Reviewed by Rev Dr John Palmer
For years I have read, with great pleasure, the works of the ever-memorable Metropolitan of Florina Augustinos (Kantiotes) and have drawn enormous benefit from them. In fact, since my ordination to the holy priesthood, hardly a week passes when I do not consult his books when preparing for my Sunday homily. Moreover, while reading Greek editions of his writings, I have often found material so spiritually helpful that my conscience has compelled me to render an English translation for circulation among the faithful in my parish.
Even before my ordination, however, while I was yet a doctoral student in Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Augoustinos’ writings greatly impacted me. Not a single text left me indifferent: each and every time I read something His Eminence wrote, I felt moved to labour more diligently in the vineyard of my own soul in order to draw closer to Christ. His simple manner, born of great spiritual depth; his unswerving adherence to, and unflinching belief in the tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church; his bold and fearless proclamation that all that matters in this life is that we keep Christ and our soul. These qualities drew me towards this great personality of the modern Church.
The pull was so strong, in fact, that I remember deciding in the Spring of 2010 that I needed to make a pilgrimage to Florina and take the blessing of the then-aged Metropolitan. When I returned to Greece following summer vacation in late August, however, I was greeted with the news that His Eminence had just reposed and was thus deprived the opportunity for a personal meeting. Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes: A Short Biography has proved a great consolation in the face of this missed opportunity, allowing me – and all who read it – an important and intimate encounter with this pillar of the modern Church.
As one might expect from a biography, Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes generally follows the course of His Eminence’s life chronologically. The first section, covering from his birth on the island of Paros in 1907 up to the end of his theological studies in 1929, offers a valuable example of the importance of surrounding children with good spiritual influences, proving that pious parents and teachers, an experienced spiritual father, and exposure to the monastic life, are instrumental in the formation of future saints.
After charting the course of his studies, and demonstrating himself to be more than capable in academic spheres, the book arrives at the beginning of his public life following his monastic tonsure and ordination by the Metropolitan of Aitolia in 1935. This first period of public ministry (1935-1967) was deeply impacted by the German and Italian occupations of Greece during the Second World War, as well as the Greek Civil War. The out-spoken Fr Augustinos, who refused to tolerate any encroachment on Church’s spiritual life or injustice, was seldom able to remain anywhere for very long, passing from Aitolia to Ioninna, to Macedonia, to Kozani, to Gravenna, and finally to Athens where he remained for roughly fifteen years between 1951 to 1967.
He undertook similar work in each of these places: he published soul-profiting periodicals and catechetical materials to be distributed free of charge, he untook Modern Greek translations of the writings of the Holy Fathers and articles promoting the teachings of the Philokalia (something the biography’s author rightly points out was rare at the time, this treasure having largely been forgotten outside of monasteries). He also established soup kitchens, orphanages, and boarding houses, he promoted confession and repentance, and he preached tirelessly, “…with admonitions and censuring evil” (p.31).
This practice often endangered his very life when his voice turned against secular forces, but Fr Augustinos faced such threats bravely and as a true Christian. Characteristic is his response to the future Metropolitan of Nafpaktos upon being informed that the latter had uncovered and negotiated the cancellation of a German order for his execution: “My life is not worth a penny…Let me die serving and defending our martyric and completely abandoned nation. If I don’t see you again, farewell unto eternity!” (p.44). He proved equally firm and fearless with regard to unfitting practices within the Church. He once resigned from his position as secretary in a Metropolis because the bishop tried a priest on the testimony of one sole witness, rather than on the testimony of three as is required by the Scriptures and the Holy Canons.
In post-war Athens, “His voice [continued to be] that of the healthy conscience of the Church which he objectively raised against kings, patriarchs, hierarchs, monks, political figures, clergy, and laity, often incurring the wrath of the corrupt and the powerful” (p.74). There are a number of stories highlighting this last point recounted in the book but here I will mention only one which is particularly indicative of the sharpness of his Christian conscience. When beauty pageants were first introduced in Greece, “…and became a lure to relinquish the virtue of modesty in young Greek men and women, while everyone else remained silent on the subject, Fr Augustinos wrote a whole article in Christianike Spitha.
This was followed by protests that were organized by religious associations as well as people in positions of power; rallies; all-night prayer vigils; night processions. The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece condemned beauty pageants. Hierarchs personally supported Fr Augustinos. The conscience of the people rejected the pageants. The newspapers who organized the events withdrew, one after the other. The participation of young Greek women in these events decreased dramatically…This protest [initiated by Fr Augustinos] was characterized by one of the biggest newspapers in America as, ‘the most unique reaction in the whole world against profligate beauty pageants'” (p. 69-70). Sadly we in our age look upon things a thousand times more corrupting than these pageants in our use of television and the internet and yet we manage to silence our consciences and remain unbothered: not Fr Augustinos! Not only did he avoid such things himself, but he laboured to preserve countless others from this spiritual pitfall at the risk of exposing himself to the criticism of the world.
Moving on from this Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes next details Fr Augustinos’ election to the Metropolitan See of Florina in 1967 and the years of his episcopal ministry. Greatly valuable here is the book’s reproduction of a significant section of the homily he preached at his enthronement. Although at the time this homily represented a presentation of ideals and aspirations, in retrospect it paints an exact picture of all that he did during his years as Metropolitan. There is perhaps no better testimony to His Eminence’s spiritual character: what he said, he did with God’s help. Here the book breaks slightly from chronological order, dealing with his particular accomplishments one at a time. No summary can do these accomplishments justice; here I will simply mention the most notable.
His episcopacy was marked by the building of monasteries, churches, orphanages, nursing homes, boarding houses, and the erection of crosses. He was also deeply concerned with the cultivation of priestly vocations and their proper training: when he inherited the widowed Metropolis it had 140 parishes and only 50 priests; by the time of his retirement he had ordained 184 candidates to the priesthood, most of who passed through ecclesiastical schools he himself had founded. He openly and boldly taught against the use of birth control, opposed abortion, and rightly denied sacraments to those who were not married in the Orthodox Church but were illicitly cohabitating. He was again a tireless teacher, preaching 5,629 homilies which furnished a large portion of the contents of his 82 published books. He opposed the political regime fearlessly whenever it impeded the spiritual life of the Church and Christians.
His concern that the word of truth be rightly divided, that the Orthodox Faith be proclaimed without adulteration, and thus that the faithful be not mislead and fall away from Christ, was further manifested when he took a stand against Athenagoras of Constantinople for his uncanonical statements and actions within the context of the Ecumenical ‘dialogue’ with the Roman Catholics. Along with Metropolitan Amvrosios of Eleutheropolis, Metropolitan Paul of Paramythia, and the fathers of the Holy Mountain, Metropolitan Augustinos canonically ceased commemoration of Athenagoras, invoking the 15th Canon of the 1st-2nd Council which states:
“As for those persons who on account of some heresy condemned by holy Councils, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it barehead in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodal verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudo-bishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions.” God alone knows how many souls he saved by openly demonstrating his disapproval of the Patriarch’s activities.
Three brief sections follow and are devoted to the outcome of his labours, a brief account of the persecutions he suffered gladly for Christ’s sake, and to his co-struggles who laboured with him in Christ’s vineyard. The final section deals with his life after his resignation, tendered to the Holy Synod in September 1999 and accepted as of January 2000 when he was an astonishing 93 years old. In retirement, Metropolitan Augustinos continued to labour until he suffered a stroke and reposed in August 2010, “…after hundreds, if not thousands, of admirers and spiritual children came from all over Greece to receive their final blessing from him, ask for forgiveness, and say goodbye” (p.147).
As should be easily ascertainable from the brief summary of the work above, Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes is extremely didactic, though unobtrusively so. His Eminence’s life is presented in a way that lessons for modern Orthodox Christians are easily drawn – for example, how children ought to be raised, the importance of and the spiritual pitfalls associated with education, the fearlessness with which we ought to stand before the forces of secularity both within and outside of the Church, and so on – but not in such a manner that feels like the author is editorializing.
Also notable is the fact that large sections of the text are taken directly from Metropolitan Augustinos’ own writings, giving the book a sort of autobiographical flavour and adding spiritual depth. One notable instance of this occurs early in the book when discussing the success he enjoyed throughout his education and the spiritual problems this caused him early in life: “These highest honors that I continued to receive, from my early years of elementary education up until I finished college, harmed me spiritually,” he writes. “I confess it publically. Some sort of conceit possessed me because of my theological knowledge. And God humbled me for my arrogance” (p.26). The book is full of such edifying, self-reflective looks into His Eminence’s inner spiritual life which betray his spiritual sensitivity.
It bears mentioning that Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes is a translation of a Greek work bearing the same title. Unfortunately, a number of treasures of Greek Orthodox literature have been poorly translated in recent times and as a consequence these important works have so far failed to mark English-speaking Orthodox culture as deeply as they perhaps should have. Happily no such problem exists here: Alexander Filip has rendered a smooth translation which reads easily and enjoyably.
Turning attention to the physical aspects of the book, the reader will find himself greeted with a nice, roughly 150-page volume, well-bound, with glossy pages – important since the book is filled with beautiful photographs of His Eminence and those persons referred to throughout the course of the narration. My only complaint – if it can be called that! – is that the cover is a little plain by North American standards. Given the value of the book, I would suggest a more eye-catching cover for the second edition.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes: A Short Biography highly enough. We live in an age – and sadly within an ecclesiastical environment – permeated by luke-warmness. Far too often we let ourselves get drug along with those trends which prevail in our culture and run contrary to the Gospel of our Lord when we should be rebelling against them by word and by our manner of life so as to become leaven for the world around us. Far too often we show ourselves indifferent towards the faith, ignoring violations of the spirit-inspired traditions of Orthodoxy simply because it may result in drawing the ire of some of those around us; by doing this we leave our brethren within the Church prey to the noetic wolf. Far too often we take the easy route in our own spiritual lives, avoiding the narrow path of the Gospel. An age like ours stands in dire need of a reminder of the Apostolic zeal characteristic of true Christians: such a reminder is Metropolitan Augustinos. May we have his blessing!