Wednesday, October 6, 2010

0028 - The Pilgrimage to Mount Athos of Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 9 & Final.

Day Eight: Wednesday, 20 June — Simonopetra to Ouranoupolis
I left off writing yesterday in the mid-afternoon before the simantron 

sounded for Vespers, when we had our first chance to hear the beautiful chanting of the much-recorded monks of this monastery. I am told that Simonopetra is the only community on the Mountain to employ full double choirs at every service, though perhaps Vatopedi is not far behind. In any case it was quite a change from the soloist cantors we had experienced thus far on our pilgrimage, and it was the first really powerful use of theison (the drone note of Byzantine chant); the resonating richness of the sound was breathtaking. As usual Vespers was followed by a light supper, and then it was back to the catholikon 

for a short Compline service and the opportunity to venerate the relics, including in this case the right hand of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite and the left hand of Saint Mary Magdalene—

which is incorrupt and from time to time heats up to body temperature! “This,” said one of the fathers, in a memorable understatement, “is rather unusual.” I can only assume he was speaking in comparison with the hundreds of more “usual” Athonite relics!
At this point—it was probably 7:00 p.m. or so—Trevor went to get his camera, and we spent the rest of the evening with Father Maximos, walking first to the cave of Saint Simon,

 the monastery’s founder, just a short distance outside the gate and around a bend in the road leading past the monastery’s aqueduct.

Here we passed through a small anteroom, from which we were able to climb a narrow rock-cut stairway onto a tiny ledge where the saint slept. Tradition has it that Saint Simon, emerging from this grotto on a mid-thirteenth-century Christmas Eve, caught sight of the Star of Bethlehem in the sky. A single shaft of light was shining down upon the huge rock tower upon which Simonopetra (Greek for “Simon’s rock”)

now stands, and a voice told him that here he should build a monastery: hence its dedication to the Nativity. In recent times Saint Mary Magdalene has come to be regarded as a second founder of the community, for after the great fire of 1891 the abbot, who was already traveling in Russia with the saint’s hand, was able to raise money for rebuilding the monastery by displaying this wonder-working miracle in many cities.
We continued walking along the road further up the hill above the monastery. Simonopetra has the best view of the peak of Athos of any place we have yet stayed, and we paused at several exquisite vantage points for photographs—including one of Trevor and me 

taken by our obliging new friend. We came at last to a small grassy plateau, a spot to which the monks process every Bright Monday with all the monastery’s relics and many of its icons. Back down the hill we spent a few minutes opposite Saint Simon’s cave in a small gazebo, catching sight of a small pod of dolphins cavorting just off shore in water that was growing increasingly gilded by the soon-to-set sun. We then continued further down, down through a number of terraces to a point below the monasterywhere the gardener,

 Father Mardarios, was busily taking advantage of the cool of the evening. Father Maximos told us that this one wiry monk—a veritable elf out of Middle-earth—was almost solely responsible for planting, tending, and harvesting an extensive, many-terraced array of trees and plants, including grapes, figs, beans, peppers, tomatoes, apricots. The terraces [1] [2] [3]

are connected by a network of ladders and steps that have been cut into the walls, and as we clambered down one of the ladders from one heavily-vined plot to the next, Father Maximos observed, very rightly, that it was all rather like Swiss Family Robinson!
Father Mardarios soon finished his work and joined us on the balcony of his workshed,

where he insisted on our having some ice water, almonds, and little cookies as we enjoyed the sunset and talked about his gardening methods (organic except during droughts and other “extreme situations”), the sources of electrical power at the monastery (solar first,

then hydro, then a back-up diesel generator), and the importance of obedience in the monastic life (he told us a story about a monk he had heard about in a nearby cell who disobeyed his elder by going fishing without the elder’s blessing and was eaten by a shark!). I expressed my amazement at the incredible labor and skill involved in his care of the extensive gardens, to which he responded that it was “all God and Saint Triphon”, the patron saint of gardeners, whose icon was appropriately positioned in a little shrine near the greenhouse.
As the evening unfolded we had an opportunity to talk at some length with Father Maximos about Athonite spirituality. I asked at one point whether there is such a thing as a “typical prayer rule” for the monks. His answer was no, but he also stressed that one’s cell rule was never discussed with anyone except one’s spiritual father, so that “except for the geron nobody really knows, or should know, what others are doing”. Generally speaking, however, one could certainly say that each of the fathers probably uses some form of the Jesus Prayer during the hours before Orthros, but how many times it is repeated, according to what rhythm and at what speed, with or without how many metanias (bows) or proskyneses (prostrations), over what length of time—all this can vary considerably.
This discussion gave Father Maximos an opportunity to talk about differences between monastic communities. I mentioned the Elder Ephraim and the several monasteries he has established in America, notably Saint Anthony’s in Florence, Arizona. Philotheou, from which his American mission was launched, had been described to us elsewhere on the Mountain as being especially strict. Father Maximos explained that the now-retired (and very ill) Abbot Aimilianos, the elder of many of the monks at Simonopetra, always insisted on joy as an essential element in the spiritual life, and indeed we had noticed more smiling monks here than elsewhere. Father Maximos described a far more relaxed spiritual ethos at Simonopetra in general, and specifically between each of the monks and the abbot. He spoke of someone he knew eating too many cookies when he was serving as guest master and of this person going to the abbot and asking to be given the obedience of no longer eating them, or at least a limit on how many he could eat. “I’m not going to tell you what to do,” the abbot responded. “You’ve got to do this for yourself!” In the same vein he remarked that the spiritual life should be guided, not by inflexible rules that all and sundry must follow, but by “what works”. I thought of the Buddhist idea of upāya, or “skillful means”. And of course different strategies work best for different people, he added.
The fathers of Simonopetra speak a great deal, and very reverently, about the former abbot, Aimilianos, widely regarded as a living saint and true hesychast, and of the extent and depth of his spiritual influence, both on the Mountain and elsewhere throughout the world. One of the fathers had come to the monastery years earlier as a pilgrim. Someone brushed past him while he was standing in the courtyard one evening, lightly touching him on the shoulder, and it was as if he felt suddenly “empty”—of his ego and everything associated with the world—and thus correspondingly open to the plenitude of God. It turned out the person who had touched him was Aimilianos. We were also told that Father Aimilianos had said, upon first meeting the monastery’s present abbot when the latter was only fourteen, that this would be his successor, and so it was almost forty years later. Many, many hours of Father Aimilianos’s talks were recorded and are available for the fathers to listen to in the monastery library.
Back to Ouranoupolis, we spent the rest of this day decompressing and reacquainting ourselves with the ways of “this world”: enjoying a much larger meal 

than we had had for a week, browsing in the little shops—where I secured a lovely hand-painted copy of the Virgin as ephor(overseer) of Mount Athos, one of the favorites of the monks—and noticing repeatedly what exotic-looking creatures women are!
I decided to take an evening stroll down a dirt and gravel road leading out of the village and winding back along the coast in the direction of the Mountain. About a half hour outside of town the road simply comes to an end. There is a small quarry to one side, where they appeared to be breaking rock into slate tiles, and on the other side a little metochion(dependency) of one of the monasteries, sitting like a guardhouse on the border of another world. Two large signs stood nearby, one in Greek and one in English, with the same forbidding message: “Access to the Holy Mountain of Athos strictly prohibited. Border patrolled. Entry restricted to ferry to Daphne/Karyes”—as if, I thought, the density of the surrounding underbrush and the ruggedness of the landscape were not enough to deter all but the most seasoned hikers and rock climbers from attempting an overland entry!
It was a curious sensation, having been to Mount Athos, now to confront so daunting a barrier. Something in me wanted to feel a bit smug, privileged, in-the-know. I, after all, had been to this forbidden place, circumventing these doubtless feeble patrols and their ineffective warnings! I had walked within the Secret Garden and was now safely returned to tell the tale. Thankfully, these foolish musings were quickly repelled by a rapid series of questions: Had I really been there? Was I ever truly on the other side of this barrier? And what in any case is the “other side”? How many depths within depths does it have? What outermost skin had I only just lightly brushed, and how much more must there be to the breathing, beating life within?
I think of the concluding paragraph of one of Father Maximos’s articles, a copy of which he was kind enough to give me:
“We expect, and perhaps demand, that every revelation be an unveiling, a drawing aside of the curtain, a lifting of the veil. But when the object of revelation is not an object at all, but that which is invisible and beyond predication, then it can give itself to us only through an event or appearance that is also a concealing. Divine transcendence, divine hiddenness, remains absolute, and yet providentially reveals itself by concealing itself in a sacred veil, which is at once the revelation of, and means of participation in, the very life of God” (“Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen”, Thresholds of the Sacred, ed. Sharon E. J. Gerstel [Harvard University Press, 2006], p. 183).

As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

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