On this date in 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. When asked if she thought her birth was the harbinger of things to come, Dolly replied, “Bah.”
Athanasius the Athonite (ca. 920 – 1003) was born in Trebizond, baptized “Abraham,” orphaned, and raised by an adoptive mother who happened to be a nun (actually she was probably a nun on purpose). He grew up a model scholar, but also longing for a monastic life. When his second mother died, he “was taken” (by whom? it remains a mystery to this day, at least to someone who puts as much time into research as I do) to Constantinople, where he studied under one Athanasius, a famous rhetorician. Soon he had surpassed his master and started taking students of his own. When Athanasius got persnickety about this, Abraham left the academic life.
Just then a wandering igumen (you gotta love that word) came to town, listened to Abraham’s tales of woe, and instructed him in the faith. Then he wandered out of town, leaving Abraham momentarily, until Abraham wandered to his monastery and asked to be admitted. He received the name Athanasius and settled down into a life of asceticism, holiness, and so forth. After a time he began to wander again, ending up at the southern tip of Athos, where he made a cell and began hermitting in earnest (no, “Earnest” was not the name of his cell).
Around then Nicephorus Phocas, a soon-to-be Emperor who had taken a shine to Athanasius when he was still Abraham, tapped him to be almoner of his fleet in his wars with the Saracens. (I had no idea fleets even had almoners, did you?) Upon his discharge (which was honorable), Athanasius grudgingly took a sack of gold pieces from Phocas and used it to build a monastery on the mountain, previously inhabited only by anchorites. This won him the enmity of many of the blessed and holy hermits, and two blessed and holy assassination attempts. Nevertheless he soldiered on, firmly establishing coenobitism on the Holy Mountain. Monks and monk-wannabes soon flocked from everywhere (“not just Greece!” one source burbles) to join. Thus was founded the Great Lavra, as it is called today by English-speakers who know of its existence and learn from other English speakers that it’s called “the Great Lavra.”
As the monastery was nearing completion, Phocas became Emperor. Athanasius feared he’d be dragged in to serve at court, so he fled to Cyprus, but Phocas took pity (it was just lying there and nobody was watching it) and allayed the good abbot’s fears.
At one point food got tight and monks started leaving. Athanasius was just packing his bags when the Theotokos appeared to him, saying, “And just where do you think you’re going?” Athanasius explained his predicament, and our Lady said, “So you’re leaving this monastery, meant to be a place for God’s glory, just to get some bread? Look, stick around, and I’ll help you.”
“Um, who are you?” asked Athanasius, either unaware of the history of this sort of thing, or more likely just overawed.
“I’m the Mother of the Lord,” she said patiently (of course). “Now bang that rock with your stick.”
He did, and water gushed forth from a brand-new spring which (the sources say) is still there. Athanasius had many more such visitations, although hopefully in subsequent ones he recognized her.
In addition to the Great Lavra, Athanasius built a school, planted hundreds of trees, and gathered an extensive library. But before the monastery church was completed, he was killed in a horrible accident. He had gone up with the workmonks to the dome (not an onion, dang it) to look at the construction, when the whole top of the building collapsed. Four (or five) monks were killed instantly, but Athanasius’ voice was heard under the rubble crying out, “Glory to Thee, O Lord!” and “Lord Jesus Christ, HELP!” Alas, before they could dig him out, he had died. My sources do not speak either of his patronage or his relics, but his legacy is more than enough.
Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.
Venerable Athanasius the Founder of the Great Lavra and Coenobitic Monasticism on Mt. Athos (OCA) – Main source
Athanasius the Athonite, Abbot (St. Patrick DC)
Image from Wikimedia