The following article, which appeared in the 8 March 2014 issue of the British Catholic magazine The Tablet, explores the terrain and great doctrines of Mt Athos, the venerable bulwark of Orthodox monasticism since Byzantine times.
Aside from my endeavor to find a celebrated monk, in which I did inevitably succeed, there were plenty of diversions, some less comic than others, involving Greek parishioners going to make amends for their sins to have a rationale for committing new ones, cells so cold they froze your phone in the night, and cheery Russian pilgrims in with jackets and baggage who appeared to have tumbled out of the pages of Dostoyevsky.
The wonderful thing about visiting Athos in spring is that it is usually warm enough, full of flowers and sunny skies, but not yet inundated by the summer crowds. I am told and have long been obliged to write that you need to book six months in advance for visiting the monasteries, but I have never had that problem. There has always been free space on the list when I have chosen to go.
The present article discusses a unique theological contribution made by the Orthodox Church, and particularly associated with Athonite monks over the centuries (and Athos-trained theologians such as St Gregory Palamas, 14th-century church leader in Thessaloniki). Hesychasm is a doctrine of inward contemplation and stillness that derives ultimately from the Desert Fathers of early Christian Egypt, and which was cultivated over the centuries through texts and oral tradition; the concept of having a ‘spiritual father’ to instruct one.
The ultimate collection of hesychastic texts, a multi-volume compilation known as the Philokalia, was put together by Athonite monks and subsequently has been translated into many languages. It played an important role in disseminating Orthodox spiritual belief, and not just dogma or canon law, through the Balkans and Eastern Europe during the time of the Russian and declining Ottoman Empires.
While it does not have the canon status of the Bible in wider Christendom, the Philokalia is still a fundamental collection for Orthodox and general Christian practice. The compilation contains works ranging from anecdotes and imperatives of obscure saints and ascetics to longer theological treatises from the 4th to 15th centuries, representing essentially the primary Byzantine supplement to the original Christian texts as found in the Bible.
Translations of the Philokalia into other languages have followed sporadically during the 20th century. The poet T.S. Eliot famously lobbied the publishing company Faber & Faber to issue a partial release. Now, a multi-decade project to translate the full text into English for the first time manifested in 1983, with the publication of Vol. 1 of the Philokalia, translated by G.E.H. Palmer Philip Sherrard, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (available on Amazon.com here). This project has continued over the years, resulting in subsequent volumes appearing in English. For more information about the work, you can listen to an interview on Youtube conducted in 2013 with Metropolitan Ware, a great orator whose Oxford lectures were once upon a time attended by the present author.
Note: for more information on all things Athonite, including history and current information on how to visit, please see the website of the UK-based Friends of Mt Athos here.