A New Article on Esphigmenou

To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the author’s cynicism (what is to be expected from a Roman Catholic working for the mainstream media reporting on Esphigmenou?) But in this article, found at The Times and linked above, I can’t help but notice he reported on some very good things, although he dismisses some things without any serious research (his comments on the barcodes– regardless of the fact that most people do not see UPC as the mark of the beast– show that he doesn’t actually know what the creator of the UPC system actually said on the matter.) Regardless, much of the article is quite good, even with the ridiculous title: “Boys in the hood”. — Joseph Suaiden, NFTU

Because of their views on the papacy, there are limits to the monks’ hospitality.

“You are Catholic,” states Dimitrius, after I arrive at the monastery, having lied about my destination to the Greek officials controlling entry to Mount Athos and walked 10km through the forest. “The father wants you to know you cannot go in the church, and you cannot eat with the monks in the trapeza [dining hall].” Between us, a thick booklet shows pictures of the Patriarch, Bartholomew, embracing the Pope and other Catholic leaders. Its caption Dimitrius translates with a slightly embarrassed smile. It reads: “The kiss of Judas.”

Dimitrius, who usually works in a pizza restaurant in Thessaloniki, has come here for spiritual fulfillment, but also because he is trying to quit smoking, banned in the monastery (“I hit two targets with one bullet,” he explains). We sit talking together in the wooden-roofed guest quarters, warming ourselves on a wood-burning stove and eating Turkish delight – although I suspect they don’t call it that. There are a few biblical pictures on the wall, but most are of stern men with excellent moustaches: “Greek heroes,” Dimitrius explains. Another pilgrim is more descriptive. “They kill Turks,” he says, grinning as he makes a throat-cutting gesture.

The monks here belong to a small minority of Orthodox called Old Calendarists, who reject the Gregorian Calendar, by which most of the world counts its years. Although superseded half a millennium ago, their alternative – the Julian Calendar – does at least have the virtue of not being introduced by a Catholic, Pope Gregory XIII.

It may seem absurd, but the monks regard themselves as the guardians of their faith. For them, it is deadly serious.

Father Savvas was asleep the last time what he calls the “false brotherhood” attacked. One of seven monks stationed in one of Esphigmenou’s outlying buildings, he had been expecting trouble. At 6am it came.

Monks, asked by the Patriarch to restore the monastery to his control, were trying to break in. “We had finished the morning service an hour before,” Father Savvas recalls from his office overlooking the monastery’s central courtyard. “And then someone heard people using crowbars on the lock. He shouted ‘Fathers, fathers, they are coming,’ but they were already in the basement.”

In the ensuing struggle, Father Savvas was the only one of the seven monks to escape hospital. “It was extremely violent; they punched, kicked and used iron bars. One of us still has problems with his back. But they did not think who was inside; we had filled the building with very powerful men. People say: ‘You are monks, you must tolerate everything.’ We are not obliged to be idiots, though. We did not have the blessings of the abbot to punch – only passive defence – but it was enough.”

While European Union funds have converted surrounding monasteries to near-hotel standard, with showers, electricity and modern kitchens, Esphigmenou now gets by, it claims, on a daily budget of €130. Why, many have asked, would they make such sacrifices, simply because the leader of their church is friendly with the Pope? “The Patriarch tells us that we have no love for Catholics – no love in our hearts,” explains Father Savvas who, after 20 years in the monastery, is one of the more senior monks. “Well, is it an expression of love to let people live in deceit? In Europe, with your Protestantism and your Catholicism you are in…” he stops, to find the mot juste in his English-Greek dictionary. “Oh yes, perversion.” The word pleases him. “Popism is a perversion of Christianity.”

The churches of East and West finally split in 1054, for political as much as theological reasons – the latter centring on apparently minor differences in the Creed. But Esphigmenou’s fight is about so much more than a dislike of Catholicism – it is about an entire worldview, in which the stakes could not be higher. They believe that after the churches eventually unite (and they are convinced that they will), the day of judgment will be upon us. “One day, one government will control all the world,” Father Savvas says. “Only once will this happen, and this government will be run by the Antichrist, the Messiah of the Jews.”

For this to happen, there must be globalisation – and for true globalisation there must be unity of faith. “The European Union offer money, much money, to restore the monasteries,” Father Savvas says. “But it is a trap – to make friends and destroy us. Our fathers hate ecumenism; they are against globalisation. And anyone who hates globalisation is an enemy of the EU.”