Day Seven: Tuesday, 19 June — Agia Anna to Simonopetra
Breakfast this morning was exceptionally spare, just a little bread and water, which we supplemented with some dried fruit and a few nuts from our backpacks. Actually there were also a few pieces of Turkish delight, apparently left over from yesterday’s hospitality for arriving pilgrims; this ubiquitous Athonite sweet, which is traditionally served to newcomers along with little cups of water, coffee, and ouzo, is in my opinion rather like lemon- or cherry-flavored Elmer’s glue even when it is fresh, so I decided to pass!
We stopped briefly to visit a tiny grotto—just below the guesthouse—
that had belonged to Saint Gerasimos (1506-79) before making our way down the several hundred steps to the arsanas.
As we were waiting for the ferry that would take us further along the coast to Simonopetra, a large supply boat docked. A truck
piled high with bales of hay was the first to come off, followed by a number of palettes heavily laden with pieces of slate
for some of the construction work going on back up the hill at the skete. These two quite disparate sorts of cargo turned out to be closely linked, as lay workers and a few monks began placing the slate in baskets tied to the backs of some rather sad looking mules, who had already set to work munching the hay, gathering strength and steeling their courage for the difficult climb
ahead. A few pilgrims—perhaps better called “tourists”—who had also emerged from the boat had decided to take advantage of these transportation arrangements as well and were climbing aboard little wooden platforms strapped to the backs of the mules, their rather considerable luggage slung to each side. Although Athos has been referred to as a “Christian Tibet”, compassion toward “all sentient beings” did not seem the rule this morning!
A quick (twenty-minute) passage on the ferry, which afforded some spectacular scenery, including close-up views of a hesychasterion
perched just above the water as well as the monasteries of Dionysiou
brought us to the port of Simonopetra,
where we began a somewhat longer (thirty-minute) heart-racing climb up the zig-zagging, cobbled path
to the monastery itself, which sits—rather precariously—at the top of a huge pinnacle
of barren rock rising about a thousand feet above sea level. Speaking of Tibet, I must say that both the construction and the position of this latest of our Byzantine fortresses seem uncannily like that of the Potala in Lhasa, traditional home of the Dalai Lama. Perhaps a case could be made for an “immanent unity” of sacred architecture! The guest master, clearly experienced in these matters, quickly deduced from our soaking wet shirts that we had not been driven from the port at Daphne, which seems the most common mode of journeying for the other travelers who come here, and he very kindly asked whether we would like something to eat—besides the Turkish delight, of course!—to which Trevor replied, “Yes, please!” So after being shown to a spacious room
with a beautiful view of Athos, we were treated to an unexpected lunch of roasted potatoes, eggplant, bread, and fruit, and then we both luxuriated in our first showers in five days.
I had just lain down for a short nap when one of the monks, Father Maximos, knocked on our door, and I am now writing these words having just arrived back from a delightful hour or so exploring the monastery
with him in the lead. His name was mentioned to me before we came to the Mountain, and I had been hoping to have a chance to meet him. A former professor at Harvard, he has been here at Simonopetra for two years and was tonsured a monk just two months ago. He is now the librarian and took us on a tour of the forty-some-thousand-volume, multileveled facility—complete with computerized catalogue and moveable shelving in the stacks to save on space—all deftly wrapped around the mountain in the lowest reaches of the monastery’s foundation. Much of the monastery was destroyed by a terrible fire in 1891, including the library, but a few volumes were rescued and others have since been acquired from other monasteries, including a 1782 edition of the Philokalia, which he allowed us to hold. As we descended several flights of stairs, Father Maximos explained that the monastery is smaller than it appears in photographs (there are only about half the monks of Vatopedi) since the core is actually the mountain itself, and we could see this clearly as we looked into several side rooms, in each of which the inner wall was indeed solid rock.
We also visited the kitchen and trapeza, both of which are in the process of being renovated. Many beautiful, newly painted icons adorn the walls of thetrapeza, one entire mural telling the story of the founding of the monastery by Saint Simon. We then headed outside, walking along one of the eyrie-like balconies
where we could look down
on birds in flight—and then visiting the cemetery.
As with other Athonite cemeteries, there are just a few graves (perhaps five or six) since the bodies of the monks are periodically exhumed to make way for the newly departed. Father Maximos explained that the graves are dug only about three feet deep. The monk’s body is laid right on the earth without a casket, fully dressed in monastic habit, and is then covered with pieces of slate before being buried (this apparently helps to keep the bones in place for ease of exhumation). The length of time the bodies remain in the ground varies somewhat, but it is usually three or four years, and of course by then the flesh has mostly melted away. The garments are still intact, however—“Polyester socks last forever!” Father Maximos quipped—and he admitted it could be rather eerie to confront the skeleton of an old friend still garbed in full monastic habit. An excellent memento mori! The skull and other major bones are then arranged in the charnel house with their counterparts from other skeletons, and the smaller bones are all placed in a common, metal-lidded ossuary in the adjacent garden.
Some of the fathers say the color of the bones is significant, an amber color being often deemed a mark of sanctity, while white “isn’t good”; in the final analysis, though—Father Maximos was quick to add—“bones are bones”.
"In each of the monasteries there are elderly monks who came to Athos in their teens, straight from small country villages, never having been on a date, never having seen a movie, without ever going to college—and perhaps without finishing high school. A younger, highly educated father described them to us, with evident affection and admiration, as incredibly childlike, though by no means impractical, people."
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.