MOUNT ATHOS: The Window of the Soul
Before dawn I step back in time, onto the cobblestone streets of Karyes, and the capital of the oldest monastic republic in the world. My footsteps echo off the stone walls of the narrow street. I am not alone. I hear panting and shuffling behind me. An old monk with his head down, face obscured by a wild white beard knotted with dirt and sweat, strains to catch up to me. His frayed black cassock, sashed with a thick leather belt and buckled with a large wooden cross, shines with oily antiquity. He looks as worn and medieval as the stone buildings around me. He moves nervously. His hands are clasped in prayer, and they tremble. He frantically kisses a tiny wooden cross that hangs by a frayed piece of twine around his neck. He hisses venomously and moans and intermittently points at the ground, as if overwhelmed with grief or grave danger, like a tortured animal. Then, at my feet, he falls to his knees, writhing, and he claws at my legs and ankles, in a desperate attempt to pry my shoes off the dusty cobblestone. I recall what was printed in big bold letters on the pamphlet I read about rules of conduct and dress on Mount Athos: “LET US REPEAT, YOU ARE ON SACRED GROUND, MIRACLES DO OCCUR HERE.”
In tears, and between agonizing breathes, the monk wrestles with my legs and shoes. I drag him a few feet but his clutch is relentless and fast for a frail old man. Just as I lean down to pry him off two other monks appear at the scene. Then, after one of them inscribes a cross in the dust on the cobblestones, close to one of my foot prints, the zealot little monk relaxes his grip. His furor came from noticing that my footprints were in the shape of crosses. The ordeal ends only after I remove both my shoes.
Arriving on Mt. Athos is no simple matter. I spent three days in Athens, going back and forth from one government office to another. I suspect bureaucratic red tape is their way of insuring that priests, monks, theology students and Byzantine scholars, are given priority to visit the Holy Mountain. My persistence and a letter of requisition from the Canadian Embassy finally convinced them that I was worthy of a visa.
Mt. Athos is not for the casual visitor or curious tourist. It is the bastion of Eastern Christianity, the repository and protector of the Orthodox Church and the continuation of traditional medieval Byzantine civilization. It is reserved for those who seek religious sanctity and salvation. Accessible only by water, there is only one official way to enter this rugged, remote and reclusive monastic state – by boat from Ouranopoli, on the eastern peninsula of Khalkidiki in northern Greece.
A regular boat service stops at each harbour of monasticism and carries cargo, traders, and monks back and forth along the Aegean coast. My letters of permission were checked upon departing from Ouranopoli with instructions to disembark only at Daphne, the official port of entry to Mt. Athos and a stone throw from Karyes which is the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain.
There are 19 main monasteries on Mt. Athos. Some hang from 1,000-foot-high cliffs above the sea. Their steep red tile roofs supported by walls of turrets and battlements are easily visible from the boat. A businessman from Athens had to leave his wife on the dock at Ouranopoli, because women are not allowed within 500 meters of the shore. For over 1,000 years, even female animals were forbidden on Mt. Athos. Only recently were exceptions made for female cats and chickens.
It was not until later that I realized that the ferry ride was on ‘worldly time’. The boat is one of the few places where monks can meet outsiders, who come with their binoculars to view the monasteries, maybe do some trading with them or the boat’s crew, acquire magazines, get news from the outside, exchange gossip and visit with their brothers in transit along the coast to other monasteries.
There is no electricity on Mount Athos, and the only road goes the short distance from Daphne to Karyes. Upon disembarking my papers were again checked before boarding a dilapidated bus used to haul cargo and passengers up the steep hill to the capital. It was nearly dark by the time I arrived at the one “hotel” in Karyes, where I again had to produce my letters of permission. This time to a very serious monk attending a wicket at the end of a stark hall in the 500-year-old stone building. He carefully scrutinized my papers before embossing one with the official Athonite seal. He kept all the letters and handed me back one blank piece of paper with his signature scrawled on it.
Besides having the oldest church on Mt. Athos, (The Church of the Protaton) built in the first half of the 10th century, Karyes, by Athonite standards, is a commercial place. All the Holy Mountain’s administrative buildings are here, along with many small cottages which are the homes of lay brothers who work as traders, laborers who maintain the streets and buildings, muleteers, and employees of the civil service. There is a bakery and several small shops that sell religious paraphernalia, candles, incense, and prayer-beads, some hardware, and a few foodstuffs. The inn is limited to 10 visitors, which is the maximum number of visitors permitted to enter Mount Athos at any given time. Two-dollars-a-night rents a flashlight and one of eight cots cramped into two rooms. The kitchen was closed, but I managed to find the keeper who gave me bread, pea soup, raw onions and bitter black olives for dinner, without saying a word to me. All was silent as I made my way up the moss-covered steps that led to a spartan room. I went to sleep listening to the flicker of a candle that cast dancing shadows on the cold white walls.
The next day, after the episode with my shoes, I walked with a visiting monk up the mountain away from Karyes. The path was worn deep into ground, down to the olive tree roots that gripped the arid soil. The exposed roots made the path secure on the steep parts. We moved slowly across a ravine dense with thorns and wild vines. The air, the mountains, the dry thorns and rock, the silence and rugged but somehow lush silence gave the landscape a timeless, biblical quality. We passed only one other person, in silence. A young monk on a donkey. At the top of the mountain, beside a stone cottage called a kellion, we overlooked Karyes and the Aegean Sea. This was the home of two Greek monks. My walking companion, is an English-speaking Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Priest, who is familiar with Mount Athos. He explains that the younger monk, called Daminanos, is infamous on the Holy Mountain for his entrepreneurial affections. He apparently makes a business out of selling icons to visiting brothers. It was easy to tell the two were old friends. The eyes of the short little Greek monk sparkled like a child at Christmas because his old friend was here to buy icons. The other inhabitant of the kellion, an elder brother, was more reserved. Each monk embraced the Priest, and kissed his hand as is customary when monks meet. I learned that there were certain nuances that come with every greeting, depending on the status and seniority of the monks and priest-monks involved. Sometimes, for example, a monk might pull his hand away not allowing it to be kissed as a sign of humility.
A kerosene lamp illuminated the smokey white walls of a dark hallway. Daminanos held the light high and ushered us into their windowless chapel. We stepped around shadowy mounds of hazel nuts and husks, so many that the planked floor was barely visible. Damianos and his elder brother burn the husks for heat and barter the nuts with the traders who come through Karyes. I learn that all visitors are expected, first, to pay reverence to the numerous icons that hang on the soot stained walls of the little chapel. I watch the priest as he repeatedly bows, crosses himself, and kisses every holy icon in the room. It was a ritual I was to see many times.
Connected to the chapel is a cozy sitting room. It is warm with the smell of smoke and kerosene, and bright with morning light. The elder monk serves small cups of strong Greek coffee, chunks of sweet “loukoumi” (jellied Turkish candy), and a glasses of potent distilled grape liquor called Raki. The offering is standard fare for receiving visitors. He declines to partake himself, but smiles and motions encouragingly for me to help myself to my first Athonite breakfast. He watches in silent. The light on his face reminds me of a Renoir painting.
Daminanos grins. His excited eyes sparkle and his movements are quick, almost dance-like. Compared to his elder companion, he has all the humour of a silent comedian. Gradually the silence is broken. Whimsical gestures, precede a few words of broken English, mixed with Greek, and a little Russian. Apparently he and the foreign Priest have arrived at a mutually satisfactory trade concerning one of his many icons. It is a small one, but old. Damianos turns his attention to me. He is very curious about what things cost in Canada: my cameras and lenses, a tractor, an apartment, and oddly, walkie-talkies. The ‘show and tell’ conversation continues on through the glass doors that lead onto their balcony. Lattices laced with vintage grape vines frame a spectacular birds-eye view of the Mt. Athos. Like a child, he is eager to show off his his gas-powered hazelnut husker, which explains the hoards of nuts and husks throughout their kellion. They also have a solar collector panel which Damianos built from a kit he ordered through a magazine he acquired from a trader for hazel nuts. He prides himself in being the only monk on Mt. Athos who had a continuous supply of hot running water.
There are Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, American, Russian and Greek monks living on Mt. Athos. Every resident monk automatically acquires Greek citizenship, while each group has absolute control over its respective monastery and holds no allegiance to any other nation. Each monastery elects a representative, or Konaki, to the Holy Congregation which sits in Karyes and enacts canonical legislation covering the organization and administration of monastic life here. If the number of members of any monastery drops to less than five brothers, then that monastery and all its land reverts to control under the Greek monasteries. And while the centuries have woven an intricate political web between the monasteries, each also has a distinct spiritual and economic status. And a certain climate of rivalry exits between them.
Athos was originally called Akte, after a Thracian giant who hurled the mountain at Poseidon in a clash between gods and giants. In another version of the myth, Poseidon was victorious and buried the rebellious giant Athos under the great rock, whose pyramid shaped summit rises sheer from the sea more than 2,000 metres. According to another legend Deinocrates, the architect of Alexander the Great, wanted to transform the whole of Mt. Athos into an immense figure of the Macedonian king. The sculptured effigy was to hold in one hand a city swarming with people, while from the other a copious stream of water would gush towards the sea as a continuous libation to the gods. Alexander declined, presumably because he did not want to appear as arrogant as the Persian King, Xerxes, who, in 481 B.C., cut a canal through a narrow neck of land at the root of this sixty kilometer-long peninsula. Xerxes wanted to avoid the stormy waters round Cape Akrothoos which earlier had sunk the ships of his general, Mardonius.
The Virgin Mary, accompanied by John the Evangelist, was on her way to visit Lazaros in Cyprus when a storm swept her ship onto the shores of Mt. Athos, and The Holy Mountain became consecrated as the inheritance and the garden of the Mother of God, and a paradise and haven of salvation.
Christian monasticism originated here at the beginning of the 4th century as a reaction to the persecution of Christians by the state. From the earliest years of the Byzantine Empire the Christians came out of persecution from Constantinople and the Arab conquests in the East. In 885, The Emperor Basil officially recognized Mount Athos as a territory belonging exclusively to men of religion. Since that time, the Holy Mountain has been attacked, raided, pillaged and burned by persecutors. Each monastery has risen and fallen several times.
Three hours away from Karyes by foot or boat, or two hours if you can borrow a donkey, is the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimonos. This monastery slipped into poverty in the 10th century and was forced to use many of its holy vestments as loan securities. Its number dropped below five and it was reverted to Greek control and then abandoned.
It was not until 1840 that Russian monks were again admitted to St. Panteleimonos. They quickly regained control and by the end of the 19th century it was supported by over 1,000 monks. Today it is home to a few dozen. Most of the other monasteries have endured similar histories. And there are apparently many unspoken stories of deceit and murder among the monks here. It seems the blessed and the cursed are close together. I’m told to bolt my door and carry my valuables with me at all times.
At St. Panteleimonos we are met by another of the Ukrainian priest’s old friends, Father Philalet. He waits on the pier for the mail from Daphne. He is St. Panteleimonos’s cook and a good man to know in a poor monastery. They greet each other in the usual manner, each kissing the others hand, but this time the ritual is more casual, as if they had seen each other only yesterday. Philalet is a jolly blond-haired 35-year-old Russian who came to Mt. Athos 20 years ago. He adheres strictly to his vow of silence, except in response to my questions, which he accepts gracefully, but with brief and very focused answers.
We walk up a long and wide cobblestone promenade to the foot of a set of one-foot-thick wooden doors at the outer gate of the fortified monastery. Philalet leads they way across an open courtyard and through walkways and passages below towering turrets and between high stone walls, where only a slice of sky is visible. I feel removed from all human scale and fixed in a medieval time warp. He motions with his hands, in an eating fashion, before arriving at the kitchen. He points for us to sit down on benches beside a small worn work table. He brings two bowls of thick cabbage borscht. Flies, some dead and some not, garnish the greasy broth. I look up at a huge wood-burning stove. I easily imagine that it was engineered for a giant. Beside the stove, along the
walls and equally removed from human proportion, are pounded brass caldrons and pots and ladles hanging on worn wooden pegs mortared into cracked scorched walls. Dwarfed by the stove is the small pot that the cabbage soup came from. The scene had an uncanny resemblance to a Breughel painting.
We silently finish most of the soup and then follow Philalet out of the kitchen and up narrow wooden stairs to a windowless hallway. At it’s end he unlatches a heavy wooden and bolted door, and gestures for us to enter his small private room. Through his only window was a view of the bell tower and the Aegean Sea. From a tin thermos he pours us strong coffee laced with Raki and offers us sweet loukoumi. Father Lorne has brought him two jars of peanut butter and instant coffee – delicacies Philalet apparently hasn’t tasted in years. His face beams, and immediately he stows the gifts in a corner of a bottom shelf by his bed, like a squirrel caching precious winter food. Soon the Guestmaster of St. Panteleimonos arrives. He is the monk in charge of assigning cells to visitors, and carries a heavy steel ring of giant-sized skeleton keys. We follow him down the dark hallway and stairs, through the kitchen, and out into the cool, salty air. A cobblestone alley leads us away from the refectory, and into another castle-like stone building.
My cell is like a dingy stone vault hinged at one end to a heavy wooden door and open at the other by a window with a dramatic view of all St. Panteleimonos. The cell measures about five feet by ten feet and contains a small bed, wood table and solitary candle. Above the bed is a paper icon. Above the door, blackened on the white-plaster wall, is a cross made from the sooty smoke of a burning candle. The room had been recently blessed.
A monk’s day is divided into three-8-hour periods, one for prayer, another for labour, and the remainder for rest and study and private devotion. Mount Athos time is based on the Byzantine clock with begins at sunset. At 3:00 A.M. the sound of a mallet on wood signals the call to prayer in the main cathedral or katholikon. A particular monk, called the Kabinaris, circles the church striking a mallet on a yoke-shaped beam of hardwood called a semantron. It is symbolic of the hammering during the building of Noah’s Ark to beckon the animals. When the rhythmic beating ceases, the huge bells in the tower ring. Then the corridors become alive with flashlight beams like fire flies moving through black corridors as the monasteries 24 monks navigate themselves from solitary cells, across the courtyard, to the main church. Here some take their places, veiled and motionless, in tall carved oak seats – like Byzantine aristocrats in an inner sanctum, while other prostrate themselves on the cold stone floor, or light candles in front of the alter.
All around them are hundreds of ancient gilded icons, mosaics, pectorals, chalices, books and codices, and countless other religious treasures. They glide through fathoms of rituals – symbolism meant to unite the past with the present. And when they chant, it is like one deep guttural voice. Everyday is the same.
Many of the treasures, the icons, are said to have miracle working powers. At Zograhou, the Bulgarian monastery, there is the Icon of St. George. It was painted in 1484 and depicts a youthful face, but a wart-like excrescence clings to the left side of the St. George’s nose. Legend says that a free-thinking monk doubted the miraculous powers of the icon and disrespectfully touched it with his forefinger. His finger stuck to the figures face and in order to free it the tip had to be cut off, and so it remains. Behind the inner
alter of every church on Mount Athos are gold and silver boxes locked with the relics of each monastery’s respective Patron Saint. Some contain reputed pieces from the “True Cross”, splinters from the Crown of Thorns and bone relics of the apostles. These are the spiritual tools of Athonite monks -representatives of past revelations meant to inspire spiritual wisdom. Together with the grand architecture that house them, they represent the cosmos.
The domes of the church symbolize heaven. Frescoes depicting spiritual endeavors are said to reaffirm the monks conviction to liturgical life. The allegorical paintings of the Apocalypse found in all the outer vestibules of Athonite churches, remind meditators of judgement day. The themes on the inner walls are instructive and aesthetic presentations of the efforts of mortals to reach the sublime.
Looking up from the floor of any Athonite church are images of standing Saints, and above them are depicted the Evangelists, and higher up are the Prophets. Hung from each dome are impressive candelabras centered with gilded chandeliers spoked with candles and silver embroidered lamps. The scent and the images compose an insurmountable phantasmagoria – an experience of light, colour, space, and art.
The monk singing the liturgy has a voice so deep it seems to come from the depths of the earth. He is 21 years-old and served in the Russian army before choosing a life of pacifism. He leads the liturgy while the assembled monks chant responses in melodious voices that rise with the thick frankincense smoke to the frescoed domes representing The Almighty.
If chanting guides the monk and his environment inspires him, then prayer is the beating of his heart and devotion is his artistic endeavour. The prayer of the Athonite monk: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, is repeated perpetually with each breath. Some monks are so comforted by the prayer that they unconsciously and unceasingly rub their thumbs against their forefingers even when they are not holding their prayer beads – their weapons against distractions from rhythm and concentration.
Innovation is not one of the sanctums of Orthodox Mount Athos. Change means insecurity, and insecurity is distracting to men who meditate solely on salvation through self-denial and repetition of ritual. Monasticism is the living heart of Orthodoxy. To the Athonite monk it means the renunciation of the world and retreating into a solitary life in order to achieve everlasting life.
I try to imagine the repetitious and disciplined world of the Athonite monk – how religious inspiration turns to vision, and abstractions become first hand knowledge? Their physical environment is from the past and their present is entirely devoted to the future of their soul. Thomas Merton once referred to monks as: “Explorers of the desert area of man’s heart, where explanations no longer suffice, because it is too close to be explained, and only experience counts”. My priest friend explains that if one believes what the Athonite monk believes, no explanation is necessary, and if not, then no explanation is possible.
The liturgy at St. Panteleimonos ends and the monks discharge themselves just as the sun rises. They move across the courtyard and into the refectory for the first meal of their Byzantine day. One of a score of buildings of similar size and uniquely Athonite design, the refectory is a free-standing stone building with a 40-foot-high frescoes ceiling over a dining hall that can seat one-thousand. The monks sit like dwarfs in the great hall at only one of many 20-foot-long tables. The Abbot sits in an alcove at one end of the table, and a veiled monk who rapidly reads hagiography expounding the life of today’s saint, sits at the other end. The other 22 monks eat bread and oatmeal with tea – silently but quickly. The meal ends when the hagiography is completed and the Abbot rings his hand bell. On the wall behind the table are 400-year-old frescos rotting off the wall.
Mt. Athos is slowly decaying. In the churches, 12th century icons are being eaten away by 20th century termites. There are only 1,500 monks on Mt. Athos today. Once there were over 20,000.
An alternative to the big monasteries has always been the small, more self-sufficient Sketes. In the main monasteries life is carried on cenobitically where everything,- food, shelter, work, and prayer, is communal, and Monks have no personal possessions, and Byzantine time is strictly adhered to.
Sketes, although affiliated with a large monastery, operate independently. They consist of four or five “kalyve”, or small cottages, with two or three monks living together in each kalyve. Skete monks support themselves by cultivating small gardens or carrying on the Byzantine tradition and style of ichnography or icon painting. Here life is idiorhythmic. Monks can own possessions, tend their own gardens, pray on their own time, and work at their own tasks.
A few miles walk from St. Panteleimonos is the Greek Skete of Xenephonas, one of twelve Skete’s found on Mount Athos. Eight monks live here.
Monachos Gregorius, has lived in the skete for 16 of his 35 years. He left his job as an electrician in Australia and is now an accomplished icon painter, like his paternal father – a priest-monk who shares the kalyve with him. They are commissioned to paint icons by Orthodox churches around the world. Among the eight other monks living at Xenephonas, seven are icon painters and one is a hermit.
The hermit adheres to the strictest form of monasticism. He lives away from the other kalyves and in total silence and solitude. He sleeps on a bed of olive branches scattered over the floor of a dilapidated stone cottage, without windows or doors. He neither works nor produces his own food. Instead he relies on collecting various fruits and vegetables off the ground, or through donations from the other monks of the Skete. I am told that none of the other monks living here have ever been invited into his cottage. He came to Mount Athos as an orphan, like many of the boys presently enrolled in the seminary at Karyes.
The hermit cannot remember ever seeing a woman and he considers the airplanes, that he sees flying overhead, to be the work of the devil. He has lived his entire life in seclusion, and is so devoted that even work is considered vain and only necessary for humiliating the undisciplined. He even considers eating to be a distraction from his quest for salvation. His world is as unbound to time as he is bound to faith in eternal and everlasting life.
Death to an Athonite monk is not a sad affair. On the contrary, each longs to reach his destination early. Of a monk who has been ill and bed-ridden for a long time, his brothers will claim, humorously, that he is too impatient to die.
When an Athonite monk dies his corpse is washed and wrapped in a cowl and then buried for three years. Ground space is limited here so every monk in every monastery takes a three-year turn at exhuming the remains of those that have died. His job is to then wash the bones in sea water before placing them in crypts found under each church. Thousands of skulls, like books on shelves – four and five deep, line the cob-webbed basement walls. Names and sometimes a short history are inscribed on each skull. One crypt contained a suitcase of bones from a monk who wanted his remains to rest alongside those of his Athonite brothers. The practice is symbolic of the everlasting bonds among all who have called the Holy Mountain home, and who have known the place they call ” The Window of The Soul.”