It's 10 am on a sunny, warm and cloudless Wednesday morning and the fifty passenger, twin engined, fiberglass taxi boat has made it's trip through the crystal clear, turquoise shaded waters to drop a group of four of us off at the first stop which is the protruding concrete dock of the Xenophontos monastery. Being the only non-greek and not knowing where to go, I follow the other pilgrims up the ancient, winding rock steps into a well maintained and landscaped courtyard of the monastery where the entrance to the guest house is located. While milling around in the greeting room with just a handful of pilgrims, none of whom are American, I admire the tile floors, the wood ceilings, the heavy wood furniture and ever beautiful view of the Adriatic Sea. After 20 minutes or so of waiting, a young monk presents himself bringing refreshments of greek coffee, water and a jellied candy which in the West would be called, Turkish Delight but here in Greece, the phrase, "Turkish Delight" doesn't set well, because the Turks for all of known history have only given the Greeks heartache and problems and surely nothing even beginning to approach a concept like 'delight'. So, they have another name for this delicious candy but I can't remember how to pronounce it, so I will just call it, Greek Delight. No wine is offered, due to the time of our visit coinciding with the Dormition Fast period, (google it, if you're interested in knowing more about it). After filling out the guest book, we are given a quick tour of the church. This particular church happens to be the largest church on Mt. Athos and one of it's most notable features are it's colorful murals which cover every inch of the high walls and multi-domed ceilings, portraying significant events in the history of the church. Another especially beautiful feature of this church are the golden lamp stands and chandeliers which are both magnificent in size and design and amazingly, the candles they hold are the only means of light for this huge edifice.
After returning to the guest house, I enjoy the sea view from the 4th floor balcony and then retire to my private room to finish reading my book on the writings of St. Silouan the Athonite. It isn't long before a young man shows up at my door who is an American student at the Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. He name is Costa and he is fluent in Greek and has spent every summer at the monastery for the past eight years. A monk had told him of another American pilgrim at the monastery, (me), so he was kind enough to introduce himself and spend the rest of the afternoon giving me a tour of the monastery grounds. Later in the afternoon, I check the guest register back to May which reveals only a couple of pilgrims from America, all of whom have greek names. I must say, I am astounded at the lack of interest or awareness by Americans of what this holy mountain is all about.
This monastery grows much of it's own food in their garden and greenhouse and they also have their own olive groves, vineyards and bee hives as well as a lumber mill, a rock cutting operation and a metal fabrication shop. Most of the monks don' t speak english, so I am fortunate to have been befriended by Costa, as he is well versed in everything going on at the monastery. Costa also introduced me to the two monks from America and I got to spend a little time after the evening services getting to know one of them. It is now after 9 pm and the next liturgy will start at 4 am and last until 830 am, after which we will have breakfast, which I discover is more like a meal one would expect for dinner.
I haven't made an entry to my blog since Wednesday and It is now Saturday afternoon. I have fallen into the daily life of the monks; rising at 3 am for private prayers,(at least I'm trying), attending the daily matins and liturgy services from 4 am to 730 am, (well, almost all of it) then breaking for 30 minutes before attending the Paraklesis of the Theotokos for another 30 minutes and then entering the Trapeza for breakfast at around 830 am. After breakfast, there is a period of work until 2 pm, at which time, the monks rest until 6 pm when the services begin again with Vespers, another Paraklesis to the Theotokos, dinner and then Complines. After the last service ends around 8 pm, there is free time to fellowship until everyone begins heading for bed, which is usually around 9 pm. As far as I am concerned, these monks are comparable to olympic athletes in their lifestyle and it's absolutely amazing to realize they have been following this disciplined regimen in this monastery since it was founded in 998 AD. I read somewhere that Mt. Athos, is the heart of the church and if it ever stops beating, that is when the end of the world will occur. These monks are here to draw closer to God and to pray for the world, which encompasses their entire existence. Their intercessory prayers stay the hand of God, allowing mankind to repent and turn to God. So long as they pray, the world will continue but when there are no more monks to pray, the end of the world will occur. Albeit a debatable concept, it is most interesting to contemplate.
These monks live an ascetic life and it shows in many ways, one of which is food; in what they eat, how much they eat, how quickly they eat and how often they eat. Their diet can be bland, (during the fast periods), with a typical meal (since I have been here), consisting of a bowl of potatoes, beans or lentils, (cooked in various ways) with common bowls of bread, olives, grapes, jam with an occasional bowl of tomatoes or watermelon and a pitcher of water. Because today is the weekend, (during the fast periods, wine and oil are allowed on weekends), we also have pitchers of wine on the table and we enjoyed a main dish of delicious stuffed peppers cooked with olive oil and also a bowl of fresh tomatoes, (from the monastery garden) and sliced onions in olive oil. We ate in silence and we ate quickly, all the while listening to one of the monks read from a book of the lives of the saints, (in greek) and shoveling the food in without stopping until the ringing of a bell by the abbott, signifying the end of the meal, at which time, a prayer of thanksgiving is recited after which we file out of the Trapeza, past the cooks, who bow in reverence and repentance before us, along with abbott on the other side giving his blessing. The monks share two common meals daily and also have access to food to snack on during the day.
We are very isolated on this long finger of land with the only mode of transportation in or out, being boats and not just any boat but only approved boats can provide transportation of which there are only about four unless you are privileged enough to get a ride on a monastery owned boat which is only for provided for very important guests. Primitive roads do exist between the monasteries but not to the outside world and today, (still Saturday), the monk who is in charge of the sawmill, took my Greek-American friend, Costa and I four wheeling in one of the monastery vehicles, which happens to be a very well made, Mercedes Benz four wheel drive jeep. We drove high into the mountains before coming to a small mildly renovated chapel which was in the midst of an abandoned skete, (a place where two or three monks live), which has been built around a thousand years ago. The skete had been built next to a beautiful creek and waterfall, which was barely trickling due to Mt. Athos being in the dry season, right now. We continued on deeper into the thick forests of the Athos, before coming to a quaint community of three or four sketes which are all part of the Xenophontos monastic community. We stopped to visit one of the monks, who lives by himself in a little house and who supports himself by making wooden prosphora stamps which are used to make imprints on the communion loaves used in every Orthodox liturgy. After enjoying as many figs as we could eat from a large tree next to his cell, we were invited in for greek coffee and some kind of strong liquor made from grapes, which was very tasty with an anise aftertaste. After a visit of an hour or so, we headed back down the mountain, along the eastern border of the Xenophontos property, from where we could view the neighboring monastery of St. Pantolemon, which is the Russian run monastery. It is the largest monastery on the mountain and at the turn of the last century, before the Bolshevik revolution, I am told there were around two thousand monks living here and Russian pilgrims would be brought here in droves on cruise ships to visit the monastery. The monastery now has around four hundred resident monks. The final leg of our adventure took us along the Adriadric seashore through the monastery owned olive groves which as everything else around here, are very, very old. It was quite an unexpected pleasure, to be able to go four wheeling on Mt. Athos, visiting ancient ruins and sipping greek coffee with a wild looking hermit monk as well as enjoying magnificent panoramic views of the Adriatic Sea, the Athos mountains and broad blue cloudless sky.
It is now 3:30 in the afternoon on Sunday and as usual, it is dry, warm and cloudless, yet surprisingly comfortable with a constant sea breeze. I had no idea what I was in for today and had I known ahead of time, I'm not sure I could have endured, either physically or mentally. At four in the morning, the sky was clear and stars were shining bright in the darkness and the church bells were ringing beautifully and I was walking briskly to church, feeling surprisingly alert and fresh. The Orthodox liturgy can be likened to good literature in that it unfolds over time, draws you in and then keeps you spell bound until the end of the story when you are released to enter the world outside again. Well, the world outside was pushing 9:30 am by the time we exited and all l I can say, is that I have never experienced anything like this in all my life. I'm sure, had I understood the language, it would have been immensely and amazingly edifying, but since I didn't understand but two or three words, I can only say it was amazingly edifying. Sunday liturgy was definitely different than the rest of the week and I could sense it in the general atmosphere and energies within the church, the bell ringing and the intensity of the chanting. I can't quite explain it but there is something spiritually and physically gratifying about dwelling in the midst of such beauty for so many hours. Oddly enough, my mind never wandered from the confines of this little piece of heaven on earth. I stood most of the time, captivated by the awesome beauty of the interesting architecture, the peaceful beauty of the long bearded, black robed monks with such serene, kind and solidly composed facial features, the auditory beauty of the mournful yet deeply joyful chanting, the mysterious and immensely moving beauty of the icons, the glimmering beauty of the functioning golden lamp stands, the worn beauty of the intricate wood carvings, the resonating beauty of the ringing bells, the aroma of sweet smelling incense, the marble floors, columns and granite block walls all bound together, supporting an indescribable beauty of a heavenly ordained tradition that has remained unchanged for over a thousand years in the very space I was occupying. Perhaps, all this beauty would not have impregnated itself so deeply into my conscience had I been concentrating on the words and so I suppose I can say, I am grateful, I couldn't understand the language, for it allowed me to participate in this liturgy in a way that was outside of the normal human experience.
Afterwards, we headed directly for the Trapeza to enjoy a much appreciated and tasty stew of egg plant, squash, potatoes, olive oil and spices with side dishes of sauteed peppers, fresh tomatoes and onions and by the time we were finished with our meal, it wasn't even 10:30 am and the morning was still fresh. After helping with clean up, Costa and I had the good pleasure of spending the next four hours with Father Zosimah, the monastery librarian. We discussed many topics, as we sipped cold tea on his balcony, with the backdrop of the Adriatic Sea behind delivering it's fresh breezes. Spending time with Father Zosimah will probably be as close as I get to feeling like I was sitting at the feet of Christ as He taught His disciples and I'm sure, if Father Zosimah, read this, he would be aghast and scoff at such a description but I don't know how else to describe it.
Later in the afternoon, Father Zosimah stopped by to provide me with a wealth of reading material which he burned on a CD. He also made arrangements to have me moved into more comfortable surroundings. After having spent the last five days in the attic room of the guest house, I were graciously moved four floors down to the daylight basement, where instead of a view of the kitchen wall, I now had a glorious view of the Adriatic Sea and instead of listening to the clanging and banging of pots and pans, I was entertained by the orchestra of waves breaking rhythmically upon the rocky shores within a stones throw of my window. The walls down here are more than four feet thick and although this building was renovated recently, it's still more than a thousand years old and the history it contains is mind boggling. The monasteries of Mt. Athos have suffered much over the past centuries, having been pillaged, robbed and sacked repeatedly by their fallen Christian brothers of Europe as well as raiding pagan pirates. Many of the great religious treasures of Mt. Athos and the East can now be found throughout Italy and the rest of Europe and sadly, most have never been returned. On positive note, though, I would speculate that the spiritual treasures, (the prayers and writings) that have gone out from this mountain, have contributed to the peace of nations and untold thousands, perhaps millions of individuals and have also resulted in an infinite number of blessings upon the whole world ever since this region became a habitation of ascetic monks over 1500 years ago.
It is now late in the afternoon of Monday and I have spent the last few hours reading. Earlier in the day, while helping clean the Trapeza, I had the opportunity to meet yet another monk from America whose name is Brother John. I think he is still a teenager and he came here two and half years ago from Carey, NC. I also got to have more sweet fellowship with Father Zosimah on his balcony as well as helping Costa, carry a heavy garbage can full of compost down to the dock, where we emptied it into the sea to watch the thousands of little fish nibble, feast and gorge on foul looking organic waste.
It is now 8 pm on Monday and the day is ending and I am back in my room typing the last of my entries from the Xenophontos Monastery. I will be leaving this place in the morning and as I contemplate my stay here, I am especially struck by how isolated this mountain is from the rest of the world. These monks live in a world preoccupied with heavenly worship, intercessory prayer and working out their salvation. In many aspects, monastery life is the kind of life revealed to us in the book of Acts, where all things were held in common, sweet fellowship was experienced and the love for and devotion to Christ permeated every activity and relationship. These dear brothers and fathers in Christ have blessed me in indescribable ways and I sense that the Holy Spirit is going to use my visit here as a means to teach me many valuable lessons in the future.