Having visited literally hundreds of monasteries in my research, I have collected a great number of momentos bearing the insignias of particular monasteries. I have calendars with pictures of abbots with various people; I have glossy books filled with pictures of religious treasures and the monastic way of life; and I have CDs of their choirs chanting. I can show friends publicity newsletters and web sites of monasteries I have visited. Many contemporary monasteries seem to excel at self-promotion.
The monastery in Preveza is very different. It has no newsletter, no colorful calendar, no picture books, and no web site. It does not sell a single item in its store bearing its name. It barely has a sign indicating its presence in Famboura. This anonymity is not due to a lack of organization but rather to a conscious emphasis by Bishop Meletios that one of the primary virtues of the monk should be afania (anonymity). As one monk told me:
He doesn’t want to make publicity because he says it is a great shame for a pastor to say that I helped the poor or I built this thing or went and preached in the churches – this is my job; it is not something to be proud of. It is the least I can do. So, you don’t write in the paper that I celebrated the liturgy in this or that region. It is much more serious than that and you have to do much more.
Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, Beauty for Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 173.
I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but the account that it chronicles did grab my attention when I first heard about it, and so when I discovered that a friend had it I asked to borrow it. She dropped it off yesterday and I immediately started dipping into it. I do, admittedly, have a pile of books that I really do want to read and am not getting to, but this is a more accessible book for reading over lunch at work than, say, tomes on patristic theology. As the subtitle says, it is about the spiritual transformation of a modern Greek community, a town that had been left in a mess by episcopal scandals, and the difference that the new bishop made. What strikes me so far is the credibility of the tale told. The author comes across as a serious but believing scholar and the people that he portrays have the mark of authenticity about them.
And, although I still have to read the chapter on monasticism properly, I was particularly struck by the words quoted here. If there is one thing that has made me uncomfortable about Orthodox monasticism, it is the romanticism associated with it, and the cult-like figures that seem to be associated with at least parts of this – although, to be fair, the marketing aspect is something that also affects Roman Catholic communities. The words quoted here remind me of all sorts of things, from some thoughts on Saint Basil to some recent words of my own bishop. In short, they are somehow about authenticity. But then I still have to read the book properly and may say more again…