"A Rejoinder to a Challenge of the Legitimacy of the Orthodox Monastic Brotherhood of the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou"

Published in Agios Agathangelos o Esphigmenites (September-October 2002), pp. 1-8.

In response to a legal brief regarding the Orthodox, Athonite tradition followed by the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou that was authored by a committee of three legal scholars, we will briefly outline the facts on Esphigmenou from an Orthodox perspective. In doing so, we will also very candidly underline a number of observations and suggestions that, we believe, will assist the reader in understanding the circumstances of Orthodox confession on Mount Athos since 1924.

The Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou has always enjoyed a reputation of preeminence in spirituality among the monasteries of Mount Athos. Located on the north-eastern edge of the Athonite peninsula, the Monastery is often rendered inaccessible in the winter months due to rough weather that prevents travel by sea, while the rough terrain makes access by land difficult.

The Monastery was also one of the poorer monasteries of Mount Athos in that it lacked suitable woodlands necessary for the forestry that has often relieved other monasteries during times of need. Despite this fact, the Monastery is dominated by majestic buildings and is one of the larger monasteries in terms of area. Esphigmenou also possess a sizeable Katholikon, or monastery cathedral, that is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. 

The meek brotherhood has been characterized by its love for its visitors and its exemplary hospitality. Even today, the brotherhood selflessly makes a great effort to continue and preserve its tradition of hospitality, despite the limitations it confronts in the face of government restrictions of its income by order of the Athonite Community. 

The Monastery recently completed the repair of its immense roof and has made a number of efforts to renovate much of its interior space. In the place of large dark rooms, the monks have built monastic cells, chapels, and other functional rooms while at the same time gradually improving the small dock that services the Monastery by sea. In addition to these improvements, the industrious monks of Esphigmenou have also renovated many buildings that are located within the Monastery’s compound, all the while fulfilling their spiritual duties as Orthodox monks. What is more, the brotherhood maintains a rigorous preservation program, going to great lengths to preserve the Monastery’s original architectural façade.

The brotherhood of Esphigmenou observes the tradition of the Monastery and—in general—of Mount Athos assiduously and with much diligence and piety. The Monastery is administered by the Abbot and the Council of Elders according to the Monastery’s charter as it has been approved by the Athonite Community and in compliance to Charter of the Holy Mountain. 

The patriotism of Esphigmenou’s monks has historically proven to be noteworthy, especially during the Macedonian struggle in the early twentieth century. Moreover, the Monastery’s loyalty to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as its devotion to each of the Ecumenical Patriarchs has been stronger than that of other Athonite Monasteries. Indeed, Esphigmenou has supplied the Ecumenical Patriarchate with a number of great patriarchs such as St. Athanasios Patriarch of Constantinople (1298-1310).

In truth, the respect and love of other Athonite monasteries as well as of all the Athonite monks toward Esphigmenou has been evident for many years.

The relations between the Monastery of Esphigmenou and the governing body of the Athonite Community, where the Monastery had been always lawfully and canonically represented, had been without problem. Problems began to arise in 1924 with the illicit reform of the calendar. The Athonite Community, with the exception of the Monastery of Vatopaidi, collectively ceased commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch. In 1927, however, a Patriarchal committee succeeded in negotiating a “compromise” of the faith that was accepted—as a result of much pressure—by all the Athonite Monasteries but not by all the Athonite monks.

The Patriarchal committee assured the Athonites that the calendar reform was not final in that it had not been accepted by all the Orthodox Churches. The issue, moreover, was to be reconsidered in an impending Pan-Orthodox Council that would resolve the matter accordingly. In this way, the Patriarchal committee persuaded the Athonite Community to continue observing the calendar first instituted by the First Ecumenical Council while commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch, pending the resolution of the calendar question by a Pan-Orthodox Council. To the Athonite monks, this reassurance implied the reintroduction of the Old Calendar. 

The compromise was accepted by all the Athonite monasteries but only partially by Esphigmenou as the monastery did not resume the commemoration of the Patriarch within the Monastery. It did, however, continue to receive representatives of the Patriarch and to commune with the other monasteries that commemorated. Its representatives, moreover, continued to participate and concelebrate at the Cathedral of Protatou where the name of the Patriarch was likewise commemorated.   

Their patience, however, was eventually spent as not only did the promised review of the calendar reform never materialize, but the Patriarchate allied itself with unbaptized “Christians” and became a founding member of the “World Council of Churches”. The Orthodox Churches thus became members of the newly established corporation of heretics following the lead of the formerly Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate. In truth, a plurality of “churches” does not exist so as to create a need to establish an institution such as the “World Council of Churches”. Thus, the participation of the Orthodox Churches in this institution represented a blasphemy and a diminution of the Church of Christ, contradicting the Symbol of the faith that states: “I believe . . . in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”.

After the canonical infractions outlined above, in 1965 the Ecumenical Patriarchate “lifted” the anathemas against the illicit community headed by the Pope of Rome. This event caused upheaval across Mount Athos, as one monastery after another ceased commemorating the Patriarch. Thus, the majority of monasteries, sketes, and dependencies of Mount Athos ceased commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 

Concerning this matter, on November 13, 1971 a special session of the Holy Assembly (Ιερά Σύναξις)—the governing representative body of Mount Athos—was convened. This special session of the Holy Assembly resolved that: “On the issue of resuming the commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, each Holy Monastery, as a self-governing entity, is to remain free to choose a course of action according to its conscience.”

After the death of the Patriarch Athenagoras and the subsequent election of Patriarch Demetrios—who proclaimed at his enthronement speech that he would follow the example of his predecessor Athenagoras, even promising to establish a dialogue with Islam—the Monastery of Esphigmenou resolved to remain faithful to the 1971 resolution of the Holy Assembly. The Archimandrites Andreas and Eudokimos, the Abbots of St. Paul and Xenphontos Monasteries, also remained faithful to the resolution and as a result were removed from their offices as Abbots.

In all this there was one contradiction. The monasteries that refused to commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch continued to send representatives to concelebrate at Protatou. Tolerance and economy in the name of unity could only last for a short time. In 1972, the Monastery of Esphigmenou ceased praying with representatives of the other monasteries and was subsequently expelled from the representative bodies of the Athonite Community. Since then, Esphigmenou has not been represented in the Athonite Community, as the Community attempted to intervene in the self-governance of Esphigmenou, over-stepping its authority and violating the 1971 resolution—and this, in matters of conscience and faith that touch upon personal salvation. 

The Athonite Community (in 1974), lead by Fr. Theokletos of Dionysiou and in cooperation with the Patriarchal committee, consented to the unjust and unethical resolution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, condemning the Esphigmenite fathers on canonical infractions and the violation of the Charter of Mount Athos. The Patriarchal resolution, moreover, ordered the exile of the Esphigmenite Abbot Fr. Athanasios and two members of the Monastery’s Council as well as the Monastery’s Secretary. 

For a second time, in 1979, the Patriarchal committee along with the Athonite Community, in violation of the Holy Canons and the Charter of Mount Athos, ordered the exile of Esphigmenite Abbot Fr. Euthymios and two other monks. 

In both of the above cases, the entire brotherhood convened and pleaded their “illicit” and “condemned” leaders not to leave them orphaned, but to remain with them in the common struggle unto death, as happened. 

*           *           *

In their legal brief, the three authors of the legal brief place blame on the Esphigmenite fathers on the grounds that: a) the Esphigmenite monks ceased commemorating the Patriarch, b) the Monastery’s failed to comply with the Patriarchal committee’s and the Athonite Community’s 1974 and 1979 exile sentences, and c) the Monastery’s refused to participate in the institutions of the Athonite Community through representatives.

What is clear, however, is that these scholars arbitrarily interpret the Charter of Mount Athos in order to incriminate the monks of Esphigmenou. 

Before arriving to any conclusions, the reader should take the following points into consideration:

1.      The commemoration of the Patriarch and his Synod is an extremely important matter for which one must take into consideration, not only the Athonite Charter, but also the Rudder of the Orthodox Church. The regulations that are inscribed in the Rudder have been promulgated by the Holy Apostles and the Fathers of the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are therefore immutable. What is more, one must not overlook the centuries-long tradition of the Holy Mountain.

We cannot enumerate all the heretical views and deeds of the last three Patriarchs here. It should suffice to say, however, that instead of being corrected, these views and deeds continuously multiply. We will refer to only a few actions of the current Patriarch that alienate him from the Orthodox Faith.

a.      The “lifting” of the anathema against the Latins in 1965 implied the lifting of the excommunication of the unbaptized, heretical Latins.

b.      The agreement of Balamand, signed by representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate along with eight other Orthodox Churches, stating that “the Orthodox Church along with the Papal illicit community have the same Apostolic Succession and the same validity in their mysteries”, represents a deviation from the Orthodox Faith.

c.       The Patriarch Bartholomew referring to the representatives of the Pope during the feast of the Patriarchal throne on November 30, 1998, among other blasphemies, uttered the following statement: “In view of the fact that one Church recognizes the other Church as a locus of Grace, proselytization of members from one Church to the other is precluded.” (See Εκκλησιαστική Αλήθεια, December 12, 1998) This implies unity with the illicit community of the Pope. This, in contrast to the Orthodox Patriarchs of Constantinople who established strict punishments for those who accept the Latins’ “mysteries”.

In this state of affairs, the Holy Mountain and specifically the Monastery of Esphigmenou should imitate the martyrs who refused to commune with the Latinophron Patriarch John Bekkos (1275-1282) instead of imitating those monasteries that accepted Bekkos with the justification that he had not been yet deposed. The former were made worthy of a martyrs crown, the latter were scourged by the wrath of God as examples for modern times.

The legal brief attempts to judge the Monastery of Esphigmenou based on what antimension the monks use during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. It is a fact that most of the Athonite Monasteries, out of piety, use old antimensia, usually consecrated before 1920. Other antimensia are also used that were consecrated by later Orthodox bishops. To be sure, each monastery is not required to change its antimensia upon the ascension of each new Patriarch. If one out of the nineteen Athonite Monasteries celebrates liturgy on an antimension consecrated by the Metropolitan of Siderokastron, for example, does it stand to reason that that monastery belongs to the Metropolitan Diocese of Siderokastron? Moreover, does the Charter of Mount Athos explicitly forbid each monastery to use antimensia consecrated outside the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople? Many antimensia that are used today have been consecrated by reposed Hierarchs. Does it follow that a monastery that uses such an antimension belongs to the reposed Hierarch?

2.      Compliance with the 1974 and 1979 sentences imposed on the Esphigmenou Abbots was impossible, contrary to what the legal scholars say. Sentences that are passed on individuals on the grounds that they follow the mandates of the Orthodox Church are groundless and void, as the authors of the brief well know. Reasons of faith may not be lumped into the same category with administrative controversies that belong to the jurisdiction of each monastery. Accordingly, all the monks of Esphigmenou frequently convened in general assembly for the reason that they were each concerned about the salvation of their souls. While anxious over the fact that their monastery was about to enter into the furnace of tribulation, each took responsibility for the brotherhood’s collective defiance. 

The legal brief repeatedly refers to the existence of “external agents” instigating the monks and strengthening the brotherhood’s resolve. The authors, however, need to demonstrate who these “external agents” were and how many. Vague accusations cannot stand. From what we know, the Esphigmenite fathers, as monastics, do not accept “councilors”, but rather, welcome whoever is willing to help them in their struggle. The monks of Esphigmenou are not persons that are led by the hand. 

One should point out that despite the ruthless persecutions and the frequent economic embargoes that are imposed on them, the monks of Esphigmenou were able—with God’s aid—to have the largest monastic brotherhood of all the monasteries on Mount Athos. 

Moreover, should an Orthodox Synod convene, not only will the Monastery’s unjust punishments be rejected, but the monks of Esphigmenou will be praised while their current unjust judges and their collaborators will be condemned. 

3.      No fault may be found with the Monastery of Esphigmenou in the fact that it does not participate in the institutions of the Athonite Community. Despite its lack of participation, Esphigmenou does not ignore the authority of the Community. Evidence of this is the Monastery’s report to the Athonite Community of the election of new Abbots. Esphigmenou submits all the necessary paper-work, documentation, and a copy of the election resolution to the Community, notwithstanding the insincerity and irony on the part of the “holy” representatives. The Monastery, moreover, accepts unconditional participation in the representative institutions of the Holy Mountain. In this present context, however, the Community has placed conditions that violate the religious consciousness of the Esphigmenite monks. Esphigmenou, on its part, awaits the condemnation of the pan heresy of Ecumenism-Syncretism and, indeed, all heresy, and the restoration of Orthodoxy as it was for 1,920 years. Such an event would allow all the Athonite monks to come together and to concelebrate and attend church services together as prior to 1924. Rather, it appears as though the Athonite Community does not await the restoration of Orthodoxy and the condemnation of heresy, nor does it await the proclamation that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and the call for all to come to Her. The Community, it would rather seem, supports further regression. This may explain why it is trying to lead Esphigmenou astray as well.

While the Charter of Mount Athos is a human document, it is imbued with the centuries-long tradition of the Holy Mountain. At the same time, however, it is imperfect. The Charter is enforceable only when the Church is in peace. It provides no previsions for the possibility of the Patriarch’s and his Synod’s deviation from the Orthodox Faith. The Charter does not foresee a Patriarch falling into heresy and thus does not guide the monks as to what to do in such a case. By contrast, the Rudder of the Church does foresee such circumstances and does provide instructions as to what to do should those circumstances arise. It should be added that the Rudder’s publication was officially approved and endorsed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The Charter, moreover, has been violated many times by the Patriarchate and the Athonite Community. This begs the question: Why the double standard? We will not refer to the violations here as we do not want to give the appearance of the wronged protesters. What is true, however, is that in the case of Esphigmenou, the Charter has been repeatedly violated by both the Athonite Community and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. For according to the Charter, should an individual monk violate the articles of the Charter—be he even an Abbot—he is tried first by his monastery. How is it, then, possible for the Patriarchate or the Community to claim first jurisdiction, circumventing the proper jurisdiction of the individual monastery as explicitly mandated by the Charter?

The following questions arise: Which article of the Athonite Charter authorized the 1974 prosecution and sentencing of Esphigmenite monks? Which articles of the Charter authorized similar measures taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate against an Abbot and three other superiors of Athonite Monasteries in 1994? These actions violated the first-tier juridical jurisdiction of the individual monasteries—a violation that does not even occur in secular courts!

Not only does the Athonite Community lack the jurisdiction to prosecute an entire monastery, but it is prohibited from discussing even correspondence regarding a monastery without the proper representation from the monastery in question. There are no regulations that warrant the prosecution of an entire monastic community or the summoning of individual monks to be tried first by the second-tier tribunal. Such proceedings are unacceptable. One must conclude that in using such logic, the three legal scholars—without realizing it—undermined the self-governance of each monastery.

Following the authors’ reasoning, should in the future Bartholomew sway the majority of the monasteries, an objection to an unreasonable demand, it stands to reason, would warrant the eviction of the entire dissenting brotherhood, or rather, its declaration as “schismatic” and then its eviction.

Do the authors seriously think that it is that easy to declare people “schismatic”, thereby serving the interests of the New Order and the New Age?

Indeed, if Esphigmenou’s struggle is labeled as a “rebellion”, then that label should be conferred to the Martyrs of the Holy Mountain who were massacred during the Patriarchate of John Bekkos as well as to the entire sanctified host of the confessors of the faith who suffered for the faith of the Fathers.        

The supervisory role of the Athonite Community is to focus its attention on cases where a monastery violates its internal regulations or the Charter of Mount Athos. 

The Community’s refusal to recognize the lawful election of the Monastery’s Abbot and its superiors was not motivated by an alleged violation of Esphigmenou’s internal regulations or of the Charter, but rather in order to force Esphigmenou to unite with the heresy of Ecumenism. The Community does not have statutory authority to impede or hinder a monastery from struggling in word and deed on behalf of Orthodoxy and vital national issues as all that is sacred and holy is being threatened by the political leadership of Greece. 

The Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou has remained faithful to the resolutions of the Council of Elders and according to the monastery’s internal regulations and the Charter of Mount Athos, as the election of new superiors in the place of the previous leadership was indeed lawful.

The Monasteries of Mount Athos are self-governing. The Athonite Community does not have the right to approve or disapprove the election of the Abbot or of the superiors. Its sole right is to review the procedures—whether the election was carried out according to the internal regulation and the Charter of Mount Athos. Similarly, the Patriarchate’s rights are limited to the right of notice of the election and its results. 

Failing to fulfill its duty, the Athonite Community, to which had been sent all the necessary documents announcing the election of Esphigmenou’s Abbot, did not review the lawful election but rather through its silence gave up the Orthodox struggle against Ecumenism-Syncretism and the seal of the anti-Christ, forming an unholy alliance with these forces in order to receive its subsidies. In this way, the Community is working to displace the Orthodox mind-set of Esphigmenou so that it may follow the example of the “Orthodox” Patriarchates and thereby accelerate the advent of the unlawful one. What is at hand, then, is a clear and obvious persecution of Orthodoxy.

The authors of the legal brief allege that the current Abbot of Esphigmenou engages is proselytism. They then present the specific article of the Charter that forbids proselytism. What they fail to consider is that the Holy Mountain in its entirety, since its establishment, has confessed Orthodoxy both in stillness and in word, as needs of times dictated. Is it, then, proselytism to advise Christians distance themselves from heretics? If the three authors accept this premise, then in order to be consistent they must first condemn St. Gregory Palamas, St. Mark of Ephesus, St. Kosmas the Aitolian, and the Martyrs of the thirteenth century that resisted John Bekkos and Michael VIII Palaiologos.

The Charter, however, refers to those who actively pursue proselytism vis-à-vis a recognized heresy. By contrast, the Abbot of Esphigmenou, the Archimandrite Methodios, struggles on behalf of Orthodoxy, the Athonite traditions, and Greece. He struggles to preserve the Greek language against the aggressive enemies of the Greek nation. Not only is Fr. Methodios not a rebel worthy of chastisement, but rather deserves to be praised.

The legal brief doubts the legitimacy of the Monastery’s monks that, along with the brotherhoods of the Monastery’s dependencies, is numbered at 108 monks and 11 novices. Instead, the authors only recognize four, including the current Abbot Fr. Methodios. According to the authors, the rest of the brotherhood are neither monks nor Athonites! What is more, they do not recognize the priesthood and the ordination of the current Abbot. The legal brief was indeed bold, and will certainly have serious repercussions for the souls of its authors.

The Archimandrite Methodios is a canonically ordained Orthodox priest with full Apostolic Succession. His priesthood cannot be doubted neither by a legal brief nor by a Pan-Orthodox Council. He is a priest eternally. The Holy Spirit does not take back Its gifts. Moreover, the priesthood cannot be taken away not even by a canonical defrocking in that a defrocking is merely the permanent suspension of sacerdotal authority.

Ordinations on Mount Athos are performed through the proposal of the Abbot and the approval of a monastery’s Council of Elders. Next, a monastery may invite in writing any Hierarch of its choosing in order to perform the ordination. Thus, the ordination of Athonite priests is performed without any other approval. Should a monastery invite a bishop from outside of the Holy Mountain, then that bishop must receive the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, according to the Charter. 

Furthermore, each monastic tonsure that was performed at Esphigmenou was according to the requirements of Orthodox monasticism—that is, with the prescribed period of trial, with the witness of the entire brotherhood, with the prescribed tradition of taking the vows of the monastic schema before the holy sanctuary, and the rite of tonsure—and cannot be denied even by a Pan-Orthodox Council. Violently detaching these men from their repentance is an act of sacrilege, as the Lord will hold those who cast schema-monks out on the streets responsible on the Day of Judgment.

In all this there exists one contradiction. From 1924 to 1975, the Monastery of Vatopaidi followed the New Calendar for fifty-one years. Thus, as the rest of the Athonite Peninsula celebrated the feast day of St. Spyridon, Vatopaidi celebrated the Nativity of Christ along with the Latins. The same followed for all the immovable feasts. 

The New Calendarist representative of Vatopaidi was never rejected by the Athonite Community for failing to conform to the rest of Mount Athos. Indeed, according to the customary order, a New Calendarist representative from the Monastery of Vatopaidi would receive the Consulship (Πρωτεπιστασία) every five years. Despite the fact that the issue was fundamentally religious in nature and disrupted the liturgical unity of the Holy Mountain, the Community tolerated Vatopaidi’s espousal of the calendar reform in respect for the monastery’s self-governance.

In the case of Esphigmenou, the Community showed no tolerance. Instead, they rejected the Monastery’s representatives. They froze Esphigmenou’s government subsidies that were given to the Monastery as compensation for the secularization of its property, calling for the intervention of a Patriarchal committee in order to force Esphigmenou to embrace the apostasy of Ecumenism—to commune with those who reject the uniqueness and singularity of the Orthodox Faith and who ally themselves with every possible demonic religion and heresy. Heresy, however, is alienation from God. For this reason, the fathers of Esphigmenou are fearful for the salvation of their souls and persevere—with the grace of God—every tribulation and ordeal. 

In order to facilitate the eviction of the brotherhood, the authors of the legal brief claim that since the monks of Esphigmenou are not recorded in the General List of Monks (μοναχολόγιον) of the Athonite Community, they are neither Athonites, nor Esphigmenites, nor even monks! It will be a terrible day when tonsures are declared null and void because they were not recorded in the files of the Athonite Community’s General List of Monks. It is good, in principle, for such an archive to exist, but it is reproachable when, either by an honest mistake or on account of a deliberate refusal of communication between a monastery and the Community, a monk not recorded in the General List is denied his identity as an Athonite, an Esphigmenite, and even a monk.

What is important in such a case is a self-governing monastery’s List of Monks. Indeed, not even the Charter of Mount Athos has the right to nullify a monk’s tonsure performed in a self-governed monastery. What is important is the act of the tonsure that is performed in Church and the vows taken by the tonsured monk. No one may invalidate a monk’s identity as a monk—not even the monk himself.

We are confident, however, that the Abbots of the other Athonite monasteries will not fall prey to the misleading legal brief. It is a secular, legalistic composition that, we believe, may be categorically refuted by a competent lawyer. 

At many points the authors of the legal brief, in order to justify their conclusions, transcend the Athonite Charter itself, claiming to interpret what the original writers had in mind but did not explicitly state. Indicative, however, of the authors’ methodology is their interpretation of the 15th Canon of the First-Second Council. They have overlooked the fact that the implementation of this canon undermines and refutes their entire argument. This, as the Ecumenical Patriarchate publicly advocates the heresy of Ecumenism in word, and in liturgical act at every chance. It advocates an Ecumenism that embraces not only heretics, but all religions. 

In concluding our observations we must state that in the spiritual matters of Mount Athos, it is not possible for lay, secular lawyers to easily appreciate the complexity of matters and to give opinions. Indeed, such an interpretive undertaking requires the work of one’s faith and one’s conscience as opposed to exclusively the letter of the law.