Project Canterbury

Tales Illustrative of the Apostles' Creed

By John Mason Neale

London: Masters, 1885.

XIII. The Voice on Mount Athos
"The Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints."

FROM the beginning mankind has loved to worship GOD on high places. Whether because they seem to bring us nearer to heaven, or to lift us up above the confusion and turmoil of the world, or because their wildness and solitude have something in themselves that teaches devotion, I know not. But so it is:--and GOD Himself has been pleased to sanction this religion of high places, by appearing on Mount Sinai, by appointing the blessings from Mount Gerizim and the curses from Mount Ebal; by the transfiguration on Mount Tabor,--by the high mountain in which the LORD spent that night in prayer before He chose those twelve Apostles. Dearly did the Church of the middle ages love to consecrate peaks and crags,--witness the story that I told you not long ago about the Chapel at Le Puy,--witness the innumerable mountains, surmounted with S. Michael's chapel, all over Europe. Here, in the South of England, three remarkable hills of Surrey were thus hallowed: S. Anne's, S. Catherine's, S. Martha's. S. Anne's has long been swept away by ungodly hands; S. Katherine's, a sad ruin, is perched on a hill-cliff that overlooks the good old town of Guildford; S. Martha's crowns a very high hill at no great distance, and seems to consecrate all the valley of the Wey.

But the most famous high place of Christian worship that ever existed is Mount Athos. Its wild, dark, precipitous sides, that look down on the raging and surging of the Aegean Sea, and the quiet blue waves of the bay of Monte Santo, have been, from the very beginning, the chosen abode of hermits and monks, of men that have died to the world, have sought a better country, that is, an heavenly, have hallowed the wild crags and precipitous ravines by perpetual Liturgies and Psalmody. Before monasteries had a being at all, solitary hermits here took up their abode, here, in loneliness and penitence, prepared themselves to meet their Judge; here led the life of angels, and here lay down to their last long sleep. There, one after another, monasteries arose; first this peak, then that ravine; first this steep summit, then that solemn valley were hallowed by some new Laura; until twenty different religious houses clustered together round the vast mountain, and maintained the faith of CHRIST Crucified when the Eastern Empire bowed down beneath the Mahometan yoke. This is, so to speak, the head quarters of the Eastern Church; here the ritual is at its best and purest, and accordingly all the Greek office books are said to be "according to the use of the Great Church," i.e., Constantinople, "and of the HOLY MOUNTAIN." There they rise, those domed churches, with their quaint western nartheces; there, in processions, glitter crosses and vessels of costly workmanship and inestimable value: there, at each hour of prayer thunder out the Haghiosidera, the metal or sometimes wooden clappers that take the place of bells; there, morning by morning, the sweet Ectene echoes as it did in the days of S. Basil and of S. Chrysostom, "Again and again in peace let us make our supplications to the LORD." When the light Chian or Thasian vessel goes bounding over the Aegean, leagues away, the sailor no sooner catches sight of Monte Santo--so they call Athos now--looming like a faint cloud on the horizon, than he crosses himself, and hurries through some short prayer, so deep is his veneration for this most holy shrine.

Well; one November evening in the year of grace 1754, the Hegumen (Abbat) of the Pantocrator was sitting in his own chamber, in one of those dreamy moods which are apt to steal over us at the closing in of an autumn twilight. The lamp was not yet lighted; but the wood-fire burnt brightly and cheerfully, while the wind and rain beat wildly and savagely on the little casement that overlooked the eastern part of the mountain, and where, on a clear summer day you might see Thasos, like a blue cloud across the sea. The old man's eyes were fixed on the fire; but his thoughts were on the desolate and miserable state of the Church of the Levant, that which was once the glorious Church of Athanasius, and Cyril, and Gregory Nazianzen, but was now prostrate under Turkish tyranny; her Bishoprics sold by Infidel powers; in her broad provinces of Asia scarcely here and there one that remained faithful to her afflictions; in Europe, her children ground down by taxes, and oppression, and injustice. "How long, O LORD, how long?" was the thought in his heart, if not the expression on his lips; when a knock at the door caused him to rouse from his reverie.

One of the brethren entered. "A stranger," he said, "desires to speak with your holiness. His name and business he will not, but by his tongue he is Greek. Sorely drenched he is, and he seems faint; but he will neither eat nor drink nor warm himself till he hath told you his errand."

"Bid him come in then," said Macarius; for that was the name of the Hegumen. "Bid him come in at once; it were much unmeet to keep him waiting."

The monk soon returned, ushering in a tall, fine-looking young man, drenched to the skin and sorely travel-stained, but of a commanding presence still. He waited in silence till left alone with the Hegumen, and then in an agony of grief, threw himself on the earth. The hysterical sobs of the strong man were terrible to hear.

"Rise, my son, rise," said the Hegumen, kindly. "Tell me your grief; if I can in any way minister to it, I am altogether at your service; and if I cannot, perhaps some of my brethren in the other monasteries--far better are they than myself, a miserable sinner--will be able."

A few more moments of speechless agony; and then, still prostrate on the ground, the stranger said in a hoarse fearful voice,

"I have denied CHRIST."

"So did Peter, my son, yet was he forgiven.

None ever yet was lost that clung to the foot of the Cross. In the Name of Him that hung thereon I promise you pardon, if only you will open your sorrow to me."

And by degrees he learnt all the sad story. Metrophanes was a young and rising merchant in Smyrna. His whole heart was set on increasing his wealth, and adding to his influence. Already he owned but two or three superiors in the trade of that wealthy city; and his one aim,--the aim for which he rose early, and so late took rest, and ate the bread of carefulness, was to be the first among its merchant houses. Now it fell out that a certain contract was advertised by the Turkish government for the supply of their army. Metrophanes offered an estimate; it was accepted; the wealth and importance it would confer would place him in the position his soul coveted.

But, just as he was about to sign the deed, notice was given to him that, while he remained a Christian, the contract could not be his. If he chose to persevere in his present faith, a Mahometan house would be substituted in his room.

Ah! Satan knows how to fit the temptation to the victim.

"No; I never will see myself degraded thus. What does it matter? I believe the true faith in my heart. I will take that of the government on my lips."

And publicly, and with all the accustomed rites, he professed himself a Moslem, and received the contract.

Now understand. Christians, remaining Christians, are by Mahometan law not punishable for their belief. They are more heavily taxed, and have certain things forbidden them which Turks enjoy; but beyond these they suffer nothing. But if a Mahometan turns Christian, his doom is inevitable death. Thus the great gulf was fixed between Metrophanes and the faith he had renounced. Again to profess it, was to expose himself to inevitable destruction.

For a few days all was well. He was taken up with his contract, and had no time for thought. But one afternoon, passing by a church, he heard accidentally that fearful verse of the Eastern funeral service:--

"Draw nigh, ye sons of Adam, viewing
A likeness of yourselves in clay;
Its beauty gone, its grace disfigured,
Dissolving in the tomb away.
The prey of worms and of corruption,
In silent darkness mouldering on;
Earth gathers round the coffin, hiding
The brother, now for ever gone.
Yet we cry, around him press'd,
Grant him, LORD, eternal rest!

"When hurried forth by fearful angels,
The soul forsakes her earthly frame,
Then friends and kindred she forgetteth,
And the world's cares have no more claim.
Then pass'd are vanity and labours,
She hears the Judge's voice alone:
She sees the ineffable tribunal,
Where we, too, cry with suppliant moan--
For the sins that soul hath done,
Grant Thy pardon, Holy One!"

That night, there fell on him such horror and darkness that, for some hours, nothing but hell was before him. He had denied CHRIST; CHRIST would deny him; he had denied CHRIST before men; CHRIST would deny him before the FATHER and the Holy Angels. There was no hope. It was surely better to eat and drink, to take his fill of pleasure in the world, seeing there was no gleam of light in the next. And then again. What, if he might still retrieve the past? Could an apostate be pardoned? An apostate, too, not driven to deny the faith by the rack, or the fire, or fear of death, but only for filthy lucre. The Church had mercy on those who had been driven even to the sin of apostasy by torment; the Church had defended the right of these poor trembling ones against the fierce heresies that denied her power to absolve such,--that pronounced them guilty of the unpardonable sin, or declared that they must be left entirely, without Sacraments, without human help, to the uncovenanted mercy of GOD. But could the Church do the same when from no such terror, when from covetousness only, this great crime had been committed?

He found no help in Smyrna. The case was beyond its Priests. The Bishop advised Metrophanes to go to the Holy Mountain. "If there be help for you on earth," said he, "it is there."

"And here I am," said the apostate. "And now tell me: Can there be help? and may there be hope?"

"There shall be help, my son; and there may be hope; but now you must take refreshment and rest. To-morrow I will consult with my brethren the other Hegumens, and you shall know what we think meet to be done."

Next morning, accordingly, there was a meeting in the Hall of the Elders, where the common business of all the monasteries was transacted. As soon as it was over, Macarius summoned Metrophanes to his presence.

"We have been speaking," he said, "of your case, my son; and the advice we unanimously give you is this: Make your abode in this monastery five years. The first four you shall pass through the various stages of penitence; you shall be one year each in the several orders of the Weepers, the Hearers, the Substrati, and the Co-standers. Then you shall pass a full year in entire communion with us; and then you shall go back to Smyrna, and, in the very place where you once publicly renounced CHRIST you shall publicly profess Him; you know the consequence; and the LORD have mercy on your soul."

"Oh, holy Father," cried Metrophanes, "you have indeed raised me up from despair. What thanks can I give to yourself or to the others that have thus had pity on me?"

"It is not in us," quoted the old man; "GOD shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace. But are you sure that you can accept the conditions? A hard rigorous life, with death as the goal?"

"Anything, Father, anything rather than the misery of an apostate. My worldly affairs I can settle by letter; my wealth I shall distribute as you desire; then I am ready to begin the term of my probation, and GOD grant me perseverance in it."

"Amen," said the old man.

Ah, my dear children, you may hear ignorant and wrong-headed persons talk of the 'degraded and superstitious Greek Church.' Let me make one comparison. Metrophanes apostatised: four years of penance, and a voluntary acceptance of death were the appointment of his Church. In the late Indian rebellion an officer saves his life by professing Mahometanism. By enlightened newspapers the thing is treated as a good joke, and the man, if he were a communicant, I suppose communicated as usual, on the next Sunday, and probably never gave another thought to the subject.

But what of the hereafter in these two cases?

Well; many and many a winter storm beat on Mount Athos; many and many a summer sun smiled pleasantly on the rippling waves of its bay, and still Metrophanes persevered in his task; performed the various stages of his penance, and at length came to the year of peace. At first, in that year, weekly; then more frequently; for the last two months daily, he received the Holy Mysteries. Gradually he seemed to have no further concern in this world; as the great hour of his final trial came near, that other world shone more brightly, more calmly, more lovingly before him. He longed for the short conflict that should end in the long rest.

"Then, to-morrow, my son," said good old Macarius, as they stood one November evening on a parapet of rocks which looked down on the Aegean, "you will meet us in the Hall of Elders and receive your final benediction."

"And you will remember me, holy Father, on the very day, at the very time," said the young man, rather anxiously.

"A particle of the Holy Lamb will I offer for you daily, my son; and that day I will not cease to pray for you. We have agreed that you shall present yourself on the Proeortia (the Vigil) of the Nativity. The brethren will be constant in prayer for you, and GOD, the giver of all victory, grant you to triumph."

"I thank you, good Father. What a scene of peace this is; and how it makes me long to depart and to be with CHRIST, which is far better!"

It was indeed a time of loveliness. Scarcely a ripple on the sea; deep deep shades of purple and orange sleeping on its bosom, and lighting up as it were, its abysses; here and there the spotless wings of a seagull gilt by the latest rays of the sun. Thasos in its azure beauty across the strait; one or two little boats, almost motionless, on the Aegean, like the convoys of blessed Spirits in a holy land.

"Beyond those tints," said the Hegumen, pointing to the sky, "you, my son will soon be. Would that it were my lot instead of yours. But so it is! so it is! The young taken, and the old left!"

"If I may but hope," replied Metrophanes, "for the very lowest place in that happy land, ten thousand times will it be above all that ever I could have looked for."

And so, after five or six more turns up and down the parapet they returned to the Pantocrator.

On the morrow, after Liturgy, the Hegumens and other dignitaries met in their hall. Venerable old men, who had, all of them, borne the burden and toil of monastic life for the better part of a century; narrow-minded indeed, as the world uses the phrase, their thoughts seldom travelling beyond the Holy Mountain, never beyond the Church of the Levant. But true servants of the Crucified, a little unable to see His Seal anywhere save in the "very straitest" rules of the Eastern Communion, detesting alike the Latin and English Churches, but still loving Him, still clinging to Him, above all things. And now they were met to nerve the poor penitent for his self-oblation.

He knelt in turn before, and received the blessing of, each; then the Hegumen of the Haghia Laura, as the first in dignity of all, spoke in the name of the rest, reminding him that now once more, now, after so long a preparation, now, with so many means of grace, he was about to encounter the great and final temptations. "Fail now," he said, "and though GOD forbid that we should ever declare the door of His mercy to be shut, how can you again hope to be victorious? What could ever have been done more for you than has been done now? For us, whatever our poor prayers may effect, be very sure we will do for you; from this day, till the time of your trial, we will be instant in supplication for you; on that day itself we will never cease approaching the throne of grace on your behalf. GOD be with you, that having gone through fire and water, you may be led out into the wealthy place. GOD be with you, that as much as you have dishonoured His Name by former weakness, you may now glorify it by perseverance to the end."

Early on the next morning in the grey of the dawn, Metrophanes was on his way to Xeropotamo, where a vessel was ready to sail to Constantinople. And before sunset she had doubled Cape Monte Santo, and was bounding before a south-western breeze to her destination.

A day had been fixed, as I have told you, for his appearance before the magistrate, which would give him ample time to reach Smyrna. Christmas drew on. Often and often the brethren spoke of their guest; often and often prayed that he might have grace to contend for the faith which he once denied.

It still wanted two days to the time fixed, that is, it was the 22nd of December, which in the Eastern Church is the feast of S. Anastasia, when the Hegumen Macarius was again seated in the same room in which we first saw him, having just returned from the service of the Sixth Hour. As he had recited the gist Psalm, one of the Psalms in the Eastern Church for that hour, and had spoken of the blessedness of him that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High, and abideth under the shadow of the Almighty, of the promise "he shall call upon Me, and I will hear him: yea, I am with him in trouble, I will deliver him and bring him to honour;" his thoughts had naturally turned to his dear Metrophanes. As he had joined in the prayer, "Thou, that on the sixth hour of the sixth day didst abolish on the Cross the sin of Adam in Paradise, destroy also the handwriting of our sins, O CHRIST, that is against us, and save us," Metrophanes was first and foremost in his mind. It was a calm, cold, grey day; snow had fallen in the night on the higher peaks; the whole sky was covered with an unvarying and unbroken veil of cloud. He scarcely knew why, but he rose and went to the window, and while listlessly gazing over the Aegean, he heard, as plainly, he was afterwards wont to relate, as he ever heard anything in his life, Metrophanes say, "Where I denied, there I will confess; the Sultan has no rewards which can bribe me; and as to death, for this last five years I have longed for it with all my heart."

"I am not dreaming," the old man said to himself, "it is his voice; I am sure of it, I never heard him speak more plainly when he was in this room. What shall I do? Shall I tell the brethren? But to what purpose? If this is more than fancy I will leave it in GOD'S hands. This is not the day that he was to present himself to the Cadi. But thus much I may pray for him: that whether he lives, he may live unto the LORD, or whether he dies, he may die unto the LORD; time only can tell us more."

But that very evening, Macarius being again by himself, the same priest who had first of all introduced Metrophanes when a stranger, entered the room more hastily than was his wont and said, "Holy Father, I shall report a miracle. Come and see it for yourself."

"But where and what is it, my son?" inquired Macarius.

"Come with me to the cell that belonged to Metrophanes; it is there."

They passed down the long cold dark corridor, lighted only by one feeble oil-lamp. On this side and on that were the various cells of the brethren; but at the further end a kind of uncertain light (whence it came could not well be seen) seemed to play on the floor and on the wall. As they drew near the monk touched the arm of the Hegumen, as if to bespeak his attention; and in another moment they stood before the door that had once been that of Metrophanes. Many and many a time had the penitent entered that door with a heart yet doubtful whether there could be mercy in store for him; the last time he had issued from it was with a brave confidence in GOD'S grace, "When I fall I shall also arise: when I sit in darkness the LORD will be a light unto me." Over it now they saw in letters of living and beautiful light the word Macarius stood in speechless astonishment. "This is, truly," he said, "a sign from GOD."

Our brother has conquered indeed. Hear what befell me only this morning." And he told the tale which you have just heard.

It then wanted, as you know, three days to Christmas. But before Lent, all the twenty Monasteries in Mount Athos were ringing with the glorious confession of S. Metrophanes, who, having been accidentally arrested before the time at which he had proposed to present himself to the Cadi, and remaining constant in his profession of faith, received the crown of martyrdom on the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace 1759.

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