Now that I’ve been back in the States for a few days and have recovered (mostly) from jet-lag, I thought I’d continue writing about our pilgrimage, for pilgrimage it was. One of the guys made a comment to me that he wished it was a little less pilgrimage and a little more vacation, and there were times when I felt the same way. But, really, our time on Athos was the centerpiece of the trip, and the purpose of the trip. We had some delightful time in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Athens, but Athos is where it’s at. Who would have thought that a rugged peninsula populated by monks who ate no meat, fasted from dairy most of the time, worked and prayed for most of the day, would be so wonderful? I mean, sure, I love going to church; it makes sense given my prospective line of work. But Athos is more than a place to come as a pilgrim, this is a place where the ancient and modern come together. It is the world’s oldest republic, filled with ancient artifacts, watched over by a mountain. We saw a cross made for Justinian himself, Byzantine built towers, charters from the Tsars of Russia, an icon kept by Empress Theodora. Talk about a vacation destination for history geeks. And it’s more than that.
I’ve now realized that I’ve lost the thread of what I was saying, and I’m not really sure where I was going with it. But, suffice it to say, Mt. Athos was incredible. A combination of things I love: Byzantine chant, sunsets, churches, gardens, mountains, cooking, the sea, forests, four-part Slavic harmony, nerdy astronomy discussions. The only thing missing was a continuo organ, but perhaps there’s one somewhere… Actually, probably not. Anyway, it’s a delightful place. It’s sad that it’s so far away, but with the ease of modern travel perhaps I’ll be able to visit again sooner rather than later.
One of the other aspects of the Holy Mountain that I so enjoyed was the people that you meet there. And I don’t just mean bumping into friends that you didn’t know would be there (which happened to me twice), but the people who live there. From the guy that made the fantastic spanikopita in Daphni, to the monk of 20 years who, before he was accepted as a novice, had to live in the caves around the peninsula for a summer to convince the monks he had what it took to stay. It is such a crossroads, even the Patriarch of Moscow was there! The world really is quite small. In addition to my encounter with some friends, one of our members ran into a couple on the metro who were quite close with one of his close friends from college. On the metro, heading into Athens. Craziness.
Sitting on the balcony overlooking the sea while prepping veggies, or cleaning dishes, or drinking tea. Little things, little events and experiences, that stand out in our time there are what have remained with me. Seeing a monk fuss with a candle, or the charcoal embers flying around when a priest censed; hearing the abbot of Xenophontos chant, or holding ison for a monk during an all-night vigil. And tonight, as I sit here typing, the smell of incense they used in the katholikon of Aghiou Pavlou is burning, bringing me back to the first night we were there; the light streaming in the windows as Fr. Evdokimos censed the church during the chanting of “Lord, I Call” at Vespers. One of the monks told me that there are plenty of monks on Athos whose hearts are still back home, in the world. He added that there are plenty of people in the world whose hearts are still on Athos.
One of the icons in one of the many hallways of Aghiou Pavlou is of a vision one of the former abbots had when he was walking gathering firewood. He saw a woman sitting on a rock on the beach, writing in one of three books. When he approached her, he asked what she was writing. The woman replied, “In this book I am writing the names of those who stay here. In the second, those who visit time and time again yet go back into the world. And in the third book, those who visit once and leave.” After she said this, the abbot turned around to walk away and, after a few steps, realized who it was that he had just encountered: the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary. I hope I’ll be in the second one, but at least I’m in the third for now.