Saturday, May 22, 2010


Though I also tend to suspect the monks at Athos are probably not the most well-adjusted men in the world (given their extreme stance against even female animals, except cats) I found this very intriguing:
A young monk appears and takes your permit and passport. He reappears like the angel in Revelation after about a half hour's silence in heaven, restoring you with a glass of cool water, a little glass of anise liquor, a square of fruit jelly, and spiced Turkish coffee. It's the sign that you have been admitted among the guests. You are entitled to a bed in a room for six within the centuries-old walls, with freshly laundered sheets and a towel. From now on you will live the life of a monk.

Or rather you will do as you please. The monasteries of Athos are not like those in the West – walled citadels where every move, every word is under communal rule. On Athos there is something for everyone. There is the solitary hermit on the rock precipice, whose food they send up little by little with a basket. There are the anchorites in their huts hidden among the brooms and strawberry trees on the coast of the mountain. There are those without a permanent dwelling, always on the move and ever restless. There are the solemn colonies of communal life ruled by an abbot, here called the "igoumenos." There are the village monasteries where each monk keeps his own pace.

Megisti Lavra is one of the latter types. Within its walls there are squares, alleys, churches, arbors, fountains, mills. The cells are in blocks like in an Eastern Kasbah. The blue plaster stands out, while red is the sacred color of the churches. When the call for prayer is made, with seven-tone bells and the beating of the wooden talanton, the monks set off for the "catholikon," the main church. But if someone wants to pray or to eat alone, nothing keeps him from remaining in his cell. It's this way even for the visitor, except that he has very few alternatives.


What Western, Catholic liturgies today are able to initiate simple hearts into similar mysteries and to inflame them with heavenly thoughts? Joseph Ratzinger, previously as cardinal and now as pope, hits the mark when he points to the vulgarization of the liturgy as the critical point for today's Catholicism. On Athos the diagnosis is even more radical: the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear. "Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism," the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. "A God who doesn't deify man can't have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity."


Eliseos, the igoumenos, has just returned from a tour of monasteries in France. He prizes Solesmes, bastion of Gregorian chant. But he judges the Western Church as too much "the prisoner of a system," too "institutional."

I've often said that the fact that they so blithely destroyed the liturgy, but then insisted on maintaining the corrupt feudal institutionalism with things like mandatory celibacy and adult-boarding-school seminary for diocesan priests...shows just where the Latin hierarchy's priorities were organizationally and, I must assume, what sick priorities they had even within their own psyches.

Live and let live. I think you'll find that the people who want to will do these things voluntarily. Authoritarianism and institutionalism has never made anyone holy, though it has made many miserable. Beautiful liturgy, on the other hand, has made many holy, and almost no one miserable.

No comments: