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A History of the Athonite Commonwealth, by Graham Speake

19 October 2018

Douglas Dales looks at the influence of Athos around the world

THIS remarkable book is a fine companion to the author’s earlier definitive work, Mount Athos: Renewal in paradise (Yale, 2002; second and extended edition, Limni, Evia, Greece, 2014). Dr Graham Speake is an authority on the history of Mount Athos and its monasteries, being the chairman of the Friends of Mount Athos. This new book provides an astonishing and rich panorama of the many ways in which monastic life on Mount Athos has influenced Christian life across the Orthodox world for more than 1000 years. The book is highly readable, and it is also very well illustrated.

One of the many merits of this book is how the author discreetly reveals his own spiritual understanding of the distinctive charism and mission of the Holy Mountain. His empathy and sensitivity towards the life and work of the monks is rooted in a close familiarity over many years with the extraordinary revival and mission of the Holy Mountain today, as it serves generously the relentless pastoral and spiritual needs of so many pilgrims coming from Greece and elsewhere in South-Eastern Europe, and also from Russia and Ukraine.

The book begins with a judicious and well-informed consideration of the roots of Christian monasticism and of Orthodox monastic life, in particular. Part One considers early monastic life in the deserts of Egypt and the Holy Land, the formation of urban monasteries in the Byzantine Empire, and the part that monks played in the iconoclastic controversies, as they defended the use of icons in Christian worship. Then consideration is given to the crucial work of monastic missionaries who took Christianity to the various Balkan countries in the early Middle Ages. The scene is thus set to examine the unique influence of Mount Athos.

© Graham SpeakeThe main gate to the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, with the Church of the Holy Trinity above it. The monastery was founded by St Antony in the mid-11th century after his second visit to Athos. A photo from the book reviewed below

Part Two of this book begins with consideration of how St Athanasius created the Great Lavra on Athos. It then describes how links were created with Georgia and also Kiev, where the Cave Monastery became the cradle of Russian monasticism. There is also a fascinating chapter about Sava and the Serbian monastery of Hilandar.

Two fine chapters deal with the spiritual significance of St Gregory of Sinai and Gregory Palamas and their involvement in the Hesychast crisis of the 14th century. The story of how Athos promoted the spread of monastic life in Bulgaria and Romania is remarkable and deserves to be more widely known. Then the focus moves to the emergence of renewed Russian monastic life under the leadership of Sergius and his successors. Once again, the influence of Athonite monasticism was crucial.

No less interesting are the chapters that tell of the revival of Greek Christianity under Ottoman rule, and the crucial work of St Paisy Velichkovsky and St Nicodemus the Hagiorite in collating the Philokalia — an extensive body of monastic teaching collected on Mount Athos, which had a profound impact in Russia in the 19th century, and which continues to influence many Christians today. Finally, the closing chapter relates the way in which Athonite monasticism has taken root successfully in England, the United States, and France. This is an outstanding book in every way, and a most valuable contribution not only to church history, but also to a fuller understanding of Orthodox Christianity around the world today.

The Revd Douglas Dales is a parish priest in the Oxford diocese.

A History of the Athonite Commonwealth: The spiritual and cultural diaspora of Mount Athos
Graham Speake
CUP £27.99
Church Times Bookshop £25.20

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