July 5 – Athanasius the Athonite

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 longed for a monastic life. When his foster mother died, he “was taken” (by whom? it’s a mystery, at least to someone who puts as little time into research as I do) to Constantinople, where he studied under a famous rhetorician named Athanasius. 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. When the igumen wandered out of town, Abraham wandered to his monastery, where he received the name Athanasius and settled down into a life of asceticism, holiness, and that stuff. After a time he wandered again, ending up at the tip of Athos*, where he made a cell and began hermitting in earnest.

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 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, hitherto (another great word) inhabited only by anchorites (hermits). This won him the enmity of many of the blessed and holy hermits, as well as two blessed and holy assassination attempts. Nevertheless he soldiered on, firmly establishing cenobitism* on the Holy Mountain. Monks and monk-wannabes 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 learn from other English speakers that it’s called “the Great Lavra.”

The monastery was nearing completion when Emperor Phocas became emperor. Athanasius feared he’d be dragged to court, so he fled to Cyprus, but Phocas took pity (it was just lying there and nobody was using it) (alas) and allayed the good abbot’s fears.

At one point food at the Great Lavra 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, presumably through overawedness.

“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 (sources say) is still there. Which doesn’t exactly answer the food problem, but that’s soruces for you. Athanasius had many more visitations, although hopefully in later ones he recognized her.

In addition to the Great Lavra, Athanasius built a school, planted hundreds of trees, and gathered an extensive library. Sadly, 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 dome, alas) to look at the construction, when the whole top of the building collapsed. Four (or five) monks were killed instantly. Athanasius’ voice was heard under the rubble crying out alternately, “Glory to Thee, O Lord!” and “Lord Jesus Christ, HELP!” Sadly, 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, you would think. I do.