Laziness and greed on Mount Athos

March 9 2013

The monks of a monastery on Mount Athos in which the writer had been spending the night as a guest in June 1912 courteously expressed to him, the morning after, their hope that his sleep had not been disturbed by their frequent nocturnal celebrations of the Liturgy. Wishing to return his hosts’ courtesy in kind, the writer on his side expressed the hope that the monks did not find these never intermitted night-long vigils too painfully exhausting. “Not at all”, replied the monks, “considering that we are able to sleep in the day-time.” – “And how do you manage to do that?” their English guest inquired. “O, well, because we have fine estates in Rumili, with peasants on them to work them for us. You will remember our showing you yesterday our arsenal at the water’s edge, stored with provisions of gram, oil, and wine. All that comes from our estates, and the peasants have to deliver it to us at the arsenal by water.” – “And how do the peasants live?” I asked. “O, the peasants live like dogs”, said the monks, “but you can see for yourself what an admirable arrangement ours is. As the peasants work for us and fetch and carry for us, instead of our having to do any of this for ourselves, we can afford to sleep in the day-time and so keep ourselves fresh for praying at night, and this is really most advantageous, as you can imagine. After all, most people in the World – including, perhaps, Your Honour (τὸν λόγον σας) – are in this respect in the less favourable position of our peasants. Having, as they do have, to work all day, they are forced to spend the night in sleep instead of in prayer, in order to be fit for work again next morning; so at night-time the volume of prayers reaching God is at a minimum, and this means that God can give to a prayer offered up to Him during the night an amount of individual attention that would be out of the question in the day-time, when the great majority of Mankind are awake and in the running to gain a hearing for their prayers at odd moments of their working day. Yes, thanks to the endowments bequeathed to us by pious benefactors, we monks do find ourselves in a decidedly advantageous position.”

The kind of story, then considered gently funny, that used to appear in Douglas Woodruff’s Talking at Random column in The Tablet, 1937 to ’68 and ’72 to ’78. Toynbee would have read it occasionally.

In any case, entirely believable. In September 2008, on the eve of the recession in Greece, the Vatopedi monastery, one of twenty monasteries on Mount Athos, was accused of enhancing its real estate portfolio through corrupt deals made by Abbot Ephraim and the monk Arsenios with the government of Kostas KaramanlisMichael Lewis told the story in Vanity Fair, October 2010 and in Boomerang, Travels in the New Third World, New York, WW Norton, 2011, and compared Ephraim and Arsenios to Skilling and Lay of Enron.

Abbot Ephraim

Abbot Ephraim carrying the Belt of the Mother of God on a roadshow through Russia in late 2011; who are the others?; picture credit: Valeriy Melnikov at RIA Novosti, cropped, use deemed fair for non-commercial scholarly purposes

Ephraim was jailed in December on his return to Greece, but released the following March. He and Arsenios are still being investigated.

RIA Novosti, piece by Andrei Zolotov, Jr:

“The Belt of the Virgin Mary, otherwise referred to as the Precious Sash, or Cincture, of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos – the holy treasure of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece – is travelling abroad for the first time. The Belt is travelling in style. It flies in a private jet, chartered by the tour’s organizer, the influential St. Andrew Foundation, and is accompanied by six Vatopedi monks. In St. Petersburg, it was welcomed by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, Governor Alexander Misharin and the region’s bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, met the relic with the guard of honor before a procession of some 15,000 people took it to the cathedral.”

He quotes George Fedotov’s The Russian Religious Mind (1946): “Russia knew neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation with their explanations, symbolic interpretations and the uprooting of medieval idol-worshipping.” Didn’t he mean veneration? What kind of symbolic interpretation could have undermined icon-veneration in the Orthodox world? “People were more superstitious” might have been a better way of putting it.

Mary is supposed to have worn the belt on earth and given it to St Thomas during her transition to heaven. The Monastery also holds a silver and jewel-encrusted reliquary allegedly containing the skull of St John Chrysostom, a chalice made of a single piece of jasper, many icons and a large library.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

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