September 17, 2011

Charisma and Institution at an Athonite Cloister

Charisma and Institution at an Athonite Cloister:
Historical Developments and Future Prospects

By Fr. Maximos, Monastery of Simonopetra

In 'Annual Report 2007' of the Friends of Mount Athos, pp. 17-34

It is the general consensus that those who are called to monastic life are not drawn to institutions, but rather to particular individuals in whom they sense the presence of God. In the words of a contemporary Athonite Abbot: 'Monastic life is a life lived with a particular person. It is not the acceptance of an ideology, or the gratification of certain longings; neither is it the application of principles found in a book. Monastic life means: I follow someone. And thus at the centre of monastic life is a particular person, and that person is the elder.' (1) In the words of Bishop Kallistos, it is the 'abba, rather than the abbey', that draws men to the Mountain. (2)

Our assessment of the past, then, and out thoughts about the future, will need to address the phenomenon of charismatic eldership, both as a factor in the revival of life on the Holy Mountain, and as the principal source of its ongoing vitality.

The Friends of Mount Athos will know that the recent revival of life on the Holy Mountain was the result of both internal and external factors. We associate the internal source of renewal with Elder Joseph the Hesychast, whose disciples, between 1972 and 1987 repopulated half a dozen monasteries. (3) Perhaps less well known are the external sources of revival, comprised of five elders and their disciples, who, between the mid-1960s and 1981, came from various places in Greece and repopulated five monasteries. (4)

My remarks in this paper will focus on one of these latter figures, namely Elder Aimilianos, abbot of Simonopetra from 1974 to 2000. I begin with a brief biographical sketch, after which my frame of reference will be the extraordinary religious experience that the elder had in the winter of 1961, shortly after his monastic tonsure and ordination to the priesthood. We are fortunate to possess a written account of that event, which we shall look at rather closely. As we shall see, this was an experience that transformed the elder personally and became the archetype for the innovative vision of monastic life that he put into practice at Simonopetra.

In recasting the framework of an Athonite monastery in the fire of mystical experience, the elder skillfully combined the communal, liturgically oriented monasticism of the great Athonite cloisters with the solitary hesychasterion, of the outlying sketes and cells. The result was a synthesis of personal prayer and corporate adoration that continues to give Simonopetra much of its distinctive character and feel. My paper concludes with some thoughts about the future of this synthesis, the survival of which depends on the choices we make in the present, and thus we will say a word about the elder's emphasis on the role of freedom in the spiritual life.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra

Elder Aimilianos (Alexandros Vapheides) was born in Piraeus, in October of 1934. (5) He took a degree in theology from the University of Athens in 1959, after which he considered ordination to the priesthood, with the intention of becoming a foreign missionary. He took the matter up with an old friend of his, Anastasios Yiannoulatos, (6) who was supportive, and urged the elder to prepare for such work by spending time in a monastery. Yiannoulatos told him to contact the new Bishop of Trikala, who, he believed, would be able to initiate the young man into monastic life.

Thus it was that Alexandros Vapheides was tonsured a monk on 9 December 1960 and given the name Aimilianos. Two days later, he was ordained to the diaconate, and, on 15 August of the following year (1961), he was ordained to the priesthood. After he had spent brief periods of time at various monasteries in the region of Meteora, the bishop finally placed him in the Monastery of St Vissarion, in the foothills of the Pindus Mountains. There he seems to have had a kind of spiritual crisis, followed by a profound religious experience,, which radically transformed him and left its mark on all his subsequent work.

Like the dramatic conversion of St Paul, the elder emerged from that experience a different man, supremely energized, and single-mindedly dedicated to the revitalization of monastic life. In the wake of that momentous event, the elder was appointed abbot of Meteora, and given additional duties as diocesan preacher and confessor. He was a brilliant, mesmerizing speaker, and soon took the region captive, especially its young people, who flocked to hear him in great numbers. Many of them were attracted to monastic life with the elder, and the first tonsures took place in 1963. Others followed in rapid succession, and the young abbot was soon the head of a large and dynamic community. The growing pressure of tourism, however, made life at Meteora increasingly difficult, and thus in 1973 the elder, along with all of his monks and novices, accepted an invitation from the government of Mount Athos to repopulate the Monastery of Simonopetra.

The character and meaning of all these events, however, only become clear in light of the elder's life-changing religious experience. Let us now turn to that decisive moment and consider it in detail.

To begin, it seems clear that the elder's sojourn at the Monastery of St Vissarion was a time of trial and testing. We can be fairly certain that he felt no great calling to monastic life, which for him was simply a stepping stone to ordination and missionary work. He was a bright, energetic young man with a future, and he was not about to spend the rest of his life in a run-down monastery in Thessaly. His monastic colleagues, moreover, offered him little inspiration, and it was not long before he was making plans to continue his studies in Germany. His bishop, however, would not hear of it, and told him that, for the foreseeable future, he was not going anywhere. This was, then, a difficult time, marked by increasing isolation, a sense of loss, and perhaps disillusionment. It was followed, however, by a life-transforming event of enormous magnitude. What exactly happened? The elder's disciple and successor, Archimandrite Elisaios, tells us the following:

"At the Monastery [of St Vissarion], Fr. Aimilianos was granted a revelation of the monastic life, or rather, a profound mystical experience of the light of God, which inundated him at the hour of the Liturgy. Henceforth, his every Divine Liturgy, prepared for by a long vigil, was a sublime experience of God's glory [...]. As a result, he resolutely made up his mind to partake of the ascetic tradition rather than to assume ecclesiastical duties in the world." (7)

A more detailed description of what happened is provided by the elder himself, in a story he told before a large, public audience in 1983. The story is allegedly about a 'certain monk he once knew', although it is in fact an account of the mystical experience that forms the central chapter in the elder's spiritual biography. As we shall see, it was an event that transformed a twenty-seven-year-old priest monk into a charismatic elder, and which would dramatically alter the structure and organization of life at Simonopetra. (8)

The 'Story of a Certain Monk'

Permit me to tell you [runs the story] about a certain monk I once knew. Just as all of us have moments of difficulty, he too was passing through a very critical period of his life. The devil had cast fire into his brain, and wanted to strip him of his monastic dignity, and make him a miserable seeker of alleged truth. His soul roared like breaking waves, and he sought deliverance from his distress. From time to time, he remembered the Prayer of the Heart, but it resounded only weakly within him, because he had no faith in it. His immediate surroundings were of no help. Everything was negative. His heart was about to break. How wretched man becomes when he is beset by problems! And who among us has not known such terrible days, such dark nights, and agonizing trials?

Our monk did not know what to do. Walks did nothing for him. The night stifled him. And one night, gasping for air, he threw open the window of his cell in order to take a deep breath. It was dark - about three o'clock in the morning. In his great weariness, he was about to close the window, hoping to get at least a few moments of rest. At that very moment, however, it was as if everything around him - even the darkness outside - had become light! He looked to see where such light might be coming from, but it was coming from nowhere. The darkness, which has no existence of its own, had become light, although his heart remained in the dark. And when he turned around, he saw that his cell had also become light! (9) He examined the lamp to see if the light was coming from there, but that one, small oil lamp could not become light itself, neither could it make all things light!

Although his heart was not yet illumined, he did have a certain hope. Overcome with surprise and moved by this hope, but without being fully aware of what he was doing, he went out into the back courtyard of the monastery, which had often seemed to him like hell. He went out into the silence, into the night. Everything was clear as day. Nothing was hidden in the darkness. Everything was in the light: the wooden beams and the windows, the church, the ground he walked on, the sky, the spring of water which flowed continuously, the crickets, the fireflies, the birds of the night - everything was visible, everything! And the stars came down and the sky lowered itself, and it seemed to him that everything - earth and sky - had become like heaven! (10) And everything together was chanting the prayer [i.e., of the heart], everything was saying the prayer. (11) And his heart strangely opened and began to dance; it began to beat and take part involuntarily in the same prayer; his feet barely touched the ground.

He did not know how he opened the door and entered the church, or when he had vested; he did not know when the other monks arrived, or when the Liturgy began. What exactly happened he did not know. Gone was the ordinary connection of things, and he knew only that he was standing before the altar, before the invisibly present God, celebrating the Liturgy. And striking, as it were, the keys of both his heart and the altar, his voice resounded above, to the altar beyond the heavens. (12) The Liturgy continued. The Gospel was read. The light was no longer all around him, but had built its nest within his heart. The Liturgy ended, but the song that had begun in his heart was endless. In his ecstasy, he saw that heaven and earth sing this prayer without ceasing, and that the monk truly lives only when he is animated by it. For this to happen, he needs only to cease living for himself.


1. Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Commentary on the Ascetic Discourses of Abba Isaiah (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), 2 (in Greek). In subsequent footnotes, the following abbreviations will be used: Arch. = Archimandrite; KL = Katecheseis kai Logoi, 5 vols (Ormylia, 1995-2003); SIAD = Elder Aimilianos, Spiritual Instructions and Discourses, vol 1 (Ormylia, 1999), followed by volume and page number(s).

2. Bishop Kallistos Ware, 'Wolves and Monks: Life on the Holy Mountain Todday', Sobornost 5.2 (1983): 64; cf. id., 'One thing at any rate is beyond dispute: a crucial factor [in the Athonite "reawakening"] has been the presence on the Mountain of elders endowed with gifts of spiritual fatherhood and capable of attracting and guiding disciples', in Elder Joseph the Hesychast (Mount Athos, 1999), 18; and Alexander Golitzen: 'Outstanding elders are certainly the sine qua non of the contemporary Athonite revival', The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1996), 18.

3. As follows: (i) Fr Ephraim to Philotheou (1972; (ii) Fr Charalambos to Dionysiou (1980); (iii) Fr Joseph to Vatopaidi (1987); (iv) Fr Philotheos to Karakalou (1980); (v) Fr. Ephraim (+1984) to Xeropotamou (1980); (vi) Fr Agathon to Konstamonitou (1980).

4. As follows: (i) Arch. Vasileios of Stavronikita (1968; Iveron 1990); (ii) Arch. Aimilianos of Simonopetra (from Meteora, 1973); (iii) Arch. George of Gregoriou (from Evia, 1974); (iv) Arch. Alexios of Xenophontos (from Meteora, 1976); (v) Arch. Gregorios of Docheiariou (from Patmos [Kouvari], 1971). On the renewal of life on the Holy Mountain, see: Makarios of Simonopetra, 'Iosiph ;'Esicasta e il Rinnovamento Contemporaneo della Santa Montagna', in Atanasio e il Monachesimo del Monte Athos (Bose, 2005), 245-74; George Mantzarides, 'Joseph the Hesychast and the Revival of Athonite Monasticism', in id., Travelogue of Theological Anthropology (Mount Athos, 2005), 174-88 (in Greek); Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); George Sideropoulos, 'Agin and Renewal of the Athonite Community during the Last Century', in id., Mount Athos: Studies in Human Geography (Athens: Kastaniotis, 2000), 145-55 (in Greek); and Golitzen, Living Witness, 13-20. For a detailed photographic documentary of the renewal, covering the period from 1972 to 1996, see: Douglas Lyttle, Miracle on the Monastery Mountain (Pittsford, NY, 2002).

5. To date, published material concerning the life of our elder is limited, but see the biographical sketch by Hieromonk Serapion, 'Outline of a Life', and the essay by Arch. Elisaios, 'The Monastic Ladder of Elder Aimilianos', in Synaxis Eucharistias: A Volume in Honor of Elder Aimilianos (Athens: Indiktos, 2003), 29-38; 17-28 (in Greek); 'Outlines of a Life' was reprinted in the magazine Pemptousia 14 (2004): 107-14, along with sixteen photographs of the elder taken at different stages in his career. See also Arch. Elisaios, 'The Spiritual Tradition of Simonopetra', in Mount Athos the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain, ed. Dimitri Conomos and Graham Speake (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), 181-99 (previously published in Sourozh 90 [2002]: 1-14); and, in the same volume, Alexander Golitzen, 'Topos Theou: The Monastic Elder as Theologian and as Theology: An Appreciation of Arch. Aimilianos', 201-42. Further information concerning the elder's life and work as a monastic leader can be gleaned from the pages of Simonopetra: Mount Athos (Athens: Hellenic Industrial Development Bank, 1991); and Ormylia: The Holy Coenobium of the Annunciation (Athens: Indiktos, 1992).

6. Currently the Archbishop of Albania.

7. 'Spiritual Tradition of Simonopetra', 189.

8. The 'Story of a Certain Monk' has had a slightly complicated history of transmission and publication. It was first told in the context of a talk ('The Prayer of the Holy Mountain: Yesterday and Today'), given by Elder Aimilianos, on 24 April 1983 in the Metropolis of Drama. The English version of the story, which appears below, has been translated directly from the original 1983 recording. Note, however, that the 'Story of a Certain Monk' was not part of the elder's 1983 written text, but was delivered ex tempore, and thus it does not appear in the two earliest published versions of the talk, which were based, not on the recording, but on the written text, compare: (i) 'Le Mont Athos: écrin sacré de la prière de Jésus’, Le Messager Orthodoxe 95 (1984): 7-18; and (ii) ‘The Prayer of the Holy Mountain’, Hagioreitike Martyria 3 (1989): 123-32 (in Greek). The English translations of the talk, published in (i) SIAD 1:301-22l; and (ii) Arch. Aimilianos, The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), 45-63, are based on the 1995 Greek transcription (= KL 1:351-76), which, in certain instances, does not accurately represent the 1983 recording. A more accurate translation is available in: ‘La Prière de la Sainte Montagne’, in Le Sceau Véritable, Catécheses et Discours, vol 1 (Ormylia: Éditions Ormylia, 1998), 309-31.

9. Compare St. Gregory of Nyssa, Funeral Oration on his Brother Basil the Great: 'One night there appeared to Basil an outpouring of light, and, by means of divine power, the entire dwelling was illuminated by an immaterial light, having no source in anything material' (PG 46.809C).

10. The 'descent of the stars', and the subsequent union of heaven and earth (resulting in the 'celestialization' of the terrestrial), is a kind of hieros gamos (sacred wedding), which eliminates the distance between heaven and earth, and embodies definitively what was predestined and pre-existent within God, namely the Divine Word/Name uttered in the Prayer of Jesus, to which one may compare the 'holy city of Jerusalem' descending to earth 'out of heaven from God in the splendor of the glory of God' (Rev 21.10).

11. The main ideas in this paragraph bear comparison with Elder Aimilianos's 1973 remarks on Ps 18.1: 'The Heavens declare the glory of God (KL 3:210-11; 216-17; 224), which deal with the question of divine revelation in and through creation. In what seems an allusion to the courtyard experience, the elder notes that the 'awesome light, which reveals God as He is - the night which reveals the silent revelation of God - and the mystical "speeches and words" (o.e., the laliai and logoi of Ps 18.4) emphasized by Scripture: all of these things fill the world, and you think you're hearing a single voice which speaks about God.' In a related passage, the elder associates Ps 150 (i.e., the lauds of Matins) with mystical ascent: 'I see my mind rising again, even higher, to the summit of a great spiritual mountain, from where I'll call on all creation, on "everything that has breath" (cf., Ps 150.5), to hymn the Lord. With our arms raised aloft, we'll look around and shout: "Come you plants! Come you birds! Run you rivers! Come you seas! All together, the whole of creation, the whole of nature, praise the Lord!"' (KL 2:101-102).

12. On the 'altar of the heart', compare St Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy: 'The nave is the body, the sanctuary is the soul, and the altar is the intellect (nous)' (PG 672BC); St. Isaac the Syrian: 'You have made my nature a sanctuary for Your hiddenness and a tabernacle for Your mysteries, a place where You can dwell, and a holy temple for Your divinity' (trans. S. Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life [Kalamazoo, 1987], 349); St Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines 112: 'To eat the Lamb of God upon the soul's noetic altar is not simply to apprehend Him spiritually or to participate in Him; it is also to become an image of the Lamb as He is in the age to come' (Philokalia, 4:237; cf. p. 213, no.7); St Nicholas Cabasilas, On the Life in Christ 5.9-10: 'Man is a type and image of the altar... and if he recollects himself and bends in on himself and bows down, that makes God truly dwell in the soul and makes the heart an altar. The ceremonies are signs of these things' (ed. M.-H. Congrourdeau, SC 361 [Paris: Cerf, 1990], 18; trans. C. J. deCatanzaro [Crestwood, 1974], 161-52).