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Elder Photios of Mysia: Teaching on the Episcopacy


With the invasion and colonisation of the Turks within the lands of Asia Minor, a very dark epoch descended upon the indigenous inhabitants of the region, in 1453, whose tyranny still continues until today. It is hoped that with the present democratisation of Turkey which has begun to enfranchise the common Turk with the right to express himself will also translate into assuaging the hardships endured by the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor and to provide them with their own voice to express without fear their views and the proper functioning of their institutions without hindrance. Especially given that the indigenous inhabitants, like Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians, Lazoi and Kurds have become minorities within their own homeland, it is hoped that some sort of reconciliation can be achieved.

For the stories of Elder Photios are accounts which have within their backgrounds many images and anecdotes that relate the afflictions, genocides, injustices and duress endured by the indigenous inhabitants, much of which has now passed into the collective popular conscience of these peoples. Unfortunately, in time and due seasons, the folkloric traditions which developed in response to these severe circumstances is being forgotten from the memory of men and thus from the pages of history. In such manner an entire people have been silenced and their holocaust virtually achieved. However these accounts also related the injustices that Turks suffered from their own authorities as well as fellow Turks who utilised the machinery of Ottoman bureaucracy to oppress and tyrannise others for self-interest.

Nevertheless the teachings of Elder Photios did not focus on human injustices, they merely related incidences to help illustrate a point of spiritual or ethical teaching that he wanted to convey to his audience, whether Orthodox, Jew or Muslim, Greek, Armenian or Turk. Thankfully for Orthodox Christians many of these beautiful spiritual teachings have survived orally from the regions of Panormos (Bandirma), Injes, Artaki (Erdek) and Draconda of Mysia. I have endeavoured most earnestly to provide a sample of his works by gathering together the Elder’s sayings with regard to the episcopacy, and to remain faithful to their content in translating them from the Mysian Greek dialect.

In having said all that, I should dedicate a few words to a man who has remained virtually anonymous and obscure to the eye of history and our Church. What we know about Elder Photios, is that Photios was the name he adopted when he entered into the ascetic way of life when he dwelt as an anchorite in the wilderness around the environs of Panormos. We also know from a series of conversations the elder had with trusted acquaintances that he had originally been the Metropolitan of Prusa (Bursa), and that the Ottoman authorities had expelled him.

We are told by other folkloric accounts about some Turks who had sought to defend him against the authorities, because the elder was a just man who refused to bear false witness against anyone, nor to “grease” the palms of people to maintain his position, which had become a common practice under Ottoman auspices. The Ottomans in most instances would only accept the election of a hierarch if they were paid a nominal fee, which in due time became a complicated process involving many hands and bribes. Naturally numerous candidates of dubious repute would assume episcopal authority with Ottoman blessing, and it did not do much towards the safety and well-being of the Orthodox Faithful or their neighbours.[1]

In piecing together the surviving accounts, we know that the Turkish authorities and a select Greek minority within Bursa had always wanted to remove “Photios” from the city. Their reasons probably indicates their evil intent because the elder was known to be a man who did not suffer fools easily, but his moderate and pious disposition displayed that he was a man who was direct, honest and a philanthropist. It was also known that his philanthropic works included defending the weak and those who had injustices perpetrated against them, irrespective of what their religious or ethnic affiliation was. He was thus highly respected within Christian, Jewish and Muslim circles, and some say that many Turks received illumination in the Orthodox Faith due to his example of love, philanthropy and his words of wisdom. Some of these Turks converted in secret, while those who did not, at least attained a marked respect and appreciation for Orthodoxy and subsequently never raised a sword against Orthodox Christians.

Given this prominence, the authorities were loathe to prosecute and execute him, knowing fully well that the populace would rise up in protest in Photios’ defence. It was thus agreed to remove him on a trifling matter in secret, whereby the authorities wanted the Elder Metropolitan to bear false witness against someone, which they knew he would refuse. The exact details of this removal have not survived, probably due to the humility of Photios and the pain it caused him. As a result of these events, the elder went into seclusion to avoid causing a scandal and thus maintained a low profile for the remainder of his life. He earned his keep in seclusion by cultivating a kitchen garden and scavenging through the surrounding wilderness. He would also utilise on occasion when he needed supplies, his knowledge to provide lessons in mathematics, languages, philosophy and horticulture to the commonfolk of the region and their children.

As a consequence of this occasional interaction, people would seek him out at his cell to consult him for advice, and it was in this capacity that we have come to learn about him. He took the name of Photios for this stage in life so we do not know what his real name was, and to the Turks he was known as Nour or Noureddin which is roughly a translation of the name Photios, both meaning man of light. The last thing we can piece together from Photios’ teachings, is that he lived around the time when Kyrillos Loukaris the 1st (1572-1638) was Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

    Elder Photios of Mysia On the Episcopacy

My beloved children in Christ, I do not know how you discovered my previous identity which is only known to very few, but now that you know, you must not disclose it to anyone for it could prove fatal for you. I assure you that my dwelling amongst you God-fearing folk was to avoid that danger as well as a great sin of bearing false witness against another. For you ask me about the episcopacy, and I can tell you that it is not something one should seek, especially if your desire is for secular things like money, power or vainglory, for there are other pursuits more worthy for such aimless and transitory goals.

Make no mistake my brethren, it is not by coincidence that our great Father amongst the Saints, Saint John Chrysostom in his clear perception tinged with irony, observed that the road towards Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops! For any man of Faith who seeks to enter into the Church’s clerical service must know that it is a ministry of service in which they enter, not to be served by others, for it is a vocation dedicated to love in the most profound sense. The qualities required is love for one’s fellow man, but to be more precise it is one that dictates the need for steadfastness and boundless patience to put up with the weaknesses and failings of ourselves and others around us, often testing one’s own temper to the extreme.

It is not a calling whereby one should shower themselves with titles, fanciful vestments and expensive colognes like a bunch of harem harlots at the private beck and call of their master. These things may look nice or make one feel like that they are important, but they lack substance or meaning, because the task of a hierarch is to live and endure the difficulties of the real world and not dwell within a surreal sheltered environment that sends them into fantasy. To speak truth, one must live in truth and reality and not live in towers built on sand! These unfortunate trends have become common-place practice within our own times when the genos is suffering immensely under hardships of discrimination since we are the “conquered subject” people.

Thankfully there are Turks who show more mercy than many of our present day hierarchs who are willing to buy their position or bear false witness against others to attain it, while the authorities profiteer and encourage this sinful practice. This is not to say that I was better than others, but these things did not sit well with my conscience, nor the spiritual pedagogy which I received from people blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Rather as Christians, and especially those within episcopal ministry, we strive to not be solely good or ethical people, but to become mirror examples of Christ’s love and modesty. We thus set the standard higher, and so our task is difficult and follows a narrow path because it is an ideal we seek to present to the world. An alternate perspective to the one that men follow, one that seeks to promote brotherhood and love amongst all peoples, even if they are not be believers.

It is said that the Sultan is God’s shadow on earth, as to the substance of this I cannot speak because I do not speak according to worldly wisdom nor politics which I have no interest in. What I can say is that the Scriptures assert that humankind is created in the image of God. A fundamental principle which both Judeans (Jews) and Hagarenes (Muslims) agree with us on. If this is our standpoint, then we must keep in mind that spiritual ministry is a service to all men, it is a commission we are appointed to fulfill. Was not Christ tested by the question of who is my neighbour? Was not Cain told by God Himself that he was his brother’s keeper? The answer in both instances is simply that all men are our neighbours and our brothers, we are thus their keeper.

Therefore I abhor these references that people make to others as their master, particular when the term is applied to a hierarch. It is wrong to call a hierarch “master” (Despoti/δεσπότη) or for that matter “theologian”, particularly when our most Holy Church has only designated the term to a select few. The reason I say to you that no one should be called master, let alone a hierarch, is that only one can truly be called Master and that is God, no Judean or Hagarene would argue with that point with you either.

For us as Orthodox Christians, that God we speak of is the Holy Trinity. Do not think that I am a fanatic or playing a fool for Christ, but simply I am reminding myself that I serve the Trinitarian God and not worldly objectives. For it is to Him that I am responsible and will have to give account for my actions and thoughts until my very last breath. It is the same One who bestowed upon me once upon a time, the immense responsibility to be a living example of His compassion by serving faithfully as a father and as a labourer to the Christian flock.

He did not give me the right to administer the Church as if it were my own personal estate to dispose of its affairs however I wished. Nor is it a political appointment whereby I govern according to my own whims or the whims of others. Therefore no hierarch has the right to torment the Faithful or its clergy like some tyrant who has to be assuaged by sugar-coated words in case the truth may upset him! Speaking personally, it is better to be offended by someone who is speaking their mind and heart directly to you, than to deal with someone who puts on a false veneer to make you feel comfortable and fill your ear with lies or things you wish to hear, for this divorces you from reality and truth. As I said, a hierarch needs to be steadfast, thus grounded in reality to respond to the spiritual needs of his diocese.

It is true I was called Metropolitan, but this is merely a title, for in reality all hierarchs are high priests or bishops, the terms we use are merely titles of honour which some abuse to throw their weight about. Thus I was a bishop of the Church. Yet what does this title denote? From  memory, one of the key passages I can recall from Scripture was that of Apostle Paul who refers to the three ranks of clergy. The word he uses for high priest is “bishop” (episkopos/επίσκοπος). In observing this word carefully we see two underlying meanings, that of being an “overseer” and one who “visits” (episkeptomai). So the inference for those of us who are or were bishops, is the question who are we overseeing for and what are we overseeing?

This comes back to what I mentioned about being placed in a commission (apostoli/αποστολή) to fulfill. Hence I was an overseer on behalf of God, He is the Master, I was His servant. The thing I was overseeing, was God’s Church and those who are joined to it via baptism. As a consequence of this ministry I was called upon to visit the ones who were placed in my care, the communion of the Faithful. This was to be undertaken in all humility and respect towards those I was caring for, thus as this calling dictated I needed to cultivate close relationships with all of my flock, not showing preference nor giving heed to social statuses, titles or wealth. It was necessary to visit the fakirs, the widows, the grouch, the filthy, the mistress of a great estate and so forth.

I say these things to you, so that you can gain an appreciation of the work involved and needed for one to become a true bishop of our Church and not like a Latin Papist! In this way you will be able to discern a true spiritual father, particularly a hierarch, against one who is a false teacher and a counterfeit father, who could not care less for your salvation. One who chooses instead to remain sitting within an office pushing his quill, drinking coffee and remaining indifferent to the afflictions of the genos. How will such a man change the world or set the Christian example before humankind? One cannot achieve goals or ideals by dreaming and philosophising like our ancient pagan forebears often did, but you have to seize them by the neck, for even life is a forceful struggle for survival. The difficulty of this in our case is compounded by the fact that we seek to follow a true and honest path, because those who seek after vainglory step on many others to attain their goals. The problem is, that someone gets hurt along the way and will seek vengeance, or those who are equally as greedy will seek out such a man and destroy him. I assure you it often comes to no avail.

An example I can recall from my episcopal days was in regards to two Turkish families who had agreed to marry their children off to each other. The first family who had a son, were exceedingly rich, while the other had a daughter and were prominent textile merchants who had many connections within their industry. It was hoped by the union of their offspring that one family could gain access into the textile industry, while the other receive financing to expand their trading operations. The only catch was, was when the children came of age, the son had met the daughter of a poor Cappadocian rope merchant in the marketplace. As their eyes met it was instant love, much like how our folk songs often extol in their usual poetic verse and humour, like the lightning bolt! The boy’s parents learnt of this situation and had enclosed their son within their house, with servants watching over him.

The Cappadocian girl, spurning what is custom to both us and the Turks, went past his house everyday casting poems of love to his window. He in exchange cast his love letters to her. This arrangement went on for over a year. Meanwhile the daughter of the merchants had become enamoured of the young man, so much so that it had become an obsession. Matters were not helped by her parents who would force visits upon the young man, virtually flinging their daughter at him as if she was some sort of harlot. The merchants tried to force marriage upon the young man, as did the young man’s parents attempted to do. He withstood their onslaught and had confided to the local hodja as to what Islamic Law permitted him to do. The hodja cited that the marriage could not be forced upon him. However things came to a head, whereby the young man’s parents died on their way to visit relatives in Samsun.

After the appropriate time for mourning had passed, the merchants had pressed their proposal for the marriage to take place. Though being freed from his duty towards his parents he could give a resolute response rejecting their proposal. The merchants as you can imagine, as well as their scorned daughter sought to seek vengeance. So they concocted a plan to entrap the young man with their daughter, and at a predetermined point in time claim that she had been raped. They succeeded in this lurid turn of events, and the local hodja came to me relating this story in the hope that I could think of a solution to the crisis, given that the merchants were placing pressure on him using their political connection within the city.

We both thought long and hard, but we agreed to disguise the young man and the Cappadocian girl as Christians and send them to Phanar in secret whereby a local hodja who was a friend of mine could marry the two. Thus we snuck the two out and they were married in the imperial city, hidden in the safety of a Christian household until the hodja could arrange the young man’s safety. Unfortunately the story does not end happily there, for there was an ambitious monastic priest who was close friends with the Christian family and often visited them.

This priest in question had been seeking to become a bishop for many years, unbeknown to the family who had invited him to visit and share a meal with him. There he discovered the newlyweds and the family had sworn him to secrecy. Yet his curiosity got the better of him and he sought to find out their story, when the prospect of money being involved, he took a greater interest, seeing the opportunity to buy his way to the episcopacy. So he secretly made contact with the merchants who were willing to share the money they would acquire from the death of the young man.

They hired forgers to write up a contract whereby they could secure the man’s wealth, and then they sent a paid killer to find the newly-weds to kill them. Then the process of securing the money was attained, the priest got his share and bought his way to the episcopacy. Meanwhile the merchants married their daughter off to someone else. Yet the family of the Cappadocian girl found out and took measures to prosecute the family, but since they were simple people of no clout nothing could be done, so a relative of theirs came to Bursa and killed them and their daughter. As for our ambitious priest he had betrayed too many peoples’ confidences to attain his episcopal position, and so an opponent of his who had vied for the same bishopric commissioned an assassin to kill him.

The Turkish authorities then enquired as to who were the close of kin on either side. The relatives of the wealthy man and those of the merchants received the blood-stained money but had the noble sense to utilise the money in works of mercy rather than keep the very thing which had brought much evil upon their families. Thus the blood-stained money at least went to the service of the poor and needy who were fed and clothed, the only good that ever came from this sad episode!

The moral of this story my dear brethren is quite clear, one must not break a confidence, nor seek to step on others to seek vainglory, but to live in honesty and in truth, and not seek to entrap others for you will surely meet your end, for did not the Lord say that vengeance is mine?

Of course it is a sorrowful outcome and that the newly-weds were denied sharing a life together, but I am sure that in the eyes of the Lord, given their sincere love and the just way that they conducted themselves throughout their lives I truly believe he would look favourably upon them. Whereas I am not sure what mercy will be shown to those who sought to destroy this God-given love, for their own actions condemn themselves, but rest assure the ambitious priest who lost sight of his calling will be the one on whom the Lord will judge harshly since he was of the Faith and should have known better. Thus as the Apostle Paul says, he will not only be judged according to the Law of the Heart like the murdered Hagarenes, but he will also be judged according to the Law of God.

In returning to our thoughts on the ignoble present-day state of affairs of the episcopacy, one should warn to keep distance from men who speak with sugared words to hierarchs because they are usually as crooked as the hierarchs that they seek to flatter. Our modern-day tyrannical hierarchs love such men since their ego is fed by them, and such men pander to the hierarch’s demand for humility and obedience to their words no matter how delusional or misled that counsel may be.

When living in such delusion, our “tyrants” twist the meanings of the Church Fathers who spoke about the episcopacy within a particular context with regard to humility and obedience, and use this to turn their flock and clergy into their personal slaves to serve their self-interest. Anyone who raises their head to comment or question the tyrant’s actions is unceremoniously knocked down or worse, excommunicated. They will not tolerate any questions or contradictions which may force them to reconsider serving their own interests.

It is here that the men of sugared words enter and become powerful and influential figures within the Church since they unquestioningly do the bidding of their overlords as lackeys of sin. They willingly submit and feign humility and obedience which is false, since their objective is to serve themselves also. So they remain faithful lackeys in as far that their interests can be served. Many are given prominent positions within churches that can support them without having to earn their bread from work, some are made confessors before an appropriate age, while others are given too much authority too soon before they can even master the basic essentials of the diaconate or serve the flock.

Is it any wonder that our genos has become and still remains enslaved?

Ironically, if the same amount of energy had been expended on prayer, fasting and practising the virtues, we would not only attain our freedom and enlighten the Hagarenes to convert, but we would be in the midst of saints of angelic standing! Instead they prefer to parade themselves around people with their lavish vestments as if they are seeking brides for marriage, ignoring fully well that many of our faithful are starving!

How strange all these things seem when one considers the Lord’s example, calling upon us to live in all simplicity and modesty. This was the very same message Christ put before the Jewish authorities of His time, the need to bring things back into equilibrium.

Of course there are those who will say that it is not right to go around in an unclean and undignified fashion. Of course one immediately thinks of the Lord’s counsel whereby He calls for us to clean the inside of the cup, and not just the outside of the cup as the Pharisees often did. This is not to say that one should not maintain a certain level of cleanliness or presentation, or to let our hair become overgrown. Rather it is to note that we should not indulge or encourage vanity of appearance or presentation. It is important to maintain cleanliness for our own health and to show respect towards the temple of the Holy Spirit which God has granted us, which also means preserving our health by eating in moderation and so forth.

Nevertheless, in returning to our subject, when a hierarch has been continuously cultivated within this delusional and deceptive mindset, his behaviour begins to reflect his self-elevated opinion of himself, much like the Pharisee in Christ’s parable where he prays to himself and the tax-collector seeks forgiveness. The results is that he preaches love, but ceases being love himself, for everyone is lower than he is, and that their purpose in life is only to serve him because he is Christ’s representative. A perversion of what the Church Fathers meant by Christ’s representative!

Yet such men take it upon themselves to make decisions without synodical consent or the approval of their flock, often forgetting the will of God, partly because they believe that their decisions are one and the same with God’s will.

The true bishop on the other hand, views his flock as co-workers in the Lord, he is ready to hear their views or their counsels, while he views his ministry as that which seeks to bring people close to God. For he continuously reminds himself of the tassels which hang from his stole (epitrachelion/επιτραχήλιο) which is a symbol of the burden and responsibility that he bears. For the tassels represent the souls of the faithful of whose well being he will have to give an account before God on the Day of Judgement. Yet it also reminds him of the Lord’s words which speak of those who wish to become worthy and great amongst people, he must first become the servant of others, ministering to their needs.

Furthermore, a true bishop does not dare call himself a theologian, because as we said that very few within our Church were ever bestowed such a title. The reason why such a term should be avoided, is because only one can truly be called God (Theos) and Word (Logos), which is Christ who is the Word of God. It is for this reason that a bishop should see himself as a co-worker with his brethren, because united as one they are labourers of theology, which in effect is Christ!

You may ask what is the work of theology?

In simple terms, the journey of each person towards God’s calling of salvation. What does this mean, firstly and foremostly, prayer and the works of prayer like fasting, philanthropic service, confession of the Faith, obedience to one’s spiritual mentor, as well as the confession of one’s sins, thoughts and temptations. Accordingly, through such ascetical dedication one cultivates the earth of the heart in Godly love, modesty, discernment and in this way one is healed and discovers hidden virtues that were gifts from God but unbeknown to them before.

In any case even if a bishop has received theological pedagogy, once again he is a co-worker with the brethren since the task has not changed, as I said theology is the work of Christ. The bishop is just one part of an entire whole which makes up the entire communion of the Church, whose task as a community is to offer worship in word and deed to the Holy Trinity. If one wanted to assert the title of theologian to a bishop, then we could call them a confessor of theology or even better, an eternal disciple of theology since the works and illumination of theology never cease both here or in Heaven. For it is a journey from one Divinely inspired mystery to the next.

It is only love and ecclesial life which bind and connect each step for all of us, and as Christians our experiences can assist us, as well as counsel our fellow brethren. For with this teaching you now see that a hierarch is not an autonomous individual, but by necessity be a communal worker, for he is not higher than others.

However as the Lord showed us with His Disciples, they were one body which had received the authority to safeguard the Faith and to “loose and bind” with regards to human matters. An example is to withhold reading the prayers of forgiveness until some sort of work of penance was fulfilled that could assist the believer towards repentance. Another example is drawn from the Book of Acts, whereby a council was convened in Jerusalem to discuss as to whether Gentile believers should be subjected to the rigours of the Mosaic Law. The decision they arrived at, was not the assertion of one Apostle, but as a communion in prayer and concord. Thus it is not right for one hierarch to enact and decide on serious matters on his own, but he must consult others, particularly fellow bishops before a conclusion is made, because the precedent they will set will determine the future practice of the Faith.

It is for this reason our forefathers who were forced to make a difficult decision refused to accept the authority of the Latin Papists, and chose to accept Turkish rule as the lesser of two evils. They use to proclaim it was better to wear the Turkish turban than the Latin mitre! Alas, with the passing of time, and with Turkish encouragement, our own hierarchs have been contaminated with the excesses of Papists through our own present circumstances. If freedom is ever to come to our genos, it will be through the Church cleaning out these career bishops, and men of faith adhering to the teachings of the Lord. Any nation which leaves this path, particularly its spiritual leaders will lose its freedom as well as its salvation, therefore become men of faith and not lackeys of man-made idols.

This has been the teaching I have bestowed on Christians and Non-Christians alike, because it is a principle which I have always endeavoured to live by, and the Good Lord has never let me regret a day of this difficult struggle. Now go and do the same in this way my words will have substance through your actions, Amen.

Dedicated to our newly consecrated Bishop of Melitoupolis, His Grace Iakovos.

[1] This is one of the key reasons for the Greek revolt of 1821, so that the Church could purge itself of many undesirable characters and see the liberation of the Church from outside political interference, thus the revolutionaries war-cry: “For the Faith and Nation, Freedom or Death!

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