Day Two: Thursday, 14 June — Vatopedi to Stavronikita
A less eventful—and blessedly less rigorous!—day began with our attending Orthros in the catholikon
I neglected to mention in my entry for Wednesday that Vatopedi is the largest community on the Mountain; there are currently about one hundred monks, and the brotherhood’s numerous buildings include thirty-four separate chapels. Owing to the large number of pilgrims and the relatively small size of the catholikon, the Liturgy is normally served simultaneously in a number of different locations. The chanters during Orthros were excellent, and I was particularly struck by something I had never seen before: in addition to the two lead chanters, who sang antiphonally from each side of the nave, there was a third monk who strode quite rapidly back and forth between them, the wide sleeves of his cassock billowing in the breeze he created. He would arrive just in time at each kliros (chanter’s stand) to intone a given verse of the Psalms while the chanter on that side was singing the appropriate sticheron (special hymn)—or at least I think this is what might have been happening! There was much to attend to on many levels.
After breakfast we decided to begin making our way toward the monastery of Stavronikita even though we had been granted the abbot’s blessing to stay a second night at Vatopedi. Several friends who have been to the Mountain had recommended to me that we try to spend at least two days in at least one of the monasteries in order to get a sense of the daily rhythm of monastic life. This would doubtless have been a most rewarding experience, but we were eager to see as many different communities as possible, and Trevor was especially keen on exploring as much of the natural environment as we could. Perhaps on a future visit I shall attempt to stay put for a longer time in one place. Before leaving we stopped by the monastery’s bookstore and there secured what has proven to be a much better map (the Road Editions of “Mount Athos”) along with a little booklet on “The Paths of Agion Oros” (published by Lectus). I would strongly recommend both of these to prospective hikers over the Zwerger map.
Most pilgrims spend only four days (and three nights) on Mount Athos, but we had decided early in our planning that we would try to stay a full week. Since the diamonitiria the Pilgrims’ Office had issued us were only for the usual, shorter period, we had been advised that we would need to request an extension of these permits after our arrival on the Mountain. Extensions are granted at the headquarters of the Holy Epistasia in the capital, Karyes, so to Karyes
we decided to go. This proved a fruitless detour, however, since the monk in charge of the approval process was away from his office and was not expected back until afternoon. Therefore, having first purchased some fruit in one of the little shops
in the village, we headed down the road toward Stavronikita. This was quite an easy walk of only an hour and half, though it was along one of the Mountain’s rather dusty and not very agreeable forest roads,
many of which have been only recently cut—partly in the interest (we were told by one monk) of bringing in water more rapidly in the event of forest fires, though also in order to deal with the increasing numbers of visitors.
Stavronikita we have found to be a perfectly exquisite little gem.
I am writing these words very comfortably seated on a little couch on a balcony overlooking the deep blues and greens of the Aegean with the (quite uncharacteristically) unclouded peak of Athos
rising directly in front of me, framed against the bright afternoon sky. Reaching the monastery about 1:15 p.m., we have spent a quiet and relaxing afternoon and early evening exploring the grounds—including the eighteenth-century Chapel of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (fourth century)
at the edge of the cemetery; relaxing in our room
and taking short naps; listening to the sounds of the waves on the rocks about a hundred feet beneath our guestroom windows;
sitting along the water’s edge
and reading; attending Vespers; enjoying a delicious supper of pasta, tomatoes, onions, bread, and apricots; and visiting with the guest master, Father Palamas, who gave us little icon cards of Saint Nicholas (also fourth century),
the patron of the catholikon, as well as some holy oil. After Compline we had the opportunity to venerate the monastery’s relics, which include those of The Three Holy Siblings (my epithet, not the tradition’s!): Saint Basil the Great (c. 330-79), Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395), and Saint Macrina the Younger (324-79).
I have very much enjoyed our stay in this little community and shall make a point of coming here again if and when I am able to return to Athos. It is the smallest of the monasteries, both in terms of physical size and number of monks (just twenty or so at this time), and for this reason attracts fewer pilgrims, which means in turn of course that it affords the physical traveler who aspires to be a spiritual traveler a very quiet setting—a superb place for making a retreat of several days.
A younger monk, and relative newcomer to the Mountain, told us of being invited to go on a walk with an eighty-five-year-old elder and his disciple, and of the old man scampering along the path as if he were a mountain goat! It is customary in Eastern Christian spiritual practice for a disciple to externalize, and thus objectify, his thoughts—both good and bad—by telling them all to his spiritual master. At one point the disciple said, “Father, I have just had a thought, and would like your blessing to express it.” And of course the blessing was given. “My thought was … to push you off the cliff!” The elder just laughed and said it was of the devil, who knew that in killing his spiritual master the disciple would only hurt himself. The story was told to illustrate the great freedom and love involved in radical openness.
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.