A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 3 – the monastery of Xenofontos

“So, is there anything I should or shouldn’t do when I’m on Athos?”, I ask Nikolaos, our group leader (o kyrios Nikolaos – Mr Nikolaos – as my fellow pilgrims and I call him) at my pre-pilgrimage briefing. We (Nikolaos, Sofia, my Greek tutor and Nikolaos’s daughter, my wife and I) are sitting in the park near the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki on a beautiful warm summer evening enjoying soft drinks. I’m concerned that, not being Orthodox, I might embarrass my fellow pilgrims.

“Well, there are some things. Don’t run, sing or whistle. No loud laughter. And don’t put your hands in your pockets .”  OK, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think I can just about hold myself back from the urge to run around, laughing my head off, whistling and singing with my hands in my pockets.

“One other thing”, I ask him. ‘How do you address a monk?”, thinking that the Greeks use the similar word, Patir, that they use for talking to a priest.

” We say ‘eulogeite’ [bless]. To which the monk replies ‘o Kyrios’ [the Lord, ie ‘may the Lord bless you, often with the right index finger raised, pointing to heaven].” I wasn’t expecting that.

O kyrios Nikolaos also gives me a bit of a potted history of the Holy Mountain and shows me our intended route on a map. There have been isolated groups of monks on Mt Athos since at least the ninth century, but it was St Athanasius the Athonite who started to bring them together into monasteries, founding the very first, the Great Lavra in 963. This was followed by Vatopaidi in 974 and Iviron in 982.

So here I am now, at the monastery of Xenofontos, setting foot on the Holy Mountain for the first time, excited and just a bit anxious about how it’s going to go. Disembarking from our little ferry, we leave our bags on the jetty beneath a wooden verandah and head on up the slope that leads to the monastery gate. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my things there but am re-assured that they will be looked after.

In the main courtyard, there’s a stunning Byzantine katholikon (main church) in white and pink brick glowing in the sun. It looks old, but in fact it was only built a couple of hundred years ago.

The monastery itself as an institution dates back to the 10th-11th century, but generally from the outside the buildings look well maintained and not as old as I was expecting. This is something I notice throughout our pilgrimage. Although the foundations may date back over 1000 years, many have suffered fires and attack by pirates which means that they have been re-built, often several times. Fortunately, Athos has been successful in attracting money (including from the EU) to renovate its monastic buildings because, although many of the monasteries are asset rich, they are also cash poor.

Here are some of the other building surrounding the central courtyard.

As we arrive the celebration of the liturgy is nearing its end in a much smaller church which we can’t get into because it’s already crowded with pilgrims. So we have to stay outside in the narthex listening to the end of the service.

The walls of the narthex are covered with remarkable frescoes of the Revelation of St John – a theme which I come across in the other two monasteries we visit at Iviron and Dionysiou. The picture below shows (from left to right) St John the Theologian being inspired by Christ to write the Revelation, Lucifer’s fall and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Here the multi-headed Antichrist is confronted by the Lamb:

Not sure how the next one fits in as it seems to show the donors who provided the money for the katholikon:

At the end of the liturgy we are taken into a side dining room for breakfast so we don’t get a chance to eat with the monks and see the main refectory. The meal consists of two dishes, a bowl of peas and boiled potatoes in a tasty sauce with bread, followed by a creamy custard pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top with plain water to drink. It’s much nicer than it sounds. In the monasteries on Athos monks eat two meals a day, lunch after the liturgy and then dinner after Vespers. I am struck by how much of an overhead it is for the monasteries to feed and accommodate a constant stream of pilgrims and how disruptive it must be, in some ways, to their way of life.

After breakfast our group is invited into the katholikon to venerate the icons and for an inspiring talk by one of the monks. The church was built in the early nineteenth century and the frescoes are not particularly interesting though the gold decorations are very impressive:  

Argyrios points out the ostrich eggs hanging from the rich chandelier. There are two explanations for them: they are either there to keep the spiders away or they are exotic decorations.

While my fellow pilgrims lean in for their pep talk, I wonder round looking at the frescoes and in particular a fine Pantokrator in the dome:

On the way out, in the narthex is a fine fresco of Saints Demetrios and George:

There’s a bit of a pause now as we wait in the guest house for our mini-buses to take us on to the monastery where we will be staying the night. From here we are splitting into three groups each visiting different monasteries. The monks bring in very cold water for us to drink and likhoum to eat. I have a chat to an elderly man (not in our group) who’s been coming to Athos 3-4 times a year since 1958 and he tells me every time it’s different. I start to wonder what it is that brings him and so many others (including o kyrios Nikolaos and Arguris) back so often. But before long, the lack of sleep catches up with me and I start to doze off. While we’re all still together in the main courtyard, I take a shot of the whole group for the Association’s newsletter:

I think it’s the only large group shot I have ever taken where everyone is looking at the camera. Probably because to get their attention I say: “As we say in England, say -“, but before I can finish the sentence they all chime in with ‘Cheese!’ (in English). Our leader, o kyrios Nikolaos is at the extreme right of the front row, and my ‘minder’, Argyris, is in the middle of the back row.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 2 – journey to Xenofontos

After leaving Ouranoupoli harbour the boat follows the coast down the western side of the Athos peninsula. Soon we pass the border between Greece and the autonomous region of Athos marked, symbolically rather than practically, by the wall shown in the middle of the picture above and by the Custom’s House on the shore. There is no direct road linking Athos to the rest of Greece, though in the event of an emergency (a fire or natural disaster) I was told that a road of some sort could be put in place.

The first monastery we encounter is called Monoxilites, though my companions call it ‘gourounomoni’ (pig monastery) because it used to be dilapidated and pigs were kept there.

Now it’s being renovated by Russian monks and there seems to be a lot of building work going on. The first main monastery that we come to is Zografou with its own little church and mill and its imposing ‘arsenas’ (jetty) for the ferry to pull in, .

As we make our way down the coast, I am struck by the wild beauty of Athos. It’s much greener and more forested than I had expected and totally unspoilt: except for the area immediately round the monasteries, nature has just been left to itself. There’s no pollution: the air is clear, the waters deep and crystal clear. Strangely shaped rocks rise up out of the sea and on the cliffs. Apparently there are still the remains of Ancient Greek temples on the peninsula, though unfortunately we don’t have time to go off searching for them.

Every kilometre or so along the shore there’s a yellow sign (in the right foreground in the shot below) that indicates to boats that this is the territory of Mt Athos).

Fishing boats and other craft are not supposed to come within 500m of the shore, but we pass several fishing boats that are well within that limit.

Our next stop is the monastery of Dokheiariou which has a very impressive entrance with statues of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel set on columns on either side.

A lot of building work is still going on here too. My companions tell me that the Abbot was a civil engineer before he became a monk and personally supervises all the building work. As the picture below shows, the monasteries need supplies just like any other community.

Our first real stop is the monastery of Xenofontos, the first of three that we will visit on this trip.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 1 – setting out

It’s 3.45 on a Saturday morning in September as the bus pulls away from outside Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum and I sink down into my seat to get some more sleep. I only managed about three hours last night before getting up at 2.30 to take a taxi to the museum to rendezvous with the group that’s going to Mt Athos. My wife, lucky thing, is probably fast asleep back at our hotel. Around me are the voices of my fellow Greek pilgrims, members of the ‘St Athanasios the Athonite Association of the friends of the Holy Mountain, Thessaloniki’. 

We pass through the quiet city streets, pausing at traffic lights or stopping occasionally to pick up fellow pilgrims, I briefly open my eyes. At one halt still close to the city centre I see a street full of young people standing outside a club, talking animatedly and laughing. The stops become fewer as we pick up the remaining pilgrims on our way out of the city. As we leave the city, the co-leader of the trip starts chanting a hymn with the other pilgrims joining in. Then we’re heading east on a fast road and conversation subsides as we nod off.

Soon we’re travelling on narrower, more twisty roads. At some point about 4.30 as we pause briefly in a little village I see a solitary drinker at a table by the side of the road backlit by the light from a small bar. No closing times out here then.

How did I come to be doing this pilgrimage? Well, I blame my wife. When I fully retired at the end of March this year, after working part-time for the past 4 years (and full time for the best part of the previous 40), she suggested I should do something to mark my retirement. I proposed a trip together somewhere: Canada or the Silk Road. But she was adamant that I should do something for myself.

”What would you really like to do?”, she asked.
“Go to Mt Athos!”, I said, without even thinking about it.

I still don’t really know where that came from, other than it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Though I am now a Buddhist, I’ve also been interested in Orthodoxy for many years. At university, I studied Russian and I sang with a Russian Orthodox choir that happened to share a church with the Greek Orthodox – not something that is likely to happen these days, alas.

After university, Russia and its language disappeared from my life for many years until we got involved in a charity helping children from Belarus and made about a dozen trips to the country over nearly as many years. But my first visit to Russia didn’t come until 2002 – also a surprise Christmas and birthday present from my darling wife. I managed to go on a day’s visit to Optina Pustyn with a group of Russian pilgrims while I was staying with a family in Tula.

Optina Pustyn is a great Russian monastery on the banks of the River Zhizdra in Kaluga Province. It has strong links to the Athonite tradition and particularly hesychasm  (coming close to God through continual repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) that from the late eighteenth century played a major part in the revival of Russian Orthodox spirituality. Also, as a spiritual centre visited by Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (though at different times) it had a powerful influence on the lives of some of the greatest nineteenth century Russian writers. I’ve blogged about my Optina Pustyn experience previously and you can read them here:
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia I: Shamordino Convent
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia II: visions and springs
 On pilgrimage in holy Russia III: Optina Pustyn monastery
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia IV: Vespers at Optina Pustyn
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia V: Optyna Pustyn and its influence

Then about 9 years ago my wife and I started going to Greece after a chance invitation to stay with friends in Athens and the Peloponnese. This ignited a passion for the country that led me to start learning Greek and take an interest in Greek culture and history, including Byzantine history and art. It made me curious to understand the links between Greece and Russia, the languages and the cultures, forged by their shared Orthodox faith and historical links. For a while, I had been trying to find away of having a totally immersive experience in the language to improve my Greek. So I suppose visiting Athos was a way of bringing together these different strands of my life, but I still had no idea how to make it happen.

Visiting the Holy Mountain is not a straightforward undertaking for an independent traveller. You have to seek a permit from the Iera Epistasia (Holy Administration) in Thessaloniki and you have to be aged 18 or over and male (no females are allowed on Athos). So far so good. But there are a limited number of permits issued for any one day, 100 for Greeks and other Orthodox and 10 for non Orthodox / foreigners. Also the permits are only valid for 4 days and you can only apply for one within a maximum of 6 months of your visit. Transport on the Holy Mountain is also an issue: access is by ferry from the town of Ouranoupoli but to get between monasteries you have to walk, take a bus or hire a minibus (if you’re part of a group).

And that’s where a curious coincidence came into play. My Greek tutor, Sofia, lives in Thessaloniki so we have lessons by Skype. When I mentioned my mad idea to her, she told me that her father is involved in an Association of Friends of the Holy Mountain and she could arrange for me to go on one of his trips. It turned out to be so much easier to arrange through an Orthodox group than trying to do it myself. So that’s how I come to be on a bus with a group of Greek pilgrims.

I’ve deliberately not read too much background material about Athos before my trip to keep it a fresh experience. Robert Byron’s book The Station is about the only thing I did read. I managed to get through the first 2 or 3 highly mannered chapters with its world-weary narrator and his arch attitudes, but in spite of a few insights and patches of decent descriptive writing, the rest of the book really was a real struggle. It’s written in a peculiar style and he seems to have a really odd attitude to ancient Greek art.

I really must give up on books that I find tedious: life is too short to read stuff that bores me. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I came across an astonishing fact somewhere:  in a reading life of 60 years, if you read a book a fortnight you’d only read 1,560 books in your lifetime. That’s a depressingly small number considering the millions of books out there, and a useful reminder not to waste time on books that aren’t worth the effort.

The other piece of preparation I did was to read the text of the liturgy in Greek and a parallel English translation that I bought from Fr Ian Graham, parish priest of the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation in Oxford. I thought that it might help me understand where I was in the monastic services. It was a bit of a tough read as it’s written in Koine Greek, but it was worth the effort.

As we approach Ouranoupoli our point of embarkation for the Holy Mountain, we start to stir from our slumbers.. Our leader, and my tutor’s father, Nikolaos, has work to do: collecting the money for our trip and our identity cards (passport in my case) and telling us which group we are going to be in. As there are about 40 of us, we are going to split up into 3 separate groups travelling to different monasteries, so as not to put too much strain on any one monastery.

At Ouranoupoli as I get off the bus, Nikolaos’s friend Argyris, introduces himself. He’s been deputed to look after me and says “I’m on your tail!’, as we’re waiting to get off. While Nikolaos goes off to sort out our tickets and passes to get on to the Holy Mountain, Argyris takes me off to get a coffee from a small cafe with a harassed lady trying to serve small queue of pilgrims.

Back at the harbour, our boat has arrived and there’s a group of about 100 men waiting to board it: it’s seems to be a real mix of classes (though I find it hard to tell this in Greece to be honest), mostly over 50 year olds. With tickets and splendid formal passes (diamonitiria) in hand / mouth we climb aboard and head inside, settling down around tightly packed tables.

Looking at my diamonitirion (pass) I’m surprised to see myself described as a Catholic, as for ease I had described myself a Protestant when asked, thinking it would save the much longer conversation if I had described myself as Buddhist. By now it’s getting light and quite warm inside as, dead on 7.00 a,m we pull away from the little jetty and set off on the first leg of our pilgrimage.