Athanasius, Saint

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St. Athanasios the Athonite, son of an Antiochene, was a Byzantine monk who founded the monastic community on Mount Athos which has since evolved into the greatest center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.

Born in Trebizond c. 920, baptized Abraham, and patronized by Michael Maleinos, he studied at Constantinople and became famous there as a fervent preacher who held great authority with Michael's nephew, Nicephorus Phocas. He was successful in his studies and a safe career in the civil service was his for the asking, but by the time Phocas ascended the imperial throne, ill at ease with the lax morals of the monks living in the capital, he changed his name to Athanasius and joined the monks at St. Michael’s Monastery on Mount Kyminas in Bithynia. Fearing that he was going to be chosen abbot, he fled, in 958, to Karyes, changed his name, claimed to be illiterate, and hid in his cell.

Athananius helped his old friend Nicephorus Phocas prepare an expedition against the Saracens in 961, serving as almoner to the fleet. On its successful completion, Phocas gave Athanasius part of the money raised, and he used it to found a monastery on Mount Athos which was dedicated in 963. This was to be an idiorhythmic house, that is, a monastery where anchorites, hermits and monks could live in community, but without the requirements for group activity common to other monasteries.

He helped defend the hermits there against the Saracens and also started to incorporate the sketes already there into what would eventually become known as the Great Lavra, which Athanasius built with the financial assistance of Nicephorus. It is still in use today and is often referred to by the people of the area simply as "Lavra" or "The Monastery". Three other foundations followed shortly thereafter. Three of them remain in place to the present. Athanasius met with considerable opposition from the hermits already at Mount Athos in the construction of his monasteries. They resented his intrusion and his attempts to bring order and discipline to their lives. He escaped two murder attempts and resistance ended only when Emperor John Tzimisces forbade any opposition to Athanasius

In the year the monastery was dedicated, Phocas became emperor. Fearing he would be called to serve at the imperial court, Athanasius fled to Cyprus. Phocas found him, assured him that he would be allowed to continue his religious life in peace, and helped him finish work on the monastery. Though he faced opposition in the founding of this house, which ended only by imperial decree, the monastery flourished. Although the monks and hermits lived independent lives, many keeping their personal wealth, Athanasius insisted on Bible study, founded a school and large library, and personally planted hundreds of trees on the grounds.

Upon Nicephorus' death the enemies of Athanasius prevailed and he had to leave Athos for Cyprus again, where he lived until the new emperor, John Tzimisces, resumed the patronage of the Great Lavra and, in 971, bestowed upon the monastery its first charter. Athanasios, spurred by a divine vision, returned at once to Mount Athos as a hegumen and introduced a typicon (rule of life) for the cenobites, based on those compiled by St. Theodore Studites and St. Basil of Caesarea.

He died c.1003 when the arch of a church under construction fell on him and five of his monks. Upon his death, Athanasius was glorified as a saint.

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