Sunday, May 30, 2010

0005 - Some of my favourite photos taken during my last trip to Agion Oros

This photo was taken on the way to Stavronikita Monastery. I'm not sure which kelli it used to be however it would have been quite a large settlement as this is one of two buildings. More on this kelli in future posts.

This photo is of Kaliagra ( Arsanas Koutloumousiou) from the beach path on the way to Iveron Monastery from Stavronikita.

A view of the path down to the coastal tower of Iveron Monastery. On the right is the kiosk just outside the main entrance of the Monastery.

Arguably, the best view of Mount Athos. This picture is taken from the courtyard outside the entrance of Stavronikita Monastery. In the bottom left corner of the photo is the chapel of St. Demetrios and the cemetery.

Two monks fishing at the base of the cliff face on which Stavronikita Monastery is built on.

I took this photo from the ferry on my way back to Ouranoupolis from Daphne. This elderly monk was watching the ferry pass by St. Panteleimonos Monastery (Rossikon).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

0004 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos of Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 3

Day Two: Thursday, 14 June — Vatopedi to Stavronikita
A less eventful—and blessedly less rigorous!—day began with our attending Orthros in the catholikon 

followed by the Divine Liturgy in the oldest of the monastery’s chapels. 

I neglected to mention in my entry for Wednesday that Vatopedi is the largest community on the Mountain; there are currently about one hundred monks, and the brotherhood’s numerous buildings include thirty-four separate chapels. Owing to the large number of pilgrims and the relatively small size of the catholikon, the Liturgy is normally served simultaneously in a number of different locations. The chanters during Orthros were excellent, and I was particularly struck by something I had never seen before: in addition to the two lead chanters, who sang antiphonally from each side of the nave, there was a third monk who strode quite rapidly back and forth between them, the wide sleeves of his cassock billowing in the breeze he created. He would arrive just in time at each kliros (chanter’s stand) to intone a given verse of the Psalms while the chanter on that side was singing the appropriate sticheron (special hymn)—or at least I think this is what might have been happening! There was much to attend to on many levels.
After breakfast we decided to begin making our way toward the monastery of Stavronikita even though we had been granted the abbot’s blessing to stay a second night at Vatopedi. Several friends who have been to the Mountain had recommended to me that we try to spend at least two days in at least one of the monasteries in order to get a sense of the daily rhythm of monastic life. This would doubtless have been a most rewarding experience, but we were eager to see as many different communities as possible, and Trevor was especially keen on exploring as much of the natural environment as we could. Perhaps on a future visit I shall attempt to stay put for a longer time in one place. Before leaving we stopped by the monastery’s bookstore and there secured what has proven to be a much better map (the Road Editions of “Mount Athos”) along with a little booklet on “The Paths of Agion Oros” (published by Lectus). I would strongly recommend both of these to prospective hikers over the Zwerger map.
Most pilgrims spend only four days (and three nights) on Mount Athos, but we had decided early in our planning that we would try to stay a full week. Since the diamonitiria the Pilgrims’ Office had issued us were only for the usual, shorter period, we had been advised that we would need to request an extension of these permits after our arrival on the Mountain. Extensions are granted at the headquarters of the Holy Epistasia in the capital, Karyes, so to Karyes 

we decided to go. This proved a fruitless detour, however, since the monk in charge of the approval process was away from his office and was not expected back until afternoon. Therefore, having first purchased some fruit in one of the little shops 

in the village, we headed down the road toward Stavronikita. This was quite an easy walk of only an hour and half, though it was along one of the Mountain’s rather dusty and not very agreeable forest roads

many of which have been only recently cut—partly in the interest (we were told by one monk) of bringing in water more rapidly in the event of forest fires, though also in order to deal with the increasing numbers of visitors.
Stavronikita we have found to be a perfectly exquisite little gem. 

I am writing these words very comfortably seated on a little couch on a balcony overlooking the deep blues and greens of the Aegean with the (quite uncharacteristically) unclouded peak of Athos

rising directly in front of me, framed against the bright afternoon sky. Reaching the monastery about 1:15 p.m., we have spent a quiet and relaxing afternoon and early evening exploring the grounds—including the eighteenth-century Chapel of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (fourth century) 

at the edge of the cemetery; relaxing in our room 

and taking short naps; listening to the sounds of the waves on the rocks about a hundred feet beneath our guestroom windows

sitting along the water’s edge 

and reading; attending Vespers; enjoying a delicious supper of pasta, tomatoes, onions, bread, and apricots; and visiting with the guest master, Father Palamas, who gave us little icon cards of Saint Nicholas (also fourth century), 

the patron of the catholikon, as well as some holy oil. After Compline we had the opportunity to venerate the monastery’s relics, which include those of The Three Holy Siblings (my epithet, not the tradition’s!): Saint Basil the Great (c. 330-79), Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395), and Saint Macrina the Younger (324-79).
I have very much enjoyed our stay in this little community and shall make a point of coming here again if and when I am able to return to Athos. It is the smallest of the monasteries, both in terms of physical size and number of monks (just twenty or so at this time), and for this reason attracts fewer pilgrims, which means in turn of course that it affords the physical traveler who aspires to be a spiritual traveler a very quiet setting—a superb place for making a retreat of several days.
A younger monk, and relative newcomer to the Mountain, told us of being invited to go on a walk with an eighty-five-year-old elder and his disciple, and of the old man scampering along the path as if he were a mountain goat! It is customary in Eastern Christian spiritual practice for a disciple to externalize, and thus objectify, his thoughts—both good and bad—by telling them all to his spiritual master. At one point the disciple said, “Father, I have just had a thought, and would like your blessing to express it.” And of course the blessing was given. “My thought was … to push you off the cliff!” The elder just laughed and said it was of the devil, who knew that in killing his spiritual master the disciple would only hurt himself. The story was told to illustrate the great freedom and love involved in radical openness.
As published in ANAMNESIS the weblog of Professor James S. Cutsinger.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

0003 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos from Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 2

Day One: Wednesday, 13 June — Ouranoupolis to Vatopedi

Up at 6:30 a.m. we arrived in the lobby of our hotel—the Zeus—
for breakfast at 7:45, but were told by the manager we would be well advised to secure our diamonitiria (the special permits one must have for entrance to the Mountain) and tickets for the ferry as soon as possible, so we headed to the Pilgrims’ Office, just a five minute walk from the hotel. Having stopped there yesterday, we were prepared to show our passports and reservations, and to pay the 55-Euro charge.

We then walked back to the hotel and had just seated ourselves for breakfast when I heard a hearty voice across the lobby call, “So look who’s here!” It was Vincent Rossi, my former colleague at Rose Hill College, who had just arrived in town with a friend. They had come to interview someone associated with the village’s famous Byzantine tower.
Vincent and I had exchanged a few emails in the spring, so he knew in general terms of our plan to come to Athos but did not know our dates. We visited with them for a half hour or so and then, having shouldered our backpacks, headed to the quay to board the ferry—along with the daily quota of roughly one hundred other men, together with an assortment of trucks and vans carrying supplies to the monasteries.

The ferry is named the Axion Estin after one of the Mountain’s most famous icons. Axion estin is Greek for “It is truly meet”, the opening words of an Orthodox hymn to the Virgin: “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without corruption Thou gavest birth to God the Word. Thou art truly Theotokos, and we magnify Thee.” The second, and older, part of the hymn, beginning with the words, “More honorable than the cherubim”, is attributed to Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer (eighth century). According to Athonite tradition, however, the words of the first sentence, beginning with the phrase Axion estin, were revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to a monk of the Mountain in the year 980.

One Saturday, it seems, a geron (spiritual elder) left his cell to attend the all-night vigil in Karyes, capital of the Holy Mountain, telling his disciple to chant the services alone. That evening an unknown monk came to the cell, and he and the disciple began the vigil together, but during the Ninth Ode of the Canon of the Matins service, when they began to sing the Magnificat, the visiting monk inserted the words “It is truly meet…” and then continued with “More honorable than the Cherubim….”; as he sang, the icon of the Theotokos began to radiate with Uncreated Light. When the disciple asked his mysterious visitor to write down the new words, he took a roof tile and wrote upon it with his finger as though the tile were made of wax. The disciple knew then this was no ordinary monk, but the Archangel Gabriel. The angel disappeared, but the icon—which now hangs in the Church of the Protaton
 in Karyes and is referred to as the Axion Estin—continued to radiate light for some time and has been the source of numerous miracles over the course of the centuries.

In any case this other, seaworthy Axion Estin
 left the dock promptly at the appointed time of 9:45. About a half hour later we rounded a bend in the undulating coastline and were treated to our first glimpse of Athos itself,
at this point just a gray silhouette barely visible in the distance through the morning mist. It took about another half hour to reach the arsanas (port) of the Bulgarian Monastery of Zographou,
where we had elected to disembark. (Most pilgrims continue further along the coast to the port village of Daphne.) We had carefully studied what we thought was a good topographical map—namely, Wege am Athos by the Austrian Reinhold Zwerger, recommended by the Friends of Mount Athos—and had come to the conclusion it would be a relatively easy hike from there to Zographou itself and then on across the peninsula to Vatopedi, where we had arranged to stay our first night. I also inquired about this plan at the Pilgrims’ Office, only to receive confirmation that this was indeed a reasonable itinerary. Well, hike we did, but not for the “three hours or so” we were told it would probably take us. In fact, owing in part to a short detour with a pilgrim from Germany who had lost his way, but also to our own frequent stops along the path
to take in a sudden glimpse of the Mountain,

to offer a prayer at a wayside shrine,

 to enjoy the many varieties of beautiful wildflowers and to make certain of our bearings by cross-checking our map with the occasional sign,

it took us nearly three to reach Zographou

 , and I believe it would have taken at least another two to get to Vatopedi—if, that is, we’d not ourselves gotten rather seriously lost!

It was approaching mid-afternoon when we found ourselves at the end of a tortuous, unusually rocky, and increasingly thorny path.
The cobblestones simply disappeared in the middle of a hillside meadow, and our compass did us no good since we were no longer sure in which direction our destination lay. The only signs of civilization were two abandoned wooden platforms, each constructed atop four roughly hewn logs and positioned at a height of perhaps eight to ten feet from the ground. Could these be, we wondered, the surviving workmanship of some bygone Athonite stylites?
We inquired about this more than once afterward, but none of the monks we asked had ever seen or heard of such thing. In any case it was beginning to look as though we might have to spend our first night in the wilderness—and without the benefit of our own styloi (pillars)! All we knew to do was entreat the Mother of God for Her help and start retracing our steps to the main road.

As Heaven would have it, our coming to that road coincided exactly with our meeting a man coming down a small side path from the opposite direction, and next to this path, as we could see very clearly now, was a sign marked (in Greek) “To Vatopedi”—a sign either both of us had missed or that had not been there before…. Be that as it may, there is little doubt we would once again have failed to take the proper turn were it not for the striding figure who had suddenly caught our attention at just the right instant, but who had now, just as suddenly, disappeared into the forest. The strange thing was that this fellow had no backpack (unlike most of the pilgrims we met), and he was clearly not a monk; and rather than sturdy hiking shoes he was wearing sandals. Indeed his overall appearance was that of someone going out for a rather casual stroll, which led us to conclude that the monastery must be just a few minutes away. So imagine our surprise as we trudged on and on and on, only to discover that Vatopedi was still another two hours away—over difficult ground, including a rocky descent

 of about one thousand feet to the northern coast, to match of course the thousand feet we had ascended at the start of the day. So: man or angel? Either way he had evidently performed an angelic function! It is indeed “truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos”.

We finally arrived at Vatopedi

about 5:45 p.m., almost exactly seven hours after setting out in the morning. We were drenched with perspiration, exhausted, and extremely thirsty, having consumed the last of our water (thinking we were nearly finished with our hike) about an hour and half earlier. A monk in the gatehouse took our diamonitiria and told us that Vespers was in progress and that we would need to wait until it was over to see the guest master. Fortunately, as we were stumbling about the courtyard trying to find the catholikon (central church of a monastery), the guest master appeared, introducing us in turn to an American monk, Father Matteus, who knew me from his visit to Rose Hill in 1996. The monks and guests were soon called into the trapeza (refectory) for supper—and some welcome water!—after which we were invited to go to the catholikon to hear a short talk about Vatopedi’s history and architecture and venerate several miracle-working icons and the holy relics. These included a piece of the true Cross and the skulls of Saints Gregory the Theologian (329-89) and John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), the latter with its left ear completely incorrupt and visible behind a small piece of glass inside a little lid on the silver reliquary. Father Matteus explained that this was the ear, according to tradition, into which Saint Paul had been seen to whisper while Saint John was writing his homilies on Romans. Vatopedi also possesses the zone (sash) of the Theotokos, which is known for effecting many cures, especially for women who are experiencing difficult or dangerous pregnancies, but also for people with cancer. Small pieces of cloth that have been touched to the sash and that are reputed to have the same thaumaturgical benefits are available to pilgrims who request them, and we did this before our departure the following morning.

I think of Philip Sherrard’s description of pilgrimage when I reflect on this, our first day on the Mountain: “A pilgrimage is not simply a matter of getting to a particular shrine or holy place. It is a deliberate sundering and surrender of one’s habitual conditions of comfort, routine, safety, convenience. Unlike the tourist, whose aim is to see things and to travel around in conditions which are as comfortable, secure, familiar, convenient, and unchallenging as possible, the pilgrim breaks with his material servitude, puts his trust in God, and sets out on a quest which is inward as much as outward. In this sense he becomes the image of the spiritual seeker. He removes himself as far as possible from the artificiality within which he is enclosed by his life in society. Of this spiritual exploration, inward and outward, walking is an essential part. His feet tread the earth—the earth from which he is made and from which he is usually so cut off. Through his eyes, ears, nose, he renews his sense of natural beauty. He watches the flight of bird or insect, the ripple of light on leaves, the timeless vistas of the sea; he listens to the song of water, the call of God’s creatures; he breathes in the scent of tree and flower and soil. His feet tire, his body aches, sweat drips from his head and trickles into his eyes and down his neck. He tastes rigor and hardship. But through all this—and only through all this, and through his prayer and dedication and confidence—slowly an inner change is wrought, a new rhythm grows, a deeper harmony. The pilgrimage is at work” (“The Paths of Athos”, Eastern Churches Review, Vol. 9:1-2 [1977], p. 102).

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

Thursday, May 13, 2010

0002 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos from Professor James S Cutsinger Part 1

I am commencing a series of posts from the pilgrimage journal of Professor James S. Cutsinger to Mount Athos. I found it fascinating when I first read this back in 2008. Enjoy....

For several years my son, Trevor, and I had discussed the possibility of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain of Athos, the world’s only monastic republic, located on the easternmost peninsula of Halkidiki in northern Greece. Renowned for its natural beauty and the numberless treasures of its ancient Byzantine monasteries, this “Garden of the Theotokos” has been the spiritual center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for over a thousand years, and for Orthodox men—women are not permitted—it is in many ways the equivalent of what Lhasa is (or rather was) for the Tibetan Buddhist and of what Mecca is for the Muslim.

In early June of 2007, the moment seemed right for this long-anticipated journey, and we set out for Greece, flying first to Thessaloniki, where we visited the Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359),
venerating the relics of this great defender of the Athonite monks and their practice of hesychasm, before taking a taxi to the small seaside village of Ouranoupolis,
whence one departs for the Mountain on the daily ferryboat, traveling along the Singitic Gulf side of the peninsula. Disembarking at the port of Zographou and hiking the first day to the opposite side of the peninsula,

we made our way in a clockwise direction, traveling to the communities of Vatopedi, Stravronikita, Iveron, the Great Lavra, Prodromos, Agia Anna, and Simonopetra.

A number of students, friends, and family members have asked about our pilgrimage, and it seemed the best response I could offer was to type up a few of the entries from my journal while the experience was still relatively fresh in my mind. The results—largely travelogue, but in part meditation—are here made available to the wider audience afforded by Anamnēsis. I am the first to recognize how inadequate these words are to the realities concerned. It is my hope nonetheless that this brief and necessarily idiosyncratic account might be a source, if not of inspiration or instruction, then at least of enjoyment for a few of my readers.

Included in this presentation are links to a number of the pictures Trevor took during our journey. One is not permitted to photograph the inside of churches or to make portraits of individual monks without the blessing of an abbot, so the images are almost entirely confined to courtyards, the exteriors of monastic buildings, and the natural environment. In order to provide at least some hint of the incredible beauty of the interiors, however, I have inserted scans of three photographs from out-of-copyright sources: the central church and a chapel at Vatopedi and the church of the Great Lavra.

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

Thursday, May 6, 2010

0001 - A rare image taken from the top of the tower of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita.

A rare image taken from the top of the tower of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita.
Μία σπάνια φωτογραφία παρμένη απο την κορυφή του πύργου της Ιεράς Μονής Σταυρονικήτα.

0077 - A tribute to His Eminence Metropolitan of Kinsasa Nikiforos (Former Headmaster of Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy Mt Athos)

  There comes a time when we all must say goodbye, in this life, to those that have made a significant impact upon us and have moulded us to...