Day Three: Friday, 15 June — Stavronikita to Iveron
We rose this morning at 5:00 a.m. to catch the end of Orthros and then the Liturgy. Since “breakfast” would not be served until mid-day, Father Palamas, knowing we needed to leave fairly early, kindly offered us some bread, homemade apricot jelly, and water, as we sat under the grape arbor
just outside the guesthouse. Another, older monk also gave Trevor a small cross he had fashioned from the seeds of olives. We had arranged the night before to share a “taxi” with four Greek pilgrims, rather than walking back up the same dusty road we came down yesterday. The taxis are eight-to-ten-person vans, some driven by monks, though in this case the driver was a layman.
Arriving in Karyes around 9:00 a.m., we elected first to walk up the hill on the northeast side of the village to the Skete of Saint Andreas,
a dependency of Vatopedi that boasts the largest catholikon on the Mountain—owing in large part to the patronage of two Russian czars. The skete was virtually abandoned at the time of the Russian Revolution, however, and the monks’ quarters and other outbuildings are now very dilapidated. As elsewhere on the Mountain, extensive restoration work is in progress—we saw a large bell
that had been brought down from the tower for cleaning—and lay workers were all about, together I fear with considerable litter, which we have noticed at a number of construction sites. We were able to take a very brief (and unauthorized!) peek inside at the huge, gilded iconostasis (icon screen) before being scolded by one of the workers.
Back down to the village we went again to the Office of the Holy Epistasia
and were this time able to secure the needed extension on our permits. That task accomplished, Trevor agreed to guard our backpacks for a few minutes while I browsed in a couple of shops,
looking at icons and such. When I returned I found him engrossed in conversation with a monk, who turned out to be someone mentioned to us just the day before yesterday by Vincent Rossi and his traveling companion. I had expressed my bemusement at the fact that many of these ancient monasteries now have fax machines, and Vincent’s friend had replied, “Fax machines? That’s nothing. I correspond with a monk in one of the sketes who uploads things to the Internet on his solar-powered laptop!” Well, as Providence would have it, out of the two or three thousand other Athonite possibilities, this turned out to be the very same computer-savvy father. Trevor had apparently not yet mentioned our surname, so when I introduced myself, the monk’s eyes grew wide and then immediately narrowed: “So you’re James Cutsinger! You’re that crazy, mixed-up Sufi!” Somewhat taken aback, I nonetheless had the presence of mind to reply, “On what authority do you say that?” To which he replied, “By my own authority!” “On what grounds?” I then asked. At this point, he faked a flurry of punches to my jaw, and simply said, “GRRR!” I confess it is still not clear to me, even after a few more minutes of rather tense conversation, what he might have read of mine or heard about me, but I suspect he must have seen my contribution to the “Sufism and Christian East” conference and book: “Hesychia: An Orthodox Opening to Esoteric Ecumenism”. I had fully intended to keep my perennialism to myself on the Mountain, not realizing I would be dealing with such widely read, or highly “wired”, monks!
At this point we bought some apples, peaches, and nuts in one of the shops and, having fortified ourselves for more hiking, headed out of town, passing through the grounds of Koutloumousiou Monastery on the outskirts of Karyes,
and then along a very beautiful—and thankfully well-marked—cobble-stone path,
which wound through a wooded glen or two, past a tiny wayside chapel,
and then across an old stone bridge,
extending over a small waterfall and rapids.
We arrived at our next destination, the Monastery of Iveron,
about 2:00 p.m. and were welcomed by the guest master, Father Jeremiah. He had no record of the reservation I had made by telephone some months ago, but having looked over a copy of the letter and fax I had also sent to the monastery, and having learned of my friendship with Father John Chryssavgis—like him a Greek Australian, who had recommended we visit Iveron—he was ready enough to offer us some very satisfying accommodations.
The afternoon was spent reading, taking a few photographs of the environs
including the curious figure of what appeared to be a black woman on the catholikon cupola—
and doing some laundry. We then attended Vespers at 6:00 p.m. in the catholikon. One of the cantors was by far the best we have heard yet: he seemed to have a kind of river of Byzantine sound running through him, and when he opened his mouth it flowed forth as if with no effort. Vespers was immediately followed by a short akathist service in a chapel near the gate, where we were able to venerate the monastery’s best-known icon, the wonder-working Panagia Portaitissa, or “All-Holy Keeper of the Gate”.
Tradition has it that this sacred image of the Theotokos and Christ, painted by Saint Luke and miraculously preserved through the centuries, found its way into the possession of a poor widow in Nicaea during the time of the iconoclastic controversy. At the Virgin’s instruction, the widow placed the icon into the sea to preserve it from destruction, and to her amazement it did not sink but floated away upright on the waves. Many years later it came to the Holy Mountain, arriving near the Monastery of Iveron, once again floating on the waves—“in a pillar of fire”, as the Athonite narrative recounts. The Mother of God appeared in a vision to a holy monk of the monastery named Gabriel, telling him She wished for his brotherhood to have Her icon for their help and salvation; by his faith in Her power he was able “to walk on the waters as though on dry land”, bringing it to shore and placing it in the altar of the catholikon. The next morning, however, the monks found the icon was missing, having been moved—or having moved itself—to a position near the gate of the monastery. It was returned to the altar, but the next day was found again at the gate. This scenario was repeated a third time, at which point the Theotokos spoke from the icon, informing the monks, “It is not for you to guard Me, but for Me to guard you!” Hence the name Portaitissa, and hence its present position in its own special chapel by the gate.
A monk reflected on his family: parents who are now in their eighties, an older sister, a younger brother. His mother had given him her blessing to come to Mount Athos, but was very sad at his decision to do so, until she saw pictures of his tonsuring. Then she said it all began to make perfect sense to her. He spoke of the paradox of feeling closer to certain people in the world, including the members of his family, now that he was separated from them physically, while others—whom he had formerly thought were important—had nearly dissolved in his memory.
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.