more deeply into the teachings of the Brethren.

e).   Ultimately, Wesley had a falling out with the Brethren.

  1. At about the same time, Charles Wesley had a parallel experience with a member of the Moravian Brethren during an illness.

a).   He had held a somewhat legalistic idea of how to obtain salvation.

b).   He, too, became convinced that justification came through faith alone.

  1. The most important and influential idea to come from the Athonite monks is that of hesychasm, a form of mystical prayer.
    1. Although its origins predate the monastic communities, we associate hesychasm primarily with monks.
    2. Hesychasm was the quest for spiritual ascent to God.
      1. One of the most common hesychast practices is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
      2. Some hesychasts also use physical positions and even rhythmic breathing as part of the spiritual exercises.
      3. This form of prayer is largely a matter of stripping away or leaving behind what the senses record in order to bask in the uncreated light of God.
      4. The most widely used texts for those who practice hesychasm are found in a collection called Philokalia, written beginning in the 4th century.
      5. In the 14th century, a Western-trained abbot in Constantinople condemned hesychasm.
        1. He objected to certain theological presuppositions of hesychasm.
        2. Being trained in Scholastic thought, he believed that knowledge of God cane from more intellectual activity.
        3. The great defender of hesychasm was the 14th century monk of Mount Athos, St. Gregory Palamas.
          1. Two councils held in Constantinople ultimately gave official sanction to hesychasm, which remains an important element of the Orthodox faith today.
          2. This way of prayer is best known today in the West through The Way of the Pilgrim, the writing of an anonymous 19th century Russian monk.

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise.

Questions to consider:

      1.   Why would anyone today leave the world in such a radical way in order to seek God as a            monk on Mount Athos?       

       2.   Can people not living the monastic life benefit from the kinds of prayer developed and written about by the monks of Mount Athos?

Next Week’s Lesson:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe


Link to 60 Minutes segment: