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Friday, March 6, 2009

the original 'boys in the hood'

i found this article on a british website about a sect of orthodox christian monks under seige. these monks come from greece, and they're an obscure, breakoff sect of the mainstream orthodox church. though i myself am an orthodox christian and i can sympathize with these monks, given the course of history that my faith has taken, i think these men are being a little overreactive.

Outside the church of St Antoni, a small domed chapel on the cliffs above Esphigmenou, a chilly grass snake struggles along a cold rock. From here, the monastery looks like a fortress, its sea-face a blank, turreted wall against the Aegean. This wall has protected the riches and relics within from pirates and Muslims alike. It has weathered the humiliations of the Ottoman Turks, and gloried in the triumph of Byzantium. And yet Esphigmenou now finds itself embroiled in a battle so formidable that its occupiers believe that the outcome will determine the very future of humanity.

The tale of the Esphigmenou monks is one that should exist only in the pages of a Dan Brown thriller. Divided from the Orthodox establishment by a theological disagreement, and living in an isolated monastic peninsula, they are fighting a lone battle for the soul of their religion.

Esphigmenou is a community under siege. Its lands have been seized, its bank accounts frozen, and it has severed all contact with its 19 brother monasteries throughout Mount Athos, the obscure, semi-autonomous monks' republic of northern Greece. In that time, the monks have faced warships, marines, the police and the coastguard, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with rival monks, while at night they take part in stealthy sorties into the surrounding forest and in a speedboat that smuggles in essential goods. All of this to beat a blockade imposed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of their own church.

Put simply, the conflict is down to what the monks consider is Patriarch Bartholomew's cosy relationship with the Pope. The monks believe that ecumenism - the search for religious unity, in their case with Roman Catholicism - is not just heresy, it is the final heresy that precedes the end of the world. After years of debate with Constantinople over it, the monastery ceased to pray for the Patriarch 30 years ago, and since then he has been trying to evict them. When a warship was dispatched by the Greek Government to cut off the monastery by sea Esphigmenou faced them with a black banner: Orthodoxy or death.

Because of their views on the papacy, there are limits to the monks' hospitality.
“You are Catholic,” states Dimitrius, after I arrive at the monastery, having lied about my destination to the Greek officials controlling entry to Mount Athos and walked 10km through the forest. “The father wants you to know you cannot go in the church, and you cannot eat with the monks in the trapeza [dining hall].” Between us, a thick booklet shows pictures of the Patriarch, Bartholomew, embracing the Pope and other Catholic leaders. Its caption Dimitrius translates with a slightly embarrassed smile. It reads: “The kiss of Judas.”


Dimitrius, who usually works in a pizza restaurant in Thessaloniki, has come here for spiritual fulfillment, but also because he is trying to quit smoking, banned in the monastery (“I hit two targets with one bullet,” he explains). We sit talking together in the wooden-roofed guest quarters, warming ourselves on a wood-burning stove and eating Turkish delight - although I suspect they don't call it that. There are a few biblical pictures on the wall, but most are of stern men with excellent moustaches: “Greek heroes,” Dimitrius explains. Another pilgrim is more descriptive. “They kill Turks,” he says, grinning as he makes a throat-cutting gesture.

The monks here belong to a small minority of Orthodox called Old Calendarists, who reject the Gregorian Calendar, by which most of the world counts its years. Although superseded half a millennium ago, their alternative - the Julian Calendar - does at least have the virtue of not being introduced by a Catholic, Pope Gregory XIII.

It may seem absurd, but the monks regard themselves as the guardians of their faith. For them, it is deadly serious.

Father Savvas was asleep the last time what he calls the “false brotherhood” attacked. One of seven monks stationed in one of Esphigmenou's outlying buildings, he had been expecting trouble. At 6am it came.

Monks, asked by the Patriarch to restore the monastery to his control, were trying to break in. “We had finished the morning service an hour before,” Father Savvas recalls from his office overlooking the monastery's central courtyard. “And then someone heard people using crowbars on the lock. He shouted ‘Fathers, fathers, they are coming,' but they were already in the basement.”


In the ensuing struggle, Father Savvas was the only one of the seven monks to escape hospital. “It was extremely violent; they punched, kicked and used iron bars. One of us still has problems with his back. But they did not think who was inside; we had filled the building with very powerful men. People say: ‘You are monks, you must tolerate everything.' We are not obliged to be idiots, though. We did not have the blessings of the abbot to punch - only passive defence - but it was enough.”


At this, he looks a little wistful, and points to a large man in the courtyard. “You see him; he used to be a bodyguard. He is like a gorilla. If I had given just him permission to punch, we could have incapacitated them all.


Although the attack was two years ago, if anything the situation has worsened. Since 2005 the monastery has existed without any official external funding. It produces most of its food in fields and vineyards around the main building, and ships in the rest - avoiding the coastguard with night-time smuggling runs. Any external holdings, which include a farm just outside Athos, are kept permanently occupied. And whenever monks are rotated from this service they have to sneak through the woods - crossing a border controlled by the police.


While European Union funds have converted surrounding monasteries to near-hotel standard, with showers, electricity and modern kitchens, Esphigmenou now gets by, it claims, on a daily budget of €130. Why, many have asked, would they make such sacrifices, simply because the leader of their church is friendly with the Pope? “The Patriarch tells us that we have no love for Catholics - no love in our hearts,” explains Father Savvas who, after 20 years in the monastery, is one of the more senior monks. “Well, is it an expression of love to let people live in deceit? In Europe, with your Protestantism and your Catholicism you are in...” he stops, to find the mot juste in his English-Greek dictionary. “Oh yes, perversion.” The word pleases him. “Popism is a perversion of Christianity.”


The churches of East and West finally split in 1054, for political as much as theological reasons - the latter centring on apparently minor differences in the Creed. But Esphigmenou's fight is about so much more than a dislike of Catholicism - it is about an entire worldview, in which the stakes could not be higher. They believe that after the churches eventually unite (and they are convinced that they will), the day of judgment will be upon us. “One day, one government will control all the world,” Father Savvas says. “Only once will this happen, and this government will be run by the Antichrist, the Messiah of the Jews.”


For this to happen, there must be globalisation - and for true globalisation there must be unity of faith. “The European Union offer money, much money, to restore the monasteries,” Father Savvas says. “But it is a trap - to make friends and destroy us. Our fathers hate ecumenism; they are against globalisation. And anyone who hates globalisation is an enemy of the EU.


“The coincidences are so many that you cannot turn a blind eye. For example, globalisation requires the barcode system.” He finds a magazine and points to two lines on its barcode that are longer than others, repeated three times. “Do you know which number each double bar is?” This is conspiracy theory bingo, and I am about to get a full house. 6? “Yes ! It is 6!” 666: the mark of the beast. Technically, I later learn, those lines do not represent 6 but I doubt that the monks, who proudly call themselves zealots, would have taken my word for it.


That said, it would be wrong to consider them hostile. Throughout my stay they are friendly, welcoming and unfailingly hospitable - even if initially their rules made me feel isolated. Before my first meal and, sitting on the stone steps of the church, I wait with the cats - for the leftovers after the others have eaten. Meals on Athos are an austere affair, even if you are Orthodox. Beans and rice, wine and fruit - maybe fish on Sundays. In Esphigmenou, they sit in silence while, from a pulpit, a monk reads from the Bible in Greek. When the reading is over, the meal is over.


And then, crowding out of the trapeza with the other monks, Father Chrysostom beckons me inside. The oldest surviving building, the centuries-old frescoes of the trapeza are blackened from the indignities of occupying Turkish troops, who in the 19th century briefly used it as a kitchen. Sitting me down on a wooden bench away from the clatter of tidying up, Father Chrysostom, the head of the kitchen, brings plates of rice pudding, chickpeas and kiwi fruit. Other monks put sweets and wine in front of me, with a wink, like over-indulgent uncles.


Father Chrysostom almost tries too hard to put me at ease. “I like very much your English soap,” he says through a long, scraggy beard. I look confused. He jogs to a friend, then returns - victorious, but no less mysterious. “I like very much your English swords!” he makes the movement of a pirate removing his cutlass from a scabbard, and grins.


Later he introduces me to Kitsos, a shabby donkey, who hangs around the monastery. His ostensible purpose is as insurance, “in case the oil runs out”, but while the tractors still work he leads a charmed existence eating apples, being stroked and occasionally pulling his stake out of the ground to canter - triumphant - across the vineyard.


When I am finally allowed to meet Abbot Methodius - the stern philosophical scourge of the Orthodox Church - he has a stuffed toy donkey on his windowsill, looking very much like Kitsos. Methodius, who heads the monastery, tells me that he believes they stand alone, upholding the true faith until the time when, perhaps, the Patriarch is declared a heretic. “Esphigmenou will last, so long as God wants us,” he says. And he welcomes pilgrims - housed in two rooms, their wood-burning stoves gently warming centuries of accumulated body odour.


It is here that I meet Alexis Papalexiou - a US citizen who has returned to the old country, and the old faith. Extravagantly hairy, and wearing a vest, he looks like a moustachioed Tony Soprano. “For weeks I had these dreams,” he tells me. “I heard the Holy Spirit, and it said ‘prodotis, prodotis' - ‘traitor, traitor',” he stage whispers. “Then, later, ‘Judas'.
“It stopped when I switched to the Old Calendar. Esphigmenou holds the true faith: that is why the Devil, and the Patriarch, are against them.”


After evening prayers, hooded monks navigate the cloisters, lighting dim oil lamps on the stone walls. The cats move inside as well, lurking like malevolent shadows - waiting to trip up unsuspecting pilgrims on night-time toilet trips. To enter this world is to be in a place where demons still possess men, where visions are commonplace and where icons perform daily miracles. With the zealotry of the convert, they want to save me too. As I am dozing off one night, Alexis wakes me with an urgent whisper. “Tom, I will not see you tomorrow, so I must say: remember that prostitution, adultery, seeing a witch - these are deadly sins.” Silence for a bit. “And jerking off, too, that is bad.”


On my final morning Constantinos, a stockbroker from Athens, negotiates for me to visit the church. “See this picture,” Constantinos points to a Madonna and Child. “Many years ago it was stabbed. And look, now it bleeds.” He takes me to another. “This is our most powerful picture. It has done many miracles.” Gathered around its base are gold offerings - including a swimming medal.


Constantinos confesses that they are worried about what I will write. “Thomas,” (he pronounces it Toe-mass), “it is important that you write the truth. We say, you can fight a war with blood or with ink - so do not lie, you are powerful. Do not say ‘they are bad - they would not let me eat with them.' That is just our rule. When you write, ask the Holy Spirit to help you.”


As I walk through the stone gateway for the last time, I pass an aged monk, sitting sentinel beneath its frescoes. I offer him a Quality Street - the last of my bulwark against a beans-only diet. He takes the box and turns it over carefully, methodically. Then he points to the barcode, and shakes his head, his long beard accentuating the motion. The packet is returned, untouched.


Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece, is a semi-autonomous monks' republic. For the past 1,000 years all females, including most domestic animals, have been banned. Why? One story is that the monks became too frisky with shepherdesses, another that the Patriarch of Constantinople wanted to remove temptation.

The earliest record of Athonite monks is their attendance at a church council in 843. The first monastery was founded in 963. It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. But some monks claim that Emperor Constantine the Great founded the first monastery in the 4th century. Others claim Christian tradition began when the Virgin Mary found refuge on Athos in a storm. Recently Athos has become a favoured retreat of Vladimir Putin and the Prince of Wales.


i support my orthodox brothers, but to be honest, i wouldnt mind reuniting with the catholic church. given that the orthodox church is a minority almost everywhere you go (not so much in the soviet-bloc countries, but its getting there), the catholic influx would certainly boost our numbers and give us more spiritual armor against the moslems and athiests. sure we'd have our differences to settle out (we don't have popes or recognize popes), but that can be done so in a fair and reasonable matter.

good bye and god bless!!
tamtam

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