Day Six: Monday, 18 June — Prodromos to Agia Anna (Saint Anne) — The “Desert”
Up at 5:00 a.m., we entered the porch of the catholikon at about 5:15 in almost total darkness. Stepping unexpectedly backward to make way for the priest, who was just coming out to cense the icons, I nearly crushed a poor monk who was prostrate to the left of the door—and I doubtless would have done so had Trevor not pushed me back just in the knick of time! After a breakfast of fresh fruit and delicious bread—several slices of which, together with a few apricots and some halva, Father Gabriel had kindly packed for our lunch—we said goodbye to the Forerunner about 7:30. The first half hour or so was spent retracing our steps back up theroad to the main path we had taken yesterday coming over from the Great Lavra. Here we filled our water bottles at a small spring—where we were briefly joined by a canine traveling companion—and then began our trek in the direction of the Skete of Agia Anna.
This was the hike we had perhaps looked forward to more than any other, as it would be our one and only opportunity to experience just a bit of the “Desert”, the name the monks give the most remote part of their peninsula, an area of wildly varied topography located to the south and east of the peak of Mount Athos itself. Here is where many of the greatest ascetics have lived during the course of the centuries, whether with a few other monks in the numerous kellia (cells), kalyvae (huts), and kathismata(settlements) that dot the area or as true solitaries in isolated hesychasteria(hermitages), these last taking the form of rather ramshackle cabins or small caves in the cliffs. This would also be our chance to dive deeper into the Mountain’s exquisite natural environment.
For the first two hours the trail was almost entirely uphill and rather difficult going. Like many of the Athonite paths, it had at some point been painstakingly cobbled by monks who must have been thinking (or so it seemed to us) more about the hooves of their mules, and perhaps the erosion these obliging pack animals might cause on the slopes, than their own two human feet! Fortunately the path soon leveled off and turned to mostly dirt and small gravel, a much easier walking surface—at least for us bipeds!—than the broken and often jagged stones had been. Rising like a wall on our right were the lower reaches of the Mountain, and to our left was a lovely meadow, brightened by hundreds of exquisite wildflowers    , cascading down the hill toward the sea. Though we were unable to see them, we heard the cries of wild jackals in the distance several times, coming it seemed from somewhere just below the treeline.
Another half hour or so further on, and we passed rather suddenly into a very dense forest  . It was as if someone had abruptly turned the lights out—and turned down the thermostat by a dozen degrees! Thecanopy afforded by the (mainly) chestnut, oak, and fir trees was thick enough to block the sun almost entirely. The profusion of colors we had been enjoying in the meadow gave way at once to the deep earthen greens of moss and lichen, and the browns of a mostly sandy soil were replaced by the blacks of a loam that had been enriched by centuries of falling leaves. I do not recall ever feeling so much as if I were in a cave while still outdoors! We found the perfect spot to pause for our lunch just below an old stone bridge on a bank of tangled roots overlooking a small mountain stream. To one side of the bridge we noticed two weathered icons of the Mother of God tacked to a tree, a superb spot for a mid-day session of invocation, while on the opposite side was a tangled, rocky path, like so many we had come across today, leading off from the main trail we had been following. Its entrance was marked by one of the most memorable things we have seen: a small rock bearing the roughly etched image of the Theotokos and an unidentified saint. Could this be the portal, I wondered—through this labyrinth of trees and bushes—to the hidden fastness of some holy hesychast? It would no doubt have been a great blessing to encounter such an elder, someone whose very being had become his teaching, and it was tempting to forsake the mid-day hour of prayer to see what we might find. But this would have been a temptation precisely, I realized. For all the traditions teach us not to neglect the way we are given, wandering (Greek:planē) away in search of experiences, graces, sensible consolations.
Rested and nourished, we continued on our way, coming in another two hours to the “Cross”, a place where one can turn either right to ascend to the Panagia Chapel (at an elevation of around 5,000 feet) and then on up to the peak of Athos (6,700 feet) or to the left to descend toward Karoulia—a name meaning “pulleys” in Greek after the only method by which the hermits of old were able to get down the cliffs to their hesychasteria or have food and supplies lowered to them. We were told that the monks who continue to live in these settlements have reduced their bodily needs to an absolute minimum, drinking only rainwater, which they collect in the hollows of the rocks outside their huts, eating just enough to stay alive, and supporting themselves by weaving baskets and making komvoskinia(prayer ropes), which they exchange for food in the port village of Daphne. Just a few minutes more, and we came to a small clearing where we could catch our first glimpse of the Skete of Agia Anna, over 2,000 feet below the level of the trail we had been following, as well as the Monastery of Simonopetra, which will be our next and last stop, perched atop its distinctive rock tower further along the coast. Here we began our descent along a very precipitous, very rocky trail, where every step had to be taken with the utmost care to avoid slipping or stumbling—which, thankfully, I managed to do only once! It was quite a demanding hour or so, punctuated by three or four stops to rest and drink in some of the breathtaking scenery. I must say I had never before become so weary walking downhill.
We arrived at the skete    about 3:00 p.m. and were soon joined outside the archontariki (guesthouse) by seven other pilgrims arriving from various directions (mostly coming up the hill from the arsanas). While waiting for the guest master to make his appearance, we struck up a conversation with one of these travelers, who turned out to be the national director of the professional football (soccer) association for Greece—basically the equivalent, I suppose, of the Commissioner of the NFL, though I rather doubt the latter makes a pilgrimage every year to the Mountain, as this man does!
There was no Vespers this evening in the kyriakon (central church of a skete). In the sketes, unlike the monasteries, it is the custom for the monks to read the daily services in their separate cells, coming together for the Divine Liturgy only on Sundays and feasts. But one of the fathers was kind enough to show us inside the church and let us venerate the relics and icons, including a thaumaturgical icon of the community’s patroness, Saint Anne—the mother of the Mother of God—who is especially known for favoring the supplications of women who have had trouble conceiving or bearing children; numerous photographs of babies had been left beneath the icon in thanksgiving for answered prayers. Among the relics were the skull of Saint Makarios the Great (c. 300-391) and the right foot (with skin and veins still attached) of Saint Anne. There soon followed a delicious supper of lentil soup, cucumbers, bread, and apples. We have been sitting in the courtyard just outside the church, enjoying the braying of themules—though not the accompanying flies!—and writing in our journals, as the sun sets over the Aegean and another memorable day concludes.
It is the middle of the Apostles’ Fast on the Mountain (Old Calendar), which accounts in part for the simplicity of the meals we have been given. Of course, this is nothing compared to Great Lent, which entails the strictest discipline of the year. We were told that the first three days of Lent—Clean Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—are the most rigorous of all. Many of the fathers will eat and drink nothing, even water, during this period, and one of them described how drawn their faces can get as their bodies begin to dehydrate. Beginning with the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday night, it is common for the monks to say, “The fast is over!” For then a meal, however simple, is eaten each day.
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.