Thursday, June 24, 2010

0008 - Elder Meletios Sykiotis (Γέρων Μελέτιος Συκιώτης) 1907 - 2000

Geronta as I remember him during my tenure at Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy, 1992 - 1996.

The dearly departed Elder Meletios, for a series of years commencing 1953 was the teacher of Byzantine Music and Art at the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy of Karies Agion Oros (Mount Athos).

He gave his all and devoted countless hours of selfless service for his beloved students. All of his works, which he always avoided, publishing, were written specifically for the students of the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy. He will be graciously gifted for all of his generous gifts of the Byzantine arts to generations of students by The Gift Giving Lord on the day of judgement.

He settled on Agion Oros from a young age of 17 years old and was instilled with the traditional Athonite style of Byzantine music. He lived with the excellent chanters Deacon Dionisios Firfiris, Deacon John and others, who introduced Elder Meletios as their elder and their teacher.

May the Most Holy Lord rest his soul in eternity.

Geronta and my dear friend Andrew Papadimopoulos.

Chanting during a procession in Karies, Mount Athos.

Chanting at the ancient Protaton Church at Karies, Mount Athos.

At the front of the Holy Community building, Karies, Mount Athos.

“I remember Geron Meletios from my tenure at the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy between the years of 1992- 1996. He was a quiet monk, full of grace and wisdom. He had a subtle, sweet voice. Although he was very old, he still came to the school daily in order to teach the students the gifts that were granted to him. I do not speak for myself in saying that Geron Meletios not only influenced me and my generation of co-students, but in his decades of service at the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy, many more generations of students who have gone on to continue his legacy. May God bless his departed soul and grant him eternity.”

I would also like to thank my dear friend Andrew Papadimopoulos, who found me via facebook after 17 years. His page dedicated to the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy has given me an emotional trip down memory lane. Also I would like to further thank Giannis Kontsiotis for inspiring me to blog this article, after reading his blog entry.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

0007 - The Pilgrimage to Mount Athos by Professor James S Cutsinger Part 5

Day Four: Saturday, 16 June — Iveron to the Great Lavra

Having been warned against trying to hike the exceptionally tortuous and poorly marked footpath from Iveron to our next destination, the Holy Monastery of the Great Lavra, and not wishing to follow the only alternative land route—one of the newly bulldozed, and very dusty, forest roads, which would have taken us five hours or so—we elected to travel by water. One of the monks in the bookstore was kind enough to telephone the captain of a little boat (named “Saint Athanasios the Athonite”)

that trolls up and down the coast of the peninsula shuttling pilgrims between the monasteries, and arrangements were made for us to be picked up at Iveron’s arsanas

at 10:00 a.m. We had managed to find a couple of rather scrawny apples and a handful of raisins in the guest house and made a breakfast of these as we waited for the boat, which appeared about 10:20. It was a very
quick trip of about thirty minutes down the coast

to the port of the Lavra

and then a climb of maybe three or four hundred feet up to the monastery itself. Drenched with perspiration—as is becoming our custom!—we signed ourselves in at the guesthouse and were assigned what proved to be our poorest accommodations on the Mountain, which we shared with two Venetian pilgrims: a tiny room with even tinier windows would make the night a very hot one—though the windows, we later discovered, were plenty large enough to accommodate the entry of several dozen mosquitoes!

The afternoon was spent with the usual explorations and a short rest, lying on the hillside just outside the east wall

overlooking the sea. The Great Lavra, which stands near the southeastern tip of the peninsula, is the oldest of the monasteries, having been founded in 963

by Saint Athanasios the Athonite (c. 920-c. 1000), and it therefore ranks first in hierarchical order among the twenty “ruling monasteries” of the Mountain. Like most of the others, it is laid out in the form of a small medieval town, surrounded on all sides by high walls, punctuated in this case by fifteen towers.

It is also like several others in that it is undergoing extensive repair. I confess there is something rather disconcerting about the site of a brightly painted red tower crane

rising high above a tenth century Byzantine fortress! Of special interest were a number of icons in the porch of the catholikon featuring scenes from the Last Judgment: brightly colored and gilded saints enjoying the glories of Heaven were set in contrast to gigantic whales with huge teeth consuming torrential downhill flows of naked sinners; or again—to make it clear to the fathers that they themselves are by no means exempt from this final assize!—a ladder crowded with monks, some successfully (if painstakingly) climbing to the top with the help of attending angels, while others were being clawed at and pulled from the ladder by demons.
Vespers was at 6:00 p.m. with two excellent chanters (one at each kliros), and as at Vatopedi there was a third monk shuttling back and forth to intone the verses. I was particularly struck by the periodic lowering, lighting, and raising of small candelabra; one on each side of the church,
they were attached to ropes and raised and lowered by means of pulleys. After a light supper of boiled potatoes, salad, and bread we returned to the catholikon to venerate the relics, including those of Saint Basil the Great, Stephen the Protomartyr, Saint Anne, Saint Andreas (the Apostle Andrew), and of course Saint Athanasios, the founder of the monastery, who is entombed in the narthex.
We were relaxing in the courtyard

afterward when one of the monks, Father Efstathios, came by and volunteered to take us on a short tour of the Great Lavra environs beyond the west wall. He showed us the monastery’s water-driven olive press (no longer in use),

and then took us to the charnel house

where we were able to look through a small slatted gate

and see a few of the twenty-five thousand skeletons—or rather parts thereof—that are housed there, among them those of thirty-five ecumenical patriarchs. Next he took us further up the hill, passing the small cave

of a hermit just a few feet from the trail. “The heart should be a cave,” Father Efstathios quietly commented, “even if you live in the world.”
We came at last to an area strewn with a number of ancient boulders, the remnants of a pre-Christian shrine.

The monk explained that there had been a pagan settlement on this site, though all the inhabitants were long since gone by the time the first Christians arrived on the Mountain in the third or fourth century. One of the boulders had been carved on one side so as to serve as a sundial; another had the faint etching of a face, presumably that of a deity. Nearby was a tiny rock chapel,

built by Saint Athanasios, who had been told by the Theotokos he must erect a church and then celebrate a liturgy in it, all within the space of a single day, in order to drive away the pagan gods who lived there, thus making the place safe for a monastery. Hence the tiny size of the chapel!

A few of the many monkish incongruities we have noticed as we travel the Mountain: a monk driving a backhoe, a monk operating a forklift, and—most curious of all!—a monk at the helm of a speedboat. Or are these incongruities? It has been difficult to understand how, or why, the fathers have begun to allow so much of the “world” to intrude into their life here. While readily acknowledging the problems this poses, one monk with whom we discussed the question observed that historically the technological “level” of Athos has been more or less “up to” that of the outside world, the only real exception being during the period of decline from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, when the Mountain became, unintentionally, more of a Byzantine museum than a living community. With the incursion of electricity, telephones, fax machines, roads, taxis, tower cranes, and so forth, the more typical pattern of the past is reasserting itself. Of course the principial question remains of where one draws the line.

As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

Monday, June 7, 2010

0006 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos of Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 4

Day Three: Friday, 15 June — Stavronikita to Iveron
We rose this morning at 5:00 a.m. to catch the end of Orthros and then the Liturgy. Since “breakfast” would not be served until mid-day, Father Palamas, knowing we needed to leave fairly early, kindly offered us some bread, homemade apricot jelly, and water, as we sat under the grape arbor 

just outside the guesthouse. Another, older monk also gave Trevor a small cross he had fashioned from the seeds of olives. We had arranged the night before to share a “taxi” with four Greek pilgrims, rather than walking back up the same dusty road we came down yesterday. The taxis are eight-to-ten-person vans, some driven by monks, though in this case the driver was a layman.
Arriving in Karyes around 9:00 a.m., we elected first to walk up the hill on the northeast side of the village to the Skete of Saint Andreas

a dependency of Vatopedi that boasts the largest catholikon on the Mountain—owing in large part to the patronage of two Russian czars. The skete was virtually abandoned at the time of the Russian Revolution, however, and the monks’ quarters and other outbuildings are now very dilapidated. As elsewhere on the Mountain, extensive restoration work is in progress—we saw a large bell 

that had been brought down from the tower for cleaning—and lay workers were all about, together I fear with considerable litter, which we have noticed at a number of construction sites. We were able to take a very brief (and unauthorized!) peek inside at the huge, gilded iconostasis (icon screen) before being scolded by one of the workers.
Back down to the village we went again to the Office of the Holy Epistasia 

and were this time able to secure the needed extension on our permits. That task accomplished, Trevor agreed to guard our backpacks for a few minutes while I browsed in a couple of shops

looking at icons and such. When I returned I found him engrossed in conversation with a monk, who turned out to be someone mentioned to us just the day before yesterday by Vincent Rossi and his traveling companion. I had expressed my bemusement at the fact that many of these ancient monasteries now have fax machines, and Vincent’s friend had replied, “Fax machines? That’s nothing. I correspond with a monk in one of the sketes who uploads things to the Internet on his solar-powered laptop!” Well, as Providence would have it, out of the two or three thousand other Athonite possibilities, this turned out to be the very same computer-savvy father. Trevor had apparently not yet mentioned our surname, so when I introduced myself, the monk’s eyes grew wide and then immediately narrowed: “So you’re James Cutsinger! You’re that crazy, mixed-up Sufi!” Somewhat taken aback, I nonetheless had the presence of mind to reply, “On what authority do you say that?” To which he replied, “By my own authority!” “On what grounds?” I then asked. At this point, he faked a flurry of punches to my jaw, and simply said, “GRRR!” I confess it is still not clear to me, even after a few more minutes of rather tense conversation, what he might have read of mine or heard about me, but I suspect he must have seen my contribution to the “Sufism and Christian East” conference and book: “Hesychia: An Orthodox Opening to Esoteric Ecumenism”. I had fully intended to keep my perennialism to myself on the Mountain, not realizing I would be dealing with such widely read, or highly “wired”, monks!
At this point we bought some apples, peaches, and nuts in one of the shops and, having fortified ourselves for more hiking, headed out of town, passing through the grounds of Koutloumousiou Monastery on the outskirts of Karyes, 

and then along a very beautiful—and thankfully well-marked—cobble-stone path,

 which wound through a wooded glen or two, past a tiny wayside chapel

and then across an old stone bridge, 

extending over a small waterfall and rapids

We arrived at our next destination, the Monastery of Iveron

about 2:00 p.m. and were welcomed by the guest master, Father Jeremiah. He had no record of the reservation I had made by telephone some months ago, but having looked over a copy of the letter and fax I had also sent to the monastery, and having learned of my friendship with Father John Chryssavgis—like him a Greek Australian, who had recommended we visit Iveron—he was ready enough to offer us some very satisfying accommodations

The afternoon was spent reading, taking a few photographs of the environs

 including the curious figure of what appeared to be a black woman on the catholikon cupola

and doing some laundry. We then attended Vespers at 6:00 p.m. in the catholikon. One of the cantors was by far the best we have heard yet: he seemed to have a kind of river of Byzantine sound running through him, and when he opened his mouth it flowed forth as if with no effort. Vespers was immediately followed by a short akathist service in a chapel near the gate, where we were able to venerate the monastery’s best-known icon, the wonder-working Panagia Portaitissa, or “All-Holy Keeper of the Gate”.

Tradition has it that this sacred image of the Theotokos and Christ, painted by Saint Luke and miraculously preserved through the centuries, found its way into the possession of a poor widow in Nicaea during the time of the iconoclastic controversy. At the Virgin’s instruction, the widow placed the icon into the sea to preserve it from destruction, and to her amazement it did not sink but floated away upright on the waves. Many years later it came to the Holy Mountain, arriving near the Monastery of Iveron, once again floating on the waves—“in a pillar of fire”, as the Athonite narrative recounts. The Mother of God appeared in a vision to a holy monk of the monastery named Gabriel, telling him She wished for his brotherhood to have Her icon for their help and salvation; by his faith in Her power he was able “to walk on the waters as though on dry land”, bringing it to shore and placing it in the altar of the catholikon. The next morning, however, the monks found the icon was missing, having been moved—or having moved itself—to a position near the gate of the monastery. It was returned to the altar, but the next day was found again at the gate. This scenario was repeated a third time, at which point the Theotokos spoke from the icon, informing the monks, “It is not for you to guard Me, but for Me to guard you!” Hence the name Portaitissa, and hence its present position in its own special chapel by the gate.
A monk reflected on his family: parents who are now in their eighties, an older sister, a younger brother. His mother had given him her blessing to come to Mount Athos, but was very sad at his decision to do so, until she saw pictures of his tonsuring. Then she said it all began to make perfect sense to her. He spoke of the paradox of feeling closer to certain people in the world, including the members of his family, now that he was separated from them physically, while others—whom he had formerly thought were important—had nearly dissolved in his memory.

As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

0077 - A tribute to His Eminence Metropolitan of Kinsasa Nikiforos (Former Headmaster of Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy Mt Athos)

  There comes a time when we all must say goodbye, in this life, to those that have made a significant impact upon us and have moulded us to...