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Unwavering Fidelity to the Holy Tradition

Cavarnos on Kontoglou

DA: Do you think that a contemporary writer attempting to write a novel inspired by the Orthodox tradition could look to Kontoglou as a modern example of someone who was successful and faithful in combining all of these elements with Orthodoxy at the center?

DC: Yes. However, many writers who tried to imitate him in his language and style have not succeeded because it was only an imitation and did not spring from within, from the source. With Kontoglou, this vigor of expression, sincerity, appreciation of the treasures of the Greek tradition were not mere imitation, they were real, he lived them. Another writer may try to imitate something stylistically in Kontoglou, but it doesn't really have the power that Kontoglou has. The novelist Kazantzakis was a great admirer of Kontoglou. He admired him for his style, not for what he said or what he believed in, but for the sheer power of his expression. He was also admired for his style by writers like the poet Sikelianos and the novelist Prevelakis, who had cut themselves off from the Byzantine heritage. That's an important thing for Kontoglou; he emphasized this point to me.

Once I learned that he was writing for the daily Athenian newspaper Eleutheria. I immediately subscribed to it and renewed my subscription to it until he died. On one opportune occasion, I told him that I thought he wrote too many times about pirates and sea stories. Kontoglou said, "I have to do that because otherwise the newspaper will not print my religious articles. They say that people don't enjoy religious articles. But what happens is that by reading these stories they also begin to read my religious writings." They so admired his style that they began to read his religious articles, too, just to enjoy the style of Kontoglou. Yet, they also began to absorb the religious content of Kontoglou's writings.

DA: What would Kontoglou say about some of the real challenges that are facing the Church today? What would he say about modernization or ecumenism? How did he approach this? Was he unique?

DC: We often discussed that. I have a whole collection of letters where he discusses modernism and Ecumenism. Kontoglou was a clear-minded man. He knew what he believed and what he did not believe, very strongly, very clearly. He was not muddleheaded.

DA: Some people might say that he is too black-and-white, that there is more gray in the world.

DC: Some would say he's a fanatic, an extremist, narrow-minded, possessing an "Old Calendarist" mentality, and missing the contemporary progress of man.

DA: What do you say to that?

DC: I mention some of these things in my book Meetings with Kontoglou. He was not scared by these epithets. He went on his way. He believed in what he was doing, and if people thought he was wrong he was not upset. Kontoglou was not motivated by money, although he could have been fabulously rich, like Picasso. Picasso became very rich because, as Kontoglou put it, "Picasso catered to herds of decadent Souls." Kontoglou did not want to sacrifice his creed, his beliefs, his convictions just to be financially successful. That's a very important point.

DA: Was he outspoken in the Athenian daily?

DC: Yes. He criticized the Greeks for the many evils that have crept into the Greek mentality. One of the pervasive evils was Xenomania: excessive and indiscriminate love of things of foreign origin and the uncritical acceptance of them. This came out again and again in his writings. Xenomania is still a widespread disease of the Greeks. It is one of the reasons that they disparaged the Byzantine heritage and the Orthodox tradition. This stand of Kontoglou also meant being very critical of the modern West and the papal church, which he considered a very distorted form of Christianity. He was adamantly opposed to the ecumenism started in 1963 by Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople. Until the end of his life in 1965, Kontoglou was the strongest voice against ecumenism.

DA: Was there anything visionary or prophetic about his insights regarding ecumenism?

DC: I would not say prophetic, except that from what has happened in the past one could foresee what would happen in our time and in the future, if we don't heed the experience of the past. For instance, the false union at Ferrara-Florence in the fifteenth century was very vivid in his mind. Its consequences were destructive: after a few years Constantinople fell to the Turks. This was not a coincidence; rather it was the natural sequence of not being faithful to the Church. It was abandonment by God for apostasy.

DA: So he saw a direct relationship between the apostasy and the Turkish conquest?

DC: Yes, that is what comes through in his writings. And he felt the same thing would happen again, if we go along with Athenagoras's type of ecumenism. The end result would be that the Greeks would become puppets of the Vatican and would lose their identity. He believed, for instance, if the Greeks had accepted union with Rome in the fifteenth century as a result of the Pseudo Synod, their cultural and historical identity and Orthodox Faith would have been lost very quickly. It was the refusal of Saint Mark of Ephesus, whom we greatly admire, saying No! to this false union, which saved Greece from being de-Hellenized and losing its national character and spiritual treasures. Kontoglou foresaw all this development and that is why he strongly opposed ecumenism.

DA: Of the contemporaries of Photios Kontoglou, to whom was he closest? With whom did he share a oneness of mind?

DC: On the question of ecumenism, there were many, whom I mention in my book Ecumenism Examined—namely, his spiritual Father Archimandrite Philotheos Zervakos; his publisher Alexander Papademetriou; the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece Chrysostomos; Metropolitan of Phlorina Augoustinos Kantiotis; Metropolitan of Argolis Chrysostomos; Abbot Gabriel of the Monastery of Dionysiou on the Holy Mountain; Father Theocletos of the same Monastery; Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos, founder of the Pan-Hellenic Orthodox Union and of its organ "Orthodoxos Typos"; the professors of the School of Theology of the University of Athens: Panagiotis Trembelas, loannis Karmiris, Konstantinos Mouratidis, and Pantelis Paschos; the prominent preacher Nikolaos Soteropoulos; and many others. All of them also shared Kontoglou's emphasis on the vital importance of studying the holy Church Fathers and adhering to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.

DA: Why do you think that Philotheos Zervakos and Photios Kontoglou sided with the so-called "New Calendar" Church?

DC: I explained this in Volume Eleven of my series Modern Orthodox Saints, which is devoted to blessed Philotheos Zervakos. From the very time the idea of introducing the New Calendar was conceived, Father Philotheos wrote letters of protest saying, "No! Stop it; don't do it," but they did not listen to him. He wrote letters and brochures protesting this innovation until the time of his death. His predictions came true: he said that if you allow this innovation to stand, you will divide the people into two hostile parties. This prophecy of Zervakos was completely fulfilled. In his later years, when he saw that the Greek government, the Church of Greece, and the Œcumenical Patriarchate did not listen to him, he thought about simply returning his monastery to the Old Calendar. On this matter, I suggest a careful reading of my book on Blessed Father Philotheos. His senior monk, Father Leontios, whom I happened to meet a few years before he died, said that Father Philotheos was very determined to declare that the monastery had returned to the Old Calendar. But he was opposed by some of his senior monks, particularly Father Leontios. Every time the Elder left the monastery to travel as a Confessor, sometimes for weeks, Leontios was the acting abbot. So he had a strong voice. He emphasized that if they changed the monastery to the Old Calendar, then the local bishop would immediately step in and force them to give up that idea, or else. The "or else" would be that the police would be sent over to expel the monks and say this monastery belongs to the local bishop of Paros and Naxos. Father Philotheos was close to the century mark, and Father Leontios was about the same age, and they pictured themselves being thrown out of monastery. It would have been a very tragic situation. So what Father Philotheos did was to die on the Old Calendar. He invited a confessor from Mount Athos, where the Old Calendar is followed, to serve for his last confession and to bury him.

DA: And did Photios Kontoglou die with those following the New Calendar?

DC: Well, Kontoglou himself was in a dilemma. He had followed pretty much the advice of Philotheos Zervakos to wait for the return of the Church of Greece to the Traditional Calendar. in the 1960s, before Kontoglou died, the Archbishop of Athens was Chrysostomos, who was very venerable and traditional. I interviewed him once. He said he had made it one of his priorities before he died to return the Church of Greece to the Old Calendar. So you see, Zervakos and Kontoglou were hoping that this dilemma would be resolved by him and that it would be done canonically by the Holy Synod of Greece. But it did not happen because the dictatorship that came into power removed Archbishop Chrysostomos from his throne and installed the priest of the palace, Hieronymos Kotsonis, a modernist and ecumenist, as Archbishop of Athens. It was a very difficult dilemma for them. What was one to do? A dilemma, you know, has two horns and no matter which one you choose it is bad. Kontoglou and Father Philotheos were hoping that the change would come down from the top in the Church of Greece. In the meantime, Photios consoled himself and was at peace with his conscience by attending services at a church in his neighborhood that followed the Old Calendar.

DA: From your fourteen years' association with Photios Kontoglou, what do you think his legacy is for us? What does his life and witness have to say to us today—especially to Orthodox Christians in America?

DC: Fidelity to Tradition. In iconography, in music, in church architecture, in the liturgy of the Church, in all the other services of the Church, in keeping the faith—in all of these, keeping the Holy Canons, avoiding all compromises in the doctrines of the Church. The whole Orthodox Tradition must be preserved in this country. I am one of the people who have been trying to follow him in the struggle to preserve the Orthodox Tradition in this country. In striving to avoid all the subtle traps, innovations, and false unions of any kind, I am continuing Kontoglou's approach.

I am also studying and writing about the Church Fathers, especially the ascetical ones such as Saint John of the Ladder, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, and those in the Philokalia. We must continue to study them, write about them, and live according to their teachings. There is another thing that must be mentioned. Kontoglou was a strong lover of the monastics. He believed in the traditional, contemplative (hesychastic) Orthodox monastic life and not that of the activistic, Roman Catholic variety. In one of his works, he says that we must realize that wherever there were no monasteries, spirituality dried up, and wherever there is authentic monastic life and monasteries with a tradition of deep piety, Orthodoxy flourishes.

DA: What about this? Today in Orthodoxy we have a lot of discussion, and not a little controversy, about the appearance of priests and monks in the West. There are those who would say that this is something for the old country. In America we do things differently, because of where we are, and the situation dictates that we have to dress differently, and exterior things are not that important. What did Kontoglou have to say on this?

DC: Kontoglou wrote special articles about the rasson [cassock] for the priest. He would agree that the rasson alone does not make the priest. But it is one of the things, together with others, that make one a priest or a monk. Kontoglou would say the rasson is an essential. It's a symbol of Orthodoxy. The beard is also an essential part of the appearance for an Orthodox clergyman or monk. These things he emphasized very much, and he gave reasons from Tradition and common sense that this outer appearance of the priest or monk should continue to identify the clergyman or monk as truly Orthodox.

DA: So would this be correct? Photios would say that these things are integral parts of Orthodoxy, are expressive of Orthodoxy. They are not detached features, but are united with the image and symbols of Orthodoxy. Thus, abandoning these things is somehow minimizing Orthodoxy.

DC: Right. Some years ago, hardly any priest of the Greek Archdiocese in this country had a beard. But now, what has happened is that the younger priests have beards, most often trimmed, but still beards. Next to them is an old priest, a white-haired priest, completely shaven. Shaving off the beard cannot be justified by saying that we live in America and the beard is inappropriate here. Rather, it is quite acceptable now. Kontoglou was very resolute that a priest should have the beard and the rasson for his identity, the way a policeman has his specific police uniform when he goes out in the streets. Seeing it, you know he's a policeman.

DA: Did Kontoglou ever make a distinction between the so-called "big-T Tradition and small-t tradition"? Such a view states that there are some traditions in the realm of dogma, doctrine, and spirituality that are absolutely non-negotiable, but there are smaller traditions like beards and rassa that are negotiable. You don't have to have them, but you may have them. Did he ever make any distinctions like that?

DC: He did not make such a distinction. He believed that innumerable things organically related make Orthodoxy and give it its identity. Everything is organically related. About the Church's arts, for example, he would say that iconography addresses itself to our sense of sight, while music addresses itself to our sense of hearing, but both seek to express the same essence, the Orthodox Faith. Architecture has its own tradition, particularly recognizable in the dome, in the round arch, and by the surfaces that are used for the wall paintings, which other kinds of architecture, such as the Gothic, do not provide. The architecture of the Orthodox church is a very important element of the totality; in other words, all of these arts are organically interrelated, though using different media. The iconography, hymnody, music, and architecture of the Byzantine tradition are trying to convey the same thing. They have the same point of origin: they all spring from and are used to communicate the Orthodox Faith and make it apprehensible to the believer through the senses. Thus, you can see the organic unity of the fine arts of Orthodoxy. You can also see it in the appearance of the priest, the monk, the form of the prayers, and the Liturgy. All of these things are organically related to one another. If you say that traditional iconography is not essential, or the traditional music is secondary and can be replaced with organs or violins, while still retaining Orthodoxy—that's not so! When you eliminate these things, what's left? Soon you'll begin toning down the dogmas because of minimalism or relativism. The Greeks have a word for this: xephtisma, "unravelment." Your pants are torn in one place, you let that go, then the tear spreads out. If you don't patch it up in time, it will spread more and more, and the whole garment then falls to pieces. So you have to mend it. If you don't take the time to repair any kind of break from the Tradition, then the whole thing begins to fall apart. And that's what has happened to much of the Orthodox world. It's falling apart in this way, saying: This does not matter, that is not essential, that's unimportant, that's a convention, and so forth.

DA: Kontoglou reminds us to "stay faithful to the Tradition."

DC: Yes, because the Tradition brings everything together in a meaningful, beautiful, organic relationship with everything else.

DA: It gives us life.

DC: It gives us life and solves unnecessary problems and unnecessary worries that are created by "modernization" and ecumenism.

DA: Kontoglou foresaw these things thirty years ago and earlier, and you have seen them while writing your sixty books in the last four decades. Are we in a place now in which we have, perhaps, progressed even further down the road than in Kontoglou's time?

DC: Of course.

DA: It almost appears that we are overcome by these innovations, which are raining down like a terrible thunderstorm on the Church. Where do we start, where does the parish and the priest begin the task of repairing before the whole garment falls apart? How do we begin on the road to restoration?

DC: I would say that there are different things one has to struggle with. One of the first things to see is that most of this falling apart, these innovations, is a result of ignorance. That is at the root of all these things. So we have to write enlightening books, articles, and letters, as Kontoglou did. Kontoglou wrote countless letters. I have ninety of his letters. Those who possess the needed knowledge and understanding must write and teach, in order to enlighten people, to cure the sickness of ignorance. Well-equipped bookshops should be organized in all parishes and monasteries. Also, there should be edifying lectures at the parishes, offered from time to time, especially during the fall season and Great Lent.

DA: It's a long process.

DC: Indeed. It's a process that takes time and has to be done continuously by as many people as possible. The other sad factor is indifference. So the religious feeling of people has to he warmed up. The coldness that is conducive to the death of the faith must be banished. Good writings, good sermons, and personal conversation with people are some means of doing this. Indifference is rooted in ignorance. People are indifferent to something they do not know, do not understand. Indifference often comes because one does not understand the doctrines of the Church, the canons, or the significance of such practices as fasting and the Jesus Prayer.

DA: Does ignorance, therefore, lead to a perversion of the Faith?

DC: Yes. Faith comes to be viewed as akin to magic. Christianity is not magical. It's a Divine-human relationship involving prayer on our part, the sincere prayer of believing Christians and other spiritual practices as well, before we can hope for a response to come from God. Erroneously, people think they can obtain Divine benefits without paying the spiritual price for them.

DA: So, to receive the benefit of Holy Orthodoxy one has to work hard to empty himself and allow Orthodoxy, the Tradition, and the Spirit of God to come into him; one has to have faith?

DC: This is the foundation. Faith, in the sense of espousing wholeheartedly true doctrines and practices, is the foundation.

DA: In conclusion, let me ask you: there still seems to be a great challenge for zealous Orthodox people to be connected to the life-giving tradition of the Holy Fathers. Such people are alive and awake to the holy tradition, yet could be in a spot in American Orthodoxy where that tradition is not readily accessible. What do we say to someone in this situation?

DC: A person must have zeal and persistently search for a place—a parish in the "world" or a monastery—where there is authentic, traditional Orthodox Christianity. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

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The Soul of man, of every man, is something deep and unexplored. But most of us do not realize this. Believe this, that your soul is unknown and immortal. The body is something temporary. And its passions and needs prevent the soul from knowing itself. The heavy vapors that arise from the flesh cloud and darken the sun that rises within us with God's illumination. When souls are defiled and darkened, they are incapable of seeing either themselves or other souls.

—Photios Kontoglou, from the article "The New Language," which appeared in the Athenian newspaper Eleutheria, July 19, 1964, almost exactly one year before his death, and which was reprinted in Erga, Vol. 6, pp. 167-170.

From Divine Ascent, Vol. I, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 33-47. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Hieromonk Jonah, editor of Divine Ascent. For subscriptions to this journal contact the Monastery of Saint John of Shanghai and SF, P.O. Box 563, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; phone 415.663.1705.