The Friends of Mount Athos Book Reviews

© 2006

Manna from Athos: The Issue of Frequent Communion on the Holy Mountain in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. By Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006. 187 pp. Paperback £25.00.  ISBN 3-03910-722-4.

 ‘There is no difference between someone not being born at all and someone dying of hunger after being born.’ For the authors of an eighteenth-century treatise on frequent communion – the translation of which forms the major part of this volume – the then, as now, widespread practice of infrequent communion was largely a matter of ‘superstitions and prejudices’. To abstain from Holy Communion, whether out of piety or laxity, was an evil and pernicious custom, one which in effect negates our baptism and separates us from what should be (but generally is not) our ‘daily bread’, the very Body and Blood of the Lord. ‘When one partakes of Divine Communion, the entire God-Man enters like a sun and becomes intermingled and blended with the entire man. He illumines, brightens, and sanctifies all the powers and senses of man’s soul and body, and transforms him from corruption into incorruption.’ To cut oneself off voluntarily from such deifying grace must, surely, be seen as both incomprehensible and indefensible.

The issue of frequent communion was a burning one in the late eighteenth century. The Christian East had long since fallen into a state in which lay communion (monastic and non-monastic) was a rarity: perhaps two to three times a year at best, preceded in each case by long periods of fasting (for example, at the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and the Dormition of the Mother of God). This low level of eucharistic communion was, of course, almost universal within medieval Christendom and it was one of the burdens of the Protestant Reformation, and indeed the Catholic Counter-Reformation, to encourage more frequent lay reception of communion. The text translated here, Concerning Frequent Communion, is an Orthodox work that operates along this same underlying trajectory.

Concerning Frequent Communion is the work of Sts Makarios of Corinth and Nikodemos the Hagiorite, the famous compilers of the Philokalia. As was the case with that auspicious project, the initial work appears to have been that of Makarios with Nikodemos producing the final version. Both saints were notable figures in the so-called Kollyvades movement. This grouping stood for a revival of Hesychast spirituality and correct, traditional, liturgical practice. The sobriquet stems from their insistence that memorial services for the dead, for which boiled wheat, or kollyva, is prepared, ought not to be celebrated on Sundays, when our attention should be focused solely on the Resurrection. While that particular point has been largely overridden by pastoral considerations, their wider contribution remains an ongoing and perennially relevant call to Orthodox ressourcement, to a theological vision that is both creative and yet faithful to the Orthodox tradition. And while widely derided as fanatics and fundamentalists in their own time, and indeed temporarily condemned, the canonization of several of their leaders stands as a permanent vindication of their purpose.

Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos have given us a lucid and comprehensive introduction to the treatise, deftly setting the issues dealt with in their historical and theological context. They have also provided a fine translation accompanied by full commentary. Their approach is meticulously scholarly without ever losing sight of the vital and cardinal importance of the questions raised by the treatise. Although coming out of a self-denominated ‘traditionalist’ Orthodox milieu, the authors of this volume never appear unduly parti pris when it comes to the material at hand. They are, for example, happy to accept the broad outlines of Fr Alexander Schmemann’s explanation of the decline in frequency of communion from the fourth century onwards, however much they might disagree with many details of his presentation. Schmemann’s ‘intuitive perspicacity’, as they call it, is evident in his pinpointing of the liturgical formalism inherent to a specifically imperial Church and the concomitant (if gradual) rise of an individualistic, pietistic approach to the eucharistic mystery over and against the robustly corporate and communal understanding of the early Church – in short, communion understood not as the realization and extension of the Church, the Body of Christ, but as a matter rather of individual conscience and supposed worthiness.

A couple of criticisms may be briefly noted. It seems to this reviewer that the authors of this volume rather play down the possible Counter-Reformation influences on the move towards frequent communion associated with the Kollyvades movement. While they are certainly right to point to a similar concern among Hesychast writers of the late Byzantine period, and while no direct borrowings from Counter-Reformation sources have been demonstrated in respect of this treatise, there is no reason radically to dissociate the Kollyvades from similar tendencies in the West. We know well that Nikodemos, in particular, was guardedly but genuinely enthusiastic about many products of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, hence his publication (in Greek) of adapted versions of the works of Lorenzo Scupoli and Ignatius Loyola. Such works did far more than simply attract his attention ‘adventitiously’ (n.40). I was also surprised to note the absence from the bibliography of Podskalsky’s massive tome on Greek Theology under the Turcocratia (in German but also recently translated into Greek by Fr George Metallinos).

To close with a few words about the treatise itself, Concerning Frequent Communion is a fiery and impassioned plea for a restoration of the ancient practice of frequent communion (daily, if possible) in the life-giving and deifying mystery of Christ. The plea is backed by a panoply of scriptural, patristic, liturgical, and canonical sources and argumentation that is truly impressive in both its breadth and depth. Readers should not, however, assume that advocacy of frequent communion is in any way an invitation to a relaxation of personal spiritual effort. On the contrary, Sts Makarios and Nikodemos assume that increased frequency of communion will be attended by increased spiritual application. What they aspire to is a state of permanent readiness to receive communion, a readiness to be attained through repentance and confession of sins to one’s spiritual father. Here it seems evident that the primary audience of the treatise is monastic. Few outside of a monastery in Ottoman Greece would have had the possibility of such regular confession. Here we may note that the treatise is ostensibly intended ‘for the common benefit of the Orthodox’, the same form of words found on the title-page of the Philokalia. In both cases this appears to represent a little wishful thinking.

There is, however, no doubting the overall force of the text; it is one which is as relevant today as it was in the late eighteenth century. The various excuses for infrequent communion are in many cases those still heard today: that frequent communion is just for priests or those who live (impossible thing) a wholly unblemished life. In answer to the ‘I am not worthy’ excuse, the reader is told in no uncertain terms that one is never worthy and that to receive communion (however infrequently) on the supposition of worthiness is a grave sin indeed. Unworthiness must not, on the other hand, be allowed to excuse us from the struggle to be as ready as we possibly can be at all times for the reception of this extraordinary gift – and to receive it at every suitable opportunity.

The treatise closes with a note of pessimism: ‘I know that few will listen to what I say about this subject.’ Such a sentiment is, sadly, consistent with the realities of Orthodox practice down to the present day. More or less infrequent communion remains the norm across much of the Orthodox world. But the work of the Kollyvades has not been without effect – albeit a rather delayed and uneven one. The recent revival of monastic life on Mount Athos is deeply influenced by the Kollyvades movement and this influence has played its part in encouraging greater frequency of communion across the Holy Mountain. Similar developments can be traced in many parishes in Greece. For all this, many continue to regard frequent reception of communion as somehow impious and even (by virtue of its fervent advocacy by the Zoe and Soter Brotherhoods) vaguely Protestant!

This is, therefore, a book that treats of an issue that has by no means gone away. It is an important text that will repay close reading. Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop  Chrysostomos have done a great service in presenting it in such a careful and balanced fashion.