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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Byzantium: The Church of the Seven Councils
      • Saints, monks, and emperors
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Saints, monks, and emperors

  Not without reason has Byzantium been called .the icon of the heavenly Jerusalem.. Relig-

ion entered into every aspect of Byzantine life. The Byzantine.s holidays were religious festivals;

the races which he attended in the Circus began with the singing of hymns; his trade contracts

invoked the Trinity and were marked with the sign of the Cross. Today, in an untheological age,

it is all but impossible to realize how burning an interest was felt in religious questions by every

part of society, by laity as well as clergy, by the poor and uneducated as well as the Court and the

scholars. Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at

the time of the second General Council:


The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways;

old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask some-

one to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you in-

quire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the

Son inferior; if you ask .Is my bath ready?. the attendant answers that the Son was made

out of nothing (On the Deity of the Son [P.G. xlvi, 557B]).


This curious complaint indicates the atmosphere in which the Councils met. So violent were the

passions aroused that sessions were  not always restrained or dignified. .Synods and councils  I

salute from a distance,. Gregory of Nazianzus dryly remarked, .for  I know how troublesome


they  are. Never  again  will  I  sit  in  those  gatherings  of  cranes  and geese.  (Letter  124; Poems  about

Himself, 27, 91). The Fathers at times supported their cause by questionable means: Cyril of Alex-

andria, for example, in his struggle against Nestorius, bribed the Court heavily and terrorized the

city of Ephesus with a private army of monks. Yet if Cyril was intemperate in his methods, it

was because of his consuming desire that the right cause should triumph; and if Christians were

at times acrimonious, it was because they cared about the Christian faith. Perhaps disorder is bet-

ter than apathy. Orthodoxy recognizes that the Councils were attended by imperfect men, but it

believes that these imperfect men were guided by the Holy Spirit.

  The Byzantine bishop was not only a distant figure who attended Councils; he was also in

many cases a true father to his people, a friend and protector to whom men confidently turned

when in trouble. The concern  for the poor and oppressed which John Chrysostom displayed is

found in many others. Saint John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 619), for example,

devoted all the wealth of his see to helping those whom he called .my brethren, the poor.. When

his own resources failed, he appealed to others: .He used to say,. a contemporary recorded, .that

if, without ill-will, a man were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the

poor, he would do no wrong. (Leontius  of NeapolisSupplement  to  the  Life  of  John  the  Almsgiver21).

.Those whom you call poor and beggars,. John said, .these I proclaim my masters and helpers.

For they, and they alone, can really help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven. (Leontius,

Supplement, 2). The Church in the Byzantine Empire did not overlook its social obligations, and

one of its principal functions was charitable work.

  Monasticism played a decisive part in the religious life of Byzantium, as it has done in that

of all Orthodox countries. It has been rightly said that .the best way to penetrate Orthodox spiri-

tuality is to enter it through monasticism. (P. Evdokimov, L.Orthodoxie, p. 20). There is a great rich-

ness of forms of the spiritual life to be found within the bounds of Orthodoxy, but monasticism

remains the most classical of all (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 17). The mo-

nastic life first emerged as a definite institution in Egypt at the start of the fourth century, and

from there it spread rapidly  across Christendom.  It is no coincidence that monasticism should

have developed immediately after Constantine.s conversion, at the very time when the persecu-

tions ceased and Christianity became fashionable. The monks with their austerities were martyrs

in an age when martyrdom of blood no longer existed; they formed the counterbalance to an es-

tablished ChristendomMen in Byzantine society were in danger of forgetting that Byzantium

was an icon and symbol, not the reality; they ran the risk of identifying the kingdom of God with

an earthly kingdom. The monks by their withdrawal from society into the desert fulfilled a pro-

phetic and eschatological ministry in the life of the Church. They reminded Christians that the

kingdom of God is not of this world.

  Monasticism has  taken  three  chief  forms,  all  of which had  appeared  in  Egypt  by  the  year

350, and all of which are still to be found in the Orthodox Church today. There are first the her-

mits, men leading the solitary life in huts or caves, and even in tombs, among the branches of

trees, or on the tops of pillars. The great model of the eremitic life is the father of monasticism

himself, Saint Antony  of Egypt (251-356). Secondly there is the community life, where monks

dwell  together  under  a  common  rule  and  in  a  regularly  constituted  monastery.  Here  the  great

pioneer was Saint Pachomius of Egypt (286-346), author of a rule later used by Saint Benedict in

the west. Basil the Great, whose ascetic writings have exercised a formative influence on eastern

monasticism, was a strong advocate of the community life. Giving a social emphasis to monasti-

cism, he urged that religious houses should care for the sick and poor, maintaining hospitals and

orphanages, and working directly for the benefit of society at large. But in general eastern mo-


nasticism has been far less concerned than western with active work; in Orthodoxy a monk.s

primary task is the life of prayer, and it is through this that he serves others. It is not so much

what a monk does that matters, as what he is. Finally there is a form of the monastic life inter-

mediate between the first two, the semi-eremitic life, a .middle way. where instead of a single

highly organized community there is a loosely knit group of small settlements, each settlement

containing perhaps between two and six brethren living together under the guidance of an elder.

The great centers of the semi-eremitic life in Egypt were Nitria and Scetis, which by the end of

the fourth century  had  produced many outstanding monks . Ammon the founder of Nitria,

Macarius of Egypt and  Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, and Arsenius the Great.

(This semi-eremitic system is found not only in the east but in the far west, in Celtic monasti-


  Because of its monasteries, fourth-century Egypt was regarded as a second Holy Land, and

travelers to Jerusalem felt their pilgrimage to be incomplete unless it included the ascetic houses

of the Nile. In the fifth and sixth centuries leadership in the monastic movement shifted to Pales-

tine, with Saint Euthymius the Great  (died 473)  and his disciple Saint Sabbas (died 532). The

monastery founded by Saint Sabbas in the Jordan valley can  claim an unbroken history to the

present day; it was to this community that John of Damascus belonged. Almost as old is another

important house with an unbroken history to the present, the monastery  of Saint Catherine at

Mount Sinai, founded by the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565). With Palestine and Sinai in

Arab hands, monastic pre-eminence in the Byzantine Empire passed to the huge monastery of the

Studium at Constantinople, originally founded in 463; Saint Theodore was Abbot here and re-

vised the rule of the community.

  Since the tenth century the chief center of Orthodox monasticism has been Athos, a rocky

peninsula in North Greece jutting out into the Aegean and culminating at its tip in a peak 6,670

feet high. Known as  .the Holy Mountain,. Athos contains twenty  .ruling. monasteries and  a

large number of smaller houses, as well as hermits. cells; the whole peninsula is given up en-

tirely  to  monastic  settlements,  and  in  the  days  of  its  greatest  expansion  it  is  said  to  have  con-

tained nearly forty thousand monks. One out of the twenty ruling monasteries has by itself pro-

duced 26 Patriarchs and 144 bishops: this gives some idea of the importance of Athos in Ortho-

dox history.

  There are no .Orders. in Orthodox monasticism. In the west a monk belongs to the Carthu-

sian,  the  Cistercian,  or  some  other  Order;  in  the  east  he  is  simply  a member  of  the  one  great

brotherhood which includes all monks and nuns, although of course he is attached to a particular

monastic house. Western writers sometimes refer to Orthodox monks as .Basilian monks. or

.monks of the Basilian Order,. but this is not correct. Saint Basil is an important figure in Or-

thodox monasticism, but he founded no Order, and although two of his works are known as the

Longer Rules and the Shorter Rules, these are in no sense comparable to the Rule of Saint Bene-


  A characteristic figure in Orthodox monasticism is the .elder. or .old man. (Greek geron;

Russian starets, plural startsi). The elder is a monk of spiritual discernment and wisdom, whom

others . either monks or people in the world . adopt as their guide and spiritual director. He is

sometimes a priest, but often a lay monk; he receives no special ordination or appointment to the

work of eldership, but is guided to it by the direct inspiration of the Spirit. The elder sees in a

concrete and practical way what the will of God is in relation to each person who comes to con-

sult him: this is the elder.s special gift or charisma. The earliest and most celebrated of the mo-

nastic startsi was Saint Antony himself. The first part of his life, from eighteen to fifty-five, he


spent in withdrawal and solitude; then, though still living in the desert, he abandoned this life of

strict enclosure, and began to receive visitors. A group of disciples gathered round him, and be-

sides these disciples there was a far larger circle of people who came, often from a long distance,

to ask his advice; so great was the stream of visitors that, as Antony.s biographer Athanasius put

it, he became a physician to all Egypt. Antony has had many successors, and in most of them the

same outward pattern of events is found . a withdrawal in order to return. A monk must first

withdraw, and in silence must learn the truth about himself and God: Then, after this long and

rigorous preparation in solitude, having gained the gifts of discernment which are required of an

elder, he can open the door of his cell and admit the world from which formerly he fled.

  At the heart of the Christian polity of Byzantium was the Emperor, who was no ordinary

ruler, but  God.s  representative on earth.  If Byzantium was an icon of the heavenly Jerusalem,

then  the  earthly  monarchy  of  the  Emperor  was  an  image  or  icon  of  the  monarchy  of  God  in

heaven; in church men prostrated themselves before the icon of Christ, and in the palace before

God.s living icon . the Emperor. The labyrinthine palace, the Court with its elaborate ceremo-

nial, the throne room where mechanical lions roared and musical birds sang: these things were

designed to make clear the Emperor.s status as vicegerent of God. .By such means,. wrote the

Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, .we figure forth the harmonious movement of God

the Creator around this universe, while the imperial power is preserved in proportion and order.

(Book of Ceremonies, Prologue). The Emperor had a special place in the Church.s worship: he could

not of course  celebrate the Eucharist, but he received communion .as priests do,. he preached

sermons, on certain feasts he censed the altar. The vestments which Orthodox bishops now wear

are the vestments once worn by the Emperor in church.

  The life of Byzantium formed a unified whole, and there was no rigid line of separation be-

tween the religious and the secular, between Church and State: the two were seen as parts of a

single organism. Hence it was inevitable that the Emperor played an active part in the affairs of

the Church. Yet at the same time it is not just to accuse Byzantium of Caesaro-Papism, of subor-

dinating the Church to  the State. Although Church and State formed a single  organism,  yet

within this one organism there were two distinct elements, the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the

imperial power (imperium); and while working in close cooperation, each of these elements had

its own proper sphere in which it was autonomous. Between the two there was a .symphony. or

.harmony,. but neither element exercised absolute control over the other.

  This is the doctrine expounded in the great code of Byzantine law drawn up under Justinian

(see the sixth Novel) and repeated in many other Byzantine texts. Take for example the words of

Emperor John Tzimisces: .I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the

world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the control of men.s bodies. Let

neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity. (Quoted in N. H. Baynes, Byzantine

Studies, London, 1955, p. 52). Thus it was the Emperor.s task to summon councils and to carry their

decrees into effect, but it lay beyond his powers to dictate the content of those decrees: it was for

the bishops gathered in  council to decide what the true faith was. Bishops were  appointed by

God to teach the faith, whereas the Emperor was the protector of Orthodoxy, but not its expo-

nent. Such was the theory, and such in great part was the practice also. Admittedly there were

many occasions on which the Emperor interfered unwarrantably in ecclesiastical matters; but

when  a  serious  question  of  principle  arose,  the  authorities  of  the  Church  quickly  showed  that

they had a will of their own. Iconoclasm, for example, was vigorously championed by a whole

series of Emperors, yet for all that it was successfully rejected by the Church. In Byzantine his-

tory Church and State were closely interdependent, but neither was subordinate to the other.



  There are many today, not only outside but within the Orthodox Church, who sharply criti-

cize the Byzantine Empire and the idea of a Christian society for which it stands. Yet were the

Byzantines  entirely wrong? They believed that  Christ, who lived on earth as a man, has re-

deemed every aspect of human existence, and they held that it was therefore possible to baptize

not human individuals only but the whole spirit  and organization of society. So they strove to

create a polity entirely Christian in its principles of government and in its daily life. Byzantium

in fact was nothing less than an attempt to accept and to apply the full implications of the Incar-

nation. Certainly the attempt had its dangers: in particular the Byzantines often fell into the error

of identifying the  earthly  kingdom of Byzantium with the Kingdom of  God, the Greek people

with God.s people. Certainly Byzantium fell far short of the high ideal which it set itself, and its

failure was often lamentable and disastrous. The tales of Byzantine duplicity, violence, and cru-

elty are too well known to call for repetition here. They are true . but they are only a part of the

truth. For behind all the shortcomings of Byzantium can always be discerned the great vision by

which the Byzantines were inspired: to establish here on earth a living icon of God.s government

in heaven.


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