How Long Can Mount Athos Resist?


If you’ve ever wondered at the ability of dripping water to wear down solid rock, just imagine how the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos must be feeling.  Daniel Flynn at Reuters Faithworld blog writes about his recent trip to Mount Athos and wonders why someone doesn’t turn the tap on full blast. 

On a par with the force of running water, there has to be nothing more relentless and annoying than the whining of aggrieved feminist taxpayers who feel their money and their gender have earned them access to, well, everything.  Since the founding of the first monastery, the Great Lavra, in 963 AD by St. Athanasius, this has been a males-only monastic peninsula, where at least in theory, even the domestic animals are male (with the exception of cats and chickens, which lay eggs for the tempera paints used in iconography). 

In the new genderless, sexless, religionless EU, there is no room for religious belief and practice that would actually call for women to deny their self-gratification and tourist holidays for the spiritual tradition of active Christian communities.   It’s only too apparent where this attitude comes from when most of the churches in Europe have been turned into cultural symbols with a religious flavor.   Many European women apparently feel that their tax dollars and millenia of subjugation at the hands of men has earned them the entrance price to Mount Athos.  

What is odd about these feelings of feminine injustice is how they feel that their banishment is a reflection on their value as women, when in fact, their exclusion is due to the weakness and sinful nature of the men inside those monasteries.   The monks have simply leaned that the key to saving their souls is to reduce temptation.  And if you’ve ever seen the Greek beaches of half-naked, drunk European vacationers, can’t you understand why they don’t want things to change.  As St. John Climacus instructs his monks in The Ladder of Divine Ascent,

We should strive in all possible ways neither to see nor to hear of that fruit we have vowed never to taste.

This kind of chastity and denial of the flesh has worked on Mount Athos for more than 1000 years and Mr. Flynn is short-sighted in believing you can apply the “equality for all” logo to every institution and practice that has accepted EU and UNESCO funding.  The short-sightedness may have been on the part of the monks, who were caught between a rock and a hard place.  Their Faustian bargain was to accept renovation money with unknown strings or watch as the buildings deteriorated around them.  Long gone are the days of royal patronage and income from monastic landholdings.   

Nevertheless, the monks  of Mount Athos aren’t worried about equality, only salvation.   Their problem will be to resist the drip, drip, drip of the modern world that for some reason sees a closed door as an invitation to barge in.  But I believe there are some things in this world that should be respected and left alone.  If you want to see beautiful artwork, go to a museum.  The monasteries of Mount Athos are not museums; they are battlegrounds of the spiritual life.  If you want to see treasures, open the Bible and read the Word of God.


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