Mount Athos - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. In accord with the classic monastic social structure—that is, the cenobitic (common-life) Monastery—housing, meals, clothing, and observance of liturgy and other services are governed by a central rule that applies to all monks alike, and monks relinquish control of personal possessions. The abbot is a patriarch who serves for life, the absolute authority and spiritual father of the brotherhood (whose members are usually referred to as fathers). The superior is assisted by a council of elders. Some "idiorhythmic" monasteries also survive on Mount Athos. In these, internal regulations are determined by a council of superiors, Members for life, who also determine what monks shall be admitted to that council. A board of two or three monks elected for one-year terms is head of the council and the monastery. Monks in idiorhythmic monasteries may be paid for their services, retain control of their personal property, earn money from outside sources or through personal skills such as icon painting, and eat in their own apartments according to their own schedules. Accommodations are the common property of the monastery. Attendance at services, observance of fasts and festal periods, work assignments, and schedules of work are all according to the central rule and the decision of the board of elders. Skites also may be either cenobitic or idiorhythmic. Athonite law devalues idiorhythmism as an anomalous condition necessitated by extreme economic or other difficulties; it allows monasteries to convert to cenobitism but not to idiorhythmism. The current revival on Mount Athos has been characterized by widespread conversion of long-standing idiorhythmic institutions to cenobitism. Following an age-old pattern of social change on Mount Athos, young brotherhoods, many of them led by charismatic disciples of the modern Athonite hermit and spiritual father, Iosif the Cave-dweller, have moved first into smaller settlements (kellia and skites) and then into depopulated ruling monasteries, which they have converted to cenobitism. As their numbers have grown, fed by the Contemporary conservative religious revival, they have colonized and restored run-down and depopulated idiorhythmic monasteries. New wealth that has accompanied the religious revival has enabled these brotherhoods to found new monasteries and missions outside of Athos, as far away as the United States and Canada.

Political Organization. The monastic community is governed, in accord with the constitutional charter of 1924, by a tripartite government. The representative legislative assembly and the representative administrative body (the Holy Community) each consist of twenty members holding one-year terms of office, one from each of the ruling monasteries. The executive is a committee of four monks, the "Holy Epistasia," on which each of the twenty monasteries is represented once every five years in a regular cycle. The chair of the Holy Epistasia rotates among the representatives from the Megisti Lavra, Vatopedi, Iveron, Chilandari, and Dionysiou in the same five-year cycle. In addition, a civil governor appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the general maintenance of law and order, supported by a small office staff, and oversees government functionaries responsible for financial records, forestry, antiquities, etc., plus a small contingent of the Greek National Guard, which maintains several posts on the peninsula.

Social Control and Conflict. The monastic system requires of all monks suppression of the will and all forms of self-assertiveness, to be exercised constantly in relations with other monks, especially elder monks and the abbot or spiRitual father. By this system, external conflict among monks is minimized and internal conflict heightened. This internalizing of conflict, linked to the belief that only through the purification of the monk's soul through suppression of his own will is it possible to be receptive to the will of God, contributes to a social order to which all are committed for reasons of personal salvation.

Nevertheless, a number of conflicts characterize Athonite monasticism, both in relation to the secular world and within or among the brotherhoods. As religious professionals who take a strong stand regarding such matters as interdenominational ecumenism and the relations of church and state in "Orthodox" nations, the monks constitute a Religious right wing within Eastern Orthodoxy. Their association with conservative grass-roots organizations, which are legitimized by that association, puts them in conflict with ecclesiastical officials whose authority they undermine. Today the Hagiorites are threatened, as well, by a vocal call in Greece for conversion of Mount Athos and the monasteries into a national park with museums. Internally, the Hagiorite Community has had difficulties, especially in the past century, with ethnic conflicts. During the last decades before the Russian Revolution, for example, the population of Russian monks swelled so greatly as to create fears among the Greeks of a Russian takeover of the Holy Mountain, a fear that lingers today.


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