Constantine Cavarnos on Photios Kontoglou
- Unwavering Fidelity to the Holy Tradition
Constantine Cavarnos on Photios Kontoglou
Interview of DA with Renown Orthodox Scholar Constantin Cavarnos on
Orthodox Writer and Artist Photios Kontoglou.
DA: Do you think that a contemporary writer attempting to write a novel
inspired by the Orthodox tradition could look to Kontoglou as a modem
example of someone who was successful and faithful in combining all of
these elements with Orthodoxy at the center?
DC: Yes. However, many writers who tried to imitate him in his language
and style have not succeeded because it was only an imitation and did not
spring from within, from the source. With Kontoglou, this vigor of
expression, sincerity, appreciation of the treasures of the Greek tradition
were not mere imitation, they were real, he lived them. Another writer may
try to imitate something stylistically in Kontoglou, but it doesn't really
have the power that Kontoglou has. The novelist Kazantzakis was a great
admirer of Kontoglou. He admired him for his style, not for what he said
or what he believed in, but for the sheer power of his expression. He was
also admired for his style by writers like the poet Sikelianos and the
novelist Prevelakis, who had cut themselves off from the Byzantine
heritage. That's an important thing for Kontoglou; he emphasized this
point to me.
Once I learned that he was writing for the daily Athenian newspaper
Eleutheria. I immediately subscribed to it and renewed my subscription to
it until he died. On one opportune occasion, I told him that I thought he
wrote too many times about pirates and sea stories. Kontoglou said, "I have
to do that because otherwise the newspaper will not print my religious
articles. They say that people don't enjoy religious articles. But what
happens is that by reading these stories they also begin to read my
religious writings." They so admired his style that they began to read his
religious articles, too, just to enjoy the style of Kontoglou. Yet, they
also began to absorb the religious content of Kontoglou's writings.
DA: What would Kontoglou say about some of the real challenges that are
facing the Church today? What would he say about modernization or
ecumenism? How did he approach this? Was he unique?
DC: We often discussed that. I have a whole collection of letters where he
discusses modernism and Ecumenism. Kontoglou was a clear-minded man. He
knew what he believed and what he did not believe, very strongly, very
clearly. He was not muddleheaded.
DA: Some people might say that he is too black-and-white, that there is
more gray in the world.
DC: Some would say he's a fanatic, an extremist, narrow-minded, possessing
an "Old Calendarist" mentality, and missing the contemporary progress of
DA: What do you say to that?
DC: I mention some of these things in my book Meetings with Kontoglou. He
was not scared by these epithets. He went on his way. He believed in what
he was doing, and if people thought he was wrong he was not upset.
Kontoglou was not motivated by money, although he could have been
fabulously rich, like Picasso. Picasso became very rich because, as
Kontoglou put it, "Picasso catered to herds of decadent Souls." Kontoglou
did not want to sacrifice his creed, his beliefs, his convictions just to
be financially successful. That's a very important point.
DA: Was he outspoken in the Athenian daily?
DC: Yes. He criticized the Greeks for the many evils that have crept into
the Greek mentality. One of the pervasive evils was Xenomania: excessive
and indiscriminate love of things of foreign origin and the uncritical
acceptance of them. This came out again and again in his writings.
Xenomania is still a widespread disease of the Greeks. It is one of the
reasons that they disparaged the Byzantine heritage and the Orthodox
tradition. This stand of Kontoglou also meant being very critical of the
modern West and the papal church, which he considered a very distorted
form of Christianity. He was adamantly opposed to the ecumenism started in
1963 by Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople. Until the end of his
life in 1965, Kontoglou was the strongest voice against ecumenism.
DA: Was there anything visionary or prophetic about his insights regarding
DC: I would not say prophetic, except that from what has happened in the
past one could foresee what would happen in our time and in the future, if
we don't heed the experience of the past. For instance, the false union at
Ferrara-Florence in the fifteenth century was very vivid in his mind. Its
consequences were destructive: after a few years Constantinople fell to the
Turks. This was not a coincidence; rather it was the natural sequence of
not being faithful to the Church. It was abandonment by God for apostasy.
DA: So he saw a direct relationship between the apostasy and the Turkish
DC: Yes, that is what comes through in his writings. And he felt the same
thing would happen again, if we go along with Athenagoras's type of
ecumenism. The end result would be that the Greeks would become puppets of
the Vatican and would lose their identity. He believed, for instance, if
the Greeks had accepted union with Rome in the fifteenth century as a
result of the Pseudo Synod, their cultural and historical identity and
Orthodox Faith would have been lost very quickly. It was the refusal of
Saint Mark of Ephesus, whom we greatly admire, saying No! to this false
union, which saved Greece from being de-Hellenized and losing its national
character and spiritual treasures. Kontoglou foresaw all this development
and that is why he strongly opposed ecumenism.
DA: Of the contemporaries of Photios Kontoglou, to whom was he closest?
With whom did he share a oneness of mind?
DC: On the question of ecumenism, there were many, whom I mention in my
book Ecumenism Examined—namely, his spiritual Father Archimandrite
Philotheos Zervakos; his publisher Alexander Papademetriou; the Archbishop
of Athens and all of Greece Chrysostomos; Metropolitan of Phlorina
Augoustinos Kantiotis; Metropolitan of Argolis Chrysostomos; Abbot Gabriel
of the Monastery of Dionysiou on the Holy Mountain; Father Theocletos of
the same Monastery; Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos, founder of the
Pan-Hellenic Orthodox Union and of its organ "Orthodoxos Typos"; the
professors of the School of Theology of the University of Athens:
Panagiotis Trembelas, loannis Karmiris, Konstantinos Mouratidis, and
Pantelis Paschos; the prominent preacher Nikolaos Soteropoulos; and many
others. All of them also shared Kontoglou's emphasis on the vital
importance of studying the holy Church Fathers and adhering to the
Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
DA: Why do you think that Philotheos Zervakos and Photios Kontoglou sided
with the so-called "New Calendar" Church?
DC: I explained this in Volume Eleven of my series Modern Orthodox Saints,
which is devoted to blessed Philotheos Zervakos. From the very time the
idea of introducing the New Calendar was conceived, Father Philotheos
wrote letters of protest saying, "No! Stop it; don't do it," but they did
not listen to him. He wrote letters and brochures protesting this
innovation until the time of his death. His predictions came true: he said
that if you allow this innovation to stand, you will divide the people
into two hostile parties. This prophecy of Zervakos was completely
fulfilled. In his later years, when he saw that the Greek government, the
Church of Greece, and the Œcumenical Patriarchate did not listen to him,
he thought about simply returning his monastery to the Old Calendar. On
this matter, I suggest a careful reading of my book on Blessed Father
Philotheos. His senior monk, Father Leontios, whom I happened to meet a
few years before he died, said that Father Philotheos was very determined
to declare that the monastery had returned to the Old Calendar. But he was
opposed by some of his senior monks, particularly Father Leontios. Every
time the Elder left the monastery to travel as a Confessor, sometimes for
weeks, Leontios was the acting abbot. So he had a strong voice. He
emphasized that if they changed the monastery to the Old Calendar, then
the local bishop would immediately step in and force them to give up that
idea, or else. The "or else" would be that the police would be sent over
to expel the monks and say this monastery belongs to the local bishop of
Paros and Naxos. Father Philotheos was close to the century mark, and
Father Leontios was about the same age, and they pictured themselves being
thrown out of monastery. It would have been a very tragic situation. So
what Father Philotheos did was to die on the Old Calendar. He invited a
confessor from Mount Athos, where the Old Calendar is followed, to serve
for his last confession and to bury him.
DA: And did Photios Kontoglou die with those following the New Calendar?
DC: Well, Kontoglou himself was in a dilemma. He had followed pretty much
the advice of Philotheos Zervakos to wait for the return of the Church of
Greece to the Traditional Calendar. in the 1960s, before Kontoglou died,
the Archbishop of Athens was Chrysostomos, who was very venerable and
traditional. I interviewed him once. He said he had made it one of his
priorities before he died to return the Church of Greece to the Old
Calendar. So you see, Zervakos and Kontoglou were hoping that this dilemma
would be resolved by him and that it would be done canonically by the Holy
Synod of Greece. But it did not happen because the dictatorship that came
into power removed Archbishop Chrysostomos from his throne and installed
the priest of the palace, Hieronymos Kotsonis, a modernist and ecumenist,
as Archbishop of Athens. It was a very difficult dilemma for them. What
was one to do? A dilemma, you know, has two horns and no matter which one
you choose it is bad. Kontoglou and Father Philotheos were hoping that the
change would come down from the top in the Church of Greece. In the
meantime, Photios consoled himself and was at peace with his conscience by
attending services at a church in his neighborhood that followed the Old
DA: From your fourteen years' association with Photios Kontoglou, what do
you think his legacy is for us? What does his life and witness have to say
to us today—especially to Orthodox Christians in America?
DC: Fidelity to Tradition. In iconography, in music, in church
architecture, in the liturgy of the Church, in all the other services of
the Church, in keeping the faith—in all of these, keeping the Holy Canons,
avoiding all compromises in the doctrines of the Church. The whole
Orthodox Tradition must be preserved in this country. I am one of the
people who have been trying to follow him in the struggle to preserve the
Orthodox Tradition in this country. In striving to avoid all the subtle
traps, innovations, and false unions of any kind, I am continuing
I am also studying and writing about the Church Fathers, especially the
ascetical ones such as Saint John of the Ladder, Saint Symeon the New
Theologian, and those in the Philokalia. We must continue to study them,
write about them, and live according to their teachings. There is another
thing that must be mentioned. Kontoglou was a strong lover of the
monastics. He believed in the traditional, contemplative (hesychastic)
Orthodox monastic life and not that of the activistic, Roman Catholic
variety. In one of his works, he says that we must realize that wherever
there were no monasteries, spirituality dried up, and wherever there is
authentic monastic life and monasteries with a tradition of deep piety,
DA: What about this? Today in Orthodoxy we have a lot of discussion, and
not a little controversy, about the appearance of priests and monks in the
West. There are those who would say that this is something for the old
country. In America we do things differently, because of where we are, and
the situation dictates that we have to dress differently, and exterior
things are not that important. What did Kontoglou have to say on this?
DC: Kontoglou wrote special articles about the rasson [cassock] for the
priest. He would agree that the rasson alone does not make the priest. But
it is one of the things, together with others, that make one a priest or a
monk. Kontoglou would say the rasson is an essential. It's a symbol of
Orthodoxy. The beard is also an essential part of the appearance for an
Orthodox clergyman or monk. These things he emphasized very much, and he
gave reasons from Tradition and common sense that this outer appearance of
the priest or monk should continue to identify the clergyman or monk as
DA: So would this be correct? Photios would say that these things are
integral parts of Orthodoxy, are expressive of Orthodoxy. They are not
detached features, but are united with the image and symbols of Orthodoxy.
Thus, abandoning these things is somehow minimizing Orthodoxy.
DC: Right. Some years ago, hardly any priest of the Greek Archdiocese in
this country had a beard. But now, what has happened is that the younger
priests have beards, most often trimmed, but still beards. Next to them is
an old priest, a white-haired priest, completely shaven. Shaving off the
beard cannot be justified by saying that we live in America and the beard
is inappropriate here. Rather, it is quite acceptable now. Kontoglou was
very resolute that a priest should have the beard and the rasson for his
identity, the way a policeman has his specific police uniform when he goes
out in the streets. Seeing it, you know he's a policeman.
DA: Did Kontoglou ever make a distinction between the so-called "big-T
Tradition and small-t tradition"? Such a view states that there are some
traditions in the realm of dogma, doctrine, and spirituality that are
absolutely non-negotiable, but there are smaller traditions like beards
and rassa that are negotiable. You don't have to have them, but you may
have them. Did he ever make any distinctions like that?
DC: He did not make such a distinction. He believed that innumerable
things organically related make Orthodoxy and give it its identity.
Everything is organically related. About the Church's arts, for example, he
would say that iconography addresses itself to our sense of sight, while
music addresses itself to our sense of hearing, but both seek to express
the same essence, the Orthodox Faith. Architecture has its own tradition,
particularly recognizable in the dome, in the round arch, and by the
surfaces that are used for the wall paintings, which other kinds of
architecture, such as the Gothic, do not provide. The architecture of the
Orthodox church is a very important element of the totality; in other
words, all of these arts are organically interrelated, though using
different media. The iconography, hymnody, music, and architecture of the
Byzantine tradition are trying to convey the same thing. They have the
same point of origin: they all spring from and are used to communicate the
Orthodox Faith and make it apprehensible to the believer through the
senses. Thus, you can see the organic unity of the fine arts of Orthodoxy.
You can also see it in the appearance of the priest, the monk, the form of
the prayers, and the Liturgy. All of these things are organically related
to one another. If you say that traditional iconography is not essential,
or the traditional music is secondary and can be replaced with organs or
violins, while still retaining Orthodoxy—that's not so! When you eliminate
these things, what's left? Soon you'll begin toning down the dogmas
because of minimalism or relativism. The Greeks have a word for this:
xephtisma, "unravelment." Your pants are torn in one place, you let that
go, then the tear spreads out. If you don't patch it up in time, it will
spread more and more, and the whole garment then falls to pieces. So you
have to mend it. If you don't take the time to repair any kind of break
from the Tradition, then the whole thing begins to fall apart. And that's
what has happened to much of the Orthodox world. It's falling apart in
this way, saying: This does not matter, that is not essential, that's
unimportant, that's a convention, and so forth.
DA: Kontoglou reminds us to "stay faithful to the Tradition."
DC: Yes, because the Tradition brings everything together in a meaningful,
beautiful, organic relationship with everything else.
DA: It gives us life.
DC: It gives us life and solves unnecessary problems and unnecessary
worries that are created by "modernization" and ecumenism.
DA: Kontoglou foresaw these things thirty years ago and earlier, and you
have seen them while writing your sixty books in the last four decades.
Are we in a place now in which we have, perhaps, progressed even further
down the road than in Kontoglou's time?
DC: Of course.
DA: It almost appears that we are overcome by these innovations, which are
raining down like a terrible thunderstorm on the Church. Where do we
start, where does the parish and the priest begin the task of repairing
before the whole garment falls apart? How do we begin on the road to
DC: I would say that there are different things one has to struggle with.
One of the first things to see is that most of this falling apart, these
innovations, is a result of ignorance. That is at the root of all these
things. So we have to write enlightening books, articles, and letters, as
Kontoglou did. Kontoglou wrote countless letters. I have ninety of his
letters. Those who possess the needed knowledge and understanding must
write and teach, in order to enlighten people, to cure the sickness of
ignorance. Well-equipped bookshops should be organized in all parishes and
monasteries. Also, there should be edifying lectures at the parishes,
offered from time to time, especially during the fall season and Great
DA: It's a long process.
DC: Indeed. It's a process that takes time and has to be done continuously
by as many people as possible. The other sad factor is indifference. So
the religious feeling of people has to he warmed up. The coldness that is
conducive to the death of the faith must be banished. Good writings, good
sermons, and personal conversation with people are some means of doing
this. Indifference is rooted in ignorance. People are indifferent to
something they do not know, do not understand. Indifference often comes
because one does not understand the doctrines of the Church, the canons,
or the significance of such practices as fasting and the Jesus Prayer.
DA: Does ignorance, therefore, lead to a perversion of the Faith?
DC: Yes. Faith comes to be viewed as akin to magic. Christianity is not
magical. It's a Divine-human relationship involving prayer on our part,
the sincere prayer of believing Christians and other spiritual practices as
well, before we can hope for a response to come from God. Erroneously,
people think they can obtain Divine benefits without paying the spiritual
price for them.
DA: So, to receive the benefit of Holy Orthodoxy one has to work hard to
empty himself and allow Orthodoxy, the Tradition, and the Spirit of God to
come into him; one has to have faith?
DC: This is the foundation. Faith, in the sense of espousing
wholeheartedly true doctrines and practices, is the foundation.
DA: In conclusion, let me ask you: there still seems to be a great
challenge for zealous Orthodox people to be connected to the life-giving
tradition of the Holy Fathers. Such people are alive and awake to the holy
tradition, yet could be in a spot in American Orthodoxy where that
tradition is not readily accessible. What do we say to someone in this
DC: A person must have zeal and persistently search for a place—a parish
in the "world" or a monastery—where there is authentic, traditional
Orthodox Christianity. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "Ask, and it shall be
given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto
+ + +
The Soul of man, of every man, is something deep and unexplored. But most
of us do not realize this. Believe this, that your soul is unknown and
immortal. The body is something temporary. And its passions and needs
prevent the soul from knowing itself. The heavy vapors that arise from the
flesh cloud and darken the sun that rises within us with God's
illumination. When souls are defiled and darkened, they are incapable of
seeing either themselves or other souls.
—Photios Kontoglou, from the article "The New Language," which appeared in
the Athenian newspaper Eleutheria, July 19, 1964, almost exactly one year
before his death, and which was reprinted in Erga, Vol. 6, pp.
167-170.From Divine Ascent, Vol. I, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 33-47. Reprinted here
with the kind permission of Hieromonk Jonah, editor of Divine Ascent. For
subscriptions to this journal contact the Monastery of Saint John of
Shanghai and SF, P.O. Box 563, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; phone
"The time has come for all faithful Orthodox Christians to speak out and
promptly put an end to this spurious form of Orthodoxy known as
'ecumenistic Orthodoxy'. It is a betrayal of the Holy Orthodox Church, a
negation of its essence. It is time to take her divine dogmas 'out of the
storeroom,' where [Ecumenical] Patriarch Athenagoras I relegated them [in
the sixties], bring them to the open light, and proclaim them by every
means, and in every land... Let us not offer to the world the
pseudo-Orthodoxy of 'Orthodox ecumenism,' which puts error on the same
level as truth... This offering will be an act of true Christian love, a
fulfilling of Christ's commandment of loving our neighbor as we love
ourselves. Christ says, 'What man is there of you whom if his son asks for
bread would give him a stone?' (St. Matt. 7:9) 'Orthodox ecumenism' does
precisely the latter... People today are searching for the truth that
saves; yet these ecumenists have put the bread of truth in the storeroom
and have been offering instead the stone of untruth, of error, and of
heresy that leads to perdition. The commandment of love demands that we
take the bread of the teaching of the Orthodox Church out in the open and
offer it lovingly to all who hunger for the truth that frees and saves."
(From a lecture by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos at the Greek Orthodox
Cathedral of the Annunciation, Atlanta, GA, on March 16, 1997)