(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Athanasios of Meteora, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Athanasios of Meteora
When a famous mountain climber was asked why he climbed the world’s highest mountain, his answer was, “Because it was there.” This may be reason enough for demonstrating one’s hardihood, but if the question had been put to one of the many monks who scaled the rugged mountains of Greece, his answer would no doubt have been so that he could get just that much closer to God. The stern Hellenic hills held out not only an ascent toward the heavens, but offered spiritual havens which enterprising monks carved out of sheer rock to produce the world’s most spectacular monasteries. As famous as the cloister of Mt. Athos is, it cannot match the awesomeness of the lofty monastery of Meteora, a spiritual haven on a grand scale conceived by an ambitious monk named Athanasios.
The fame of Mt. Athos lies not so much in its imposing locale as in its huge dimensions and its origins, which date back over a thousand years, but conversely, the monastery of Meteora is famous for its striking locale and structure more than anything else. This is not to diminish its spiritual significance, because it probably contains more ecclesiastical writings in its massive library than any other citadel of Christianity with the exception of the Vatican and the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It is quite unlike any other monastery, because some of its loftiest parts are so inaccessible they can be reached only by being hoisted in a basket.
The monastery of Meteora owes its existence to a monk named Athanasios who was born in Neopatras (Lamia), Greece, in the year 1310. His mother died giving him birth and not too long afterward he lost his father, as a result of which he was raised from infancy by an uncle who saw to his education and encouraged him in his plan to join the church. Forced to flee from invading Frankish barbarians, he went to Thessaloniki where he studied philosophy and theology, attaining scholastic laurels that qualified him for a post in the office of the imperial secretary, a post of which he soon tired for its lack of challenge and its disassociation with theology.
He left Thessaloniki for the island of Crete with a brief stopover at Mt. Athos. He remained long enough to realize that his life’s work lay in monasticism, for which at the moment he was too young, but after a few years in Crete he returned to Mt. Athos, where he assumed the monastic life for which he had waited impatiently. He was eventually tonsured a monk, adopting the name Athanasios. The tranquility of the monastery was sporadically shattered by nomadic barbarians who would besiege the cloister and make life miserable for the monks until they had had their fill and gone on, only to be replaced by other raiding parties just as the monks had settled down to their peaceful ways.
These incursions were too much for Athanasios, who thought to himself that there had to be a place where monks could be assured of a peaceful existence, and he left Mt. Athos with a handful of other monks and wandered in search of such a haven. They found themselves in Thessaly and at long last came upon a site now known as Meteora, comprised of cliffs that towered to dizzying heights, forming a natural fortress against all enemies. But their height caused some of the monks to recoil at the prospect of converting them into a dwelling place. In addition to offering a natural barricade, Meteora also offered problems of engineering, so much so that it seemed folly to try to carve out of that mountainside any semblance of an abode. But Athanasios persisted and succeeded in enlisting the aid of an enterprising craftsman who designed and engineered this project, which is a miracle of faith as well as construction.
In the early years the population of the monstery was scant, owing to its frightening inaccessibility, but as raids continued on other cloisters the numbers in Meteora began to swell. Not too long after it was completed, the cloister contained hundreds of monks who could now gaze laughingly at would-be attackers below. With nothing to distract them, the monks, under the direction of Athanasios, went about their monastic chores and developed a highly successful citadel of Christianity.
Athanasios never left Meteora, where he died peacefully on April 20, 1383.