Pilgrimage to Mount Athos
I’ve been to some rum places – Highgate for a start. But Mount Athos is in a different league. I’d heard of it of course: the self-governing monastic state where women are not allowed. But I’d never thought of going there until fellow parishioner Anthony Davis suggested it.
The Mount Athos peninsula is the most easterly of the three fingers pointing into the Aegean Sea from Greece’s north eastern coast.
It took some planning to arrange a visit. Only 10 non-Orthodox people are allowed in per day (100 Orthodox) and apparently lots of people want to go. (Prince Charles for a start.) You can’t apply until six months before so if you want to go in the favoured spring or autumn (summer is too hot; winter is cold) you have to act smartly, ie first thing in the morning exactly six months to the day before you want to be there. (Charles’ mum wakes him early.)
The peninsula stretches about 50 kilometres and is between 8 and 12 kilometres wide. It is dominated by Mount Athos, some 2,000 metres high. The peninsula is basically accessible only by boat.
Once you have got permission from the Mount Athos authorities you then have to find monasteries prepared to take you. (You are not allowed to camp.) It’s assumed you are on a pilgrimage and not a hiker there to explore the world heritage site.
There are said to be about 2,000 monks on the peninsula, living in 20 monasteries, 12 sketes (sub-monasteries) and various hermitages. Some monks live such isolated lives that they are rarely, if ever, seen by visitors. One story is that a monk living in a cave above the sea found a National Geographic magazine in a basket of provisions lowered to him. He wrote to say how he enjoyed it and was given a life subscription.
Visitors are allowed to stay 4 days. We were fortunate to have the help of a Greek family in getting permission to stay at two monasteries and a skete. To get there we flew to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, and then drove over the Macedonian mountains to the village of Ouranoupoli where you collect your diamoneterion, a Byzantine-type visa signed by four of the secretaries of the leading monasteries. This must be presented to get a boat to Mount Athos and to the guest master at the monastery before he will allow you to stay.
The main entry point is the little port of Dafni, where there is a café and a bus to the only other settlement, the capital Karies (where there is also a café!)
We got off the ferry at an early landing stage so that we would have a properly penitential walk to Agiou Panteleimonos monastery about eight kilometres away, where we were to spend the night. The monastery is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of our time there was spent, as you would expect, attending services. There was one immediately we arrived, followed by dinner, which was eaten in amiable silence with the monks in the refectory (always near the main door of the church) while a monk read from the bible. We soon realised there was a protocol, such as not drinking before a bell was rung and ending your meal when another bell was rung. Later that night there was a three-hour service with Russian basses forming two choirs amid swinging incense in the intimate church. Pilgrims kissed icon after icon in the glittering candlelight. There were other services before and after breakfast and then we were off to our next monastery, Osiou Grigoriou.
Monks have lived on Mount Athos since the 4th / 5th centuries. The largest of the existing monasteries, Great Lavra, was founded in 963. Apart from the Russian monastery, there are also Serbian and Bulgarian ones. The other seventeen are Greek Orthodox, including Osiou Grigoriou.
Osiou Grigoriou hangs like a limpet over the sea. We reached it along a tough cliff-side path. Once again it was straight into church (for vespers), then dinner (with wine!) to fortify us for a four-hour service (matins) beginning at 4 am. We were fortunate to meet Father Damian, an English monk, who assured us that we were not expected to attend the whole service. Father Damian, who has been at the monastery 13 years, was happy to discuss the Orthodox faith with us. He said the ordination of women in the Church of England had placed a block on closer relations with the Orthodox Church whose teachings, he said, never changed. Before we left in the morning, Father Damian invited us for coffee and we resumed our discussions. When we left he gave us each a book by the abbot, Archimandrite George. (Father Damian is in charge of bookbinding in the monastery – having inexplicably given up his post as winemaker.)
Why is Mount Athos closed to women?
There is a belief that the Virgin Mary visited Mount Athos – not an impossible journey – and so the peninsula is sacred ground dedicated to the Mother of God to the exclusion of all other women, though some women have been there, notably Jews given refuge during the war. Edward Lear took a dyspeptic view after his visit in 1856. ‘Muttering, miserable, mutton-hating, man-avoiding, misogynic, morose and merriment-marring, monotonous, many-mule-making, mocking, mournful, minced-fish and marmalade-masticating monx’ he wrote to his sister. (Perhaps not his wittiest commentary, but he did some nice pictures.) The monks are still peeved at being ripped off by English people. They remember Robert Curzon who walked off in the nineteenth century with some old gospels given to him by the Abbot of St Paul’s monastery who apparently said ‘we make no use of these old books’.
How do the monasteries survive? Well obviously not on book dealing. And they did not expect us to pay anything. Well, its certainly hard work mainly. Everyone has a job. They have endowments. And they get support from Orthodox Christians and others around the world who recognise Mount Athos as a spiritual treasure.
The hard work became apparent when we got to our third lodging, San Andreas skete, which we reached by a combination of boat, bus (the only one on the peninsula) and foot. We were greeted with a glass of raki (and the invariable Turkish delight). San Andreas was formerly a Russian monastery but that tradition died some 20 years ago with the last of its monks. The Mount Athos authorities, following tradition, allocated the vast complex to one of the other monasteries. In this case it was to the august Vatopediou monastery which sent monks to resurrect San Andreas. Their achievement is breathtaking. The huge rundown church is now resplendent while the refectory has also been handsomely restored. Some of the old buildings in the complex are still in a state of collapse but work on some of them was underway.
“I think the article needs a conclusion – what did you gain from the visit? I think I gained an insight into monastic life and a much smaller glimpse of Orthodox religion. Shortly after the visit I went to a superb concert performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, performed by two of our greatest singers, and good though it was, I realised that it was incomplete and sung without context or real feeling as the religious music was sung, less beautifully, by the Athonite monks. Religious music will never sound right to me sung in a concert now. And of course, it is a lovely place. Also I will not forget your snoring for a long time.”
Dennis Benton is a retired journalist who lived and studied in South Africa before heading for London during the Swinging Sixties. He is now expiating his youthful sins as a respectable pillar of his Church of England community in Highgate.
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