A Day In The Life Of An Athonite Pligrim
By Peter Tatooles
Mount Athos - The Holy Mountain - is a rugged peninsula in Northeastern Greece that gracefully touches the crystal blue Aegean Sea with a coastline that rises ephemerally from the water, seemingly reaching its arms into the endless pale sky. As our ship sailed nimbly in calm crystal seas along its southeastern coast, my thoughts shuffled between the chatter of the pilgrims and visitors on board, and the impending slopes of the coastline which whispered a gracious invitation to come ashore.
While the pilgrims and visitors aboard the ship took photos and engaged in conversation, I felt the scorching heat of the sun falling upon my face as autumn had not yet arrived. The Aegean Sea was as smooth as glass, and not a trace of breeze was in the air. Only 500 male souls make the journey each day to the Holy Mountain - as permits there are strictly limited.
Our ship was named the Axion Estin, the name given to the Holy Icon of the Theotokos which resides in the Protaton (First) church in the village of Karyes on the Holy Mountain. According to tradition, the hymn of the same name was revealed there, written by a visiting monk on a tile with his finger. The icon radiated in uncreated light as the hymn was sung. The monk who wrote it down was none other than the Holy Archangel Gabriel himself.
It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim,
and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,
who without corruption you gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos, we magnify thee.
Days later we were blessed to visit this church and venerate this icon. Of course, the Holy Mountain holds thousands of mysteries of our faith, and it is - after all - the Garden of the Holy Theotokos. Tradition says, after she set foot there on a journey with St. John the Evangelist and admired its beauty, no women have ever been allowed to set foot on the Holy Mountain. This is simply in reverence to our Holy Mother. I must share the fact that her loving veil permeates Athos, her garden, and she is ever present beyond any doubt one may have.
As we sailed on, the massive pure white castle walls of the Holy Monastery of St. Panteleimon came into view. I marveled at the stark green tiled roofs set against the thatched forest and steep slopes behind it. This was a Russian monastery, and it sat silent on the shore as we passed. Then the Holy Monastery of Simonapetra appeared at the apex of the harsh landscape – it sat precariously on the edge of a cliff, seeming to be a bridge between heaven and earth.
Soon enough though, we docked at the Port of Daphne. A lone café and small store stood on the shore, as each pilgrim waited for transport from there to one of over 20 large monasteries on the Holy Mountain – it was a bustling site to say the least. We enjoyed a Greek coffee and sweets, and boarded another ship destined for the Holy Monastery of St. Gregoriou. Once ashore, we were greeted by our pious hosts with loukoumi (Greek candy), a small coffee and a glass of Raki (distilled liquor).
As is customary on Athos, after receiving a simple room fitted for six pilgrims, we attended Vespers at 5pm in the Church of the Holy Virgin-Martyr Anastasia the Roman. The main church here was similar in design to most of what we saw in the dozen or so large monasteries we visited across the Holy Mountain. They are all roughly 1000 years old and are lit only by candlelight. Ancient frescos engulf the churches and comfort the faithful from every direction. Several miracle working icons stand in prominent places within each church, and are venerated in a predefined order. The churches are further darkened from years of beeswax candle smoke, and the monks bustle around in rhythmic duties - as some tend to candles, while others rotate positions chanting hymns. The smell of sweet incense warmed our hearts.
After Vespers, we immediately crossed over to the refectory for the day’s evening meal – there are only two meals per day. As we entered the dining hall, a pious monk read prayers in Greek, as we ate our simple food in complete silence – a whole fresh cucumber sat in front on my metal plate which was filled with plain but nourishing noodles. Fresh baked bread, feta cheese, olives, and red grapes were waiting to fill our hungry stomachs. In ten short minutes the meal was complete. Like soldiers we were blessed by the Abbot and processed back into the church for Paraklesis and veneration of the Holy Relics of the Monastery. At St. Gregoriou, the entire skull of St. Anastasia was present for veneration amongst many other prominent holy relics. On a long table sat the relics, and the priest that presided that evening touched our crosses and prayer ropes to the bones as a blessing. There were marvels beyond compare in all of the monasteries we visited.
At the Holy Monastery of St. Gregoriou, we had evening coffee and a spiritual conversation with a kind English speaking monk, Father Damianos. We then retired to our room as the golden sun descended into the Aegean – the beginning of a new day in Byzantine time. Not a sound was heard, save the gentle waves caressing the rocky shores of Athos. After several hours of restful sleep, we were awoken by the Semantron, the wooden block calling us to rise for church. The sea was softly lit by moonlight and thousands of stars that waited above us at only 2am by my own watch. The services concluded with the Divine Liturgy nearly 5 hours later, and it was once again time to eat. This time, however, it was the morning meal and we were treated to a refreshing glass of homemade red wine.
After packing our bags and saying farewell, we made way for the dock and our next stop as we repeated this routine for eight nights. We saw many wonders along the way, as each monastery held treasures of our faith that we were delighted and blessed to see. Yet what we see with our “eyes” is only part of the Athonite experience. What we see in our “hearts” is something much different. For me, I will never be quite the same. I yearn for the silence, stillness, and thirst for the inner peace afforded by the simple ascetic life there. Glory be to God, Amen.