214. Four Days on the Holy Mountain – Part One

My Travel Journal

Though it is now September 2020, we are about to go to Mount Athos in September 2002.

As you may know, I kept daily journals on my travels, mostly to Greece, so that when I got too old to do it any more, I could read them and experience it all again – as now I do

From time to time I like to share my journeys with you. I so much want to see the Holy Mountain again, and at my age I really don’t want to travel alone – so come along! This way women can come too. (Don’t tell the abbot.)

Back when I was a fresh Blogger I wrote about this trip, giving my general impressions. (Posts 4, 5, 6) Now I want to follow my journal day by day so I (and you) can catch the immediate feel of what it was like for this pilgrim. As in all journals I recorded things as they happened or as they occurred to me, which means this writing will be a bit disjointed. I’ve done just a little editing to clarify things expressed obscurely.

Getting there

Even before I was Orthodox I had wanted to visit the Holy Mountain. However I knew no modern Greek and had no guide, so was scared to attempt it.  

But now…  A man from our Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, (previously an Episcopalian priest) had felt the calling and had been accepted and even ordained at Karakallou Monastery (Καρακάλλοu Μόνη) left and had invited me to come and visit him. Also by now I knew at least enough Greek to ask the single most important thing: Που είναι η τουαλέτα? So I wasn’t quite so nervous about it.

Athos is in the northeast of Greece, and Karakallou is on the east coast of the Athonite peninsula, about 3/4 of the way down.

It dates to at least the Eleventh Century, founded either by the Roman emperor Karakallas or by a monk of the same name. It’s built like a fortress, and little wonder: It has been destroyed three times, once by the Latins (during their rule of Byzantium), then twice by pirates. The Ottomans graciously only stole Karakallou’s land. The monastery follows the strictest traditional Athonite discipline – as you definitely shall see! 

It is no easy feat to get onto the Holy Mountain, and I’ve heard it’s tougher now since they were getting overwhelmed with pilgrims. Only men may enter. In 2002, on any particular day, only ten non-Orthodox could visit, and only a hundred Greeks or other Orthodox. Non-Orthodox had to jump through a lot of hoops, and it wasn’t much easier for clergy who were not Greek Orthodox. We had to get permission from our superior (in my case, our Antiochian Metropolitan Philip, of blessed memory) and then from the Patriarch of Constantinople. If you got that far, then an entry permit had to be obtained from the Athos office when you got to Thessaloniki. Finally one’s passport had to be approved when you arrived in Karyes, the capitol of Athos, which is technically a self-governing and autonomous district of Greece. 

Nor is the place easily accessible by transportation. By air? Don’t be absurd. By boat? Possible but not allowed. You’ve got to take a bus from Thessaloniki east 139 kilometers (86 miles) to Ouranopolis (“heaven city”, though it’s a tourist town), then transfer to a boat down the west shore of the peninsula. After this, most people take a bus up to Karyes. Everywhere you look, monks, monks, monks. Then you walk or take a car or van to the appropriate monastery. But this is far easier than not so long ago, when after you arrived by boat, then to get anywhere you had to walk. Some monasteries still aren’t accessible by road.

Nor does a person have free reign to roam once he gets to Athos. Normally pilgrims are allowed to stay for only four days, and must move from monastery to monastery each day. 

However Father Barnabas somehow got a blessing for me to stay at Karakallou for the entire four days. I stood beside him at his place in choir and, with the monks, was allowed to reverence the icon screen and the abbot before services. I worked with the monks in the monastery kitchen each day. I wish I could have seen more monasteries while I was on Athos. But this was an even greater blessing – for a few days to genuinely enter into the life of an Athonite monastery.

So with Khouria Dianna’s * “blessing” (don’t forget that!) off I went to Mount Athos. 

  • My dear wife. In the Antiochian Archdiocese we use the Arabic title for the priest’s wife.

Let’s pick it up two days before my four-day visit there.

Tuesday September 16, Thessaloniki

This has no relevance to Athos, but it’s funny. Kind of. Upon arriving at Thessaloniki Αεροδρόμιο, I waited and waited and nobody came to the Passport office, so I just walked into Greece. No problem! as the Greeks say. * 

  • “No problem” except when I tried to get out of the EU and back into the USA – I a man traveling alone with no record of where I had been or when. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve never been questioned and x-rayed so much in my life, even at the doctor’s. I thought I’d never get out of DeGaulle or into O’Hare.

Wednesday September 17, Thessaloniki

Getting my permit at the Athos Office went smoothly – very helpful people who spoke English. 

Day One: Wednesday September 18

9:20 a.m. I’m sitting on the boat in Ouranopolis harbor waiting for departure at 9:45. Probably. But just as the ticket lady at the train stasis said yesterday when I asked for a ticket on the 7:16 to Athens (which was posted plainly on the board): “It’s 7:00!” And as the agent at the bus station in Thessaloniki said this morning when I asked for a ticket on the express bus to Ouranopolis (the schedule of which also was clearly posted right behind her): “No express bus!” This is Greece!

I was up at 4:30 this morning after virtually no sleep – haven’t adjusted yet after the flight over, and was excited and also afraid of missing the bus. I finally dropped into a deep sleep about 4:20 – for ten minutes! The trip east was beautiful through wooded (pine) mountains. Everything was green and it looked rather like the Appalachians. It’s also a crystal clear day, about 70, only a light breeze. Maybe Father Ted’s hat * won’t blow off…?

* a “skoufa” which I borrowed from a Greek priest friend, so I would be dressed appropriately. It was a bit small for me.

Look way down the coast – high mountains! Mount Athos?

9:47 a.m. We’re off, almost on time.

10:45 a.m. A gorgeous trip down the coast. Soon after Ouranopolis the houses stop and Athos begins. This seems odd already – where are the women? We stopped at two or three monasteries and passed more high up, each more spectacular than the last. Otherwise it is empty land: cliffs, valleys, forest. The smell of pine and basil – and cigaret smoke! One old monk – large, white hair and beard, ascetic looking – suddenly pulled out his cell phone and had an animated conversation. I’m guessing that Athos may not be quite as isolated from the world as I thought. I must be turning Greek, for I understood the last announcement: Next stasis – Ζωγράφου [Zografou].  

7 p.m. The bus ride to Karyes was hair raising – gravel road up the side of a cliff, with no guard rails. A nice Greek guy befriended me, also going to Karakallou, and helped me find the way. Another crazy ride to Karakallou in a van driven by a mad monk. It’s a beautiful location with Mount Athos high above, and the blue Aegean below. I got the traditional welcome, with ouzo and loukoumi (Turkish delight, but don’t tell the Greeks). And there was Father Barnabas, whom I scarcely recognized with his long beard. At Vespers stood in the monks’ stall next to him.

The monks here are youngish for the most part – about 32 of them, they say, with 6 novices and also a few others. Such a change from 20 or 25 years ago when Athonite monks were thought to be a dying breed. There are about 40 visitors, again many of them young. Greece seems to be having a spiritual revival, especially among the young men. *

*  I later saw signs of this out in the “world” – men wearing prayer ropes, for example. 

The temple is very ornate, as expected. I know enough Greek to know we’re commemorating the ταξιάρχη/taxiarchi, archangels – on the “old calendar”, 13 days after home and the rest of Greece, because Athos is on the old calendar. And we’re also on Byzantine time: the Orthodox day begins at sunset, of course, which is 6 a.m. our time here, if I understand this which I think I don’t.

The supper consisted of beans, bread, tomatoes. [Should I include the following…? well, ok, it’s in my journal.] I prayed against gas (having thoughtlessly brought no Beano) and it worked! We venerated relics: the True Cross, St Charalambos’ skull, etc. Then I went for a walk with with Father Barnabas who is obviously happy here. He has found his home.

Now it’s quiet except for voices talking quietly in a small meeting room down the hall, with windows overlooking the Aegean. My room is up about 6 stories looking northeast across the sea towards the island of Thassos. Beautiful. Can hear a slight rush of sea from below. The Midnight Office and Orthros will begin at 2 a.m.! Liturgy about 4:30.

P.S. I lost my gibby [rassa, cassock] somewhere on the trip here. My backpack came open at the bus station. That must have been it, but how could something that big and black just disappear…?  Father Barnabas loaned me one for my time here. 

Day Two: Thursday September 19, 7 p.m. (somebody’s time) –  about 75, sunny

Do I smell of fish? Yes. More on this later!

I slept from 9 pm. till 2 a.m. Not long after came a knock on my door. It was the Finnish guestmaster: “Pater, it is time for the service”. So I roused myself with great difficulty and finally joined Orthros at 3. It’s because I’m a priest that I stand with the monks up front in the stall next to πάτερ Βαρνάβας/Pater Barnabas. I didn’t expect that. I am πάτερ Βασίλειος/Pater Basilios here, since Basil is my Orthodox “Chrismation name”. Don’t ever tell the Athonites that I actually go by “Father Bill”!   

Athonite services are so long that it is perfectly acceptable to walk out for a while and take a break. So we left briefly to look out over the sea at night. Oh! I can’t begin to describe it – and the stars!! Then our Liturgy was in an upstairs chapel. (Why do they celebrate several Liturgies in different locations? Odd.) They gave me the privilege of saying the Creed and the Our Father in English.

Breakfast: pasta, cheese, bread, wine, water. And it still wasn’t light outside!

3 hours of sound sleep, then Fr B brought coffee. The Finnish guest master brought Koulouria left and Loukoumia.  right

Then to the kitchen where I snapped green beans for a long time. (Don’t tell Dianna I have attained this skill!) Then we visited the temple and the altar, so I could have a good look around. * I discovered something: There was the Pantocrator far far up in the top of the dome, with light flowing in below Him.  This is not it, but it was like this.

Yes! Above the dome of our sky is Christ the Pantocrator, above the light, Creator of all, presiding over all. The dome of the sky will never again look the same to me.  

* Can I describe the church for you now? No, I’ve forgotten, except that it was very dark. I wish I could have taken pictures, but they’re not allowed.

Father Barnabas told me the story of a man from Larissa who was dying of cancer when he had a vision of a monk standing in front of a monastery with the sea below and behind, who said “You will be healed, but you must come and visit me.” The man recovered very quickly, then began his quest. At last he came to Karakallou which looked to him like the place. He knocked at the door and asked “Do you have any saints here?” Yes, the guestmaster said, Saint Gideon. “May I see his icon?” So they brought the icon left, and the man was disappointed. He said, “That’s not him.” The icon was an early 20th century rather “sentimentalized” one. The guestmaster said, “We do have a faded old icon of him” right which he found and brought out. “That is the one!” cried the man. “That is the monk who healed me!” After that he visited Karakallou regularly.

Then we cleaned little fish by hand for nearly 2 hours. Met Fr X, a monk from the US. Heard the story of how the abbot (actually called the “elder”, έροντας) claims that Coca Cola has urine in it, so when people donate Coke to the monastery, he gives it to a nearby school! ?!?! 

As expected, services here are far more elaborated than I’m used to, but still very familiar. With Orthodoxy, even on Athos in Greek, I can easily know where we are.

The abbot came by and said he thought it was a waste of time gutting the fish! 

Byzantine time: sunset = midnight in our secular terms, the beginning of the new day and they actually live by that here. Very confusing.

Then Vespers, supper (beans, cheese, bread, wine again). At Compline, the abbot kissed my hand. I’m accepted! He seems stern, holy, charismatic. It’s now 6:50 & I’m exhausted. We’ll be up at 3 for Matins. Tomorrow night comes a nine hour All Night Vigil. 

Next Week we’ll complete our pilgrimage to Athos.

Week after next: from the sublime to I don’t know what to call it – How to deal with politics

4 thoughts on “214. Four Days on the Holy Mountain – Part One

    1. Luke, I have no idea! I’d guess a couple of hours, but I was so fascinated by everything I was paying no attention to time.

  1. Fr. Bill,
    Thank you for reviving precious memories of my pilgrimage to Mt. Athos and four-day stay at Karakallou Monastery in July of 2005. It was there that I met Fr. Barnabas, who was very kind to me and I was able also to stand next to him in the section reserved for priests. He guided me through the various rituals when it came time to venerate the icons and receive the abbott’s Blessing. I understand that Fr. Barnabas reposed in the Lord some years ago. I remember him in my private prayers as well at the Proskomedi, when I celebrate Divine Liturgy. I’m retired from parish ministry but continue to serve and assist the present pastor of the parish I served, (Nativity of Christ, in Novato, California, 20 miles north of San Francisco, GOA) on Sundays and Feast Days. By God’s Grace and mercy, my Presvytera and I are doing well and pray the same for you and your Khouria. We both enjoy your blogs. God keep you. Be well in our Lord.

    1. Father Constantine, we share much in common. In the old days, every so often at 7 a.m. my phone would ring and, clear as a bell, a voice would say “This is Father Barnabas”, and I could picture him standing just outside the monastery entrance. God bless you and Presvytera, too, and keep you well.

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