No monastic setting is more renowned than Mount Athos, a rocky and isolated peninsula on the Aegean Sea in northern Greece. Since the ninth century Mount Athos, known as the Holy Mountain, has been the home of many holy and saintly monks.
Today it remains the home of some twenty monasteries and more than 2,000 Orthodox monks, each of whom owes a debt to the five monks whose lives are included in Holy Men of Mount Athos, recently published by Harvard University Press as part of its Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series.
Edited and translated by Richard P.H. Greenfield and Alice-Mary Talbot, Holy Men of Mount Athos brings to light the lives of five holy and saintly men who became icons of Christ on the Holy Mountain: Euthymios the Younger (823/24-898), Athanasios of Athos (925/30-ca. 1001), Maximos the Hutburner (1272/85-1367/80), Niphon of Athos (1315-1411), and Philotheos of Athos (ca.1366-1450).
The editors, who include the Greek text alongside the English, each translated two lives and collaborated on the translation of one. Along with their work, they include Stamatina McGrath’s translation of the “Life of Philotheos of Athos.” In addition, Alexander Alexakis served as editor for the “Life of Euthymios the Younger.” Of these lives, only that of Athanasios has been translated from the Greek into any language.
It is remarkable that these biographies of these five ascetical masters escaped the notice of earlier translators. The lives in this collection range in length, from the thirteen-page “Life of Philotheos” to the 121-page “Life of Athanasios.” But regardless of the length, each work engages with scenes from the life that teach us how to live as holy and virtuous Christians.
St. Euthymios the Younger, for example, teaches us about obedience to a spiritual father. To test Euthymios’ resolve to become a monk, his obedience and his humility, his spiritual father presents him to others as a murderer. When asked if he is a murderer, Euthymios says that he is and is then bound. Only the intercession of his spiritual father prevents him from being condemned as a criminal.
Considered one of the greatest of the holy men of Mount Athos, St. Athanasios attracted a great number of monks, men who through his guidance excelled in ascetical feats. His example was so great that even solitary monks gave up their way of life to live in community.
Athanasios is highly respected for establishing the Great Lavra, the oldest monastery still in existence on Mount Athos. Along with this great accomplishment, his is a life that teaches us about compassion as he sought to heal the whole suffering monk. The anonymous author of his life in this collection writes:
“As for the compassion which he had for his fellow human beings, what words could one use to praise it sufficiently? For if he came across anyone who was an outcast, or apathetic, worn out, or indolent, perhaps because they were sick or maimed or an alcoholic or had had their life ruined in some other way, he would welcome them all and help them, and provide them with the best physical and spiritual care.”
St. Athanasios taught monks to care for both body and soul, and so like St. Benedict before him he put the idle to work “so that, by being forced to focus their attention there, they would be delivered from wicked thoughts and come to repentance.”
To prevent monks from falling into sin while they worked Athanasios “made it an unbreakable rule that they were to sing psalms and not engage in idle conversation.”
The humble Maximos the Hutburner, thought by some to be a holy fool because he would burn his home and move whenever other monks came to live near him, constantly prayed to the Mother of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he could not be distracted from his prayer.
After Gregory of Sinai arrives at Mount Athos, the great teacher of contemplation and prayer of the heart hears of Maximos and wishes to meet him. When they meet and speak, Maximos says of himself that he is deranged.
After hearing his story, Gregory, who eventually convinces Maximos to settle down, is led to respond, “If only I were deranged like you, holy one.”
The dialogue between these two great men of prayer is reminiscent of some of the conferences of Saint John Cassian, and the wisdom unsurpassable. In response to Gregory’s comment on the light of delusion, Maximos gives one of the best descriptions we might find of holy light:
“Again the signs of grace are as follows: when the holy light approaches, it focuses the mind and makes it thoughtful and humble and modest; and it instills in the soul the recollection of death and of the last judgment and of sins, and indeed also of the punishment of hellfire; and it makes the heart contrite, sorrowful and tearful, and makes the eyes meek and full of tears.
As it approaches, it calms and comforts the soul through the venerable sufferings of Christ and His infinite love of mankind. It instills in the mind the most lofty, unerring visions . . . and thus the holy light illuminates the mind with the illumination of divine knowledge. ”
Theophanes spends six chapters on Gregory and Maximos, and they alone make his life of Maximos a masterpiece. They encapsulate the spirituality of Mount Athos, and they show us what it means to be a contemplative and to experience prayer of the heart.
Holy Men of Mount Athos is a special work. Through the efforts of Greenfield and Talbot, we now have five biographical works that increase our knowledge of life on Mount Athos and at the same time enrich our lives as Christians seeking to live, as did these five holy men, as icons of Christ in the world.