A Pilgrim on Mount Athos

The Greeks have various stories about the Holy Mountain, or Mt. Athos to the rest of the world. They tell how this cradle of Eastern Orthodoxy came to be where it is; how it is the way it is; how it became the Holy Mountain; and, most important, how the Mother of God became its celestial patron and protectress.

One story known to all in the region relates that the Virgin Mary, accompanied by John the Evangelist, was en route to Cypress by ship to visit Lazarus, when they were blown ashore onto a peninsula by a violent wind. A voice said to them: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.” And so it came to be.

Mount Athos is a haven, a tradition, a living legend. The only inhabitants are Eastern Orthodox monks and a few hermits; the only building are their monasteries, several dating from the tenth century, others from the Middle Ages. They sit on a peninsula, about thirty miles long and five or so miles wide, sticking down into the Aegean sea in northeastern Greece. Flat at the edges, the land rises in clusters of increasingly high and rough mountains ending at the tip, the mountain Athos, its cliffs and bare slopes rising sixty-five hundred feet above the ocean.

The monasteries once flourished, but have declined in recent years. Before World War I, the island could boast thirty thousand monks; there are now roughly two thousand—many monasteries are reduced to ten or twenty monks apiece. Panteleimonos, a huge Russian monastery with three thousand monks in 1917, sits on its promontory in splendid loneliness, all but empty.

More Monks

But Christianity is founded on the Resurrection. And in Konstamonitou, an equally beautiful and equally almost empty monastery, we are met by a young monk in his twenties who informs us that many monks are joining, more today than ten years ago, and most under forty years of age.

The “we” referred to here is an Anglican priest from Cambridge, a Bavarian neurologist, and I— old and good friends. In June 1996, we spent a week on Mount Athos wandering on foot from monastery to monastery (we walked ninety kilometers altogether, twenty-five in one day, over rocky, untraveled terrain) visiting the churches, talking to the monks, eating their food, sleeping in their guest rooms, and absorbing their culture.

I felt as if I had been transported centuries back into a medieval world.

A beautiful and exalted tribute to God, this venerable spot nudges the twenty-first century in serene confidence, having spanned the turmoils of the past thousand years in unruffled contemplation of God.

It is neither an easy place to get to, nor to get in. Five non-Orthodox men a day are admitted, and then only after establishing that they are of sufficiently sound moral character. Athos is closed to the rest of the world.

As one approaches the peninsula by boat (the only way to get there), a large sign states in several languages and in no uncertain terms: “The entrance of women, the approach of crafts without a special permit, the stay of persons without a stay permit, any of the above involves serious penal sanctions.” (American feminists, lay down your placards and swords; the rule against women has been in effect since at least the ninth century, and isn’t likely to change without an order from on high.)

The little ship that brings us from Ouronopolis, a sun-drenched Greek fishing village on the Aegean, drops us off at the Monastery Xenophontos. We walk across a rocky shore and into the ancient arched doorway of the monastery, up a gentle stone staircase, and into a courtyard surrounded by stone buildings and wooden balconies, trees, flowers, and fountains bathed in bright sun.

We enter a beautiful but simple room overlooking the Aegean where we are greeted by a handsome man of some thirty-five years, clothed in a long black habit and sandals, beard halfway down his chest, and hair gathered into a little ponytail. He brings us each a glass of cold water, a shot of ouzo, a piece of Greek candy, and a demitasse of strong and sweet Greek coffee. Soon we are shown to our room—a simple place with five or six steel cots and an open window over-looking the sea—and given the day’s schedule.

We change into long-sleeved shirts—short pants are strictly forbidden and short sleeves frowned upon in church— and file into the church for an hour-long Mass. The service is, of course, in Greek. Most prayers are chanted exactly as they were in the sixteenth century.

The monks, we learn, spend from four until eight o’clock in church each morning, and attend at least two other lengthy services daily.

Special feast-day services may last for seven hours—from nine in the evening to four the next morning. The monks describe prayer as their job—that is why they are there—and the services, as one of them told me, are never boring, each being distinct from the others. After years of praying the services, the monks find that the church is their spiritual home, the place where they are most comfortable.

Eating Quickly

Supper is served immediately after vespers. The walls of the refectory are covered with sixteenth-century frescoes, the tables are long and low with benches along the sides, the sun shines through medieval windows in long soft rays. The monks go to their tables, the pilgrims to theirs.

After a blessing, we all sit down to metal bowls of vegetables or beans, freshly baked bread set in large baskets at intervals along the tables, along with fresh cucumbers and Greek olives. The main course is a sort of stew made from spinach, onions, and a smattering of rice, no meat. A rough, homemade wine is poured from a metal pitcher into tin cups. The monks here raise almost all of their own food, tending their gardens as part of their workday.

No sound is heard during the meal except for the monotonous drone in Greek of the monk chosen to read that day. We knew there would be no more food that day, so we had better eat it all. And we had better eat it fast. For in ten minutes the abbot bangs on the table with a little mallet, everyone stands, another blessing is given for the food consumed, and we file out. After a thirty-minute church service, the monks are free until 4 a.m.

Physician from Queens

Xenophontos was established in the tenth century, as were many of the monasteries on Athos; a portion destroyed by fire in the early nineteenth century was rebuilt, but parts of the old monastery, including the original church, remain. The monks are friendly and easy going, and in this monastery, at least, I was able to have a long and fruitful conversation with one monk—one of the few Americans on Mount Athos.

Damianos is a doctor, about forty-five, dark and good-looking with a ponytail, a beard halfway down his chest, and sturdy arms and legs. He grew up in Queens, New York, studied medicine in Thesolonika in the ’70s (when the American medical schools were overcrowded), returned to New York for his residency, and when he was finished, decided to become a monk. Now he has his own clinic in a quiet corner of the monastery, with two beds, an examination table, some relatively modern equipment, and a well-stocked pharmacy.

He is available to go to nearby monasteries to care for their sick, since most have no doctor. But, he explains, the monks rarely get sick, and live long and healthy lives—no stress and a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and sunshine, and God very much a part of their lives.

Damianos speaks about the decision to become a monk, the life of a monk, the joys and sorrows, work and pilgrims. I ask him what is the greatest challenge he faces. Pride, he says. Monks must strive to maintain absolute humility. They must be totally subservient to God and to Christ. Everything they have comes from God, everything they believe comes from God, everything they do is for God. If ever they should start thinking that perhaps they have some of the answers—once they lose their humility before God—all is lost.

It is easy to do, he tells me, for even in these monasteries— removed from the rest of the world, without communication, far from the forces of the modern world, with nothing but the barest essentials—it is as easy for them to lose their humility as for any other human being.

Is it any different for you, I ask, than it was for the monks here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Not at all, Damianos tells me. The same forces, the same threats come from within, not from the outside world. Not much different, I muse, from what we all face.

When he decided to become a monk, Damianos says, the greatest threat to his resolve was his family. They did everything in their power to discourage him from joining, convinced that the monastery was some sort of cult. But now, he continues, they have accepted his monasticism and even visit him from time to time.

And what is his greatest anxiety? His faith, he says. To come to Athos, he had to give up everything: his career as a doctor, his family and friends, the thought of marriage, contact with women—all of which he did willingly. But should he lose his faith, where would he go? What would he do? He could, of course, leave the monastery at will. But for where, and for what? Yet how could one stay without faith?

It is clear from talking to Damianos that theirs is an uncomplicated faith unchanged through the centuries. Life is taken at face value, reality is not questioned, obedience to God is paramount.

Exuding Kindness

It is very hot as we walk through brush and downed trees on a washed-out road. A typical day—about ninety degrees, hot sun and little breeze, a beautiful clear blue sky without clouds.

Bogoroditsa is somewhere ahead, but it is difficult to find the road and the map isn’t much help: New logging roads have been pushed through the woods and the terrain doesn’t seem to match the maps. After two or three hours of pushing our way through thick underbrush, we suddenly see towers and stone walls peeking up through the trees. We find one gate, locked from the inside, but nobody seems to be here. Still, there’s the rope, attached to a bell. We ring it several times and wait. Again. And then again.

After ten minutes or so the door inches open and out pokes the head of an elderly monk. He invites us in; he speaks enough German for us to be able to converse with him. He is Russian, he tells us, from Odessa, and came here in 1946. He is now alone. Once there were three hundred monks at the monastery, although in his lifetime only eighty at the most. All have died, all but our new friend.

He asks us to sit on a bench overlooking a badly over-grown courtyard. The grass has not been cut in years; old grapevines have spread everywhere. The buildings are in disrepair, with a haunted ghost-town air about them. He brings us each a glass of cold water and then slowly disappears up an outside staircase. When he reappears several minutes later, he has a plate with three biscuits, which he places in front of us. He exudes kindness.

He takes us to the kitchen. It is dark, with a large wood-fired stove and an equally large table with a sixteenth-century look to it. A few melons and various vegetables sit around, along with a jar of pickles and a bag of dried beans. The refectory, covered with frescoes and filled with long tables, could seat a couple of hundred people, but today serves only this lonely monk.

The church is full of icons and more frescoes, the other rooms replete with pictures, old furniture, and candlesticks. Our new friend is quick to shut the door — “keep out the snakes,” he warns us. Finally he reaches his sitting room and proudly shows us what must be one of his most prized possessions—a painting of Czar Nicholas and his czarina. You wonder for a moment if he realizes that the czar has been dead for almost eighty years.

Fortress Above the Sea

We walk on to Simonos Petras, one of the largest and most famous monasteries, built on a cliff high above the sea, a veritable fortress with balconies clinging to the upper parts of the building which looks, from the distance, as if it had been placed there by some awkward insect. The building has burned several times, most recently in 1895.

Here I met Ambrosia, a doctor trained in Germany and an old friend of one of my traveling companions; he takes responsibility for us as his special guests. We are escorted to the best room in the monastery, reserved, generally, for VIP guests, and allowed to use the bathroom with hot showers. After vespers and supper, we are given a tour of the monastery: first the doctor’s offices and pharmacy, then the various work rooms, kitchen, and on into the church.

Of special interest is an amazing woodworking shop, presided over by Brother Ambrosia and outfitted with the latest German power equipment. Here the monks fashion furniture for the monastery, repair doors and windows, and make paneling for remodeling jobs. Ambrosia is enormously proud of the shop.

One of the monks is an electrical engineer who has built a modern and powerful electrical generating system powered by a waterfall; it is used for heat, the woodworking machinery, and various other jobs. This small link with the twentieth century seems incongruous, since otherwise Simonos Petras is as antiquated as all the other monasteries. The life of the monks remains simple and in service to God.

But we learn that things are closer to the twentieth century than life on the surface indicates. We are escorted down into the bowels of the monastery, through massive locked steel doors, and into a library. Modern movable shelves, controlled temperature and humidity, and track lighting emulate the most modern university library.

Ambrosia and another monk show us the monastery treasures: a handwritten and illustrated copy of the Book of John made here in the eleventh century; a children’s book hand-drawn in the fourteenth century; Bibles illustrated with colored miniature drawings compiled through the ages; thousands upon thousands of medieval books of the most amazing quality, all perfectly preserved against rot and mold, and all professionally catalogued.

The libraries in Athos contain what is probably the best collection of medieval books in the world.

As we wend our way down the mountain away from Simonos Petras, down a steep and twisting trail worn into the land over hundreds of years, we look back to see Ambrosia leaning over the balcony waving at us—a small and lonely figure, pleased to have had visitors, but ready to recede back into monasticism, into contemplation of and communion with God. Their hope and prayer is that our brief visit will enhance our Christianity.

In my case, their prayers are answered.


  • Alfred S. Regenery

    Alfred S. Regnery (born 1942) is an American conservative lawyer, author and former publisher.

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