Letter from Mount Athos

Two-and-a-half years ago, ERT TV journalist Pandelis Savidis and I were deported (by Sea Patrol boat No 388) from Mount Athos because we did not possess a valid visiting permit, a document which authorities have since stopped issuing, for the Esphigmenou Monastery. We were there to cover the «Esphigmenou Monastery case,» or the case of the ultra-Orthodox Athos monks who accused the Sacred Community of «collaborating with the enemy» – or the pope. The Esphigmenou monks, whose beliefs lean innately toward Armageddon, broke with the mainstream Orthodox Church in 1964, when Patriarch Athenagoras met with Pope Paul VI in Istanbul. Two days ago, the abbots of the other 19 Mount Athos monasteries contemplated the issue. This time, the most likely course of action is to establish another monastic community, declare it the legal proprietor of the monastery and settle it elsewhere temporarily. 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 Istanbul. The monks refuse to acknowledge the «renegade and apostate» patriarch’s authority. The Orthodox zealot monks, who are unread and incurious about the world beyond, regard the pope as evil personified and the 1964 meeting between pope and patriarch an act of treachery. They have since draped a banner emblazoned with «Orthodoxy or Death» from their medieval walls. In December 2002 the abbots of the other Mount Athos monasteries met at Karyes, the community’s administrative center, and decided to ask the Esphigmenou monks to leave the monastery. They even threatened them with eviction orders. The Patriarchate in Istanbul also firmly insisted 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 Mount Athos. Meanwhile, the monastery’s abbot, Methodius, kept insisting 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.» «Aren’t you worried?» I had asked Archimandrite Methodius then. With the calm expression of someone who has sent out a clear message, he countered that apart from his «spiritual weapons» the community would also appeal against the eviction order to the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court. Although it was practically impossible to secure a visiting permit, I found a way to spend some time 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 was pillaged in the past by pirates. The monastery’s oldest building is the refectory with its 16th to 17th century frescoes depicting biblical terror and what awaits us all in hell, so everyone will know what is 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. Although times seem critical, life goes on as usual. Monks, who are surely no softies and are convinced of the ultimate showdown between Christ and Antichrist, have been living here for years and surviving quite well. They don’t have to voice their ideology of freeing themselves from worldly things such as possessions, gourmet food and private housing. It is quite clear what they believe in: The purer you are, the closer you come to God. Consider this statement, which gives credit to all the prophesies in the Good Book (the Old Testament) and that even Better Book (the New Testament): «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 – or to ‘administrative measures’ as they also like to call them.» Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, last March rejected the appeal by Esphigmenou’s abbot, Methodius, to nullify the eviction order by the Patriarchate. Like Pontius Pilate, the court claimed it had no jurisdiction over the matter, adding pointedly that the Patriarchate has absolute authority over the community. This time the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Mount Athos monastic community have opted for stealth rather than force in their efforts to evict the monks from the Esphigmenou Monastery. However, those ultra-Orthodox monks do not stand alone. Many Orthodox believers look down on «that modernist wealthy breed of Athonites, who serve as lackeys of the Patriarchate, and who speak only in support of the ecumenical spirit of Constantinople.» The Esphigmenou monks 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.» “Don’t you see? The next step will be the request to open Mount Athos to women,» said Father Efraim, deploringly. An edict by the Emperor Constantine issued in 1060 AD continues to this date to forbid women from entering the peninsula, including all female animals. Only cats are exempt, so they can control the rat population. Only men can visit the Holy Mountain and only if they have a visiting permit, which is just a sheet of paper pressed with the ornamental seal of the holy community. Two years ago, a Dutch deputy in the European Parliament submitted a resolution requesting Athos to end their ban on women. «Who knows?» joked Alekos Alavanos, then a Greek member of the European Parliament and now the leader of the Synaspismos left coalition party. «In the event of the election of a Pope Joan, we could eventually start discussing that matter as well.» «Pope Joan» was depicted in the eponymous book by Greek writer Emmanuel Roidis, who described in his 19th century novel the story of a woman disguised as a man who ruled the papal throne for two years.