The Monk Athanasius of Athos, in holy Baptism named Abraham, was born in the city of Trapezund. He was early left orphaned, and being raised by a certain good and pious nun, he copied his adoptive mother in the habits of monastic life, in fasting and in prayer. Doing his lessons came easily and he soon outpaced his peers in study.
After the death of his adoptive mother, Abraham was taken to Constantinople, to the court of the then Byzantine emperor Romanos the Elder, and was enrolled as a student under the renowned rhetorician Athanasius. In a short while the student attained the mastery of skill of his teacher and he himself became an instructor of youths. Reckoning as the true life that of fasting and vigilance, Abraham led a life strict and abstinent, he slept little and then only sitting upon a stool, and barley bread and water were his nourishment. When his teacher Athanasius through human weakness became jealous of his student, blessed Abraham quit his teaching and went away.
During these days there had arrived at Constantinople the Monk Michael Maleinos, hegumen of the Kimineia monastery. Abraham told the hegumen about his life, and revealed to him his secret desire to become a monk. The holy elder, discerning in Abraham a chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit, became fond of him and taught him much in questions of salvation. One time during their spiritual talks Saint Michael was visited by his nephew, Nicephoros Phokas, a renowned military officer and future emperor. The lofty spirit and profound mind of Abraham impressed Nicephoros, and all his life he regarded the saint with reverent respect and with love. Abraham was consumed by his zeal for the monastic life. Having forsaken everything, he went to the Kimineia monastery and, falling down at the feet of the holy hegumen, he besought to be received into the monastic form. The hegumen fulfilled his request with joy and gave him monastic vows with the name Athanasius.
With long fasts, vigils, bending of the knees, with works night and day Athanasius soon attained such perfection that the holy hegumen blessed him for the exploit of silence in a solitary place not far from the monastery. Later on, having left Kimineia, he made the rounds of many a desolate and solitary place, and guided by God, he came to a place called Melanos, at the very extremity of Athos, settling far off from the other monastic dwellings. Here the monk made himself a cell and began to asceticise in works and in prayer, proceeding from exploit to exploit towards higher monastic attainment.
The enemy of mankind tried to arouse in Saint Athanasius hatred for the place chosen by him, and assaulted him with constant suggestions in thought. The ascetic decided to suffer it out for a year, and then wherever the Lord should direct him, he would go. On the last day of this year’s length of time, when Saint Athanasius set about to prayer, a Heavenly Light suddenly shone upon him, filling him with an indescribable joy, all the thoughts dissipated, and from his eyes welled up graced tears. From that moment Saint Athanasius received the gift of tenderness, and the place of his solitude he became as strongly fond of as before he had loathed it. During this time Nicephoros Phokas, having had enough of military exploits, remembered his vow to become a monk and from his means he besought the Monk Athanasius to build a monastery, i.e. to build cells for him and the brethren, and a church where the brethren could commune the Divine Mysteries of Christ on Sundays.
Tending to shun cares and worries, Blessed Athanasius at first would not agree to accept the hateful gold, but seeing the fervent desire and good intent of Nicephoros, and discerning in this the will of God, he set about the building of the monastery. He erected a large church in honour of the holy Prophet and Forerunner of Christ John the Baptist, and another church at the foot of a hill, in the name of the Most Holy Virgin Mother of God. Around the church were the cells, and a wondrous monastery arose on the Holy Mount. In it were arrayed a refectory, a hospice for the sick and for taking in wanderers, and other necessary structures.
Brethren flocked to the monastery from everywhere, not only from Greece, but also from other lands – simple people and illustrious dignitaries, wilderness-dwellers having asceticised long years in the wilderness, hegumens from many a monastery and hierarchs wanting to become simple monks in the Athos Laura of Saint Athanasius.
The saint established at the monastery a life-in-common (“coenobitic”) monastic-rule on the model of the old Palestinian monasteries. Divine-services were made with all strictness, and no one made bold to chatter during the time of service, nor to come late or leave without need from the church.
The Heavenly Patroness of Athos, the All-Pure Mother of God Herself, was graciously disposed towards the saint. Many a time he was granted to behold Her wondrous eyes. By the sufferance of God there once occurred such a hunger that the monks one after the other quit the Laura. The saint remained all alone and in a moment of weakness he also considered leaving. Suddenly he beheld a Woman beneath an ethereal veil, coming to meet him. “Who art thou and whither goest?” She asked quietly. Saint Athanasius from an innate deference halted. “I am a monk from here,” answered Saint Athanasius and told about himself and his worries. “And on account of a morsel of dry bread thou wouldst forsake the monastery, which was intended for glory from generation unto generation? Where is thy faith? Turn round, and I shalt help thee.” “Who art Thou?” asked Athanasius. “I am the Mother of thy Lord,” She answered and bid Athanasius to strike his staff upon a stone, such that from the fissure there shot forth a spring of water, which exists even now, in remembrance of this miraculous visitation.
The brethren grew in number, and the construction work at the Laura continued. The Monk Athanasius, foreseeing the time of his departure to the Lord, prophesied about his impending end and besought the brethren not to be troubled over what he foresaw. “For Wisdom disposeth otherwise than people do judge.” The brethren were perplexed and pondered over the words of the saint. Having bestown on the brethren his final guidance and comforted all, Saint Athanasius entered his cell, put on his mantle and holy koukoulion-headpiece, which he wore only on great feasts, and after prolonged prayer he emerged. Alert and joyful, the holy hegumen went up with six of the brethren to the top of the church to look over the construction. Suddenly, through the imperceptible will of God, the top of the church collapsed. Five of the brethren immediately gave up their spirit to God. The Monk Athanasius and the architect Daniel, thrown upon the stones, remained alive. All heard, as the monk called out to the Lord: “Glory to Thee, O God! Lord, Jesus Christ, help me!” The brethren with great weeping began to dig out their father from amidst the rubble, but they found him already dead.