Sunday, May 13, 2018

0070 - A Rare Book on Mount Athos (Part 3)

In Part 3 I will continue re-writing from the newspaper article from the Church Times dated April 17, 1924 and titled HOLY WEEK ON MOUNT ATHOS.

More than a thousand were there in 1914, when the abbot threw off his monastic robes and showed the uniform of a general underneath, and with the help of his three priors as colonels turned his soldier-monks into a very creditable brigade! However, that is over now, and if the Russians erred, verily they have been punished.

The Greek monasteries, however, are emphatically alive, though, as their own wiser heads are ready to admit, new life is wanted for the old frame, and intelligent adaptation old machinery to new needs. Thus, at Vatopedi, where hospitable monks received us for the night when our day's wandering was done, the life of an Orthodox Monastery flourishes as of old. Here, as is general with the older houses of the Holy Mount, the plan of the whole declares that it was designed to keep monks safe from pirates when those gentry swarmed in these waters.

A great fortified square of 150 yards, with one of the series of towers magnified till it serves as a keep in the days of need, gives the main outline. The original principle church stands in the centre, while the monastic buildings, placed against the inside of the wall, formed the banquette for the defences of the battlements. But the original design has been outgrown in all directions in picturesqueness; churches, libraries, refectories, wells, have been put in any convenient place, and storey after storey of monastic cells, projecting on wooden struts over the wall-line, accommodated additional inhabitants, showing as many as four tiers of cloister along the interior of the court.

A kindly guest-master, warned by telephone of our arrival, for that convenient anachronism connects the more important houses together, led us in by the great gate, not failing to point out the first of the wonder-working ikons of Vatopedi as he did so. During the war of 1912, a Turkish soldier had fired, in drunkenness or wantonness, at a fresco of the Panagia over the gate, and the bullet struck the hand of the figure, making a dint religiously preserved. Yet vengeance for once was not slow, "for within five minutes Kyrie, he went off and hung himself on that tree you see there."

It was a very busy day at Vatopedi, for it was the patronal festival of the Monastery (the Feast of the Annunciation), and the services of the "panigyris" were being united, as transference is unknown to the Orthodox with those of Holy Week. Hence, said our host with needless apology, only a few could come to welcome us, for the bulk of them were in church, where he must join them, when the duties of hospitality were done. We may claim some knowledge of oriental services, and are at least prepared for long rites; but here for once we were both bewildered and alarmed!

Service of eight hours in length, followed after a brief break of three hours by rites that endure nine hours more, tax even experienced patience, and when the officiant jumps perpetually, without warning, from rites of the Annunciation to those of Good Friday, even an expert may sometimes wonder where he is. With the help of a friendly Deacon and a missal, one could follow the rarely celebrated Liturgy of St. Basil from the post of privilege in the sanctuary, and the Liturgy done, examine the marvels of that treasure house.

For a thousand years now pilgrims of any rank from Imperial downwards, have brought their offerings hither, and the result is a collection that a Roman Catholic member of the party thought superior to that in St. Peters in Rome! Here, too, are the relics of which the mass of gold and jewels are but the setting, large fragments of the true Cross (in one case festooned with emeralds as large as one's finger-nails), and the "Zone of the Virgin" that stays plague in the land.

It is true that the main treasure of Vatopedi was at the moment not in the sanctuary, but in the nave, for special reverence on the festal day. This is the "Talking Eikon" of the Blessed Virgin, which once, says the story, ordered the Empress Pulcheria out of this Church, when she built it and came in to say her prayers. "You may be a Queen outside, but here there is another Queen. Leave the Church!" So the poor Empress had to go, and by the way of being on the safe side, it was ruled that no female was ever to set foot on the island thereafter! As the tale represents Our Lady as somewhat lacking in courtesy, it may be well to add that point of fact the Monastery was founded in 862 by "pious men of Adrianople," and that there were actually nunneries in the neighbourhood to a much later date!

More characteristic of the season was the ceremony of the "Periphora" on the night of Good Friday - a rite usual in all the Balkan lands, if not all the Orthodox Church, but here carried out with unusual pomp and elaboration. In the centre of the "Naos" (the architectural nave, but ritual choir, of the church) there stood a magnificent bier, and on it lay, on cloth of gold, the embroidered figure of the dead Christ, the "Epitaphion." The hundred monks of the monastery (black figures and cowled heads) stood round it in their olive-wood stalls, while the Narthex without was packed with a crowd of pilgrims. There was no light in the great church, save from the wax torches carried by every worshipper, and marvellous was the effect of the half-seen masses of marble pillar and mosaic wall, gold eikonostasis and pavement of "Opus Alexandrinum."

Much of the first part of the service that lasted well over three hours (11pm to 2am) was dreary to a Western, consisting as it did of droned litanies, in which, as was remarked, "they do not chant the words, they chant the letters."But what bored us, to be honest, struck a very different chord in the mind of our Greek companion, who wept unaffectedly all the service through. If the rites of the Orthodox Church have that effect on an educated mind of the type for which they are intended, who can say that they are out of touch with them? It may not be our way, but it takes all sorts to make a Catholic church, if only uniformity-fanatics could believe it.

At last the litanies ended, and every member of the congregation, filing two and two before the bier, made solemn obeisance to it. Then came the "Periphora" itself, in which six priests, black vested, took the Epitaphion on their shoulders and bore it out of the Church. The congregation, forming in rough procession, and all bearing their torches, followed, chanting funeral anthems: and so we proceeded, with halts at various stations, all round the great court the monastery and back into the church once more. Finally, the Epitaphion was borne into the sanctuary, there to rest till, forty-eight hours later, the white robed priest could issue thence, to announce to the crowded congregation, "He is Risen."

It was a most interesting ceremon, and if one worshipper at least felt that what he saw might count kindred, not only with the empty tomb at Jerusalem, but also with the hall of mysteries at Eleusis, with the "night of torches" and the carrying of the dead and reviving God round the fields that he was to fertilise-well, were not these "Mystae" also feeling after Him that they might find Him?

It would take a volume to tell the half of what there is of interest on the Holy Mount, where one's hosts are delighted to find the foreigner who really cares, that they seem to expect one who can spare but days to spend months among them. In our case, duty called the British officers back to Athens, and we felt bound, Easter Day once over, to accept the courteous offer of an American naval captain, and take the passage home on his "destroyer," for Mount Athos is hard to get to, and get away from, and, indeed, were it otherwise, would not long remain what it is.

One wonders how long the great institution can go unchanged, for monasticism is changing here as in the West, and Russian destruction apart, the older monks complain that novices are fewer now than of old. Membership of the monastery does not shelter you from Ottoman law, now that the place is no-longer Ottoman territory, nor does it protect you from Greek conscription. So changes will come here as elsewhere, and it is well that the wiser heads in the Orthodox Church should see their necessity, and strive, as they are striving, to prepare for them. Every Anglican will sympathize with an well-thought-out scheme for making this home of the old-world piety into a centre of Orthodox learning and education for the Church to whom it belongs.


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