Athos: The Garden of the Theotokos

Mt. Athos

It’s been too long since I’ve posted, I know, but it’s only now that I think I’m able to write about part of what I’ve experienced on the Holy Mountain thus far.  I was just talking to a friend of mine and we agreed that it’s hard to speak about, hard to write about, if only because life here is so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.  I suppose I could write page after page and still never really get close to what I want to say.  I’m going to make an attempt, however, but it won’t really capture everything.  Nor, upon reflection, do I think it should.  There are some things that we experience, either places we go or people we meet, that are so very personal, or intense, or whatever, that we might never share them with our friends, let alone the entire world on a blog.  That being said, I’ll try and describe what I’ve been doing here and what I’ve seen because there are some of you who won’t ever visit this place, and I think that the place of Mt. Athos in the world is one that is important, even if we’re not quite sure how or why.

Knock and it will be opened to you, seek and you shall find.


Mt. Athos is a microcosm.  Or, rather, every monastery on Mt. Athos is a microcosm.  One of the things that many people get wrong when thinking about this place is that every monastery does everything the same way, or the monks believe the same things about this or that.  Or that “Athonite” monasteries in the U.S. or elsewhere represent the fullness of Athonite spirituality, traditions, and what not.  After careful reflection, however, I’ve found that is not the case.  While their churches might be similar, the robes they wear the same, and the language they pray in is often identical, each monastery is as different from one another as one person is to another.  I know that my brother and I, while from the same family and growing up together, have different tastes in music, books, food, etc.  We look different, even though we laugh the same.  We share many things, but are also very different from one another.  I think the same is true of the monasteries here.  While they “grew up” together, and have developed on the same peninsula, they are still very independent from one another and do things differently from one another.  This is a beautiful thing, and shouldn’t be homogenized into one “Athonite” lump.  Unity in diversity, under the watchful eye and loving care of the Mother of God who is so present here.

Our group has been graciously welcomed into the Holy Monastery of St. Paul (Aghiou Pavlou), named after a hermit and monk of the monastery who worked out his salvation at the monastery.  It was originally dedicated to St. George the Trophy-bearer and Great Martyr, and they still celebrate him as a patron of the monastery.  The monastery was founded (the monks say) in the 9th century, while their first Typikon dates from sometime later.  The monks here live a cenobitic life, meaning they live and work and pray together.  There are monks of all ages here, from all over the world. There’s an American, an Englishman, Romanians, a Russian, Greeks, and more.  The brotherhood numbers around thirty-five and grows and wanes with the years, but always is around this number from what I’ve been told.  The monks have been incredibly kind and welcoming to us, opening their home to us.

Fathers of the monastery with whom we’ve been working in the refectory.

We’ve been eating with the fathers, and the pilgrims, as well as worshipping and working with them.  Hearing the bells for Midnight Office, Orthros, and Liturgy at 3 a.m., and for Vespers in the afternoon, and for Compline at sunset has provided the rhythm of life here.  While we’ve often traveled to other monasteries (I’ve gone to the Skete of St. Anna and Xenophontos), this has been our home.  I mentioned how each monastery is a microcosm, and St. Paul’s is no exception.  There are short monks and tall monks; big and small monks; grumpy and sweet monks.  It’s like anywhere you’ll go in the world, but so very different.  Here, men have given up their families, jobs, and lives to live in community and to pray for the salvation of the world.  I’ve struggled at times with understanding why someone would chose this life, but the more I’ve experienced life here the more I believe that it’s simply one of the many vocations that God calls people to.  Instead of marrying and having a family, these men have married the Church and entered a brotherhood.  My thoughts are still very scattered and probably not well thought out, but that’s where I’m at at the moment.

I think that’s enough ill-conceived reflecting for now.  In terms of experiences of the last week or so, there have been a number that stand out.  Getting to venerate the relics of St. George, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, St. Marina, St. Anna has been something I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Visiting with the monks, speaking with them about their lives, about prayer, about our favorite Marx Brothers movies, is fantastic.  There is such a diversity of experience here, of life experience and of wisdom passed down that can, in some small way, help figure out things out in the world.  I just noticed that I’ve been using the word “experience” way too often, but I think it points to a truth of faith in God in the Church.  It is experiential.  I was speaking with one of the monks the other day about how often we get bogged down with abstract notions about God, about Christ, and we forget that Christianity is experiential.  It’s good and sometimes useful that I can use the Fathers to refute Arius, but that doesn’t necessarily teach me how to visit someone in the hospital and bring Christ to them.  The experience of life here on Mt. Athos has reminded me of that fact.  One of the monks told me on Sunday night that soon he would die and join the brothers in the ossuary, where they keep the bones of all the monks who die.  He said that when he dies he so wants to be with Christ, and that he could never exist without him because, as he said, “Christ is so beautiful.”  Standing outside the monastery gates, with stars shining overhead, I knew at that moment that the monk knew how beautiful Christ is from experience, from prayer, from the life he’s experienced.  It wasn’t because he’d read some books and thought, “Oh, this Jesus fellow seems like a good guy, I bet he’s nice; certainly has some good ideas.”  The best part about being told how beautiful Christ is, how beautiful our Lord is, is that we are given the same opportunity to know, to see, this as well.  It isn’t something reserved to monks, or priests, or saints.  We can see it here and now, and that gave me a lot of comfort.

Well, that’s all for today.  I hope that, in some small way, these accounts and photos can relay something of what I’ve gotten to experience first hand.  I was traveling around Athos the last few days, so I’ll be posting more regularly now.  Make sure to check out my facebook photo albums for more pictures, too:

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