Friday, January 20, 2006

The Controversies at Mount Athos

Mount Athos—The Holy Mountain—is an autonomous theocratic monastic republic in Greece, and is the center of Orthodox Christian monasticism; the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople is its spiritual head, and it is subject to the Greek ministry of foreign affairs. Each monastery is governed by a Superior, elected for life, and all of the Superiors make up the Holy Assembly which has legislative authority. Only males over the age of eighteen can visit the Holy Mountain, and typically only as pilgrims, with written permission. Unlike Western monasticism, Orthodoxy does not have separate Religious Orders, and tends to be organized under a general rule and under a territorial Bishop, so the organization of the monasteries is more political rather than a recognition of separate spiritual charisms.

Tradition holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist stopped here during a voyage to Cyprus. Monasticism began here at least as early as the fifth century, and the oldest existing monastery dates from 963 A.D.

Mount Athos is actually a peninsula, surrounded by treacherous waters of the Aegean Sea. It is also rugged, with sheer cliffs and a maximum height of 6,670 feet. This is a good place to be solitary, away from the world. However, the world doesn't leave Mount Athos alone, and the monasteries are actually medieval walled fortresses, originally built to withstand attacks from pirates, and the many invading armies, including the Franks and Ottomans.

Mount Athos was granted independence by the Byzantine Empire in 1054. During the Fourth Crusade, the Empire collapsed, and Mount Athos was under the personal protection of Pope Innocent III. After the Council of Florence, it seems that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were to be reunited, but the final destruction of the Empire by the Ottomans crushed that dream of unity. The Muslim overlords placed Mount Athos under heavy taxation.

The Holy Mountain is now a part of a different empire, the European Union.

Through the Greek Constitution, the EU recognizes the right of Mount Athos to exist, but its status "is justified exclusively on grounds of a spiritual and religious nature" Here is the relevant article in the Constitution:
Article 105
1. The Athos peninsula extending beyond Megali Vigla and constituting the region of Aghion Oros [Holy Mountain] shall, in accordance with its ancient privileged status, be a self-governed part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon shall remain intact. Spiritually, Aghion Oros shall come under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. All persons leading a monastic life thereon acquire Greek citizenship without further formalities, upon admission as novices or monks.
2. Aghion Oros shall be governed, according to its regime, by its twenty Holy Monasteries among which the entire Athos peninsula is divided; the territory of the peninsula shall be exempt from expropriation.
The administration of Aghion Oros shall be exercised by representatives of the Holy Monasteries constituting the Holy Community. No change whatsoever shall be permitted in the administrative system or in the number of Monasteries of Aghion Oros, or in their hierarchical order or in their position to their subordinate dependencies. Heterodox or schismatic persons shall be prohibited from dwelling thereon.
3. The determination in detail of the regimes of the Aghion Oros entities and the manner of operation thereof is effected by the Charter of Aghion Oros which, with the cooperation of the State representative, shall be drawn up and voted by the twenty Holy Monasteries and ratified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Parliament of the Hellenes.
4. Faithful observance of the regimes of the Aghion Oros entities shall in the spiritual field be under the supreme supervision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and, in the administrative, under the supervision of the State, which shall also be exclusively responsible for safeguarding public order and security.
5. The afore-mentioned powers of the State shall be exercised through a governor whose rights and duties shall be determined by law.
The law shall likewise determine the judicial power exercised by the monastic authorities and the Holy Community, as well as the customs and taxation privileges of Aghion Oros.

But the EU is not satisfied with what is in the Greek Constitution. From the Commission dealing with interstate commerce:
The provisions of this Directive shall not prevent Greece from maintaining the specific status granted to Mount Athos as guaranteed by Article 105 of the Greek Constitution. If the Commission considers that the exclusions provided for in paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and 4 are no longer justified, particularly in terms of fair competition, it shall submit appropriate proposals to the Council.
So the EU, for the reasons of commerce, may override the Greek Constitution of the paragraphs which make the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos actually holy. The EU would only maintain the paragraph which says that the power of the State shall be exercised through a governor. Likewise, in American Federal lawmaking, nearly every statute is justified because of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution, even in matters that have nothing to do with commerce.

The EU has recently paid for extensive restoration of the monasteries, as well as conservation and cataloguing of the many ancient artworks and books owned by the monks. It does this under the guidelines of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which has declared Mount Athos a World heritage Site. According to UNESCO:
What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.
So according to the EU, Mount Athos does not belong to the monks, or to the monasteries, or to the Orthodox Churches, or even to Christendom at large, but instead belongs to "all the peoples of the world", which should be troubling. UNESCO recently made the Mount Athos natural environment a concern, which adds further restrictions.

UNESCO has a policy of "Authenticity", which is a term derived from Existentialist philosophy, and has linkages to Marxist, Nazi, Liberal Christian, and postmodern thought. The concept of Authenticity is rooted in subjective Cartesian philosophy of Mind/Body Dualism, and tends to deny the concept of objective reality which we all share, and instead emphasizes individual states of mind. Now it is very nice if we have a building which has been perfectly unchanged, but in reality, buildings and such are used every day by real people, according to their needs, and sometimes those needs change. "Authenticity" leads to a museum mentality, where we show off to a cultivated elite what some people in the past used to believe—and the unstated but implicit notion that no one actually believes that anymore. This leads to the troubling idea of forcing people into two categories: either you live an 'authentic' life in the proper context, or you move to the city and become a modern, completely abandoning your heritage and starting over, creating a new 'authenticity'. This means that the monks of Mount Athos can't control their properties as they see fit and change them according to their needs. UNESCO also discourages the rebuilding of destroyed buildings, since this is inauthentic; ancient styles are seen as historical relics and must not be recreated. Likewise, UNESCO discourages the building of new structures in ancient styles, again this is seen as inauthentic. This latter guideline is actually the law in places like Britain and in some U.S. Government agencies: you have to, by law, build in the Modern style. An alienated, content-free artform is authentic, you see.

The pursuit of 'authenticity' as a Greatest Good has led to the concept of the 'anti-hero', emulation of urban street-culture, and a rejection of classical art forms. It denies the principle of organic change, growth, and a living tradition.

Since the EU gives Mount Athos money for preservation, this makes it believe that it can have more say in how Mount Athos is governed.

Based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 23, "Equality Between Men and Women", the European Parliament
"requests the lifting of the ban on women entering Mount Athos in Greece, a geographical area of 400 km2 where women's access is prohibited in accordance with a decision taken in 1045 by monks living in the 20 monasteries in the area, a decision which nowadays violates the universally recognized principle of gender equality, Community non-discrimination and equality legislation and the provisions relating to free movement of persons within the EU".
It would take just a few judges to make this the law of the European Union, and would be a great breach of religious freedom, and a law like this would destroy monastic life. They would allow not only women, but naturally also schismatics and heretics. But Christianity has outlived many empires, and it will outlive any more that are to come. Perhaps if they find too many barbarians at their gates, they can upgrade their fortified castles to more contemporary standards, and perhaps find a new patron; maybe the Pope again!


Mount Athos is also known for its practice of Hesychasm, or "prayer of the heart", a spiritual practice rooted in neo-Platonism. The controversy over this practice greatly divided Orthodoxy in the 14th century, leading to many excommunications and meddling by the Imperial Government, which unfortunately tends to be norm within Orthodoxy. This controversy led to great weakening and divisions in the Christian East. However, this practice eventually was upheld, and is a major point of division between Orthodox and Catholics.

Hesychasm is the only mystical tradition within Orthodoxy, unlike the West, which has many. Western mysticism is seen in more a personal light, in a rightly-reasoned subjectivism and typically is not bound for belief by the faithful, while this form of Eastern mysticism seems to have more official status.

This practice seems to contradict the western Aristotelian view of reality. Even before the Latin Church accepted Aristotelian philosophy in the 13th century, it had some neo-Platonic foundation of theology, especially in the writings of Saint Augustine, but the Hesychasts seem to go too far in this, and are sometimes accused of Pantheism.

Since the Second Vatican Council era, the views of Aristotle, and consequently, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen has been denigrated by many Catholics. Many Latin Catholics have been attracted to Eastern-style Christianity, but often in a pick-and-choose cafeteria-style fashion that contradicts both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions, and often in a way that leads directly to heresy or outright apostasy from Christianity. Thomas Merton, who was otherwise orthodox, seemed to be heading in that wrong direction when he died; he was a great champion of Eastern prayer tradition. Even Eastern European Catholics who have integrated the two systems have done it in a slow, organic way and therefore have remained both Catholic and Eastern. But Thomistic philosophy is far more in keeping with Western tradition, and reading Saint Thomas readily "makes sense" to most Western minds. But it would be otherwise for most Easterners.

The Western Tradition tends to place much more emphasis on intellectual formation than the East, which is more liturgical. The Eastern tradition has roots that go back to the ancient Desert Fathers, who considered owning too many books as a temptation against the love of poverty. So while Westerners, attracted to this Eastern monasticism, may want to think that they can achieve salvation through just saying the Jesus Prayer over and over again like a mantra, err in failing to observe the complete Eastern religious life, which includes the extensive and highly elaborate prayers of the Hours (starting at 1 a.m.), community life, close spiritual direction, a strict moral code, extreme poverty, obedience to superiors, corporal mortifications, art traditions, and the Sacraments including the Divine Liturgy. The Western tradition is far more intellectual and—outside of Traditional Latin Mass communities—currently has a fairly weak liturgical, devotional, and artistic life. These weaknesses are perhaps what attracts some Eastward. And for others, eliminating all of the "Christ stuff" and just saying a mantra has great appeal to those who do not wish to compromise with doing their own will, which is well fitting with the modern religious "ABC" seekers who want Anything But Christianity.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to be far more sympathetic with the Eastern view, especially considering his Platonic philosophy—he is the first non-Aristotelian Pope in centuries. Clearly he wants to enrich the Liturgy of the West. Pope John Paul II is quite famous for saying that the Church should be "breathing with both lungs"—both East and West. But in my opinion, the loss of Thomism has led to much confusion in the West; and the Western liturgy has gone even farther way from the East in being over-simplified instead of being richly elaborated.


There are monks at Esfigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos who are refusing to include prayers for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in their liturgies, because of his ecumenical talks with the Catholic Church, for which they consider him a heretic. They also do not recognize the Greek Orthodox Church and have refused funding from the EU for restoring their monastery. The Ecumenical Patriarch in turn declared them schismatics and the Greek Government has upheld an expulsion order for the monks. Deliveries of food, medicine, and heating oil has been halted and phone service disconnected.

In once sense, I don't blame the monks, for the Catholic Church is visibly full of heretics of almost the worst kind; I'm Catholic and I know! On the other hand, they don't have the authority to make ecumenical descisions—only the Ecumenical Patriarch has that authority, and he is their superior deserving of obedience.

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