The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire (Part I)

A pilgrim tour from Norway to Mount Athos

Text by Øystein Silouan Lid, and pictures by Torbjørn Fink.
The majestic rocky Mount Athos, a natural outpost.

In this post I reproduce a beautiful article originally published in Norwegian, in the newspaper Dagen, from Bergen. It is about a tribute to Mount Athos, titled: ‘Mirakla i Romarrikets siste utpost‘ (‘The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire’), written by the journalist Øystein Silouan Lid, who happened to travel to the Holy Mountain, in May 2016. The English translation was prepared by the author on the occasion of its publication on the portal pemptousia.com, in August 2016. I am grateful to Øystein Silouan Lid for his permission to reproduce it here. The pictures I am using for this post are property of Torbjørn Fink, one of the members of the pilgrims group, to whom I am grateful as well.

The Church of Protaton, in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos (photo by Torbjørn Fink).

This summer [2016 -ed.] ten Norwegians were granted an audience at The Holy Mountain, the last remaining part of the Roman Empire. The monks who live here tell stories of miracles and wonders as a normal part of everyday life. Mount Athos has been called the one place on planet earth that has changed least over the centuries. The Orthodox monks who dwell here, live as they did during medieval times, praying and working. They come to dedicate their lives completely to God, and the last thing they want is for the hard-to-reach peninsula to become a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the monastic republic in northern Greece has a remarkable pull on people from all over the world.

When the famous CBS news magazine 60 minutes in 2009 asked permission to come do a story on The Holy Mountain, the request was categorically denied. It took two years of negotiating before one of the monasteries finally said yes. It was therefore not without trepidation that the Norwegian journalist set foot in Karyes, the administrative centre of Mount Athos, before setting off on foot towards the ancient monastery of Iviron.

East-north view of the Iviron Monastery.

The forest on each side of the footpath has a jungle-like appearance. Wild edible peas, dill and oregano grow in several places. Suddenly we notice the wonderful fragrance of incense – the smell is easily recognized from the Orthodox liturgy. Yet here we are, in the middle of the forest, and no one is swinging the censer. 

On the path from Karyes to Iviron Monastery.

Small signs and wonders such as these happen all the time here on Athos, says Panagiotis Pavlos. He is a scholar of philosophy at the University of Oslo, and presently our local guide. We are not far from the house of saint Paisios (1924-1994), regarded as one of the holiest men of the monastic peninsula. While he was alive people came by the thousands to visit him – on this very path. They were healed from all kinds of diseases, delivered from demons, and received spiritual counsel. It was said that his mere presence could change the hearts of the pilgrims who came to see him, and draw them towards Christ. Panagiotis was himself one of the many people who came to visit the saint’s kellion (monastic cell) in the forest, and is a friend of the monk who lives here today – father Arsenios.

– Christos anesti (Christ is risen)! Panagiotis cries out, and before long a man with a flowing beard is seen in the doorway.

Father Arsenios greets his old friend warmly and the Norwegians politely, before telling a few of the numerous stories of signs and wonders which took place right here in his cabin. A phenomenon father Arsenios tells us about, is the ability of saint Paisios to know what the guests would ask him, before even opening their mouths. 

– Once, a lawyer came to Mount Athos. He didn’t believe the stories about Paisios, and decided to put him to the test. He planned to present himself as a doctor, instead of a lawyer. When he arrived at the gate he found himself in a group of 50 people who all had come to see the saint. Elder Paisios opened his door, looked the lawyer straight in the eye, and said: “Go away, and take your lies with you to the court room”. The man never doubted again, says father Arsenios.

The kind of Christianity preserved on Athos has a rather unique history. After the capitol of the Roman Empire fell to the occupying Muslim army in 1453, Mount Athos became the last remaining outpost of Imperium Romanum. Already in the year 972 it had been established as a self-governing monastic state within the empire by the emperor John the First, Tzimiskes. 

Today the «Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain» is the only republic where the banner of the Eastern Roman Empire – the characteristic double eagle – still can be seen waiving in the wind on top of official flag poles.

Mount Athos is today considered to be the spiritual centre of the Orthodox Church. Over 2.000 monks reside in the 20 operative monasteries, having dedicated their lives to prayer for the entire world.

Aproaching the Holy Mountain.

 

–The monks find the reason behind their monastic calling in the words by Jesus Christ (Matthew 19) regarding a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God, about selling all belongings, giving to the poor, and following Christ, says father Johannes, the priest in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Norway, as well as the spiritual guide of the group.

Fr. Johannes, fr. Seraphim and Øystein Lid, at the south gate of Iviron Monastery.

To be continued…

Sketchy thoughts on Good and Evil (part I)

Quite a time ago a friend had asked me to write to him about how do I define Good and Evil, and what do they mean to me. I had pondered on the issue and provided him an answer, which I reproduce here without modifications; it might be of some interest. Not much has changed in my views, I believe.

My friend, thank you for your question. I shall start by providing you with the original Greek terms for Good and Evil. Secondly, I shall give you a rough outline of the grounds Good and Evil are established on in the Greek philosophical tradition and thought, both pagan and Christian. Then, I will write about some fundamental distinctions that will allow you to understand what I am about to claim, namely that:

a. The Good is ontologically identical with: love, beauty, goodness, truth, wisdom, unity, being, life, peace, freedom. On the moral level, you can add all the derivatives of the above, plus, for instance, benevolence, stillness, unselfishness, etc. This has become partly clear by the Greeks 2-3 thousand years ago, but the experiential understanding of it culminated in its theoretical constructions ca. 1500 years ago.

b. Evil is ontologically validated as a paradox reality. For it is about: lack, privation, chaos, destruction, deprivation of substance and form, in fact, Evil is about non-being, and It is non-being itself. But it is not non-being in a way exceeding being, but in a way of absolute nothingness. Could you imagine that? I admit, I have difficulties in imagining it. For, we are beings and as such our relation with corruption is only accidental, partial and never complete. Obviously, we will never reach that state of “non-state”, and even if we did, it wouldn’t allow us to know anything about it. For knowledge is only knowledge of something, and a ‘something’ is already a being! The best the human mind can do, is to depict Evil in ontologically positive ways. All I mean is that the worst version of Evil the human mind can think of, with or without speculation, is an evil ‘entity’, yet a being.

But let’s move on.

I.

A. For the word Good the Greek word options are: 1. ἀγαθός; grammatically masculine genre (Greek has three concrete identifications of nouns, reflected almost always in the suffix of the words: masculine, feminine, neutral). Used both as adjective and noun, the term is extensively used in the literature, since its origins with Homer, to predicate both God, a good man and/or an animal. 2. ἀγαθό(ν); grammatically neutral, predicating material and immaterial things. When predicating immaterial ‘matters’ it serves as adjective, whereas in predicating material goods is holding a noun’s value.

B. For the word Evil the Greek term is: κακό(ν); it is grammatically neutral, and this makes already a point about the understanding of Evil. (There is, similarly to the above, a broadly used masculine word (κακός), but it is always serving as adjective, and thus we don’t need to expand over this since the scope of your question is rather metaphysical than moral. You may see in the Greek literature, Christian – non-Christian, Ancient, Medieval and Modern, pagan and non-pagan, that evil(s) is always rendered either in the singular κακόν, or in the plural κακά.

II.

Greek philosophy, whether in antiquity, late antiquity, early christian times, Byzantium, or the modern times, has always clearly distinguished between Metaphysics / Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics. But never, among the Greeks these directions become segregated and split from each other: a radical distinction between Metaphysics and Ethics started within western Medieval thought and now, of course, these fields have become so remote from each other as the earth is remoted from the sun. For the Greeks the discussion on the first principles of the Cosmos, the origin and the nature of beings, the constitution and the function of human knowledge, as well as the proper way of living, have always been unified and united, so that morality was a natural outcome of wisdom. This is a very very sketchy outline which can help you to place a discussion on Good and Evil, within Greek civilisation and tradition of thought, whether pagan or Christian. Moreover, one might bear in mind that the Greeks have never been living without religion, namely without reference to the Source of everything. The very constitution of Greek thought posits the fundamental questions and attempts to provide with answers that explicate and rationally advance the mythical outcomes, which, again, are full of religious consciousness. It might be interesting, for you, by the way, to have a suggestion on the origin of the term θρησκεία (religion). Θρησκεία, has been suggested, relates etymologically to terms such as, θρώσκω (to see, to look at; interesting, by the way, that man in Greek is rendered as ἄνθρωπος {compound word, consisted of the preposition ἄνω (up) + θρωπος {he who sees}), θεωρῶ, θωρῶ (to envisage, to have a vision), θεωρία (theory), and much more.

III.

At a certain point, man opened up for a transition from mythical to philosophical thought. One should think of this transition not exclusively on historical terms (namely: it happened once and for ever) but as a constant development the human mind is under even now. You can see, for instance, both on the level of beliefs and traditions of many tribes and on the level of practice in many societies, that there are still thousands of mythical elements that regulate people’s way of being. The Greeks quite early conceived of deity, of divinity, in personal terms (although the Presocratics had thought of the natural elements as principles), and they were very conscious about God’s existence. A divinity that could be contacted in many ways, that could even be influenced by humans in a quite flexible manner; here are hundred thousands of people who suffer being dominated, if not tortured, by concepts of entities of divinity that impose limitations, restrictions, legal relations and many other annoying determinations and prohibitions in the relation of the divine and he human.

That is why I said above that the passage from myth to reason, is still in process. However, I don’t mean that rationality should be praised as divinity. I am only referring to the possibility of encountering with a Good God who is real being, beyond imaginatory perceptions, or blind conduct by sectes of people who claim infallibility or any of the other many tortures of human life and history. So, in this transition, from myth to logos, from mythical thought to philosophical thought, man discovered some fundamental distinctions applying to the cosmos, the metaphysical reality and the way the human being is able to know. Plato recapitulated and advanced these distinctions further, and Aristotle led them to new directions. I list some of the most central of them here, as being relevant to our discussion:

i. Similarity – Dissimilarity

ii. Sameness – Otherness

iii. Identity – Difference

iv. Union – Division

v. Unity – Multiplicity

vi. General – Particular

vii. Form – Matter

viii. God – Man

ix. Cosmos – Chaos

x. Intelligible – Sensible

xi. Being – Non-being

xii. Freedom – Necessity

xiii. Good – Evil

(The list is certainly not perfect; one may add several more distinctions, such as potentiality-actuality, cause-effect, etc, but I shall abstain from entering into such a digression now).

All these above distinctions refer and apply to an ontology of the eternity, as I would call it. Roughly speaking, in the Greek thought prior to Christianity the understanding of the cosmos is that it is eternal. A potential consequence with respect to our topic is, that good and evil are also eternal powers. This has become clear already by Heraclitus, the Milesian wiseman, who had remarked that “War is the Father of all”. In this view, Evil is not something necessarily bad: it facilitates life and development. Indeed, what would be the point of qualifying evil in a world ruled by necessity? The any ‘bad’ that happens is at the same time good in the sense that one can neither reject it nor avoid it. But, if this is so, why then Evil is such a bad thing that we have to call it so, and to contrast it to the Good?

Well, there might be some good reasons for that. For the sake of methodological convenience, I would like us to agree that the best manner of identifying evil is the referential one to the good. So that, if we have to name such a thing as evil, it should be that which is lacking all what constitutes the good. Don’t you, really, think this would be the only appropriate way to reach a real notion of Evil, as an Evil perfectly contrasting the Good? And, then, our understanding about Good and Evil would make good sense? This dialectics could be followed further, but I shall not do it now. What I shall do though, is to give you some inputs that you can find implicit in Plato, because he only intuitively sensed them, and he did not endorse them in an explicit manner. So, here are, in addition to the above distinctions, a couple more; 

i. Eternity – Time (Plato deals with this, though, in the Timaeus dialogue, but the setting here now is different: for Plato time is the moving image of eternity).

ii. Created – Uncreated.

I should like to stay a bit on the second distinction that will also illuminate the first. This distinction is about a novelty that is introduced in the human thinking by the Greek Church Fathers, competent thinkers who addressed Greek thought by means of Christianity. Their thought consists of a combination of theological experience of the truths found in the Old and the New Testament and the reasoning of philosophical thinking. The substantial difference, the novelty in their mind is, that the world is not regarded as eternal. It has a beginning. This beginning is an entrance into being made by, or caused by, the not-being (note here the distinction between not-being I use now and non-being I used earlier about Evil: not-being is referring to ‘exceeding being’, that is being in all its fullfilment and even furthermore. It is beyond the area of what Plato had sensed as ‘beyond being’ (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας), whereas Evil is non-being since it is lacking even this it).

Now, roughly, again, the only eternal – conventionally speaking since our language and mind cannot conceive of it – is God’s being. God himself is that eternally being, and that completely being, so that if you decide to call a human or an animal, or even a plant or a stone being, then God should be called not being. In such a world created out of absolute nothing and without any necessity, not even the necessity for God to prove his omnipotence, as St. Augustine beautifully asserts in his Commentary to the book of Genesis, the only reason explaining being and creation-hood, is divine love. It is God himself who decides, we don’t know why and how, to proceed to the production of everything, of all, out of nothing. And since God is the perfect being, carrying on the perfections of the predications of Good I wrote you at the beginning of this answer, what he creates is being and nothing less.

But if this is so, how then does Evil enter into the picture? Is God creating Evil? If yes, how would it be possible, since we know that from the similar comes a similar? A man, for instance, cannot give birth to an apple. This is of course, a simple example, because in God all multiplications are united, as the water in the source before started watering several farms. And, if not, then, how does Evil exist? Was not God omnipotent enough, so to speak, as to not allow the emergence of Evil? So what is Evil? And where does it locate? And why does it exist? These are both difficult and easy questions. A way to conceive of this mystery, is to affirm that God is creating freely. As such, God’s creations have been inherited with the gift of freedom. But freedom is not only about the very gift, but also its use. The latter, its use, is something that God does not wish to determine, or prohibit. Any determination would annihilate immediately the very reality of freedom. And where does freedom abides? Certainly, in the human will. There are many intermediary states that I omit here, and I have to, before reaching the conclusion that, it is the free will, the freedom of will, the human being disposes that is crucial in the decision to be made of either communicating God and thus share in divine love, or to contrast and oppose the source and instead raise a fake, falsely, source of everything, that is ourselves. The first option is an affirmation to goodness. The second is the revelation of evil.

P.S. You may object that while my answer claimed to remain within metaphysics it ended up within moral considerations. Yet, you would be right. For there exists no ontological evil. These sketchy mixed thoughts aimed to tell you that the reality of evil is a paradox. For evil is not…