Mount Athos Epiphany

The ferry to Mount Athos is a serene, sedate affair. Women have been left behind. Black clad bearded monks and priests finger rosary beads and contemplate the steep rise of pine clad foothills to the sharp jagged mountain pinnacle. Peppered amongst the black gowns are logo brandishing pilgrims flicking mobile phones; some carrying wooden staffs. 

Here 21st century meets ancient tradition head on. Although Athos is a peninsula the feeling is of cutting away from the modern world, to an island set back in time. Among the foothills to the Mountain there are many monasteries where one can stay and pray. Since praying for my life Afghanistan I had lost all resistance to deep contemplation or prayer. In the words of William Dalyrmple Athos is, “A self governing monastic republic dedicated to prayer chastity and pure untarnished orthodoxy.” So it was to this rather austere environment I came for solace. 
Fortuitously unplanned my arrival comes at an auspicious time. It is the feast of the transfiguration. I met a new seeker friend on leaving boat and at the administrative centre of Karayenes, we are guided to our first overnight stay –technically you are only meant to stay for one night only in each monastery - Koutloumousiou. Here we are given a twin single bedroom with clean sheets and towels by a kindly German monk.  “Forgive me we have been busy today so we are not fully prepared.” It‘s the first time I’ve ever heard someone open a sentence with “forgive me,” and the words stick in my mind. After prayers we are sat at long linen tables with silver edged plates and bountiful supplies of fish, pasta, fruit, water and wine. Chanting swirls, incense spills and the seated congregation signs the cross to readings from the gospels in Greek. This is not a place for the rowdy but it is a place that welcomes everyone; sinners and saints if you will. “We get them all here,” says one monk, referring to murderers, drug addicts, millionaires and Princes.   
A trip to stay with the monks of Athos is not one to be taken in a superficial way. Amongst other things one must follow a dignified dress codes and rules that include not smoking or using devices that play music. You are expected to get involved in daily life: “Participation in church services and the refectory should be dignified and quiet.” Music is allowed however, in the form of chants and ringing calls to prayer. One glorious evening I was fortunate to stumble across a musical performance.  Golden light reflected from the Aegean sea filling the western room of Dionysius monastery.  The melodious sound of a low long flute held a floating melody over chanting bass and tenor voices. Along a wall five Patriarchs (fathers of the church) sat on thrones. One wept. In the Orthodox Christian tradition sensitivity is exalted; he has as they say “the gift of tears.” A layman visitor beside me wept too. There are two reasons for tears: closeness to god and separation from him.  One of the priests discerns I am English and shouts: “Beautiful! Celtico!” referring to similarities in sound with the Byzantine tradition. The sun turned from golden to red and as it sank on the horizon we were calmed by a constant drone hiding behind the melody –the isotratima- the constant, a reference I’m told later to the almighty.
The culture of sacred song on Athos is enhanced by many stories. One evening, after reading an epic tale of an Elder monk who returned to his home after his parents thought he’d died, I retired to my room but woke around five am. The monks were still in prayer and I went to the bathroom to wash. As I looked into the mirror the porcelain sink below crashed to the floor and smashed into a thousand pieces. A Greek standing by me solemnly kept shaving but another asked what happened, signed the cross, and said:”Impossible!”  By then I was superstitiously freaked out. I waited till light and told one of the brothers the tale: “Don’t worry he said, “you are happy!”
Superstition blends with tradition in the rituals of the monks.
Deep conversation was easy to find and traveling the wooded trails by foot I eventually came to the door of an English monk. The conversation with him carried on for nearly three straight days and nights. We sat in his artist’s studio high on a cliff face with the sparkle of the sea below, during the day and stars above at night.  It was transformative and engrossing experience – for both of us – and although he was not a confessor I came away with a feeling of having unburdened myself. My dreams were transformed: Afghan soldiers hurried around to protect me, former  girlfriends kissed my cheek or came to smile lovingly in my dreams. 

Sitting in a garden cemetery groups of tall cypress surrounded us. My new found English friend has just shown me and some companions the skulls of some of his forebears  tucked away in a brick lined corner.  The remains don't look that scary; this I am told is because their bottom jaws have been removed. “They cannot bite you now,” I joke. Beside the skulls is a box, an ordinary cardboard box. The monks have just dug up the bones of a deceased old fellow, put them in the box and and are preparing to stack his bones in a shrine with all the others. It’s eighteen years since he`s been gone and the grave space is needed for the next monk to “fall asleep in the Lord.” There’s nothing macabre at all and If the monk was a saint his skull might one day makes it`s way into a silver box to be venerated (kissed and the sign of the cross made) by thousands of pilgrims yet to come to Athos. Body parts of apostles, saints and relics of the cross and clothing are venerated similarly.
The highlight of any visit is to climb the mountain itself. It takes a good days climbing and my journey was supported by random acts of kindness you could only find in a place like this. I had little food but took to the foothills. At a base camp a Russian man came down the opposite way and dropped a bag of nuts into my hands without a word being said. A Greek man pulled bread and cheese and tomatoes from his sack and offered to share a feast.
On reaching the top of Mount Athos (Greece`s second highest mountain at 2033 m) my reaction to the spectacular sudden unfolding of the view was a guttural: “Oh my God!” Theo, the man who previously shared his food with me starts to chant as I hit the summit. Slowly the sun began to set and as we both sat outside a little bunk house squealing swallows dive bombed into the deep blissful blue sea-sky and disappeared. I say sea-sky for that is what it was –they cannot be separated. The stars came out and the rapid flights of multiple aircraft could be charted against the constellations. “How many children have you got?” asked Theo, which translates serendipitously as “God.” “One” I say “Why one,’” he says “Have three!” “God willing” I say.

I felt unusually sensitised to the world and in the days to follow I would find it a struggle to leave the Holy Mountain. There was the possibility of a job gardening and more time to contemplate – an excruciating decision for a natural contemplative. In the end I decided to go, to test myself; if it was my destiny to return to Athos I would, will, still, in the future...
I walked for five days up the coast, through towns and villages of north-eastern Greece, before Athos eventually receded out of view, but not out of mind. 

A Rough Guides version of this story can be found here.

Photo Gallery:
Looking towards Agios Pavlou
Old map
Praying over exhumed bones
View from the top
Mount Athos from Dionisiou monastery with cloud above in the distance


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