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
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
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
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.
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
I continue to plead: I am interested, I want to learn.
I repeat myself several times until he finally stops and
are Catholic." Yes. "Why are you here?"
I am here to learn about a holy society that has been
around for 1000 years and--
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,
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
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
ne: Yes, yes.
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
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:
ohi: No, no. American. New York.
He checks the crowd and continues, "Catolicky?"
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
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:
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
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.
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.