Pilgrim's Progress
I am the Jew in the Vatican. The black man at the Klan rally. The capitalist in Red Square. I am a Roman Catholic living for four days with the monks of Mt. Athos, and the monks of Mt. Athos don't particularly like Roman Catholics.
I am in the holiest of Holy Lands for the Orthodox Church. The true church. The original church from which Roman Catholicism split when it got too big for its britches. The "Holy Mountain" is an idyllic, relatively untouched mountainous peninsula in northern Greece, somewhere on the upside of 130 square miles. Twenty monasteries carry on the traditions of the Orthodox Church, defending it against the changes that so corrupted Catholicism and denying modernization with...well...religious zeal.
Mt. Athos functions much like the Holy See. Its Iera Synaxis council acknowledges a relationship with Greece and the residents of Mt. Athos now carry EU passports, but politically they are semiautonomous. It has been the pilgrimage site for Orthodox men for 1000 years, and it is open only to men. According to Athos history, after the death of her famous son, Mary traveled to visit her friend Lazarus, was blown off course and found herself stranded on Mt. Athos. Beguiled by its beauty, she asked Athos be made her garden. Thus, Mt. Athos is also known as the Garden of the Virgin and, out of respect for the Mother of God, women are officially banned from entering.
If you are a woman, you will never, ever enter Mt. Athos without pulling a fast one. Nor will you see it from a distance of less than 500 meters: tour boats carrying the fairer sex are held at that distance under strict penalty of law. I've even read that female animals of species higher than chickens are also forbidden on the peninsula, and until recently all men were required to have beards. One must still wear long pants on monastic grounds in accordance with the ascetics' non-exposure policy.
But even as a man with several days' growth, landing on Mt. Athos is no simple task. First, one calls the Mt. Athos Pilgrims' Office in the city of Thessaloniki to make a reservation. Only 10 non-Orthodox men per day are allowed to enter, and you are advised to book in advance. I called with three weeks to spare and had problems securing a spot. One must then visit the office in person, passport in hand, to receive a confirmation of your intention to enter Athos as an honest-to-God pilgrim. Then, a two-and-a-half-hour bus to Ouranoupolis, a tiny beach town a few miles up the coast from Mt. Athos where you obtain the diamonitirion: your permission to enter the region. Orthodox pilgrims pay 5000 drachma ($13); everyone else, twice that.
With the diamonitirion, one is free to take the boat to Mt. Athos and explore any of the 20 monasteries. There is no charge to stay anywhere overnight, and the monks will provide one or two meals to pilgrims, depending on whether or not it's a period of fasting. You must be on the monastic premises before sundown because the gates are then locked and opened for no one until sunrise.
Officially, pilgrims may stay in Athos for three nights, but I encountered several Orthodox who were disregarding the three-night rule. Less than half of the 20 monasteries will accept pilgrims without reservations, and good luck making a reservation. The Athos monasteries--sticking to hard-line Orthodox traditions--literally function on their own clocks and calendar: each day, the monastery's time is set according to sundown, and they are 13 days behind us, having refused to accept the Gregorian calendar.
If you've read this and imagined these monks to be simple, quiet and humble men of God, you'd be better off going to Tibet. Based on those I met, the majority of the 2000 Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos are arrogant exclusionists. They are the proud remnants of the Byzantine Empire, which, last time I checked, fell to the Turks in 1453. Many of them seem to want nothing more than for Istanbul to be once again identified as Constantinople on the world's maps. On the bus ride to Ouranoupolis, one monk told me that "many of us" believe that the U.S. and "Russia" will soon enter into an "atomic war," during which Greece would retake Constantinople. He said this in a hushed tone with a frighteningly eager glimmer in his eyes.
While waiting to claim my diamonitirion, I am befriended by the only other American in the day's batch of pilgrims. Thomas is a 20-year-old Greek from New York City, and he's going to Athos for the right reasons. He's a fairly religious kid, the grandson of an Orthodox priest. He later tells me that he was expecting to reflect a bit on the Holy Mountain, maybe make some decisions regarding the course of his life and, I suspect, the course of his spirituality.
On the boat, I note one German, but the other 50-odd passengers are Greek pilgrims and a dozen monks returning from errands in the surrounding towns and nearby city. I see some shared noses among older and younger men and I judge this pilgrimage to be an Orthodox Outward Bound program for some fathers and sons. More than half of the monks are talking on cellphones. Fucking cellphones. The incessant chatter and grating Nokia ringtones are maddeningly familiar.
In the three-building port of Daphne, the gateway to Athos, we disembark and everyone rushes to the buses that will carry them to Karyes, a tiny frontier-like town that acts as the administrative and transportation center of the peninsula. Thomas and I decide to walk there, reasoning that we need to establish a baseline for distance and hiking hardship. My map is detailed, but it's difficult to estimate the time needed to travel between monasteries. We can convert the kilometers easily enough, but, for example, is it a long, hard hike from Megisti Lavra to Agios Pavlos? Or a breezy seaside path?
Stupid decision. Our first hour under the unforgiving sun--heat pouring off the dirt road, climbing brutal inclines, not a square inch of shade--was exhausting. We stopped at the hilltop monastery of Xiropotamos ("Dry River") and found nothing but construction. No monks waiting at the gates with Turkish delight (but call it "loukoumi," please) and fresh water. We sat for a moment, caught our breath, wiped the sweat from our eyes and set out again.
Twenty difficult minutes later, we are saved by a pick-up truck driven by one of the many secularists who live on Athos for whatever reason one chooses to live among 1800 ascetic monks. Along the way, Thomas points to a particularly sunny spot on an uphill climb and notes, "That's where they would've found me."
On Karyes, we are advised to walk one hour to the monastery Stayronikitas, then another hour along the water to Iviron, then one final hour to Filotheos. Stayronikitas does not accept pilgrims without reservations, and Iviron is listed as not accepting pilgrims under any circumstances due to construction. Filotheos is one of the nine monasteries large enough to accommodate us without reservations, so we must be there before sundown.
I soon learned my first lesson of Athos. Multiply every period of time told to you by a factor of two. The one hour to Stayronikitas slowly stretched into twice that, owing to our unfamiliarity with the tiny, unmarked dirt roads and (no doubt) our sad, soft American constitutions. At the monastery, we are greeted with loukoumi and fresh water, and are escorted to the stunningly beautiful, ornate church. Like all that we will eventually visit, Stayronikitas is renovating its guest quarters to accommodate the flood of pilgrims that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We are shown the footpath to Iviron and feel confident that we can get there and then to Filotheos before sundown, even when applying my newly formulated chronological algorithm. After an hour up and down several steep hills, however, the path disappears and we are standing on a hill overlooking a small rocky beach, facing a 30-foot cliff with the presumed promise of Iviron on the other side. We check the map: the path should have converged with the main road half an hour ago. We missed it.
I'm tired of backtracking, and tired of searching desperately for scribbled signs hidden in the brush. "We're taking that cliff," I declare, and set at it. Scramble up, clinging to crumbling rocks like a weak vine looking for purchase. I'm 30 feet up, wearing long pants and carrying a backpack and a smaller daypack. I'm winded and aching, getting dangerously shaky and nervous. I look down foolishly: this is high enough to break my leg or cripple me when I slip and fall. Stop. Breathe. Grab. Scramble. Pull. Up and over the top and behold...
Two monks--one thin, one fat--out for an afternoon swim. What the fuck?
We scurry down and interrupt their leisure. They both speak English, and the hotdog of the mismatched pair assures us that we will find Iviron around the next bend, over the next hill. We will not, however, make it to Filotheos in time. "Go to Iviron and beg to stay there," suggests his hamburger friend, sporting a suspicious grin.
Iviron was, indeed, around the next bend and over the next hill, and it was something to behold. Founded around 980, it became something of a cultural center by the 16th century. It features the common monastic structure: gated compound, high walls, extensive quarters and a tiny, incredible church covered by 500-year-old frescoes and filled with gilded icons of the Virgin, Jesus and various saints.
While searching for the Big Monk on Campus, we are befriended by an English-speaking ascetic who looks a bit like George Carlin with British teeth, which might make sense as his accent identifies him as hailing originally from England or Australia. He tells us that there are several pilgrims staying there, but they had made special arrangements beforehand. "Find the monk in charge of guest quarters and be Greek," he urges Thomas. Be forceful. Be confident. "What can they do? It's almost sundown," he observes, sporting a grin similar to that of his bulky bathing brother. "But if they won't let you stay," he continues, shrugging innocently, "we will give you some bread and cheese and you will sleep on the beach."
Our fates unknown, we attended services and were invited to eat. Dining with monks presents yet another challenge, especially when you were not invited and are not all that welcome. You leave your bags outside, enter quietly, sit where they tell you and begin eating as soon as the prayers start. Eat quickly and do not speak. Two stuffed peppers, a chunk of feta, fresh cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, home-baked bread, water, a small cup of strong wine.
When the prayers are done, the monks stand and leave. You must do the same. As for that watermelon left untouched on the table before you, left untouched because you didn't realize there was an eight-minute time limit on the meal? That juicy, delicious, teasing watermelon placed before you like a spread-eagled prostitute before a sex-starved sailor? Too bad. The prayers are complete. The meal is over. Please exit quickly and quietly, grab your bags and get ready to wake up with sand in your crack.
Thomas went full-force pity with the housing monk, and he relented, putting us up with the other pilgrims. There was, of course, plenty of room for us. Lesson number two: A central tenet of the monastic philosophy dictates that they do not cotton to the lazy or weak of will. If one is not willing to put forth the effort to achieve, you will receive no assistance. The monks of Iviron turned out to be quite hospitable. We were invited to morning services (6 a.m.) and offered tea and bread afterward. But they would not offer this outright. We had to be Greek, as it were. We had to push forth with our wills.
In the Orthodox Church, one does not worship icons and relics. They are "venerated," which is an important distinction. Worshipping icons is idolatry, and that's forbidden. Every monastery has at least one major icon that is venerated. The faithful bow three times before it, perform the Orthodox sign of the cross, and kiss it. This is a core behavior before and during all services, and after the evening meal there is a closing service focusing on a final veneration.
On the morning of our second day, we took a shuttle bus from Karyes south to Megisti Lavra, the first and largest monastery. Like Iviron, it overlooks the Aegean on the east coast of the peninsula, and also features an incredibly beautiful church in the center of an enclosed compound that commands instant reverence. It was founded in 963 by Saint Athanasios Anthonitis, and Thomas tells me his body is somewhere on the premises.
I attend services, but remain in the outer chamber, having sensed a palpable increase in the intensity of the dirty looks that I have been drawing at all times. Afterward, Thomas and I wander into a side chamber, where a small marble coffin holds the remains of St. Athanasios. As we are marveling, the center chamber of the church is reopened and the Orthodox file back in. Thomas joins them, but I choose to remain outside again, not wanting to intrude on any services not meant for my eyes and ears.
Lesson number three: Do not ask when a monastery was founded. Do not ask when the founder died. These are completely irrelevant factoids that go against the mysterion, the mystery--the concept that Athos is eternal. By asking something so stupid and mundane, you will reveal yourself to be a foolish tourist and might even, say, incur the wrath of an elder monk named Fr. Christofores.
Naturally, I asked the wrong question of the wrong monk.
"This is not a place for tourists!" the elder monk named Fr. Christofores exploded, practically dragging me from the room by my ear. No, no, I am interested, I plead. "This is not for tourists! This is not for curious people!"
I continue to plead: I am interested, I want to learn. I repeat myself several times until he finally stops and faces me.
"You are Catholic." Yes. "Why are you here?" I am here to learn about a holy society that has been around for 1000 years and--
"It will be here forever because it is protected by the Mother of God! You call her Maria!" As a Catholic, I am repeatedly told how I (wrongly) refer to whom, and what I (wrongly) believe in. If only they knew me back home... I imagine the number of friends who would laugh if they knew I was being condemned for being too Catholic. Oh, the comedy.
But still. I refuse to let him dismiss me. I will not be left standing there with my dick in my hand. Soon George, a Greek intellectual type whom I met earlier in the day, is drawn to the fracas and Christofores directs his ire at him, launching anew into a very Greek diatribe against me.
George means well. He thinks he is saving me. He has also been raised not to contradict, not to question and not to antagonize these holy men. "Come, Jeff," he begs. "Come with me, I will translate for you."
That's not necessary, I tell him, as I understand damn well what Christofores has been saying about me. I am determined to fight my way through the vitriol, and I shoo George away. I continue to defend myself, pleading sincerity and a thirst to learn and observe.
Finally, Christofores reveals the offense that has condemned me in his eyes: "I saw you choose not to go in with your friend," he says, referring to the service I had moments before declined to attend.
I did not want to be disrespectful, I declare. I am not Orthodox. I did not want to intrude.
He stops. Silence. Reassessment. "It is because of respect?" he finally asks, and I sense that his tone has changed as clearly as a light switched from Off to On.
Ne, ne: Yes, yes.
"Come with me," he says, and leads me by my arm back into the tomb, where I am treated to a short history of St. Athanasios and Lavras. I learn that the body within is, indeed, uncorrupted and that it cannot be moved. "Once they tried to lift it up, and flames shot out!"
He then points me in the direction of the interior chamber and commands me to go in. "Please, Jeff, go see." The onlooking Orthodox pilgrims are aghast. On my way in I pass Thomas, who whispers, "Make the sign of the cross and kiss everything you see."
I approach a small table and get in line behind a tiny, impossibly old monk. There, spread before me, are three skulls decorated with gold, silver and jewels, three similarly adorned hands, an arm bone and a few tiny, ornate cases. I do as I was told: sign of the cross and kiss everything. When I am done, the objects are wrapped up and taken away for safekeeping.
Outside, Thomas tells me that he has never seen that. Not only are those kinds of items always protected under glass, but it's absolutely unheard of for a non-Orthodox to be invited to venerate. I had just kissed the skulls and bones of some major saints of the Orthodox Church.
The next day we worked our way to Dionysios on the west coast after a stop at Agios Pavlos, where I faced my first secular prejudice as a Catholic. We were sitting in a small rotunda overlooking the water, resting after a short but strenuous hike up from the boat that had brought us here. We were preparing for an hour-long hike over the nearby mountain to the neighboring monastery.
Several other pilgrims had arrived with us, but they were staying at Pavlou. The chubby one in the corner across from me asked the usual question I'd been getting in Greece: "Deutsch?"
Ohi, ohi: No, no. American. New York.
"Aaaah..." He checks the crowd and continues, "Catolicky?"
Ne, ne.
"Oooohhhhhh... Caaaahhhhtoooooleeeeeeeeeekkkkeeeeeeeeee...">
He draws it out, making sure he has mocked me sufficiently in front of his Orthodox brethren.
I nod carefully. Ne. Ne. Ne. I nod a little more, waiting for him to stop laughing. Very funny, fatman. Very fucking funny. Come to my fucking country, you cocksucker, and see what happens. I'll find you wandering Astoria, looking for a cheap gyro to stuff in your loukoumi hole, and I will make you feel just as welcome as you've made me feel. My city will eat you alive, fucko.
I was finally understanding just how deeply Catholics are disliked by the Orthodox, at least by the Orthodox who are committed enough to undertake this pilgrimage or live here their entire lives. All the dirty looks and cold shoulders were adding up, exhausting me. I had truly done my best to tread carefully. I knew I was a stranger on Athos, and that this is a very holy place. I respected that. I behaved appropriately. I dressed correctly. I spoke in quiet tones and exhibited a sincerely humble demeanor.
That evening in Dionysos, I carefully befriended an English-speaking monk who then gave us an extensive, private tour of the church, complete with explanations of the frescoes and stories of several saints. Before parting, he took me to his office and lent me a small book--The Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938--hoping that I was "spiritually interested" in Orthodoxy, as he put it.
From the introduction by Archimandrite Sophrony:
Many Athonite monks were tortured and burnt alive for their refusal to submit to the Roman Pope. And since then the very life-blood of the monastic inhabitants of the Holy Mountains has been suffused with the memory of those cruelties, so that a great and ever-present dread persists of all contact with a Rome of that kind. This explains the stubborn resistance to absolutely everything, significant or insignificant, which proceeds from the Vatican, and their resolute opposition to any of their own ecclesiastical dignitaries with leanings toward Rome.
For three days, I had been carrying with me, by nature of my baptism, the legacy of a papacy that burned monks alive when they refused to bow to its authority. I had been told several times what I believe, by association with that baptism. Yes, the Pope recently visited Mt. Athos to smooth over these last centuries of animosity, but rural legend has it that the monks sounded a death toll when he set foot on their land. No matter what your local church newsletter may have proclaimed, I don't think the Athos monks were terribly impressed by the papal overtures.
Ironically, I haven't been a practicing Catholic since I was confirmed 19 years ago. I haven't taken communion, confessed or even prayed since then. I wouldn't bother trying to explain the smirky concept of "ex-Catholic" to ascetics who have dedicated their lives to their faith, but I wish I could've somehow been accepted on less prejudiced terms. Bitterness is the right of the oppressed, I suppose, and I have learned that the pious are no exceptions.
I will grant that my pilgrimage was a bit of theo-tourism, but I went with the right intentions. I went to learn. I went to experience a foreign culture. I went to explore the dynamics of faith, and maybe call into question why I have none. Did I walk out calling myself "spiritual" but not "religious"? No.
But I will never forget kissing the skulls of saints, which was a bit overwhelming even for this non-Orthodox nonbeliever. I emerged from Athos believing what I've always believed: some places and objects can indeed carry something more than their mundane compositions would otherwise allow. Call them holy lands, call them holy objects. One way or another, they may very well have some sort of energy, some sanctity that should be respected. Of course, I believe that the dynamic is the opposite of what is attributed to them. These places and things are not holy because a higher power grants them any special accordance, but rather because of the reverence and respect of the human soul that is placed on them.
After my time with the relics, Fr. Christofores apologized for his initial estimation of me. He even sought out Thomas to extend an apology by way of him. I had pushed forth with my will, I had proven that my intentions were sincere. I may be a Catholic, but in his eyes, I was neither intellectually nor spiritually lazy.
"It does not matter if you are Orthodox, Catholic, Buddhist. If you come to Athos to pray, you can pray. There is a power here. This is not a place for just taking pictures," he said. We walked toward the dining room and parted ways.
I thanked his God that he hadn't seen me sneaking that perfect picture of the setting sun pouring through the stained-glass windows of the church. I couldn't resist. The sunlight was spraying brilliant colors across the eternal, holy frescoes.