Orthodox Christian Monks and Mount Athos

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Mount Athos monk in the 1850s

Orthodox Christian church places a heavy emphasis on monasticism. The strict life of a monk or nun is seen as an important expression of faith. Orthodox monks and nuns are individuals who have chosen a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience and have made the decision to dedicate themselves entirely to prayer and the service of the Church. There are no orders of monks in the Orthodox church but rather different communities specialized in different kinds of work.

Most Orthodox monks and nuns are laymen and laywomen. Only a few are ordained priests or deacons. Monasteries and convents also serve as places that any member of the community can go to to retreat from everyday life and/or receive some kind of training or spiritual help. Worship in the Orthodox church has been molded by Orthodox monks, particularly those of Mount Athos. The Matins or Vespers that are chanted today are not that different than those chanted by monks centuries ago.

Orthodox monks are often tall, stern and imposing-looking men with long beards and long hair. They dress in black robes with heavy silver crosses that hang from chains that reach their stomach. Orthodox church nuns resemble veiled Islamic women more than they do Catholic nuns.

According to the BBC: “Monasticism is a central part of the Orthodox faith. Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece is described as the centre of Orthodox monasticism. It is the only place in Greece completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. For this reason, it is called the Holy Mountain. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Most monasteries are coenobitic: living a communal life. The peninsula is divided into twenty self-governed territories. Each territory consists of a major monastery and some other monastic establishments that surround it (cloisters, cells, cottages, seats, hermitages). For monk and nun alike, their spiritual life should follow the same way of living that all Christians try to achieve by following God's commandants. While not being against marriage, it is generally accepted that celibacy in the Church allows for a closer understanding of the Christian life away from worldly things. |::|

Websites and Resources Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Orthodox Christian bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ;

Origins of Christian Celibacy

Kim Haines-Eitzen wrote: One of the surprising and distinctive features of early Christianity is the praise of celibacy — the practice of abstaining from all sexual relations — as an exemplary way to demonstrate one’s faith. Given Christianity’s origins within first-century Palestinian Judaism, it was hardly a given that the new religion would develop a high regard for celibacy. Judaism valued family life, and many ritual observances were centered on the family. But the early Christian Gospels, which told the story of the life of Jesus in the early first century A.D., never mentioned a possible wife. And Paul, a Jewish convert whose letters are the earliest books contained in the New Testament, implies that he himself was unmarried when he writes to the earliest Christian communities. [Source: Kim Haines-Eitzen, Professor of Early Christianity, Cornell University, The Conversation, March 23, 2017]

The stories of these founder figures, however, do not explain the course of Christian teaching about asceticism — a wide range of practices of self-discipline that include fasting, giving up personal possessions, solitude and eventually priestly celibacy. By the third and fourth centuries A.D., Christian writers had begun elevating the practice of celibacy and asceticism. They did so by pointing to both Jesus and Paul as models of the ascetic life as well as by carefully interpreting scripture in support of the practice of celibacy.

There were also influences from Greco-Roman philosophy. Christianity developed in a complex world of Greco-Roman religious diversity, including Judaism as well as a variety of Greco-Roman religious movements. From Judaism it inherited monotheistic ideas, codes of ethical conduct, ritual practices like fasting, and a high regard for scriptural authority. From Greco-Roman philosophies, Christian writers adopted ideals of self-control (“enkrateia,” in Greek) and withdrawal (“anachoresis,” a term that came to be applied to Christian hermits). Discipline and self-control meant control over one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors as well as, in some cases, careful attention to what one ate and drank, how attached one was to possessions and the control of one’s sexual desire.

Over the course of several centuries, Christian writers — church leaders in many cases — took the moral and scriptural ideals from Judaism and coupled them with Greco-Roman philosophical ideals of self-control to argue for the virtue of celibacy. Simultaneously, and also from a very early stage, Christians viewed themselves as a persecuted minority. This meant that one way Christians could prove their faith was by being resolute during these times of persecution. This victimization could take the form of individuals being called before a judge and possibly executed, or it could be directed against communities as a whole through mocking and slander. In either case, from the beginning Christians developed a view of themselves as a suffering and persecuted minority.

This attitude naturally changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century and issued an Edict of Toleration for all religions. Christians now had to reevaluate their self-identity. And they appear to have increasingly channeled their views about suffering, asceticism and celibacy into the formation of monasteries and convents, where groups of men and women could live lives of celibacy, prayer and manual labor.

Priestly Celibacy

Kim Haines-Eitzen wrote: Although Christian “clergy,” such as bishops and deacons, begin to appear around the year A.D. 100 in early Christian communities, priests emerge as Christian leaders only much later. Priests came to be the ordained clergy tasked with officiating rituals like the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, also known as Communion. And what about their celibacy? Even here, evidence is both unclear and late: there were reports that some bishops at the Council of Nicea, called by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325 to address the problem of heresies, argued for a consistent practice of priestly celibacy. This, however, was voted down at the conclusion of the council. The debate resurfaced a couple of hundred years later, but still without uniform agreement. [Source: Kim Haines-Eitzen, Professor of Early Christianity, Cornell University, The Conversation, March 23, 2017]

Over time, priestly celibacy became a serious point of disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches and contributed to the Great Schism between the two in A.D. 1054. Pope Gregory VII attempted to mandate priestly celibacy, but the practice was contested widely by Christians in the Orthodox Eastern Mediterranean world. Five centuries later, the issue was once again at the forefront of debate when it became a significant factor in the Protestant split from Catholicism during the Reformation.

Given this widespread disagreement about the requirement for priests to be celibate, it is not surprising to find that there was widespread diversity on instituting the practice, even within Roman Catholicism. There have always been exceptions to the celibate rule within Roman Catholicism as, for example, among married priests from other denominations of Christianity who convert to Catholicism.

Orthodox Christian Monastery Life

Most Greek Orthodox monasteries follow the Byzantine system of time that begins the day at sunset. The day starts with four hours of solitary prayer which is followed by four hours of communal prayer. The monks then have a meal which usually consists of tea and bread after which they sleep for a while. Even when the monks are performing their daytime tasks they are usually chanting prayers of repentance. The strictest monasteries allow monks no personal property or free time.

Most Orthodox Christian monasteries don't allow women to set foor ub them. Some Greek Orthodox monks opt to live in caves and spartan huts instead of monasteries. It is not unusual for monks to live 50 years without seeing anyone.

Greek Orthodox monastery worship is highly ritualized. Monks bow, prostrate themselves and go to different places in the church to kiss icons in a prescribed order. They out and snuff out candles, swing smoking censers and read and sing pages from the bible in a call and response fashion, sometimes moaning their sacred prayers.

The Greek Orthodox monks are sometimes called the Marines of the Christianity. One slip up and they let you know it. Orthodox ceremonies are long and every action carefully prescribed. Kiss the icons in the wrong order. "Hhhisssssss." Shift you position and clasp your hands the wrong way. Another correcting hiss from a carefully monitoring monk.

Mount Athos

Mount Athos monastery

Mount Athos (100 miles southeast of Thessaloniki, Greece) is considered the spiritual center of the eastern Orthodox religion. Described as "the only Byzantine monument in the world," it is a 223-square-mile semi-autonomous state encompassing a sprawling complex of 20 sovereign Orthodox monasteries, smaller dependencies called sketes with hundred of smaller houses and a few dozen hermit caves reached by dizzying pathways and chain ladders pegged into cliff faces. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

Named after a mythological giant, who threw a massive stone of Poseidon, Mount Athos is located on Holy Mountain (Agion Oros), which in turn lies at the easternmost of three promontories at end of the Chaulkidiki Peninsula. A series of rugged peaks that jut out 35 miles into the Aegean Sea, Holy Mountain beings at the port city of Ourananoupolis (City of Heaven) and comprises many peaks, valleys and ravines before climaxing at Mount Athos itself, a limestone and marble mountain that drops dramatically from its summit into the sea.

The most spectacularly placed monetary is Simonopetra which towers 800 feet above the sea. The oldest buildings are fortress-like structures with arsenals and defensive towers. They were built to fend off attacks by pirates, Crusaders, Saracens, and Ottoman Turks. The largest monastery is Great Lavra. Vatoped once housed 800 monks but now only has around 80 men living there.

Other important monasteries include Iviron, Docheiariou, Xenophontos and Saint Panteleimon, each with imposing bastions built near the shore. The only Russian Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos, Panteleiom once housed 1,000 monks. In the 1990s there were only 30 fulltime monks. Bulgarians have their own monastery: Zographou. The Serbs have their own as well: Chelandari.

Mount Athos Treasures

icon from Iveron monastery

The monasteries at Mount Athos are home to the richest concentration of Byzantine material in the world and some of the rarest and most valuable Christian artworks and relics. Frescoes cover 300,000 square feet of wall space and mosaics cover altars and interior walls. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

The monasteries are a living museum of Byzantine culture. In the library, which is used everyday, are 15,000 manuscripts, many of which predate the middle ages. On the walls of rooms used everyday are 12th century frescoes and mosaics.

Many of the objects were brought to Mount Athos by monks fleeing Byzantine enclaves conquered by Muslims and Europeans. Relics include fragments of what are believed to be the True Cross, parts of Christ's crown of thorns and a cloth dropped by the Virgin Mary at Cavalry.

Other treasures include 20,000 icons (many with gold backgrounds), scrolls, wood carvings, holy medallions, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, intricately-carved pendants, candlesticks, psalters, jeweled votives, silver chalices, crosses, embroideries, gold vestments. Many of the items are uncataloged and have never been seen by anyone but the monks at Mount Athos.

In 1997, treasures from Mount Athos, including ordinary objects like a travelers trunk full of medicine, inkstands, and an oak barrel capable of holing more than 11 gallons of wine, were displayed at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Salonika. More than a half million people went the exhibit, which was so popular it was extended.

Monks at Mount Athos

Mount Athos is the only existing monastic state in Europe. It is an all-male theocracy ruled by an assembly of monks who work with a civil governor who answers to the Greek foreign ministry. Two flags fly at Mount Athos: the Greek flag and a yellow banner imprinted with the two-headed Byzantine eagle. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

About 2000 or so monks live on Mount Athos more or less the same way their brethren did 1,000 years ago when the first monasteries were founded. There are fewer monks than there once was. At its peak, Mount Athos was home to 40,000 monks and through much of the 19th century 20,000 monks lived there. By 1903, 7,322 monks lived there. By 1970, the number had dropped to 1,145, many of them old men. In the 1980s and 90s there was renewed interest and many new monks were recruited, many from eastern Europe.

Athos monks

Mount Athos is viewed as a "heaven on earth" that is not part of the ordinary world. Monks are given a new name and discouraged from talking about their past. One monk told Smithsonian magazine, "On Mount Athos, men are not born; here they die. They pray and die, but the preparation for death, like death itself, is full of life."

Monks at Mount Athos still follow the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian one, and their day begins at sunset. The monks spend much of their day in communal prayer and private meditation. Some of them even pray before neatly arranged rows of skulls of their departed brethren.

The monasteries tightly control every aspect of their members lives. The monks, who are part of all-male communities described as cenobotic, usually wake up around 3:00am and chant and pray in front of candles until breakfast, which is before dawn. After breakfast there is more praying and performing duties and chores such as fishing, collecting firewood, tending gardens, cooking, restoring paintings and working at the library. Meals usually consist of braised vegetables, unleavened bread, tomatoes, fruit, feta cheese, black olives, beans, spring water and a few sips of red wine.

Describing the monks in prayer, Nicholas Basbanes wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Bearded men in black robes moved deliberately about their rituals, chanting hymns from sacred texts, kissing icons, venerating cherished relics, burning incense, crossing themselves repeatedly, all while praying for the salvation of humanity and the safe deliverance of their souls."

The rules and lifestyle are less strict than they once were. Monks are allowed to keep personal possessions and use modern tools like chainsaws. The monasteries have electricity, running water and personal computers. Land Rovers and Mercedes SUV are used instead of mules to haul materials. To pay for all this the monks sell lumber companies the right to cut timber on Mount Athos land. Laborers from Albania and Eastern Europe have been hired to help in the fields.

Mount Athos, Women and Visitors

No women are allowed on Mount Athos. Cruise boats with women can't even pass within 500 meters of the cliffs where the monasteries stand. Even female animals are forbidden (although exceptions have been for cats because they control the snake and rodent population). There have been no women on Mt. Athos since 1045 when they were barred by Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus IX , who banned any "woman, child, eunuch or smooth face" from the Mount Athos headland. and decreed that only woman allowed on Mount Athos was the Virgin Mary. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

The Virgin Mary purportedly landed at the site of the Iviron Monastery when she was on her way to visit Lazarus on Cyprus and her boat was blown off course. Monks are concerned that by accepting E.U. funds to restore their monastery they may be opening themselves up to gender laws that might require them to open up to women.

Mount Athos is a self governing republic and admission is tightly controlled. The monks are busy and generally they are not fond of showing tourists and journalists around. Pilgrims however are welcome and about 35,000 of people under that title enter every year. Those wishing to enter the monasteries must apply for one the 110 "resident permits," which are issued each day. The permit entitles the pilgrim to a welcoming offering of cold water, a cube of sweet confection and a sip of an ouzo-like drink as well as two meals a day and a bed with clean sheets.

To get a permit you need to procure a letter of recommendation from the embassy of your country in Athens or a consulate in Thessaloniki then get a permit from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches, Academias 3, Athens; or the Ministry of Northern Greece, Platia Diikitirou, Thessalononiki. You'll need to take care of this way in advance because only a limited number of people are allowed into the monetary each day.

Mount Athos is connected to the Greek mainland by a narrow isthmus. But no roads traverse the isthmus and the only way to get the monasteries is by boat and by foot. Tour boats operate out of Ouranoupoli. To reach the monasteries themselves you have to travel by boat from Ouranoupoli for 1½ hours to the port of Daphni where you catch a bus to Kayes, the capital of the republic.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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