When one studies the great monastic life of the Holy Mountain, the achievements of the brave fighters of the Church, who stand as guards and defenders of our true Faith, one sees that they are like the old ascetics of Egypt, Mt. Sinai, Palestine and Syria, with the same thirst and desire for salvation, sanctity and the most perfect ascetic way of life.
The Athonite monks and ascetics proved to be equal to those fathers of the East in regards to their abstinence from food, when one considers the difference in climatic conditions, Mount Athos being further north, has severe winters and is surrounded by sea. In contrast, the countries of the East, which have warm and dry climates, favour more extreme and longer periods of fasting. It has been rumoured that monks came from the Thebaid of Egypt to Katounakia on Mount Athos, but unable to endure the climate, left behind their katounia1, and that is why the area was named Katounakia.
The spirit of Eastern Orthodox Monasticism, a spirit which is evangelical, apostolic, hesychastic, ascetic, as lived in the holy Gospel, was passed on through Egypt, Palestine and Syria to Constantinople, Bithynia and to Mount Athos. Orthodox Monastic Tradition is ascetical as is the holy Gospel, for the Gospel and asceticism are combined as the ascetic life of the Lord and of the Holy Apostles indicates. However, this Tradition is at the same time hesychastic, philosophical, philokalic. It aims at the discovery of the Kingdom of God within us, at restoring the ancient beauty, at purification, enlightenment and deification. And finally, Orthodox Monastic Tradition is eucharistic, prayerful and eschatological. Every day the monks on Mount Athos experience the presence of God in the Divine Liturgy, through their mystical way of life, in noetic prayer as uncreated energy, in the Divine Liturgy through participation of the Holy Eucharist.
The original conception of the work at hand was the desire and incitement of my venerable and ever memorable spiritual father and Geronda, who would repeatedly say to me: “Collect material, go to that monk, hermit, coenobite, hesychast, disciple, abbot and compile notes to make a Hagioritic Gerontikon”. At the same time his own experiences and memories were a source from which we drew information. He himself was a monk of Mount Athos, from the holy Skete of St. Anne. Even though he had to abide elsewhere for reasons independent of his own will, his mind and heart were on Athos, talking about its mysteries, its byzantine grandeur and various narrations. While my spiritual father narrated, we kept notes (with my beloved spiritual brother, the Very Reverend Archimandrite Daniel Gouvalis) and two publications were prepared: the series Contemporary Athonite Profiles and the book Memories from Panagia’s Garden.
Other respected persons whom we came in contact with and who helped us were: Abbot of the h.M. Dionysiou, Gabriel, the “grandfather”; Abbot of the h.M. Gregoriou, Vessarion; Former abbot of the h.M. of St. Paul, Andrew; Abbot of the h.M. Philotheou, Ephraim, Abbot of the h.M. Dionysiou, Charalambos, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, Elder Gerontios of the Danielites; Elder Michael the Kafsokalyvitan; Elder Theodosius of St. Paul’s; Father Athanasius the Iviritan; Elder Lazarus of Dionysiou; Elder Damaskinos of St. Basil’s; Elder Theophylactos the Kafsokalyvitan; Elder Christodoulos the Katounakiotan; Elder Modestos the Konstamonitan; Elder Dionysius the Kartsonian; Elders Arsenios, Joachim, Bartholomew and Chrysanthos from St. Anne’s; Elder Paul the physician from Lavra; Father Ephraim of Katounakia; monk Paisios of Panagouda; Elder Gerasimos the hymnographer; monk Porphyrios the Kafsokalyvitan and Father Anthimos from St. Anne’s.
Significant information was also given by the following fathers: Father Theoklitos of Dionysiou; the Danielites, Thomasites, Gerasimites, Kartsonians, Father Evdokimos of Vatopedi; Father Symeon of Simonopetra, Elder Archilles of St. Anne’s; Father Maximos the Iviritan, Elder Meletios, Elder Makarios of New Skete and Father Makarios of St. Anne’s.
For this arduous task and in order to describe authentic and genuine incidents, we tried to cross reference the information given either among the contemporary fathers with the written accounts we had or from one written document to another. Whenever we came across something obscure or not clear, we noted by saying “it has been rumoured” or “they say”.
The life events and accounts of the Fathers are presented as simply as possible, briefly and with accuracy. Our desire was to follow the style of the ascetic manner of writing of the old Gerontikon and Lausaikon2, a style which is the distinct difference of our Orthodoxy, so much in words as in art form. For indeed, whether you are reading the sayings of the fathers or standing before a byzantine icon, you experience the same deep feeling which transmits spirit and life, grace and inner strength, without condiments, worldly colours and shapes or any other ornaments and attachments. The sayings of the Elders, like the byzantine icon, are not exaggerated. They are direct, deep, plain, real. They are truth itself.
In gathering the material for editing and the presentation of this ATHONITE GERONTIKON at hand, we referred to all books and periodicals available on the ascetic struggles on Mount Athos which supplemented our own notes as well as the narrations from both the older and contemporary hagiorite fathers and brothers.
By having recorded and recollected extracts of the lives of the holy Fathers, who laboured and excelled on Athos, our intention was to show the continuation of the Tradition of Athos, the Holy Mountain, which constitutes the ascetic Acropolis of Orthodoxy.
We would like to add that the Holy Mountain is called “Panagia’s Garden”. Gardens always have a wide variety of flowers of different colours, shapes and fragrances. Something similar occurs here as well: the virtues are also many and various. Yet the Source of these virtues is one and the same, the same Holy Spirit, the same Grace. As for the thorns, we have nothing to say concerning them. They are always there, representing human failures. But who can pay attention to the thorns and ignore the flowers. The worker bees prefer the flowers.
This present work, by God’s grace and the blessings of all past and present hagiorite fathers, may perhaps serve as a deterrent to the increasing danger of worldliness, change and deterioration of the Orthodox Monastic Tradition. There is a danger that the Monastic way of life may become easy, whereas by its nature and form it follows the “strait and narrow” which is ridden with afflictions. Its beauty may be defiled by lack of hard work and deprivation and, its dignity eliminated by adding rather than taking away the comforts of life. True monks have discovered the philosophy of depriving themselves of material things. The world suffers from the madness of gaining possessions. Such is the craze of contemporary man, that it adds misery upon misery. In an attempt to gain more material things, man is entangled in a vicious cycle of concerns, stress and despair.
As an epilogue to the GERONTIKON, we considered it profitable to include the incomparable encomiastic discourse of the Holy Fathers of Athos, written by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, a sweet palatable ending, to sweeten in this way, our unskilful writings and make tasteful the experience of the reader.
It was necessary to publish a Holy Mountain Gerontikon in simple style and level in order to be appreciated by contemporary monastics and lay-Christians alike and for all those who will live in the 21st century which we have already entered. The ATHONITE GERONTIKON is able to serve as a strong link in the chain of our Tradition. A Tradition of a world, whose rays are able to enlighten the darkness of our times also. A world over one thousand years old condensed in 650 pages.
It was to us, the humble and unworthy, that the lot fell upon to deal with such an important task, surpassing our ability. Perhaps someone in the future, gifted and noted for their writings, experience and virtue, will present us with a better piece of work, free from our existing shortcomings, for the glory of God and the benefit of souls. We desire this whole-heartedly.
- Katounia: Footwear worn in those times, i.e. sandals.
- Lausauikon: A book containing biographies of holy ascetics of Egypt and Palestine. Bishop Palladius of Helenopolis, having compiled the biographies, probably around the middle of the 5th century, dedicated the book to the Byzantine patrician Lausa from whom its name is derived.