Life in Mount Athos

The Holy Mountain, the peninsula of Athos, the Garden of the Theotokos - words which will not submit to definitions, but are nevertheless indicative of a place and a way of life.

The journey of the pilgrim, or simply of the curious visitor, often takes on unexpected dimensions, as the unlooked-for divine is encountered along the pathways of the Spirit, who with ‘sighs that cannot be uttered’ makes known to us the love of the Father.

The boat leaves Ouranoupoli on the Singitic Gulf side and follows the coastline of the peninsula. Arsanades and monasteries can be seen from its prow: Docheiariou, Xenophontos, St Panteleimon, Xeropotamou - disembarkation at Dafni. This is a place which gives one the first sense of the peace of the anchorite and the hubbub of the worldling in the upheaval of arrival and departure.

The visitors then choose their mode of transport, by land or by sea. Each of them comes to the Athonite republic for his own reasons, in search of something different, and it provides him with that. During his stay, the visitor begins to feel at home with the remote and unfamiliar nature of the place and the way of life. He finds hospitality at the archontariki (the reception areas and, generally, the guesthouse for pilgrims), he hears words of welcome.

The coffee and raki and the Turkish delight have long been a refreshment to the pilgrim. He may feel that this gesture is in imitation of the giving and the sacrificial love of the Triune God. And then again, the beauty of the natural landscape, with its green, its wildness and its rocks, the blue of the heavens and of the sea, forms a perfect picture with the still monuments whose history stretches back through the centuries.

Mystic sounds take us back to the era of Phocas and Tsimiskis, to the Crusades, to the struggle between those who favoured union with the Pope and those who opposed it, to the Catalan and Saracen pirates, to the Turkish yoke. In the otherwise unbroken silence, sounds from the past blend with the continuity of the tradition of worship, of the typikon, of Byzantine chant.

Place, a constituent part of our nature as creatures, here yields up something unique. From the cells to the church, from there to the refectory, and then to the appointed task, and sometimes a little rest for our earthy natures. You savour the varied appearance of the enclosure with its lofty walls, the confines of the kelli, the isolation of the hermitage, the ruggedness of the cave; from the Megiste Lavra, to Simonopetra, to Xeropotamou, to the Nea Skete, the kelli of the now departed Elder Paοsios, as far as Katounakia and Kafsokalyvia. Each place is delightful in its own way. All together they leave one with the same savour which gladdens the heart, they are all informed by the same science of monasticism, the same power of the Holy Spirit.

Here variety and freedom exist in a relationship of unity. Here unity and uniformity set man free. Chastity, poverty, obedience. The three monastic virtues. One supports the other, and like joints they hold together a well-built edifice. The Julian calendar, Byzantine time have a bearing on the faded and crumbling buildings, on the gentle shades of chestnut-yellow and reddish-white, with a restrained touch of purple.

The time comes for Vespers. This is followed by the common meal in the refectory, with its economical discourse, instructive and godly, the withdrawn figures of the monks and the simple fare. Before this has been digested, the talanton calls us together again for Compline. This is followed by a short rest as a preliminary to the activity of the following day. Soon after midnight, the Abbot, the ecclesiarch (the monk in charge of the good order of the katholikon), the cantors, the priest, the deacon, and the canonarch (the monk who pre-intones a troparion phrase by phrase before its musical rendering by the cantor), all are in their places. Unpretentious movement, a drama of restrained expression. Prostrations, the sign of the cross often repeated, the kissing of the icons, of the sacred relics. These are aspects of a life which, with others, make up the everyday reality of existence here. The common life contributes effectively to the communion of life in Christ. A variety of appointed tasks makes up the practical side of the monk’s way of life. As one body, the cook, the docheiaris (the monk in charge of the monastery’s food stores), the monk in charge of the refectory, the vourdounaris (the monk in charge of the monastery’s stables), the gardener are concelebrants and workers together. But in an organism given life by the Spirit, everyday life is not a routine which gives rise to monotony or boredom. On the contrary, it is a stimulus to prayer, repentance, the humbling of the presumption of the flesh, which tends towards self-will and seeks self-divination. Such presumption forgets and wounds the love of our God and Father.

The monk, as an angel on earth and as a man of heaven, has chosen silence over idle talk. He knows from the unerring testimony of those who have gone before him that silence is the language of the future.1 He knows also that humility - that, too, a gift of the grace of God - is the garment of divinity.2 The eyes of the soul of the monk have fixed themselves upon the vision of the kingdom of God. His relations with the natural world, with his fellow-men, are not servile, but transformed by the uncreated grace of God.

The shared vision of the kingdom of God shows forth the universality of Christianity and of Orthodoxy. Those of other races, who speak other languages are not a threat, but are brothers in Christ; they look for a shared resurrection, they work silently for the same end. The way of life of the monk is perceived as a wonderful amalgam of joy and sorrow. This is a way of life burdened with crosses to be borne which looks beyond the corruptibility of history to the immortality of the Kingdom, to the unfading light of the Resurrection. It is within this framework that pain and tears are not bringers of psychological sorrow or self-pity, but are a breath of nobility. A man who experiences from day to day the Divine Liturgy, at a time when the first rays of the sun are making a faint appearance, learns to live with unbounded vistas, with the vision of the transformation of the whole world into a church.3

Prayer, fasting, deprivations voluntarily accepted bring a man to a horizon which is ever ahead of us, which we wait to draw near; they put to death individual wilfulness, and so he can make true progress as he advances into a place which is filled with light, into a boundless spaciousness. The modest smile, the lofty and ironical glance, the look of absorption by the Spirit of God, all are signs of another experience of life, a message and a testimony, an image of the future state of one who has believed and been baptised into nothing less than the life of the Holy Trinity. The uncontrived and simple life of the Gospel is the life of the Christian. The monk is the more figurative and artistic expression of it. On the Holy Mountain you learn that all things work together to glorify the Triune God4 and Our Lady the Theotokos. There, the variety of the forms of monastic life, the green lushness, the otherness of each monk, the extent of the historical heritage which it preserves, everything succeeds in living together in harmony. Thus, you can have a basilica of the 10th century with wall-paintings of the 14th by the masters of the Macedonian School, and portable icons of the 16th century by the masters of the Cretan School - and they all blend in together. This is because they are saying the same thing, we are hearing the same confession.

A monk is born through a period of hard, but blessed, trial. He reaches the stage of his tonsure and receives the angelic schema. As he is now, dressed simply in black, he will be buried. At his appointed task - or pursuing his craft if he is an ascetic or kelli-dweller - alone with God, he prays without ceasing. He has withdrawn from, he has forgotten the world, and has been forgotten by it. It is enough for him, it is a source of joy for him to exist in the remembrance of God. He knows that human remembrance is a question of the psychological processes of a fleeting human ability, in the end incapable of keeping him alive, of immortalising his existence. The remembrance of God has been shown to be the stable ground for human existence, in an age which is losing its reason and hastening away.

On Athos, prayer is constant striving in church, in the garden, at one’s task, at mealtimes, even in sleep. The Athonite monk remembers God, or, rather, he is remembered by Him by being in Christ. Vigil is par excellence his life’s work. He learns to converse with God; little by little he comes to learn His ways,5 he is seared on the grill of spiritual exercise and becomes an offering pleasing to God, the angels, and his elder, as he has promised. The monk keeps his mind in Hades,6 he touches the lowest depths of the darkness of his being, and when the Spirit of God blows as peace which resides in all the members of his body and all the parts of his soul, then this one Spirit, as light, guides his frail, fragile existence to advancement, greatness, progress from glory to glory.

For the whole world, but above all for Greece, today yet again the line of the poet is timely: "Memory of my people you are called Pindus, and you are called Athos".

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