By Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra
ATHOS AND TABOR
Every year, for centuries, on the eve of the feast of the Transfiguration, monks leave from the Monastery of Great Lavra and climb to the peak of Athos where there is a little chapel dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior. There, between heaven and earth, at an elevation of over sixty-five hundred feet, they will celebrate throughout the ensuing night the all-night vigil as their brothers are doing in the other monasteries of the Holy Mountain. As they slowly climb at the mule's pace the slopes of Athos, just as the Apostles ascended once before those of Tabor in the company of the Savior, they sing the hymns of the forefeast:
Come, let us ascend with JesusAs he climbs the holy Mountain....1
En route, monks from different parts of Athos join together with pilgrims of every nationality to form a procession which recalls the gathering of the Hebrews from all the corners of Palestine to celebrate with the proselytes the feasts of the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion...
To which the tribes go up,The tribes of the Lord,As was decreed for Israel,To give thanks to the name of the Lord (Ps. 123:4).
This "holy peak," often covered with brilliantly white snow, sometimes reflecting the sun's rays, sometimes remaining hidden in the clouds, was predestined to become a "mountain of light" - the ancient word aithon means "fiery," "luminous," "sparkling." It occupies a very special place in the hearts of the Athonites, who regard this mountain as the axis of the world uniting heaven and earth, as the column by which their prayers ascend to God, as God's footstool, as the dwelling-place chosen by the All-Holy Queen, the "Mother of the Light"2 and "Abbess of the Abbots." Quite innumerable are the icons and engravings that represent the Mother of God above the snowy peak of Athos, holding over the mountain her holy veil (maphorion), a symbol of the "Protection" of her prayers.
Conforming to an ancient and uninterrupted tradition, the monks climb regularly up this "Holy Summit" in order to fulfill a personal pilgrimage, to pray in a place closer to heaven, or to perceive some sign from God at critical moments in their lives.
It was on this "Holy Summit," during the tenth century, on the day of the Transfiguration while he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, that Saint Euthymios, the founder of the Monastery of the Georgians (Iveron), saw the light of God flashing like a burning fire: "And suddenly," writes his biographer, "an immeasurable light filled all that place, the earth shook and everyone fell to his face on the ground. Only the blessed Euthymios remained standing, appearing like a column of fire, motionless in front of the holy altar."3
Four centuries later, the All-Holy Mother of God revealed herself to Saint Maximos Kavsokalyvites in the midst of a great light accompanied by perfumes, and holding the Lord in her arms. She blessed the Saint, and filled him with divine joy.4
It is there once again that, after centuries full of such occasions (which were not all recorded), that Father Joseph (+ 1959), that great hesychast who was the initiator of the contemporary renaissance on the Holy Mountain of the tradition of the "prayer of the heart," met his future companion in asceticism, Father Arsenios (+ 1983), and decided to take up his wandering life of hesychasm on the slopes of Athos. One day, when he was overcome by spiritual dryness, and had reached the depths of despair, a ray of light burst suddenly, from the holy peak and pierced straight through to his heart. From that point his nous like a sort of spiritual Mount Tabor, never ceased from abiding permanently united with Jesus in his heart.5
From another source, the monks often like to tell of the seven ascetics who live among the crags, naked and unknown to all, who over the centuries hand on from generation to generation the secret tradition of asceticism and contemplation. It is of small importance whether this tradition is mythical or not, since it reveals in fact the central place that the "holy peak" occupies in the conscience and life of the Athonites. This is why the little chapel of the Transfiguration and the immense iron cross set up to the side of the latter on that narrow, rocky shelf have a quite special, symbolic value. Like two flags stretching out in counterpoint to heaven and to the world, they reveal the two characteristic traits of monastic life; the via crucis, voluntary and continuous participation in the Lord's Passion, but as well - and at the same time - the way of deification, the life in eschatological light and glory promised to human nature that Christ unveiled, for one brief moment, to His Apostles on the summit of Tabor.
Just as Christ took aside "in particular" His chosen disciples to climb up the mountain and pray there (Lk. 9:28), just so the monks, having renounced the world to live on Athos in "quiet (hesychia) and prayer," live even here and now in the light itself of the Transfiguration. Athos is for them a new Tabor, the anticipatory sign of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the twilight of Byzantium, when Saint Gregory Palamas, the Athonite and great teacher of the divine light, fought his battle against the humanists, and in support of the Orthodox doctrine of deification - that is, of man's real participation in the life of God through uncreated grace - the question of the Transfiguration and of the nature of the light of Tabor occupied the heart of the dispute. Throughout all their works, Saint Gregory Palamas and his disciples make innumerable allusions to this key event, and they show how the transfiguration of the Lord, as a model of our own deification, is the feast par excellence of monasticism, the patronal feast (panigyri) of the Holy Mountain.6 For years Saint Gregory lived at the feet of Athos, at Great Lavra, and as a hesychast at the Cell of Saint Savvas, high on the mountain.7 For him, as for every contemporary Athonite, Athos is identified with all the "mountains of God" where God has revealed Himself to men: Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, Carmel, the Mount of Olives, and Golgotha. It is also like all those "holy mountains" where the Lord has rested "in His saints" (Ps. 149:1), "in the assembly of the gods" (Ps. 82:1): Mount Olympus in Bithynia, the original home of the first Athonites, Mount Latros, Mount Ganos, Mount Saint-Auxence, and all the glorious monastic centers of Asia Minor. It prevails over Mount Olympus, former home of the twelve gods, which one can see on a clear day from the summit, and as kin to all the holy mountains of Greece, especially to the sanctified stones of Meteora, dominated by the Monastery of the Transfiguration which was founded in the fourteenth century by an Athonite, Saint Athanasios. Here are to be found, as in a kind of summary, all the holy, monastic mountains of the Peloponnese, of Macedonia, of the Carpathians, of Armenia (where one finds the famous Mount Ararat), of the Caucasus, and as well, so many of the high places of monasticism in the West, like Saint Benedict's Monte Cassino, or Mount Mercurius in Calabria, refuge of Byzantine ascetics in times of persecution. One can find in Serbia a group of monasteries called "the little Holy Mountain," even Saint Seraphim himself had his "little Holy Mountain" in the depths of the forest of Sarov. Athos is thus to be identified with all those mountains which have served as "Tabor" for the monks of every century who have flown there for refuge "like a bird to the mountains" (Ps. 11:1).
In the course of the night hours, in that little chapel, so narrow that only a few can stay inside while the others are warming themselves around a great fire outside, the voices of the chanters become the trumpets of the Church carrying for the whole world the message of the everlasting light.
1. Menaion, August 5, first stichera of Vespers.
2. Exclamation of the priest before the singing before the Magnificat at Matins.
3. "Life of Saint Euthymios of Iveron" in The Great Synaxarion, May 5.
4. "Life of Saint Maximos the Kavsokalyvite" 8, ed. F. Halkin, Analecta Bollandiana 54 (1963), 10-79.
5. Monk Joseph, "The Elder Joseph the Hesychast" (in Greek), Perivoli tis Panagias (Thessaloniki, 1983), 21.
6. Two monasteries are dedicated to the transfiguration, Koutloumouseiou and Pantocrator.
7. Philotheos of Constantinople, "In Praise of Saint Gregory Palamas", PG 191, 567B and 574C.