THE SOCIETY’SYEAR: 2007

 

 

My dear friends,

                        Athoshas been in the news again this year, happily not because of more fisticuffs atEsphigmenou, but rather as a desirable resort for the healing of soul and body.The Greek National Tourism Organization apparently wishes to promote ‘religioustourism’ and lists Athos as the prime destination. Meanwhile scientists at theUniversity of Thessaloniki, who claim to have been testing Athonite monksregularly since 1994, have produced statistics to demonstrate that theirlife-style is exceptionally healthy and that they enjoy astonishingly lowincidence of cancer. One study showed their rate of lung and bladder cancer tobe zero, and during the last thirteen years only eleven monks had developedprostate cancer, which is less than a quarter of the international average.None of this is really news to members of the Friends, all of whom will beconscious of the stress-free way of life and health-giving diet of the monks.And classicists will know from writers such as Pomponius Mela, Lucian, andAelian that the Mountain had a reputation for conferring longevity on itsinhabitants even in antiquity. In fact most Athonites today have little or nointerest in how long they will live since they already think of themselves as theliving dead. But we worldly weaklings still aim for a ‘good innings’ and welook to our spiritual guides on Athos to support us through our mundanetravails, so with all our hearts we continue to wish them ‘many years’.

                        Nearerto home, it was an enormous pleasure for us also to wish ‘many years’ to ourPresident, His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos, who in the spring celebratednot only the twenty-fifth anniversary of his consecration as a bishop but alsohis elevation to metropolitan. A gathering took place in Oxford on 28 May,attended by many members of the society and personal friends of BishopKallistos, at which an eloquent tribute from the Ecumenical PatriarchBartholomew was read out by Dimitri Conomos, who had translated it intoEnglish, and I in my capacity as Secretary of the Friends presented HisEminence with a small blessing cross, painted by an Athonite monk, as a tokenof how much we value his benign presence as chairman of our meetings, asconvener of our conferences, and as leader of our pilgrimages. This was anextremely happy occasion, made all the more enjoyable by the splendid spreadprepared by the ladies of the Greek parish in Canterbury Road. We are gratefulto them. And we salute our President. Axios!

                       

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As usual, our first engagement of theyear was a Vasilopitta party, held on Tuesday 9 January within the welcomingwalls of the Andipa Gallery in Knightsbridge. We are grateful to Mrs Andipaonce again for her generous hospitality and to Jeremy Black for making the arrangementsfor what is always a most convivial event.

                        InFebruary we held our third residential conference at Madingley Hall, Cambridge,this one devoted to the theme ‘Mount Athos: The Last Fifty Years and the Next’.Peter Lea has written about the occasion in an article printed below, so Ishall not trespass on ground already well covered by him; and as a sample ofthe proceedings we also print below a version of the paper presented by DrNicholas Constas (now Fr Maximos Simonopetrites) on ‘Charisma and Institutionat an Athonite Cloister’.But again I do wish to stress the conviviality andsense of fellowship engendered by our conferences. Of course the comfortablesurroundings, the excellent food, and the intellectual stimulation contributein large measure to this; but more than anything else it is the people, thedelegates themselves, drawn from all walks of life and from all corners of theglobe, who make our conferences so rewarding, so worthwhile, and so memorable.These are not exercises in academic oneupmanship at which ivy-coveredprofessors drone on interminably about minutiae of obscure research that are ofdoubtful interest to anyone. They bring together a lively group of friends whohave something to celebrate – their shared appetite for enlightenment onall matters relating to the Holy Mountain which is whetted by listening to halfa dozen talks on a variety of topics grouped around a broad theme and whichleads on to discussion not just in the lecture room but also in the bar and thedining room and in the beautiful surroundings of Madingley where people arefree to wander while exploring ideas and experiences of common concern. If thissounds like a commercial, I make no apology, because we wish to encourage moremembers to participate in these biennial symposia which are central to ourcharitable objects and which we believe deserve to be at least as popular asour increasingly well-patronized pilgrimages. Despite the slight fall innumbers attending, everyone there felt that this had been our most successfuland most enjoyable conference yet. It is on the basis of their feedback that wehave gone ahead with confidence and made a booking at Madingley for our nextconference, which will take place over the weekend of 20–22 February2009, so make a note of the dates now and, if you have not been to a conferencebefore, think seriously about coming this time. Details of the programme and abooking form will be circulated nearer the time.

                        Anotherof our activities that is invariably very well patronized is the annualpath-clearing expedition, now in its seventh year. The basis of this is ofcourse physical rather than intellectual exercise, and the venue is perhapsmore alluring, even if the monastic fare is inevitably more austere than whatis on offer at Madingley, but the net result is perhaps not so different. Menof all ages come together from many nations and many walks of life to spend acouple of weeks labouring in quite uncomfortable conditions to improve thepedestrian facilities for pilgrims on the Holy Mountain. This is not only aworthwhile and much-needed activity in itself, but it also brings togetherpeople who might not otherwise have met in surroundings which are conducive tothe making of new friendships and the provision of real fellowship. Not a feware people who might not otherwise have ventured on to the Holy Mountain bythemselves. Such indirect benefits of the project were of course in PrinceCharles’s mind when he first proposed it to us. It will have been a sadness toHis Royal Highness that for the first time since the work started he himselfcould not find the time to join it this year (contrary to what we read in TheTimes, that ‘The Prince of Wales, who is a memberof the Friends of Mount Athos, can go there whenever he likes’). Though thePrince was not among them, John Arnell led a party of sixteen volunteers toclear paths on the Mountain in late April and early May of this year. As usual,the reflections of some of the group are printed below. Descriptions of sometwenty paths on the Holy Mountain are now posted on the society’s website(www.athosfriends.org).

                        Thesixteenth Annual General Meeting of the society took place at St Anne’sCollege, Oxford, on Saturday 9 June. The day followed the usual pattern. HisEminence Metropolitan Kallistos opened the proceedings and introduced the firstspeaker, a former pupil of his, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna, who spoke onthe theme ‘The Glorifiers of the Name: A Russian Heresy on Athos in 1913’.Sadly His Grace was unable to provide a text of this paper on a fascinatingepisode in the history of the Russian presence on Athos. Those who areinterested are referred to his two-volume work on the subject (in Russian orFrench), but the text that we used to advertise his talk should have beenascribed to an unpublished thesis by Tom E. Dykstra entitled ‘Heresy on Mt.Athos: Conflict over the Name of God among Russian Monks and Hierarchs,1912–1914’, which may be more accessible to some. Later in the day wewere privileged to listen to a talk by the current Civil Governor of theMountain, Mr George Dalakouras. Not only was this the first time that we hadthe honour to entertain a governor of Athos, but he even sacrificed attending afamily wedding in order to be with us. A version of his talk, entitled ‘MountAthos Today and the Role of the Civil Governor’, is printed below.

                        Betweenthe two talks, and following a rather good buffet lunch, we held the AGMitself. In my capacity as Secretary, I gave a report on the activities of thesociety over the previous twelve months. During this time membership of thesociety had fallen from 772 to 766. I reported the deaths of Earl Jellicoe, SirAnthony Lambert, Geoffrey Martin, and Geoffrey Stephens and the resignationfrom the Executive Committee after five years’ service of Bishop Basil ofAmphipolis. At the AGM, held on 15 June 2006 and attended by about fifty-fivemembers and guests, we had listened to talks given by Abbot Ephraim of theVatopedi Monastery on ‘The Soul and Repentance’ and Deacon Gregorios of thesame monastery on ‘Restoration of Buildings and Conservation of Treasures atthe Holy Great Monastery of Vatopedi’. In August a group of twenty-eightpilgrims, led by Bishop Kallistos, had attended the opening of an exhibition ofTreasures of Mount Athos in Helsinki and had toured some of the monasteries andchurches of Finland and northern Russia. On 23 November the society had met inLondon for a service of Orthodox Vespers at the Romanian Orthodox Church of StDunstan in the West followed by a talk given by Archimandrite Job Getchaentitled ‘Orthodox Monasticism in France’. The Vasilopitta party, the Madingleyconference, the path-clearing pilgrimage, and the supper party in honour ofMetropolitan Kallistos have already been referred to above. The Annual Reportfor 2006 was published in April and contained ten articles and four bookreviews. I ended my report by thanking all those who had contributed to thesmooth operation of the society during the past year.

                        Inhis capacity as Treasurer, Simon Jennings presented the accounts for the yearended 31 December 2006. They had been examined by our independent examinerPeter Lea, to whom he expressed thanks. He mentioned that a risk assessment hadbeen undertaken on behalf of the Executive Committee which had identified someareas of vulnerability in the society’s public events and the footpaths project. The net cost of this insuranceto the society would be about £1000 per annum. He described briefly thesociety’s assets and liabilities of the year as well as receipts and payments.He mentioned that £10,000 had recently been transferred to the HilandarMonastery and that £16,000 was currently held in the US dollar account. Mr Leaproposed that the accounts be adopted, a motion that was seconded by MrDalakouras and carried nem. con.

                        Atthis point there were elections. In his capacity as Chairman of the ExecutiveCommittee, Metropolitan Kallistos announced that Bishop Basil had resigned,that Graham Speake and David Cadman were standing for re-election, and thatAlasdair Cross was standing for election. There being no other candidates, heproposed that all three be treated en bloc. This proposal was seconded byDimitri Kornhardt and all three were duly elected nem. con.

                        Thenext event in the society’s year was the pilgrimage to Cappadocia andConstantinople which ran from 20 to 28 October (on which see Robert Binyon’sarticle printed below). Some sixty pilgrims, led by Metropolitan Kallistos, andincluding two of the sisters from the monastery of Prodromou at Anatoli inThessaly which had itself provided hospitality to a Friends pilgrimage in 2004,found themselves accommodated in hotels in Ürgüp for the first four nights andin Istanbul for the last four. With two buses required to transport so many,each with its own local guide, and a tight schedule of places to be visited ina relatively short space of time, anything might have happened. But thanks tocareful preparation and detailed planning by Dimitri Conomos, all ran smoothlyand once again he is to be congratulated on a triumph of good organization.

                        IfI may interject a personal note, the sight of buses filled with pilgrimstravelling eagerly through remote parts of the world, be it the forests ofKarelia, the uplands of central Anatolia, or (next time) the sands of Egypt,labelled ‘FRIENDS OF MOUNT ATHOS’ never fails to move me. It is a far cry fromhow we began as a dozen or so like-minded people, gathered at 1 CanterburyRoad, Oxford, for our first AGM in 1992, wondering if the society would find arole for itself. The fact this this year’s pilgrimage ended up at the Phanarwith an audience with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is more than most of uscould then have seriously imagined. After listening to the Patriarch’swelcoming address every member of our party was presented. It was generous ofHis All Holiness to grant us so much of his time in what must be a very busyschedule: further confirmation that the society has found not only a role butalso a voice.

One other pointabout the pilgrimages. In case anyone is wondering, I should remind membersthat these are strictly not-for-profit trips. Any cash surplus is always givenas a donation to the monasteries and churches that we visit. We are not settingourselves up as a commercial tourist organization. Next year we tackle Egypt.And there will be a new venture: a pilgrimage for women members only to thewomen’s monastery of Solan in southern France which we visited on our veryfirst pilgrimage in 2002.

                        Thelast event of the year was the autumn meeting which took place in London onTuesday 20 November. As usual, we met for a service of Orthodox Vespers at theRomanian Church of St Dunstan in the West after which we walked the shortdistance to St Bride’s Institute for our meeting. After everyone had enjoyed aglass of wine, Metropolitan Kallistos introduced the speaker, another of hisresearch pupils, Dr Marcus Plested, currently Vice-Principal and AcademicDirector of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. An audienceof between sixty and seventy, including Archbishop Gregorios, listened to DrPlested speak on the subject of ‘Athos and the West: Benedictines, Crusaders,and Philosophers’. A version of his talk is printed below.

 

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We were pleased this year to award aFriends of Mount Athos Travel Bursary to Jim Blackstone of Clare College,Cambridge. Jim is writing a doctoral thesis on the theology of St GregoryPalamas under Dr Plested’s supervision. He has written a short paper on thevalue of his practical encounter with Athonite spirituality which is printedbelow.

Members arereminded that the society offers travel bursaries of £500 to support the workof suitably qualified graduate students at institutions of higher learning inthe UK who are engaged in a project with a specifically Athonite context.Applications, accompanied by the names of two referees, should be sent to me.

 

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It remains our intention to relaunch theHilandar Appeal with an appropriate event in the near future but the detailshave yet to be fixed. Meanwhile it is a pleasure to announce that one of thespeakers at next year’s AGM, due to take place in Oxford on 11 June 2008, willbe Fr Romilo, a member of the Hilandar brotherhood, who will speak about theprogramme of rebuilding and restoration currently under way at his monasterysince the great fire of 2004. The other speaker will be Fr Enzo, Abbot of theBose Monastery in northern Italy, who will speak about his personal contactswith Athonite elders.

 

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We are aware that there have been anumber of (mostly minor) changes to the procedure for gaining entry to the HolyMountain since the printing of the last edition of the Pilgrim’s Guide toMount Athos in 2004. We have therefore decided toprepare a new one, details of which will be circulated in due course.

                        Alsoon the subject of publications, the proceedings of the conference on‘Pilgrimage as Dialogue’, convened by René Gothóni in August 2006 in Helsinki,will shortly be published in a volume entitled The Magnetic Mountain: Roadsto and from Mount Athos, jointly edited byProfessor Gothóni and myself. As with Mount Athos the Sacred Bridge: TheSpirituality of the Holy Mountain (2005), a fewcopies of which are still available from the Treasurer, the society intends tomake a bulk purchase of a number of copies on publication and offer them tomembers at a reduced price. Details of this will be available soon.

                        Thisis the first Annual Report of the society that has not included a ‘Report fromthe Mountain’ and we apologize for its omission. Sadly Gabriel Nicos Pentzikishas had to withdraw from compiling it this year. We are grateful to him for theinsightful reports that he has sent us over the past four years and we lookforward to welcoming Bill Lillie as our reporter with effect from 2008.

 

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We regret to report the death of KennethStorer in November at the age of eighty-three. Kenneth had been a foundermember of the Friends and attended its very first AGM in Canterbury Road,Oxford, on 29 April 1992. Since then he had missed very few of our meetings andconferences. He also served for many years as Secretary of the Diocese ofSourozh. In a moving obituary published in the Forerunner, Mary Cunningham writes,

 

His friendsremember Kenneth above all as a man with complete integrity and dignity –even statesmanlike qualities. Physically, he stood very straight and tall; thisstance seemed to reflect his inner character… He was quiet and retiring, butwhen talking with him one had a sense that he was completely focused on theconversation… He made many friends in the Church, as well as in the widerecumenical circle, and seemed to find in Orthodoxy a true spiritual home.

 

He will be much missed by many. We sendour deepest sympathy to his widow Jill. May his memory be eternal!

 

GRAHAMSPEAKE

Hon.Secretary