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.