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November 24, 2014

A Synoptic View of the Orthodox Ascetical Tradition of Mount Sinai

By Archimandrite Isaias Simonopetritis

As we approach the beginning of the third Millenium of the Christian era, we would do well to orientate ourselves meditatively, spiritually, to that sacred place, where many centuries before the Incarnation of the Second Person of God the Holy Trinity, He Who is above and beyond time and space and all created things, He Who is ever God and everywhere present, the Creator and the Icon of the Invisible Father (Col. 1:15), made His appearance to His prophet Moses, in the form of a burning bush, burning but not consumed by fire (Exodus 3:2-6).

This was the historic moment, when the Mountain of Sinai was consecrated to the unceasing worship of the Living God, the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", the God of our fathers. This was also the beginning of a meta-historic experience, whereby man approached God, so as to know himself better, and ascending in stages, reached the summit of perfection, of which the craggy peak of Sinai was, and is, such an eminent and inspiring symbol.

But, theologically also, the appearance of the Incomprehensible Divinity in a bush, burning but not consumed, was an important symbol of the visit from on high of the pre-eternal Son of God, born of a Virgin, whose womb remained intact as before.

Sinai's mystical consecration as the Mountain on which God walked and talked with his chosen servants, is contrasted with an episode of a very different kind, also in the Book of Exodus.

Moses, having led the Children of Israel out of captivity to the Pharaoh of Egypt - most of you will not only be familiar with the Biblical account, but will immediately follow the symbolic meanings given by later interpreters, including the Fathers of the Church - had to face frequent bitter complaints and even revolts. For their grumbling and disobedience, the Israelites were obliged to sojourn for 40 years in the Sinai peninsula, threatened continually by the bellicose tribe of the Amalekites. Not only was the fidelity of Israel tried and tested, but also the leadership of Moses, as the appointed of God, and his brother and companion Aaron, destined to be the head of the priestly orders, who would conduct the regular worship in the Tabernacle.

The trials and tribulations are clearly a prototype of the ascetic life of unseen warfare with the demons and the passions, which will be the common vocation of all Christians, but of those especially who have devoted themselves uniquely to the service of God. The prayer of Moses, the intercessor between God and the wayward Israelite people, obviously foreshadows Christ's role in reconciling all the race of Adam, and at the same time is the inspiration for the Christian monks and ascetics, who lived on Sinai and elsewhere.

In the 19th chapter of the book of Exodus, we have the account of how Moses was summoned by God to the summit of Mount Sinai to meet Him and to be given the Ten Commandments.The ascent of Moses and the whole phenomenology of his encounter with God, in which the awesomeness of such an experience is stressed and the imperative need for the people and even the priests to keep their distance, was an inspiration for the allegorical work of the Jewish writer, Philon of Alexandria, which, in turn, inspired one of the monumental works of a tentative Christian Platonic synthesis, "The Life of Moses" of Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

The experience of Moses in the cloud on the peak of Mount Sinai (Gebel Musa) for forty days and nights is one of the most extraordinary in the whole of the Bible. Only the Orthodox Ascetical Tradition of the Fathers of the Church possesses the necessary criteria, with which it is possible to understand how God revealed Himself to Moses, and how Moses, hidden in the cloud for forty days and nights, was able to converse with His Almighty Creator. For Moses, the dimensions of time and place were indeed suspended as he was initiated not only into the finest details of liturgical ritual and the moral rules for the social cohesion and future prosperity of the chosen people, but also into all that God had done for man since the creation of the world.

The second of the two great Old Testament prophets with whom Sinai is associated is Elias, Elijah in Anglicised Hebrew. Threatened with his life by Jezebel, but comforted by the, angel of the Lord, he reached, after a march of forty days and nights, fasting, 'Horeb the Mount of God' (3 Kingdoms/I Kings 19:8), the other of the twin peaks of Mount Sinai. He found refuge, being guided by God's angel, in the cave, where Moses had received the tablets of the Law, with the Ten Commandments. But the cave was not just a place of retreat or repose, but, as with Moses, the venue for a timeless moment of the most intimate encounter with the Eternal, 'not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice' (ibid. v.12). Elias was indeed, for all ages, the perfect type of monastic ascetic, before monasticism, and the archetypal hesychast, whose zeal for the true God was a powerful inspiration in the Orthodox Ascetical Tradition.

The ascetic and mystic personality of Elias forms a perfect balance with Moses, the spiritual leader of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are the two God-seers, who flank Our Lord Jesus Christ at His Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, before the fearful gaze of the Apostles, as we are reminded from the mosaic in the apse of the sanctuary of the Katholikon of the Monastery.

These two strong precedents from the Old Testament, of Moses and Elias, greatly enhanced the inherent sanctity of Sinai, as a place consecrated to the Ascetical and Mystical life. Already, a framework had been created, where the essential theme was of corporal self-denial and strict spiritual discipline to achieve an alignment of man's will with that of God.

The barren desert, without solace, without comfort, the sharp, craggy mountain peaks and scarps, the virgin surroundings of an historical site, touched by God, untouched by civilization, exercised an irresistible magnetism over early Christians with a taste for the absolute. As early as the 2nd century, there were probably Egyptian, Greek, Arabian and Syrian Christians living in the Sinai desert, desiring to flee from the Roman domination.

Certainly, by the 3rd century, the presence of Christian ascetics in Sinai is known, because, during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), Bedouin tribesmen, then still idolaters, killed and sacrificed monks instead of camels to their gods. These monks are probably to be identified with the Abbades of Sinai and Raitho, whose Martyrdom the Orthodox Church celebrates on the 14th of January. A "Discourse on the Holy Fathers Slain on Mount Sinai and Raitho" was written by the Egyptian Abba Ammonius, who became one of the first ascetic spiritual advisers at the Byzantine Imperial Court in the late 4th century, and ended his life as the Metropolitan of Adrianople in Thrace.

Just before this, under the Emperor Decian (250), the martyrdom took place of Galaktion and Episteme, a young married couple, so the story goes, living in chastity. Instructed by their spiritual mentor Onouphrius and by mutual consent, they had spent periods apart in solitary ascesis on Mount Sinai, where their relics were conveyed after death. A pure legend, say some, a travesty of marriage, say others, an exemplary triumph over nature, says the Orthodox Church.

Etheria (Egeria), an indomitable Roman matron from Gaul, also known as Sylvia, with an insatiable thirst for contact with holy places, visited Sinai towards the end of the 4th century. She found the monks hospitable and living in relative tranquility. She also noted three small Churches, on the summit of Mount Sinai (Gebel Musa), in the cave of Horeb and on the site of the Burning Bush, said to have been founded by Saint Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great.

During the same 4th century, the main monastic settlement in the Sinai peninsular develops around Pharan, which becomes the seat of a Bishopric, under which the monks of Sinai have their ecclesiastical obedience. The latent tension, which is rarely absent, -between the charismatic monastic life and the official, institutional Church, tended - then- to be diminished, because the bishops themselves, as elsewhere in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, were chosen from among ascetics.

Having said this, it has to be emphasized that, in every generation of Sinaite monasticism, together with simple and saintly ascetics from the nearby vicinity, there were persons of some distinction, by worldly standards, who felt an irresistible attraction to the challenge of Sinai's spiritual heritage. One such person was Nilus who had entered the Court hierarchy of the Sacred Palace, and rose to become Civil Governor (Eparch) of Constantinople in the time of Theodosios the Great and his son Arkadios. He was a disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, but also a married man with family. He and his son Theodoulos became monks in Sinai. However, in a raid by the Blemmyes, an African tribe from the southern coast of the Red Sea, Theodoulos was captured, even feared killed. Nilus wrote an eloquent Lament about his son's harrowing experience, but the latter was eventually released. Both, it is related, were later ordained. The name of Nilus the Sinaite was also used as a false attribution to cover the works of Evagrius Ponticus, an undoubtedly brilliant intellectual of the 5th century, but whose dubious orthodoxy fell to the anathema of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, presided over by Justinian.

In the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451, Macarius, the Bishop of Pharan, was present. As a correspondent with the Emperor Marcian, one assumes that he must have been Orthodox.

The following century, the priest-monk Theonas was the representative of Sinai at Constantinople in 536, the year before the first inauguration and consecration of the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom. It is highly probable that Justinian may have been moved by the Sinaite presence to extend his Imperial patronage to this historic place of Divine encounters, without neglecting also the strategic importance of the Sinai peninsular. Like everything that Justinian undertook, the construction of the Monastery of Sinai, by a local Greek architect, Stephanos of Ailat, served multiple purposes. The Monastery was a strategic fortress, like a walled city in the desert, guarding the route between Egypt and Palestine and controlling the Arabian Desert of Petra. Secondly, it was a memorial foundation to himself - stil alive in 557 - and to the late Empress Theodora (+ 548). Thirdly, it was, and is, a major Monastery, built on a sacred site to exalt the Orthodox faith, complimentary to Hagia Sophia and to San Vitale in Ravenna. As the court-writer Procopius observes: "In this mountain of Sinai, monks have made their habitation, whose whole life is a meditation on death, while they enjoy their beloved desert without any fear."

We can be certain, that the number of monks and the quality of spiritual life, organized along cenobitic lines, but with adequate freedom for personal asceticism, was significantly increased. So was its intellectual level and its orientation towards the "institutional" Church. Furthermore, the monks begin to lose their anonymity.

For example, in the terminal medallions in the Mosaic of the Transfiguration in the Apse of the Katholikon, are portrayed Longinus, one of the first, if not the first, Abbot of Justinian's foundation (562-565), and John the Deacon. Longinus was later to be elected Patriarch of Antioch and John Patriarch of Jerusalem (575-594). Another Sinaite of the 6th century, the first Anastasios of two of that name, also became the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. In contrast, from the same period, is the entire relic, preserved and vested in his monastic schema, of St. Stephen the Hermit. A contemporary of these was the ascetic George, known as Arselaus, in the Lavra of the Valley of Ramban.

We come now to perhaps the greatest of the ascetics of Sinai, Saint John, called Scholasticus, but better known as Climacus, as the author of the famous treatise, The Ladder of Divine Ascent in thirty chapters, or steps. There is no single handbook of the Orthodox Ascetic Tradition, but this is, perhaps, the nearest equivalent, because the author displays a complete mastery, in every detail, of the spiritual life. He provides an authentic Orthodox response to every Western school of Psychology and Psychoanalysis, by mercilessly exposing the origin of the passions, to release the human soul from the tyranny of delusion and the seething emotions of the unhumiliated ego. Appropriately, the Eastern Orthodox Church, acknowledging the unique authority of the Ladder of St. John the Sinaite, has, apart from his feast on the 30th March, devoted to his memory the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent. Even today, in Orthodox monasteries, in Mount Athos and elsewhere, it is the custom, during the 40 days of Great Lent to read the Ladder in the Monastery Refectory. I can assure you, that one never tires of hearing oneself corrected, but is amazed every time at the incredible perceptiveness of this great Church Father of the 7th century (c.570-c.649). Should reading or listening to this ascetic masterpiece not be enough, iconographic representations abound, portraying the difficulties of ascent of the Ladder to Heaven.

It is customary, in most editions of the Ladder, to add together with the Prologue, a letter from St. John, Hegumenos of Sinai, to John, Hegumenos of Raitho, at whose request this book was written. St. John Climacus, who was evidently of an affluent family (possibly from Alexandria) and had received an excellent basic education, of almost encyclopaedic breadth, had lived, from his adolescent age, as a hermit in the Valley of Thola, at first as the disciple of an Abba, a spiritual father, and later in complete solitude. He was elected Abbot of Sinai when he already reached a mature age. His "worldly" references betray different images, which would be congruent with the reign of the Emperor Heraclius, before the emergence and domination of Islam in Sinai.

This naturally erudite and observant ascetic uses laconic sentences and lapidary definitions to enshrine his particular brand of existential philosophy. "A monk is one who lives in the flesh, but according to the order of the bodiless (the angels)", or "A monk continually forces nature". It is in the fourth step, perhaps, particularly, that he is a little more anecdotal, when he speaks of the virtue of obedience. He mentions the young novice Akakios, who suffered really vicious treatment from his Abba, without ever complaining, and even after his premature death, when he was in the grave, he replied instantly when his name was called. Another example of humble obedience was that of a certain Archdeacon Lavrentios, who was delayed on returning to the Monastery from Alexandria, and accepted a humiliating penance with the greatest alacrity.

St. John Climacus is at his best, though, when analyzing the causes of the passions, whether of the flesh, or of the soul. The complexities of pride and vainglory - what is to due to demonic temptation, what is due to the raw ego, the primordial libido, and what is due to the accumulated and reflected reactions of other passions - are diagnosed and - here is the beauty of it - the appropriate cure suggested. Humility under obedience, with the invocation of the name of Jesus, the scourge of demons.

This Golden Age of Sinaite Monasticism was to be followed, and probably in the lifetime of St. John Climacus, by a radically new situation, externally at least. The interior conditions of the spiritual life remain, in all circumstances, the same. The appearance in the Arab world of Mohammed and the rapid rise of Islam, in such close proximity to Mount Sinai, posed potentially a serious threat to the way of life of Christian monks. But, not only Mohammed, but all Muslims, have a deep respect for ascetics, whose life is devoted to the 'service of the unique God, and he awarded to the Monastery his personal guarantee of protection and freedom to continue their religious life, with the famous Aktiname. In effect, this meant that in Mohammed's lifetime and under his successors, Sinai enjoyed immunity from attacks and pillaging. The relatively (though not always) normal coexistence of Christians and Muslims was due, above all, to the philanthropy of the monks towards the Bedouins, for whom a mosque was built within the walls of the Monastery.

Another important monastic author was Anastasios the Sinaite, the second of that name, in the 8th century. His principal work, the Guide (Odegos) was a series of questions and answers about various problems of the spiritual life. Its somewhat populist tone, however, cannot compare with the unique masterpiece, which is the Ladder.

In the 9th century, probably during the time of the Patriarch Photios, the two offices of the Bishop of Pharan and the Abbot of Sinai were combined. Henceforth, the Abbot had the title of Bishop, and later Archbishop of Sinai, Pharan and Raitho.

About the same time, possibly a little earlier, another development took place, which radically upgraded the importance of the Monastery of Sinai in the wider Christian world, the significance of the relic of Saint Katherine, hitherto not mentioned, whose body was conveyed by angels from Alexandria to the peak of Sinai. The great Byzantine hagiologist of the 10th century, Saint Symeon Metaphrastes, made known the martyrdom and the translation of the relic of St. Katherine to the broader mass of Byzantine popular piety, at a time when there was a passionate interest in whatever was connected with saints and sanctity.

Providentially, in the same century where the Great Schism between East and West formally took place, another Symeon, the Sinaite monk Symeon Pentaglossos, of Sicilian origin, played an important role in bringing the tradition of St. Katherine to Italy and to the West generally. It is from then on, that the Monastery of Sinai is identified, almost exclusively, with Santa Caterina. The result was the great interest and considerable support of the Popes and the Latin rulers, as well as, inevitably, the Crusaders of Northern Europe.

Despite the constant turmoil of sometimes quite radical changes of political geography in the Eastern Mediterranean, the spirituality of Sinai seems hardly ever to have declined. Both Popes and Patriarchs, Christian Emperors and enlightened Muslim leaders, patronized and protected the Monastery, which from then on acquired significant properties in Egypt (notably Cairo), Palestine, Syria, Constantinople, Crete, Cyprus, Chios, the Ionian Isles (already under Venetian domination), the Oanubian Principalities, Russia and Georgia.

Sinai was destined to play a seminal role in the Hesychast Movement of the 14th century, in a renewal of serious Orthodox asceticism, with the rediscovery of the use of the Prayer of the Heart, the so-called Jesus Prayer. It was but the first stage of a process, perfected by Saint Gregory Palamas in Mount Athos, and spread very rapidly throughout the Orthodox world, from Thessaloniki and Constantinople, through the Balkans as far as the Far North of Russia. Hesychasm was the first truly spontaneous movement of Panorthodox unity, based on inner spirituality, at a point in history when the days of the Byzantine Empire were already numbered. "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you" was the key phrase of the Gospel, which also summed up the Theology of the Uncreated Light, communicable to man in Noetic Prayer.

Two of the protagonists of the so-called Hesychast Movement, Gregory the Sinaite and Philotheos Kokkinos, later to be Ecumenical Patriarch, spent many years on Sinai, as well as in Mount Athos, the monasteries of Constantinople and other spiritual centers of Orthodoxy, combining the cenobitic monastic life of obedience, with the opportunities for personal ascesis, which Sinai uniquely provides.

The defeat of the Mamelukes, in 1517, by the Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Selim, brought a new change of master in Sinai, but, on the other hand, the entire former Eastern Roman Empire was now under Ottoman rule. While this did not greatly affect the spiritual life of the monks, the prestige of the Monastery, because of the Aktiname of the Prophet of Islam, increased very considerably, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the neighboring Patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem. The links between Sinai and Constantinople became closer perhaps than ever before, while the network of Sinaite Metochia became like "a State within a State". The presence of Sinaite monks, both in Constantinople and elsewhere, greatly edified and strengthened the Orthodox faithful living under the difficult conditions of Ottoman domination, where so many chose the easy road of apostasy to Islam. Sinaite monks are numbered among the new martyrs, who died for the faith of Christ in places like Crete, Cyprus and Chios. Many itinerant ascetics from other monasteries spent some years in Sinai, before continuing their spiritual pilgrimage. Such an example is Saint Gerasimos Notaras, who reposed in Kefallonia.

In 1575, a Local Council in Constantinople, in which the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem were present, together with a number of Metropolitans, recognized the Archbishop and Abbot of Sinai as Autocephalous, though he was to receive his episcopal ordination from the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

In 1804, the erudite Archimandrite Constantios Byzantios, a native of Constantinople, of Cretan origin, and the nephew of the Archbishop Kyrillos I of Sinai, was elected Archbishop. Educated in Constantinople, Italy and the Theological Academy of Kiev, he had been Exarch of the Sinaite Metochia in the Danubian Principalities and in Cairo, where, in 1798, he negotiated and obtained from Napoleon new decrees and economic and practical help for the Monastery. He was a man of many talents and interests and an able linguist, diplomat, theologian, archaeologist and historian. He spent much of his life in Constantinople, where he enjoyed the confidence of the Sultan Mahmud II and his successors. After the Greek Revolution, he did much to restore relations between the Ottoman authorities and the Orthodox Church and was elected Ecumenical Patriarch (1830-1834), retaining the Archbishopric of Sinai in tandem until his death in 1859. Neither his learning nor his eminence could cloud his monastic simplicity, his humor and his generous love of the poor and needy. He founded the School of Commerce in Halki in 1831 and appointed as its first Director, his protege the learned Imbrian Archimandrite Bartholomew Koutloumousianos. He also actively promoted the founding of the Theological School of Halki and "ghosted" the famous Encyclical of the Four Patriarchs of the East to Pope Leo IX (1848). After three official funerals in Constantinople, Patriarch Constantios' relics were transferred to Sinai.

The Archbishops of Sinai of the last hundred years - Porphyrios I (1885-1904), Porphyrios II (1904-1926), Porphyrios III (1926-1968), all three graduates of Halki, Gregorios (1968-1973) and our Patron, the present Archbishop Damianos (1973-today) have combined ascetic life, theological erudition, practical sagacity and deep devotion to nurturing the heritage of Sinai.

Neither has the centuries' old tradition of monastic and ascetic culture in the mountain caves and desert valleys been allowed to wane. St. John Climacus, St. Gregory and St. Philotheos still have their disciples and imitators, and they, in turn, pass on the fruit of their ascetic labors to the ordinary Greek Orthodox faithful. Such contemporary spiritual fathers are Porphyrios (who died in Athens), Paisios (who returned to Athos and died in Northern Greece), Adrianos and Sophronios. Their lives and their teachings are a reaffirmation of Orthodox Patristic Theology. Of my own Athonite contemporaries, at least four felt the call to go to the older Holy Mountain of Sinai.

Thus, concluding our synoptic view, we can confidently assert that Sinaite monasticism remains at the dawn of the Third Christian Millennium a vibrant, dynamic and inspiring Monument to the living Orthodox Ascetic