MOUNT ATHOS – When you see the summit of Athos emerge through the mist of the Aegean, stop the clocks. Because things are on another schedule there. The calendar is the Julian one, 13 days behind the Latin calendar that spread throughout the rest of the world. The hours are counted not from midnight, but from sunset. And it is not under the noon-day sun but in the dark of night that Athos is most alive and pulsating. In songs, lights, and mysteries.
Mount Athos is a truly holy land that inspires fear of God. It's not for everyone. At least it isn't for women, and that's already a good half of the human race. The last authorized female pilgrim set foot there sixteen centuries ago. Her name was Galla Placidia, depicted in the blue and gold mosaics of a church in Ravenna that is named after her. And being the daughter of the great Theodosius, the Christian emperor of Rome and Constantinople, was of no use to her. As soon as she entered one of Athos's monasteries, an icon of the Virgin ordered her: "Halt!" and enjoined her to leave the mountain. From then on, it was to remain untouched by woman. Since the 11th century, they say, not even female animals – cows, goats, rabbits – have dared to climb the holy mountain with impunity.
Uranúpolis, heavenly city, the last Greek village before the sacred border, is a frontier land of the most particular nature. Enameled iron signs inform you up to the last minute that you will not pass easily if you are a woman dressed as a man or if they discover you without the proper permits. The holy epistassía, the monks' government, will hand you over to a Greek tribunal, which is always severe in safeguarding the extraterritoriality of Athos and its laws as an autonomous theocracy, sanctioned in the Hellenic constitution and internationally recognized.
Perspiring monks in tunics and round hats hold back the crush of travelers looking to gain access. Many are called but few are chosen, the Gospel says. And very few entrance visas are stamped each morning, with the seal of the Virgin. Those who finally receive the parchment that authorizes a visit race to the boarding dock, for Athos is reached only by sea, on vessels that are named after saints.
The landing is a small harbor halfway up the peninsula called Daphne, like Apollo's nymph. But forget about far-off Olympus, which one catches a glimpse of on windy days. A bulbous old bus, earth-colored, even in its windows, hobbles along the road that climbs toward Karyès, the administrative center of Athos and the seat of the holy epistassìa.
At Karyès there is a police station, a pair of alleys with shops that sell spelt seeds, icons, incense grains and monks' habits; there is the end of the bus line and a trattoria. There's even a public telephone that has every appearance of being the first and the last.
Karyès is a strange hamlet with no inhabitants. The few that turn up are all transitory: itinerant monks, policemen, day workers, lost travelers. From there one proceeds on foot – hours of walking on dirt roads without shade, in clouds of dust as fine as cocoa powder. Or in jeeps rented from another of the odd Greek transients. Or by hopping onto passing jeeps owned by the more modernized monasteries.
But it's always with great physical punishment. Athos is for strong, ascetic tempers. From the outset it puts you through the mill. Every day of your stay will have its "via crucis" of dust, stones and cliffs: Because on your precious permit, it is written that you cannot stop for more than one night in any one monastery, and between one and the other there are hours of walking. Pilgrimage is obligatory.
But when you do arrive exhausted in one of the twenty great monasteries – what a paradise. Megisti Lavra, the first in the hierarchy of the twenty, welcomes you within its walls that are suspended between heaven and earth toward the point of the peninsula just beneath the holy mountain. A young monk appears and takes your permit and passport. He reappears like the angel in Revelation after about a half hour's silence in heaven, restoring you with a glass of cool water, a little glass of anise liquor, a square of fruit jelly, and spiced Turkish coffee. It's the sign that you have been admitted among the guests. You are entitled to a bed in a room for six within the centuries-old walls, with freshly laundered sheets and a towel. From now on you will live the life of a monk.
Or rather you will do as you please. The monasteries of Athos are not like those in the West – walled citadels where every move, every word is under communal rule. On Athos there is something for everyone. There is the solitary hermit on the rock precipice, whose food they send up little by little with a basket. There are the anchorites in their huts hidden among the brooms and strawberry trees on the coast of the mountain. There are those without a permanent dwelling, always on the move and ever restless. There are the solemn colonies of communal life ruled by an abbot, here called the "igoumenos." There are the village monasteries where each monk keeps his own pace.
Megisti Lavra is one of the latter types. Within its walls there are squares, alleys, churches, arbors, fountains, mills. The cells are in blocks like in an Eastern Kasbah. The blue plaster stands out, while red is the sacred color of the churches. When the call for prayer is made, with seven-tone bells and the beating of the wooden talanton, the monks set off for the "catholikon," the main church. But if someone wants to pray or to eat alone, nothing keeps him from remaining in his cell. It's this way even for the visitor, except that he has very few alternatives. He rushes impatient to vespers. He tries night prayer, immediately induced to collapse from sleepiness. Dimly groggy, he tries again at the morning liturgy.
Or is he inebriated? There is the scent of the East, of Byzantium, at Megisti Lavra. There is the aroma of cypress and incense, the fragrance of beeswax, of relics, of ancient things mysteriously near. Because the monks of Athos don't suffer the passage of time. They tell you of their saints, of that Saint Athanasius who planted two cypresses at the center of the Megisti Lavra; who with Herculean strength built the catholikon; who shaped the monasticism of Athos; as if he had not died in the year 1000 but just yesterday, as if they had met him personally and not long ago.
Saints, centuries, empires, earthly and heavenly cities – everything seems to oscillate and flow, no longer distant. The monastery's treasures – golden and silver boxes with sapphires and rubies that are set in the Virgin's belt, the skull of Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom's right hand – are offered to visitors for veneration. The light of the sunset sets them aglow, makes them pulsate. And the frescoes of Theophanes – master of the Cretan school in the first part of the 16th century – are also lit up, as are the blue majolica tiles on the walls, the mother-of-pearl on the iconostasis, on the lectern, on the episcopal throne.
After vespers one leaves the catholikon in procession and, facing the square, enters the refectory, which is also built like a church and frescoed by the great Theophanes. The same liturgy continues. The igoumenos takes his place at the center of the apse. A monk reads stories of saints from the pulpit, almost singing. One eats blessed food: soups and vegetables from old iron dishes – and on feast days even amber-colored wine – on thick, roughly hewn marble tables, themselves resting on marble supports. They are a thousand years old, yet evoke prehistoric dolmens. The exit is also made in procession. A monk gives everyone a piece of blessed bread. Another incenses it so artfully that the perfume remains a long time in your mouth.
After Megisti Lavra, in the hierarchy of the twenty monasteries, comes Vatopédion. It stands on the sea amid rolling hills reminiscent of Tuscany. There, they say, Arcadius, Theodosius' son, took shelter after a shipwreck. And it was from here that his sister Galla Placidia, the first woman barred from Athos, would have put out again to sea.
Vatopédion is as refined as Megisti Lavra is rustic. And in certain phases of its history it was too much so: opulent and decadent. Not many years ago it was home to sodomite monks, the dishonor of Athos. But then came the purifying lash from a bunch of rigorist monks from Cyprus, who banished the reprobates and imposed the cenobite rule. Today Vatopédion has become one of the most flourishing of the monasteries. It takes in young novices from places as far away as America, the sons of Orthodox emigrants.
Vatopédion is the aristocracy of Athos. The igoumenos, Ephraim, with a copper-colored beard, blue eyes and a melodious voice, says: "Athos is unique. It's the only monastic state in the world." But if it's a heavenly city on earth, then everything there has to be sublime. Like the liturgies, which at Vatopédion truly are sublime. Especially on the important feast days: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost. The pilgrim must triumph over sleep and not miss – for anything in the world – its marvelous nighttime offices.
The church itself is highly evocative: It's in the form of a Greek cross, like all of the other churches on Athos, admirably frescoed by Macedonian masters of the 14th century, and with an iconostasis brilliantly radiant with gold and icons. But it's the chant that gives life to everything: harmonic chant, masculine, without instruments, that flows uninterruptedly even for seven, ten hours at a time. The greater the feast, the longer it lasts into the night, chant now robust, now whispered, like the tide that ebbs and flows.
There are two lead choirs: bunches of monks gathered in columns around the lectern of each transept, with the choirmaster who intones the strophe and the choir that catches the tune and makes it blossom in melodies and chords. And when the choirmaster moves from the first to the second choir and crosses the nave with quick steps, his minutely pleated lightweight cloak billows in the form of two majestic wings. He seems to fly, like the notes.
And then there are the lights. There is electricity in the monastery, but not in the church. Here the only lights are fire: myriads of little flames whose lighting and extinguishing and motion is also a part of the rite. In every catholikon on Athos an immense chandelier in the form of a royal crown hangs from the central cupola, and has a circumference equal to that of the cupola itself. The crown is of copper, of bronze, of shining brass; it alternates candles and icons; it carries giant suspended eggs, which are a symbol of the Resurrection. It hangs very low, almost skimming the floor, directly in front of the iconostasis that marks off the holy of holies. Other magnificent golden chandeliers hang from the transepts' vaults.
And there's the moment in solemn liturgies when all the candles are lit: those in the chandeliers and in the central corona; and then the first are made to swing widely, while the great corona is spun on its axis. The dance of lights lasts at least an hour, until little by little it dies down. The glow of the thousand little flames, the shining of the gold, the clinking of the metals, the changing of colors of the icons, the resonant wave of the choir that accompanies these rotating galaxies of stars like celestial spheres: It all makes the true essence of Athos – its glimpse into the superhuman mysteries – sparkle.
What Western, Catholic liturgies today are able to initiate simple hearts into similar mysteries and to inflame them with heavenly thoughts? Joseph Ratzinger, previously as cardinal and now as pope, hits the mark when he points to the vulgarization of the liturgy as the critical point for today's Catholicism. On Athos the diagnosis is even more radical: the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear. "Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism," the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. "A God who doesn't deify man can't have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity."
Vassilios, igoumenos of Ivíron, another of the monasteries, echoes the sentiment: "In the West, action rules; they ask us how we can stay here for so many hours in church without doing anything. I reply: What does the embryo in the maternal womb do? Nothing, but since it is in its mother's womb it develops and grows. So it is with the monk. He preserves the holy space in which he finds himself and he is preserved, molded by this same space. The miracle is here: We are entering into paradise, here and now. We are in the heart of the communion of saints."
Simonos Petra is another of the monasteries that are spearheading the Athonite renaissance. It juts out on a spur of rock between the peak of Athos and the sea, with vertiginous terraces on the precipice. Eliseos, the igoumenos, has just returned from a tour of monasteries in France. He prizes Solesmes, bastion of Gregorian chant. But he judges the Western Church as too much "the prisoner of a system," too "institutional."
Athos, instead – he says – is the place of free spirits, of great charismatics. On Athos "logos is wed to praxis," word to deeds. "The monk has to show that the truths are reality. He has to live the Gospel in a perfect way. This is why his presence in the world is essential. Saint John Climakos wrote: "Angels are light for monks, monks are light for men."
Simonos Petra spreads its teachings even beyond the confines of Athos. It gave life to a monastery for nuns – about 80 of them – in the heart of the Chalkidiki peninsula. It established another near the border between Greece and Bulgaria. And even in France, it has opened three more of its monastic nuclei. It is a cultured monastery, equipped with a splendid library. In the dead of the night, its 80 monks keep vigil in their cells from three to five hours before the predawn liturgy, reading and meditating on the books by the Church Fathers.
Sleepless Athos. Without time, unless it is that of the angelic spheres. Leaving it is a hard shock even for the most disenchanted visitor. One boards the ferry again at Daphne. The rhythmic rumbling of the motors puts you back in synch with the world. The Greek girl, the first one, who serves you coffee in Uranúpolis, meets you like an apparition. With the dazzling beauty of a Nike of Samothrace.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
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