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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

BENEDICTUS MOMENTS

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

MOUNT ATHOS AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

Benedictine Hagiorites
August 20, 2009 by Irenaeus

The Benedictine Monastery of St Mary on Mount Athos

Dom Leo Bonsall
monk of Belmont

Eastern Churches Review 2:3 (1969), pp. 262-7 (footnotes omitted)

BENEDICTINE contacts with the Church of the East have been many and varied, but the foundation of the abbey of St Mary on Mount Athos and its continuing existence during a period when official relations between Rome and Constantinople were at a very low ebb is perhaps the outstanding example of monastic co-operation transcending the estrangement of East and West. The full history of the monastery has never been written, for much of it is shrouded in mystery. There are very few documents and the dating of some of these is difficult; all that visibly remains of the buildings is a tower and a few walls on the eastern side of the Athonite peninsula. It is hardly surprising that one of the first Benedictine foundations in the East should have been made by monks from the maritime city republic of Amalfi: Amalfitan merchant ships were trading throughout the area, and monks from that city continued their founding work with the monastery of St Mary the Latin in Jerusalem, and another monastery in Constantinople itself.


The first mention of the followers of St Benedict coming to the Holy Mountain is contained in the lives of the Georgian saints John and Euthymius who founded, round aboout 980, the lavra of Iviron (that is, Iberon, the monastery of the Iberians or Georgians). The following account is given in a Greek akolouthia from Athos:

Before the foundation of the lavra of Iviron, the monk Beneventus, the brother of an Italian prince, arrived on Athos with six of his disciples, wanting to live there. He became an intimate friend of John and his son Euthymius and all three decided to leave the lavra of Saint Athanasius, where they lived, and found an independent lavra. The [Amalfitans] returned home to obtain the things needed for the construction of a new monastery. Being held up, however, on their journey, they found when they returned that the lavra of Iviron had been established and was being governed by Euthymius, to the displeasure of his father, John. Then Beneventus bought a piece of land and built a new monastery which had many monks, the greater part coming from Amalfi; in fact the monastery took the name of the Amalfitans, and was consecrated to the memory of the Most Holy Mother of God.

The official life of the two Georgian saints was originally written by another monk of Iviron, George the Hagiorite, about 1045, or thirty years after the death of Euthymius. The Bollandist Paul Peeters, SJ, published in 1922 a definitive Latin translation of this work, in which there is a passage telling how the founders of Iviron reacted to the arrival of the Latin monks:

Further, while Father John was alive, a certain monk arrived from the land of the Romans, a man famous for his virtue, to whose worth the lands of both the Romans and the Greeks bore witness, the brother of the duke of Benevento, of a most noble family. This man arrived with six disciples on this Holy Mountain in order to pray. When our fathers saw that he was outstanding in the gifts of grace they received him as a friend and one of themselves. They treated him with the greatest kindness and invited him to make his home among them, saying ‘Both you and we are alike pilgrims’. They persuaded him with great difficulty, for he desired to live in a separate monastery . . . . And so he built a pleasant monastery in which he gathered many brothers. With the help of our fathers the whole work was completed . . . and to this day there exists on the Holy Mountain this monastery of the Romans, who live a regular and edifying life [probe ac rite] according to the Rule of Holy Benedict whose life is described in the Book of Dialogues.

One of the great figures on Athos at this period was St Athanasius: monks flocked to hear and speak with him from all over the world and the Benedictine founders were no exception. Athanasius’ biographer tells how the western monks brought the saint a jar of caviar, which, of course, the saint did not eat, though he accepted it so as not to offend them. It is very interesting to note the friendship of the Benedictines with St Athanasius, for one finds in the rules of his followers many signs of the influence of the Rule of St Benedict.

Modern commentators are unanimous that the account of the arrival of the western monks given by George the Hagiorite is to be preferred to the first one cited above. Peeters holds that it is to be regarded as a document ‘of great importance not only for the religious history of Athos, but also for the political and religious history of the period.’ So the arrival of the Latin monks has to be placed not only during the lifetime of St John but also during that of St Athanasius. St John and St Euthymius arrived on Athos about the year 970 and began building Iviron about 980, so the foundation of St Mary’s took place some time between 980 and 1000. A. Pertusi narrows this down further to 985-90, and quotes a document of the Great Lavra dated 984, signed by two of the Latin monks, John and Arsenius.

The monastery of Iviron was famous for its learning, and the extant works of the Latin monks lead us to believe that they were of comparable intellectual standing. This could explain the continuing friendship between the two monasteries. As examples of literary activity in the Amalfitan monastery, we have Latin versions of several hagiographical works, certainly including the ‘Account of the miracle of St Michael in Chonae’ translated by one Leo, who calls himself a monk of the Latin monastery on Athos; other similar manuscripts may well be from the same source, and it has been suggested that the transmission to the West of the legend of Barlaam and Joasaph links Iveron and the Amalfitan monastery.

The Benedictine historians of the 11th century do not mention the Amalfitan foundation: in fact, they rather confuse matters. The chronicler of Monte Cassino, Leo of Ostia, tells of the election of Manso, twenty-eighth abbot of Monte Cassino, in 986: ‘He became abbot through the influence of the princes of his family and not through the vote of the monks.’ He goes on to tell bow after Manso had taken up his office several of the best monks decided that they could not live under him and left the monastery; among them was one Joannes Beneventanus who went to the East, to Jerusalem, Sinai, and then to Mount Athos. Leo is quoted in the Dialogues of Pope Victor III:

. . . He went to Jerusalem, and then spent six years on Mount Sinai in the service of God. Then he went to Greece, where he remained some time on the mountain which is called the Holy Mountain (in monte qui Hagionoros dicitur).

However, Leo says that John was a hermit on Athos, and far from founding and ruling a monastery on his own, it seems that John was under an abbot on the Holy Mountain and that it was due to this man’s advice that he returned to Monte Cassino:

Not long afterwards the most holy Father Benedict appeared in a vision to that same John, giving him the pastoral staff which he was holding in his hand, and advising him to return as quickly as possible to Monte Cassino. At the first light of dawn he explained religiously to the abbot of the monastery the vision which he had seen. The abbot, being a man of foresight and discretion, seeing the will of God in this vision, looked at him and said: ‘Brother John, return with all speed to your monastery, lest you seem disobedient to the great father who has appeared to you in a vision. It seems to me that almighty God has decided to place you over his flock, and has chosen you, in his mercy, to watch over his sheep.’ In obedience, therefore, to this vision and advice he returned across the sea, with Christ as his guide, and returned to his monastery. He was made prior by the most holy John (who was then abbot, but through infirmity was unable to bear such a great burden). Not long afterwards, by the counsel and choice of the brethren, he was appointed abbot by the same venerable father.

So John of Benevento, though certainly on Athos during the period, would seem not to be the founder of St Mary’s.

There was on Athos at the same time a Georgian hermit called Gabriel, from whose life a little more information can be gained about the early Latin monks:

The venerable priest Gabriel had a great spiritual love for the holy old man, the great Leo the Roman, who, each time he came to visit our fathers, used to take a cell next to that of Gabriel and there spend the day.

From the eastern sources, therefore, the founder of the monastery was Leo the Roman, a brother of the duke of Benevento. There is, it must be noted, no other record of the duke of Benevento of the period, Pandulf II, having a brother called Leo who was a monk. The John of Benevento, it would seem, was a monk of Monte Cassino who came to the Holy Mountain at the same period, between 993 and 996-7, for spiritual advice (possibly from the abbot of St Mary’s) and then returned to Monte Cassino to become abbot.

This is the only information available on the founding of the monastery. It used to be thought, for example by Dom Rousseau, that much more information was probably to be found in the archives the Great Lavra. Pertusi, however, assures us that the documents published by himself, P. Lemerle, and A. Guillou are all that the Great Lavra possesses on St Mary’s.

The first documentary evidence we have of St Mary’s is the signature in Latin of John of Amalfi, presumably the successor of Leo, on a document dated 991. Perhaps it was still this same John who signed documents in 1012, 1016, and May 1017. As stated above, it was about 1045 that the Georgian monk George described the western monks as living ‘probe ac rite’ according to the Rule of St Benedict. At the same period a minute of imperial civil service notes and approves the decision of the Grand Council of Mount Athos to allow the monks of St Mary’s to possess a boat, not for any commercial usage but for the needs of the monastery.

In 1081, Benedict, abbot of the imperial monastery of the Amalfitans, signs a document, and the emperor of the period, Alexius I, confirms to the convent of the Amalfitans certain lands which are described in great detail. The words ‘imperial monastery’ should be noted; they indicate a very flourishing period for the Benedictines, as they now have the same title as the Great Lavra, Iviron and Vatopedi, the three most ancient lavras on the Holy Mountain. In 1083 another act of the Athonite Council, about the reconstruction of the monastery of Xenophon, has the signature of the monk Demetrios, abbot of the Amalfitan monastery. It is remarkable that, contemporary with the increasing tension typified by the quarrel between Cerularius and Rome, the Benedictines of Athos were not only living their lives peacefully, but taking a full part in the government of the Holy Mountain and enjoying imperial patronage.

Another collection of acts, of the council dated 1097, bears the signature of Vitus, abbot of the Amalfitan monastery. There is a further reference to the monastery in acts dated 1169, on the acquisition of the monastery of St Pantileimon of Thessalonika by the monastery of Rossikon on Athos. This carries among others the signature in Latin of the abbot of St Mary of the Amalfitans.

Agostino Pertusi published in 1958 three new documents on the Amalfitan monastery, [24] preserved in the Great Lavra of St Athanasius. It is very difficult to date the documents, but after extensive researches Pertusi formed the opinion that they date from about the year 1287. Their authenticity has been confirmed since his first publication. They tell of the donation of the monastery of the Amalfitans to the Great Lavra and the confirmation of that transfer by the patriarch and the emperor. At the time that the donation was made the convent was very poor, the house was in ruins, and the remaining monks had no one capable of taking responsibility for its upkeep. A lot of factors may have contributed to this sad situation: the source of vocations much have been drying up, the republic of Amalfi declined politically after 1137, religious tensions and conflicts between East and West were becoming more and more intense, and Andronicus II pursued an anti-Roman policy.

It is interesting to speculate what happened to the survivors, if there were any, at the time of donation. We do not know. The local tradition says that they all left, taking with them their belongings, but this tradition seems dubious in the light of the documents of donation. It seems more probable that they did not leave but were absorbed in the Great Lavra. So ended Benedictine life on Athos, after lasting about three hundred years.


As Dom Rousseau pointed out, the monks of the Holy Mountain have good reason since the demise of St Mary’s to be suspicious of the West: for example, the foundation of Propaganda, in 1636, of a school on Athos to educate the monks, and the attempts of the Jesuits in the 17th century to found a mission there to convert them! Other similar activities have not helped the relations between western and eastern monasticism. Consideration was given by the West to refounding a Benedictine monastery on Athos, but this idea was so displeasing to the monks of the Holy Mountain that in 1924 they incorporated a clause into the constitution by which they are governed, forbidding such a foundation. How different from the arrival of the Amalfitans, when the Athonites not only gave them one of the most beautiful sites on the mountain, but helped them to build their monastery! But now that the ecumenical patriarch himself, on whom the Holy Mountain directly depends, has done so much to change the old atmosphere of suspicion, may it be no longer a vain hope that co-operation between East and West might again become a reality here, in one of the most holy places in the world?


The Official Statement from Mt. Athos on the Pope's Visit to the Phanar (2006)
Karyae, 30 December 2006.

The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the occasion of the feast-day of Saint Andrew (30th November 2006) and thereafter the visit by His Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens Christodoulos (14th December 2006) gave rise to a multitude of impressions, evaluations and reactions. We shall bypass those things that the secular Press had evaluated as positive or negative, to focus on those things that pertain to our salvation, for the sake of which we abandoned the world to live in the barrenness of the Holy Mountain.

As Monks of the Holy Mountain, we respect the Ecumenical Patriarchate, under whose jurisdiction we fall. We honor and venerate the Most Holy Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and we rejoice in all that he has achieved and so diligently labored for, in his love of God, for the Church. We particularly commemorate the stolid and untiring defence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, amid the many unfavorable conditions that exist, as well as the impoverished local Orthodox Churches and the care that is taken to project the message of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. Furthermore, we the Monks of the Holy Mountain honor the Most Holy Church of Greece, from which most of us originate, and we respect His Beatitude the Primate.

However, the events that took place during the recent visits of the Pope to Fanarion and of His Beatitude the Archbishop to the Vatican brought immense sorrow to our hearts.

We desire and we struggle all of our life to safeguard the trust of the Holy Fathers, which was bequeathed to us by the holy Founders of our sacred Monasteries and the blessed reposed fathers before us. We strive to the best of our ability to live the sacrament of the Church and the unblemished Orthodox Faith, according to what we are daily taught by the divine Services, the sacred readings, and the teachings in general of the Holy Fathers which are set out in their writings and in the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods. We guard our dogmatic awareness “like the pupil of our eye”, and we reinforce it, by applying ourselves to God-pleasing labours and the meticulous study of the achievements of the holy Confessor Fathers when they confronted the miscellaneous heresies, and especially of our father among the saints, Gregory of Palamas, the Holy Martyrs of the Holy Mountain and the Holy Martyr Kosmas the First, whose sacred relics we venerate with every honor and whose sacred memory we incessantly celebrate. We are afraid to remain silent, whenever issues arise that pertain to the trust that our Fathers left us. Our responsibility, towards the most venerable fathers and brothers of the overall brotherhood of the Holy Mountain and towards the pious faithful of the Church who regard Athonite Monasticism as their non-negotiable guardian of sacred Tradition, weighs heavily upon our conscience.

The visits of the Pope at Fanarion and the Archbishop’s visit at the Vatican may have secured certain benefits of a secular nature, however, during those visits, various other events took place which were not according to the customs of Orthodox Ecclesiology, or commitments were made that would neither benefit the Orthodox Church, nor any other heterodox Christians.

First of all, the Pope was received as though he were a canonical (proper) bishop of Rome. During the service, the Pope wore an omophoron; he was addressed by the Ecumenical Patriarch with the greeting “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” as though it were Christ the Lord; he blessed the congregation and he was commemorated as “most holy” and “His Beatitude the Bishop of Rome”. Furthermore, all of the Pope’s officiating clergy wore an omophoron during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy; also, the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, his liturgical embrace with the Patriarch, were displays of something more than common prayer. And all of this, when the papist institution has not budged at all from its heretical teachings and its policy; on the contrary, the Pope is in fact visibly promoting and trying to reinforce Unia along with the Papist dogmas on primacy and infallibility, and is going even further, with inter-faith common prayers and the pan-religious hegemony of the Pope of Rome that is discerned therein.

As for the reception of the Pope in Fanarion, we are especially grieved by the fact that all of the Media kept repeating the same, incorrect information, that the psalms that were (unduly) sung at the time had been composed by Monks of the Holy Mountain. We take this opportunity to responsibly inform all pious Christians that their composer was not, and could never be, a monk of the Holy Mountain.

Then there is the matter of the attempt by His Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens to commence relations with the Vatican on social, cultural and bio-ethical issues, as well as the objective to mutually defend the Christian roots of Europe (positions which are also found in the Common Declaration of the Pope and the Patriarch in Fanarion), both of which may seem innocuous or even positive, given that their aim is to cultivate peaceful human relations. Nevertheless, it is important that all these do not give the impression that the West and Orthodoxy continue to have the same bases, or lead one into forgetting the distance that separates the Orthodox Tradition from that which is usually presented as the “European spirit”. (Western) Europe is burdened with a series of anti-Christian institutions and acts, such as the Crusades, the “Holy” Inquisition, slave trading and colonization. It is burdened with the tragic division which took on the form of the schism of Protestantism; the devastating world wars, also the man-centered humanism and its atheist view. All of these are the consequence of Rome’s theological deviations from Orthodoxy. One after the other, the Papist and the Protestant heresies gradually removed the humble Christ of Orthodoxy and in His place, they enthroned haughty Man. The holy bishop Nicholas of Ochrid and Zitsa wrote the following from Dahau: «What, then, is Europe? The Pope and Luther.... This is what Europe is, at its core, ontologically and historically». The blessed Elder Justin Popovitch supplements the above: «The 2nd Vatican Synod comprises the rebirth of every kind of European humanism.... because the Synod persistently adhered to the dogma on the Pope’s infallibility» and he surmises: «Undoubtedly, the authorities and the powers of (western) European culture and civilization are Christ-expellers». This is why it is so important to project the humble morality of Orthodoxy and to support the truly Christian roots of the united Europe; the roots that Europe had during the first Christian centuries, during the time of the catacombs and of the seven holy Ecumenical Synods. It is advisable for Orthodoxy to not tax itself with foreign sins, and furthermore, the impression should not be given to those who became de-Christianized in reaction to the sidetracking of Western-style Christianity, that Orthodoxy is related to it, thus ceasing to testify that it is the only authentic Faith in Christ, and the only hope of the peoples of Europe.

The Roman Catholics’ inability to disentangle themselves from the decisions of their pursuant (and according to them, Ecumenical) Synods, which had legitimized the Filioque, the Primacy, the Infallibility, the secular authority of the Roman Pontiff, ‘created Grace’, the immaculate conception of the Holy Mother, Unia. Despite all these, we Orthodox continue the so-called traditional exchanges of visits, bestowing honors befitting an Orthodox Bishop on the Pope and totally disregarding a series of Sacred Canons which forbid common prayers, while the theological dialogue repeatedly flounders, and, after being dredged from the depths, it again sinks down.

All indications lead to the conclusion that the Vatican is not orienting itself to discard its heretical teachings, but only to “reinterpret” them—in other words, to veil them.

Roman Catholic ecclesiology varies, from one circular to the other; from the so-called “open” ecclesiology of the Encyclical «Ut Unum Sint», to the ecclesiological exclusivity of the Encyclical «Dominus Jesus». It should be noted that both of the aforementioned views are contrary to Orthodox Ecclesiology. The self-awareness of the holy Orthodox Church as the only One, Holy, Catholic (=overall) and Apostolic Church does not allow for the recognition of other, heterodox churches and confessions as “sister churches”. “Sister Churches” are only the local Orthodox Churches of the same faith. No other homonymous reference to “sister churches” other than the Orthodox one is theologically permissible.

The “Filioque” is promoted by the roman catholic side as yet another legal expression of the teaching regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit, and theologically equivalent to the Orthodox teaching that procession is “only from the Father”—a view that is unfortunately supported by some of our own theologians.

Besides, the Pontiff is maintaining the Primacy as an inalienable privilege, as one can tell from the recent erasure of the title “Patriarch of the West” by the current Pope Benedict XVI; also from his reference to the worldwide mission of the Apostle Peter and his successors during his homily in the Patriarchal Temple, as well as from his also recent speech, which included the following: «...within the society, with the Successors of the Apostles, whose visible unity is guaranteed by the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Ukrainian Catholic Community managed to preserve the Sacred Tradition alive, in its integrity» (Catholic Newspaper, No.3046/18-4-2006).

Unia is being reinforced and reassured in many and various ways, despite the proclamations by the Pope to the contrary. This dishonest stance is witnessed, apart from other instances, by the provocative intervention of the previous Pope, John-Paul II, which led the Orthodox-roman catholic dialogue in Baltimore into a disaster, as well as by the letter sent by the current Pope to the Cardinal Ljubomir Husar, the Uniate Archbishop of Ukraine. In this letter dated 22/2/2006, the following is emphatically stressed: «It is imperative to secure the presence of the two great carriers of the only Tradition (the Latin and the Eastern).... The mission that the Greek Catholic Church has undertaken, being in full communion with the Successor of the Apostle Peter, is two-fold: on one side, it must visibly preserve the eastern Tradition inside the Catholic Church; on the other, it must favour the merging of the two traditions, testifying that they not only can coordinate between themselves, but that they also constitute a profound union amid their variety».

Seen in this light, polite exchanges such as the visits of the Pope to Fanarion and the Archbishop of Athens to the Vatican, without the prerequisite of a unity in the Faith, may on the one hand create false impressions of unity and thus turn away the heterodox who could have looked towards Orthodoxy as being the true Church, and on the other hand, blunt the dogmatic sensor of many Orthodox. Even more, they may push some of the faithful and pious Orthodox, who are deeply concerned over what is taking place inopportunely and against the Sacred Canons, to detach themselves from the corpus of the Church and create new schisms.

Thus, out of love for our Orthodoxy, but with pain as regards the unity of the Church, and with a view to preserve the Orthodox Faith free of all innovations, we proclaim in every direction that which was proclaimed by the Extraordinary, Double, Holy Assembly of our Sacred Community of the Holy Mountain on the 9th / 22nd of April 1980:

«We believe that our Holy Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, having the fullness of Grace and the Truth, and for this reason, an uninterrupted Apostolic Succession. On the contrary, the “churches” and the “confessions” of the West, having distorted the faith of the Gospel, the Apostles and the Fathers on many points, are deprived of the hallowing Grace, the true Sacraments and the Apostolic Succession...

Dialogues with the heterodox—if they are intended to inform them about the Orthodox Faith so that when they become receptive of divine enlightenment and their eyes are opened they might return to the Orthodox Faith—are not condemned.

In no way should a theological dialogue be accompanied by common prayers, participation in liturgical assemblies and worship by either side and any other activities that might give the impression that our Orthodox Church acknowledges the Roman Catholics as a complete Church and the Pope as a canonical (proper) Bishop of Rome. Such acts mislead the Orthodox as well as the Roman Catholic faithful, who are given a false impression of what Orthodoxy thinks of them....

With the Grace of God, the Holy Mountain remains faithful—as do the Orthodox people of the Lord—to the Faith of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers, and also out of love for the heterodox, who are essentially helped, when the Orthodox with their steadfast Orthodox stance point out the extent of their spiritual ailment and the way they can be cured.

The failed attempts for union during the past teach us that for a permanent union, according to the will of God, within the Truth of the Church, the prerequisite is a different kind of preparation and course, than those which were followed in the past and appear to be followed to this day.».

By all of the Representatives and Superiors of the common Assembly of the twenty Sacred Monasteries of the Holy Mountain Athos.


Promulgated by Monk Prodromos Gregoriates - Secretariat of the Sacred Community. The Greek text can be found at www.agioros.com. Translation by: A. N.

Benedictine Monks on Athos in the XXth century
Written by Fr Antoine LAMBRECHTS (Chevetogne, Belgium)

When the Benedictine monks left the Holy Mountain definitely towards the end of the XIIIth century, it was the beginning of long period of silence. For many centuries, regular contacts between western Latin monks and their eastern orthodox brothers of the Byzantine world were broken off. The new western religious orders – the Franciscans and the Dominicans, later the Jesuits – became often to be seen by the Orthodox as invaders and missionaries of another world. The few Cistercian monasteries in the Crusade kingdoms lived their own life and seem to have had little exchange with the orthodox world. 

This tragic church-political and cultural separation of Eastern and Western monasticism did not mean, however, that orthodox and catholic monks totally forgot about one another. The Rule of Saint Benedict constantly reminded its monks that monastic life had its roots in the East: the authority of Saint Basil the Great, Cassian, the Sayings of the Fathers were to be their constant reference. On the other hand, saint Benedict, whose Life by Saint Gregory the Great had been translated very early into Greek (and other eastern languages), was venerated in the orthodox world. A Greek liturgical service had been composed for him in the IXth century. Parts of his Rule were quoted by Saint Athanasius the Athonite himself in his Diatyposis and appeared sometimes in other athonite manuscripts. In his “Triads in Defence of the Hesychasts”, saint Gregory Palamas refers to saint Benedict as “one of the most holy saints, who contemplated the whole universe as resumed in one ray of the intelligible sun”, i.e. as an ancestor and an example of the hesychast tradition he defends. 

Nevertheless, an estrangement between East and West, and especially between the Holy Mountain and traditional Benedictine monasticism in the West was growing. Characteristically, no one of the very learned Benedictines of the Maurist Congregation, who rediscovered and critically edited Latin and Greek Church Fathers in the XVIIth century, nor the very erudite Benedictine Father Jean-Baptiste François Pitra (1812-1889, monk of the Abbey of Solesmes, and later cardinal) visited Mount Athos in search for manuscripts, although the latter went therefore to Russia and found former Athos manuscripts in the National Library of Paris and in Rome. The psychological barrier was simply too high and the concrete monastic way of life of their orthodox contemporaries wasn’t apparently of no great interest to them. 

This widespread attitude would change, however, towards the end of the XIXth century. Among the many reasons, too complex to be analysed here, one, at least, of particular interest should be mentioned. In 1894, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical “Orientalium dignitas”, on the dignity of the Churches of the East. Although it was written in the first place to encourage the Eastern Catholic Churches to remain faithful to their ancient liturgical and canonical traditions, and to oppose therefore “latinization”, it made Catholics in general aware of the richness and dignity of the eastern, apostolic tradition. At the same time, Pope Leo XIII asked the Benedictines explicitly to study the eastern monastic traditions of the “undivided Church” and he entrusted the old “Greek College” in Rome (founded in 1573) to the Benedictine Order. 

After centuries of interruption, Latin Benedictine monks set out again for Mount Athos, not to stay there now, or to found a monastery there, but as simple pilgrims, to learn about monastic life in the Orthodox Church, about liturgy and prayer. The first to do so, in 1905, were two young monks of the Belgian Benedictine monastery of Maredsous, Father Placide de Meester (a liturgist and orientalist) and Father Hugo Gaïsser, a musicologist who specialised in Greek psaltic chant. They left a detailed account of their trip, published in 1908. Although their ecclesiological view is still very “roman” and “unionist”, their aim is not scholarship in the first place, but humble learning of monastic life. They compare everything with their own Latin tradition and conclude that the Rule of Saint Benedict can be better understood on Mount Athos, because – as they said – “there, it has its natural setting”. Although in their interpretation they often “reduce” athonite monastic life to what they know in the West, their attitude is a sympathetic one, and they are really edified by athonite hospitality, asceticism, liturgical life, devotion and profound faith. At the end, they remain very aware, however, that “a lot needs to be done for a better understanding”. 

With this aim in mind, “to learn from the East” (and in particular from the Orthodox) for a better understanding, a special international Benedictine monastery was founded in 1925 by Dom Lambert Beauduin, known today as the Monastery of Chevetogne. From the very outset, this community, to which I belong, celebrates all the monastic services simultaneously in two different churches: a Latin one for the traditional Benedictine services, and a Byzantine one for the services in Church Slavonic or Greek, according to the orthodox liturgical calendar and Typikon[1]. The first (all Latin) fathers of the community, who came from other Benedictine monasteries in the 1920ies and 1930ies, had to learn everything: the Greek and Slavonic language, the music, the liturgy, and the orthodox way of life (or “ethos”). A privileged place to do that was, of course, Mount Athos. 

And indeed, after a first failed attempt to send monks to the Petchory Lavra in Pskov (at that time in Estonia), one of the founding members of the community, Fr Theodore Belpaire, a former astrophysicist and mathematician, could stay for several months in the Russian skite of Saint-Andrew, where the higoumenos Metrophan accepted him as a member of the community: he could stay and sing in the choir, work in the garden and the library, and he was given an orthodox riasa and skoufia. Father Theodore wrote about his stay on Mount Athos interesting and detailed letters to his community which were published in our journal Irénikon in 1929. Attentive reading of these letters reveal, that life on the Holy Mountain for him was not an “easy school”. Those fathers of the community, however, who knew him as an abbot in his later years, all testify to his humility, his profound life of prayer, his personal asceticism and poverty, and his attachment to the orthodox spiritual tradition. 

Several other fathers of our community did similar stays on the Holy Mountain. Others visited Athos regularly and made many friends in different Greek and Russian Monasteries. Unfortunately, not all of them left written accounts on their stay or pilgrimage; some of them did, but they were not published. One thing is sure: all of them were deeply impressed by the experience, and many of them for the rest of their life[2]. Some of the younger brothers are sometimes surprised to see, that we still use beautiful handwritten scores in the choir, written on Mount Athos, or use liturgical books dedicated to the monastery by athonite monks. Among our fathers, one should perhaps be mentioned here in particular, Father Ireneus Doens [Дунс]. Of Dutch origin, he was fluently in Greek, Russian and Rumanian and counted many friends in Greece and on the Holy Mountain. From the 1950ies till the end of the 1970ies he wrote a detailed chronicle on Greek orthodox and athonite monastic life in our journal Irénikon, based on first hand information, Greek, Russian, Rumanian and Athonite periodicals, as well as on the many books he collected. These are now a precious and unique part of our monastic library. In 1963, at the occasion of the Millennium Celebrations of the Holy Mountain – this year exactly 50 years ago – he published an important, almost exhaustive bibliography of about 3000 titles on Mount Athos. He was also personally invited by the ecumenical patriarch Athenagoras to take part, as an observer and guest, in these celebrations on the Holy Mountain itself, in June 1963. In the years just before and during the Millennium, the journal Irénikon gave a detailed account of the preparations and the celebrations itself, not concealing thereby the many critical voices of athonite monks. On the initiative of another monk of our community, Father Olivier Rousseau, the Monastery of Chevetogne organised in September of the Millennium year, in Venice, an important international conference on the history and the spiritual legacy of the Holy Mountain. The Acts of that Conference were published by the Monastery in two volumes, under the title “Le Millénaire du Mont Athos 963-1963, Etudes et Mélanges”, containing contributions of the best specialists at that time in East and West. Unfortunately out of print now for many years, it can today only be obtained on demand in an electronic version. 

Of course, many other monks of the Benedictine tradition visited Mount Athos in the XXth century. Many of them were patristic scholars like Chrysosto­mos Baur (Beuron), Emmanuel Amand de Mendietta (Maredsous), Julien Leroy (En Calcat), Jean Gribomont (Clervaux, Luxembourg). Others, and among them also some Cistercian and Trappist monks, went exclusively for spiritual reasons, to exchange on a common experience of prayer and asceticism with such famous spiritual Fathers as Geronta Ephrem of Katounakia, Theoklitos of Dionysiou, Basil of Stavronikita and the hermit Païssios. Father André Louf (Mont des Cats) and Father Basil Pennington (Spencer Monastery, Massachusetts) left beautiful testimonies of such encounters. If at first the atmosphere was sometimes tense and the conversation moved off difficultly, a simple, humble and essential question like “Father, how do You pray?” or “what would You advise me?” suddenly could change everything. In such moments, centuries of church-political and theological dispute seemed to disappear where Byzantine en Latin Hesychasts discovered each other as peacemakers. I think it would be a good thing to collect, translate and publish these testimonies of spiritual encounter for a better understanding of Eastern and Western monks in the future.  

Fr Antoine Lambrechts

[1] Sometimes erroneously mistaken for “Uniates” or “Eastern Catholics”, we are in fact the opposite: being mostly of Latin origin, we make a step towards the Orthodox, to learn from them, not from the Orthodox Church away. The main justification of the Eastern tradition in our Monastery is, in fact, not an ecclesiological one (we do not belong to any “Eastern Catholic” Church), but simply our love, as Catholics, of the Orthodox Church.

[2] One of them, Father David (Dimitri) Balfour, the secretary of the founder Lambert Beauduin, a very gifted person, converted to Orthodoxy under the influence and guidance of saint Silouane and Father Sophrony (Sakharov). 



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