In a previous posting, I talked about the conflict in the Russian Orthodoxy of the 1500s over two opposing approaches to monasticism. On the one hand were the Non-possessors like Nil Sorskiy, who thought monks should live an ascetic, hesychast life based on the “skete” or hermitage model of Mount Athos in Greece: a small dwelling for the spiritual guide and a disciple or two, with the others living nearby in community, all being self-sufficient, accepting donations, and offering religious counsel to those lay people in the area. They also promoted religious tolerance rather than forcing people to accept their beliefs.
But opposing this view were Joseph of Volokolamsk and his followers, the Possessors, the “establishment” monks, who were were accustomed to owning wide tracts of land (about a third of Russian land at that time was held by monasteries), being masters — as was the Russian nobility of the time — of the peasants who worked on it, and receiving from their lands the produce, services and goods of those basically enslaved peasants. These were the advocates of monastic wealth. And they were religiously intolerant, believing those with different beliefs should be arrested and punished, with the State acting as the punishing arm of the Church.
Knowing that background, we can turn now to the life of Michael Trivolis (Μιχαήλ Τρίβολης), c. 1480–1556, a young man born to wealth in Greece. In the same year that Columbus stumbled upon the New World — 1492 — Michael (then about 20-22) traveled to Italy, which of course was a Roman Catholic country. He studied in Venice, in Padua, Ferarra, Bologna,Milan, and even in that most noted of Renaissance centers of art and learning, Florence. He knew the famous printer Aldus Manutius and moved in the humanist circles of the time. He listened eagerly to the fiery sermons of the reforming monk Savonarola, who preached against what he felt were the excesses of the Renaissance — sermons which led to the noted Bonfire of the Vanities, in which books, manuscripts, paintings and other works of art, musical instruments and secular compositions, fine dresses, mirrors, and so on, were all thrown into the flames and burned for being too “worldly.” It is said that even the great painter Sandro Botticelli destroyed some of his own works (which if true, is a great loss to art).
Michael Trivolis was highly impressed by the ascetic preaching of the Dominican monk Savonarola, and though he may never have actually spoken with him, Michael nonetheless chose to become a Dominican monk about 1501, and even entered the Monastery of San Marco, which had formerly been Savonarola’s monastery. So this young man from a wealthy and highly-connected Eastern Orthodox family became a Roman Catholic Dominican monk.
Sometime during his two-year stay at San Marco, he changed his mind, and though he had spent some twelve years in Renaissance Italy, by about 1505-1506 he had left it, and in 1597 he was living as a monk in the Greek Orthodox Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece, under the name Maximos. Eventually (after some twelve or more years), he was sent to Russia in 1518, where he was to translate patristic commentaries on the Psalter and other Greek writings. He did not know Church Slavic (the literary language in Russia), so he translated from Greek to Latin, and Russians who knew Latin translated into Church Slavic. Eventually he learned enough Slavic to translate directly, though not without imperfections.
In Russia he not only translated, but also began to criticize the lifestyles of the Russian clergy and the wealthy land-owning monasteries and the abysmal treatment of peasants, taking the side of the Non-possessors, which is not surprising given the strong influence the ascetic sermons of Savonarola had on him in Italy. Maxim favored poverty and simplicity in monasticism. He did not, by the way, tell his Russian hosts he had once been a Roman Catholic Dominican monk. They would not have liked it, given the disdain of Russia for the “Latins” and their presumed heresies.
With his strong and outspoken views on many topics, Maxim eventually fell afoul of Church and State in Russia — partly because he opposed the desire of Vasili III to divorce his wife and remarry (shades of Henry VIII!). A sobor (“council”) condemned him for heresy in 1525. He spent approximately the last 30 years of his life imprisoned or confined because of his views, though in the final five years his circumstances eased. He died at the Trinity-Sergiyev Monastery in 1556, never having been allowed to return to Greece after his fall from grace, because, it is said, he “knew too much” about Russia. Within a century of his death he was being regarded as a saint, particularly among the Old Believers, no doubt partly due to his persecution by Church and State, which the Old Believers also suffered.
Maxim is said to have brought the news of the discovery of the New World to Russia. And though he preached against aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine once he returned to Eastern Orthodoxy, he never lost his high regard for the Dominican monk Savonarola, saying that if he had not been a “Latin” by faith, he would have been numbered among the ispovedniki — the Confessors of the Church.
He is called in Russia Максим Грек — Maksim Grek — “Maxim the Greek,” and in Greece Μάξιμος ὁ Γραικός — Maximos ho Graikos.
In icons, Maxim the Greek can be recognized by his remarkably wide, pizza-paddle-shaped beard. As already mentioned, because of his long years of suffering for his beliefs, Maxim early on became a hero saint to the Old Believers, which is why his icons were common among them. Paradoxically, he is also now a saint of the State Church that persecuted him, though not officially accepted as such until 1988, 432 years after his death.
A common text on books or scrolls held by Maxim in Russian icons is the so-called “Prayer of Maxim” — this line, taken from his Canon to the Holy Spirit, which he is said to have written in charcoal on the wall of his prison:
“Иже манною препитавый Израиля в пустыни древле, и душу мою, Владыко, Духа наполни Всесвятаго, яко да о Нем благоугодно служу Ти выну…”
“Who manna did feed to Israel in the wilderness of old, also fill my soul, Master, with the All-holy Spirit, through whom I may give favorable service to you always…”