Letter from the Monastery of Esphigmenou

Commenting on the proposals made on the occasion of a resolution submitted by a Dutch Euro-deputy requesting the lifting of the special status of the monastic community in Mount Athos, according to which women are not allowed to visit its grounds, Greek Euro-deputy Alecos Alavanos (Synaspismos Left Coalition) said in jest, «Well, in the event of some Pope Joan election, we could eventually start discussing that matter as well.» Mr Alavanos was referring to a legend that, for 1,200 years, has refused to die. Depicted in Emmanuel Roidis’s 19th century Greek novel, «Pope Joan,» a woman disguised as a man sat for two years on the papal throne. Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain to the Orthodox, whose peak rises 2,033 meters above sea level, is a self-governing Orthodox monastic republic on the Athos peninsula in northern Greece more than 1,200 years old. Here, monasticism still carries on with its 1,000-year-old traditions. An edict by the Emperor Constantine, issued in AD 1060, continues to this date to forbid all females from entering the peninsula – including all female animals. Cats are exempt, in order to control the rat population. Understandably, it is possible to visit the Holy Mountain only if one is male, only for a short period of time so as not to overly burden the hospitality of the monks, and only if one is in possession of a visiting permit or diamonitirio, an ordinary sheet of paper, with the ornamental seal of the holy community upon it. There was no way of getting a diamonitirio before I «crossed the border» last Saturday. No such official documents are issued anymore if one wants to visit the rebel community of zealot monks, excommunicated for heresy and told to leave their Mount Athos premises by the end of January. Yet God provides for the pious – and for journalists as well – to get to the 1,000-year-old Esphigmenou Monastery. There has been a 30-year war between the monks of the Esphigmenou Monastery – which supports the Old Calendarist movement – and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The monks refuse to acknowledge the «renegade and apostate» patriarch’s authority. The split dates back to 1964 when Patriarch Athinagoras met Pope Paul VI in Istanbul. For the Orthodox zealot monks, who regard the pope as evil personified, that was an act of treachery. They have since draped a banner reading «Orthodoxy or Death» from their medieval walls. The monastery’s abbot, Methodius, insists that Esphigmenou’s dispute with the patriarch – whom the monks refuse to mention in their prayers – was «of a spiritual nature,» and should be addressed «with spiritual weapons.» «It is also unheard of that the current Patriarch Vartholomaios still addresses the representatives of the Vatican exactly as one would address Orthodox visitors to the Throne of Constantinople,» a highly irritated monk – who, like his brothers, obstinately refuses to mention Patriarch Vartholomaios in his prayers – told me. «Vartholomaios even mentioned that visits between the sister churches of Rome and Constantinople, established by the renowned and inspired leaders Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athinagoras have become an institution and a bond in the lives of our churches,» the monk added. Last Thursday, the abbot, Archimandrite Methodius, bluntly told a press conference in Thessaloniki that the community would appeal against the eviction order to the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court. «Aren’t you worried?» he was asked. With the calm expression of someone who has sent out a clear message, he countered: «Come here and you’ll see for yourself.» I spent the weekend at the monastery. Inhabited by some 70 highly energetic monks who strictly adhere to the Athos monastic tradition, Esphigmenou Monastery is built by the sea, and consequently has been pillaged by pirates several times. The monastery’s oldest building is the refectory with its 16th to 17th century frescoes – biblical terror for a pre-cinema age, and what awaits in hell so that even illiterates would know what was at stake in daily life. Apart from the church and the refectory, the monastery possesses an excellent collection of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, among which the most remarkable is the mosaic icon of Christ. Calm reigned. Life went on as usual. Monks – who are surely no softies – have been living here for years and surviving quite well. They don’t have to voice their ideology of freeing themselves from worldly things – possessions, rich food, private housing. It is clear what they believe: The purer you are, the closer you come to God. «In order to block the way of those who have concentrated upon the One Divine Truth, the world powers of iniquity with their organizations and sub-organizations resort to violence – to ‘administrative measures’ as they like to call them,» they say. They stand alone. They look down on «that modernist wealthy breed of Athonites, who serve as lackeys of the Patriarchate, and who have begun to speak in support of the ecumenical spirit of Constantinople.» They refer to «usurpers of the true spiritual life of Athos» and they allude to «the spiritual charlatans who court heterodox visitors to the Holy Mountain.» The Patriarchate firmly insists that the «unrepentant schismatics should leave Athos without further ado,» pointing out to the Greek government that the Greek Constitution bans schismatics from dwelling on Mt Athos. «Where can they go?» I asked a monk from a different monastery. He did not show any compassion for his brothers in distress. «Well, they could go to Alaska or to New Mexico or even to Arizona.» He was not joking, as I believed at first. There indeed are many Orthodox monasteries in America. Just to name one, the Monastery of St Anthony in Florence, Arizona, led by Father Paisios, was founded by Archimandrite Ephraim of Filotheou Monastery on Mt Athos, in July 1995.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.