Everyday life at Esphigmenou

At the gate of the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou, a sign – «by decision of the venerable assembly» – warns that «entry is forbidden to long-haired men and anyone improperly dressed.» A banner on the tower, bearing the words «Orthodoxy or Death,» indicates the attitude of the monastery’s inmates, in their 30-year dispute with the Patriarchate and the Holy Community of Mount Athos. To the right hangs a Greek flag and to the left, a black flag with the same slogan. At the entrance, the visitor is greeted by icons of Joshua, son of Nave, from the Old Testament; along the corridors are portraits of Theodoros Kolokotronis, Odysseas Androutsou, Pavlos Melas, Captain Agras and other heroes of the Greek independence struggle. «Apart from being Orthodox Christians, we are also Greek patriots,» Abbot Methodios, the monastery’s leader, told Kathimerini. A 60-year-old who has spent 32 years at Esphigmenou – for the duration of the dispute with the Phanar – he seems to be in complete internal and external control of the monastery. We met in his combined office and bedroom on the first floor, after being accredited by a young monk, probably a novice, who asked as he led us to the leader, «What do people say about us?» Methodios denied being a fanatic, portraying himself simply as unyielding on questions of faith and in particular in the dispute with the ecumenical patriarch and the Community of Mount Athos. Asked for his opinion of the ecumenical patriarch, Methodios said, «He has taken the wrong path; he preaches and pursues heresy; and he’ll have to get back on the right path if we are to mention him in our prayers.» The monks object to the fact that the Patriarchate adopted the Gregorian calendar, and second, that it promotes dialogue with the Vatican. When Patriarch Athinagoras prayed together with Pope Paul VI in Istanbul in 1964, the Old Calendrists saw it an act of betrayal. Since then, the monks at Esphigmenou no longer remember the patriarch in their prayers as they are obliged by the Constitution of Mount Athos to do. In 1972, they withdrew from the Holy Community, the highest administrative body on Mount Athos. They view the Holy Community and the other 19 monasteries as fellow-travelers of the patriarch on the «wrong path» and do not want to celebrate religious services or take communion with them. Father Methodios finds it incomprehensible that what he terms a spiritual disagreement should lead to eviction from Mount Athos. But asked if they would allow a monk who wished to remember the patriarch in his prayers to become an inmate of the monastery, the answer was a categorical «No.» The ecumenical patriarch’s decision to excommunicate the monks of Esphigmenou Monastery as schismatic, and the Mount Athos Community’s decision to serve them an eviction order have exacerbated a dispute dating back 30 years. «They’ll have to carry us out of here,» Methodios kept telling us. The monastery does not seem to be under siege, as reported by the monks and their supporters outside Athos when tension hit a peak. Nor is there any sign of preparations for dramatic resistance, as some private television channels had broadcast. «We don’t have barrels of gunpowder or ammunition. Our weapons are our prayer beads. We’ll defend ourselves with them if we they remove us violently,» said Methodios, but added, «We don’t know how the fathers will react if they see police officers dragging the oldest monks out of the monastery.» Four or five police officers are still staying at the police guard post in neighboring Helandiou Monastery, keeping the monks of Esphigmenou under discreet surveillance. We saw few monks as most of them were at work on the monastery’s estate. The few we managed to approach refused to talk about what was going on, saying they did not have the abbot’s permission to do so. The inmates of the monastery have a persecution complex. Methodios told us about «a plan by satanic forces against the dissenters of Mount Athos,» but avoided answering when asked if those forces included the ecumenical patriarch and the Holy Community. By night, the monks keep watch in shifts so as to mobilize promptly if there is any attempt to remove them forcibly, and they remain in constant contact with their supporters outside. Esphigmenou even has an Internet website, started up by some Greek Americans and regularly updated with photographs and news from the monastery. Throughout our talk, young monks go in and out of the office, leaving money on the table and whispering in the leader’s ear. «It’s money sent to us by ordinary people; that’s how we keep the monastery running,» he said. For Old Calendrists around the world, Esphigmenou is the beacon of unadulterated Orthodox Christian faith, though for the Athos Community the Esphigmenou monks are the «Taleban of Mount Athos.» Every year the monastery offers hospitality to thousands of pilgrims, who contribute 350,000 euros to the monastery’s annual income of 440,000 euros, with another 88,000 euros coming from rents on properties. «Since 1972, we have had no subsidies from the State nor do we get any wages from the Community.» They have also refused funds from the European Union for fear that could open the door to Catholicism and the abolition of the ban on female visitors. About 100 monks, most of them young, work long hours on the monastery’s farm, which provides them with oil, wine, fruit and vegetables for their well-known hospitality. Methodios guided us around the monastery, showing us repairs done to the different wings of the monastery, saying: «All this was in a dire state; we fixed it with our own hands. That’s why they envy us.» On our departure, he asks us not to be unjust to the monks of Esphigmenou, but to write what we saw and what we heard. And that is what we have tried to do.

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