by Reader Nicholas Chapman
A review of: Speake, Graham. A History of the Athonite Commonwealth: The Spiritual and Cultural Diaspora of Mount Athos (Cambridge University Press).
294 pp. • $39.95 • Paperback • ISBN: 978–1‑10834–922‑2
I am writing this review on the feast day of the Elevation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross of the Lord. The troparion of the feast is still freshly in my mind and heart. Through it we ask the Lord, “by the power of Thy Cross preserve Thy Commonwealth.”
The book I am reviewing draws our attention to a commonwealth within this wider commonwealth of Orthodox Christians. It is a book that takes the reader across to many different places and earthly nations. We see how in each of these the seeds of a common vision of the spiritual life as expressed through Athonite monasticism were planted and have borne fruit through the lives of manifold saints. By doing this the work reveals the primacy of Theology ( that is the knowledge of God acquired through prayer and ascetical labors) over political philosophies and earthly kingdoms, which can so easily become the idols that separate us from Christ.
The author, Dr Graham Speake, is known to many as a founder and Chairman of The Friends of Mount Athos, an organization that had done so much over the past quarter of a century to materially support the Holy Mountain, facilitate pilgrimage and give the monks a voice when interacting with the wider Western world. He previously authored Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, in which he offers a comprehensive history of the Holy Mountain itself over its thousand year-plus existence from the ninth century up to our own time. In this new work he postulates the existence of an Athos beyond Athos composed of centers
…spread all over the heartlands of the Orthodox world and even beyond, as spiritual fathers have attracted and inspired groups of disciples who have in turn become spiritual fathers to new groups of disciples, who have carried the torch of Athonite monasticism to parts of the world which it had never previously illumined. This monastic diaspora is what I have, ‘rather intrepidly’, chosen to term the Athonite Commonwealth. (p. 9)
Successive chapters introduce the reader to the breadth of this movement over time and place, introducing us to saints with whom we are perhaps already familiar together with others much less known amongst Orthodox Christians in the West. We owe the author a debt of gratitude for bringing together in one place so many secondary sources that make this acquaintance possible. The reader will travel through these pages from Athos to Georgia, the Balkans, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Wallachia and Albania, together with America, England and France in more recent times. In the course of these travels they will meet saints as varied as John the Iberian, Sergius of Radonezh, Theodosius of Trnovo, Paisius Velichkovsky and Kosmas the Aetolian. I might at this point interject one criticism — Dr Speake makes no mention of the very important role of the Holy Mountain in the revival of Orthodox monasticism in Syria and Lebanon since the end of World War II.
As well as being gifted with the pen Dr Speake is a very able photographer. The text is thus mostly illumined with his own images. This includes the cover of the book itself, which features a shot of the Kiev-Caves Lavra. Given the background of events in the world against which this review is being written I can only hope and pray that this glimpse of the main holy place of Kiev will continue to be a fitting illustration for a book devoted to the Orthodox Commonwealth — a Church of many members who seek to serve and not to be served and whose mutual sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ leads them to defer one to the other in love and to point the world toward the Heavenly kingdom.
Reader Nicholas Chapman is the Director of Holy Trinity Publications and a historian of early Western encounters with the Orthodox Church. The primary focus of his research is Col. Phillip Ludwell III.
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