Mount Athos Today

Mount Athos Today

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     MOUNT ATHOS TODAY

 On Mount Athos today there are twenty inhabited monasteries. This number has been fixed by the constitutional charter of Mount Athos, and it is no longer possible to find other monasteries. The charter lays down that if the number of monks increases beyond the capacity of the monasteries, then monks are to be sent to live in kellia or sketae. Listed in hierarchical order the monasteries are: Great Lavra; Vatopedi; Iveron; Chelandari; Dionysiou; Koutloumousiou; Pantokrator; Xeropotamou; Zographou; Docheiariou; Karakalou; Philotheou; Simonopetra; Saint Paul; Stavronikita; Xenophontos; Gregoriou; Esphigmenou; Saint Panteleimon; Kastamonitou.

      The monasteries are the rulers of all Athos, which has been divided into twenty corresponding districts. To the twenty monasteries belong also the monastic dwellings on the peninsula. Only Karyes, where the monasterial authorities have their seat, does not come under their control. Futhermore, the monasteries  are described as self-governing. They owe no obedience whatsoever to any ecclesiastical authority. Even the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate over Athos is limited to issues which concern the spiritual life of the Athonite community.
All the Athonite monasteries, are referred to as royal, patriarchal and stavropegiac. They are royal institutions because they were founded by the authorisation of the chrysobull of a Byzantine emperor. They are designated as patriarchal because their foundation was confirmed by a sigillon or decree of a patriarch, when these houses recognised and accepted the spiritual guid¬ance of a patriarch. And, lastly, they are named stavropegiac, for this title stresses that their foundations were consecrated by the planting of a patriarchal cross. 
The way of life adopted in all the monasteries is now coenobitic. There were idiorrhythmic monasteries until 1992. The difference between them was that in the coenobitic monasteries, as the word denotes, everything is communal; shelter, work, food and prayer, whereas in idiorrhythmic houses, although shelter and prayer remained communal, work and food were regulated by the individual monk to his own taste.

      Whether coenobitic or idiorrhythmic, the architecture of the monasteries is the same. This is because all the monasteries were founded as coenobitic houses, and functioned as such for a long period of time. It was only long after their founding that the idiorrhythmic way of life was adopted by some, but even there, on the great feast days of the year, meals were eaten in common in the idiorrhythmic houses.

      In the monasteries, which, as has been said, are all coenobitic, the legislative authority is vested in the assembly of elders (gerontia), which is composed ol a limited number of monks. The executive authority is the abbot, who is also the spiritual father of the community. He is chosen for life by those monks who have completed six years after their tonsure. A small committee of two or three members, the abbot’s council, assists the abbot in his duties. Its members, chosen from the gerontia, serve for one year. Life in a coenobitic house is more organised, the fasts more strictly observed and the monks - brothers working .it regular duties assigned to them every year by the monastery - are without any personal property. The monastery takes care of all personal needs of the monks.
In those monasteries which were idiorrhythmic the legislative authority belonged to the council of superiors (synaxis), elected for life, and the executive to two or three trustees, who held office for a year and were elected from the synaxis. The various duties necessary for the smooth-running of the monasteries were assigned to the monks by the trustees. To supplement the meagre salaries they were paid for these tasks, the monks were free to engage in other activities. Thus the individual was at liberty to regulate his own life, but this should not go beyond the limitations imposed on him by Athonite monasticism.
During the last twenty years there were seven idiorrythmic houses on Mount Athos: Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iveron, Chelandari, Pantokrator, Xeropotamou and Docheiariou. According to the constitutional charter then in force, an idiorrhythmic house could become coenobitic if its brotherhood unanimously so wishes, but a coenobitic house may not change its status. It is worth pointing out that this major change over has now taken place in all seven monasteries, that of Pantokrator being the last.

     There are other monastic establishments on Athos belonging to the twenty monasteries and functioning as their dependencies. These are the skete, the kellion, the kathisma and the hesychasterion.
Sketae: there are twelve sketae scattered over the peninsula. The sketae, like the monasteries until recently, are divided into coenobitic and idiorrhythmic. Their inhabitants are chiefly occupied in farming and handicraft making.
The coenobitic sketae are four in number: Prophet Elijah (Russian), which belongs to the monastery of Pantokrator; St John the Baptist (Romanian), dependent on Great Lavra; St Andrew or the Serai (Russian), under the monastery of Vatopedi, and of the Virgin surnamed Bogodoritsa (Bulgarian), belonging to the monastery of St Panteleimon. A skete is made up of a number of cells, looking much like a monastery, with a communal church in the centre of the courtyard. These sketae follow the same pattern of life as the coenobitic monasteries, and each of them is ruled by a prior (dikaios) whose office corresponds to that of an abbot.

      The idiorrhythmic sketae, which represent the original form, are all Greek and eight in number. They are the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Xenophonite Skete belonging to Xenophontos, the New Skete or the skete of the Tower and St Demetrios or Lakkoskete, both dependencies of St Paul’s; St Anne’s and Kavsokalyvia, properties of Great Lavra; St John the Baptist belonging to Iveron; St Panteleimon inhabited by monks of Koutloumousiou and the Vatopedian skete of St. Demetrios. A skete is a loosely structured community consisting of a number of huts. Here too there is a church at the centre, the kyriakon, in which the Sunday liturgies are said. The daily offices are said in the individual kalyvae to each of which a chapel is attached. These communities are governed by a prior or dikaios, who is chosen on May 8th from the elders (gerontes) and who rules with the assistance of four counsellors. Two of these counsellors are chosen from the inhabitants of the skete, two from the parent monastery.

     Kellion. The kellion is a spacious monastic dwelling, very much like a farmhouse, containing a small chapel. A small stretch of land surrounds it, which, of course, varies according to its wealth and size. The kellion is held by three or more monks under deed of trust from the parent monastery, and its monks are occupied in farming and similar activities.

     Kalyve. The kalyve is a dwelling similar to a kellion but smaller. It also contains a chapel, but no land is attached to it. The monks there live like a family, much as in a skete or kellion, and they are occupied in handicrafts. Several such abodes grouped together give the impression of a community, but they share no common administration and there is no interdependency. Such groups of kalyvae are to be found in the area of Kapsala near Karyes, and on south-west side of the peninsula - Little St Anne, Katounakia and St Basil’s. A kalyve is similar to a cottage in a skete, but it is generally smaller.
Kathisma. A kathisma is an even smaller structure than the kalyve, usually found close to the parent monastery. Here one monk dwells alone, who, in return for a small payment for the dwelling, also has his food from the monastery.
Hesychasterion. A hesychasterion is a hermitage proper. It is to be found in some desolate spot, often in a cliff face. They abound at the southern extermity of the cape. Sometimes it is a small hut, but it is more often a cave,scarcely altered, which one might liken to an eagle’s nest. To the hesychastiria retreat monks who seek the most harsh and austere asceticism.
Such hermitages make up the famous settlement at Karoulia, which lies beneath the skete of St. Anne in the direction of Great Lavra. Ravines and precipitous cliffs separate these huts and caves, and access is only possible by steps, chains and tortuous paths.

                                                                             Government of Mount Athos

     With only a few exeptions, the government of Mount Athos is based on the seven Typika issued from the first recognition of organised monasticism on the Mountain to the earliest years of the last century. The most important are those of 971/2, 1046, 1394 and 1810, to which we have already referred in the foregoing pages. Mount Athos is governed now in accordance with the provisions of the constitutional charter of 1924, which was ratified two years later in 1926 by legislative decree. This charter laid down that the legislative authority to be exercised by the Holy Assembly, composed of twenty members, that the abbot from each of the ruling monasteries. The Holy Assembly meets at Kayres twice a year to ratify canonical enactments covering the organisation, government and administration of the monastic life on Athos. In exceptional circumnstances a double council, composed of forty members, is held. The administrative authority is exercised by the Holy Community, which again is made up of twenty members, one from each monastery. They are elected on January 1st and hold office for one year, during which time they live in Karyes. The executive authority is exercised by a separate committee of four over the Holy Epistasia, a body composed according to the division of the 'Monasteries into four groups of five, each group taking a turn for a year. Thus each monastery is represented on this committee once every five years. Although the members of the Epistasia are equal in status, the member from the senior monastery of the tetrad ranks as the chief monk and is called the Protoepistatis, a compound derived from the old Protos and the newer epistates. The senior monasteries from which the Protoepistates is chosen are Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iveron, Chelandari and Dionysiou. The monasteries choose there representative on the Epistasia on June 1st and his term of office lasts for one year. Finally, judicial authority is shared between different bodies on and outside the Mountain.

     Karyes is also the seat of the civil governor, responsible to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens. His duty is the faithful execution of the constitutional charter and the general maintenance of law and order. He is assisted by a small number of administrators and police officials. Their presence ensures the unimpeded functioning of the system outlined in the constitutional charter. In accordance with this and with the present Greek Constitution, the Holy Mountain is an autonomous part of the Greek State
                                                                        Life of the monks on Athos

      Midnight, the universally accepted beginning and end of the day, does not count on Athos as such. Here the Byzantine system, where the time is reckoned from sunset and thus shifts according to the season, is followed; the exception is Iveron where the Chaldaic system is adopted, according to which the day begins at sunrise.
The monastic day is divided into three parts of eight hours each; one is dedicated to prayer, one to work and the third to sleep.


The prayer of the monks is divided into public and private. All the monks unite in communal worship, that is the saying of the various offices and services in the central church and smaller chapels. The most common services are Vespers, Compline, Midnight Mass, Matins and the Liturgy, which increase in elaborateness on feast days and especially on the vigils before festivals. Almost all the services are held at night.
Private worship is based on the short prayer Kyrie Eleison’ (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me). Rosaries are frequently employed to number the prayers. The monks of the Holy Mountain especially revere the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as we have said earlier, is regarded as the Queen of Athos.


   Each of the Athonite monks, who today number 1700, works for his monastery. Tasks are assigned to him by his superiors. Hence provision made for the performance of worship, the safe-keeping of the treasures. The care of the brothers and pilgrims etc. It should be noted that the relatively small numbers of monks in the monasteries is totally disproportionate to the many duties required of them, and it is quite usual to find one monk performing two or more such tasks. Many monasteries are obliged to hire lay labourers to carry out many of the necessary jobs, especially the ones outside the monastery. Some of the tasks assigned only to monks are listed below. The pyloros or portaris is the monk responsible for the opening and closing of the main gate of the monastery. He has his quarters within the gate tower, and is required to check the credentials of visitors and to conduct them to the archontaris. The archcontaris is the monk responsible for providing food and lodging for visitors. He is sometimes assisted by another monk, the pararchontaris. The koudounokroustis or kabinaris beats the wooden gong (semantron) summon the monks to the various services and rings the bells on feast days. The ecclesiastikos  is responsible for the preparation of the church before the services. The bemataris is the custodian of the holy relics the chancel, whose duty it is to show them to any visitor or pilgrim who requests to see them. The typikaris is the master of ceremonies in the church, indicates to the cantors the troparia and readings for the day. The anagnostis is the reader of the lessons in the church and in the refectory. The trapezaris is responsible for the refectory and the preparation of the tables. The mageiras is the cook in charge of the monastic kitchen. The magipas is the monastic baker. The docheiaris is in charge of the storerooms. The nosokomos is the monk in charge of the infirmary and is responsible for nursing the sick monks. The gerokomos is the monk entrusted with the care of those monks who are too old and frail to be left alone. The  bibliothekarios holds the keys of the library and is responsible for the care and safety of the books. The skevophylax is the monk responsible for the building containing the treasure of the monastery. Usually more than one monk is appointed, and each holds his own key. The synodikaris is the monk responsible for the care and maintenance of the room in which the superiors of the monastery hold their meetings. The prosmonarios is the monk appointed in monastaries which house a miracle working icon of the Virgin Mary to take charge of both the icon and its chapel. He recites prayers to the Virgin, and accepts the oblations of pilgrims. The arsanaris is the monk originally of the port, and now responsible for the goods brought in from outside to supply the monastery. He may live in tower there, or may go to the harbour only when necessary.


  It general, the diet of the monks of Athos is very frugal and is based on bread, oil, wine, olives, vegetables and pulses. The monks on Athos maintain the old tradition of hospitality to all visitors. Many pilgrims or workmen, especially in the summer months, find food and lodging in the monasteries. The guest chambers are always open.

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