November 26, 2010

Vatopaidi Monk Responds to "Vanity Fair"

How Involved Was the Vatopaidi Monastery?

In October’s Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis tackled the wobbly Greek economy and the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, the center of a parliamentary inquiry into its massive real-estate empire. The monastery itself now disputes some aspects of Lewis’s account; here, the author and Father Matthew, a Vatopaidi monk, debate the details of the monastery’s portrayal.

November 23, 2010
Vanity Fair

Fr. Matthew of Vatopaidi wrote:

My first read of Michael Lewis’s article on the Greek economic crisis and the role of the Vatopaidi Monastery was devastating—particularly after reading what is essentially his final remark about the monastery. There he states that, as he was on the road leaving Mount Athos, a monk of the monastery called him on his cell phone saying that Father Arsenios had asked him to call to find out what he thought about Bob Chapman, the monastery’s adviser for the American stock market. Unfortunately I was that monk, but what was printed in that paragraph had almost nothing to do with what was really said, yet this is the final image of the monastery that will be imprinted on the mind of the reader.

My heart dropped when I read that one paragraph. I couldn’t imagine how he could do this to us, especially as we had spoken several times afterward, and each time he assured me that the article was going to present us in a positive light. Our rapport had always been friendly—it still is. Yet every time someone brings it up, or anytime I imagine someone I know reading it, I feel ashamed, and I just want that paragraph not to be. Whatever positive thing may have been said before fades before this final image: Vatopaidi Monastery is all about money.

I did indeed make that phone call; I did ask about Bob Chapman; but the rest is a myth. Father Arsenios did not ask me to call him; no one in our monastery has ever even spoken to Bob Chapman; and we have never had anything to do with the U.S. stock market. But who is going to know this now? Though Mr. Lewis has agreed to a retraction—I called him a few days later and convinced him that I couldn’t have said this—the damage is done and the image set.

To be fair to Mr. Lewis, he seemed sure that I had said this, and I believe him. But for some reason he remained blind to the reality, even though in our initial phone conversation after his visit I had explained to him clearly about our interest in Bob Chapman, which had nothing to do with money, but about predictions he was making based on financial and political factors regarding Europe’s future on a tape that one of the monks had heard.

In re-reading the article, excepting that paragraph, the article is more balanced than initially perceived, particularly in comparison with what the Greek media has done with the monastery over the past two years. Still it contains many unverified and incorrect “fact,s” distortions, and, in a couple of places, a complete disregard of the truth, which present the abbot, Father Arsenios, and the monastery as something they are not. Monks tend not to defend themselves when personally affronted or slandered, following the example of Christ before the Sanhedrin and Pilate; but when it affects others, and especially the church itself (which it has), then sometimes the silence must be broken. The monastery has therefore asked me to set some of these things straight.

Though he sees them as sincere monks, Michael tries to paint an image of Abbot Ephraim and Father Arsenios as a dynamic duo of shrewd and forceful businessmen (which he himself does not see as incompatible with being a monk) trying to take advantage of a dysfunctional political system in order to build a powerful monastery with a “real-estate empire.” Unfortunately, he frequently uses half-truths and unverified facts to build this image. As one example, he says that a group of young Cypriot monks led by Father Ephraim saw a rebuilding opportunity and came here to take over the monastery, even though I explained, in a fact check that V.F. had sent me, that many of the monks were not Cypriots (7 of the 17, to be exact, including Father Arsenios) and that they were led not by Father Ephraim (who was just another one of the monks right up to the day three years later when the brotherhood elected him abbot) but by our Elder Joseph. In fact, they had been asked to come to the monastery to try to help it out of its derelict condition; nobody had their sights set on anything except trying to be good monks and, having been called upon to do so, helping the monastery get back on its feet. But these facts were ignored in favor of the “preferred” ones.

His insistence that the abbot had used the singer and the past crimes of the Catalan mercenaries to manipulate the Catalan officials into restoring a building flies in the face of reality. Here too, in the fact check, I had given him an Internet link that presents the entire story in relative detail. Sadly again, it was completely ignored.

Neither the abbot nor Father Arsenios would ever just show up unannounced at a minister’s office, especially one they had never met, and “accost” him, as claimed about their first meeting with Mr. Doukas. They had made an appointment ahead of time, as they always do. If the Ministry Office keeps records of appointments, this can be verified. Besides, for such savvy businessmen, it would hardly be good business practice to just go barging in on government officials.

The list goes on. The “two bosses” are not as linked as the article would like us to believe. Father Arsenios does not sit “next to the abbot” in the refectory, but at a completely different table. He is by no means a second-in-command figure for the brotherhood. Neither is Father Arsenios the worldly businessman Michael tries to portray, in spite of his capabilities. His desk did not have “two computers,” but only a miniature laptop—unless the monitor somehow counts as a separate computer (Father Arsenios is barely above computer illiterate). The “brand-new fax cum printer” is four or five years old. A perceptive eye would have discovered that beyond the “single icon” distinguishing his 16-by-18-foot office from a modern business office, there are at least seven other icons in plain view, three portraits of monastic elders, a bookcase filled with spiritual texts, and a host of other small items scattered about that belie the religious inclinations of the person who sits at that desk.

There is so much to be said about the lake and the exchanged properties, but time and space must limit this. The “worthless” lake owned by the monastery basically since the 11th century (the 14th-century imperial document mentioned simply verifies the monastery’s rights to the lake) is valued at €55-67 million and provides €500,000 to €1,500,000 income for the monastery per year from the fisheries. The lake has been confiscated and the monastery’s rights to it challenged numerous times during the past 900 years, but each time it has eventually been returned to the monastery and its rights ratified. It is still an internationally protected wetlands under the Ramsar Convention, but approved interventions and uses of the land are possible. This status was not “allowed … to lapse” so the monastery could get full deed. Only the wildest estimates of the properties received have reached the billion or more euros of the article. Throughout most of the proceeding, a figure of between 100 and 150 million has been most common. The monastery still maintains that it is less than that, and that independent assessors will eventually verify this, as they did with the value of the lake.

The article does not touch on (the Greek media has avoided it as well) the Gregorian Foundation set up by Vatopaidi, before the land exchange, that had earmarked a major portion of the projected income for a rehab center for the disabled in Athens, a nursing care home in Cyprus, and a drug-detox and treatment center in Mesogeia, to mention a few, which were to be available for those unable to pay. The proposal for this foundation was first presented to a parliamentary committee in 2007. Needless to say, it will now be nearly impossible for the monastery to provide these things.

Finally, we find appalling the implication that we would use something as sacred as confession—which for Orthodox Christianity is an integral part of our journey toward God and spiritual healing—as a tool to gain control over influential figures. It is a much underused sacrament—or mystery, as we call it here—of the church, and we encourage all of our guests here and others to take advantage of it, regardless of their station in life. Since there are so many Orthodox who misunderstand and don’t appreciate the sacredness and importance of confession, I would hardly expect that Mr. Lewis, an atheist, would. I believe much of the problem with his article stems from this. I had several phone conversations with Michael, and in spite of everything, I like him as a person, and I know he has kind feelings toward the monks. In his own way, he was trying to do right by us—half-truths, botched facts, and artistic “liberties” notwithstanding. He was really quite shocked when I expressed our displeasure with the article and that we had had negative feedback about it. He truly believes he has shed a positive light on us (in some ways he has), and I believe this is because he, as a man of modern humanistic values, regardless of religious orientation, really can’t understand us because of his spiritual orientation—or disorientation, as we would see it. Unless that should change, he may like us, he may be fascinated by us, he may respect us—but he will never get us. Consequently, whatever he writes, no matter his intention, is somehow going to miss the mark. He should also know that we would never have turned him away from our gates because of his atheism, as he assumed we would—an assumption that prompted him to use deceit in order to get his story. Today he would still be welcome here, and we have not ceased praying for him and his family.

Is it too much to ask of journalists, and consequently the periodicals and newspapers they write for, to be conscientious about facts? We had asked to review Mr. Lewis’s material about the monastery to make sure he got it right. He told us that it was unethical in journalism to do so and that it might, understandably, make it look like a collaboration. Then we read in the article that he was surprised that, unlike Mr. Doukas, we had not wanted to check our quotes! How much trouble it would have saved us, and him, if he had allowed us to check the quotes and all the facts, rather than just the few they sent to us, whose corrections were more or less disregarded anyway. What more can we say? Take whatever you read, not only in this periodical, with a grain of salt—and make that a big grain.

For another view of the monastery, or of the land exchange, try and hit the “English” button. In particular, see the PDF pamphlet. —Father Matthew

Michael Lewis response:

I’m in no position to dispute Father Matthew’s account of the history and decoration of Vatopaidi’s buildings, as what little I know about them I know from him and his fellow monks. We differ, however, on just about everything else in his letter. Bob Chapman, for instance. Father Matthew recalls asking about Chapman in relation to his knowledge about “financial and political factors regarding Europe’s future,” but in his phone call to me he expressed an interest in hearing my views on Chapman’s market judgment. Mr. Chapman is neither a historian nor a political analyst; he is a former stockbroker, who for 28 years specialized in the analysis of gold and silver prices. His financial newsletter, International Forecaster Weekly, is directed mainly at investors. I do not know whether the Vatopaidi monks have financial accounts in the United States, but I take Father Matthew’s word that they do not.

I also like Father Matthew, at least as much as he likes me. I would like also to take him at his word, and am fairly sure he believes what he writes. If so, he has no idea about what the monks who run Vatopaidi’s commercial affairs get up to when they are away from their monastery. I didn’t accuse the monks of bullying an official inside Greece’s Ministry of Finance: the official himself did, on the record. I have no reason to doubt his account, as it was buttressed by the accounts of several others, including a former finance minister, who told me that the two monks had threatened him when he refused to give them what they wanted. There was a great deal more of this sort of thing that never found its way into the article as it seemed superfluous, and it seemed plain to everyone who dealt with them that these monks were also shrewd businessmen. A prominent Greek real-estate agent told me of sitting through a meeting with Father Arsenios, for instance, in which Arsenios went on at length about how he had found a bank to offer him no-money-down loans to finance a spending spree in downtown-Athens commercial real estate.

I’m not sure what a “miniature laptop” is. The computer on Father Arsenios’s desk appeared to my eyes to be an ordinary machine, as did the fax machine behind it. Nothing about the office appeared old and worn: it gleamed. I am sure that Father Arsenios has religious texts on his shelves, but those texts aren’t the featured attraction. That would be the many rows of binders that contain—by his own account—his business transactions. When I told Father Arsenios that his office struck me as far more like the office of Greece’s Minister of Finance than the office of the actual Minister of Finance did, he laughed and said he wasn’t surprised, and so I’m not sure why this judgment of mine has so gotten under the skin of Father Matthew. I stand by my account of the interaction between the monks and the Catalan government. And I never wrote that all the monks were Cypriots. Many of Father Matthew’s suggested corrections during the fact-checking process were, in fact, made.

Estimates of the value of the disputed real estate vary wildly, as the piece clearly stated. I did not speculate what the monks intended to do with their real-estate revenues beyond restoring their historic monastery, and indeed gave them the benefit of a great deal of Greek doubt on this score. Just a week ago, three former government ministers were indicted for their dealings with Fathers Ephraim and Arsenios.

At any rate, it remains clear that the monks once possessed a real talent for getting their way with Greek government officials—a fact that I do not begrudge them one bit. For that matter, I see nothing reprehensible in their commercial and financial acumen. How on earth is a monk to live, much less generate tens of millions of dollars to restore his plant and equipment, if not shrewdly? I only wish they themselves did not feel ashamed and conflicted about their own gifts.

I certainly did not intend to imply that the monks would consciously or crudely violate a holy sacrament. I’m not sure they would ever need to. —Michael Lewis