"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mount Athos (2)

I'm watching the 60 Minutes special on Mount Athos and much of it is very good. It is quite something to see the Holy Mountain given such coverage, and much of it is very edifying. But there is, alas, the usual credulity on the part of Western journalists in accepting without question or quibble the usual propaganda about, e.g., how Orthodoxy is the only part of Christianity that has never changed, a theme first mentioned at the beginning of the piece, and in the concluding line: "Mt. Athos will not have changed at all." Many of the practices are indeed longstanding, and it is wonderful to see such fidelity to such age-old monastic life. But Mt. Athos and the attitudes of its diversity of monks have changed, and continue to change, not least in the various attitudes (largely negative) towards fellow Orthodox and fellow Christians. Anyone who believes otherwise might want to purchase the Brooklyn Bridge, which I'm selling on Craig's List for fifty cents. To be clear: I have the highest respect for Mt. Athos, but this kind of notion that they have never changed is the kind of fatuity that cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

Earlier I drew attention to a new book about Mt. Athos, which continues, of course, to occupy an enormous and singular place within Eastern Christian monasticism. The very first book review I published many years ago now was about Athos: M. Basil Pennington's The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk's Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground. It is a charming book warmly, openly, humbly narrating the journey of a Roman Catholic monastic on Mt. Athos, during which he was alternately treated with "great love" by some who welcomed him hospitably and yet he also experienced "great pain" when others denounced him as a heretic, refused him entry even into the narthex of their church, and asked him such absurd questions as whether it was true that Catholics made the sign of the cross with four fingers because they believe not in the Trinity but in a quaternity! (Who would be the fourth? the pope? the Theotokos? Pennington's monastic inquisitors do not specify.)

Some monasteries on the mountain thus function as self-appointed guardians of what they imagine fatuously to be some kind of pure Orthodoxy unadulterated by contact with those contaminating Catholics and other heretics, including their fellow Orthodox (e.g., the Ecumenical Patriarch) who commit the unpardonable sin of dialoging with Catholics rather than condemning then tout court. Others are not nearly so fanatical. Mount Athos functions, then, not merely as some kind of monastic "powerhouse" but also as a "social imaginary" for many people on and off the mountain, shaping images and perceptions of what constitutes "Orthodoxy." Now a new book comes along to look at the various ways in which Mt. Athos has been perceived:

Veronica della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II (University of Virginia Press, 2011), 328pp. + 58 illustrations.

The author teaches in the School of Geographical Sciences at Bristol University. What makes her authorship of this text remarkable is that Mt. Athos forbids women to visit: only men may do so, after applying for permission.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
For more than one thousand years the monastic republic of Mount Athos has been one of the most chronicled and yet least accessible places in the Mediterranean. Difficult to reach until the last century and strictly restricted to male visitors only, the Holy Mountain of Orthodoxy has been known in the Eastern Christian world and in western Europe more through representation than through direct experience. 
Most writing on Athos has focused on its Byzantine history and sacred heritage. Imagining Mount Athos uncovers a set of alternative and largely unexplored perspectives, equally important in the mapping and dissemination of Athos in popular imagination. The author considers Mount Athos as the site of pre-Christian myths of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholarship, of shelter for Allied refugees during the Second World War, and of a botanical and sociological laboratory for early-twentieth-century scientists. Each chapter considers a different narrative channel through which Athos has entered Orthodox and western European imagination: the mythical, the utopian, the sacred, the scholarly, the geopolitical, and the scientific.
Della Dora has assembled a wealth of unique textual, visual, and oral materials without ever having had the opportunity to visit this holy place. In this sense, in addition to making an important contribution to existing scholarship on Mount Athos, the book adds to current theoretical debates in cultural geography and humanities generally about the circulation of knowledge.
Imagining Mount Athos’s appeal is international and spans Hellenic studies, cultural geography, environmental history, cultural history, religious studies, history of cartography, and art history. The book will be of interest to scholars as well as to a general audience interested in this unique place and its fascinating history.
I look forward to reading Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II and seeing it reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

1 comment:

  1. One might also peruse these books:
    The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain, edited by Hmk Alexander Golitzin, St Tikhon's Seminary Press 1996 (He is a monk of Mt Athos, teaches at Marquette University)
    and
    Mt. Athos, Renewal in Paradise, by Graham Speake, Yale Univ. Press 2002

    It seems a lot of the traffic is tourists, not pilgrims. That might explain a lot.

    Rdr. James Morgan
    Orthodox Christian

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