An Athos Beyond Athos: The Spiritual Commonwealth of the Holy Mountain

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.

About the author

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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