During the 1950s a particularly dynamic brotherhood gathered around the renowned desert father Elder Joseph the Hesychast (also known as the Cave Dweller). After many years living in conditions of extreme privation at St Basil’s, Elder Joseph had eventually settled at New Skete, where he earned fame as a teacher and spiritual father. His teaching was based on St Paul’s injunction, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5: 17), and on the cultivation of inner stillness (hesychia) and prayer of the heart; this has been the direction followed by all the leaders of the current Athonite revival. He died in 1959, but no fewer than six Athonite monasteries have been revived by his spiritual children, who include Fr Ephraim, subsequently to become abbot of Philotheou, Fr Charalambos, subsequently abbot of Dionysiou, and Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, who was one of the leading lights in the revival of that house and remains its principal spiritual father.
… Two other monasteries were revived in 1973, as is indicated by the increase in numbers in the table above. Philotheou, like Stavronikita, had become very depleted in numbers and was still following the idiorrhythmic way of life when Fr Ephraim from New Skete, a former disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, was invited to become abbot and bring his group of disciples to repopulate the monastery. Archimandrite Ephraim has since moved to North America, where he has founded a great many monasteries in recent years. But his influence remains strong at Philotheou, where the brotherhood is regarded as strict and sees itself as upholding the purest form of Orthodoxy. For this reason they require non-Orthodox pilgrims to progress no further than the narthex during services in the katholikon and to wait until the monks have finished before eating in the refectory. Regulations of this sort would never have been imposed in the 1960s and are among the less attractive features of the current revival.
By the start of the 1980s it had become evident that a revival was taking place. But it was not simply a fact that numbers were rising again for the first time for many years. Far more important than sheer numbers were the changes taking place in the Athonite way of life. Most of the new recruits were young men; quite suddenly the majority of beards were black rather than white and the average age of monks was soon brought down to a much healthier level. Most of them also were well educated, and many were university graduates. This represented a marked change from the traditional community where the majority of monks had been drawn from a peasant background and had received little or no formal education. The newcomers were attracted by the presence on the Mountain of so many gifted and charismatic teachers and holy men, men such as Elder Joseph, Fr Ephraim and Fr Vasileios. They came to sit at their feet and learn, but they also came to devote themselves to a life of service to God in strict obedience to their abbots. What appealed to them was the fully fledged monastic ideal of the cenobitic way of life in its purest, most hesychastic form. Not for them the laissez-faire lifestyle of the idiorrhythmic houses.
During the 1980s several of the grander monasteries still clung to their idiorrhythmic ways, and as long as this comfortable way of life remained a realistic option, the monks were resistant to change. But the fact was that, unlike their cenobitic neighbours, they were not receiving any novices at all and the differences soon became apparent. Their earlier grandeur now gave way to a rather squalid decadence, and one by one they were forced to accept the inevitable demands of the newcomers and abandon the idiorrhythmic life. As we have seen, the Lavra made the change, in name at least, as early as 1980 but it has to be said that the change has never been fully implemented there. Many of the monks, while paying lip-service to the cenobitic ideal, have continued much as before. As a result the community has not seen very much growth and the monastery still presents a somewhat sad and vacant appearance. By contrast, Vatopedi and Iviron, both of which made the change in 1990, have gone from strength to strength and are homes to exemplary cenobitic brotherhoods. Last, and most reluctant, to change was Pantokrator. In 1992 a new cenobitic brotherhood was introduced on the orders of the patriarchate and it too now bears all the hallmarks of a truly revived monastery.
Thus ended a system that had been in place intermittently on the Mountain for 700 years. Grudgingly given imperial sanction when the Byzantine empire was fighting for its life, the idiorrhythmic system undoubtedly contributed to the survival of Athonite monasticism at crucial moments during the Tourkokratia. By the second half of the twentieth century, however, it had lost its appeal and become unworkable. Scorned and rejected by a new generation of monks, the idiorrhythmic system has retreated to the sketes and cells to which it is best suited and where it flourishes alongside many of the humbler traditions of the ascetic way of life.
We have already mentioned the biography of Elder Joseph the Hesychast by his disciple, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, which vividly describes the evolution of one of the most dynamic cells in the revival at New Skete. A selection of the elder’s letters has also been published and includes a fifty-four-page ‘Epistle to a Hesychast Hermit’. Most of the letters are addressed to monks, but they have a universal application to any reader with a spiritu¬ally inquiring mind. More than one ends with these comforting words: ‘Don’t despair! We will go to paradise together. And if I don’t place you inside, then I do not want to sit in there either.” Another of the elder’s disciples is Elder Ephraim, who in 1973 became abbot of Philotheou. He attracted so many recruits to that monastery that he was able to send them out to revive as many as three other monasteries on Athos (Xeropotamou, Konstamonitou and Karakalou). Since then he has extended his activities to North America and in the 1990s he founded no fewer than sixteen monasteries in the USA and Canada. A selection of his writing has recently appeared focusing on the theme of repentance.