In the Orthodox Christian world, few places are better known or more lovingly venerated than Mount Athos, the 10th-century Greek monastery legendarily dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Composed of 20 citadels scattered over a peninsula of exceptional beauty in northern Greece, boasting magnificent manuscripts and icons, Athos is home to some 2,000 monks. Among them, as in every society, there are saints and sinners, sane and strange. I have visited countless times and have been blessed to engage with some of its more godly ambassadors.
Women are prohibited from visiting Athos. So too are female animals and beardless young boys, who could be mistaken as feminine. This has been tradition for 1,000 years. In its most recent announcement, its mission statement asserts: “Athos is a place of prayer and discipline, with an uninterrupted continuity of liturgy and spirituality, humbly interceding for the whole world and all people without discrimination.”
So I was surprised last week to see that Athos’ highest administrative authority, the Holy Community, had issued a public announcement on the nature of family. The previous week Religion News Service had published my defense of the decision by the Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, to baptize two children born to a gay couple via surrogacy.
There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.
Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.
Few, if any, would go so far as to claim that Patriarch Kirill, as head of the Orthodox Church in Russia (or “the Russias,” as he likes to say), could be charged with crimes against humanity or war crimes for not preventing unwarranted and unjustifiable military aggression that has cost innocent lives in just the last few days. At the same time, many, if not most, would concur that President Putin should be charged with such atrocities.
Even with his egregious violations of conventional law, however, Putin could never destroy the international order by himself without the loyal support and moral endorsement—whether silent or explicit—of a complicit partner-in-crime. Both state and church there dream of a larger world, a universal Russia, a “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir). But when the punching gloves and the bling vestments are removed, each is using the other for its own interests for imperialism or irredentism; and both are promoting division in an increasingly bi-polar world.
I’ve always admired the early monks and nuns of the desert literature. Not because they discovered ways of escaping the reality of paying taxes. Not only because their words were inspirational and their prayer transformative. And not primarily because they withstood the power of the empire and the test of time. But because they prevail as symbols of an alternative course of action. While their ideal is often mythologized or romanticized, even manipulated and exploited in many church circles, it nevertheless remains an image of the value of silence. Of doing less or doing nothing. Of wordlessness and inconspicuousness. Of praying instead of producing. Quite simply: of being.
In contrast, the global pandemic of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has exposed a great deal about priorities and weaknesses as a society—an extraordinarily complex community, a tangle of political, financial, health, educational, and religious institutions that affect every person worldwide. Each of these institutions is today desperately trying to come up with answers on how to restore life and save the world as we knew these. No one is immune, even the “asymptomatic”—even the most powerful nations, the most secure economies, and the most righteous believers.