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Anathema! Some Historical Perspectives On The Athonite Statement Of May, 1995

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Anathema! Some Historical Perspectives On The Athonite Statement Of May, 1995

by Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo [Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 103-117]

On May 27th, 1995, the Sacred Community of the monastic republic of Mt. Athos issued a formal warning against “hurried union” with “the Anti-Chalcedonians.”’ While I shall deal with the contents of the statement shortly, I would like first to address the question of its existence. What is it that prompts a group of monks, several or most of whom are not ordained clergy, let alone bishops, to pronounce on a question of doctrine? The Athonite fathers are indeed quite explicit about “our responsibility for the protection and preservation, without innovation, of the doctrine and ecclesiology of the holy Church.”2 What is the basis of this claimed responsibility which is neither episcopal nor, I think, simply equivalent to that general responsibility for the truth which is shared by all the people of God, as affirmed a century and half ago by the Eastern Patriarchs?3 More specifically for our purposes, what does the Athonite document, both in its content and in what the fact of its existence presupposes, signify regarding the future of a dialogue which has been underway now for nearly forty years?

From its beginnings, Christian monasticism has seen itself as in continuity with the prophets and apostles. The Lives of the founders, of Anthony the Great and particularly of Pachomius, make a point of linking their heroes with the great figures of Israel’s past, with Moses and Elijah.4 In Abba Besa’s Life of Shenute, for example, the titles “prophet” and “apostle” appear together and are routinely attached to the great abbot’s name,5 while John Rufus’ Plerophories and Cyril of Scythopolis’ several Lives of the luminaries of Palestinian monasticism, at the beginning and end respectively of the sixth century, deploy the language of prophecy and apostolic authority with respect to their subjects. I believe myself that these claims in connection with Christian ascetics go back to Christian beginnings, indeed even into certain strains of later Second Temple Judaism.7 And the line of claims carries on past the early monastic centuries to the present. Symeon the New Theologian certainly argued for charismatic authority and, indeed, embodied prophetic endowment in the eleventh century, while in the fourteenth Gregory Palamas’ Tomos of the Holy Mountain bases its opening argument on a parallel between the Old Testament prophets and “the saints made worthy of mystical revelation,” i.e., predominantly (if never in theory exclusively) the holy hesychasts, the hermit monks. In our own day and in the recent past of Athos and nineteenth century Russia, one may point to sainted elders gifted with clairvoyance and even prophecy as part of their extraordinary intimacy with the things of heaven.9

The charismata claimed for certain outstanding monks venerated by the Christian laity, again from the time of Anthony (if not before) to the present, have resulted in a certain real weight accorded the monks’ witness in doctrinal debate. Athanasius, for example, thinks it important to enlist Anthony in the struggle against Arianism; crowds of monks provide formidable – to say the least! – backing for the later Alexandrian popes, Cyril and Dioscurus, while Theodoret and Severus differ over the doctrinal allegiance of Symeon Sylites.10 John Rufus, Cyril of Scythopolis, and John Moschus – all three of whom we shall hear from again – provide accounts of the holy ascetics’ testimonia to the different sides of the Chalcedonian debate. In the next century, Maxiumus the Confessor, a lay monk, will defend his position against imperial Monotheletism, literally contra mundum, and will be ultimately vindicated (if, unfortunately, only posthumously).” Subsequent Byzantine Church history sees the monks leading the way against the Isaurian Emperors’ iconoclasm, against the Emperor Leo Vi’s marital arrangements, against Michael the VIII’s disposal of the Lascarid dynasty and summary retirement of the Patriarch Arsenius, and against the false unions of Lyons and Florence championed by, respectively, the same emperor and his descendent, John VIII. Positively, it is the monk Maximus who frames the more or less definitive shape of Byzantine Christology and anthropology, the monks John Damascene and Theodore Studites who supply fundamental articulations of iconodule theology, the monk Symeon who witnesses to the living God of Christian revelation in the face of a conservative and complacent society, and who also thus supplies basic elements for that Hesychast renewal which, in one historian’s phrase, “lit up the whole Orthodox world” on the eve of the millenial empire’s destruction at Ottoman hands.12 Nor was that last flash of Byzantine Christianity the end of the story, since it was the monks again, in the eighteenth century and especially in the persons of SS Nicodemus Haghiorites and Paissy Velichkovsky, who initiated the recovery of patristic thought and spirituality whose effects are still being felt today, two hundred years later.

This extraordinary and extraordinarily powerful continuity of protest and positive witness lends force and persuasiveness to some otherwise rather startling remarks by Bishop Kallistos Ware. “There are,” the bishop writes, “ in a sense two forms of apostolic succession in the life of the Church. First, there is the visible succession of the hierarchy, the unbroken series of bishops in different cities…Alongside this, largely hidden, there is secondly the apostolic succession of the spiritual fathers and mothers in each generation of the Church, the succession of the saints.”13 What normally remains “largely hidden” emerges, as the summary above just indicated, front and center during periods of crisis. It could be argued that our own era, which has seen ancient monarchies collapse, death and martyrdom on a scale unprecedented save perhaps for the worst outrages of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and the concisions of contemporary secularism (to which many would attach the ecumenical dialogues), is just such a period. Hence it is not surprising that we find an Athonite hieromonk emphasizing the particular importance of the Holy Mountain and its witness: “This incontestable authority held by Athos in the Orthodox Church…is not a rival to the legitimate teaching authority of the hierarchy, but rather constitutes the latter’s prophetic and eschatological complement.” The monks, he continues, “hold themselves as lookouts, like the prophet from his watchtower (Hab. 2.1),” and this watchfulness is, exactly, “one of their responsibilities regarding the Church.”14

We have thus returned to the language of the recent Athonite statement, which it is now time to summarize. The Memorandum opens with three statements of principle, proceeds to eleven denunciations, and concludes with a plea and a warning. The three principles are: “the unconditional acceptance [anepiphylaktos apodoche] ” by the non-Chalcedonians of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the necessity of a conciliar decision on the issues of union (as opposed to the secretive conventicles of the “experts,” technai), and, once more, Athos’ responsibility for the protection of holy Church.15 The eleven denunciations, which I will not list in detail, expand on the first two principles, which the fathers feel are threatened by the dialogue, in particular by the joint statements issued in Egypt in 1989, and in Geneva in 1990.16 Five times, in denunciations two through four, six, and ten, the Memorandum raises, directly or indirectly, the status of the anathemas against Dioscurus, Severus and Jacob launched by the last four Ecumenical Council, affirmed by different Fathers, and commemorated liturgically by the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. The principle the Athonites see threatened here is “the infallibility and authority of the Holy Spirit” (Denunciation II). The Rumanian Synod’s recent statement to the effect that these anathemas were pronounced without a “spirit of love” is, in Denunciation X, labled “a profound blasphemy against the Holy Spirit through Whose inspiration these decisions were made.” Thus, in Denunciation XI, the proposal by the joint commission to amend the liturgical books in order to eliminate the accusations of heresy comprises “a mutilation” of the witness of the Confessors, and the silencing of both the Synodikon and the Synaxaria, the lives of the saints. We are not, the Athonites conclude, to regard these texts as “ornamental elements [diakosmetika stoicheia ] but rather as “foundational [ themeliode].” Their removal would be an “unacceptable innovation [aparadektos kainotomiaj” leading to the “eradication of Orthodoxy.”

In addition to the divine inspiration of the anathemas, we find two complaints, in Denunciations VII and VIII, about vagueness concerning the “Anti-Chalcedonians” ’ necessary recognition of all seven Councils. “We ask,” say the Athonites in VIII, “which Orthodox bishop, who has given an oath to defend the Ecumenical and Local Councils, will accept intercommunion with bishops who want to discuss whether or not the Ecumenical Councils are ecumenical?” In Denunciation IX we find the assertion that those involved in the dialogue have tended to conceal the discussion and provide misleading information about its progress, in order to arrive, unimpeded by synodical review, at decisions like the mutual lifting of the anathemas. Thus the fathers cite with evident approval both the recent (February, 1994) decision of the Church of Greece to require “Anti-chalcedonians” to submit to all seven Ecumenical Councils “without interpretive statements,” and the in fact much less categorical statement of the Russian bishops (December, 1994) asking for time to study the matter. These two local responses are then held up (a little bit disingenuously in view of the Russians’ caution), against the “blasphemy” of the Rumanian synod (Denunciation X again).

Only twice does the actual matter of Christology arise, that is to say, why the anathemas might or might not be justified, but in each case the nature of the “heresiarchs”’ heresy is left unexplored. Denunciation V lists two expressions from the Geneva statement as susceptible to monophysite interpretation: “one united theanthropic nature,” and “the natures are distinguished by thought [theoria] alone.” Denunciation VI follows this up with the assertion that the Fathers did not anathematize merely the “extreme Monophysitism” of Eutyches, but the “moderate Monophysitism” of Dioscurus and Severus as well. Just what that “moderate Monophysitism” signifies, however, is not specified, and over all we are left with the fact of the patristic and conciliar anathemas. At no point in the document are the contents of the “monophysite heresy” ever explored. I do not know myself whether this is because the Athonite fathers simply assumed some unstated mental picture of the heresy in question, or whether because, knowing from recent studies (the last forty years of the dialogue, in fact) that there is no substantial difference between the two Christological formulations, they have chosen to focus on the liturgical and traditional elements they feel are at risk, i.e., seven councils (not three!), the Synodikon, Synctxaria etc. The Memorandum’s basic point in any case is that the Holy Spirit has spoken, and that whoever rejects the divine inspiration of all the councils in every detail is not of the Church. Thus both the first Denunciation and the Memorandum’s conclusion bring up the issue of ecclesiology. To say, as the Geneva statement has it (paragraph nine), that “both families of churches have always preserved the same authentic Christological faith” is for the Athonites to question the nature itself of the una sancta. Presupposed throughout, I believe, is the neo-Cyprianic ecclesiology advanced with such force by St. Nicodemus Hagiorites in the late eighteenth century and defended by Mt. Athos – and most Greek Orthodox – ever since as the perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church.17 In the Memorandum’s concluding lines the fathers therefore plead for a “re-establishment [epanatopothetesis] ” of the dialogue on “correct foundations” – presumably those enunciated by the Church of Greece – in order both to preserve Orthodoxy unspoiled, and to allow the “anti-Chalcedonians the possibility of return to the true Church …from which they have been cut off [apokekommenoi] for over fifteen centuries.” Mt. Athos will absolutely reject, they add, any union which – God forbid! – would take place “outside of the only Truth.”

I shall return to the Memorandum in my concluding section, but in order to get there I would like to take us on a little historical detour which, I hope, will serve to place in some context the Athonite fathers’ attitude toward anathemas and raise some questions about the fruitfulness of recourse to the monks’ claims to prophetic office when confronted with, as it were, the fine print of doctrinal controversy. What I also hope will emerge is a challenge to the ecclesiology which the Memorandum presupposes, and therewith perhaps a chink or two in the solid wall which the Athonites see as separating our two communities.

So we shall go back a millenium and a half in order to ask how monks then dealt with the doctrinal debate which still separates us today. Not being an expert on the Christological controversies, allow me to limit myself to four texts: Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks of Mar Bassus, John Rufus’ Plerophories, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow.18 The first two represent the protest against Chalcedon, the second pair the pro-Chalcedonian side. All four are written by, or deal with, monks. I think we shall find a remarkable similarity to the tone and spirit of the Athonite Memorandum, together with a couple of subtle but very significant – and I hope eventually liberating – differences.

It is the similarities with the Athonite statement which must strike us immediately about Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks of Mar Bassus. The date is around 512, when Severus is about to be, or has already been, installed as Patriarch of Antioch and, together with Philoxenus of Mabbug, is lining up the opposition to Chalcedon. The broadly generous interpretation of Emperor Zeno’s Henotikon, hitherto prevailing, is now at an end. The abbot of Mar Bassus, a certain Lazarus, has written a letter (no longer extant) to Jacob, the famous circuit inspector and preacher, asking him to make his own position clear. Jacob replies that he has detested the Christology of Diodore of Tarsus and his ilk ever since the first time he ran across it forty-five years before as young student in the famous school of Edessa. He cheerfully adds Theodore (of Mopsuestia), Theodoret (of Cyrrhus), Nestorius, and Eutyches to his spontaneous anathema, together with “those who count and clarify the natures after the union and recognize their properties and characteristics,” a clear if unspecific reference to the Tome of Leo of Rome.19

That lack of specificity – vagueness, if you will – does not please the good monks at all. Jacob’s letter, they tell him, was “weak and sickly, dead, lifeless, subversive and dangerous,” and they have sent it back by return post, ordering him instead to:

… write us explicitly and anathematize in writing … Diodore, Theodore, Theodoret, Nestorius, Eutyches, the Tome of Leo, bishop of Rome…the additions made at Chalcedon, whoever has refuted the ‘Twelve Chapters of Cyril’… in short, all the heretics.

If Jacob does not agree to do this, they will include him in their anathemas! “Here is our true faith,” they conclude, “we anathematize the people and the headings we have briefly mentioned. Without embracing this true faith and anathematizing the heretics, peace will never be re-established in the Church.”20

The equation of anathematization with orthodoxy certainly has a familiar ring, as does the overall rigorism of these monks. One difference from the Athonite Memorandum is notable, however, and that is the hope for the “re-establishment of peace in the Church.” The fathers of Mar Bassus were quite as zealous for anathema as the fathers of Athos today, but with a difference (other than, of course the slightly different list of anathematizees). For the Athonites, the Church is a “closed shop,” while for these Syrian monks of the early sixth century, the una sancta still appears to include, somehow, the adherents of the other side. This is a note which will also show up in the other documents from the period.

First, though, we should cast a brief glance at Jacob’s replies to his daunting correspondents.21 He protests his treatment as a heretic, repeats his loathing of Nestorius (better that he had never been bom!), emphasizes for the monks’ benefit his veneration of the “Twelve Chapters” and of the Henotikon, and dutifully includes Pope Leo’s Tome along with the others responsible for denying the Lord’s unity (making “two Christs”) and refusing the title, Theotokos, to the Blessed Virgin. So Jacob does give way and bow to the pressure, both in this letter and even more in his next one, where he adds praises of the Emperor Anastasius and heaps execration on Chalcedon and that “friend of Nestorius,” the Emperor Marcian.22 Yet in both epistles, and much more strongly than in the letter of the monks, there is clearly the presence of deep regret for the divisions appearing within the Church, “the tearing of the body of Christ,” and for the lack of love that produced them.23 Indeed, Jacob typically adds “those who proceed without love” to his list of required anathematizations, and pointedly troubles to remind his monastic inquisitors of St. Paul in Phil. 2:6-8 on the subject of the divine love that had led the Son of the Father to empty Himself on our behalf.24 It is also undoubtedly to underscore his distaste for the hubris and alarms of abstract theology that he concludes both his replies with characteristic meditations on the paradoxes of the Incarnation, the wonder that One of the Trinity was crucified in the flesh, which paradox, to be sure, both he and his examiners felt had been betrayed at Chalcedon.25

The betrayl and prevarication of Chalcedon is certainly the message of a contemporary of Jacob’s, the sometime bishop of Maiouma and disciple of Peter the Iberian, John Rufus. Right around or shortly after Jacob’s exchange with the fathers of Mar Bassus, John edits a collection called Assurances [Plerophories] and Witnesses and Revelations against the Council of Chalcedon, or more briefly, The Plerophories. 6 The “witnesses and revelations” of the title come chiefly from monastic sources, particularly from elders and prominent ascetics known to John’s master, Peter. The linkage between monks and prophets with which I began is thus quite clear. John in fact begins his collection with a series of prophecies set in the years immediately prior to Chalcedon. Their content is all essentially the same: warnings of the disaster to come. Thus, for example, the story of an unnamed ascetic who rejects the devil’s demand that he be worshipped: “Why don’t you want to worship me?,” the evil one asks, “After all, soon I ’m going to be gathering a council of all the bishops where I’ll have all of them worshipping me!”27 Other stories, set in the period of Chalcedon itself or afterwards up to John’s own time, provide accounts of visions where heaven’s displeasure with the council is made crystal clear, such as the hermit Paul’s heavenly voice anathematizing the “two natures” and “dividing of Christ,” or Bishop Pamprepios’ vision of a heavenly parchment, on which is written, twice over for good measure: “Anathema to this council! They have denied me! Let them be anathema!”28 When Archimandrite Romanus, south of Jerusalem, is told by a voice “ to stay true to the faith of the three hundred and eighteen [i.e., at Nicea],” and his monks point out to him that this was also the stated intention of Chalcedon, the voice obligingly provides clarification by way of a list of patristic authorities concluding with Cyril, Celestine, and Dioscurus, and then again, just in case he did not get the point, a heavenly letter to inform him explicitly that: “Those of Chalcedon are apostates. Anathema!”29 John the Baptist and the Patriarch Jacob appear to ascetics worshipping at their shrines in order to warn the holy monks that their respective presences will soon be departing the premises due to impending Chalcedonian tenanacy.30 The Theotokos and company of the saints, in one vision, and the Holy Spirit, in another, are seen departing the liturgy of a Chalcedonian celebrant.31 A trial by fire adjudicates between the Chalcedonian horos and a decree of Timothy Aleurus condemning it, with by now unsurprising results: the first is consumed while the second remains untouched.32 A dying Chalcedonian woman is converted by a vision and made well by receiving the Eucharist from Peter the Iberian’s hands.33 Elsewhere the consecrated elements of the orthodox reveal the truth of the resistance by appearing as bloody flesh,34 while those of the Chalcedonian heretics crumble into spoiled bread and vinegar.35

John defends his stories. They have come to him, he tells his readers early on, from “pure men, aged and worthy of trust…holy monks.”36 In the middle and at the end of the Plerophories he explains at some length the reason for these signs and portents. Chalcedonians are liars, for they teach what before at Ephesus they had condemned, i.e., Nestorius, and their invocation of the universal creed is thus pure hypocrisy.37 Chalcedon’s betrayl is a matter of genuinely apocalyptic proportions. Leo’s Tome, John says at his book’s end, brought in its train the fall of elder Rome and opened the door to the coming of Anti- Christ.38 While the fact that John’s side of the debate was in the minority, at least in Palestine, might account for the high pitch of his alarm, higher than in Jacob or the fathers of Mar Bassus, it also leads him into a comparison of the faithful with the remnant of Israel.39 This is interesting, for it presumes again the idea that the struggle is taking place within the one people of God. If, on the one hand, the bishops and abbots and other leaders are obliged to declare their anathema to the betrayl at Chalcedon, this is because it was on their level that the betrayl occurred. For the laity, on the other hand, things are different. As the story of the dying woman indicates, the believer has only to turn to the Eucharist of the faithful remnant and commune. Nothing else is required. Presumably thus all the laity are still “of Israel,” with their obligation confined to aligning with the shepherds who have not divided Christ and denied the Mother of God.

In Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and much more so in John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow, the same thinking is at work and, I would add, the same faith is being defended. Cyril himself does not provide us with many accounts of wonders and visions, at least in connection with the dispute over Chalcedon. Indeed, the one vision which does deal with the Christological debate begins with the great Sabbas’ displeasure at finding out that the monks living up the hill from his lavra are Nestorians. Then, Cyril continues:

He had a vision of himself in the holy church of the Resurrection during the celebration of the Eucharist and these monks [i.e., the Nestorian neighbors] were being thrown out by the vergers while he was pressing the vergers to allow them to receive communion. In a stern voice they replied to him: ‘They cannot receive communion, for they are Jews in not confessing Christ to be true God or holy Mary to be the Mother of God.’

Eventually, the great ascetic wins the recalcitrants over and so to communion.40 When the references to the Chalcedonian controversy do appear, Cyril is as predictable as John Rufus was. Severus is “the source of all the evils” among the monks, says Sabbas at one point (apparently forgetting for the moment his problems with the Origenists), while on the occasion of a trip to Constantinople to request a tax break for Palestine, he refuses – politely – the Empress Theodora’s request that he pray she have a child, “lest,” as he remarks to his disciples later, “ it suck up the doctrines of Severus and cause worse upheaval to the Church.”4 It is in the Vita Euthymii, though, that we find Cyril’s positive teaching on Christology where, in fact, he sounds very like Jacob or John Rufus above. Euthymius convinces the sceptics about Chalcedon by preaching the three hypostases of the Trinity and – somewhat anachronistically – the “one composite hypostasis” of the Incarnation.42 Here, clearly at work, is the sixth century’s interpretative gloss on Chalcedon, pace the Church of Greece’s prohibition on “interpretations”!

John Moschus’ collection of tales is neither in the service of a single definite purpose, as were John Rufus’ Plerophories, nor certainly in the disciplined and sober hagiographical tradition of Cyril’s Lives, but the Spiritual Meadow does provide us with an often stunning mirror image of the former, particulary with respect to miracles and revelations touching on the Christological controversy. “Why,” John asks at one point, “are there so many prodigies and miracles in the Church?” “Most of all,” he answers, “because of the heresy of Severus Akephalos,” and thus for the sustaining of “weaker souls.”43 The “miracles and prodigies” in question are fewer than John Rufus supplies, only about thirteen which bear directly on the factions fighting over Christology, but they are of exactly the same kind. One is not to commune in any church save one that recognizes the four councils, as an angelic visitation warns one ascetic, and a heaven-sent dream another monk.44 The Chalcedonian Eucharist survives boiling water, and even cools the pot right down, while the Severian Eucharist disintegrates.45 A Nestorian receives a vision of hell, at the behest of Abba Cyriacos, wherein he sees Nestorius in the flames, together with an unlikely and doubtless quarrelsome crowd of other villains: Theodore, Theodoret, Eutyches, Apollinaris, Evagrius, Didymus, Dioscurus, Severus, Arius, and Origen.46 The Duke of Palestine, a man of Severian persuasion, is convinced of Chalcedonian orthodoxy when an angelic ram prevents him from entering the Anastasis, while in a preceding story a patrician’s wife is persuaded by the Mother of God herself to conform to the Fourth Council.47 The Emperor Anastasius’ dreadful end, struck down in the gloom of a thunderstorm, echoes John Rufus’ account of the dark portents heralding Marcion’s reign.48 Obviously, the polemical miracle story is fully in play here, too, and likewise it has been transmitted chiefly by the holy ascetics, but we find some other familiar – and more promising – features as well. The Duke’s heresy is cured by communing at the Chalcedonian altar, and likewise a Severian is convinced of Chalcedonian truth on beholding another miracle involving the Eucharistic elements and ends his opposition by communing. John Moschus emphasizes Mary Theotokos, as in the story of her refusing to enter Abba Cyriacos’ cell because, unbeknownst to the good father, a few writings of Nestorius were secreted away in an otherwise innocuous codex.491 cannot, finally, resist including the haunting words Moschus ascribes to Abba Palladius, with their – doubtless unconscious – echo of Jacob of Serug’s anathema against the loveless: “Believe me, children, heresies and schisms have done nothing for the holy Church except to make us love God and each other very much less.”50

Our historical detour completed, we can perhaps begin to place the Athonite Memorandum in a kind of context. The fathers of the Holy Mountain are clearly and classically within a monastic continuum. They reproduce, in places almost verbatim, the demands of Abbot Lazarus and the monks of Mar Bassus. Doubtless, neither group would much appreciate being compared with the other, but the likeness – not to say functional identity – is undeniable. Identity also applies to the substance of the faith that both communities sought and seek to defend. The “one composite hypostasis of the Incarnation,” which Cyril of Scythopolis places in Abba Euthymius’ mouth and which the Athonite fathers as well would have to acknowledge as their own faith, is clearly the same as the Geneva Statement’s “one united theanthropic nature” – with the physis of the latter equating to the hypostasis of the former – to which to the good fathers objected, while both formulae answer to the objections the ancient monks of Mar Bassus raised against “two Christs.” The Memorandum itself does not appeal to “miracles and revelations,” but it clearly assumes the same sort of milieu as produced our four sixth century writers: heaven has decreed; the Holy Spirit has spoken. But how clear is it that the Spirit inspired these anathemas, I wonder, when two communities who have been condemning each other for over fifteen centuries realize that their faith and piety are functionally identical, and moreover have been so all along? This is an admittedly uncomfortable question, and the fathers on Athos are understandably unwilling to ask it, but ask it, I think, we must. One thing in any case does seem certain, and that is that if recourse to the prophetic charismata of holy ascetics did not work especially well fifteen hundred years ago, it is not likely to be particularly helpful today, either.

The key discontinuity between the Memorandum and the ancient writers lies in their views of the Church. All four of the ancients share a common understanding. For them Israel, the Church, still includes those faithful who are under the leadership of erring bishops. True, none of the four seems to feel that divine grace is active on the other side of the divide, thus the spoiled Eucharists and dramatic exits of heavenly figures, but all of them appear to understand its recovery as a very simple thing: just come on over to divine services on our side of the fence, they say. There is no mechanism of reception other than that, no adaptation of the sacraments of initiation, no anointing of any kind, not even a formal statement of faith save, perhaps, for the clergy. If I may draw a comparison between them and other figures from the patristic era, then I would point to Augustine’s conclusions from the Donatist controversy or, if in somewhat less detail, Basil the Great’s distinctions in his letters to Amphilocius.51 In the Memorandum, however, the ecclesiology presupposed is of much more recent vintage. It reflects the decree of Contstantinople in 1755 ordering the Baptism of all other Christians seeking to enter the Orthodox Church, a position supported most notably by the commentaries of Nicodemus Haghiorites on the Pedalion. The historical circumstances which precipitated this change are not my business here, but the difference from the sixth century writers is obvious. It is here, in the adoption of this closed ecclesiology, built on neo-Cyprianic lines, by both the contemporary Church of Greece and an increasingly vocal element in Orthodoxy outside of Greece, that we find a real challenge for the self-understanding of the worldwide Orthodox Church, and, until that challenge is confronted and put to rest, there is little, I fear, that we can reasonably expect from an attempt at formal union between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox except – God forbid! – the likelihood of schisms within the former.

The Athonite Memorandum has therefore done us all a considerable service in pointing to a dangerous situation within the Orthodox Church. Without addressing that situation, for example if the Constantinopolitan hierarchy were simply to attempt silencing the fathers of the Holy Mountain with the sort of clumsy bluster that has become all too common in recent years, we could have a schism that might well lead to another fifteen hundred year exchange of “inspired anathemas.” Rather, the holy fathers there, together with virtually the entire hierarchy of the Church of Greece and others in the Orthodox world, need themselves to be challenged to think again on the issue of ecclesiology in general and, specifically with respect to the matter of the Ecumenical Councils and church traditions, to reflect on the nature of the anathemas and their relation to the teaching they were intended to protect. I would myself suggest that the anathemas served almost as caricatures, that is, as exaggerated presentations of the figures they ostensibly delineated which thus brought into relief elements of doctrine that all of us today would reject: e.g., the in fact inaccurate pictures of Leo as teaching “two Christs” and of Severus as effectively obliterating the humanity of Jesus. Surely, the final issue, the “bottom line,” must always be the actual faith that all of us, I believe, hold in common. To see that common faith in the other, however, requires that we look past the caricatures. It requires in fact an act of ascesis, an exercise of sober, reflective, and above all charitable attentiveness. Sadly, both in our ancient sources and in the Athonite Memorandum, there seems to have been precious little effort to listen carefully, and virtually no room at all for the same charity which was recently invoked by the Synod of Rumania, and whose absence long ago was lamented by Jacob and Abba Palladius.

What then does the Memorandum mean for the dialogue between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox? Negatively, I fear it means a slowdown, at least in the progress toward a formal union (as opposed to the informal arrangements which are already in place in many areas). It signals an incoherence within the Eastern Orthodox themselves, one which must be addressed before real progress – again, of a formal kind – can continue. Positively, the Athonite fathers have indeed been true to their vocation of witnessing to the faith once received, and in raising, however unwittingly, the issue of our ecclesiological self-consciousness so sharply. They are in effect asking all of us who are vitally interested in seeing the end of our millenial schism to persuade them that, while they are right to be concerned for the defense of the faith, they are wrong in failing to discern its presence in our brothers.


  • 1 Hypomnema tes Hieras Koinotetos tou Hagiou Horous peri tou Dialogou Orthodoxon kai Antikhalkedonon. I am indebted for the Greek text to Ms. C.K. Contopoulos of the Ecumenical Affairs office of the Greek Archdioces of America, and for the text of the English translation to the librarians of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Ms. Elaina Silk and Ms. Karen Jermyn.
  • 2 Hypomnema, English text p. 2.
  • 3 Quoted by the Hypomnema, p. 5 (ET: p.4).
  • 4 See, for example, the Life o f Antony 7, for comparison with Elijah, and the Greek Vita Prima of Pachomius, chps. 1-2, for the line of the martyrs, John the Baptist, and Elijah, and chp. 126 for comparison with Moses. For comment, see P. Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority, and the Church (Oxford: 1978), esp. 18-67.
  • 5 See the translation of D.N. Bell, The Life o f Shenute by Besa (Kalamazoo: 1983), from the opening words of the first chapter on “our holy father, the prophet Apa Shenute,” to chp. 20 (p.48) comparing him with “the first prophets and apostles,” and so throughout the work.
  • 6 See John Rufus, Bishop of Mayouma, Plerophories, temoinages et revelations contre le concile de Chalcedoine, ed. and trans. F. Nau, Patrologia Orientalia VIII: 1-161, e.g., chp. 8 (pp.20-22) on Abba Zenon the prophet. In Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives o f the Monks o f Palestine, trans. R.M. Price (Kalamazoo: 1991), see esp. the Prologue (p.4) on the succession: apostles to martyrs to monks, and also Price’s comments in his “Introduction,” xxx-xxxiv.
  • 7 For example, on Second Temple Judaism, see the essays by M. Himmelfarb, “From Prophecy to Apocalypse: the Book of the Watchers and Tours of Heaven,” and S. Fraade, “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,” in Jewish Spirituality, ed. A. Green (NY: 1988), Vol. I: 145-170 and 253-288, resp. See also for early Christianity, and again only for example, G. Kretschmar, “Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach dem Ursprung fruehchristlicher Askese,” Zeitschrift fuer Theologie und Kirche 64 (1961) 27-67, and P. Nagel, Die Motivierung der Askese in der alten Kirche und der Ursprung des Moenchtums (Berlin: 1966).
  • 8 On Symeon, see my discussion in Symeon the New Theologian: On the Mystical Life {Crestwood, NY: 1997), Vol. Ill, esp. 17-53, and for Gregory Palamas, volume IV of The Philokalia, trans. G. Palmer,P. Sherrard, K.T. Ware (London: 1995), 418-425 (Greek text in PG
  • CL: 1225-1226).
  • 9 See the stories of sainted Athonite ascetics collected by Archimandrite Cherubim, Contemporary Ascetics o f Mount Athos, trans. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, CA: 1992), or in A. Golitzin, The Living Witness o f the Holy Mountain (South Canaan, PA: 1996), esp. 133-157. For Russia, the popular life of Seraphim of Sarov would do, thus see V. Zander, St. Seraphim o f Sarov, trans. G. Anne (Crestwood, NY: 1975).
  • 10 See the discussion of, among others, Theodoret’s treatment of Symeon in S.A. Harvey, “The Senses of a Stylite: Perspectives on Symeon the Elder,” Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988) 376-394, and the same scholar’s comparison of Severus’ treatment of the Stylite in comparison with Jacob of Serug’s, “The Memory and Meaning of a Saint: Two Homilies on Simeon Stylites,” Aram 5 (1993) 219-241.
  • 11 Thus the famous portrait of Maximus on trial before emperor, senate, and episcopacy. See the translation provided in Maximus the Confessor: Selected Works, trans. G. Berthold (NY:1985), 17-28.
  • 12 D.M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries o f Byzantium (Cambridge: 1979), p. 88.
  • 13 K.T. Ware, “Foreward,” to I. Hausherr, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East, trans. A. Gythiel (Kalamazoo: 1990), p. vii.
  • 14 Hieromonk Macarius Simonopetrites, “The Light of the Holy Mountain,” in The Living Witness o f the Holy Mountain, 129-130.
  • 15 Hypomnema, pp. 1-2.
  • 16 I am referring to the communiques of the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches which were issued at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Egypt, 20-24th June, 1989, and from the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Geneva on September 23-28th, 1990.
  • 17 On the problematics involving St. Nicodemus’ ecclesiology, see the articles by J. Erickson, “Divergences in Pastoral Practice in the Reception of Converts,” in Orthodox Perspectives on Pastoral Praxis, ed. T. Stylianopolis (Brookline, MA: 1988) 149-177; “Sacramental ‘Economy’ in Recent Roman Catholic Thought,” The Jurist 48 (1988) 653-667; and forthcoming from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, “On the Cusp of Modernity: The Canonical Hermeneutics of St.Nicodemus the Haghiorite (1748-1809).”
  • 18 For Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks, see the text, translation, and introduction by P. Martin, “Lettres de Jacques de Sarougaux moines du couvent de Mar Bassus,” ZDMG XXX (1876), 220-271. For commentary, see T. Jansma, “Encore le Credo de Jacques de Saroug,” L ’Orient Syrien 10 (1965), esp. 350-370.
  • 19 “Lettre 1,” pp. 224-226, esp. 1.4, p. 226 for the reference to Chalcedon.
  • 20“Lettre des moines,” p.228.
  • 21 “Lettres,” 246-265.
  • 22 “Deuxieme reponse,” p.262.
  • 23 Ibid., p.262, for the “tearing” of the body of Christ.
  • 24 “Premiere reponse,” p.249.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 251 for the Jacobean extra anathema, and p. 252 for the use of Phillipians 2:6-8. Use of the “Hymn of the Pearl” follows, pp. 253 ff, and for the second reply’s emphasis on paradox, see pp. 264-265. For the “Hymn of the Pearl” itself, see the translation of The Acts o f Thomas in New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. II: Writings Related to the Apostles, Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Revised edition. Ed. W. Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge, UK and Louisville, KY: 1992), 380-385, together with H. Drijvers’ introduction, esp. 330-333.
  • 26 For the dating of the Plerophories, see Nau’s introduction, pp.6-7, and also Jansma, “Credo,” 350-351.
  • 27 Plerophories 9 (pp. 21-22).
  • 28 Ibid. 20-21 (pp. 43-45), and cf. 22 (pp. 47-54).
  • 29 Ibid. 25 (pp. 58-61).
  • 30 Ibid. 29-30 (pp. 70-73).
  • 31 Ibid. 74-75 (pp. 128-130); cf. also 80-83 (pp. 136-138).
  • 32 Ibid. 46 (p. 98); and cf. 47 (pp. 99-100).
  • 33 Ibid. 38 (pp. 87-89).
  • 34 Ibid. 10 (p.24).
  • 35 Ibid. 65 (pp. 122-123).
  • 36 Ibid. 10 (p. 22).
  • 37 Ibid. 59(114-118).
  • 38 Ibid. 89 (150-154). For other references to the Antichrist, see 7 (p.20), 13 (p.29), 17 (p.34), and 26 (p. 67).
  • 39 Ibid. 55 (pp. 109-110), and cf. also 89 (pp. 142-150).
  • 40 Life o f Sabbas 38 (Price, p. 137).
  • 41 Ibid. 57 (p. 164) and 71 (p. 183), respectively.
  • 42 Life o f Euthymius 26-27 (pp. 36-40).
  • 43 The Spiritual Meadow 213 (Wortley, p. 191).
  • 44 Ibid. 178 and 188 (pp. 147-148 and 160-162).
  • 45 Ibid. 29 (pp. 20-21).
  • 46 Ibid. 26 (pp. 17-18).
  • 47 Ibid. 48-49 (pp. 39-40).
  • 48 Ibid. 31 (p. 22); cf. Plerophories 10 (pp. 25-26).
  • 49 Ibid. 46 (pp. 37-38).
  • 50 Ibid. 56 (p. 56).
  • 51 See Erickson’s discussion in “Divergences in Pastoral Practice,” pp. 155-160.

[Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 103-117]

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