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Remembering Archbishop Stylianos

Harkianakis (1935–2019)
John Chryssavgis

Archbishop Stylianos scarcely resembled his ilk among most prelates, who —
to adopt the expression of Brahms in A German Requiem — are "going about
like a shadow, and making for themselves so much pointless turmoil." Unlike
many of his brothers, he was never satisfied with materialism and never
settled for mediocrity. He stood apart from fellow ecclesiastics — colleagues
smitten with costume bling or clergy obsessed with conceited extravagance.
He occasionally displayed flashes of genius; but it wasn't just his brilliant
mind. He unquestionably possessed a rare disposition and remarkable
intellect; yet he was far more than an exceptional and expressive theologian.
He wasn't just a religious leader; if you were fortunate to know him in all his
nobility and dignity, then you'd know he was definitely a prince of the church.

Moreover, he didn't just write poems; he was a veritable poet. So many seek
to emulate the creativity and expressiveness of a poem without ever
approaching the clarity and expression of a poet. As a poet, Stylianos
envisioned beyond triviality and eschewed all inferiority — when he wrote but
also when he preached; when he listened as well as when he spoke; whether
he was at home, in his office, or in church.

That is how he succeeded in offering and bequeathing — he delighted in the


biblical term kleronomia (inheritance) — a permanent, profound and personal
mark on our time and on the church. I owe him the joy of my ministry and the
gift of my priesthood. In fact, however, I owe him much more than these. It is
to him that I am enormously indebted for my appreciation of the breath and
breadth of theology, the universality of the church, and the sacramentality of
creation.

I vividly recall the fundamental stages of my relationship with Archbishop


Stylianos: from the time he was newly appointed archbishop (at the tender
age of thirty-nine) "in the antipodes," as he liked to refer to Australia, when he
endorsed my undergraduate studies in 1976; to the time he introduced me to
the consummate church diplomat, Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon (1913–
1989), the mentor of current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, just prior to
the commencement of the international "dialogue of truth" in 1980, when he
supported my postgraduate studies; and again, from the time he welcomed
me from retreat on Mount Athos (1983–1984) to assume the direction of his
private office, to the time he ordained me as his personal deacon,
commissioning me in 1984 to establish St. Andrew's as a fully accredited
Orthodox theological college in Sydney (1986).
It seems like only yesterday when he would dictate endless reports or correct
countless letters as I sat across his desk. I will never forget the gleam of
contentment in his eyes as he polished the final draft of some poem or
recorded the latest entry in his daily journal ― an indelible diptych and
incomparable deposit of his innermost and far-reaching insights from a
kaleidoscope of experiences and exchanges over the previous twenty-four
hours. I will likewise forever treasure the moments I would find him on his
knees, playing under the same desk with my son in his unelaborate office
cluttered with books and papers.

Stylianos Harkianakis was born in Greece on the island of Crete (1935),


completed seminary studies in Turkey at the Theological School of Halki
(1958) and pursued graduate work in Germany at the University of Bonn
(1958–1966), during which time he submitted his doctoral dissertation at the
University of Athens (1965). He was founding member of the Patriarchal
Institute for Patristic Studies (1966), was subsequently elected bishop (1970)
and taught systematic theology at the University of Thessaloniki (1966–1975).

A prolific poet and essayist, Stylianos led the Greek Orthodox Church in
Australia for over four decades (1975–2019), establishing a theological
school, parishes and schools, as well as welfare centres and homes for the
elderly and disabled. History will credit him with building and unifying the
church in Australia. However, he also participated in bilateral theological
dialogues with the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church,
serving as the inaugural co-chairman of the latter (1980–2000) and
overseeing the publication of significant joint statements on the mystery of the
church and Eucharist, the role of faith and sacraments in church unity, the
sacramental order and structure of the church, as well as the thorny issue of
Uniatism as a method of proselytism.

The inherent temptation and imminent danger in crafting any eulogy or tribute
— especially when it comes to those upheld as church leaders or charismatic
figures — is the naïve desire either to pronounce the subjects as saints (often
by simply constructing idols) or else to denounce them as sinners (often by
simply creating scapegoats). Our spiritual judgment or emotional thermometer
frequently oscillates in erratic fashion between romantic approbation and bitter
disillusionment, particularly in evaluating contentious prelates or authoritarian
bishops.

Stylianos was undeniably a tendentious trailblazer, deeply entrenched in the


traditions of institutional church and constantly on the margins of the
intellectual world. Thus, critical assessments of Stylianos during his lifetime
obstinately underlined his prickly character, while his inner circle obsequiously
understated his foils and failures. At the same time, many memorial tributes to
Stylianos since his passing have proved irritatingly partial, providing
sentimental memories or futile memoirs — all of them very diminutive and
variously distorted for a giant of his nature.

In order, then, to avoid both of these mistakes and misinterpretations, but also
in respectful recognition of his unsuspecting prowess and undisguised
prominence, I am resorting to three unembellished images that spontaneously
come to mind.

"A plain coffee, without sugar …"


In the afternoons, after regular office hours, following a day of successive
administrative meetings and seemingly infinite audiences, I couldn't find it in
my heart to leave the archbishopric. After all, for me as the director of his
personal office, that was when the realm of magic unfolded and the world of
theology unfurled. The archbishop would order from his secretary one last
Turkish coffee — always "plain, without sugar" — unbutton the top of his shirt,
loosen his cassock, and offer me a bottle of sparkling Perrier, as he read
aloud his latest poem — unforgettable occasions for unrestricted conversation
and revelation.

His conversations were — not sometimes or somewhat, but always and


without exception — unmatched and captivating. His company was
incomparable, his humour unrivalled, his insights unforgettable. It was like
time stood still. You wouldn't notice how time would pass, and you certainly
never wanted the unspoiled moment to end.

Stylianos knew how to listen and how to talk — to anyone and everyone. He
felt comfortable with all his visitors and made them all feel relaxed with him.
From the purity and sanctity of a simple monk, like Paisios Eznepidis (1924–
1994, later a canonized saint) to the wit and wisdom of a religious intellect,
like Vasileios Gontikakis (1936–); from the aristocracy and prose of the
novelist Pantelis Prevelakis (1909–1986) or the radical politics and poetry of
the activist Yiannis Ritsos (1909–1990) to the pious "foolishness" of the artist
Nikos Pentzikis (1908–1993); and from the traditional and conservative
theology of Georgios Mantzaridis (1935–) to the universal and iconoclastic
philosophy of Christos Yannaras (1935–), his range of thinking and level of
comfort would engage appropriately in conversation.

Like a son in admiration before his father, a student attentive to a teacher, or


a novice in awe of a mentor, I would absorb everything like a sponge — his
extraordinary, if not expansive worldview, as well as his transparent and
transcendent outlook. In his presence and words, I could sense the story of
the church at once developing and being documented, unlocking and
simultaneously unfolding before my eyes. Like a skilled craftsman and master
wordsmith, he would casually split open the core derivation of words —
mostly, but not only Greek — to reveal interminable worlds of definition and
vision.

We reconnected after years of regrettable estrangement — he in Australia


and I in America — issuing from my brazen, if impressionable disapproval
(exactly a quarter of a century ago) of the crippling abuse that he often
wielded in the exercise of authority; he subsequently berated and routinely
underrated this confrontation on Good Friday of 1994 as a mere variance in
our ecclesiastical worldviews. Yet it was his brute and brutal devastation of
people's sentiments and souls that I always despised and then disputed,
although reluctantly conceding with time how moral consistency may be the
hardest hurdle for us all. Still, three years ago, we sat for hours over coffee,
as we nostalgically and attentively opened up to one another — face to face,
heart to heart.

I admit that if there was something I could ask for in hindsight, it would be a
chance to enjoy one more afternoon coffee with him. But then, I know all too
well that, even if my wish were fulfilled, it would leave me yet again with a
perpetual, seemingly unquenchable nostalgia for yet another afternoon, one
more coffee . . . tomorrow.

"Like a glass of clear water …"


He may not have been appreciated by or even attractive to everybody, but the
honesty and forthrightness of Archbishop Stylianos resembled a glass of clear
water. What you saw before you — whether you liked it or not, whether you
asked for it or not, and indeed whether you wanted it or not — responded to
and reflected exactly who he was and exactly what he felt. There was nothing
that he would or indeed could conceal: neither displeasure, nor aggravation,
not even resentment.

Much has been reported and recorded — and much more will surely be said
and written — about the demons that plagued his soul, about his struggle to
resolve, rebuke and at least reconcile them. He once wrote, in his poem
"Aphorisms": "Woe to those, who've never been challenged. It means they've
become complacent with everyone. Woe to those who've never been
persecuted. It means they've never wrestled—not even with shadows." (My
translation)

Whether he succeeded or failed in this spiritual battle, it was an inseparable


part of his complex identity. The truth is he experienced a constant contention,
a gruelling conflict. Still, I prefer to describe his internal battle as also
comprising a strength, rather than as a compelling weakness. His strength lay
in his very weakness, his passion in his vulnerability. And he knew this — was
conscious, if never in control of it — better than anyone else. This, after all,
was what distinguished him more than anything else in the eyes of all. He did
not in the least seek to obscure or disguise his passions. He bore them
wherever he went, placing them in plain sight for everyone to see, without
aversion or hesitation — like the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43–
48), unashamed to admit her haemorrhage among the disciples and crowds.

This raw and unprocessed bluntness defined his uncommon and


unaccustomed sensitivity toward everyone and everything — toward his
immediate interlocutor, but also toward the tree branches that he observed
from his window, and the seashells that he accumulated on an island
shoreline. The same candour is what allowed him to engage with fairness in
conversation and association, in theology as well as in poetry, in work as in
play. In fact, this sincerity characterized his childlike demeanour in all
relationships without exception — conceivably also explaining his undiluted
reactions and unmitigated clashes with politicians and parishioners alike.
Tragically, in recent years, it seemed like he was contending with straw
adversaries and mere shadows.

Above all, however, I would venture to say that he was characterized by an


innocence and dignity scarcely discerned or even suspected by many of his
sanctimonious critics. He was marked by a conviction and obligation to faith
and tradition hardly apprehended or even approached by supposed defenders
of orthodoxy, including those now self-righteously soliciting or proffering
forgiveness.

The only thing he could not for a moment endure and refused ever to tolerate
— it would, regardless, be so patently and painfully obvious on his face —
was the slightest trace of hypocrisy and false piety. If he inferred dishonesty
or duplicity, he would instantly become disinterested, even anxious; the
discussion would abruptly be rendered uncomfortable, even obnoxious. And
this would occur indiscriminately with clergy and laity, as well as in
altercations with academics, executives and diplomats.

"Looking through an open window …"


He was the first to open my eyes — it actually felt like he opened my wings,
as if he opened a window — to the universal and global dimension of the
Phanar, the Ecumenical Patriarchate that he faithfully admired and adored
despite its weaknesses and imperfections, its foibles and failures throughout
the centuries to contemporary times. He acquired this ethos —
or phronema (mindset), as he called it — from his hallowed dean at the Halki
Theological School, Metropolitan Iakovos of Iconium (1916–1965), albeit
himself a harsh and implacable disciplinarian; he perceived it throughout the
pastoral tenure of the late Patriarch Demetrios (1914–1991), a meek and
gentle figure; and he recognised it in the visionary ministry of the current
Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople (1940–).

Perhaps above and beyond all else, Stylianos was a theologian with supreme
intellectual capacity and creativity, a clergyman with superior linguistic
expertise and extemporaneousness. His sermons in services and seminars, in
communities and celebrations — at least when he managed to separate his
cutting-edge mind from his hot-blooded heart — were polished treatises that
could be recorded verbatim without any need of but the slightest editorial
modification.

His leadership could be fearless, while his resolve would be dauntless. Once I
was personally privy to his empathetic response to the heartache of a young
clergyman, who entrusted Stylianos with the physical and emotional abuse
that he had suffered in a popular and prestigious monastery of Greece. I am
convinced that no other bishop could come close to the way that Stylianos
supported this victim, standing up to his perpetrator, or reprimanding the
abbot, denouncing the conduct and suspending communication with the
monastery for decades. In this respect, the archbishop's response was
refreshing and inspiring, far ahead of his time and vastly different to the
disgraceful reaction of other clergy involved or implicated in similar scandals.
This tenaciousness and hardheadedness are precisely what opened my doors
wide, what arguably permitted all that subsequently ensued in my life and my
ministry, what steadily and providentially made possible — when the time was
right, and despite the high cost for us both — the personal emancipation and
spiritual motivation for my participation in wider possibilities of the church.

I am glad that, in later years, we were reconciled. I feel at rest and at peace,
knowing that I was able to venerate his hand — and he was prepared to hold
me close — before he died. I know he has finally found eternal and deserved
rest in graceful light among the saints. On the eve of the Feast of
Annunciation (25 March 2019), he surrendered his spirit into the hands of his
loving God and the soil of his beloved earth. His passing certainly marks a
loss and leaves a vacuum — not just for the church in Australia, but for the
Orthodox church worldwide. In one of his poems ("Contradictions"), he
describes such a void: "We thought that the sunset would displace the
shadows. Instead, they joined forces and left us in the dark of night." (My
translation)

The lion sleeps, but his roar will long reverberate in the corridors of the
ecumenical church. He is now in the hands of the creator and author of all
things, who is doubtless revelling in his company — listening to the recital of
endless drafts of poems, sharing a bottomless cup of plain coffee or glass of
sparkling water — while henceforth dealing with this uneasy,
uncompromising, and unforgettable servant.

Rev. Dr John Chryssavgis was a close co-worker of Archbishop


Stylianos, with whom he co-founded St. Andrew's Theological College.
He currently serves as theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch
Bartholomew.