Journey To The Heart Of The Orthodox Church - Mount Athos
By Father Andrew Harrison
This Journey began as a spur- of –the- moment decision. Peter Tatooles approached me asking for a recommendation to go on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. This recommendation is required by the Mr. Theofilos Russos our guide and the director of the pilgrimage. Theofilos has organized over 100 pilgrimages to Mt. Athos. He told me he received a blessing to do this ministry from his bishop. Because of the many pilgrimages he has directed, he has become highly respected by the Greek Orthodox Church and the monks of Mt. Athos. The respect he receives from the Abbots opens up doors that would not be normally open to visitors. I told Peter I would write his recommendation and asked if he would not mind if I went along. Peter was enthusiastic and directed me to the pilgrimage website to see if there l was vacancy. When I received my recommendation from Bishop Alexander, he encouraged me to look up the Abbot of Simon Petras Monastery where he stayed for a year. One more parishioner from St. Luke also heard about the pilgrimage and joined us. So we three began preparing to go. Theofilos strongly recommended that as priest I should grow a beard. In three months I had one that looked acceptable.
Most people would say that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, would be the center of the Orthodox Church because this is where the Ecumenical Patriarch lives. He lives in a compound as a religious minority in Turkey. It is not a fitting place when you think of Rome as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church or London as the seat of the Anglican Church or the various other cities in Europe which are claimed as the centers of other denominations. Orthodoxy looks like a poor sister to all the rest. But Jesus said “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. The Orthodox church is an ascetical church and there is no other place on earth were asceticism is practiced as they do on Mt. Athos.
Mt. Athos is located at the eastern end of a peninsula which juts out into the Aegean Sea. What makes this place the center of the Orthodox Church are the 20 monasteries located at the base of the mountain along the coast. To travel to the Holy Mountain you must first fly to Thessalonica, then travel by bus to Ouranopoulis and take a 4 hour ferry boat ride to Dephne then change to another ferry which docks at St. Gregoriou Monastery.
Our group was composed of 6 pilgrims with Theofilas as our leader. Theofilas was assisted by our bus driver Basil who was both a friend and supporter. Theofilas has some difficulty walking because of an injured knee. On the ferry boat we met a young novice named Dimitri who was returning to St. Gregoriou Monastery after visiting family in Atlanta, Georgia. He heard us speaking English and introduced himself. This began a lively conversation about Mt. Athos, monasticism and his calling. You could see in his eyes how inspired he was as a young monk. He said, “I just came for a visit and stayed.”
At each monastery there is an established procedure upon arrival. First you show your Mt. Athos passport called a Diamonitirio, sign a book with yours and your father’s name and receive a welcome glass of ouzo and some Turkish delight candy. At Gregoriou Monastery eight of the pilgrims were put in one room and I had the special privilege, as an archpriest, of a private room. This privilege was consistent with most of the monasteries we visited, but not all. The rooms are Spartan but very clean. Slippers are placed in front of each made bed.
After settling at the Xenophonos Monastary on our second day, Ken and I decided to take a hike. There was another monastery along the coast which can be reached on a dirt trail for about 5 miles. The trail twisted up and down the hills through olive groves and ended up on a rocky beach. We passed a spring called the Spring of St. George. Its name comes from an icon of St. George that washed up on the beach at this spot. We drank from the spring and then continued down the road. We should have taken more water because on the way back the heat in the direct sun was unbearable. A monk passed us and noticed how we were sweating and our lack of water. He gave us a bottle. Afterward I thought of Christ’s command to give drink to the thirsty.
We visited eight monasteries and several sketes. A Skete is a small monastery with a few monks connected to a larger one. The schedule was the same. After settling in our rooms you hear a loud clacking sound coming from a monk tapping on a board calling everyone to Vespers. The use of the board comes, I was told, from Noah calling the animals into the Ark while tapping on a board. When the sound stopped, the bells began to ring. Those assigned monks, who are not cooking, cleaning or farming, and pilgrims - men from all over the world (500 per day) , join together to celebrate the service. The churches are very dark from the centuries of use. Candle and incense smoke have darkened the walls of these 1000 year old churches. You can barely make out the images on the icons. Choirs of chanters on both sides of the church sang the responses in Byzantine chant. Vespers and hours are rather short about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The long service begins at 3 AM and goes on to about 7 AM. After Vespers we were fed dinner, and after Matins, breakfast. There are just two meals a day which were vegetarian but very filling - lots of beans. You are expected to eat in about 15 minutes. I am normally a fast eater but I could not keep up with the monks. We all ate in silence while the lives of the saints were read. When the dinner bell rings you sit down and when it rings again to get up, wait for the prayer and leave . It is at this point that you return to the Church to see and venerate the relics (bones) of the saints which are incased in gold and silver.
In reviewing my experience on Mt Athos I remembered the words of Bishop Alexander when he gave me his blessing to go. He said, “it is in the night when Mt. Athos is spiritually alive.” I can agree. We stayed at the monastery of Konstamitou on the feastday of the Finding of the True Cross, Old Calendar September 26. I was lying in bed trying to sleep. I got up to go to use the restroom and walking down the quiet darkened hall I heard chanting coming out of a room with a closed door. I thought it was a chapel. The next day when I was packing to leave I again walked past the door were I heard the chanting This time to door was open all I saw was a washing sink. A monk must have been in there chanting while he washing his cloths.
About 12:30AM, I heard the board tapping and then the bells. The service for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross was beginning. When I entered the church in the dark the service had already begun. All you could see was a monk with a single candle chanting. Since I am a Priest, again I had special treatment. I was ushered to a stall that had a fold down seat. I remained there until 9 AM the next morning. The hours seem to fly by. As the night service proceeded more candles were lit and more monks were chanting. At one point a monk lit all the candles on the chandelier and with a stick started it swinging. This was done twice, once during O Gladsome Light in Vespers and then during the Great Doxology in Matins. The cross was raised by the Monk Priest while chanting Lord have mercy one hundred times. The Divine Liturgy concluded the celebration. This is a normal feastday vigil service which is celebrated for all the major feastdays though out the liturgical year. (Eight and one half hours).
Breakfast was special. The tables were filled with freshly baked bread, soup, fresh vegetables and fruit topped off with wine. The monks sang the hymn of the feast while the Abbot entered in procession.
There were many other experiences during those eight days that come back to me from time to time. I have only touched upon a few. I would like to return some day and stay in only one monastery experiencing the services with the monks and the spiritual fathers. They certainly will not admit it but they are the heartbeat of the Orthodox Church. Every monastery was under restoration. You can see cranes lifting stones repairing the walls. Mt. Athos is coming back after years of neglect. It is a healthy heart and this may be a sign of the mission of the Orthodox faith in the modern world.