Monday, August 30, 2010

0020 - The pilgrimage to Mount Athos of Professor James S. Cutsinger Part 7

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 [1] [2] [3] [4], 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 [1] [2]. 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 [1] [2] [3] 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.

0019 - The Feast day of Iveron Monastery - Mount Athos

The Dormition of The Most Holy Theotokos was celebrated with devoutness and grandeur at the Holy Monastery of Iveron - Mount Athos. 
We should mention that His Grace the Metropolitan of Langadas, Bishop John  lead the Holy Liturgy, along with Abbot Nathanael and numerous Preists and Deacons. 
Information obtained by mentioned that over 2000 pilgrims attended the Monastery's feast day to pay their respects to The Most Holy Theotokos.
Listed below are exclusive photos taken of the feast day at the Holy Monastery of Iveron:


Thursday, August 26, 2010

0018 - The Cemetery of Stavronikita Monastery over the last century

Below are some photos of the cemetery chapel of St. Demetrios of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos.
In the summer months, daily liturgies are held in this chapel after the orthros is held in the Catholicon.
It has surviving fragments of frescoes from the 18th century and has recently been renovated, as you will see below. In the new extension of the chapel, the frescoes were painted by the monks Zosimas & Prodromos of Stavronikita.

The following black and white photos were taken by Millet in the years between 1914 - 1918. 

The following photo shows the extension to the original chapel complete and the gate partially done. This photo was taken by Thodoris Lakiotis in 2006.

And finally, the gate complete! It looks amazing! I took the below photo in July 2008.

I must make mention to the works that are carried out and commissioned by the monks in order to restore these chapels which form part of our tradition and monastic culture. These brotherhoods inhabiting the ancient monasteries of Athos and conducting these works are restoring and maintaining the inheritance of all Orthodox Christians.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

0017 - The ancient water fountain at Iveron Monastery

Below are some photos of the water fountain at the Holy Monastery of Iveron which dates back to 1735.

It is made of white marble with very high quality carvings.
One of the many treasures of the Holy Mountain

For the full desription in Greek see:

0016 - The Monastery of Zographou - Mount Athos

A quality video with some beautiful chanting in Bulgarian.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

0015 - Bruce Chatwin's Journey to Mount Athos

A strange osmosis takes place when you write the life of another person. After Bruce Chatwin died, his widow Elizabeth gave me the maté gourd that he had taken with him on his travels, together with its silver bombilla – the metal straw through which he sucked his addictive tea, like any Argentine farmhand. At times over the next seven years, I had the sudden deep conviction that I was absorbing the world through his perforated silver straw.
In the course of following Chatwin’s songline, I met his family and friends – some of whom became my friends. In Birmingham, I had tea with the charlady responsible for dusting the contents of his grandmother’s cabinet, including the scrap of giant sloth that had formed the genesis for In Patagonia. “It used to put the creeps up on me, an old bit of blacky, browny bristly stuff as didn’t look very nice at all… I thought it was only monkey fur.” In 1991, I drove with Elizabeth from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, to the cave on Last Hope Sound from where Chatwin’s cousin had salvaged the original hide – believed by the infant Chatwin to be a piece of brontosaurus.
In Sydney, I poked my nose into Ken’s Karate Club, a “sex on premises” venue designed in imitation of a fantasy Roman baths, with horned satyrs and concrete putti (from a garden supply shop). Near Alice Springs, I camped under the stars with the man on whom Chatwin had modelled Arkady, the protagonist of The Songlines. And so on, through 27 countries.
My biography of Chatwin was published in 1999, 10 years after he died of Aids. But in all the travels I had undertaken, there was one significant journey I overlooked.
In 1985, following his second visit to Australia, where he had picked up a mysterious illness, Chatwin was in Greece, grinding out another draft of The Songlines, when he interrupted his work to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. Before leaving, he wrote breezily to the Australian novelist Murray Bail: “Athos is obviously another atavistic wonder.”
Up until that moment Chatwin had not impressed friends as religious. “There was never, not a word talked about God,” says Patrick Leigh Fermor, his host in Greece, reflecting on their conversations over five months. Elizabeth was, and remains, a practising Catholic. In preparation for their wedding, Chatwin had taken religious instruction from a Jesuit in London. “Nearly became a Catholic,” he wrote in his notebook. Then, just before they were married, Elizabeth’s parish priest in New York State gave her a leaflet explaining why she should not marry a non-Catholic. “That put Bruce off forever,” says Elizabeth. Thereafter, his religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
Since his illness, there were signs of a sea change. One entry in his notebooks reads: “The search for nomads is a search for God.” Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time.” While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behaviour for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him.”
Of Chatwin’s friends, the diarist James Lees-Milne and the artist Derek Hill were regular visitors to the sacred, all-male enclave of Mount Athos. He importuned both to take him. Lees-Milne recorded in August 1980: “No, Bruce, I said, ‘you can't’. I was, I fear, rather bossy.” Next, Chatwin asked Hill, who had visited 15 times. Hill was a friend of the Abbot of Chilandari monastery, who could facilitate their permits. Finally, in May 1985, Hill agreed to accompany Chatwin. He told me: “I was slightly apprehensive because he was a great complainer. I thought he’d find the monks smelly or the beds hard or that the loos stank. But it was a revelation to him.”
One afternoon after his usual maté (mistaken by the cook for hashish), Chatwin walked to the monastery of Stavronikita, once painted by Edward Lear. He puffed towards it with his heavy rucksack. “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea,” he wrote. From where he stood – just below the monastery – the black cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam.
Then these words: “There must be a god.”
Beyond this entry in his notebook, Chatwin was uncharacteristically silent. “He didn’t talk about it, but I knew by his whole bearing that it had affected him,” said Hill. The artist had known Chatwin for 20 years and had no doubt that as Bruce gazed down on that iron cross he was ambushed by a spiritual experience that unfroze something in him. “I think it hit him like a bomb.”
Elizabeth says: “When he came back, he said to me, ‘I had no idea it could be like that.’ It wasn’t like his other voyages of discovery. It was completely internal.”
The memory of that moment returned to Chatwin a year later when he collapsed, hallucinating, in Zurich. One of his hallucinations was of a fresco of Christ on Mount Athos. Back in England, during a brief period of remission, he went several times to see Kallistos Ware, a Bishop of the Greek Orthodox faith living in Oxford, to discuss the possibility of becoming Orthodox. “What he wanted was to be received by baptism on the Holy Mountain since the Holy Mountain had played such a decisive part in his conversion,” Ware tells me.
Unknown virtually to anyone, Chatwin planned a second trip to Athos in which, as part of the baptism ceremony, he would renounce the devil, breathe and spit on him and return to Christ. “I offered to receive him myself,” Ware says, “but we were overtaken by events.” On January 19 1989, Chatwin died in Nice. At his memorial service in the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater, Ware relayed his wishes to a frankly astonished congregation: “Bruce was always a traveller and he died before all his journeys could be completed and his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages.”
Last September, after finishing with Elizabeth the editing of Chatwin’s letters, I decided to visit Mount Athos. My aim was simple: to find that simple metal cross. But an English priest warned me on the eve of my departure: “Nobody goes to Athos by accident. Whatever you think you are going for is not the reason.”
Mount Athos is actually a finger of steep wooded land that extends 37 miles into the Aegean, culminating in a 9,842ft peak of crystalline limestone. The peninsula is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who stopped off here on her way to Cyprus and jealously forbade any subsequent woman to set foot. This rule, enshrined in AD970 in the charter of the Grand Lavra, the first of Athos’s 20 monasteries, stated that monks “may not defile their eyes with the sight of anything female”, a stricture not relaxed even in favour of chickens. Under Greek law, a woman caught on Athos today faces an automatic prison sentence of up to 12 months.
“With no one to nag them, the monks often live to a hundred,” says a stout pilgrim whose whiskers sprout at a brigandish angle from his chin. We are on board the ferry from Ouranoupolis, the only way to reach Athos.
It’s a bright, hot day. I elect to walk to the monastery of Vatopedi where I am staying the night. The journey takes all afternoon, the white cobbled path twisting through woods of Spanish chestnut, past ruined stone fountains, over bridges spanning dried-up rivers. Thirsty and perspiring, I long for a freshwater stream to plunge in – although, from a former British diplomat, John Ure, I have gathered that Athonite monks deplore nakedness. Ure told me how, as a young pilgrim here, he once stripped off to splash himself in a stream, when a hermit emerged from a cave above him, screamed and ran off covering his eyes. Later, Ure arrived at the Grand Lavra to find the monks in a state of excitement. They had received a visit from one of the holiest hermits on the peninsula, who had broken his vow of silence to report a vision he had seen: John the Baptist baptising in his local stream – his telltale body radiating with “a shining whiteness unlike any normal mortal”. Already they were discussing the erection of a stained-glass window.
The gatekeeper at Vatopedi is Father Theano from Brisbane. Does he miss Australia? “The grace of God sustains you. You forget the past and keep an eye on the future.” He is dead to the world he has left behind, which is why he wears black. But Father Theano is far from gloomy. He brims with news of a minor miracle that occurred at Vatopedi last July. An old monk, Father Joseph, had died in huge pain with a terrible expression on his face. “We couldn’t close his mouth. We asked the Abbot if we should bind it shut, but he said, ‘No, let it hang open’ – and when we came out of the liturgy his mouth was closed in a tremendous smile. Look, I have a photo,” and from his black robe Father Theano produces a portrait of a bearded corpse with cheeks like polished doorknobs, beaming. “That is what sanctification is. It comes from within you.”
Vatopedi, founded in 972, is the peninsula’s second oldest monastery and its largest. Its luxuriant church accommodates 107 monks from 12 countries. I watch them at vespers flit across the water-veined marble floor. Their destination: half a dozen holy icons which they proceed to kiss in a way that reminds me of a scatter of swallows sipping the surface of a glassy pond; then, adjusting their hats, they sit down in squeaking stalls, faces in mid-distance reverie, beneath frescoes that Robert Byron, revered by Chatwin beyond all writers, considered the finest in the world.
Chatwin was so enthralled by the chanting of the Kyrie eleison, the words unchanged for more than a millennium, that he made a scene with some noisy Greek pilgrims, “demanding hushes at once and interrupting the service”. My solecism is to sit cross-legged. From nowhere, a black stick appears and wallops me – the wielder, a small wax-faced monk whose long white beard accounts for a quarter of him.
Chastened, I uncross my legs and go on listening. To the singers, the plainsong serves to enthrone their veneration for the Mother of God. Whatever one’s belief – and as Patrick Leigh Fermor reminds us, “no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false” – the mysterious scallops of sound are absolutely transporting to hear live. “To anyone who has sojourned beneath the Holy Mountain,” Robert Byron wrote of Athos, “there cannot but have come an intensification of his impulse to indefinable, unanalysable emotion.”
In roughly such a state, Chatwin must have shouldered his rucksack and wandered down to Stavronikita.
Father Theano watches me leave. He arrived on Athos 20 years ago, but has never done the walk to Stavronikita. “I liked walking when I was young, but all things in moderation.”
It’s late in the morning when the castle-like building comes into sight, perched on a cliff above the Aegean. There is no swell and the sea is smoother than shell. Suddenly I spot it. A small black metal cross on a ledge of white rock, facing the bay.
It’s too dangerous to clamber down, so I stand and contemplate it. I shall not attempt to describe the sensation of trying to shed the load of a 19-year involvement, but my anticipation is shot through by an extraordinary blankness. I realise that I had been willing for some sign or emotion, however slight, to tell me that my journey was really over.
After a long interval I turn and walk up the hill to the monastery, where a surprise awaits me.
Fumblingly at the gate, I explain my mission to the monk who brings out a silver tray containing the traditional offering of loukoumi (Turkish Delight), tsipouro (ouzo) and water. He invites me inside to look at the church. I follow him though a door, into a chapel at once more intimate than at Vatopedi, small, dark, marvellous. In pride of place beneath the gold corona, staring out from the top of a base shaped like a squat grandfather clock, is a glassed-in icon of a bearded man.
The face is composed of mosaic fragments and there is a deep gash from the left brow down to the lip.
The monk explains that the icon arrived over the sea of its own volition from Byzantium.
“And the gash?”
Caused either by pirates who tossed it into the sea, or else by an oyster that a local fisherman found clamped to its forehead when he dragged it up in his net.
“Who is he?”
The monk gives me an impatient glance. “Saint Nicholas” – to whom Stavronikita is dedicated.
A name can mean nothing. But in that moment, in that space, it humbled me to learn, as I gazed around at frescoes that depicted scenes from the life of my patron saint, a name can mean more than a lot.
* Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin, selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, will be published in September by Cape

Monday, August 9, 2010

0014 - Pilgrimage to the Skete of St. Anna by Joshua Trevino (2007)

By Rev Fr Chris Flesoras
The long-haul portion of our trip abroad is over: we’ve made it to Munich, and after eleven hours crammed into the steerage section of a Lufthansa Airbus 340, the ability to walk about and breathe fresh air is sweet indeed.  The first time I flew Lufthansa, four years ago, it seemed like the air carrier of my dreams: it was at the end of a month of air travel within Africa, from South African Airways at best—the equal of any Western airline—to RwandAir and Zambian National at worst, with Kenya Airways and Ethiopian somewhere in between.  Boarding the Addis Ababa-Cairo-Frankfurt flight, on a Lufthansa 747, was like reentering civilization.  No one was fighting for seats, there were no mosquitos in the cabin, and there was no visible material decay on the aircraft.  I fell in love with Lufthansa right then—not for taking me away from Africa, which I love (and would twice return to), but for reminding me that air travel need not be an exercise in dubious mechanics and exceptional danger.

I believe that Father Flesoras and our traveling companion, Harrison Pardini, will agree with me: the shine on Lufthansa is off.  Riding from Los Angeles to Munich was a long, dark voyage of stale air, pitifully little leg room, overheated cabins, and—insult to injury—a breakfast consisting of a thick slab of gray eggs.  If you’ve never been on an Airbus 340, picture one of the larger domestic jets in the United States, with a 2-4-2 seat configuration.  Now picture it extended to the length of a 747.  Economically, it works: the 340 enables its carriers to compete on the long-haul routes otherwise dominated by Boeing’s 747, 767, and 777.  But for the passengers in economy class, it’s a bad deal.  Because the aircraft body is comparatively narrow, the airline must make up for lost space by reducing leg room as much as possible.  And it shows: flying economy-class on trans-oceanic routes is never delightful, but it can be done comfortably on a 747 or 777.  (I once flew a South African Airways 747 from Atlanta to Cape Town on economy-class—a 15-hour ride—in comfort.)  I’ve never seen it done on an Airbus 340.  Add to this some bad air circulation and a showing of “Arthur and the Invisibles,” and you’ve got a flight that can’t end fast enough.
But for all this, it’s done, and we’re here, and in three hours, we’ll be in the air, hurtling toward Thessaloniki.  I’m a bit dubious that Aegean Air holds any exceptional experience for us—but arriving alive is its own reward.  And then Mount Athos—well, that’s a reward of another type altogether. What do you see when you approach Mount Athos?  The first thing you see is that there are no signs to Athos on the way from Thessaloniki.  Instead it is Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain, and its signposts are colored a deep rust rather than the blue that marks the towns and roads of Greece.  The next thing you see is that the roads are frequently terrible and never good: at one point, pavement disappears completely in favor of dirt track crossing a dry ravine.  Next, you notice that the locals on the peninsula are almost uniformly agrarian, and enjoy homes that would be the envy of a Californian in the central valley.  The houses are white, or pink, or faced with stone; they have spacious porches on which copious furniture is placed; and they all have the same red clay-tiled roofs.  Next, you realize that you are climbing, and that the road, such as it is, is suffused with hairpin turns and switchbacks.  The danger is enhanced by fleeting glimpses of stunning scenery: marble-colored boulders strewn across hillsides; Aegean inlets; and crumbling castles dot the landscape.  Here is a sign for a Byzantine fortress; there is a marker for the pagan sanctuary of Ouranopoulis; there is man-sized amphora from antiquity displayed on the roadside.  It would be possible to spend days stopping at each sight.  Sink a blade into Greek soil, and the land bleeds history.  But you do not stop, because the ferrys for the Agion Oros leave only so often; and the monks of your skete are expecting you.
You must take a ferry.  You must take a ferry because, though the Holy Mountain is on a peninsula, history has twice made it an island.  First the self-proclaimed king of kings, Xerxes the Great, cut his canal to bring his war fleet across the isthmus, the sooner to meet the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.  The cut is still there, having silted over in the long centuries since, but visible as a depression in the low soil.  And then, says tradition, the Virgin Mary landed and took possession of the peninsula.  Her will is enforced by the thousand years of monks who followed her.  They banished women—the Mountain has its Queen—and set to the infinite task of spiritual perfection.  And so the peninsula became an island again, this time cut off not from the mainland, but from the world.  A rough-hewn wall and a purposeful lack of roads make the ferry ride necessary; and the ferry ride means that the pilgrims and the curious must literally cross the sea to reach Mount Athos.
The ferries leave from the strange village of Ouranopoulis.  They all have saints’ names—we travel today on the good ship Agios Panteleimon—but their tiny port is not itself saintly.  The gateway to the world center of Orthodox monasticism attracts a surprising number of plain tourists: ruddy Germans and Englishmen seeking a cheap Aegean beach.  The usual cheap, gaudy establishments cater to them.  One is the Hotel Athorama, promising a suitable mixture of sacred and profane, if a bit more of the latter, and the ability to bring the missus too.  Into this element we wade, for behind Ouranopoulis’ gas station is the most unlikely thing: a customs and passport station.  The first monastery on Mount Athos was formally established in 963AD—the Great Lavra, to whose Skete of Saint Anna we travel—and in the millennium since, the monks have established a clerical republic on their peninsula.  It is a polity of astonishing longevity, maintained through a wise policy of abdicating external relations to the local power: the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and now the Greek state.  Thus it is Greek civil servants who man the Athonite border post at the Ouranopolis landing, doing their best to screen out tourists from pilgrims, and collecting customs fees of twenty-five euros per man for the maintenance of the post and the monastic statelet.  Pass their scrutiny, and you receive your Athonite visa, and a copy of the rules of conduct.  Then it is past cheap tavernas and a shabby tourist stand to the ticket office, to stand in line with solemn pilgrims, hirsute monks, and fat holidaygoers for your ticket.  And then you board.
Once aboard, the ferry casts its lines and steams into the shallow, brilliant azure waters of the Aegean.  Gulls circle and cry for handouts.  The tourists give them, and the monks do not.  First-time travelers crowd the railings to take photographs; the clerics sit quietly and wait.  A few camera-wielding types attempt to sneak photographs of the eminently photogenic monks, but this is a dangerous practice.  Like Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia, some sincerely believe that the theft of one’s image is a theft of one’s virtue; others simply, and more reasonably, find the objectification insulting.  Either way, they will be sure to let you know.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be harangued in Greek, which is beautiful and rich even in anger; if not, you’ll be excoriated in a Slavic tongue, with its wealth of metaphors for violence and outrage.  More sensible is the photography of the monasteries and sketes dotting the shores and hills of the peninsula.  Shocking green onion domes topped with gold crosses appear on the landscape; a castle that would be at home in medieval Germany rises from the rocky slopes; graceful pink-and-blue facades grace a grove of pines.  The ferries stop at each, discharging come clerics and travelers, and taking on more.  You wait, and watch, and marvel.  And then your stop comes.  And you disembark, and you are on the Holy Mountain.  And peculiarly, ineffably, inexplicably, you are home. The day at the Skete of Saint Anna begins with a Divine Liturgy.  This is a once-a-week thing for the lay faithful—or is supposed to be, at any rate—but for a monastic community, it is daily; and at the end of the day, there are vespers before dinner, and compline after dinner.  That’s in the absence of a feast day or celebration: then there’s yet more liturgical activity to consume the hours.  The apogee of the Church year is of course Easter or Pascha, followed by the major feasts such as Chrismas, the Annunciation, et al.  And then there are the name days of the specific monastic communities—in our case, the Feast of Saint Anna herself.
That’s tomorrow, and for it, the monks will gather in the Skete’s main chapel and hold a vigil for the Saint.  The vigil lasts all night—and beyond.  It is fifteen hours of continuous prayer and liturgy, and it is not done, as I foolishly assumed, in shifts: the entire community is expected to be present, and actively participating.  As a guest of that community, I will be expected to attend and be properly attentive throughout.  I have done long services before: but not this long.  Even the Pope only received a mere five-hour Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom from Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul this past November.  How much more honor do the monks of the Skete do to their patroness.  And how much more daunting for the likes of me, lacking the physical and spiritual discipline (and knowledge) of a dedicated monastic.  When we were in Istanbul, we would wake up to the tinny braying of the minarets of the Zeynep Sultan mosque.  “Prayer is better than sleep,” said the muzzein.  Here at the Skete of Saint Anna, we awaken to the lovely bells of the chapel: but we will test the muzzein’s assertion tomorrow night.
It is expected that we will be properly attentive, and the stress is on the propriety.  The content of the faith and its practice are different things at points, and sometimes the latter veers from the realm of the holy into the realm of mere aesthetics.  Fr. Christopher is as conscientious and knowledgeable a priest as any parishioner could wish for, and yet many monks are simply interested to know why he has no beard.  And then there is Fr. Sophronius.  I met him this morning after liturgy, and I was interested to be told that he was from Jerusalem.  A Sophronius from Jerusalem is a meaningful thing: it was Patriarch Sophronius who surrendered the city to the Muslim armies in the seventh century, uttering as Islam claimed the Temple Mount, “Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet.”
Tin efchises,” I said to Fr. Sophronius—“Your blessing.”
Fr. Sophronius looked quizzically at me.  “Joshua?”
“Yes!”  I recognized him now—he stood behind me at the liturgy.
“Joshua!” he exclaimed, and grabbed my hands.  Fr. Sophronius was certainly happy to see me.
“Yes, Father?”
“Joshua—” He pushed my hands together in front of me. “—you stand like this.  Like Orthodox!  No like—” Here he waved his hands about, putting them on his hips, behind his back, in the air—mimicking, I realized, his impression of me at the liturgy.  I was embarrassed, but also mildly indignant—the liturgy was long, as they tend to be, and I certainly hadn’t sat down—and, unlike all the other pilgrims save one, I’d never stepped outside.  But then, that had only given Fr. Sophronius more time to observe my wrongdoing, which apparently consisted of a failure to stand with hands clasped prayerfully before me.  I considered mentioning that I’d spent a great deal of time at parade rest, but thought better of it.
“Sorry, Father.”
“Okay,” said Fr. Sophoronius, “Is okay.”
I walked away vaguely stunned—although I learnt later that Fr. Sophronius immediately apologized to Fr. Christopher, in Greek, for having done that.  But of course, he had to mention it.  Now I know.  And tomorrow night, Fr. Sophronius and I will see if I can clasp my hands prayerfully before me for fifteen hours straight. By the time they bring out the twenty-one-century-old left foot of the maternal grandmother of Christ, you are running on a dazed devotion that supersedes the burning need for blessed rest.  The relic’s custodians are the monks of the Skete of Saint Anna, and in their nearly four hundred years of existence, they have made up for their youthful status—their parent monastery, the Great Lavra, is over one thousand years old—with the assiduous acquisition of relics of saints both great and humble, from the well-known Saint Anna herself, to the obscure yet sanctified Saint Harambolos.  It is a motly collection of bones, skills, bits and pieces, enshrined in various reliquaries ranging from simple wooden boxes to elaborate silver cases.  And it all comes out once a year, on the Feast of Saint Anna herself.
The commemoration of the Feast is the most tremendously long and tremendously impressive church service I have ever witnessed.  A skete is not quite the same as a “traditional” monastery, with its brothers in cells and living a life of communal uniformity and strict organization; rather, it is more of a monastic neighborhood, in which individual homes cluster about a common major shrine or chapel.  (In Athonite geograpy, this translates into a series of homes on successive mountainside terraces.)  Within each home is a house chapel, and the brothers of the house are more or less free to organize themselves as they wish—and hence to spend their time as they wish.  What brings the brothers of the skete together is not daily life per se, though they do visit and speak with one another regularly, but the celebrations of the Church, from Sunday liturgy, to major feasts—including the feast of the skete’s patron saint.  Because that patroness sustains and protects this Skete, the Skete’s brothers spare no effort in honoring her accordingly.
Saint Anna, wife of Saint Joachim and mother of the Virgin Mary, receives a vigil service from the brothers of her Skete.  My Catholic upbringing’s concept of a vigil service was merely a Mass held in the late evening, or perhaps at midnight, and rarely running longer than 90 minutes—and that only at Easter or Christmas.  Upon exposure to Orthodoxy, I was impressed and somewhat wearied to find that feast-day vigils could last several hours—sometimes even three.  So when I learned that the Skete of Saint Anna planned its own vigil, I expected, as befits an Athonite monastery, something long—five hours, perhaps, or even six.  Surely that is reasonable; surely that is sufficiently arduous and grand to show one’s devotion and love for God and his saint.
The monks of the Skete of Saint Anna do their vigils across fifteen hours.
This fifteen-hour liturgical extravaganza is no mere succession of quiet prayers and silent watchfulness.  It is a massive undertaking of gorgeous chanting and nonstop ritual involving the entire brotherhood that incorporates, by my count, one entire Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom—itself a multi-hour affair—one ritual dressing of the bishop, one hours-long display and veneration of the holy relics, and hundreds of pilgrims from across the Orthodox world.  The number of devotees of Saint Anna is a true surprise to one, such as me, who knew little of the saint or her cult.  But she is a known quantity to the informed faithful—and her miraculous icon at the Skete is reputed to bring children to childless couples who seek her intercession.  The base of the icon is strewn with photographs of babies conceived after her help was requested, and it is difficult to gainsay these accomplishments.  So the pilgrims come, some to pay respects, and some to fall to their knees before the saint, her icon, and her relic, and beg for her help.  Tradition says that Joachim and Anna had no children for fifty years of marriage before conceiving Mary: surely this is evidence that in God, all things are possible.
Among the throngs of pilgrims and monks, we stood the watch.  Chants came and went, and various things occurred that I, in my ignorance of Greek, perceived as immensely important and simultaneously incomprehensible.  Among them was a segment in which monks rushed about lighting every candle in the chapel—and giving hefty shoves to the various chandeliers to make them spin.  The chandeliers’ anchors groaned in the centuries-old stone ceilings, and I experienced my own moment of faith as I looked up.  Every few hours, I would venture outside—sometimes to pray, sometimes to see the pilgrims sleeping on the cold stone in the pitch-black of an Athonite night, and always for a bit of fresh air.  Mount Athos does not shun modernity: but neither does it embrace it for its own sake.  The brothers of the Skete have an icon in their dining hall that depicts Saint George slaying a scorpion-like beast made of consumer electronics and paper money.  When technology comes, it must come to bring the brothers closer to God—not to provide a diversion from this unceasing goal.  And so the stone chapel of the Skete is lit entirely by candles and oil—and of course it has no air conditioning or heating of any kind.  The effect is to transport the worshipper to an earlier era, and to remind him that a space may be heated by bodies as well as fire—and that both render even the most holy places unusually warm and thick.  Nighttime on Athos is pleasantly cool, but a Greek summer is what it is—and so to step outdoors, into the black sky and brilliant stars with hundreds of fellow believers, was a blessing in itself.
I would like to say that we all stayed awake, but this is untrue even for the brothers, many of whom dozed off in the dark hours—only to be awakened by a fellow monk’s admonition.  Pilgrims slept even in the chapel itself, leaning against walls or slumped in the high wooden chairs that are purposefully designed to be uncomfortable—lest the seated repose too often.  Many times I slipped into unconsciousness, only to awaken to stand for the passing of a censor or the reading of the Gospel.  The long stretch from 1am to 4am was especially difficult—as was looking at my watch at the latter hour, and knowing that we still had six hours to go.  Once, I confess, as I took a walk, I laid down among the pilgrims on the cold stone outdoors, and slept for thirty minutes, with the sounds of the monastic chanting from within washing over me like a holy lullaby.
On Athos, the sky begins to lighten around 5am, and the sun rises perhaps 90 minutes later.  It was in this strengthening dawn that the procession and veneration of the relics began.  The queen of them all was the left foot of Saint Anna—perhaps the oldest explicitly Christian relic in existence—and it was held aloft as it was processed out into the courtyard to be laid onto the long stone bench before the entrance.  The hundreds of us lined up, clerics first, to venerate them all.  We went down the line, and at its end was the bishop with a cross and a sprig of hyssop, with which he put holy water onto our heads.  I waited my turn, and when it came, I looked with interest upon the saintly foot, encased in silver and barely visible through a protective metal grill.  My first thought was that was it remarkably preserved; and my second was that it did not, as promised, smell sweet.  Supposedly, one way in which the faithful may know of a relic’s sanctity is its sweet smell—something especially miraculous in the realm of unpreserved human flesh.  But it is a gift, both inherent to the relic, and to the believer.  So when I smelled nothing, I was disappointed.  But there was the left foot of Saint Anna, and sweet scent or not, venerating it was a blessing in itself.

The relics came, and the relics went; and then the culmination of the vigil began as daylight advanced across the craggy Mountain—the Divine Liturgy.  I took Communion, and then I went to the miraculous icon of Saint Anna.  Kneeling before the photographs of infants from across the world, I sought her help.  Then I went to the bishop for his blessing with the hundreds of other faithful.  Then, as the exodus from the chapel began, I lingered for a bit.  I walked over to the relic of Saint Anna.  I leaned over to have a final look.  And it smelled like the sweetest honey.
As originally published on

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...