What has Athos to do with Nairobi?

From December to March of this past year I had the opportunity to travel through the countries of Kenya and Greece. While I had good reason to travel to both countries, when I think about where I travelled and the people I met during that time, I feel a slight disconnect. The countries aren’t particularly close to each other, and really, besides both making the wrong sort of noise in the news recently and being in the same time zone, they don’t have much in common. The largely mountainous terrain of Greece, sloping down to the sparkling blue Aegean sea contrasts sharply with the grasslands and plains that make up most of Kenya. But outside of topography, the countries’ differences were particularly evident to me as I encountered the expressions of Christianity in each place. My time in Greece climaxed with two weeks spent on the peninsula of Mount Athos. Considered the holiest site of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Athos is a collection of twenty ancient monasteries inhabited by more than two thousand monks. The intricate and elaborately designed Athonite churches, filled with beautiful ancient icons and relics, contrast significantly with the mostly bare concrete sanctuaries one encounters throughout Kenya. Furthermore, the Monks spend their lives seeking to perfect every minutiae of the ancient liturgy, while the Kenyan pastors I met often abandoned any trace of liturgy for the sake of Spirit-filled inspiration.

So I found myself asking a question similar to one the church father Tertullian asked eighteen hundred years ago: “What has Athos to do with Nairobi?”

 

Tertullian’s original question, which substituted Athens for Athos and Jerusalem for Nairobi was a rhetorical question intended to say that the philosophy for which Athens was known has nothing to do with the Holy Scriptures of Jerusalem. Along these lines, one might be tempted to say that the free flowing, often individualistic, and sometimes charismatic to a fault, form of Christianity I found in Kenya has nothing to do with the rigid, liturgically centred, icon and relic venerating Christianity found on Athos. Accusations of heresy could be thrown around and some might even be tempted to say they are not part of the same religion. But despite their differences there was one striking commonality between the two that I witnessed: In both places, I saw an uncommon devotion to the living Lord Jesus and felt the Spirit moving in refreshing ways.

During my first few weeks In Kenya, I found myself working alongside an evangelistic team in a small village near lake Victoria. The team was mostly made up of high school and university aged kids, the majority of whom had no formal Bible training. I had the privilege of participating in their door to door ministry throughout the village, which I was initially quite hesitant about. But despite my hesitancies, God worked powerfully through these young students.

 I saw a number of individuals, and in one case a whole household, give their lives to God. It was a humbling experience for which I am very thankful.

 

During my time in Nairobi, I was often (probably more than ten times) woken up at three, four, or five in the morning by young men singing and praying in the church I was staying beside. For New Years Eve I attended an all night New Year's prayer vigil at this same church,  which celebrated the dawning of the new year by praying, singing, and dancing, together as the body of Christ. It was clear that prayer was the central focus of this church.

On Athos, this theme of prayer continued, as much of my thirteen days was taken up with it. A usual day in the monasteries begins with prayers at three or four in the morning, climaxing with the divine liturgy, followed by a meal throughout which scriptures are read. Up next the monks tended to their daily duties, followed by vespers and the day’s second (and last) meal. The first thing one might notice during a stay at Athos is the almost constant repetition of the “Kyrie” prayer.

The phrase ”kyrie eleison,” meaning “Lord have mercy” has been called the heartbeat of Athos.

 

Besides its near constant repetition in parts of the liturgy, one finds monks walking down the peninsula’s ancient paths murmuring it under their breath, and repeating it to themselves while they complete their daily chores. Once a week the monks have all night prayer vigils, which I took part in twice. During these vigils the monks prayed and chanted literally all night; I was told by one monk that they could do it for three nights straight. Having heard this, something struck me about how I find it hard to get up to go to pre-service prayer on Sunday mornings.

So I would like to finish this brief reflection with an encouragement and a challenge. An encouragement, in that God is calling diverse people from diverse places to give him unwavering devotion. God is a God of the whole world, and his Spirit is moving globally. The challenge is to join in with the young Kenyan students boldly preaching the Gospel and the two thousand plus Athonite monks singing, praying, and chanting “Lord have mercy” morning, noon, and night.

 

Sam Lippitt

Sam is originally from Calgary and has been attending Redemption Church in its various forms for the past four years. He's a graduate of Regent College, and enjoys theology, working with the Redemption youth group, travelling, ice hockey, kittens, and ducklings. 





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