On my return I bumped into Lucas who I’d managed to lose and he did bring me down a bit with his anti-faith talk. Oh well. More was to come. I went to vespers again and then to confession and sat down with Pater Palomas again and went for it. I thought he might say "begone demon off the mountain you sick abomination" but instead he actually told me that a lot of what I told him was not a sin and a few other things that made me sit up and listen and he basically did make a lot of sense. I was starting to get over this suspicion of priests and religion and accept that everyone has their sense and logic. It was really nice and we continued to chat for quite a while and I can say that this time I liked this monk very much. When I knelt before him this time I felt really relieved and happy and he blessed me a little longer and didn’t give me any penances.
After that I bumped into this other monk I kept seeing who had these eyes that you have to see to believe, they emitted this fire, this kind of weird quality. He was also the happiest most joyous person I’d ever met, but not crazy happy, just happy happy! He told me that orthodoxy is the religion started by the apostles after Jesus and is the most untouched. Obviously. According to him, Catholicism is actually the first protestant church and it was it that broke from the orthodox one and not the other way around.
After trapeza I sat down and with all the monks and helped them peel melons and nectarines while one of them on a rotating basis (as an elder monk directed them) murmured in an eerie way kiree elaison, kiree elaison which I think means Christ has risen. I chatted with this Australian monk about the outside world (you have to understand that some of them don’t even know about the bombings in London for example!) and religion. He told me that other religions and science which is also a religion (something you adhere to continually) are philosophical which relies on a self centered arrogance, as in "I can find out the truth on my own" but Christianity is revelation as in, it is given to you if you want it bad enough, you can’t get it on your own and that it was a deeply personal religion whereby you and God and only you two commune with each other until you hear each other. I thought this was a very interesting point. He told me about miracles that he had seen (as had Pater Palomas I should add, who told me about a holy light (I’ve heard this before) that comes out of the place of the crucifixion or nativity, I can’t remember, at Easter) and I really enjoyed that moment too. I really felt like one of the monks and it was nice as they are mostly (except the crazy ones, as there good and bad people everywhere, even here) really special, humble people.
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As I walked to bed that night I felt the most happy, relaxed, clear, joyous, calm, knowing (and more) that I have ever felt before. I really felt as though I was getting somewhere and whilst I can’t remember off the top of my head any answers, I did feel like I didn’t have any more questions. It’s quite inexplicable.
As I was dropping off to sleep at about 9 someone came into my room and flashes of warnings I’d received about lonely undersexed monks came into my head! It turned out to be some old man who was apparently supposed to be sleeping in my room called Yani. Now as he crashed around sorting himself out and switching on and off the light, opening windows and leaving the door open so all the outside added to the cacophony I started to get a little pissed off. By 11pm as he finally dozed off and started to snore like a behemothian bear I was more than pissed off. And every time I was about to nod off his snoring or coughing woke me. I was a bit pissed off with myself as all the good happy thoughts I’d felt before drained away and I was also angry that I was getting angry. By 2am I realised I wasn’t going to sleep and so I got up to have my first cigarette for quite a while.
As I sat on the balcony and tried to get over my anger I gazed at the stars (there are no lights or pollution here so you can imagine the view, with the Andromeda galaxy, plough star and the wisp of the milky way clearly visible) and listened to the sea’s breath against the shore. It was here that I had another profound experience and I don’t mind telling you that I defy anyone to not feel a presence of something on that balcony, on that mountain. As it’s deeply personal and subjective it’s not really possible for me to explain it in a convincing way, it was indeed numinous. All I can say is that there was something there (and ok I was slightly sleep deprived but not mad and definitely rational, and I should also add that even though I’d really not been sleeping I did not feel at all tired mentally, just physically).
I asked for forgiveness for being angry at Yani and to be able to sleep, it becomes addictive, this thought process, and when I returned to my room and put my head down I was out like a light. When the bells went off at 4am I couldn’t get up, or rather I did and then found myself being woken up again at 5 by a very loud knocking on the door! I went to communion again but this time it was in a different chapel with the most intricate and fantastic iconostasis (the bit that separates the alter from the rest of the church) with gold and jewels and the most wonderful paintings, icons and frescoes of saints and other religious imagery. If you want to see art, you really need to come to this mountain and it was a theme of the trip that there are treasures here that are more amazing than any Vatican or gallery and even less well known.
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As I was there I again asked for forgiveness for my anger at Yani (I’d been angry again when my tiredness had made me miss the first hour and a half of the day) and just then Yani came into the chapel looking for a seat of which there were none. When I say right at that moment I mean right at that moment, and it reminded me of something from my more hippy spiritual days that there are no coincidences. I got up and gave Yani my seat (he’s an old man!) and I stood for the rest of the service in the growing heat in penance. When I left the church I felt even more joyous and serene than ever and this was another little proof for me.
I was to leave for a skete that day called St Andrew (my namesake, which is important in Greece, your name day (your saints day) is more important than your birthday here) and as I said my goodbyes and thanks to all the monks I left Vatopedion in thanks and great happiness and calm.
As I sat waiting for the bus (with the magically appearing Lucas (seriously it was like he popped out of nowhere) who I was beginning to think was following me) to Karyes (the capital where I was to walk to St Andrews from) we chatted with another monk about why he'd left the world to come here and whether he was happy. He said he felt a calling and that he was very happy, like it had removed all the unhappiness from his life. Many of the monks had told me this and I can understand that with its simplicity and distraction-less way, why Mt Athos would be like this. He told me that they don’t even leave when their family is ill (which isn’t great I think, but I can also understand that if you reject the world you really have to reject all of it) but he said that they obviously prayed for them and wished them better.
I could not do what they do, I have to live in the world, but I did not think they were crazy which I think I did before. He also told me that I live on the front line and that if I can keep the faith I am better than him and that he respected me greatly. Obviously that was nice to hear! Lucas, again, snubbed it all and said he was stupid to his face! And I really felt like I wanted to get away from him. Why was he here? What’s the point of coming here if you are going to look down your nose at it all? What was worse was that he'd some 3 times before and you have to wonder what was the point if you are not open minded? I think it's just different things for different people. I also realise that being truly open minded means you expect nothing which is basically the axiom of what having faith means. It is almost a blessing to not believe as it is in this un-expecting state that God can come. There’s not supposed to be proof, that’s the point, so you can go nowhere if you seek for proof. Once I’d approached it like this: that it’s ok I don’t believe, I started to believe.
One of my biggest problems with religion is the idea that if you are not orthodox or faithful or whatever (which one might not be for various reasons, atheist family etc etc) then you are going to hell. I asked a lot about this and the answer given was that God judges everyone differently and that everyone has a choice, some harder than others, and that it’s not as clear cut as all that, and that God will be fair and not to worry about this. The fact that I had met so many intellectuals (doctors, PhD holders and converts from different faiths (catholic, Buddhist you name it, they all visit Mount Athos) on the mountain and that orthodox is the only growing religion while other are all losing members, does make you think maybe he’s right. Who knows. He also said that many fathers on the mountain had now started to prophesise that the apocalypse was coming, which is a bit scary when you think about it. It’s not something I want to believe though with all the global warming, stabbings, war, earthquakes and hate in the world (especially London) it makes you wonder! Even weirder is that he said there has been a judgement by water (Noah’s flood) and others but that this one would be one of fire, when you think about the global warming and threat of all out nuclear war it makes you think! Anyway, there is no point thinking like that, and I’m not going to.
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Eventually got to St Andrews (after walking in the midday sun again!) which was a very different monastery. It was Russian orthodox (the Russian churches have onion tops not domes like the Greek ones) but is now Greek (there are Serbian, Ukrainian, Antiochian etc etc, but all are orthodox) and was also huge but very dilapidated but had better views and photo opportunities! It was more ascetic here and we all had the help the 12 monks who live here look after the 30 or so guests. I should add everything is free on the mountain, you don’t pay for the food or accommodation and no one asks for anything in return, there is no collection plate and I don’t think they would accept anything if you offered. I folded sheets for 2 hours and it was very meditative and calming since it was a kind of help I’d not given before: when you help a friend you can always say I can’t be bothered anymore, and when you work you are getting money. But helping these guys was something you could not back out of, you had to finish it and yet you received nothing in return.
I must mention that on the bus to Karyes which was also very hairy, I was no longer scared. That is important I think. Also you forget that there are no women here, or rather you forget that women exist and it’s quite liberating, for the first time ever I didn’t care what I looked or smelled like (washing is a luxury unfortunately!) and it was quite nice. Sorry!
I had a good time in St Andrews did more of the same, met some nice Greek lads and had a good chat with them and also had more good talks with a British monk called Pater Ephraim. He was probably the best one I talked to since he understood me better as an Englishman. (Well a Greek living in England!). One of the noteworthy things here was that at trapeza I sat eating next to a tomb which is a bit strange but I guess it’s good to keep death in view. Since I’ve started to wake up with the thought that it’s possible I’m going to die soon (well I hope not that soon) my life has been fuller and I have done more and enjoyed it more! Another noteworthy thing was that they have this huge golden chandelier in all the churches in orthodoxy but here they light up all the candles and spin it in a circular motion and in the zero light of 4am (you wake up at 3.30 here!) it’s beautiful!
You could see the peak of the mountain from this skete, and as I got ready to leave and collected my thoughts I thought to myself that there is no better place to come and replenish your soul and that I will be back at some time in my life.
On the bus back to Thessaloniki on the way to Athens halfway through the journey (which is quite far from the mountain) who got on the bus? That’s right, Lucas! And as we travelled along and he pointed out hot girls and offered me beer, a little bit of me returned and a little of the mountain left. But the peak of the mountain is now embedded in me and I will never forget it.
I said to someone I would say what God said to me and here it is: “Love and enjoy.” That is all that matters. That is what I am taking with me. And a little more faith. And maybe not many answers, but no more questions either!
It’s like the peak of the mountain is God's big toe touching the earth from the heavens above and it really is a special place.
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