THE MARVELOUS, MISERABLE, MEANDERING LIFE OF MAXIM THE GREEK

 

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 last 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 Greek Μάξιμος ὁ Γραικός.

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…”

 

A SAINT WHO WAS A DEVIL: JOSEPH OF VOLOKOLAMSK

The 16th century was an important but troubled time in Eastern Orthodoxy.

You will recall that Constantinople — the chief city of the Eastern Orthodox world — had fallen to the invading muslim Turks in 1453.  In the view of the Russians, that was the punishment of God — destroying the “Second Rome”  And the Russian monk Filofey wrote the defining phrase of the future in a letter of praise to the Russian Tsar Vasili III (1479-1533): in 1510:

“For two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and a fourth there shall not be.”
ꙗ҆́ко два̀ ри̑ма падо́ша, а҆ тре́тїй стои́тъ, а҆ четве́ртомꙋ не бы́ти.

Filofey held that the Latin Christianity of Rome had fallen into false doctrine and the arms of the Devil; Constantinople, for its sins, had fallen to the Turks; so the new center of the “true” Christian world — he thought — was now Muscovy (Russia), with Moscow at its head.  Filofey said the Tsar was the only earthly emperor over Christians, centered in Moscow at the Uspenskiy (Dormition) Church, and that all Christian kingdoms would finally fall — according to the prophetic books — to the Russian Empire.

We see here the mixture of Church and State that has plagued Eastern Orthodoxy through its history.  It was believed that the Tsar received authority from God both to rule the empire and to protect the Orthodox Church.  The Tsar was the “icon of God” — the visual representative of God on earth.

Now there was in Russia at this time a very devout monk named Nil Sorskiy (after the Sora River, where he settled).  He had learned the mystical meditation system called Hesychasm, and had even spent time in the Greek monastic center, Mount Athos.  In Russia he formed a community based on the Athos skete or “hermitage” model, which had a dwelling for the “elder” —  the spiritual guide — and his disciples lived around him.  Here is an old illustration of Nil and his community:

They spent their time in religious pursuits, and those who came to them for counsel helped to support them.  This system began to spread, and soon a number of such ascetic communities existed, which became collectively known as the Заволжские старцыZavolzhskie startsui — the “Trans-Volga Elders.”

The kind of monasticism Nil and his followers advocated stood in stark contrast to the conventional monasticism existing in Russia at that time.  The Russian monasteries were then holders of vast tracts of land, including whole villages of peasants that were virtual slaves to the monasteries, because the monasteries owned the land, the crops and animals, and had slave master rights over the poor peasants — all supposedly by the authority of God and Tsar.

That leads us to another noted (or notorious) monk of this time — Iosif Volokolamskiy — Joseph of Volokolamsk.  Here is an icon of him:

The inscription reads:

ПРЕПОДОБНЫ ИОСИФЪ ВОЛОКОЛАМСКИЙ
PREPODOBNUIY IOSIF” VOLOKOLAMSKIY
“Venerable Joseph of Volokolamsk.”

Joseph — also known as Joseph Volotskiy — was the abbot of the Volokolamsk monastery (where he insisted on absolute obedience), and a severe opponent of a religious movement in Russia that became known as the so-called “Judaizers.”  They criticized the wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church and its monasteries, did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus or the veneration of icons, and rejected the formal clergy of the Orthodox Church in favor of selected elders.  Their services were held in homes rather than church buildings, and consisted of reading and singing verses from the Bible and Psalms.  They worshiped on Saturday instead of Sunday, and taught the children of peasants to read and write.  They wanted a return to a simple form of spirituality and service.

All of this infuriated Joseph, who was something of a control freak.

In 1503 there was a church council (synod) at Moscow to decide what to do about the “Judaizer” movement.   Joseph was a leading voice there, and his solution to the “Judaizer” controversy was simple; he said they should be declared heretics, then arrested, then burned to death.  He reminds me of the Protestant Reformer Jean Calvin, who was also a control freak and had Michael Servetus, who disagreed with him on the doctrine of the Trinity, burned at the stake in Geneva.  Nonetheless, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Joseph is considered a saint, commemorated in the Church calendar, and venerated in icons.

Those who shared the views of Nil Sorskiy stood up to Joseph at the council, saying that only God had the right to judge, and that no one, Church or State, had the right to punish them.  Nil held that if one wanted to convince the Judaizers, one should do so by forgiveness and by living a holy life as an example.

Joseph was unrelenting.  His views on the Judaizers gained the upper hand at the council, and so he eventually succeeded in having their leaders imprisoned and burned alive — some in Moscow, some at Novgorod.

Nil Sorskiy had also opposed Joseph on another important issue — the matter of the wealth of the monasteries.  Because he was opposed to the monastic accumulation of wealth, land, and virtual slave peasants, Nil and those who supported his views became known as the “Non-possessors” or “Non-acquirers.”  They felt that monastic wealth was contrary to a monk’s life of spirituality, work, poverty, and contemplation.

Those like Joseph, who favored monastic wealth and property, were known as the “Possessors” or “Acquirers.”  He felt that the wealth and lands of the monasteries were part of the order that God wanted to exist in the world, and that the monasteries needed such wealth to do their appointed work.  To Joseph, those who would take away the wealth and lands of the monasteries were opponents of God’s order, and thus heretics.

One “Non-possessor” was a nobleman become monk named Vassian, who challenged the “Possessor” viewpoint:

“Where in Gospel tradition, the Apostles, and the Fathers are monks ordered to get populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? …. We look to the hands of the rich, fawn on them slavishly, flatter them to get some little village from them. … We wrong, rob and sell our brother Christians; we torture them with scourges like wild beasts.”

But again, it was Joseph of Volokolamsk and the “Possessors” who won.  It is paradoxical that both the murderous Joseph of Volokolamsk and the more merciful Nil Sorskiy became saints of Russian Orthodoxy.  But Eastern Orthodoxy has a long history of glossing over contradictions and paradoxes — the reasons for which are often unknown or forgotten by the average “believer.”