June 19, 1913

Heresy at Mount Athos

A Soldier Monk and the Holy Synod

(dateline June 12, 1913, St. Petersburg)

Attached is the article which introduced Richard Seltzer to the bizarre and fascinating life of Alexander Bulatovich, referred to herein under his monk's name (and in the English spelling) -- Father Anthony Boulatovich. A Russian cavalry officer in the Czar's Life-Guard Regiment, he became an explorer in Ethiopia, led a cavalry detachment in Manchuria as the Russians conquered that province during the Boxer Rebellion, then became a monk and went to Mount Athos. This article describes the happenings at Mount Athos (in Greece) in 1913, when the Russian monastery there was besieged by Russian troops and 880 monks were shipped off to Siberia for believing that the Name of God is part of God and therefore in itself divine and practicing the "Jesus Prayer" (as described in Salinger's Franny and Zooey).

The interesting suggestion was lately made by your Correspondent in the Balkan Peninsula that the Balkan Prime Ministers should seek the repose of Mount Athos, and there, far from the madding crowd of soldiers, journalists and other promoters of strife, should catch once more the dying tones of the still small voice of reason. Your correspondent seemed to think that in the cloistered peace of the famous monasteries the Balkan harmonies might be restored, and the simple monks might have some art to anoint with the oil of peace four storm-tossed Balkan statesmen, who have been caught in the whirlpool of secular strife.

It was a notable suggestion, and at any other time might well have contained some seeds of hope. But, alas, Mount Athos is a subject of absorbing interest in Russia at the present moment, for reasons which are just the opposite of those which made your Correspondent recommend it as a meeting-place for the Balkan Prime Ministers. it is no longer an abode of peace. A heresy hunt is on foot, and the odium theologicum is justifying its ancient and evil reputation. Within those usually quiet walls there is not merely a strife of words, the first and slipper have been at work, and the pious monks have been fighting, literally, tooth and nail. From the accounts given by the monks themselves in the Russian newspapers of the pressure which is brought to bear upon them by the Holy Synod, it would appear that two of the famous monasteries are now practically in a state of siege.

The beginnings of this strange affair have already obtained some notice from the world, but except in Russia and in Constantinople the dimensions to which it has grown seem to have remained unobserved. And yet, unless I am mistaken, there are many who will find in this revelation of the inner life of the monasteries of Mount Athos a lavour which they vainly seek in the daily news of the world. Those who rejoice that there are still some towers from which are whispered the last enchantments of the Middle Ages will have an ear for this echo of a much older day. For in truth the heresy of Mount Athos and its consequences read like a story of the Early Church in those days of Arius and Athanasius -- wherein most of us can only hope to live again through the art of M. Anatole France -- when Constantine was Emperor and simple ascetics lived beside the Nile. And perhaps none but the creator of Paphnuce, or Palemon, and of Paul le Simple could do justice to Brother Anthony Boulatovitch and to Archbishop Anthony of Volinsk, his ecclesiastical enemy.

Brother Anthony Boulatovitch

Anthony Boulatovitch was formerly a Russian officer in the Hussars of the Guard. But like Thais who could not listen patiently to the gentle skeptic Nicias, his spirit was athirst and il voulait tout savoir. He took life hard, and, after supping without relish at the riotous feasts of St. Petersburg, he sought satisfaction in some more strenuous life. He fought in the Italo-Abyssinian campaign, and afterwards in the Far East; but he returned from these adventures as much a spiritual starveling as before. At last the hour of his calling came, and he received the simple heart and the lesson of renunciation which Paphnuce gave to Thais. The Monastery of St. Andrew at Mount Athos received him, and peace entered his soul. But he had not been a soldier for nothing, and, when the form of faith which he and his brethren cherished was suddenly banned as a heresy, it was the ex-guardsman who became its principal champion. Anthony has come to Petersburg now, to have an operation upon his eyes and to intercede for the brotherhood. The Press has not failed to interview him, and part of the story of the heresy may best be given in his own words:

"A few years ago a certain monk named Ilarion, living in the Western Caucasus, wrote a book called In the Mountains of the Caucasus which had three editions. The last of these was printed at the Kieff Petchersk Monastery, which is regarded as the special press of the Holy Synod. In this book, on the authority of many Holy Fathers -- such as Gregory Palemon, Simeon Novoi, and Dmitri Rostoffsky -- and of writers of the Russian Church -- such as Bishop Ignatius Brianconenoff -- the Monk Ilarion showed clearly that the Name of God, being part of God, is in itself divine. As we monks of Athos were ourselves for the most part of that opinion, the book was welcomed by us, and was a source of spiritual joy. But one day the journal, the Russian Monk, a copy of which must be taken in every monastery, arrived, and was found to contain an article by Archbishop Anthony of Volinsk, wherein he contradicted the doctrines set forth by Ilarion. This wrought confusion and trouble in our souls, and, as at that time we little knew what a stubborn manner of man this Archbishop was, I, at the request of the brotherhood, wrote him a letter full of love and courtesy, in which I begged him to cease from sowing doubt among us, and to write no more such articles. But the Archbishop took no account of our prayer, and for answer wrote in the same newspaper another and more violent article, wherein he blasphemed the Name of Jesus. This was read by all the monks with heavy hearts, and, taking counsel among ourselves, in the simplicity of our souls, we made application to the Holy Synod that it should force the Archbishop to cease from his writings, inasmuch as these disturbed us in a simple faith founded on the Word of God and the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

"In sending this request, we innocently believed that for Russian clergy a simple faith is held the most valuable of things. But in this, as the Holy Synod showed us later, we were grievously mistaken. For as the Archbishop Anthony has much to do with the leadership of the Holy Synod, it came to his help, and it began to influence the authorities of St. Andrew's and St. Pantelemon's, and with them about twenty followers, chiefly from among the elders. We looked upon their teaching as heresy and, as is our right at Mount Athos in such a case, we immediately deposed our superiors and elected others more worthy, which course received the approval of the Monastery of Vatopedsky, to which our monastery, St. Andrew's, is subject in matters of discipline.

"The deposed abbots and their followers, relying on the support of the Holy Synod, refused to agree with us, and this brought about a bitter feud. The brothers detested the heretics, and the latter were expelled with difficulty from St. Andrew's and St. Pantelemon's. Battles were fought and, sad to relate, there were many blows and bruises. Our action so annoyed the Holy Synod that it reported the matter to the Patriarch at Constantinople, while the local council of the Holy Synod even asked for the help of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

"As a result of the reference to the Patriarch, the Greeks, who are as changeable as the weather altered their decision. The approval of the Monastery of Vatopedsky was withdrawn, and we were all called before the Court of the Patriarch. Russian diplomatists, seeing that we were simple monks who had neither guns nor rifles, acted even more decisively. The Russian Ambassador at Constantinople sent a Vice-Consul M. Stcherbiny.

"Our brotherhood has been forbidden to receive any letters whether registered letters containing money or ordinary letters. We have been placed in a state of siege. Provisions were not allowed to reach us or to leave the ships. For many weeks they have lain rotting in the holds, and the brothers have begun to feel the pinch of hunger. But whatever the authorities do against us, we shall not abandon our position, for to accept the teaching of Archbishop Anthony would be to go contrary to our faith. We are sure we are right, and no one can compel our hearts."

How to Deal with Heretics

Several accounts from other sources are published which show that the strongest measures have been taken against the offenders at the instance of the Holy Synod. One monk who was sent to Odessa with a large sum of money to arrange for a food supply by steamer was arrested and sent back "without bread and without money." The language of Brother Anthony about the Archbishop is mild in comparison with the latter's fulminations against him and his brethren. The Archbishop's way with heretics is as short as Defoe's with Dissenters. The monks of St. Andrew's and St. Pantelemon's he describes as a "band of soft-brained idiots led by a vain-glorious hussar." And he gives it as his opinion that "three regiments of soldiers should be sent to handcuff the rascals."

The Vetcherniye Vremya has published also an interview with an official of the Holy Synod who although he inclines to think that the language of the Archbishop has fallen short of the strictest models of saintly eloquence, takes the gravest view of the lamentable heresy of Brother Anthony Boulatovitch and his friends. he says:

"It may seem an unimportant question, but really it is of supreme importance. The heresy is the more dangerous because it has taken root among simple people. The Archbishop is right in thinking that the strongest measures must be taken, for such a heresy is exceedingly difficult to combat, unless stamped upon at once. if the Synod failed in its duty, the movement would spread through all Russia."

The Issue for the Monks

Such is the situation. But the Holy Synod is now sending two special emissaries to Athos to conduct an inquiry into the whole matter and to endeavor to arrange a reconciliation. We may hope that we will succeed in settling this strange controversy, and in bringing back to Athos its ancient peace. There remains another aspect of the matter, which is not without interest. During the memorable months through which we have just passed the world as gaped at a famous war. Continents have rung with its news. In their quiet churches, the monks of Athos may well have heard the roar of cannon around Chalcidice, and the booming battle out at sea. The Mount itself, the Hagion Oros of the whole Eastern Christendom, has been recovered from the secular dominion of the Crescent, and has passed beneath Christian sway. But these things have no interest or existence for the monks. Their eyes have been turned to Heaven, where their only treasure is laid up.

For them it is a matter of eternal life or death whether the Name of God, being part of God, is in itself divine; and all their thoughts are centered on this issue. One remembers Zola's peasant with the team of white horses who ploughed the face of the hillside all day long, while the Battle of Sedan raged below him. But he was not as the monks, for he drove his furrow to feed his family and to satisfy the needs of his body. His eyes were on the ground. Il faut cultiver son jardin, and the peasant's act was but one of the splendid sanities of the world.

There is also a magnificence of folly, which is reserved for the children of life.


August 23, 1913

(dateline August 22, 1913, St. Petersburg)

Eight of the monks exiled from Mount Athos for heresy in regard to the Holy Name have arrived at Moscow on their way to furthest Siberia. They declare that many monks are going to exile in Kamchatka.

The subject of the Mount Athos heresy hunt continues to arouse great interest throughout Russia. Nearly all the influential of the Press condemn in the strongest language the Synod for its persecution of the monks. But the Synod continues its course and now threatens Brother Anthony Boulatovitch with expulsion from Russia unless he desists from heresy.

Brother Anthony was one of the chief figures in the heresy case which led to the forcible transportation of 660 monks from Mount Athos to Russia. Boulatovitch was at one time a Russian officer of the Hussars of the Guard, and Archbishop Anthony of Volinsk described the monks of St. Andrew's as "a band of soft-brained idiots led by a vain-glorious Hussar." The trouble originally rose through the publication of a book in which the theory was put forward that the name of God being part of God, was in itself divine. The suggestion appealed to certain monks who, under the leadership of Brother Anthony, waged bitter war against all others of the brotherhood who refused to adopt the same opinion. The Holy Synod took a serious view of the situation, and after many vigorous incidents of siege and resistance the monks were, as stated, transported to Russia.

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