Friday, October 29, 2010

Athos 5: Orthodox Monasteries

Churches dominate monasteries in western Europe. A magnificent church is the largest building: cloister, chapter house, refectory, library and dormer cluster around it, commonly are dwarfed by it.

This pattern is well seen in the baroque abbeys of southern Germany: Ottobeuren, Kempten, Benediktbeuren, Vierzehnheiligen, and others; each attesting the consequences of abbots being also bishops and princes, able to set tithes, rents and taxes, and decide their expenditure.
Here in England we have only the ruins of the great mediaeval monasteries, after their dissolution by Henry the Eighth. But we see the same pattern, the church is the dominant ruin.

The church is not the largest building in the four monasteries I stayed in on Mount Athos: IM Agiou Paulou, IM Grigoriou, IM Karakoullou, and IM Koutloumousiou. Their churches are central in a courtyard surrounded by the monastery buildings, usually higher then the church, which may not easily be seen from outside.
[IM stands for Iera Muni - Holy Church - the title of respect for the monasteries and sketes on Athos.]

This image of IM Karakallou shows the layout. The central red-ochre building is the church. The tower and fortified west front were built to protect from pirates.




This the view of IM Karakallou from the approach road. The church is hidden by the monastery.



And this is an image of IM Karakallou church, as seen in the courtyard.


These orthodox churches are aligned east-west, but are not overtly cruciform. A domed central area carries a cupula or lantern, with slit windows. Other roof cupulae admit light to other parts.
Inside they appear small, high and dark, by comparison with British churches. Lights - usually candles on Athos - reveal a wealth of furnishings - icons, gold and silver fittings, and vestments.
Only Greek Orthodox had free admission to the churches in the monasteries I visited: for non-orthodox admission is by invitation, in the company of monks. Photography is not possible. I could attend service only in the ante-chamber - the Narthex.

This is the interior of the small church of Hagia Marina, which we visited on the way to Ouranopolis.


And this diagram shows the features of an Orthodox church - with thanks to Wikipaedia and Phiddipus.


This English Physician found the Athos monasteries fascinating and strangely moving. I am attracted to Orthodoxy, but still sceptical, and suspicious of being manipulated by tradition, beauty, and the radiant confidence of the faithful. A monk I spoke to had no problems with the proposition that Christianity might enter through the emotions, if the intelligence demurs.
That is a concept I need to ponder at length.


55 comments:

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

"I am attracted to Orthodoxy, but still sceptical, and suspicious of being manipulated by tradition, beauty, and the radiant confidence of the faithful."

Yes, in Orthodoxy one hasn't a fear of manipulation so much by popes and prelates, but by the burgeoning and pervasive brute force of "belief" of the ordinary faithful. As an Orthodox Christian myself, I am not manipulated by tradition (I know where it comes from, and how bendable it is), or by beauty (nothing inside the church is more beautiful than the beauty of a single human soul whether inside or out), and I would never have vocalised a description of the faithful as "radiant confidence"… Confidence, maybe, but radiant? I think of the Hindi proverb, "No matter how brightly a mirror reflects light, it still has a dark side."

I have been impressed in the best way with the faith and even the confidence of some Orthodox (I too have faith and confidence), but I have seen a "dark side" of it in others that makes me shudder.

"A monk I spoke to had no problems with the proposition that Christianity might enter through the emotions, if the intelligence demurs."

I have a problem with it. The recent film "Agora" is a testimony to what happens even in Orthodoxy when "Christianity enters through the emotions." Christian TV, the offspring of pentecostalism, is another testimony of the same. If intelligence abdicates or surrenders, then any and all religions turn lethal.

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