2011. Several weeks remained before the celebration of Christmas.
From the northern capital of modern Hellas- Thessaloniki, I and Zurab Agrba- Filippaki went to Ouranoupoli. Ouranoupoli means Sky city in Greek. Every day a ferry with pilgrims goes to the Holy Mountain Athos from this small village located on the Chalkidiki peninsula. The Holy Mountain Athos is a world-famous center of Orthodox monasticism. It was around six o’clock in the morning. Zurab was driving a car, I was sitting on the front seat and thinking of the upcoming meeting with the hegumen of one of the Athos monasteries.
For one year and a half our compatriot, hierodeacon David is living on the Holy Mount. He decided to return to Abkhazia. However, taking into account his monastic lifestyle, his decision was apparently blessed by his spiritual advisor.
On the Mount Athos, in most cases, spiritual advisors of a brethren are heads of the monasteries. So in the Athos monasteries, the brethren elect their future hegumen (the abbot), first of all taking into account the spiritual experience of the candidate. Other traits like education, fluency in several languages, organizational skills, getting on with officials are less important.
The abbot of the Agiou Pavlou monastery, where father David lived, was father Parthenius. He had been serving in Athos for 60 years and was the follower of the authentic Svyatogorsk monasticism. 40 years have passed since the brethren elected him as the head. At that moment he served on a tree felling zone. The brethren convinced father Parthenius that he had to lead one of the largest monasteries on the Holy Mount Athos.
On the way to the Sky City (the trip takes a few hours), I was thinking of not only the upcoming meeting but the events which had happened on the eve.
A week before our pilgrimage to the Holy Mount, I was at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and leaving the library I glanced at a bulletin board as usual. I took interest in two posters. One of them informed about the upcoming screening and discussion of the Mission film at the University. The second poster informed about the presentation of the book by the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in Greek, entitled “Freedom and responsibility”.
I don’t know, it was a coincidence or not but the same evening one of the Greek channels screened “The Mission” film, filmed in 1986 by Anglo-French director Roland Joffe, starring Jeremy John Irons and Robert De Niro. The film music was composed by famous Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Later I found out that the film had been awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986.
The film impressed me a lot. I was thinking a lot of it. Missionary monks sacrifice their lives for the enlightenment of people by the Light of Christ. And who is trying to hinder them? Church officials are ready to assassinate the missionaries in order to defend their position in the state, on behalf of politicians, whether Spanish, Portuguese, or any others!
The following day after the morning prayer and cup of coffee at 9 morning I sat down at my writing-desk by the window. Since my student days, I have had several qualities which are very necessary for creative and scientific work. One of them is self-organization. To tell the truth I never liked the principle of life, expressed by Mark Twain: «I have a rule to go to bed when there is no person left to speak to and to get up when some circumstances make me do it».
But I agree with Andrey Biljo, he says: «A creative person doesn’t always have to go to work every morning and perhaps he has no chief at work. But his greatest tyrant is he himself. If you get up when nobody makes you do it and sit down at the writing-desk at 9 in the morning, and you work till evening, it means, you are a very good self-organized man».
Young people think that discipline, study at institutes and many other things destroy their creative thinking. I thought so too. However, life proves that a christian missionary and a famous artist Vincent van Gogh was right. When I was studying at the Abkhazian State University, at the faculty of fine arts, once I saw a book devoted to the life of this artist. Though I don’t remember either the name of the author or the book’s one… From this book I found out that in youth the Holland genius had been against drawing plaster figures in order to develop drawing skills. He said that the beautiful nature was enough for studying. However, many years later he changed his mind and considered that it was impossible to express the nature if one could not draw “dead” figures well. My teacher of the Latin and Ancient Greek languages said: “It is nonsense to wait for inspiration in languages learning. One can work with the language every day”. At the Moscow Theological Academy I often stayed in my room, locked the door and hang a note with Latin catchphrases on the door in front: «Amici — fures temporis!», it irritated my classmates a lot.
However, let’s return to my rental apartment in Thessaloniki. From the window of my apartment one can see ruins of the ancient European city, residents of this city heard good news (Gospel) from Paul the Apostle. First he chased after Christians, but later he became «apostolus furiosus». One can also see a big modern temple named after this apostle. According to one of the Gospels, Paul the Apostle lived in this place with his disciple Silas. Besides the ruins of the ancient city and the temple I could see a city street with high traffic, a supermarket and a few blocks of flats.
In my apartment I could hear a bell ringing from the church of Saint Catherine. This church was not seen because it was surrounded by blocks of flats. I was living in this wonderful, ancient city for a few years and working on my doctoral thesis, devoted to the life and activity of John Chrysostom, one of the three Holy Hierarchs, Archbishop of Constantinople.
That day as usual I put photocopies of Saint John’s life on my writing-desk, opened Ancient Greek dictionaries, switched on my laptop and began working. I took interest in an extract from the Greek text. Detailed analysis of this extract belongs to bollandist Floran van Ommeslaghe. He called it a conflict between John – Archbishop of Constantinople and an emperor. This fragment reminded me of the “Mission” film’s finale. In spite of the fact that the events which took place in the film (Brazil, late 18th century) and the events from the life of John Chrysostom (Roman Empire, second half of IV – early of V century) had a great time gap, I think, there is something common between them. John Chrysostom spread Christianity among Goths and Spanish missionaries preached Christianity among Guarani people. John Chrysostom and Spanish missionaries were sacrifices of politicians and church hierarchs. May be in times of the “Mission” film characters’ prototypes – Rodrigo Mendoza and priest Gabriel, it was quite normal that archbishops had a power, titles, property and people were sure that nothing was impossible to change but in the epoch of John Chrysostom, it was possible to change lots of things. However, the majority of John Chrysostom’s brethren, including Theophilus of Alexandria, decided to defeat him.
Afterward, hierarchs of the Church changed the rules in the Church life a lot. Henceforth, the Church began to depart from Christ. The contest between popes, patriarchs, catholicos, archbishops and metropolitans for the seat of the Church head would have become a common thing. The holiness of these hierarchs determined by their titles and luxury vestments. And the church life began gradually to depart from the Christian life. The lifestyle of a church person determined by canons, not by what Christ said in the Gospel. I couldn’t understand why John Chrysostom had got acquainted people with Holy Scriptures if Christians must be guided with Church Canons.
The next paper of the Ancient Greek text informed about the attempt of the bishop (the bishop, not the pope!) of Rome, Saint Innocent to convene a Council in Thessaloniki to review the case of the bishop (the bishop, not the patriarch!) of Constantinople, Saint John, who was in exile at that moment, in the most deserted place – «τῆς οἰκουμένης τὰς ἐσχατιάς», — wrote Chrysostom in his letters.
I again came up to the window in order to remember the ruined ancient city where the Council hadn’t taken place in.
The attempt of the bishop to review the unfair attitude of the majority of Church hierarchs, who lived in early V century, toward the bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom gave me hope that the truth would triumph. But, alas, it didn’t occur. The only thing that comforted me was the fact that in the Church History always existed true archpastors (few but they exist). The happy Christian is the one who meets such an archpastor in the life. I met him in Greece. But it is another story.
It was 12 o’clock in the afternoon and I decided to interrupt my work for having some coffee. I usually make coffee which is named “Greek” coffee in Greece and “Turkish” coffee in Turkey. Perhaps, in order not to offend either Turks or Greeks, Abkhazians say “Eastern” coffee. Intensive scientific work and lack of time for rest prompted me to drink coffee often in order to keep my mind in a state of constant wakefulness. I fell in love with coffee in youth when I was a student and an artist. I often strolled on the Dioskur embankment in Sukhum, sipping a cup of coffee. I kept this habit when I became a priest and served in the main church of Sebastopolis (Sukhum).
Life in the capital of Abkhazia led me to a curious conclusion: coffee and Sukhum embankment are the main factors which explain the propensity of our residents to philosophize and at the same time the above factors develop their creative thinking. On the Diockur and Makhajir embankments, where the first cafes appeared in late XIX century (in the middle of XX century, the embankments of Sukhum were rebuilt by German prisoners of war), coffee and sea fill humans with creative powers. Neither in New Athos, nor in Gagra, nor in Pitsunda or in any other places of our wonderful Motherland I could find the magic power of coffee which fills people and reveals their creative potential. It’s a weird and unexplained phenomenon.
Writer Georgy Gulia in his book about his father Dmitry Gulia wrote: “Surprisingly, the city of Sukhum (it is talking about the beginning of 20th century) has grown at least twenty times and the number of tea houses, coffee houses, sweet-shops, restaurants has decreased exactly as much. There are no more cozy dukhans. Yesenin attended one of them in the early of 1925. He wrote: “In the Sukhum dukhan I touched a strange azure”. It was probably the last dukhan”.
I made coffee, sat on the couch. It was the only luxury in my “appartement de passage” and turned on the TV. I got it to teach Modern Greek. I saw an ad talking about the Christmas concert in the concert hall of Athens. The musical composition of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Russian Church was performed on that concert.
I remembered the poster in the Aristotle University…
A few hours later I found out that in several days in Thessaloniki Metropolitan Hilarion would present the book of Patriarch Kirill “Freedom and responsibility” and after the presentation he was going to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Mount Athos. Those days I and Zurab were also going to arrive in Thessaloniki.
When we were close on our way to the Sky City, I was disturbed with the thought of random meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion. I didn’t want a random meeting with this person!
Six months ago a personal meeting with him in Moscow convinced me that Mitropolitan Hilarion did not differ from many other Church hierarchs who being in cahoots with authorities, had killed John Chrysostom and the true prototypes of the characters of the movie “Mission” Rodrigo Mendoza and the priest Gabriel. And I never doubted their existence.
… the Byzantine tower on the small cape of Ouranoupoli was already in front of us. The ferry was waiting for pilgrims to go to the Holy Mount Athos.