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It was soft power that enabled Byzantium to gain a hold over all of Eastern Europe and to retain it long after its political power had waned. Younger states, aspiring to emulate their venerable neighbour, adopted its systems, its titles, its culture, and its religion. Once Athos was established as a pan-Orthodox beacon of religious excellence, all members of the Byzantine Commonwealth wished to join it. Thus they all established their own monasteries there and Athos emerged as the spiritual heart of the entire Orthodox world. Athos sent out its envoys to provide spiritual nourishment to all the neighbouring states. The peaks of Athonite spirituality were also responding to troughs in the political world around them, notably in the fourteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries. The descent of the Iron Curtain forced Athonite elders to turn to the West. Now, with open borders, Athos is again open to all men who wish to enter and the Athonite Commonwealth has become a global phenomenon.
Christianized in the fourth century, Georgia was visited by Syrian monks in the sixth century and some monasteries were founded then. In the 960s two Georgians, John the Iberian and his son Euthymios, both friends of St Athanasios the Athonite, joined the recently founded Great Lavra on Athos. In return for services rendered in war, the Byzantine Emperor Basil II granted the Georgians great wealth and also monastic lands on Athos which enabled them to found the monastery of Iviron (literally ‘of the Georgians’). The monastery remained in Georgian hands for almost four centuries, during which time it became the chief entrepot for the transmission of Greek Christian learning to Georgia. Iviron passed into Greek ownership in the mid-fourteenth century, though a Georgian minority survived there until the mid-twentieth century and to this day Iviron remains a powerful symbol in the cultural and spiritual memory of the Georgian people.
The chapter begins with a definition of monasticism and a description of its origins in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. The fourth-century fathers of the Egyptian desert set standards for the ascetic life that have inspired monks and lay people alike from that day to this. The primary task of monastics has always remained a life of prayer but from earliest times thay have also fulfilled a role in the community as physicians not only of the soul but also of the body. By the ninth century, when Orthodoxy celebrated its triumph over iconoclasm, monasticism was firmly established also as an urban phenomenon. St Theodore restored the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople and established a rule that governed every aspect of monastic life and formed the basis for the administration of monasteries throughout the Orthodox world. Monastic missionaries to the Slav world provided not only an alphabet but also vernacular translations of the scriptures and the liturgy, bringing large parts of the Balkans within the sphere of the Byzantine Commonwealth. Monks also worked as scribes and scholars, artists and musicians, and some monasteries acquired wealth from their endowments and from trade, sowing the seeds of future controversy.
The extension of the Athonite Commonwealth to the West began with the Russian diaspora following the Revolution of 1917. Fr Sophrony (1896-1993), born in Moscow, moved to Paris in 1921 and then in 1925 to the monastery of St Panteleimonos on Athos where he became a disciple of St Silouan (1866-1938). After some years as a hermit, in 1947 he returned to Paris to publish Silouan’s works. In 1959 he moved to England where he founded the monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex. Fr Ephraim (1927-), born in Volos, joined the brotherhood of Elder Joseph the Hesychast at New Skete on Athos. After many years as a hermit he moved into the monastery of Philotheou with his disciples and revived it. Since then he has moved to the USA and founded no fewer than seventeen monasteries across North America. Fr Placide (1926-), born in Paris to a Roman Catholic family, after a complicated spiritual journey, found his way to the monastery of Simonopetra on Athos where he was baptized Orthodox and tonsured a monk. Since then he has returned to France and founded three monasteries, all metochia of Simonopetra, where seeds of Athonite spirituality have been planted.
While the empire was in political and economic turmoil, the first half of the fourteenth century saw a renaissance in culture, the arts, and scholarly debate. Gregory Palamas was born to an aristocratic family and received a good education in Constantinople. In grammar and rhetoric he was instructed by erudite humanists but in spiritual matters by Athonite monks. Inspired by the latter, he moved in 1316 from Constantinople to Athos where he pursued the eremitical life with a hesychast brotherhood. Driven out by Turkish raids in about 1325, he moved first to Thessaloniki and then to a hermitage near Veroia. Returning to Athos in 1331, he acquired fame and began to write. In 1336 he began to correspond with Barlaam of Calabria who was now in Constantinople. When Barlaam began to attack hesychasm, Gregory responded by writing his Triads. The monks of Athos supported Gregory by publishing the Hagioritic Tome. The controversy rumbled on and it took three church councils (1341, 1347, 1351) before Gregory was finally vindicated and his teachings were declared Orthodox. This was a triumph not only for Gregory but for Athos.