July 5, 2014

Saint Athanasios the Athonite as a Model for our Lives

St. Athanasios the Athonite (Feast Day - July 5)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The venerable Athanasios the Athonite lived in the tenth century, during the reign of Nikephoros Phokas. He was born in Trebizond from pious parents who had come from Antioch. Having learned his first letters in his homeland he then improved his studies in Constantinople. Because he desired the ascetic life he departed for the interior parts of Asia Minor, to Mount Kymina, where he was subservient under the renowned Elder Michael Maleinos. In rapid time he surpassed in virtue his fellow ascetics and was admired by all. So as not to be praised by others, he took the blessing of his Elder and departed for Mount Athos, where he became subservient to another Elder. He lived in perfect obedience and reached extreme humility. Following a divine revelation, he went to the interior parts of Mount Athos and built the Sacred Monastery of Great Lavra with the help of Emperor Nikephoros Phokas. There gathered around him many disciples, whom he molded in the Orthodox Tradition and life, and they continued his work, which has bloomed and bore fruit until today.

His end was martyric, like a seal, one would say, of his life and state of being, because the way in which he lived and the state of his being was truly like a martyr and confessor of Jesus Christ. Together with six disciples he climbed to the dome of the sacred Sanctuary of the church in order to complete it, but the dome collapsed and crushed both him and his disciples. The sacred hymnographer does not fail to mention this fact and to honor not only the Saint but also his six disciples: "Athanasios with his six disciples, release the temple of their bodies with the release of the temple." And especially for Athanasios he writes: "Anthony the Great was the first of the Fathers, divine Athanasios was the last. Though Athanasios lived in recent years, he surpassed the ancients in labor." In other words, Anthony the Great was the first of the ascetic Fathers and Saint Athanasios the Athonite was the seal and last of them. Though he lived in recent times, he surpassed all the older venerable ones in asceticism and labor.

The life of the venerable Athanasios, which we have briefly written, gives us the opportunity to emphasize the following:

First, inside the Church all must be done "seemly and according to order" (1 Cor. 14:40), as the Apostle Paul says, in order to bear spiritual fruit. That is, in the Church there is a logical order and sequence that the faithful must follow, in order to reach their expected purpose which is communion with God. This order was followed by the venerable Athanasios the Athonite, as did all the saints. He was subject to a spiritual father, a bearer of Orthodox Tradition, learned obedience and humility, whose mother and daughter are pure prayer, and then became a Teacher of the spiritual life himself. A true theologian and a genuine teacher of the life in Christ is that person who suffered and learned divine things, under the guidance of an inspired Elder. Those who overstep this order and sequence and rush to become teachers without first becoming disciples, to become Elders without first undergoing subservience, these are "blind guides" and it is known that if the "blind lead the blind, they will both fall into the ditch". And unfortunately today we are witnesses of many sad situations. We see people who ascend to positions and offices in the Church in unorthodox ways, without the appropriate conditions and for alternative purposes. They are likened to what Gregory the Theologian describes: "Before becoming worthy to approach the temples, they lay claim to the sanctuary, and they push and thrust around the holy table, as if they thought this order to be a means of livelihood instead of a pattern of virtue, or an absolute authority instead of a ministry of which we must give account." As a result they darken instead of illumine the people of God, they become deluded and they delude, they create scandals, and become disruptors and creators of schisms and divisions, those who should be the center of the unity of believers.

Second, the way one departs this world reveals the way in which they established themselves throughout their earthly life. The natural way for fallen man to depart is through martyrdom. This is why the saints tasted martyrdom throughout the course of their lives, as well as at the time of their departure. Even those who were "perfected in peace" and endured martyrically throughout their lives with the labor and pain of various temptations, and who until the end endured various illnesses without murmurings, but with a joyful disposition and glorifying God, because they knew by this experience they would be purified of subtle stains and thus appear clean before the impartial Judge. Most people during the course of temptations and sorrows complain and murmur against God and consider blessed those who leave this world without suffering and difficulties because, having not tasted, they fail to understand the love of God and what spiritual joy means, inner rejoicing and eternal life "in the light". Illness can demonstrate to be a great blessing, because throughout its course it is possible for man to recover and sincerely repent.

The spiritual life is difficult because one has to wrestle against the passions, sins and the devil. But it is grand, because it is the natural life of man, offering him internal fulfillment, honoring him as a man and making him different from dumb animals. This is why "blessed are those who die in the Lord" because "they will live forever".

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΟΣΙΟΣ ΑΘΑΝΑΣΙΟΣ Ο ΑΘΩΝΙΤΗΣ", July 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.