215. Four Days on the Holy Mountain – Part Two

If you haven’t read last Friday’s Post, please do.

Day Three: Friday September 20 already, 75, sunny

There are no mirrors in this place, not even in the bathrooms. (We get the point?)

Today – up for Orthros at 3 – couldn’t see anything in church, finally Fr B spotted me & we sat in outer church through Liturgy. He found me a new prayer rope. Did Jesus Prayer. Thought service would never end! Breakfast – bread, tahini, good tea, and then 3 hours’ sleep. Then Fr B brought Greek coffee and loukoumi, after which we did vegetables for nearly 3 hours. 

Pray for Fr A, a young American, an only child of parents who are old and their health is quickly failing, and the abbot will not let him visit them. He feels terribly torn. The abbot says “this is part of your obedience.” But what about a person’s obedience to God’s commandment “Honor your father and mother”? But again, why didn’t Fr A think about that before he came here? 

And also for Radisha, a Serbian man about 30, who was to be tonsured on Saturday. The abbot said “no” and didn’t tell him why. He’s crushed. Abbots have absolute authority and are responsible to no one. I’m skeptical of the total obedience required here. On the other hand, how could a place like this, an intense community, function without it?

In the afternoon, I called home *, took pictures, just talked to Fr B for a while, catching up on old times. And new times. 

  • There’s a phone just outside the monastery entrance. Dianna sounded like she was standing right beside me.

Small Vespers at 4:30, respectable supper of pasta and soup – no beans! Fr B left me alone up in his stall for Vespers and I knew what to do. Even how to venerate icons properly and get blessing from the abbot. I must be Orthodox after all these years. Now it’s 5:45 – to bed and get some rest before All-Night Vigil at 11:30. 

While I think of it: Getting up at night here is super-beautiful – moonlight luminous over the sea and hills, a great silence hanging over everything, far quieter even than Cedarburg at night.

But let me also tell you about the bathing facilities… I can hardly wait for a shower in Thessaloniki.

So, good… night?

Day Four: Saturday September 21, 12:20 pm, 75 & sunny

Are we getting tired of this perfect weather? No.

All this sunshine and nobody sitting out in it. All the beautiful water down there and nobody swimming. I’m sitting at the east end of an immaculately kept hall (as everything is here), my back to the windows which look down to the blue Aegean, a light coolish breeze coming in.

What a night! Got a little sleep off and on, mostly off.

Once I woke up and looked out the window with a sense of all things in the universe silently moving freely of their own accord serving God – the stars and moon and sea and even somehow the people way across on Thassos – and that’s how all things come into right relationship with all and with each other. Hard to put in words but very vivid. *

  • This brief almost indescribable mystical experience (or whatever it was) affected me deeply and has hung over me ever since. All things must move freely, without force or manipulation. It left me with a visceral aversion to bullies and any who try to push themselves and their will on others. 

Later at 11:20 I looked down over the Catholikon (the church/ monastic complex – below) – full moon, Mount Athos shimmering blueish grey in the background. Simply gorgeous. Try to imagine this mountain illumined only by brilliant moonlight. 

Heard the semantron *  so went down and stood by Catholikon as all the bells began to ring for the feast. All quite overwhelming – beyond telling.

  • Blocks of wood clacked together to call to prayer, perhaps originating when the Ottoman Turks did not allow church bells to be rung..

I took my place in front with Fr Barnabas, and this time could see everything, including a couple of monks dozing off from time to time.

I just discovered that someone took a photo of the Karakallou church interior. (It wasn’t me.) That was naughty. Shame on him! and here it is:

By 1:30 we were to the Great Vespers entrance. Then almost everybody took a coffee and loukoumi break! while a few chanters carried on with Vespers. (Should we try this at home? Advertise: “Great Vespers including coffee and snacks”!)  I went back to bed, with barely any sleep till 3:20. Then back to church where all went on and on till after 8 a.m. This was only a 9 1/2 hour vigil. The vigil for Saint Athanasios of Athos is 17 hours!

It was beautiful  – candles lighted and extinguished (for reasons I don’t understand), swinging lighted chandeliers causing shadows to move about in the dark church.

This video from CBS Sixty Minutes was not at Karakallou and it’s of Holy Week and Pascha, but at about 1:40 it gives the feel of it. 

The chanting especially the Polyeleos was very powerful.



But I was too exhausted to truly appreciate it all. When it was over and Fr B said “now we’ll form a procession and go over to eat”, I felt if I saw one more procession I’d croak.

Went immediately to bed. Got up at 10 for ελληνικό καφέ, κουλοuρiα και λουκούμι, then back to sleep. At Noon got up again, washed up and now feel I might live.

I would not adapt well to this life. OK, the schedule I would probably get used to, since I naturally fall asleep and wake up early, but being visibly a priest all the time would seem asphyxiating. Why? I don’t know. But I can hardly wait to get out of here and run around in a sport shirt again. Monks never get to do that here. No vacations, get leave only when the abbot allows. No freedom. Or is that more freedom in its way? Whatever, it isn’t me.

The day improved as it went along. Noon snack in trapeza (refectory, dining hall) with Fr Barnabas and Fr A. Then Fr B showed me what happens to monk’s bodies after they die. The graveyard is small, with room for about three bodies.

This is because they do nothing to preserve the remains. (This used to be normal custom ‘most everywhere.) They are planted in the ground, and after about three years their bones are dug up and placed in the “ossuary”, awaiting the Resurrection.

 Father Barnabas said to me, “This is where I will be.” And so he now is. May his memory be eternal.

We walked to a monk’s cell (now abandoned) up a hill. At Vespers I stayed in the narthex again and again felt better about worship here. Last night it was just too claustrophobic (too many monks – what a problem!) and hot and long. 

After supper (which consisted of yesterday’s vegetables, luke warm…)  and Compline, I talked with a hermit, Fr Damaskinos who had lived with a girl in Montreal, had been a chemical engineer, got faith from one of Vladimir Lossky’s books, repented, came to Athos, became a disciple of Elder Ephrem, and after some while living in community now lives alone in a cell up the hill. He comes down for weekends and major feasts. We talked about the struggle to keep close to God wherever we are. He says he also struggles, he’s “lazy”. A sweet, intelligent man who reminds me in a way of a similar man at home, now departed. We also talked about medical ethics – not at all the pop picture of “hermit”.

Now it’s 7:15. Tomorrow: back to the world. My time here has been divided between loving it enormously and wanting to get out of here now. Why? It has been a blessing to have no roommate all 4 nights, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be getting any sleep at all.  

Sunday September 22, 12:30 a.m.

I’m certainly not sleeping, so I may as well write. 

What did I expect from Athos? I don’t know. I thought it would be old and kind of spooky, I guess. It is the most non-spooky place I’ve ever been. A great sense of peace just hanging over the place – in the halls at night, outside over the landscape and the sea – a silence (more than physical) so great that it wakes me up and keeps me awake, it’s so “loud”.

The spirituality or maybe just the liturgical schedule is intimidating to this visitor, but the monks (and even the visitors) seem so very good. Much kindness to a priest with short hair and beard by Athonite standards, and especially for a visitor from America, which is now much disliked over here. *

  • I had run into this before in Greece, and would again several times in the future.

Fr B says everyone tells him that “America has changed” since last September 11. I said yes, and not for the better. (We were once, up till last year, such an “open” welcoming society, but now… ) On September 11, a friend of Fr B from Thessaloniki – a devout man, a banker, a kindly man (I met him) – said “The great whore of Babylon has fallen.” “O the gift the ghosties gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Now it’s 20 till 1. I’ll try to get some sleep and get up at 3 or 3:30 for services. Again tonight the luminous full moon, the Holy Mountain shimmering over the church. I’d just like to sit on the porch and look at it. I think I will.

Sunday 3:20 p.m. Ouranopolis, 75, sunny

I sit on a park bench 15 feet from the sea – nice breeze, very comfortable. Somehow I missed the 2 pm bus to Thess. and am waiting to board the 4 pm which just pulled in  For some reason I’m functional, despite 5 1/2 hours sleep last night and your typical 6 1/2 hour Sunday morning services. (They’ll never believe this back home!) I joined it at 3 am but sat in the narthex till nearly the end of Orthrox, which itself took 3 1/2 hours. I told Fr B and Fr A that our Metropolitan had directed that we allow a full hour for Sunday Orthros. They just smiled at me indulgently. 

Anyway, again I found it hard to handle up in the choir stalls. But when I was there I got through all services without making a serious blunder and thereby indicating that Americans are as bad as they say here. To think the USA was once popular and respected in Greece…

Fr Damaskinos asked me this morning if I liked the services at Karakallou. I said, “Very beautiul, very long”, which clearly perplexed him, because 6 1/2 hours seems normal to him. I who love church am truly churched out. Fr B suggested maybe I could visit more churches when I get back to Thessaloniki. I don’t think so.  

The boat returning to Ouranopolis was standing room only, with pilgrims returning to the world. Greece is very religious, like the USA * , but this seems to have some depth to it. 

  • I later saw many men with prayer ropes – a bus driver, the man who collected tickets on the ferry to Crete, people going in and out of churches or crossing themselves as they went past, etc.

This has nothing to do with Athos, but in Ouranopolis as I waited by the sea, a German family asked if they could have their picture taken with me. “Local color.” So I did. Then I told them “Ich bin American!” (They should have known I wasn’t a Greek priest when I smiled for the picture.) They thought it was funny. While waiting for the bus I ordered coffee, trying to speak in Greek, and the waiter directed “Speak English!”

OK, three more hours and I’m out of this clergy outfit.

Some reflections during the next days, and since:

Monday, September 23 on a Greek intercity train, heading south to Athens, 7:45 a.m.

Yesterday, all the way back to Thessaloniki on the bus, I kept staring out the window at women! Especially pretty women. Not salaciously but well I am male. It’s just that I definitely would not like to live in a world without any women.

When I got back to the hotel, the first thing I did was get out of my grubby priest outfit and take a shower. What a relief.

(Ooh… we’re just passing Mount Olympus.)

Have I mentioned that Karakallou was such an odd combination of old and new: They had no electricity in church, genuine western European flush toilets *, central heating, but wood kitchen stoves, extremely primitive bathing facilities and hot water only one or two days a week.

  • Don’t ask about Greek toilets.

Then I shaved and trimmed my beard and hair. I’m intentionally “de-monking” myself. Maybe because the whole experience made me really tired physically. That was hard work. But I figured the pilgrimage part of the trip would be work.

Tuesday September 24, 9:20 a.m., sitting on a bench on the dock in Piraeus, waiting for the ferry to Aegina. *

  • My first experience with Saint Nektarios was about to begin. Little did I know what was about to happen to me. Read about it three Posts back. 

Must remember to tell Tony [an Apple man back home) that Fr Barnabas needs a new computer. Yes, Athos is not as isolated as I had thought.

Athos did good things for me. I’m left with a greater sense of the Reality of God, which has been a struggle for me lately. I have believed firmly in Him, but He hasn’t seemed present. And I want to pray. I hope it lasts.  

So many beautiful images. My mind keeps wandering back to the Holy Mountain, again and again and again. 

A few more things: Wednesday September 10, 2020, 2 p.m., Cedarburg, Wisconsin

And my mind still often goes back.

On thing I didn’t mention: If you think Karakallou consisted of monks keeping to themselves in pious meditation all the time – wrong! When Fr B and I were together we talked all the time. Likewise while I was cleaning fish or chopping vegetables with the monks, to my surprise there was constant chatter and laughter – like Sunday coffee hour at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg.

My wife explained to me why, on Athos, I had felt so drawn to the place and also wanted to get out of there now – both at the same time. It’s how being in the presence of The Holy affects us sinners. The German philosopher Rudolf Otto explained it in his book The Idea of the Holy.

In a letter to Father Barnabas, I described the food at Karakallou as “medieval Greek peasant” fare. He told Fr A, who responded “He’s too kind!”

If you would like to get more of the “feel” of Athos for yourself, back in 2011 CBS Sixty Minutes (amazingly) got permission to film life there. This is the whole video, beautifully and sensitively done and well worth watching:


What is the need for such a place as Athos? or for other men’s and women’s monasteries? Ask those of us who have visited and what it did for our interior life, our desire for God. You can see how Athos affected me: eighteen years later I still can’t stop thinking about it and writing about it – this Post keeps getting longer and longer.

Also: God calls some to the monastic life, just as he calls others of us to be married or to be ordained. If this isn’t a strong inner call to whichever of these lifestyles, it isn’t going to work well. But if it is and you resist it, you regret it for the rest of your life. 2 Monasteries provide a “family”, a community for those who are called to that life  – and isn’t that what most people value most of all for themselves out here in the “world”? Monasteries have provided most of the great theological and spiritual writing for the Church – almost all the Church Fathers. Perhaps most important, we need men and women who set everything else aside to explore the outer boundaries of the spiritual life. Monastics are the “space explorers” of the Christian world. I have felt that very strongly about Athos.

Did I ever want to go back? I know priests who returned regularly. With me it was Yes, but No. I don’t know why. And then Father Barnabas died. However, I have loved making this return trip to the Holy Mountain. Thanks for coming along.

Next Week: from the sublime to, oh God help us all, How to deal with Politics

Week after next: The Lukan Jump



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