April 20, 2018

Saint Athanasios, Founder of the Great Meteoron Monastery (+ 1380)

St. Athanasios of Meteora (Feast Day - April 20)


Meteora's stone Athanasios,
You worked hard to make a path to the cornerstone.

The foundation of the Monastery of the Great Meteoron, or the Transfiguration Monastery, is the starting point of organized monastic life at Meteora. This monastery is the oldest, largest and most formal of the extant Meteora monasteries, as its name “Great Meteoron” implies. Perched on the most imposing rock, it occupies a commanding position among the monastic complex of Meteora.

The Great Meteoron was founded shortly before the middle of the fourteenth century by Saint Athanasios of Meteora, who was also its first founder and the first to organize a systematic monastic community. Athanasios, the son of eminent parents, was born at Hypati, the well-known medieval town of New Patras, in 1302 and was baptized Andronikos.

After the untimely death of both his father and mother and the capture of his hometown by the Catalans in 1318/19, he and his uncle went into retreat in Thessaloniki. There his uncle died from chronic joint disease at Akapniou Monastery, and Andronikos was taken in by the imperial secretary of the military command. Due to his remarkable literary aptitude and love of learning, in Thessaloniki he was very well educated.

At seventeen Andronikos traveled to Mount Athos, where he conversed with many holy men and sought their prayers and blessings, but the fathers refused to allow the boy to stay since he was still a beardless youth. Andronikos, a restless and dynamic character set forth on new wanderings and adventures. These brought him to Constantinople where he made the acquaintance of erudite ecclesiastical men of letters such as Gregory of Sinai, the future Ecumenical Patriarch Isidore (1347-1350), Daniel the Hesychast, and other eminent persons of the monastic community. With their help he was initiated into the secrets of the hesychastic life and like a bee he gathered what was useful and necessary to attain virtue.

Then he traveled to Crete in 1325 where he stayed for a certain period and lived as an ascetic, sustained by a good Cretan man, but when he noticed this man was trying to attract him back into the world to marry his daughter, he decided to leave the world entirely. Therefore he returned to Mount Athos in around 1332 by which time he was about thirty years old. At Milea on the Holy Mountain he was accepted as a novice by two virtuous anchorites who had attained the heights of virtuousness, Gregory and Moses, and subsequently received tonsure by the Hieromonk Gregory, taking the name Anthony. He quickly distinguished himself and took his new and permanent monastic name Athanasios when he received the Great Schema.

However the predatory incursions of the Turks and the inimical circumstances prevailing at that age forced Athanasios to leave Mount Athos together with his spiritual father Gregory and another disciple Gabriel. In Thessaloniki and Beroea a lot of important men were willing to give them hospitality, but the two monks did not consent to stay because Athanasios had a great aversion to worldly society and the noise of the city.

So at the advice of the then Bishop of Servia, Iakovos, they went to the Thessalian rocks of Stagoi, of which the biographer of Athanasios describes characteristically, “the largest and highest rocks created by God since the beginning of the world." Following the bishops advice they found the rocks as they had heard, but there was no one living on them but vultures and crows.

On the rock of Stylos, that today is called the Rock of Holy Spirit, the Hieromonk Gregory and Saint Athanasios were settled. Gregory remained there an entire decade and this was the reason he was called "Stylite". The recluse Athanasios after a certain period of time withdrew with his mentor’s permission to a cave in the rock. There in prayer and solitude, he spent his free time weaving baskets so that he was never idle and thus safe from the danger of falling into temptation.

Yet seeking more seclusion and serenity, always with Elder Gregory’s permission, he selected another rock, “a place for anchorites, a rock which rose high into the skies,” where he installed himself in around 1340, this time permanently. The rock is the so-called Platylithos (Wide Rock) which Athanasios himself called Meteoron, a name that was going to establish and to be preserved through the centuries to be applied in general to the whole complex of the surrounding monasteries and crags and become renown far beyond the borders of Greece.

Equipped with the wings of the Holy Spirit and with his unwavering will and faith, Athanasios, the humble monk, almost flew and at last stepped onto this sun-trodden rock hither to touched only by the sun beams, as it is mentioned in a sigillion (Apr. 1580) of the Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes III: “Actuated by divine love, the holy monk Athanasios, taking the wings of the Holy Spirit, first flew to this sun-trodden rock which dominated in Stagoi and justifiably called Meteoron, being the highest of all. There he found a holy place, a real paradise containing, instead of fruit-bearing trees, men who had the divine fruit of the Holy Spirit."

There Athanasios built his ascetic refuge and organized the first systematic monastic community which had a strict coenobiotic rule formulated by himself. The brotherhood under Athanasios had already fourteen members. Initially the holy anchorite built the Church of the Theometora (Mother of God) to whom he also dedicated the monastery, as he himself said to his fellow ascetics and acolytes shortly before his death: “And first I leave you under the protection of our most-blessed Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, to whom this monastery is dedicated.” Later he built another church in honor of the Transfiguration of Christ, which later became the katholikon of the monastery and gave it its final name of Transfiguration Monastery, which is preserved until today.

Athanasios converted this steep and inaccessible rock to an easy path to our Lord, Who is the cornerstone of our Church: “This hard stone, father, you worked hard to be converted to a path to the cornerstone”.

Today as one climbs up the rock-hewn stairway to the monastery, on the left just before the entrance, one can see the Hermitage of Saint Athanasios within the natural crevice in the rock arranged as a humble and basic dwelling with the essential tiny chapel. Here, according to tradition, the holy hermit first lived alone after he had scaled the Wide Rock and before he built a church on the rocky ledge and cells for the monks who very early started to gather here.

Extremely humble as Athanasios had been in all his life, he remained an ordinary monk. Perhaps due to his extreme humility he did not leave any written texts, although he was very knowledgeable and well educated.

According to his biographer, he died peacefully after a brief illness of the gallbladder at the age of seventy-eight, probably in the year 1380 (not in 1382/83 as it was up to now accepted) on April 20th. We know that Saint Athanasios while still alive, shortly before his death, selected Hieromonk Makarios to be spiritual father of the Great Meteoron after his death: “Hieromonk Makarios was selected first by me to lead and be responsible for the needs of the cells and to regulate your life spiritually.” Yet this only lasted a short time, since by November 1381 the former king and now turned monk Joasaph assumed the role as successor to Saint Athanasios, with his blessing while alive and with the mutual consent of the entire brotherhood, and he became the second founder and builder of the Great Meteoron.