Encountering the Holy Mountain

Courtesy of Monachos.net

The following is the account of an anonymous pilgrim's first visit to the Holy Mountain, made at the beginning of the year 2000. For those who have themselves been to Mount Athos, it is hoped that this recollection will serve as a reminder of the impact the place can have upon one who encounters it for the first time. For those who have not been to Athos, perhaps it will convey a small amount of the ferver which the Holy Mountain instills in its visitors.


Monday, 27 March 2000 — Ouranoupolis, Greece.

The ferry was to leave at 9.45 a.m. the next morning. This was to be the hour when, should God grant it actually to occur, I would set foot on ‘the ship’ –as it is known from a small sign outside the Athos Pilgrim’s Office– that would deposit me, at last, on the Holy Mountain. I recall quite clearly that, as I lay my head down on the hotel pillow for a final night’s sleep before the journey, I did not believe I would actually see Athos the next morning. Too often I had dreamt about it, and now the great sanctuary of heavenly asceticism loomed somewhere off in the mist, just at bay, around the point. I had my papers, I had money for the boat, I had my bags packed and my alarm set for the morning. Yet somehow it did not seem real, did not seem possible, that in but a few hours I would touch that soil. It was the same soil upon which had trod the feet of so many great men: St Gregory Palamas, St Symeon, St Nikodemos, St Athanasius – all of whom had always seemed so distant in my studies, as if from another world, only marginally connected to my own. Now, as I contemplated my arrival on the Holy Mountain, these two worlds were about to come together. The same sights that had been seen by these great men, the same shores upon which they composed what have long since become many of the most enduring theological texts of Christian history, were now about to be beheld by someone who knew of these men as almost mythical ‘giants’ of the Christian tradition.

To say that I would be seeing the same sights as these ancient personalities is, in fact, a surprisingly accurate statement. For Athos, like few places in the modern world, has marvellously escaped the renovationist tendencies of human society. Where all around it ancient cities are being modernised and landscapes transformed by the ever evolving urban creature known casually as ‘society’, Athos has passed through the centuries with a surprisingly small amount of physical change. The newest of the monasteries are hundreds of years old, and even some of the one-room hermitages that dot the countryside have histories far older than those of the New World nations of the West. While America was but a dream in the minds of her founding fathers, monks were praying and working in the same cells that their spiritual descendants inhabit to this day.

Even the more modern changes to Athos –the introduction of roads connecting the northernmost monasteries, the arrival of electricity and modern plumbing, and the advent of the fax machine and library computer in the monastery enclaves– have changed relatively little of the visible landscape. In a world where the physical matter of creation –the ground, the buildings, the countryside– are understood to have been sanctified by the holy lives of those who have lived on them for the past millennia, there is little motivation to alter what does not absolutely need altering. There is a preservationist sense on Athos that is motivated not simply by a desire to preserve an ancient ‘other-world’ still in use, but to do so because the very components of that world are understood to be holy and grace-filled, from the great monasteries themselves to the smallest ports and pathways. And so the past is guarded, and the modern-day visitor is able to behold the same sights seen by monks and pilgrims for an almost incomprehensibly long period of history.

I lay on my bed, pondering such thoughts. Perhaps most poignant was the knowledge that I would tomorrow behold the same landscape that had 700 years ago been seen and loved by St Gregory Palamas, the subject of much of my recent research. His thought has shown forth as among the most influential in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, and his works on prayer had given motivation to the whole focus of my studies. Tomorrow, I would visit the community he called home. It simply did not seem real.

I fell asleep praying for the journey ahead.



Tuesday, 28 March 2000.

My alarm sounded at 7.50 a.m., and perhaps I have never had so easy a time getting out of bed. I had, the night before, laid out the clothes I would wear for the day, and had packed everything else into my two bags. I had only to get dressed and wash up, and I was ready to go.

It took so little time (I had been more efficient than I’d predicted, knowing my own morning habits) that I found myself with nearly half an hour to fill before the Pilgrim’s Office opened. I had a ‘breakfast’ of some of the bread I’d bought the night before, along with a bottle of water, and decided to walk to the point near the old tower of Ouranoupolis, the ‘Gate of Heaven’, to watch the mist roll off the ocean as morning sprang fully to life. I remember standing there, leaning on the top rail of an old wooden fence that separated the grass from the beach, looking out towards the Mountain. It was hidden in the mist, and of it I could see absolutely nothing. So amusing, I thought. Mt Athos had for years seemed to elude me: each time I thought I had the opportunity to visit, something arose that prevented the journey. Every time I seemed to come closer, it seemed to draw further away – as if it were insisting that I come all the way to its shores if I were ever to know it at all. I laughed as I leaned against the wooden railing at the edge of heaven, and said aloud, ‘So, dear Athos, you hide yourself even now, until I actually place my feet upon your soil.’

- - - - -

As the doors of the Pilgrim’s Office opened at 9.00 a.m., I was the first to walk through them. It took only moments for my paper from Thessaloniki to be examined and replaced with a formal diamonitirion. 4,000 drachmas to receive it (I received the educational price). Only £7 to fulfil a long dream. I looked at the diamonitirion as it was handed to me: a standard sheet of paper, slightly brown, with my details printed legibly. A colourful seal of the community was in the upper right-hand corner, and a blue stamp of the Mother of God formed a sort of letterhead.

Like so much else in this journey, this small notice seemed unreal, slightly outside the realm of the actual. Surely I could not be holding this paper. Surely I could not be about to board the boat. Surely I could not be about to visit Athos.

Less than an hour later, I boarded the boat. At shortly before noon, this same ferry reached the port of Daphne. At 12.03 p.m. –I remember the time precisely– I planted my feet on the Holy Mountain.

- - - - -


There was confusion at Daphne. Amidst the strong, surreal atmosphere that seemed to pervade this little port village, there was a great deal of motion – a lot of ... noise? The ferry unloaded, people scrambled about. There were cars, shops, workers, even a café. New arrivals on the mountain scuttled about to their destinations, while another group hustled for the boat, headed back into the world.

I remember being startled by the commotion. It was not what I had expected, having long ago framed in my mind a picture of Athos the Silent, Athos the Somber, Athos the Noble Hesychast. Here things were far from silent. Apart from its smaller size, there was little about Daphne that was too visibly or audibly different from Ouranoupolis. Suddenly I had a great and terrifying fear: it seemed that my worries of not actually making it to the Holy Mountain were over, but might I now be faced with something far, far worse - that having arrived on the Mountain, I would find it overrun with secularisation, not so holy as I had long envisioned it to be?

The thought made me shudder, then made me angry. This was not how I should be thinking. I had been on Athos for all of five minutes; who was I to be pouring out judgements upon her? ‘Shame on you’, was all I could say to myself.

It was then time to do something I had long planned to do. Disappearing around a corner, behind one of the port buildings, I did what so many have done before me and kissed the ground of the Holy Mountain. God had granted me to come this far, and even should the world have crumbled to dust at that very moment, I would still have set foot on Athos. I venerated the earth, and thanked God for the blessing.

- - - - -

Confusion was next to come. Somehow, I had to get to the holy monastery of Simonopetra, where a friend had already informed the fathers that I would be arriving that day. Yet one thing that hadn’t registered with me before the ferry trip was now becoming quite clear: the sheer size and severity of the Holy Mountain. What looked on my map like a short jaunt between Daphne and Simonopetra was, in actuality, at least a two-hour hike over exceptionally steep terrain. Moreover I had my bag, and the sun shone hot through a heavy, wet, ocean air.

I had thought –or rather I had been told– that there would be a car travelling to the monastery. Later I would learn that this was actually the case; but at this point, amidst the bustle of the new landing and my generally overwhelmed, confused state, I could not discover it. Few people spoke English, and those who did seemed never to have heard of such a car. Suddenly the bus for Karyes and a small fleet of automobiles departed up a winding road, and Daphne was relatively quiet. I realised that I had no idea what to do next.

A kind monk, who looked to be of about middle age, was walking the shoreline road in front of the shops, weaving small crosses from coloured twine. I approached him for assistance, to learn quite swiftly that he spoke no English whatsoever. But he did have a warm smile, an evidently warm heart, and worked with me through the Greek (hand-motions were here, and elsewhere, to play a great part in my communications on the Holy Mountain) until I understood that a smaller ferry, the ‘Aghia Anna’, would soon leave to make the rounds of the southern monasteries of which Simonopetra was one. I thanked the father as best as I could with my poor Greek accent (a faint echo of Erasmus, for I had not yet learned modern Greek pronunciation), and walked to the boat.

The St Anne was, indeed, exactly where I needed to be. At around 12.30 the ferry pulled away from the port at Daphne and turned south. A kind English-speaking pilgrim informed me that Simonopetra would be our first stop, and that there I should depart. I thanked him and moved outside to the front of the boat. It would be only minutes before we arrived.

It was then that I saw Simonopetra with my own eyes for the first time. From the water it sits towering high above, clinging to the top of a rock, draping itself over the sides as over a sheer cliff. High on the hill, it is surrounded on both sides by deep valleys, which only add to its majestic presence as it seems to float in mid-air. My breath stopped at the sight of this holy place of which I had seen so many pictures and heard so many stories, now actually here before my own eyes, so far above the level of the sea that I had to crane my next back entirely to look upon it. I was overwhelmed.

The view, however, was short lived. The St Anne soon rounded a small point, and as quickly as it had come into view, Simonopetra was gone. It was replaced by the vision of a small port straight ahead, toward which our boat fast approached. Only a few moments later would my rising anticipation of an impending entrance into the monastery gates be subdued by the realisation that this port was not in fact that of Simonopetra, but of its neighbouring monastery, Greghoriou. The two ports themselves are rather close by one another, with only a single jetting peninsula separating the shore between them into two small bays. But for all their closeness, a stop at the latter meant a journey of an additional hour to make it to the first monastery; and as inviting as the cloister of Greghoriou now looked, only a short ten-minute walk from the landing upon which I and my bags had been deposited, I knew that it was to Simonopetra that I must make my way, for it was there that I was expected.

And then the next great realisation of the morning: I hadn’t the faintest idea how to get from the port of Greghoriou to the holy monastery of Simonopetra. I hadn’t purchased a map of Athos in Ouranoupolis (still having been under the innocent delusion that its short distances weren’t interrupted by massive mountains and ravines, and far-off sights would be easy to spot), and I knew only the general direction toward which the monastery must lie. But all that stood before me as I faced in that direction was a horrifyingly steep wall of shrubs and small trees, not so much a hillside as a cliff face, forming a more than a bit intimidating obstacle.

It would turn out to be a young Russian monk, whose name I would never learn, who would help me out of my predicament. The Aghia Anna had deposited him at the same landing upon which I, looking quite confused, currently stood, and he made use of some rudimentary hand gestures to inform me that he lived in a small skete, or collection of hermitages, in the valley between Greghoriou and Simonopetra. I managed to convey that it was to this latter monastery that I wished to walk, and he agreed to lead me as far as he could before having to turn off on his own. Without a further word, I picked up my bag, slung it over a jacketed shoulder, and began to follow my nameless benefactor.

- - - - -

What I saw along that journey can hardly be described. There is something about the landscape of the Holy Mountain that injects wonder into the mind and heart of whosoever sets foot upon it. One is captivated, almost drawn in by the beauty of the land on which he walks. Cacti grew almost as tall as the trees, towering amidst bright gold and purple flowers whose scents were as poignant as those of a perfumerie. These cast shadows upon our cobble-stoned walk, perfected in its form by a thousand years of loving maintenance at the hands of generations of monks. We walked in total silence, the young monk no less overwhelmed by the sight than I, hearing only the harmonious commixture of birdsong and waves gently breaking against the rough, Athonite coast which, as we walked, loomed ever further below us. Having heard symphonies and operas, musicals and concerts my whole life through, I can honestly say that the silence of that walk was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. God spoke loudly in the stillness and quietness of that footpath.

Few places in the world can produce the silence of Mt Athos. It is not just the technological solitude of the place that gives it such resonance (south of Simonopetra, where I currently walked, there are no roads, and hence no cars); it is the knowledge that one stands in the silence of over a thousand men – a population whose size would, almost anywhere else in the world, produce a fair amount of noise. But even as one walks through a desert ‘neighbourhood’ that houses hundreds, the loudest sound one hears is the crunch of the earth beneath his feet. It is when one realises this fact that he is reminded of the truth that a life of genuine communion with God and man does not necessitate a heavily laden arsenal of words and discussion, but a true connection of the heart and person with Him to Whom they speak and commune. The silence of such communion, when experienced for the first time, is entirely overwhelming.

- - - - -

I continued on with the nameless monk, shuffling a prayer rope through the fingers of my left hand as I used the right to steady the large bag I had hoisted over my shoulder. I could have done better than to have worn a jacket for this walk: the sun beat down with a squelching heat, made only more intense by the wetness of the ocean air and the speed with which my guide led me along. The path from Greghoriou is not one that would qualify for an ‘easy ambler’ rating anywhere in the world; the same kind of curt practicality that has been the trademark of monastic theology for centuries seems to have influenced monastic trailblazing as well. When one stands at the bottom of a hill and sees his destination at the top, what better route to follow than a straight line between them? So up the mountainous slope we went.

The steepness of the trail, as well as its length, inspired us to take several breaks on our journey, to sit on a stone or log and catch our breath before continuing on. It was during one of these breaks that the monk communicated to me –again through a form of sign language invented as we went along– that he must here depart and head inland, up the narrow valley at whose mouth we currently sat, to his hermitage. I should continue on, he said, and turn uphill whenever the opportunity arose. I was about two-thirds of the way to Simonopetra.

The monk and I exchanged the best farewells we could, and I asked his blessing before he headed off into the woods. He was the first monk I had met on the Holy Mountain, and though I still do not know his name, he has since remained a poignant symbol of Athonite spirituality alive in the human individual. To someone he had never met, about whom he knew nothing at all, with whom he could not even speak, this young man –perhaps only a few years older than I– exemplified the notions of hospitality, Christian love, and true devotion to his calling. May I have his blessing.

- - - - -

I continued on without my guide, doing as he had said and taking the high road whenever the increasingly narrow path divided along its course. It was perhaps 40 minutes after we had parted ways that I rounded a hairpin corner at the top of a small peak and beheld, for the first time since the ferry ride, the form of Simonopetra. It now loomed deceptively near: the sheer size and daunting shape of the monastery made it seem far closer than the three-quarters of a mile between us would allow. I looked up, no longer having to crane my next as steeply as I’d done aboard the Aghia Anna, and marvelled at the sight of such a structure.

Apart from all else, the monastery of Simonopetra is a remarkable piece of architecture. It is said to have been built in the mid-13th century upon the precipice of a finger-like stone that rises out of a deep valley, several hundred feet into the air. The actual peak of the stone monument, upon which the katholikos, the monastery church, now stands, does not provide much in the way of level surface area upon which to build. So to accommodate this landscaping challenge Simonopetra is built not so much on top of, but around the top of this massive stone pedestal. The result is a structure that quite literally droops over the sides of sheer cliffs, with row upon row of wooden balconies protruding several feet further out over the ravine below than does the building itself. And the same architecture which allows the monastery to sit so uniquely upon its perch also gives Simonopetra the illusion of being far bigger than it actually is; for when one beholds the exterior of the monastery, he sees an enormous complex which looks to be a remarkable 15 stories tall and cover the space of a solid city block. It is only when one enters through the gates that the truth is revealed: the centre of the monastery is actually quite small, most of the space being taken up by the great rock upon which it is perched. The massive edifice visible from the outside wraps around a core of stolid stone, not creating an exceptional amount of interior space.

This knowledge, though, does not alter the impact received upon seeing Simonopetra for the first time, especially from below. The old folktale of the three trees, in which the third desired nothing more than to grow tall and point to God, could easily have been modelled upon the desire of the workers hired by St Simon the Myrrh-Bearer, patron saint of the monastery, for the structure seems to point –even to reach up and come into contact with– heaven itself. As I stood at the top of a small ridge, still quite a distance below the great house, I somehow felt that much nearer the divine.

I would learn later –once I had come to know a few of the community– of the tradition surrounding the foundation of Simonopetra. On my second day at the monastery I spent a few hours visiting with one of the fathers, then the ekklesiastikos, or church-warden, also studying to become the community’s dentist. A friend in London had arranged our meeting, himself quite familiar with the monastery and its residents. My friend had chosen this pairing with the knowledge that this father, unlike many of the monks, speaks fluent English. He is, in fact, originally from America - Chicago, to be most precise. But having lived on the Holy Mountain for many years his identity is truly Athonite, and one senses in speaking to this man that he is encountering a true representative of the lifestyle of Athos.

After some time spent in introductions and personal histories, this dear father led me a short distance from the monastery’s main entrance, into a small structure built into the side of a rock face. There were two icons on the interior: one of the Nativity of Christ and the other of a solemn ascetic with whom I was not familiar, though the Greek inscription revealed him to be one ‘Simon the Myrrh-Bearer.’ Once we had venerated the icons and said a short prayer, the father lit a candle from the lamps in front of the icons and led me upwards through what appeared to be nothing more than a crack in the rock. The passageway through which we travelled was small, so much so that both of us needed to crouch to pass through, and after a few winding steps it opened into a small cave. The entire ‘room’ formed by this cave could have been no more than six feet by four, with the ceiling so low that, while seated, I still had to rest my chin on my chest to prevent hitting it on the rock above. It was here, in the shimmering candlelight of this small earthen space, that I was told the story of Simonopetra.[1]

St Simon, sometime in the thirteenth century, had moved out of his residence in one of the larger Athonite monasteries in order to seek a more definitive solitude in one of the Holy Mountain’s many caves. That in which we now sat was the cave that had most met with his approval, and here he had spent the entirety of three years in prayer and contemplation, being disturbed only every few weeks by his spiritual father, who would bring him bread and water.

‘St Simon lived in this cave for three years,’ stressed my dear father, ‘three years in this little cave, where we can’t even sit up straight. Imagine that!’

I could not. I had long read of ascetics who endured such conditions for the mortification of their passions and the taming of their bodies and minds for prayer; but actually to sit in the cave, to feel the dark, to hear the silence, to know the solitude... I could not imagine such a discipline.

‘At the end of three years,’ the father continued, ‘Simon heard a voice telling him to come out of his cave and look atop the nearby rock. But Simon thought this was the voice of the devil, attempting to draw him away from his prayer, and he ignored it. Yet the voice came day after day, and eventually he discerned that it must be from God, and he obeyed.’

What Simon saw when he came out of his cave, I then learned, was a glowing star resting above the surface of the nearby stone massif; and the voice of Mary came to him and said, ‘Build here a house, and call it New Bethlehem, for in it shall be born many soldiers for Christ.’ And by these signs St Simon knew he was to construct a monastery on the impossible peak near the mouth of his cave. This he attempted to do by recruiting the hands of some worker laymen visiting on Athos, yet seeing the task before them, they instructed what they believed to be an ageing and perhaps senile old monk that such a feat was impossible on such terrain. But Simon insisted, and after some time and what must have been some impassioned pleading, he secured their assistance.

Sometime later, while the monastery that would become Simonopetra was in the midst of its construction, these same workers were resting on the top of its foundations with St Simon and an assistant. The latter was bringing water to refresh the workers, who grumbled on about how ridiculous and dangerous the project was, insistently informing their patron that someone was bound to get hurt if work continued. And, as if on cue, Simon’s assistant tripped on the construction equipment and, water pitchers in hand, toppled off the side of the building and fell down the cliff to the bottom of the deep ravine below.

‘The workers were furious!’ recounted the father sitting next to me in the cave, as if all this had happened yesterday and he had been there personally to witness their rage. ‘"We told you this would happen!" they cried, and announced that they would no longer have anything to do with Simon’s project. But,’ he added, ‘they felt they ought to hike down to the ravine and find whatever was left of the assistant’s body, to give him a proper burial.’

So the troop of men, followed by Simon himself, made the sombre hike down the slope to retrieve the body of their fallen comrade. But when they arrived at the bottom of the ravine, they were greeted by the youthful assistant, still carrying his pitchers of water. Amazed, they asked him what had happened. ‘It was as if an angel caught me and carried me down to the ground,’ he said.

‘At that moment,’ the Simonopetrite father continued, ‘the workers not only told St Simon that they would complete the construction of his monastery, but that they desired to become its first monks. And that is how Simonopetra was born’.

And it was to this very building that I now approached: one divinely inspired from its foundation, divinely used since its consecration, still divinely serving God through the devotion and humility of its inhabitants. The connection of so much history, united through the holy ties of sanctified lives that have blessed its walls and hallowed its floors, makes Simonopetra a place of amazing wonder and true holiness. To see it from afar in books and histories had intrigued me. To hear of it in personal stories had captivated me. To see it from the shore on the bow of an Athonite ferry had enthralled me. And now, as I arrived at its gates, it was time for Simonopetra to change me.


NOTE:

  1. I am certain that I here retell the story that follows with many errors, for my memory is not detailed enough to recall all the facts, dates and events with the precision in which they were told to me. The errors in this account should be understood as wholly my own, and not those of the father with whom I was speaking.

 

Mount Athos

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maps

Some materials by courtesy of Zbigniew
Kosc, Agion-oros. orthodoxy.ru, Alexia
Amvrazi Chalkidiki.com, inathos.gr,
Macedonian-heritage.gr,
Monachos. net, MountAthos.gr,
newadvent. org/cathen,
Ouranopoli.com, Techni Editions

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