Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Archimandrite Isaac (Atallah) the Athonite (1937-1998) Part I
While there has never been a specifically Arabic-speaking monastery or skete on Mount Athos, there have been many Arabic-speaking monks who have gone to the Holy Mountain to seek their salvation. This is evidenced by, for example, the Arabic signature on the 14th-century "Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts". In our own time, Isaac the Athonite travelled from his native Lebanon to the Holy Mountain, where he became a disciple of the Elder Paissios. The following article, which I will translate in installments, was written in Arabic by Archimandrite Isaac's brother Anthony and annotated by Fr. Ephrem (Kyriakos), abbot of the monastery of Saint Michael in Baskinta.. The translation here, however, is from the French translation of that document by "La Rédaction", published in Le Bon Pasteur, the bulletin of l'Association des Chretiens Orthodoxes d'Antioche et de leurs Amis, no. 4, March-June 2006.
Father Isaac was born to Martha and Nemr Atallah on April 12, 1937 in a Lebanese village called Nabay in the region of North Metn, dependant on the Orthodox Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon. He was given the name Fares. He grew up in a pious Orthodox family and learned from his father, the parish cantor, love for Christ and faithfulness to the tradition of the Church. From his youth he was attracted to solitude and prayer. It would often happen that his parents would lose track of him until they would eventually find him praying in the fields surrounding his village, not far from the house of his birth. He was already finding all his happiness in nearness to God and His Church.
One day when he was still fairly young he left the family home to join the monastery of the Prophet Elias in Shwayya, in the region of North Metn, but his father set out to go find him. At that time they said, perhaps to console him, that it was not the tradition of monasteries to accept the eldest son of a family as a monk since he is the family's support. Fares agreed and returned home.
He did his primary studies at the school of his village, Nabay, then he left school to work as an apprentice carpenter. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went to practice his trade in the "carpenters' souk" in Beirut. It is there that every evening, at the end of the work day, he took courses in Byzantine chant in the Ashrafiyya district of Beirut at the school of Mitri el-Murr, Protopsaltes of the Church of Antioch.
In the summer of 1962, at the age of twenty-five, he made his life's decision. In his small bag, he carefully packed his clothes and left his work at the grand Phonecia Hotel, which was the standard for Beiruti luxury at the time, and returned to his home after having turned in his resignation. When he arrived before his father, for whom he had enormous respect and unfailing obedience, he handed him his savings passbook, saying "This savings account has been opened in your name. When it matures, I would like for you to withdraw this money and distribute it equally among all the members of the family. As for me, I don't need anything because I am going to the monastery." His saddened father asked him, "What can I offer you in this world so that you don't become a monk?" Fares answered him, "Even if you give me this world as an inheretence, my eyes will not covet it! My life is not here, but in the monastery." Nemr, his father, tried hard to dissuade him from following the path of monasticism by putting preassure on the other members of the family, but it was in vain.
The same day, Fares took his bag and headed with his brother Anthony towards the monatery of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Bkeftin, in the region of Koura, a place he had never seen. He only had its adress and the name of its higumen, Archimandrite Yuhanna (Mansour), the future Metropolitan of Lattakieh in Syria, who had had his formation in the bosom of the Orthodox Youth Movement in the city whose bishop he would later be.
Arriving at the place, Fares got out of the taxi and got down on his knees, facing the monastery and, lifting up his arms, he recited a prayer then crossed himself. While getting up, he said audibly, "I give thanks to the Lord for having now granted me my desire."
Archimandrite Yuhanna was there at the enterance to the monastery to welcome them. The monastery was largely in ruins, most of its rooms were in a state of delapidation and almost uninhabitable. A single monk lived there besides the higumen. The sun was setting when Anthony went back, leaving his older brother at the monastery. At the family home, everyone was eagerly waiting for him. His father spoke first, saying "So where exactly did he go?" "To the monastery of Bkeftin in Koura," he responded, "but I assure you right away that, given the monastery's state of ruin, and given that Fares last worked at the Phonecia Hotel in Beirut, he won't last two or three days before you see him coming back to the house." His father looked squarely at him and said, "No matter what difficulties he will encounter, your brother will not come back again."