The time has indeed come to say goodbye to the Holy Monastery of St. Paul’s here on Mt. Athos. In a few short hours we’ll be boarding our boat to Ouranopolis, and afterwards to Thessaloniki and then Athens for a a few days. It’s a very sad thing to be leaving Aghiou Pavlou, we’ve been so warmly received here and had such an incredible opportunity to explore and experience the life of a monastery of Athos. This is from the heart, the monks here have been so kind to us and have made this trip the incredible experience that it’s been. Most people who come to Mt. Athos come for three or four days, hopping from monastery to monastery. They never really get into the rhythm of the monastery, they don’t really get to meet many of the monks unless they come back frequently. Our group, on the other hand, has been so blessed to spend nearly two weeks at Aghiou Pavlou, and I really hope that I will get to visit again sooner rather than later. While it might seem silly, I look forward to working in the refectory with Fr. I, Fr. A, and Fr. G. Spending time with such genuine people, talking about everything from the Jesus Prayer to where they get the nectarines from, has made the trip such a valuable experience.
One of the things that has most struck me about our time on Athos is how very normal, yet otherworldly it is. The monks I’ve met are, for the most part, just regular guys who came here to work and pray. But the saints feel close here, and the Mother of God’s presence is felt everywhere. Over the past two weeks I’ve gotten to venerate the relics of saints. Most of us who venerate the relics of saints, only venerate a teeny tiny fragment of the saint in question, a relic that is suspended in wax in a small gold and glass theca. Here on the Holy Mountain your experience is entirely different. Instead of a small speck of one of the saints, you are confronted with the fragrant leg of St. Gregory the Great, the incorrupt hand of St. Maximus the Confessor, the foot of St. Anna, the skull of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, the right hand of St. George, the foot of St. Theodore the Commander, the skull of St. Tryphon, the arm of St. John Chrysostom, the gifts of the Magi that were presented to our Lord Jesus himself in Bethlehem. Sure, you might say it’s all pious claptrap. Perhaps you’re right. But Mt. Athos has been under the patronage of the emperors of Byzantium from the beginning, and the refuge and storehouse for the holy things of Christendom for over 1,000 years. The miracles that have been witnessed by thousands, and the fragrance of the myrrh that flows from the bodies of the saints leave me speechless, as mute as a fish. I stood before a reliquary containing the bones of my patron saint, and next to it was a reliquary containing part of the skull of the great healer saint, St. Panteleimon; next to that was the hand of St. Maximus the Confessor. These men loved Christ, they still love Christ, and their witness to the Resurrection is their continued presence through their relics and their prayers. This has been an experience I will never, ever forget, and one that I will absolutely treasure.
But now we have come to the end of our time here. We’ve experienced the life of the monastery in ways that most pilgrims never do. This was really a once in a lifetime opportunity, one given to us by generous benefactors and donors, and through the prayers of all of our friends and families. I know that I’ve certainly, hopefully, been changed by what I’ve seen and experienced here; the devotion of the monks and the beauty of the services, even the simple daily services, is one that is apparent to one who visits, even for a short while.
One of the other results of our time here has been the strengthening of my relationships with my brother seminarians. I know it sounds trite, but traveling with these guys has been so great. I thought that by now we’d want to kill one another, what with the close quarters and the growing awareness of how much so and so aggravates us. But, I’ve felt the opposite happen. Instead of getting annoyed with someone, I feel closer to them. I’ve had some great conversations, gotten to enjoy sitting on a balcony with friends and fathers of the monastery while we wait for the international space station to fly by overhead. It’s pretty much everything you could ask for in a trip. While I’ve grumbled and bemoaned certain things over the trip, looking back on what we’ve experienced thus far I can honestly say that I’ve loved it. I mean, when was the last time you got to travel with internationally renowned patristics scholars, seminarians, hierarchs, saints, and monks? The doors that have been unlocked for us, the allowances given, the help offered; all of this results in one of the best travel experience of my relatively short life. God is good.
Tomorrow morning we’ll take our boat to Ouranopolis and then make our way to Athens, as I said. Monday we’ll be flying back to New York. Already, our time is so nearly over. I will admit that I am quite looking forward to a gyro and souvlaki in Athens (as Fr. Evdokimos joked with us about), but I treasure the meals spent in the refectory and the services attended here. I will treasure the love shown to me and to our group, to the tours offered, and the care that the fathers of the monastery have offered us when our weakness has overcome us.
Please keep us in your prayers as we close one leg of our trip and begin another. Know you’ve all been in my prayers and I pray that the Panagia and all the saints will watch over us and keep us within their care. It’s been a wild ride so far, I’m looking forward to seeing the Acropolis and all the sights that Athens has to offer. But I will still always remember, and look forward to coming back to, Aghiou Pavlou on the Holy Mountain, in Panagia’s Garden.