This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


Life of Athanasios of Athos B, ed. J. Noret, Vitae duae antiquae Sancti Athanasii Athonitae (Leuven, 1982)

 

Vita Athanasii, B, ch. 23-26

The Foundation and Rules of the Great Lavra Monastery at Mount Athos, AD 961

 

[c. 23, p. 149] Saying these things the father [Athanasios] greatly saddened Nikephoros [Phokas, general and subsequently emperor]. After a short while enjoying the benefit of seeing a friend, they took leave of each other. Athanasios, for his part, returned to Athos, while the most powerful Nikephoros, becoming more ardent about his aim of constructing [a monastery] was unable to bear it for long, and sent one of his entourage to Athanasios, named Methodios who shortly afterwards became abbot of the Kyminas monastery, bearing with him six pounds of gold to hasten the start of the construction. Because of this the most wise Athanasios discerning the great divine desire and warm wish of Nikephoros recognized that it was also God's will, so took the money and reckoning it a divine command concerned himself with the construction. And Nikephoros, far-famed with regard to bravery and excellence, was proclaimed trophy-bearer and victor against the impious Arabs having ravaged Crete and enslaved it in the year 6469 in the month of March in the sixth indiction. In this same indiction of this same year our father Athanasios began the construction. First having cleared the wooded site of much wood and smoothed the roughness with much toil and sweat, he prepared a most venerable hermitage as a resting place for Nikephoros and constructed from scratch a chapel for his prayer, which bore the name of the all-holy Forerunner [John the Baptist]. And then [p. 150] he raised a church to the Theotokos [Mother of God] which was most beautiful and secure at the projecting foot of the mountain, where his ascetic hut had been placed, and where indeed he had received divine grace.

 

[c. 24] But just as before that grace the darkest one had waged a weighty war with the father, so again before the construction of the church he tempted the workers with a dire temptation. For when they had assembled, these workers together with those about to help them and lay out the plan of the church, the artisan of evil and master of malice rendered completely paralysed the hands of the builders, such that they were unable to raise them up to their mouths. When the evil and unjust one did these things, what did the just man do? He offered up the prayer of the Trisagion, loosed their hands, and showed the evil one as defeated. This first marvel of the great father was the beginning of salvation for the builders. For immediately the father seized a pick-ax and was the first to dig, and those preparing to dig he urged into the task, and they were seen immediately to work unhindered. They were astonished by the miracle and forthwith developed great faith in the wonder-worker Athanasios, threw themselves at this feet and begged earnestly to be admitted and tonsured. This the father did, and what a strange wonder it was: that before the foundation of the house, the future occupants were taken in. Afterwards these were not hired labourers, but masters of their own dwelling and place of repose, and through their great effort the work was advanced and fulfilled. When the father's virtue became widely known and his divine work was heard by all, many ran together to him from diverse villages and cities, thirsting to dwell with him and to struggle and toil together with the others for the completion of the task [p. 151], preferring this to rest, and they observed that the diet of those with him was dry bread and fruits from wild trees and rain-water. Seeing him [Athanasios] nourished through three or four days by the same things they considered it a luxury to eat every day. And he, emulating Christ, did not cast out the one who came to him, but received him and taught him virtue and from his own life's example woke him up to the business of virtue.

 

[c. 25] With these men in this way labouring and working together with the others assisted from above with divine power by the prayers of the great man, the church was completed beautifully, having been prepared in the form of a cross, and was named for our all-holy mistress the mother of the Lord, and two small domed churches were built out from each flank of it but connected in the form of oratories, one of which was named for the forty holy martyrs and the other after the wonder-worker Nicholas. When the spiritual church that was the father was complete in its excellence, but the habit of perfection had not yet been conferred upon him due to his excessive humility, he was forthwith perfected with the great habit by a certain monk who bore the name and charisma of the prophet Isaiah and dwelt in the deeper reaches of the mountain, where indeed the father later founded a monastery. Next he tonsured those builders, whom he had first received and upon whom he had first worked a miracle. And after this he began the construction of cells round about those parts of the church in the form of a square, and having connected cell to cell in the middle of these stood the church like an eye observing from every angle. Next he builds a refectory and within it are twenty-one tables each from a slab of white marble, and each with space for twelve diners. Then he builds an infirmary and hospice and [p. 152] bath-house together with those things for the needs of the sick. Since there was a dearth of an adequate water supply at the site of the lavra [i.e. monastic complex based on cells] he devised a passage through the impassable and showed the magnitude of his genius and wisdom. Passing through a great part of Athos in search of an abundant source of water he laboured greatly, and found high and inaccessible reaches which had water, but which lay more than 70 stades from the lavra. Having begun to excavate, digging through the middle of those same high and precipitous places and laying down channels for the conduits, directed a river of waters from diverse sources to the monastery. Part of this is brought within to meet the needs of the whole community and is distributed incessantly and flows by all the cells without pause and the whole area of the lavra is watered by it. The rest passes through channels to an encircled tower and powers two mills under a single stream (? Gr. = petoni). Through which the fruit trees are also watered and the gardens are irrigated and the tanks for washing the brothers' clothes are filled; and whence also is drawn the drinking water for the animals. As to the rest of the buildings, chapels, of the planting of both vines and trees and other matters of the construction of the oratories and cells in the dependent possessions on the mountain, of the storage places in the harbour and of his other works, it is not possible to relate. For that is the work of history, not the relating of a life. But how may I remain silent on this, that this man shared all the toils with the builders and workers? For so courageous and resolute was he that often when he bore the yoke of the plough-carriage on his own, another three men barely had the strength to draw the load of the plough-carriage. Accordingly therefore a great crowd of people came to him from all over, to ask for his blessings and to ask him about things of which they were ignorant, and seeking solutions to various matters. And he solved all [p. 153] and explained everything and blessed all and sent nobody away bereft.

 

[c. 26] When these things suited him he began to establish also the ordinances and rules of the church for the good order and condition and the law of the soul-benefiting canon, with what vigilance it was necessary to hymn God with daily and nightly services. Therefore he established for each choir one brother whom he called the disciplinarian (epistomonarches), who was to be in charge of its good conduct and the spiritual care of the chanters, and to this end so to gather together in the church of God those absent, whether by himself or by information about one's absence given to the doorkeepers, and to ensure that nobody chatted during the doxologies nor was idle and did not sing, and that nobody entered and exited whenever he wished, but did these things moderately at the defined time, so that it was not a burden to the others present who were in the choirs continually to greet each person entering. During the readings he assigned one person to waken the brothers throughout the church, and he was changed for each reading, so that the orderly of the first reading rested in the second, and he of the second during the third when another rendered service, and the disciplinarian was not allowed to hinder or thwart them in any way nor to assist them on his own account except at the behest of the father; but in turn these were not to interrupt the disciplinarian during the hymns nor to exceed his responsibilities, but each was in his own time to perform the office of his own duty. At the gates of the narthex he placed two more of the brothers, whom he called doorkeepers, in order that those absent [p. 154] from the choirs, as recognized by the disciplinarians, be led into the church, and no less to keep an eye on all the rest of those in church but not in the choirs, whether they enter at the start of the “Glory be to God in the highest” or in the middle or at the end or not at all, and whether they were absent from the church not through illness nor being sent to perform a duty but through laziness, so that these be made known to the father by the doorkeepers, so that he might rule about these matters as he wishes. Equally he impelled them to watch all those entering and exiting, and after an exit to not allow anyone the further liberty of re-entry, but to question and enquire, and if doing it out of dire necessity to permit him unhindered, but if not, to not allow somebody to leave, but exhort him to go back into the church. Likewise also to enquire about the exact reason for the tardiness of those exiting [to re-enter], and neither an official nor any other be allowed to enter the church and call somebody outside to perform a personal service or one for the community; not even the manager (oikonomos) himself was to do this unless he did so through the doorkeepers alone. On top of these things he wanted someone to lead and have charge not only of the aforementioned but also of the priests and the deacons and everyone else in the holy church of God who performed whatever service, whom he called the ecclesiarches, esteemed in mind and life and able to administer in a manner pleasing to God and well all the affairs of the church, having in writing every office of it [the church], listened to and respected by all having different services in the church.


Paul Stephenson, November 2003

Revised January 2012