The simantron (a wooden board, or sometimes metal bar, that is rhythmically struck with a mallet)
began to sound in the courtyard around 3:15 or 3:30 a.m., followed soon afterward—this being a Sunday—by the monastery’s bells,
which were rung by our new friend Father Efstathios. We attended all the services this morning—about six and a half hours altogether—including a blessing of the waters in the phiale (the largest on Athos),
which is situated just outside the catholikon
beneath a thousand-year-old cypress tree
said to have been planted by Saint Athanasios himself. With only some fruit and nuts, a few small potatoes and salad, and a little bread the day before, I was more than ready when we were called to the trapeza around 9:45. Following a “brunch” of beans cooked in tomato sauce, bread, water, wine, and a little chocolate cracker something, we packed our things and headed down the path to our next destination, the Romanian Skete of Prodromos
(that is, “the Forerunner”, which is the epithet in the Orthodox East for Saint John the Baptist).
Arriving about 1:00 p.m., we checked in with the guest master by pantomime, he knowing no English and we no Romanian, and then, having dropped our backpacks off in our room, we continued our hike a half hour or so further along the road, following the signs
to Saint Athanasios’s Cave, which is reached by descending a steep cliff
leading down toward the sea. We found a quiet, shaded spot near the cave
and spent some time reading, drinking in the spectacular view,
and writing in our journals.
Back at the skete,
Vespers was from 4:00 to 5:30. A word or two should be interpolated at some point—and this is as good a place as any—concerning the carved wooden choir stalls that are positioned along the walls and around the pillars in the several churches we have visited, and sitting or standing in which we have spent a great deal of our time. With a seat that folds down for “full sitting” or up for “half sitting” or leaning, I find them to be very cleverly constructed affairs. For it is thus left up to the occupant whether to stand all the time, if his aim is to be as ascetical as possible, or only at key points in the services. During the two (or more) hours of services that take place every morning in a darkness illumined by only a few oil lamps and candles—well before the sun has even begun to think about peeking through the windows!—the stalls become handy places to doze. When “half sitting” you can rest yourself on the arms of the stall, nodding your head down to your chest, or when “full sitting” you can lean yourself back or to one side for a more thorough and satisfying slumber! Trevor was somewhat chagrined one morning to discover he had more or less slept through all of Orthros, but he felt better when I told him I had seen more than one monk do the same. Perhaps I should add, since this is now a public document, that I mean no disrespect whatsoever by this observation; on the contrary, it is one more positive sign of Orthodoxy’s utter realism—of its recognition that a man is entitled to his finitude even on his way toward theosis, its characteristic sense that all of life, even sleep, is somehow caught up in the dance of prayer.
This was my first in-person experience with Romanian chant, a very beautiful combination of Byzantine melodies with some simple polyphony. The thirty or so monks made many more proskyneses (full prostrations) during the course of the service than their Greek counterparts do, not only when venerating the icons but also, more rapidly and rhythmically, when repeating Doamne, miluieşte, Romanian for “Lord, have mercy”. After Vespers it was supper in the trapeza as usual, followed—again as is usually the case on the Mountain—by a short service back in the catholikon
during which the relics were venerated, including those of Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200).
Afterward we talked with Father Gabriel, a young monk in his mid-twenties, who visited the United States a few years ago on an exchange program in Maryland and who seems the only English speaker in the community. He informed us that services would begin in the morning at 3:00 a.m., but since we are planning a rather lengthy hike tomorrow we will probably just go to the liturgy, which starts around 5:30. We spent the rest of the evening strolling around the courtyard
and sitting on a bench, enjoying the beautifully tended gardens and watching the aerial acrobatics of some birds (we had also seen them at the Lavra) who build little nests of mud under the eaves. Trevor said they were his new favorites. I am very glad to have stopped here and would strongly recommend that other pilgrims include this community in their itineraries.
Much could be written about the light, or rather lights, of the Holy Mountain: the soft oranges and pinks of the cliffs during the liminal minutes at each end of the day; the twinkling, dancing play of candle flames and oil lampada reflected in the icons; the shimmering reflections of stars on the sea; the otherworldly blending of gold and silver—the two Trees of Valinor!—when the sun has not yet quite retired for the night and the moon has just begun her journey across the sky; the radiant faces of the monks in church as morning first begins to creep through the windows after hours of service in darkness and one begins to realize that the black-robed swirls of movement have been people all along!