Up at 6:30 a.m. we arrived in the lobby of our hotel—the Zeus—
We then walked back to the hotel and had just seated ourselves for breakfast when I heard a hearty voice across the lobby call, “So look who’s here!” It was Vincent Rossi, my former colleague at Rose Hill College, who had just arrived in town with a friend. They had come to interview someone associated with the village’s famous Byzantine tower.
The ferry is named the Axion Estin after one of the Mountain’s most famous icons. Axion estin is Greek for “It is truly meet”, the opening words of an Orthodox hymn to the Virgin: “It is truly meet 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, without corruption Thou gavest birth to God the Word. Thou art truly Theotokos, and we magnify Thee.” The second, and older, part of the hymn, beginning with the words, “More honorable than the cherubim”, is attributed to Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer (eighth century). According to Athonite tradition, however, the words of the first sentence, beginning with the phrase Axion estin, were revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to a monk of the Mountain in the year 980.
One Saturday, it seems, a geron (spiritual elder) left his cell to attend the all-night vigil in Karyes, capital of the Holy Mountain, telling his disciple to chant the services alone. That evening an unknown monk came to the cell, and he and the disciple began the vigil together, but during the Ninth Ode of the Canon of the Matins service, when they began to sing the Magnificat, the visiting monk inserted the words “It is truly meet…” and then continued with “More honorable than the Cherubim….”; as he sang, the icon of the Theotokos began to radiate with Uncreated Light. When the disciple asked his mysterious visitor to write down the new words, he took a roof tile and wrote upon it with his finger as though the tile were made of wax. The disciple knew then this was no ordinary monk, but the Archangel Gabriel. The angel disappeared, but the icon—which now hangs in the Church of the Protaton
In any case this other, seaworthy Axion Estin
it took us nearly three to reach Zographou
It was approaching mid-afternoon when we found ourselves at the end of a tortuous, unusually rocky, and increasingly thorny path.
As Heaven would have it, our coming to that road coincided exactly with our meeting a man coming down a small side path from the opposite direction, and next to this path, as we could see very clearly now, was a sign marked (in Greek) “To Vatopedi”—a sign either both of us had missed or that had not been there before…. Be that as it may, there is little doubt we would once again have failed to take the proper turn were it not for the striding figure who had suddenly caught our attention at just the right instant, but who had now, just as suddenly, disappeared into the forest. The strange thing was that this fellow had no backpack (unlike most of the pilgrims we met), and he was clearly not a monk; and rather than sturdy hiking shoes he was wearing sandals. Indeed his overall appearance was that of someone going out for a rather casual stroll, which led us to conclude that the monastery must be just a few minutes away. So imagine our surprise as we trudged on and on and on, only to discover that Vatopedi was still another two hours away—over difficult ground, including a rocky descent
of about one thousand feet to the northern coast, to match of course the thousand feet we had ascended at the start of the day. So: man or angel? Either way he had evidently performed an angelic function! It is indeed “truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos”.
We finally arrived at Vatopedi
I think of Philip Sherrard’s description of pilgrimage when I reflect on this, our first day on the Mountain: “A pilgrimage is not simply a matter of getting to a particular shrine or holy place. It is a deliberate sundering and surrender of one’s habitual conditions of comfort, routine, safety, convenience. Unlike the tourist, whose aim is to see things and to travel around in conditions which are as comfortable, secure, familiar, convenient, and unchallenging as possible, the pilgrim breaks with his material servitude, puts his trust in God, and sets out on a quest which is inward as much as outward. In this sense he becomes the image of the spiritual seeker. He removes himself as far as possible from the artificiality within which he is enclosed by his life in society. Of this spiritual exploration, inward and outward, walking is an essential part. His feet tread the earth—the earth from which he is made and from which he is usually so cut off. Through his eyes, ears, nose, he renews his sense of natural beauty. He watches the flight of bird or insect, the ripple of light on leaves, the timeless vistas of the sea; he listens to the song of water, the call of God’s creatures; he breathes in the scent of tree and flower and soil. His feet tire, his body aches, sweat drips from his head and trickles into his eyes and down his neck. He tastes rigor and hardship. But through all this—and only through all this, and through his prayer and dedication and confidence—slowly an inner change is wrought, a new rhythm grows, a deeper harmony. The pilgrimage is at work” (“The Paths of Athos”, Eastern Churches Review, Vol. 9:1-2 , p. 102).
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.