I figured that today would be a good day to write about some of the places I’ve been on Mt. Athos thus far in our pilgrimage seeing as I just got back from a little trip with one of my friends. As you can imagine, traveling takes a while on Athos, mostly because you’re doing it either by sea or by paths (sometimes, if you’re lucky, a road). The picture at the top of this post was one I took when walking back from St. Anne’s Skete which is one of the more difficult monasteries to get to by foot. If, on the other hand, you go by boat it’s usually only a couple of euros and there’s often a bus that takes you up to the monastery if it’s a bit of a hike from the shore. I’ve mostly stuck around at Aghiou Pavlou, though, because the monks here are wonderful and the grounds and the views are incredible. Part of the reason for our trip was to get a feel for what the life of a monastery is like, and so I made a decision early on not to travel that much.
Some of the other guys have traveled all over the place. They’ve gone to the top of the mountain (all 2,067 feet of it), to Iveron, Megisti Lavra, and other monasteries more far afield from our home base. I’ve made only two trips to other monasteries, but both of them were incredible. The first was last Saturday when I hiked to Aghia Anna, a small skete dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. It’s set high in the cliffs over looking the Aegean and can only be reached by foot or by mule train. While I was on my way the donkeys passed me a few times with their loads of supplies and construction equipment. It’s amazing that on a peninsula in the Aegean, where you can get wi-fi at certain monasteries, 3G or 4G phone service pretty much everywhere, and monasteries have hydro-electric plants, that there are places that you need to take a donkey to. It’s wonderfully refreshing.
The hike to Aghia Anna was tough, and the way back even tougher, but it was rewarding in many respects. I went by myself, since most of the guys had already been, and it was good to get a little alone time in the wilds of the mountain. The path I took was one that went “up and over” instead of the one that hugs the coast, more or less. I was told that there was less altitude changes with the “up and over” path since you more or less go up and up, instead of the shore path that keeps ascending and descending before making the final ascent up to Aghia Anna. Anyway, there were a few hair-raising moments both on the way there and on the way back. There are parts of the path that hug cliffs and you suddenly find yourself with a giant rock on one side of you and, well, a 500 meter drop to the sea on the other. Good times.
On the way up to Aghia Anna I met two new friends who shared their frappe’s and a cheese sandwich as we sat on a bluff overlooking the sea. We hiked the rest of the way up to the skete (a skete is a collection of monks who live relatively separately but come together for some services and share resources) and enjoyed the hospitality of the monks while there. I got a couple things there for some of my relatives and friends who bear the name of Anna, and went to the church where I was able to venerate the miraculous icon of St. Anna, as well as the relic (her foot) that the church has. All in all it was an incredible day, one that was I wouldn’t hesitate to have all over again.
On Monday I traveled to Xenophontos Monastery which is up the peninsula a bit, towards Ouranopolis, where some of my friends from Holy Cross in Brookline, MA were visiting. Had I remained at Holy Cross for my MDiv. this was the group I would have been traveling to Greece with since HC/HC has a senior trip to Greece every year. Since these were the guys I was going to be graduating with, you can imagine how good it was to see them here on the Holy Mountain.
Xenophontos is a large and beautiful monastery with large guest accommodations and a very welcoming brotherhood of monks. The guys from HC had arrived on Sunday and had chanted at the All-Night Vigil for the feast of Sts. Constantine & Hele (Julian Calendar), so when I met them on Monday they were just a little tired. Getting to spend time on the Holy Mountain with my brothers from St. Vladimir’s and from Holy Cross was a huge blessing for me, and it was something on God, in his infinite wisdom, could have arranged to have coincided so perfectly. Neither group coordinated with the other to make sure we were on the Holy Mountain together, it just happend naturally. And, even more blessings, because I ran into two more friends from Boston when on the boat to Xenophontos. There are certainly no such things as coincidences, but it was still quite the pleasant surprise to see them! We also learned that there were students, professors, and clergy from St. Tikhon’s Seminary on the Holy Mountain at the same time as we all were. SVOTS, STOTS, and HC/HC together in the garden of the Theotokos. Talk about the Orthodox Inter-Seminary Movement.
I had quite the surprise when my friend, JMB, gave me a shipping envelope that he had been meaning to send to me at St. Vlad’s. Inside were two, autographed CDs from Marcel Peres, one of my favorite early music interpreters/conductors. I was really blown away. But, just goes to show you that your friends can and will surprise you, and inspire you even when you don’t expect it. Anyway, the time at Xenophontos was delightful, especially because Liturgy on Tuesday morning was celebrated by His Eminence, Metropolitan TARASIOS of Argentina. It was truly one of the most beautiful liturgies I’ve ever been to. The abbot of Xenophontos has an incredible voice and chanted the Cherubic Hymn as well as “The Angel Cried” during liturgy. It was one of those times where all I could do was sit and let the sound wash over me. So, so cool.
After going to Xenophontos, I returned here to Aghiou Pavlou where the monks in the refectory were glad to see me, since most of the guys had been traveling so they needed all the help they could get in the refectory! I think I mentioned that we were given an obedience by Fr. Evdokimos to help in the refectory and, to be honest, it’s been one of my favorite parts of being here. To be able to sit and prepare lettuce that was grown locally and still has the dirt on it, while sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea speaking with the monks has been an experience I’ll treasure. It doesn’t hurt that Fr. A. and Fr. G. keep giving us treats after we finish up the daily washing, like fresh bread from the huge ovens with jam (like last night). But being able to work and pray at a monastery on Mt. Athos has been the boon of the trip for me, at least. These conversations have been so informative and beneficial; learning how these men live and pray is important for someone learning how to live and pray. Suffice it to say, I will really miss working with these monks when we leave.
Today, Tristan and I took the boat to Daphni to kill a little time, it’s always so enjoyable being on a boat. I picked up a couple things for family and we shared the best spanikopita I’ve ever had (sorry, mom!) before heading back here for the afternoon. I’ll be heading to the kitchens in about an hour to partake in our usual ritual of dinner preparations before heading to Vespers and then Compline at sunset. It’s crazy that we’ve been here for nine days already, and crazier that we only have two days left on the Holy Mountain! I guess I should probably start praying… I kid, I kid. I’ve been keeping all of you in my prayers, lighting plenty of candles, and learning how to navigate a prayer rope (it’s harder than you might think…). Please keep us all in your prayers as we begin to wrap up our time here in Panagia’s Garden and prepare to travel to Athens and then make the long flight back to the States.