Saturday, October 08, 2011

Graham Speake's Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise

Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 2003.

Graham Speake’s book is a lovely introduction to the monasteries and sketes of Athos, from their origins to today (or rather, to 2002, but what’s 9 years when we’re talking about over a millennium of history?). Part history and part spiritual exploration, Speake’s focus never wavers from trying to offer the reader a sense of why Athos’ existence matters to God, the Orthodox, and the world.

For the unaware, Athos seems like a throwback to a former time and way of being. A peninsula of Greece (that was once an island, thanks to the ambitious canal digging of the emperor Xerxes I in his erstwhile conquests), it is home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and a plethora of smaller communities (sketes) and hermits who live lives paradoxically dedicated to the renunciation of the world and to praying for it. It is consecrated to Mary, and for over a millennium, no woman has been allowed on the isthmus (punishable even today, by Greek law, by a period of 2-12 months) so as to leave it as her exclusive preserve. The story goes that she was travelling to visit Lazarus, and was forced to take shelter on Athos: so moved by its beauty, she asked her son for it for herself. This legend offers a significant example of a challenge Speake deals with in the book: the monks understanding of Athos revolves not even primarily around what can be historically proven, but around the stories and legends of their collective experience on the Mountain. Speake holds this balance well for the reader.

The oldest monastery on Athos, the Megistis Lavra (Great Lavra) was founded in 963, and the others have followed over time. While most are of Greek origin, some were founded by monks from all over the Orthodox world (such as Iviron's Georgian origins, Chillandariou’s Serbian roots, and St. Panteleimonos’ and Russia). They have survived Ottoman rule, the Axis powers, the birth of modern Greece, and even its entry into the European Union. An often turbulent history makes for intriguing reading, both about foreign relations and Athos’ own internal arguments and challenges.

Speake’s long association with the Friends of Mount Athos, as well as multiple pilgrimages to Athos have resulted in close associations with quite a number of monks on Athos, and his writing shows a deep understanding not just of Athos’ history and geography, but of its ideals. His own understandable biases against nationalism within Athos’ administration and toward hospitality even of non-Orthodox pilgrims become clear as one reads: even without as full an appreciation of Orthodoxy as I might like to have, Speake’s writing is an accessible and inviting introduction. The marvellous collection of photographs that accompany the text are a stunning resource to help the reader comprehend Athos’ remoteness and beauty, and to grasp something of what monastic life is like there.

Some years ago, on retreat at St. Gregory’s, Three Rivers, I heard read at meals Christopher Merrill’s Things of the Hidden God. It was my first introduction to Athos, and Speake’s less-personal book has made me intrigued about the prospect of making a pilgrimage to the holy mountain someday—to experience worship at Vatopedi and some of the sketes seems like a very exciting notion.