Sunday, May 16, 2010

0003 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos from Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 2

Day One: Wednesday, 13 June — Ouranoupolis to Vatopedi

Up at 6:30 a.m. we arrived in the lobby of our hotel—the Zeus—
for breakfast at 7:45, but were told by the manager we would be well advised to secure our diamonitiria (the special permits one must have for entrance to the Mountain) and tickets for the ferry as soon as possible, so we headed to the Pilgrims’ Office, just a five minute walk from the hotel. Having stopped there yesterday, we were prepared to show our passports and reservations, and to pay the 55-Euro charge.

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.
Vincent and I had exchanged a few emails in the spring, so he knew in general terms of our plan to come to Athos but did not know our dates. We visited with them for a half hour or so and then, having shouldered our backpacks, headed to the quay to board the ferry—along with the daily quota of roughly one hundred other men, together with an assortment of trucks and vans carrying supplies to the monasteries.

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 Karyes and is referred to as the Axion Estin—continued to radiate light for some time and has been the source of numerous miracles over the course of the centuries.

In any case this other, seaworthy Axion Estin
 left the dock promptly at the appointed time of 9:45. About a half hour later we rounded a bend in the undulating coastline and were treated to our first glimpse of Athos itself,
at this point just a gray silhouette barely visible in the distance through the morning mist. It took about another half hour to reach the arsanas (port) of the Bulgarian Monastery of Zographou,
where we had elected to disembark. (Most pilgrims continue further along the coast to the port village of Daphne.) We had carefully studied what we thought was a good topographical map—namely, Wege am Athos by the Austrian Reinhold Zwerger, recommended by the Friends of Mount Athos—and had come to the conclusion it would be a relatively easy hike from there to Zographou itself and then on across the peninsula to Vatopedi, where we had arranged to stay our first night. I also inquired about this plan at the Pilgrims’ Office, only to receive confirmation that this was indeed a reasonable itinerary. Well, hike we did, but not for the “three hours or so” we were told it would probably take us. In fact, owing in part to a short detour with a pilgrim from Germany who had lost his way, but also to our own frequent stops along the path
to take in a sudden glimpse of the Mountain,

to offer a prayer at a wayside shrine,

 to enjoy the many varieties of beautiful wildflowers and to make certain of our bearings by cross-checking our map with the occasional sign,

it took us nearly three to reach Zographou

 , and I believe it would have taken at least another two to get to Vatopedi—if, that is, we’d not ourselves gotten rather seriously lost!

It was approaching mid-afternoon when we found ourselves at the end of a tortuous, unusually rocky, and increasingly thorny path.
The cobblestones simply disappeared in the middle of a hillside meadow, and our compass did us no good since we were no longer sure in which direction our destination lay. The only signs of civilization were two abandoned wooden platforms, each constructed atop four roughly hewn logs and positioned at a height of perhaps eight to ten feet from the ground. Could these be, we wondered, the surviving workmanship of some bygone Athonite stylites?
We inquired about this more than once afterward, but none of the monks we asked had ever seen or heard of such thing. In any case it was beginning to look as though we might have to spend our first night in the wilderness—and without the benefit of our own styloi (pillars)! All we knew to do was entreat the Mother of God for Her help and start retracing our steps to the main road.

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

about 5:45 p.m., almost exactly seven hours after setting out in the morning. We were drenched with perspiration, exhausted, and extremely thirsty, having consumed the last of our water (thinking we were nearly finished with our hike) about an hour and half earlier. A monk in the gatehouse took our diamonitiria and told us that Vespers was in progress and that we would need to wait until it was over to see the guest master. Fortunately, as we were stumbling about the courtyard trying to find the catholikon (central church of a monastery), the guest master appeared, introducing us in turn to an American monk, Father Matteus, who knew me from his visit to Rose Hill in 1996. The monks and guests were soon called into the trapeza (refectory) for supper—and some welcome water!—after which we were invited to go to the catholikon to hear a short talk about Vatopedi’s history and architecture and venerate several miracle-working icons and the holy relics. These included a piece of the true Cross and the skulls of Saints Gregory the Theologian (329-89) and John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), the latter with its left ear completely incorrupt and visible behind a small piece of glass inside a little lid on the silver reliquary. Father Matteus explained that this was the ear, according to tradition, into which Saint Paul had been seen to whisper while Saint John was writing his homilies on Romans. Vatopedi also possesses the zone (sash) of the Theotokos, which is known for effecting many cures, especially for women who are experiencing difficult or dangerous pregnancies, but also for people with cancer. Small pieces of cloth that have been touched to the sash and that are reputed to have the same thaumaturgical benefits are available to pilgrims who request them, and we did this before our departure the following morning.

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 [1977], p. 102).

As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

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