The sun was setting to the west as I stood upon a vantage point known to the Byzantine residents of Constantinople as Hagios Demetrios. It was early spring, and the air was cool as I looked across the Golden Horn towards the Sea of Marmara. I was in Istanbul at the start of a quest. Over the course of it, I was to begin to understand what St Francis of Assisi had meant when he said: “What we are looking for is what is looking.”
Externally, and chronologically, my intention was to travel to Moscow. Internally, I was on a quest for knowledge. A quest for Truth. As part of this quest, I had decided that my journey from Constantinople, the New Rome, as Istanbul was known until 1453, to Moscow, known to many eastern Orthodox Christians as the Third Rome, should include time on Mount Athos, spiritual powerhouse of the Byzantine Empire, and the place from which monks had travelled to help lay the foundations of Kievan, and later Muscovite, Russia.
Within the Ottoman-built Topkapi Palace that dominates Hagios Demetrios, there is an outer courtyard. At the centre of this courtyard there remains a Byzantine church, dedicated to the Divine Peace, originally a wooden construction, built in 311 AD upon the ruins of an ancient, pre-Christian Acropolis. In 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine the Great came here to celebrate the dedication of New Rome to Mary, Mother of God.
Against Edward Gibbon’s well-known view that Christianity destroyed the Roman Empire, there is the alternative, that Christianity transformed the Roman Empire. Speaking of these times, the historian Eusebius tells us: “All things were filled with light, and those who before were downcast looked at each other with smiling countenances and glad eyes.” For Eusebius, Constantine’s accession to the Imperial Throne marks the point at which the tyranny of the Caesars was ended and replaced with a spiritual monarchy, in the form of an Emperor “faithful in Christ”, the point at which the Christian era really began.
The period that had immediately preceded Constantine’s establishment of New Rome had been one of chaos and violence. Although this period of upheaval had begun at the end of the second century AD, as the Pax Romana finally came to an end, its origins went back much further. In truth, the Pax Romana had only ever been a peace of exhaustion.
The seeds of the crisis that plagued the west Roman Empire in its final centuries were internal and lay in the failed metaphysics of the Graeco-Roman civilisation. Fundamentally, old Rome fell because metaphysics is more than a luxury of the intellect. As Viktor Frankl was to discover in Auschwitz, a sense of meaning and purpose is a fundamental ingredient for human resilience. Without a sense of meaning and purpose, the citizens of old Rome were unable to summon the inner strength they needed to resist the barbarian invaders. Instead, they took refuge in a life of decadence.
As the sun continued to set to the west that evening, I made my way to a modest building in the quarter of Istanbul known as Phanar, residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, the New Rome, Bartholomew.
To this day Phanar remains home to the city’s dwindling population of Turkish Greeks, its streets dominated by wooden houses dating back to the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Arriving at the Ecumenical Patriarch’s residence, I met up with a contact who had arranged for me to be given a pass, signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch himself, to visit Mount Athos.
At university I had studied under the Koraes Professor of Byzantine History, Donald Nicol, himself a former pupil of the renowned Byzantine scholar, Steven Runciman, and I had a hunch that Mount Athos would help me find answers to some of the questions I wanted to ask about the nature of knowledge, and the source of what is real, as opposed to what is illusory.
My journey to the Holy Mountain had not just been inspired by what I had learned under the tutorship of Donald Nicol. A favourite author of mine is Patrick Leigh Fermor, especially his book A Time to Keep Silence. This book is an account of the time Leigh Fermor spent in various, mainly Benedictine, monasteries immediately after the Second World War, although the book culminates in Leigh Fermor’s visit to a ruined Byzantine monastery in Cappadocia, central Turkey.
Over the course of this book, Leigh Fermor makes it very clear that, internally, he is in a bad place, and he recounts the story of a brilliant, ambitious and aristocratic 17th-century priest, Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, who made a dramatic conversion in his life after finding the decapitated corpse of his lover, the Duchess of Montbazon. The shock of this experience led Rancé to sell his chateaux and withdraw to the monastery at La Grand Trappe where, as the Abbot, he instigated a life of the utmost austerity, a life of strict observance to the rule of St Benedict.
The quest which had brought me to Istanbul had been triggered by a period of intense turmoil generated by a variety of circumstances, including an extremely brief marriage at the age of 35. Like Leigh Fermor, I too had been a soldier, and my sense of confusion at the time had been exacerbated by the loss of a familiar routine as well as the sense of identity that I had derived from that way of life.
I had left the Army without any real sense of what to do next, and my ideas about what to do had vacillated between many different options. I was in a state of acute confusion, and I found myself unable to remain still. Like some deranged poet I spent the darkest hours of the night roaming the streets of London, often in a state of agitation.
During this time my sense of what was real and what was illusory was turned upside down and inside out. The very foundations of my identity were thrown into question. I no longer felt I knew who I was. A repeated question was “Who am I?” Everything seemed to be thrown into doubt, and I found myself descending into an underworld of chaos and darkness. Lies and illusion permeated everything and everywhere. All I knew was that I knew nothing.
I did not know it at the time but, for the Eastern Orthodox Church, a descent into Hell is a necessary first stage in the life of the spirit. Eastern Orthodox icons of the Resurrection of Christ, known as the Anastasis, do not show Jesus Christ coming out of the tomb on the third day, but rather His descent into Hell. As Dante said: “The path to paradise begins in Hell.” In his book Catafalque, Peter Kingsley says that in Salvator Rosa’s portrait of Pythagoras emerging from the Underworld, he has the ambiguous grin of someone who has seen “through and past the crap of human illusions”.
During my period of turmoil, I became aware of a kind of Observing Self, a self that is above and beyond the person, and yet is also deep within. This place seemed to be beyond illusion. I became intensely and simultaneously aware of all my deepest failures and deceptions. Father Sophrony, a 20th-century Russian monk, speaks of the existence at the centre of our being of “a point of pure nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will”.
And so, as I walked through Phanar that first evening in Istanbul, in the spring of 2003, I planned the next stage of my journey. I was going to board a bus which would take me to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. From there I would take another bus to Ouranoupolis in Halkidiki, a peninsula from which protrudes, like the prongs of Poseidon’s trident, three smaller peninsulas.
From Ouranopolis, a small seaport at the head of the easternmost of the three, I would travel by boat along the coast to Dafni, the main port and customs post on Mount Athos. Although Mount Athos is joined to Haldiki by land, the terrain there is impenetrable, covered by steep ravines and thick forests. Any visitor to Mount Athos must make the final stage of his journey by boat.
The monastic life on Mount Athos is lived in accordance with the hesychast spiritual tradition, the word “hesychast” being derived from the Greek word hesychia, which has the sense of stillness and attentiveness. The hesychast believes that if a man is to find the Real he must first repent. In the Gospels the word that is translated into repentance is “metanoia”, which means “change of nous”, that is, mind or intellect. In repentance a man begins to recentre himself in the heart because the nous is the highest point of the intellect, an organ of spiritual vision that is centred in the heart rather than the head. Repentance is the moment at which the inner asserts its primacy over the outer.
According to sacred tradition all over the world, the nous – or the eye of the heart, as it is often called – is capable of intuiting that which lies beyond the world of appearances, but only if purified through the practice of ascesis, the curbing of self-will and the gift of Divine Grace. The hesychast’s journey of repentance is guided by a spiritual director, and a spiritual manual known as the Philokalia, the introduction to which declares that its purpose is to provide guidance so that “by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect”.
And so, as the sun rose in the east, it was towards Thessaloniki that I headed out of Istanbul the day after my visit to Phanar. The word “orient”, it might be noted, means “the rising”, and one of the names given to Jesus Christ is Orient. “Behold the man: Orient is His name, and He shall rise up from below the horizon and He shall build the house of the Lord.” (Zech 6:12)
My real quest was beginning.
Mark Jenkins is a journalist and explorer.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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