To close the series of posts on my recent pilgrimage to My Athos here are my reflections on the trip and what it meant to me.
It is a beautiful, unspoilt place, covered in trees and surrounded by clear water in all shades of blue. Even before I set foot on shore and entered a monastery I was struck by its wild landscape, mountains, steep cliffs and odd shaped rocks. Unlike many parts of Greece it is very green and overgrown: nature has been left to its own devices. With few inhabitants, no industry, few roads and even fewer vehicles, there is no pollution. The air is bright and clear and everywhere there is a deep silence.
Its remoteness is of course what attracted monks and ascetics to come here in the first place to pursue a contemplative life. But its isolation made it vulnerable to attack from marauders looking to plunder the monasteries’ wealth. Many of the older monasteries are build like fortresses, with a steep approach from the coast, thick walls and huge wooden, iron-clad doors to withstand the pirate assaults. I remember the rifles I saw in Fr Prodromos’s museum at Iviron from a time not so long ago when the monks had to defend themselves.
Today the monasteries may be cash poor, but they are very rich in artefacts, many the gift of Byzantine Emperors and other Orthodox rulers. Some of their greatest treasures are the books and manuscripts in their libraries, though these are hard to access. Neither Nikolaos or Argyrios seem to have been into any of the libraries. I could not work out whether this was because they were not allowed or because they were not interested. I was slightly disappointed that I was not offered the opportunity of a visit – perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the initiative and just asked. In the absence of the real artefacts, I can recommend an excellent site hosting digital versions of some of the more than 300,000 of the Holy Mountain’s books, parchments and manuscripts. Next time I will do my research on this site in advance and identify which libraries I would like to visit, seek permission to visit their monasteries and see what happens.
What is a ‘pilgrimage’? It usually means a journey to a place that has some religious significance, eg a connection with the life of Christ or a saint. The journey is a physical one to reach a particular destination to meet a religious obligation and it can also involve an inward journey towards some form of self discovery. In many western languages, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peregrinus, meaning a foreigner or stranger; possibly because this is how the first ‘pilgrims’ were described by the people whose lands they passed through. In Greek the word for pilgrimage is proskynima which comes from proskynisi which means prostration, veneration or worship. Maybe it’s tenuous but the emphasis in Orthodoxy seems to be more on the veneration or worship aspects of the journey. That, at least, is how I experienced this particular pilgrimage with my companions.
My band of pilgrims came to venerate monasteries’ relics, not their treasures. I found initially a deep Protestant scepticisim surfacing when I witnessed my companions crossing themselves and kissing the reliquaries containing the hand of St George or the finger of St Basil. So different from the inert, white-walled churches of the C of E, purged of relics and a whole visual and aesthetic dimension by a politically inspired reformation. As I watched them, these pilgrims venerated the relics with such respect, humility and almost love. I was given the opportunity to join the back of the queue and moved along the line of relics, bowing to each with my right hand over my heart. Even without a Christian belief and the Greek Orthodox background I found it moving.
I enjoyed the services and the Byzantine chant which was particularly good at Iviron, less so at Dionysiou. Nikolaos and Argyrios though were less than impressed when I expressed a preference for Russian chant. Byzantine chant is much harder to attune your ears to. It does not have the immediate emotional appeal of its Russian equivalent and requires more intense listening. Although I had read the liturgy in Greek before I went to Athos, it was much harder to establish where we were in the service than it is for me when I am listening to the Russian Orthodox liturgy. And that, apart from lack of faith, does create a barrier to full participation in what’s going on.
Watching the service, hearing the chanting in the darkness lit only by candles and in the company of all the saints on the frescoes and icons, I wondered how many men had stood here over the centuries doing exactly the same. There was only one point when I forgot one of Nikolaos’s initial instructions and found him next to me at Vespers, with a smile on his face politely but firmly removing my right hand from my trouser pocket.
The monasteries preserve the old (Julian) calendar, keeping Byzantine time where sunset is midnight and following the same pattern of services they have followed since their foundation in the 10th century. I felt that strong link and continuity with the Byzantine empire.
Despite its beautiful setting, its old buildings, stunning icons and frescoes, the Holy Mountain is not a museum. It is a home to the monks who try to live in continual communion with God. That’s why taking photographs must seem to them such an intrusion. I was struck by how open, welcoming and hospitable the monks are to the endless stream of visitors pouring through the monasteries every day, feeding them, accommodating them and letting them take part in their services. All, whether they have no faith or little faith, whether they go to church or not, whether they are Orthodox or not, are welcomed as pilgrims.
Argyrios told me that there are two types of monks: those who are refugees from the world, because they don’t fit in for whatever reason, and those with a calling. Life on Athos is so harsh and demanding that in general the former do not last long and leave.
There is something about submitting to the monastic routine that is calming. It slows life right down and gives it a completely different rhythm. I thought I would find the two meals a day hardship, but actually I did not feel hungry at all between meals. Considering their hard life the monks did not seem tired, on the contrary they looked bright and alert. Argyrios told me he once spent 30 days on the Holy Mountain and was exhausted at the end of it. I cam imagine that if you walk between monasteries and keep the monastic routine, it must be very tiring.
One aspect of our pilgrimage though remained completely invisible to me and that was the conversations that went on between the pilgrims and the monks. Argyrios told me he continues to be in dialogue with the monks. In particular he had been having a discussion with Fr Prodromos at Iviron that keeps going deeper and deeper: ‘It never comes to an end, after each visit it is like we put a comma or semi-colon’, he told me. Curious as to the nature of this dialogue I asked him what they talked about. Everything!’, he tells me, ‘and it’s been going on for 30 years’.
On the boat back to Ouranoupoli I fell into conversation with a young Frenchman who was visiting Mt Athos with a Greek friend. Amongst other things we talked about the services and agreed that the Hesychastic practice of repeating the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) was a form of meditation, anchoring the individual in the present moment and creating a mindful state. I recalled a story that the Elder at Dionysiou told about St Basil that is very similar to one I have heard in Zen. Two monks met a pretty girl on the road. A bit later the monk said to St Basil: ‘Did you see that girl we met?’, and St Basil replied: ‘I saw but I didn’t look. That was then, this is here and now’. The services also function as a form of consciousness-altering mechanism similar to meditation. In some ways, despite their different frames of reference and structures of meaning I see similarities between Hesychastic and Buddhist practice. I do not think may monks would agree with me on this though. I remember seeing a leaflet in the shop at the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn in Russian that was entitled ‘Meditation – the route to hell’.
So what does a pilgrimage mean to someone who is not Orthodox, does not even believe in God, and is actually a Buddhist? Clearly I was not able to take part fully in the services and did not share the beliefs of my fellow pilgrims. I did not share their joy in venerating relics. Equally I did not have the opportunity to have conversations with the monks and Elders. So in many ways my experience of the pilgrimage was of its outer forms. Despite that, it was an opportunity to encounter silence in a beautiful place, to experience in a little more depth a religious tradition with which I feel much affinity and to observe at first hand the faith of my companions. More importantly it allowed me to experience a simple way of life and feel the power of the monks concentrated prayer life and their compassion arising from a life dedicated to God.
It was an honour and a privilege to make this pilgrimage and I am very grateful to my Greek tutor Sofia who set this visit up for me; to Nikolaos and Argyrios for their great patience and kindness in leading me though it; and to my fellow pilgrims for accepting me into their band. Finally, I am eternally grateful to my wife for letting me fulfil this ambition.