“An Unorthodox Guest” – FoMA Summer Conference 2024

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I was delighted to be invited as a special guest by Dr Graham Speake, Chairman and founder of the Friends of Mount Athos, for their summer conference held at St Anne’s College, Oxford University on 8th June 2024. It was their thirty-third such event.

Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, is a pan-Orthodox male monastic enclave with UNESCO World Heritage status.

Graham Speake was my predecessor at Peter Lang Ltd, and I was originally hired to replace him upon his retirement at the very end of 2010. Anyone who is anyone with an interest in Athonite scholarship and spirituality will know that Graham Speake is synonymous with writings of an exceptionally high standard. Indeed, he has won the Criticos Prize and is, I am delighted to say, one of our series editors for Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy and a prolific author, editor and contributor to the canon of works, including Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and Neagoe Basarab – Princeps Christianus.

Dr Graham Speake, Chairman of the Society, speaking to delegates

I am not an Orthodox Christian, and yet many years ago now, Graham (or Gregory, as he is known in the Church) gave me the name Fotini to denote my “associate” status to Eastern Orthodoxy as the root meaning of the Greek echoes the Latin origins of my name, Lucy, meaning “light”.

As a woman, it was very telling to listen to and see the first speaker, Dr Vanessa de Obaldia, present on her three-year project to catalogue, digitise and translate the entire Ottoman archive of Simonopetra Monastery. This is a monastery, like the other twenty or so on Athos, that she will never visit as women are prohibited from visiting Athos. She showed a picture of herself at the land border to Athos, which is a peninsula – that is as near as she can ever get. It was interesting to note in the coffee break that a few other delegates were also discussing this anomaly, which to most adherents of the faith will just be accepted as part of the ancient tradition that after several monks reported visions of the Virgin Mary, it was decided that they would devote themselves to her, and that no woman should be allowed to outshine her. All women were banned from the Holy Mountain thenceforth, and indeed all female animals along with them.

The second talk was by Professor Stavros Mamaloukos “Byzantine Athonite Architecture – An Overview”.

This was a very rich and detailed exploration of the buildings and architectural hinterland of Mount Athos. Around 60 ecclesiastical structures survive in some form from the Byzantine period today.

This talk was fascinating – literally layers of history were uncovered and the connections and echoes of Byzantium in so many buildings in the diaspora were clearly shown.

There is plenty of engagement at these talks, but it is a fact that the audience in attendance are an ageing populace, and although I sat through the AGM and heard of new subscribers this year, there will have to be a concerted drive to encourage younger people interested in Athonite spirituality, scholarship and theological practice. After all, the patron of the FoMA is King Charles, who has continued his affection and support of its endeavours after his accession to the throne, and with such lofty support, one would hope for a long and sustained support and enrichening of the work and efforts of the dedicated members.

The last talk was by on the society’s 2023 pilgrimage to Bulgaria. Pilgrimage Studies and pilgrimage in general are enjoying a revival right now and this may prove to the route to brining in new members to the Society who have a interest in exploring and experiencing the rich cultural, ecclesiastical and spiritual offerings of those countries with an Orthodox history.

Discover our Pilgrimage Studies and our Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy series.

Peter Lang Group titles edited by Graham Speake include Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Spiritual Guidance on Mount Athos, The Life of Prayer on Mount Athos, Mount Athos and Russia: 1016-2016, and more.

Discover more at The Society of the Friends of Mount Athos

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