(RNS) — Few places in the Orthodox Christian world are better known or revered with more love than Mount Athos, the 10th-century Greek monastery legendaryly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Comprised of 20 citadels scattered across an exceptionally beautiful peninsula in northern Greece, home to magnificent manuscripts and icons, Athos is home to some 2,000 monks. Among them, as in any society, there are saints and sinners, healthy and strange. I have visited countless times and had the chance to interact with some of its most pious ambassadors.
Women are forbidden to visit Athos. The same goes for female animals and young hairless boys, who could be mistaken for women. It has been a tradition for 1000 years. In its latest announcement, its mission statement states, “Athos is a place of prayer and discipline, with unbroken continuity of liturgy and spirituality, humbly interceding for the whole world and all peoples without discrimination.”
So I was surprised last week to see that the highest administrative authority in Athos, the Holy Community, issued a public announcement about the nature of the family. The previous week, Religion News Service had published my defense of Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America,’s decision to baptize two children born to a gay couple through surrogacy.
I was not surprised that the Holy Community commented: My editorial seemed to strike a chord, eliciting countless passionate responses. Most comments have unfortunately missed the point – namely, our hypocrisy in conversations about homosexuality. Predictably, I was excoriated as progressive or pro-gay. I wonder if the reactions would have been as strong if I had written about social injustice, corporate greed, climate change or the ongoing genocide between two traditionally Orthodox peoples in Ukraine – for which the world is still awaiting exposure of the Russian patriarch Kirill, who continues to incite bloodshed, under the pretext that a camp promotes gay pride parades!
Like these other commentators, the monks of Mount Athos avoided much of the archbishop’s actions and my editorial, which was mainly about the baptism of two children and had little to do with the family. Nevertheless, the monks affirmed in their letter that “there is no other kind of family than that established by the Sacred Gospel”. And that was the real cause of my surprise.
First, because Mount Athos does not consistently issue statements, especially about how Orthodox Christians should conduct their lives in the world. Whenever he has deviated from this convention in recent years, his statements have been either narrow (expressing his resistance to ecumenical dialogue and a papal visit to Greece) or coy (as in his response to the current war in Ukraine). ). But, after all, talking about secular matters is not what monks are supposed to do, that is, to burn like living torches of prayer for the world.
There have of course been notable exceptions of gifted writers expounding on spiritual principles. Saint Nicodemus of Mount Athos, the 18th century editor of The Philokalia, is a good example. I am not a monk, and I could be wrong, but I believe that the primary purpose and role of monks is to pursue “the only thing necessary”, as the Gospel of Luke says, by serving as models of repentance and holiness.
Second, monks are neither secular clergy nor married laity. Despite rare exceptions, monks have no experience paying mortgages, maintaining loving marriages, or raising children. They cannot appreciate what it entails to earn a salary, support a family or pay taxes. They don’t know the complexities of being single or divorced.
What little they know about marriage and family usually comes from advising individuals and households “in the world”, as they sometimes condescendingly stigmatize society. Therefore, monks would have much to gain from refraining from preaching on marriage and the family – just as bishops would do well to heed the advice of married men and women before imposing heavy injunctions. This would enrich both monks and bishops.
Third, although the monks of Mount Athos base their understanding of the family on the Gospel, they would surely strive to discover in the Gospel any elaborate teaching on family nucleus or approved adoptions. What is decisive for the identity and the vocation of Christ and the Gospel is the “birth from above”, as we understand it in the Gospel of John, and not the biological birth.
The literature of the early church fathers is also reticent about marriage and the family. A simple glance through GWH Lampe’s classic “Greek Patristic Lexicon” reveals not a single entry for “family.” In fact, the concept of a nuclear family gracing the front pews on Sunday mornings is never a concern or a priority. This is why the Orthodox Church has always been uncomfortable with any adoration of the Holy Family. The premise of Scripture and the promise of the Church rests first and foremost on community and communion, not on the conventional or social constructs of marriage and family.
Monasticism – fully committed and literally conforming to Christ’s injunction to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life” – can in some respects be interpreted as the extreme aberration of marriage and the supreme deconstruction of the family. Mount Athos itself presents various forms of family configurations that challenge the traditional notion of family — which our Lord also did not conform to at all, born of an unmarried virgin mother.
Monks, in short, should not pontificate that “there is no other kind of family than that established by the Sacred Gospel.” It is equally dangerous to idolize celibacy and idealize the family. What the scriptures emphasize is that “in the resurrection people do not marry and are not married, but are like angels in heaven.” And the very existence of monasticism is a prophetic reminder of this reality.
Finally, monks are “angels in heaven” but not on earth. As such, they should focus on personal and collective transformation as a community set apart for self-reflection. At a time when the abuse of authority – spiritual, physical, and sexual – is under severe scrutiny, monks might consider the impact of their actions and advice on the individuals and families who honor them with deference. It would also behoove them to take note of the recent letter from the Church of Greece on the perils of pseudo-prophets and self-proclaimed teachers.
Monasticism receives and welcomes “all persons without discrimination” as members of the community of Mount Athos and citizens of its regime. It must reflect the same openness and inclusiveness in its relations with the outside world without throwing out hollow and exculpatory slogans. While it may be tempting for Mount Athos to take positions on contemporary issues, it ultimately offers more through the silence and restraint that come with a life of retreat and renunciation.
(The Reverend John Chryssavgis is Archdeacon and Theological Counselor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Honorary Professor at Sydney College of Divinity. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)