An adventure to Mount Athos, a little known enclave hidden in the north of Greece…
Supposedly where Slobodan Milosevic was hiding for a period, where Prince Charles makes a visit every year and where you can see what the world was like thousands of years ago, Mount Athos has a truly divine atmosphere. Mount Athos is like nowhere else on earth and has to be experienced to be believed, it’s certainly worth the struggle to get there. There is a peculiar energy in the air to be felt but living as a monk has to be the best experience. Here’s a report when Andrew Yiallouros made the trip a few years back (make sure you check out our rare photos at the end!):
Having not really slept Friday night and needing to pack and sort final stuff out before I left on Saturday Night (and the fact that at 6ft4 inches tall, sleeping on a plane is not really an option) I knew that the journey was going to be hard.
The schedule was to arrive at 5am in Athens from London and then taxi to my cousins house and wait a bit till my first bus in the evening, then travel overnight for 6 hours (again sleeping was never going to happen!) change bus and travel a further 3 hours then get a boat for 2 hours, another bus, another final bus and then walk up the mountain to my first monastery! This was going to trump my 12 hour ferry, taxi, canoe and mule drawn cart journey to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia!
The first bus was old and rickety and the lovely lady next to me took up half my seat so it was pretty hard to keep happy thoughts about my fellow man (or woman, though her beard made me doubt myself). There was a monk on board and a Californian pilgrim called Lucas, a complete stranger who my cousin had asked when we got on board to help me get there (as I was still acclimatising to Greek!). I don’t remember much of the journey as it was dark and I was apprehensive about where or what I was heading to and I was also exhausted. I do remember the sunrise as we approached Ouranopolis (where I’d get the boat to my destination) and as the sun illuminated the deep purple of the curtains, casting a royal hue to the green seat covers, I remember thinking that if you look there is beauty everywhere.
Ouranopolis was lovely and as we (Lucas and I) waited for the boat with a coffee and a fag we chatted with a South African hippy orthodox monk called Pater (pronounced pat-air, meaning father) Nektarios who caught my eye with a red cross he had on his priests’ hat. Lucas was beginning to annoy me already with his anxious babbling and denigration and suspicion of the monks (I wondered why he was going?) and I tried to focus on the Pater and discuss spiritual matters, as in can you really believe such an outdated and seemingly ludicrous thing? Pater Nektarios, however, wanted to talk a little bit too much about jacking off and how it was completely allowed (!) but nonetheless with my probing and frank questions about whether God did exist and how it could be proved (I'd decided I was going to hold no bars in my questions to the monks) I felt like I understood things a little more. More on those conclusions later!
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We got on the boat and continued our chat with Lucas continually trying to take me away from the monk (I found out later because he thought he was gay) and me regularly leaving the two to argue with each other as I took pictures of the approaching mountain and monasteries on its slopes. The mountain is part of a peninsula in the north of Greece which looms out of the earth up over 2000 meters with many smaller slopes coming off of it into the deep blue sea. It looked so majestic and I was filled with warm fuzzy feelings of what was to come.
The entry to the mountain is only by boat (there are no roads to Mount Athos) and it is also strictly controlled; you must have permission from priests and the government to go (which I had managed to obtain at the last minute!). You get your local orthodox priest to authorise you and there are a limited number of passes available. However, you don't have to necessarily be orthodox, Prince Charles goes regularly. Mount Athos is its own country like the Vatican but has had far fewer visitors and invasions over the last two millennia and is considered one of the last untouched places on earth. Women are not allowed on the island (something I do not agree with, as a 21st century global citizen). The tradition states that Mary (the mother of Jesus) was shipwrecked on the island and when she set foot she adored its beauty so much that she asked God that it remain her garden and her garden only till the end of time. Swimming is and has never been allowed and so you can imagine that the beaches and coves we saw on our approach had not been swum in or touched for over 2000 years! Roads have only recently been built and when my dad came 40 years ago you had to walk everywhere! It is something of a tradition for generations of families to make the visit at least once in their lives.
There is no TV or similar distractions and little electricity or running water and so you feel like you are going back in time at least 1000 years. this was especially visible on our numerous dockings onto the jetties of the different monasteries on the way to the main port of the mountain as monks and their helpers busied themselves bringing ashore supplies and building materials (the EU is funding a major refurbishment of the ancient and unmaintained monasteries and “sketes” (small monasteries)) in a hive of activity that matches what you could imagine was how the world used to be; you don’t just go to the shops to buy stuff, you have to move mountains (or off them) to get things. you could see the relief on the monks faces as they got back to the holy mount after a few days in the hectic and alien (to them) outside world.
36 hours of travel (not to mention the very hairy ride up the mountain in a very large bus on a very small and winding road, with sheer drops to the cliffs below on either side) and 48 hours of no sleep later I was at Vatopedion, the largest monastery on Ayon Oros (the Holy Mountain)! We were greeted by a very happy monk who gave us water, raki (a very strong spirit famous in Greece) and some Turkish delight. This monk exuded something I have rarely encountered before: a sort of inner knowing and serenity and joy. He really had this inexplicable quality of power or something...I just can’t put my finger on it yet...but I can say that they are very different people, and people such as these do not exist in our world.
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After checking in I went to my dormitory (which thankfully only had me in it) and caught an hours sleep before vespers (evening prayer). This was how it was to be: the religious day for a monk here starts at 4pm with vespers (praying and contemplation on the divine) followed by confession (yes the orthodox faith also confesses which I didn’t know!) and then trapeze (dinner but this isn’t the literal translation) and then sleep. you then wake up at 3.30 or 4am (depending on their asceticism) and go to matins (more prayer and devotion to God) until 6am which is immediately followed by a further 2 hours/'2 and a half hours of the liturgy where you take communion (bread and wine/body and blood of Christ). At 8 or 8.30am there is trapeza again and then you pray or read scripture and discuss spiritual things with the monks until vespers again.
After my nap, I went to vespers and attempted to assimilate myself into this alien world. To be honest I am a philosopher and a scientist and I don’t really believe in God and I absolutely hate religion (though I love the study of it). But I was here to see if I could find something and answer questions and so the only option was to do as they did. What I therefore prayed for was faith and to be able to know what it is to believe and understand, and I asked God that he show something to me that would help/make this happen. I also prayed that I would be open minded and open myself to the possibility that perhaps I will never know and will only be able to believe. This is really hard for me since I do not believe that blind faith is right, I feel you should understand what you are doing, since otherwise you are just a sheep being controlled. (I have a very personal experience of this in that my nanny/maid who brought me up (!) was such a (in my opinion) sheep, very religious, and I had always said that I would never be like her). I cannot believe just because someone tells me to.
I, like us all in the western world, want proof.
After vespers I was pushed (in the nicest way possible) into confession with an English speaking Pater called Pater Palomas. I wasn’t really ready and confessed a few things (which no-one else will ever know!) but focused on asking questions like what is reincarnation to him and similar sorts of things. He probably felt a little under attack and it was a tense 45 minutes! At the end you kneel before him and he blesses you and also tells you to do some things to make up for it, like go to church every Sunday etc etc! I came away with the same old tired answers I’d heard before, you have to accept what you are told, and that you either believe or you don’t, which clearly did not sit well with me. I didn’t feel I liked him very much then and as one of the things people do here is find a spiritual father to help them in their lives, I decided that he was not it! There were a few things that did sit well with me though and he did answer a few things and I did feel that layers of resistance were being stripped from me with every question I asked.
After this was trapeza: raw cherry tomatoes, hard stale bread, plain spaghetti (no cheese), cucumbers, gherkins, vinegar, lemon juice, no oil and only water and watermelon! Simple is not the word! You go in and say a thanksgiving prayer all together on a long table, monks and pilgrims alike and a bell rings and then you sit down and eat while a priest recites the gospel from a lectern. What I didn’t know was that after 15mins the bell rings again and it’s all over, finished or not, you say another prayer and leave! Suffice to say I had eaten about 4 mouthfuls (id faffed around trying to make a salad!) when this happened and since there is no other food I was going to bed hungry that night!
After the meal (by the way, when you leave the trapeza there are 3 monks bowed towards you with bizarre hand gestures as you leave which was quite weird!) there was a tour of the monastery where we learnt that it was the oldest, biggest with the most monks (but only 100) and that the church had had this daily ritual (as I’ve described) carried out every day for well over 1000 years (that’s over 365,000 days!). We were also showed relics which I had rarely seen before and we venerated them (which basically means you make the sign of the cross and kiss them (you also do this with the icons as you enter and leave the church)). They had the belt of the virgin mother, a piece of the cross, and the head of St John Chrisostomos (and his un-decayed ear, which is very bizarre since it’s over a millennia old!) and a really gross decayed hand belonging to some saint which, yes, I also kissed! Can’t believe I did that. I kissed a corpse. Ewwww! I again asked for help in believing!
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Then we had a chat with the American monk who had given us the tour and as we sat round him as he held court we asked questions that bugged us. He was very good and gave very good answers and I really felt that he helped me believe more. He said that even he has his doubts and even he doesn’t want to get up at 4am every day and even he lacks faith sometimes but that you do it anyway in a kind of humble, why would they lie, just ignore that and trust sort of way! I then spent the rest of the evening till 11pm writing down things I wanted to confess (it was like a dam being broken as I realised how much "sin" I had been a part of and suffice to say the list was long!).
I didn’t really sleep and when the bells went off for matins I slovenly dragged myself there (I was of course late!). It is a hard thing to pray once you've finished with "please bless my friends and family etc etc" and I can tell you that those 4 exhausting hours were the longest I’ve had in a while! By 6am I was really fading and thirsty but because I was to take communion you cannot put anything in your body before God gets there, I just had to wait it out. I distracted myself with asking to be shown something I should read and then opening the bible I’d brought with me (yes even I have one). It opened on the first page of the new testament, which I have never really read, and this did weird me out a bit, since it is this idea of Jesus that I have the most trouble with! I then said how thirsty I was and the next page I randomly opened was this: "listen to me...a man is not defiled by what goes into his mouth but by what come out of it." That felt a little too coincidental no? I left briefly and got some water and returned and this small respite allowed me to hang in to the end, something I am sure I could not have done without it!
I took communion which I was allowed to do since I’d confessed. And it was here that I had my first real encounter with something divine. at 4am with no light (dawn is at 7/8am) and the ancient church with its beautiful frescoes and icons illuminated only by dull brightly colored oil lamps, with the shadows of the monks' geometric robes, incense burning and the haunting sounds of the monks singing (you really have to hear it to know what I mean, over the course of 4 hours it reaches this gorgeous crescendo that really leaves you breathless!), and the fact that I had barely slept for days now, it is hard to not feel otherworldly. Something was starting to happen to me, but I didn’t know what yet...
Breakfast was even simpler but there was the added surprise of a glass of red wine! I scoffed it all down so fast that someone told me to slow down, but I was glad I did as I had only just finished when the bell rang again! After, I had a short nap and then prayed and asked the icons to help me believe again.
I decided I wanted to be alone to commune with God by basically shouting at him/her/it at the top of my lungs on top of a one of the smaller hilltops which is something that had been recommended to me by the American monk. So at midday/1pm (what a stupid idea that was and I was lucky I didn’t get sun stroke!) I climbed for an hour or so up the mountain to the ruins of an old school (very apt) which had a chapel in the middle. I sat down cross-legged in the middle of rats/mice dropping and 1000 year old dust and debris and shouted at God.
Now what happened up I can’t really explain. I started crying profusely (I am not a cryer) and I felt a presence. It all left me with a belief that God does exist.
End of part 1, click here for part 2!
Check out our rare photos below...
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