Author Topic: VanityFair on Vatopaidi Monastery  (Read 1266 times)

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Offline ialmisry

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VanityFair on Vatopaidi Monastery
« on: November 17, 2011, 02:37:46 PM »
Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds
The writer is hostile to the Orthodox monks, but baffled by them. An interesting read. For example, some random highlights:
There are many places in the world where you can get away with not speaking Greek. Athens is one of them; the Mount Athos ferryboat is not. I am saved by an English-speaking young man who, to my untrained eye, looks like any other monk: long dark robes, long dark shaggy beard, fog of unfriendliness which, once penetrated, evaporates. He spots me using a map with thumbnail sketches of the monasteries and trying to determine where the hell I am meant to get off the boat: he introduces himself. His name is Cesar; he’s Romanian, the son of a counter-espionage secret-policeman in the nightmarish regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. Somehow he has retained his sense of humor, which counts as some kind of miracle. He explains that if I knew anything about anything I would know that he was no monk, merely another Romanian priest on holiday. He’s traveled from Bucharest, with two enormous trunks on wheelies, to spend his summer vacation in one of the monasteries. Three months living on bread and water with no women in sight is his idea of a vacation. The world outside Mount Athos he finds somehow lacking.

Cesar draws me a little map to use to get to Vatopaidi and gives me a more general lay of the land. The mere fact that I don’t have a beard will expose me as a not terribly holy man, he explains, if my mauve Brooks Brothers shirt doesn’t do it first. “But they are used to having visitors,” he said, “so it shouldn’t be a problem.” Then he pauses and asks, “But what is your religion?”

“I don’t have one.”

“But you believe in God?”


He thinks this over.

“Then I’m pretty sure they can’t let you in.”

He lets the thought sink in, then says. “On the other hand, how much worse could it get for you?” he says, and chuckles.

An hour later I’m walking off the ferry holding nothing but the Eagles Palace hotel laundry bag and Cesar’s little map, and he’s still repeating his own punch line—“How much worse could it get for you?”—and laughing more loudly each time....

Thus began what became a three-hour encounter. I’d ask simple questions—Why on earth would anyone become a monk? How do you handle life without women? How do people who spend 10 hours a day in church find time to create real-estate empires? Where did you get the crème de menthe?—and he would answer in 20-minute-long parables in which there would be, somewhere, a simple answer. (For example: “I believe there are many more beautiful things than sex.”) As he told his stories he waved and jumped around and smiled and laughed: if Father Arsenios feels guilty about anything, he has a rare talent for hiding it. Like a lot of people who come to Vatopaidi, I suppose, I was less than perfectly sure what I was after. I wanted to see if it felt like a front for a commercial empire (it doesn’t) and if the monks seemed insincere (hardly). But I also wondered how a bunch of odd-looking guys who had walked away from the material world had such a knack for getting their way in it: how on earth do monks, of all people, wind up as Greece’s best shot at a Harvard Business School case study?...

“The whole government says they are angry at us,” he says, “but we have nothing. We work for others. The Greek newspapers, they call us a corporation. But I ask you, Michael, what company has lasted for 1,000 years?”...

When we are introduced, Ephraim clasps my hand and holds it for a very long time. It crosses my mind that he is about to ask me what I want for Christmas. Instead he says, “What is your faith?” “Episcopalian,” I cough out. He nods; he calibrates: it could be worse; it probably is worse. “You are married?” he asks. “Yes.” “You have children?” I nod; he calibrates: I can work with this. He asks for their names …

Back in Athens, I tracked down Peter Doukas, the official inside the Ministry of Finance first accosted by the Vatopaidi monks. Doukas now finds himself at the center of the two parliamentary investigations, but he had become, oddly, the one person in government willing to speak openly about what had happened. (He was by birth not an Athenian but a Spartan—but perhaps that’s another story.) Unlike most of the people in the Greek government, Doukas wasn’t a lifer but a guy who had made his fortune in the private sector, inside and outside of Greece, and then, in 2004, at the request of the prime minister, had taken a post in the Finance Ministry. He was then 52 years old and had spent most of his career as a banker with Citigroup in New York. He was tall and blond and loud and blunt and funny. It was Doukas who was responsible for the very existence of long-term Greek-government debt. Back when interest rates were low, and no one saw any risk in lending money to the Greek government, he talked his superiors into issuing 40- and 50-year bonds. Afterward the Greek newspapers ran headlines attacking him (DOUKAS MORTGAGES OUR CHILDREN’S FUTURE), but it was a very bright thing to have done. The $18 billion of long-term bonds now trade at 50 cents on the dollar—which is to say that the Greek government could buy them back on the open market. “I created a $9 billion trading profit for them,” says Doukas, laughing. “They should give me a bonus!”

Not long after Doukas began his new job, two monks showed up unannounced in his Finance Ministry office. One was Father Ephraim, of whom Doukas had heard; the other, unknown to Doukas but clearly the sharp end of the operation, a fellow named Father Arsenios. They owned this lake, they said, and they wanted the Ministry of Finance to pay them cash for it. “Someone had given them full title to the lake,” says Doukas. “What they wanted now was to monetize it. They came to me and said, ‘Can you buy us out?’ ” Before the meeting, Doukas sensed, they had done a great deal of homework. “Before they come to you they know a lot about you—your wife, your parents, the extent of your religious beliefs,” he said. “The first thing they asked me was if I wanted them to take my confession.” Doukas decided that it would be unwise to tell the monks his secrets. Instead he told them he would not give them money for their lake—which he still didn’t see how exactly they had come to own. “They seemed to think I had all this money to spend,” says Doukas. “I said, ‘Listen, contrary to popular opinion, there is no money in the Finance Ministry.’ And they said, ‘O.K., if you cannot buy us out, why can’t you give us some of your pieces of land?’ ”...

By now Doukas thought of these monks less as simple con men than the savviest businessmen he had ever dealt with. “I told them they should be running the Ministry of Finance,” he says. “They didn’t disagree.”...From an ancient deed to a worthless lake the two monks had spun what the Greek newspapers were claiming, depending on the newspaper, to be a fortune of anywhere from tens of millions to many billions of dollars. But the truth was that no one knew the full extent of the monks’ financial holdings; indeed, one of the criticisms of the first parliamentary investigation was that it had failed to lay hands on everything the monks owned. On the theory that if you want to know what rich people are really worth you are far better off asking other rich people—as opposed to, say, journalists—I polled a random sample of several rich Greeks who had made their fortune in real estate or finance. They put the monk’s real-estate and financial assets at less than $2 billion but more than $1 billion—up from zero since the new management took over...

The monks didn’t finish with church until one in the morning. Normally, Father Arsenios explained, they would be up and at it all over again at four. On Sunday they give themselves a break and start at six. Throw in another eight hours a day working the gardens, or washing dishes, or manufacturing crème de menthe, and you can see how one man’s idea of heaven might be another’s of hell. The bosses of the operation, Fathers Ephraim and Arsenios, escape this grueling regime roughly five days a month; otherwise this is the life they lead. “Most people in Greece have this image of the abbot as a hustler,” another monk, named Father Matthew, from Wisconsin, says to me in a moment of what I take to be candor. “Everyone in Greece is convinced that the abbot and Father Arsenios have their secret bank accounts. It’s completely mad if you think about it. What are they going to do with it? They don’t take a week off and go to the Caribbean. The abbot lives in a cell. It’s a nice cell. But he’s still a monk. And he hates leaving the monastery.”...

Three hours later, in the car on the way back to Athens, my cell phone rings. It’s Father Matthew. He wants to ask me a favor. Oh no, I think, they’ve figured out what I’m up to and he’s calling to place all sorts of restrictions on what I write. They had, sort of, but he didn’t. The minister of finance insisted on checking his quotes, but the monks just let me run with whatever I had, which is sort of amazing, given the scope of the lawsuits they face. “We have this adviser in the American stock market,” says the monk. “His name is Robert Chapman. [I’d never heard of him. He turned out to be the writer of a newsletter about global finance.] Father Arsenios is wondering what you think of him. Whether he is worth listening to …”
« Last Edit: November 17, 2011, 02:47:17 PM by ialmisry »
Question a friend, perhaps he did not do it; but if he did anything so that he may do it no more.
A hasty quarrel kindles fire,
and urgent strife sheds blood.
If you blow on a spark, it will glow;
if you spit on it, it will be put out;
                           and both come out of your mouth