Encounters
with
Mount Athos

Rolf Gross
Pacific Palisades 1979


 

 


 Koan
I still remember the morning in late August 1954 when hitch-hiking to Istanbul along the coast of Northern Greece I first saw Mount Athos. It was one or the transparent, luminous days that fall upon the Aegean Sea as the first sign of autumn. You seem to see to the very edge of the world, islands behind islands and a horizon drawn with a blue straight edge. There was the mysterious peninsula. Wave upon wave of ever steeper hills, rising higher and higher towards the south until over the white crested peak of the Mountain they abruptly break into the sea. It was so clear that you could make out some of the. monasteries along the eastern shore, Vatopedi, Stavronikitas, Iviron, the Lavra.
But in those early wanderings around the Aegean Sea my intoxication with the clarity of classical Greece left no room for an exploration or these "dark middle ages." The way back to Mount Athos took twenty-five years and passed through many other wanderings in Greece, four intense visits to Russia and Georgia and the discovery that behind this Greek clarity exists an "Eastern Man" whose religiosity lies deeper than Christ and is quite possibly older than God.
It was the need for an understanding of this koan-like puzzle that led me back.
The idea of going to Mount Athos this summer had been Barbara's. She was unable to travel to Europe that year, and because as a woman she would not be able to come along to Athos anyway, she suggested that I go to Greece by myself and finally face my test. It appeared very natural to me to go and live with the monks for a few weeks, but my friends were bewildered. Almost nobody had ever heard of Athos and my explanations of what it was, no women, no plumbing, the oldest democracy in the world, did not help much. They would have found it easier to understand had I proposed to go to Tibet, but a whole mountain of Christian monks - they are Christians aren't they? - was too much.
The more thoughtfu1 asked more penetrating. Questions. My own mother gave me a hug and with a quizzical lock demanded, "What do you want from these monks? At best they are ignorant and bigots at worst." Most discouraging was, however, an old Georgian friend who loves Athos and spent many months in its monasteries doing research, he summed it all up with the dictum. "Du bist verrueckt, three weeks, you could not survive there that long, - the food is too bad."
I did go and spent ten days there, for several reasons less than I had hoped to, and one was indeed the difficulty of finding enough to eat, one vegetarian meal a day was the rule and wild berries for lunch.
And. what did I learn from the monks? And what is the answer to my koan? Is there a religiosity that is deeper than Christ and older than God? Zen offers an answer, and as so often in Zen the answer is another koan: Mu . Mu means as much as "Not-Thing", and strangely but not unexpectedly the hermits on the Mountain also know this answer: Mu is not-words, not-theology, and not-holiness, Mu is not-God, not-Christ, and not-Virtue, but it also includes all of these. Lao Tse says the same a little clearer, "The Tao that can be told is not the Tao." The Tao is the Way, the Path, and Athos is just that. So I propose to simply take you on my way around the. Mountain, because I found that this was the only thing that was required of me to understand. And there is no map of this territory, and time stands still and ten days are like an eternity.


Ouranoupolis


Ouranoupolis is a small village at the northern border of the Athonite territory. For centuries there was only a. Venetian tower there, half in ruins. Some time after the war an Australian woman moved into this tower, to live there, to be close to her only son who had become a monk. A medieval story in our times. On my last day on the mountain I met this Monk entirely by chance.
Later Greek refugees from Asia Minor started to build a new village around the tower . It is now a bustling place full of tourists from all parts of Europe. Here I spent three days of. waiting for the day on which my visa would permit me to take the small boat to Daphni and the Mountain. I had rented a bare room in the house of a woman from the Pontus. Her son operated two of the local discos, a nervous, embittered young man. He spoke excellent English, and knew the Mountain well. He insisted that the only way to see the Mountain was foot, and he was the first to assure me that I could cross the southern escarpment of the Mountain.



Ouranoupolis is the last station before entering the Mountain and the first the monks reach in the outside world. Every morning and afternoon the boat arrived carrying monks and men. Often hilarious situation ensued, a scrawny, bearded , black clad monk with his high top hat and a bag around his shoulder trying to sell little boxes of incense to a group of barely bikini-clad young girls. Black cloth and bare flesh.
 
In one of the many small shops I discovered a reproduction of an icon of John the Baptist, very unusual with fantastic wings and a very stark, formalized, late-Byzantine face, half fallen angel, half prophet in. the desert. I have always had a special affection for this saint , so prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy. He is "O Prodromos" in Greek, the "First on the Path," the guide to the Tao. I carried him along on my way as an inspiration, interpreter, guide, and guard.

 


 To Kharisma tis Kharas


It is a strange feeling to arrive in a country for the first time which one has dreamt about for twenty years. The boat ride along the mysterious coast, the arrival in Daphni, the bus ride to Karyes, and the offices of the Synod there were crowded. with people, belonged to the outside world, no time to be alone, no place to reflect.
Then I stood at the edge of Karyes - this most chaotic village, no. hearths, no women, not-home, trying to savor the moment, to fit the visions of my mind into the landscape that lay before me.
Nothing had prepared me for what I saw, not the pictures I had seen, not years of wandering through Greece, nor my imagination: This was a lovely, sensuous country, female shapes, slowly undulating hills and valleys covered with lush vegetation, low trees and bushes, green, green down to the blue of the sea. How un-heroic, how unsuited for ascetics, no sun-drenched marble cliffs, no bare rocks, no earth parched to the ochre-brown of fired bricks, green, pastoral, idyllic, Poussin or Caspar David Friedrich.
A monk, erect on a horse passed, his long .braided hair and black cloth billowing behind him. He ignored. me and my greeting.
After a few minutes I reached the first monastery, Koutlomousiou. An army of monks with brooms kicked up clouds of dust in the neglected courtyard. I wandered on. A threatening, overcast sky the air oppressively hot and humid. A little further down I got lost, a path between man-high shrubs that lead nowhere. Finally the clouds broke and I hid beneath a bush to wait out the brief shower. It did not relieve the heat. Not a soul in sight, every man seemed to hiding from the afternoon.
I was still trying to understand. where I was going, where to my path was leading, when I was startled .by a high, excited voice: "Perimenite, Pu pate? - Wait, where are you going? Here eat a few of these figs." An old monk in working clothes ran after me from a side path behind a low gate. He pushed a tin plate loaded with fresh fruit through the gate: "Take one - take them all. I do not particularly care for figs, but these were fresh from the tree.
I sat down on a rock next to him eating of the figs.
He must have been more than ninety. He told me that he had been a hermit on the Mountain for over fifty years and as a lumberjack before then. "I am from Kavalla, you know Kavalla?" Then came the war, it was very bad. "In Turkey, very bad, you know Turkey? Very bad time in Turkey." I realized he was talking about the First World War. After the war he remained on the mountain as a hermit. Yes, and since then he had lived down the hill, in this house behind the bushes. "You understand, hermit...? All night, I never sleep, I pray." His thin pale lips moving rapidly, indicated the incessant flow of words, his hands counting an imaginary rosary. "Yes, Kyrios, these fifty years have been the most happy days of my life, I evtikhismenes khronia1 to kharisma tis kharas, God's gift of joy."
I asked him what prayers he was saying during the night. "Very simple, Kyrios, very simple: Kyrie Khesous Christe, ge tou Theou, Eleison me." Lord Jesus Christ, born of God, have mercy upon me. So, on the first day I had found a man who knew the secret of the ttLittle Jesus Prayer", the last true Christian mantra in extensive use. It is spoken by some under their breath during all hours.
I considered for a moment to stay, but was too restless. I wandered on. - To kharisma tis kharas.

 


Karakallou


I walked from Karyes to Iviron on that first afternoon. and slept at the Moni Ivirou. Next morning I found that the boat that navigates the east side of the peninsula would come only in the late afternoon. So I decided to walk along the coast. It was a brilliant, windy morning. I reached Karakallou. high up on the mountain around noon. The small and poor monastery lay deserted in the beating sun, everyone ;asleep, flies everywhere. I walked back down to the sea hoping to catch boat to Megistis Lavra, 30 km south. The boat never arrived, because of the high waves the wind had whipped up by that time. . . Greece.
This finally decided my fate, obviously I was being called upon to walk to the Great Lavra, to walk around the Mountain, to circumambulate Aghion Oros in Buddhist fashion, with the Mountain on my right. Since by that time it was much too late to reach the Lavra, I once more climbed up the one hour to Karakallou and spent the night there.



 Karakallou is a koinovion, a communal monastery and though poor much cleaner than the rich, idiorhythmic Iviron, where the monks live their individual rhythm. Together with three Greek "pilgrims" I was invited to participate in the vesper service. This was the first of a long series of vesper services that I attended during the next ten days. The service, like all other services on Athos, is sung in its entirety: the soul demands song not words. There are no instruments, only human voices, in fact, musical instruments are banned on the Mountain. Besides the few strict koinovions like Simonos Petras or Stavronikitas, the attitude of the monks during service is disturbingly unconcerned, except for the three or four who perform the antiphony, the "Wechselgesang." They hang or stand in their pews, or sit in various positions, some sleep, some watch the proceedings at times one will come late or leave during service. The service is celebrated nearly independently of the community it is solely for the benefit of the holy images.
Afterwards we were invited to eat with the monks in the refectory. In contrast to the bowl of bean soup and the cup of water we had been given in Iviron the night before, were here we were offered a feast of vegetable fried in oil - cold like most food in the Athonite monasteries, a bowl of black olives, bread, a small earthenware jug of wine, and watermelon slices for desert. It turned out to be the best meal of the entire pilgrimage. To digest the sudden onrush of food after a whole day of fasting we later helped stack a huge pile of fire logs for winter use.
I was given a charming cell overlooking the ocean and the olive trees of the monastery all to myself carefully separated from my orthodox co-pilgrims. A cleanly laundered sheet and cover, a pillow case, a simple blanket. There was even a pair of house slippers, which I did, however, refuse for esthetic reasons.
In no place do you loose every concept of time, that carefully guarded measure of our reality, so fast as on Athos. Not only do the monks still live by the old Julian calendar, the hours are counted in Athonite time, which is measured from sunset to sunset. And the night becomes the middle of the day: "Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery," says Lao Tse.



 It was also the first night during which I was awakened by the semantra, the hour-wood, a long, narrow wooden plank pounded with a small hammer to call the monks to service. Some are stationary, suspended on long wires near the church, others , smaller can be carried by a monk. Their hard rhythmic sound was to punctuate all the coming nights, measure my dreams, and sink into the most pervasive memory of Athos, stronger even than the black cloth of the monks

 


 The Night


In this land of light, Greece, so much on the Mountain is shrouded in darkness, and not only the squalor, the dirt, and all the other even darker sides of life among men, but also the Holy of the Holiest1 the great liturgy hides under the cover of the Night. In the darkest of the small hours the monk with his xylophone calls his brethren to the main service. Every night, up and down the galleries, coming and receding echo the bard ripples of his instrument. Slowly a light appears here and there, figures, darker than the night in their black shrouds, emerge from their cells, a nightly resurrection from their tombs. Following the dim lights of their lanterns, casting huge shadows across the cobble stones of the courtyard these Gestalten wander towards the church. The few candles reflect a thousand times in the gold surfaces of the icons, and then the great singing begins. Four hours until the dim light of the coming day celebrates a new victory over darkness.
Why these nights? Why these celebrations of Christ in such darkness? Why these mole-like burrowing of His disciples in this land of light? The churches of brown earth, lowly sprawling caves, mole hills? Where are the soaring flights of the Northern Gothic, the exuberance of the Bavarian Baroque, why are they missing from the land of the Greeks ? - Or do we misunderstand the meaning of the Christian faith, do we miss, have we lost one of its vital ingredients? What do the Athonite monks know that we do not ?
Strange that once again the Tao-Te Ching offers an insight when Lao Tse writes:
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source
but differ in name: this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.
When I brushed my teeth in the cold, gray light of the next morning, they were still singing in church. I left before sunrise on the long hike to the Great Lavra

 


 Meghistis Lavra and the Erimos.

For eight hours I wandered through an ever more beautiful countryside. The age-old path paved with stones worn by time and donkey hooves into a gouged pattern most painful to walk on, first led through a dense forest of yellow broom. Imagine the intoxicating smells and colors of spring time? Later the path climbed over a low ridge, then down again to the edge of the sea. Somewhere I lost the footpath following a new road higher and higher into the northern flank of the Mountain whose bare rocky peaks were always in view high above. The macchia gave way to woods of oaks and chestnut trees, and there was plenty of water, trickling springs and fast running brooks in every valley. The hot noon hours I spent near a spring under a blackberry bush providing both shade and food. And during the entire day's walk I was completely alone, not a man in sight. Despite the streams of sweat running into my eyes I felt one of the happiest men in the world.
When I reached the Lavra around three in the afternoon, I was dead tired. The huge, rambling compound of the monastery lay deserted by all life except for a pair of scrawny cats in the afternoon heat. I took my sleeping bag and went to sleep on a bench in the small kiosk outside the main gate, where the monks sit in the evening. Soon a charming talkative monk woke me up, it was not proper to sleep in such unorthodox fashion in front of the holy images over the gate! He sent me inside to the xenodokhion, the guest house. Hungry and tired I walked around the courtyard in search of a cool, and quiet spot to hide. The many flies kept me awake, however.
It was then that two old monks appeared, with crutches, bent over. They made their way to a small peach tree that I had eyed with envy. One took his walking stick and beat the tree the other collected the fallen peaches in his hitched up soutane. Babbling and gesticulating they scudded back, rolling me a couple of fruit. Alas they were green and hard as stone. Disappointed I searched the ground around the tree for some riper ones. Just when I had decided to knock some down myself, another monk appeared in the deserted yard and shaking his fist cried in German: "Stehlen Sie nicht, mein Lieber," don't steal my dear, and repeating "Ja, mein Lieber, mein Lieber;" vanished in a nearby doorway. My courage left me, and I remained hungry.


 It was past eleven at night before we were fed that day. A crowd of people from all parts of the world had arrived with the last boat down the western, leeward coast. They soon converted the quiet monastery into a noisy youth hostel. The monks watched this scene with disdain and simply decided to disregard their guests. Only the vociferous protest of the Greeks among us finally opened the doors to the refectory, we fell on the food. A sorry sight, the feeding of wild animals.
I had repeatedly inquired after the path across the steep southern escarpment of the mountain, but nobody I met had ever walked there. I was strongly warned of going there, just last year an Austrian had fallen to his death attempting the traverse, the path was dangerously exposed - besides the area was inhabited by wild monks who would roll stones into your way and try to rob you. When I heard this tale I firmly made up my mind to dare it; too obviously these were horror stories. Yet still next morning a Greek from a surveying party seriously tried to talk me out of my plan. "Alone, all by yourself, you are crazy!".
It turned out to be the most beautiful walk on the whole mountain. It was strenuous, from sea level the path went to above a one-thousand meters and then down again, but it was nowhere dangerous. Before the sun was high I had passed through the lower macchia and had reached woods of oaks later, at the higher elevations, firs surrounded meadows, streams, and wild canyons strewn with gray marble boulders. There was a profusion of butterflies of all kinds. One small, brown soul flew ahead of me for over a mile resting a little until I caught up with her and then leading me on again;
And then I ran into the robber monks. They were driving a donkey piled with firewood down a steep ravine, beating the miserable beast mercilessly. The animal had smelled me long before ist masters noticed me and was balking. Everybody was surprised by the other's presence. They really did looked fierce, more like Californian gold miners than monks. I hurried on pursued by a huge cloud of biting black flies.



0 Erimos means the Desert in Greek, and the Eremitos is the man who lives in the desert, the Hermit. The area is full of little huts in the most inaccessible places inhabited by hermits who live out their lives there. In some places they form small villages Aghias Annis, Kavsokalivia, Kerasia, Katounakia, Karoulia. - They all are much lower than the trail. They must be beautiful and the people living there are the true inhabitants of Athos, who in their solitude live the way to insights. Alas, I was too uncertain of my way, too driven to go down and stay.
At the height of the day I came upon a small meadows, a fast flowing brook, a spring under an old oak tree, a stand of blooming thistles. I took a "bath" in the cold water and watched the iridescent butterflies in the heat of the noon. Pan p1aying his flute among the trees. I had come home to Greece.

 


 Woman


Why has Woman become excluded from this realm? How can any man conceive of being in Greece without a woman ? In this most sensuous land? Where did all the nymphs go that inhabited these springs and streams? Pan without a consort?
Lying in the heat of this most Greek noon, out of sight of the black monkish clothes, the absence of Woman assumed most desperate proportions.
Why has Christianity robbed Man of one of his great consolations, of one of his few insights into life? - Deep concentration is the way to salvation! He will be distracted by the presence of sex! Woman has to go! This dictum, which must be connected with the origin of Christian monasticism in the ascetic, pessimistic views of the Egyptian Gnosis, has always puzzled me.
A young woman once told me. "You know why I have had four children in such close succession, because giving birth has every time been the most exhilarating high that I have been able to experience; never did I feel so close to death." And smiling she added. "I sometimes pity men for their inability to experience this unity of death and birth and giving life. Men are forced to invent ever more daring constructions to still their fears of death and life. How can you love unless you comprehend the unity of birth and life and death ?"
It occurred to me that Christ's teaching is one of the most audacious attempts to spin man off the wheel of life, like a spark from a grindstone, tangentially. in a straight line towards a teleological infinity - outside of himself. To break the magical circle of birth and death, man does try to deny the existence of Woman by simply excluding Woman from his life, - and be free. . . .
What a male misunderstanding! But even the most hardened desert father's psyche is wiser and wilier than this, and miraculously, readmits the Unknown Woman back into his subconscious. Sybele-Selene-Sophia dressed in medieval garb reenters as the Panaghia, appropriately the Mother of God; Her presence on the mountain is all-powerful, all-pervasive. In invocations, icons, in the shapes of the roofs of the chapels, in symbols and in the sub-lunar aspects of the night, Woman Incarnate reigns supreme, and is revered with possibly even greater fervor than her son. Mount Athos the Garden of the Virgin. . .
Do I hear Pan laugh in the meadow ? Two butterflies making love on a thistle. O Eros. . . .
Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist's getan.
Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.
Many hours later I arrived high above Aghias Annis, which lies dispersed throughout the boulders of a steep ravine. I decided that this was the end of this day, and soon I sat on the small square in front of the Kyriakon, the Church of Our Lady, in the pulsating light above the sea.

 


 The Skiti of Aghias Annis


The houses of the skiti of Aghias Annis, each a monastic "farm" inhabited by two or three monks gathered around a Gerontias, an older monk, their "guru", are widely dispersed in the steep, sun beaten ravine. The highest houses some 500 meters above the lowest at the edge of the sea, facing due south. The sun's arrows hit from every angle, from above and from the glistening mirror of the sea below, a merciless1 shadowless, exhilarating bombard of light. Blinding through one's closed eye lids. A few olive trees, carefully tended by small water runs, spend shade here and there. Each farm has a square, windowless chapel covered with the characteristic bosomy roof of loosely stacked flat rock slabs.
The Kyriakon seems suspended in the glaring light on a small platform, the central square of the community. There is a table with the usual rickety, high backed chairs under an olive tree, a water faucet in the opposite corner. Here I sat for three hours together with a silent, evasive man who smoked endless numbers of cigarettes. staring at the infinite sea.
Later a young monk appeared from nowhere and took me to the dormitory. I fell asleep immediately.



When I woke it was completely dark. I found a kerosene lamp and a box of matches. My watch showed eight o'c1ock. I must have slept for three hours, dinner time had long passed. I carefully felt my way down the steep stairs to the common terrace. They had been waiting for me. I was led two levels further down, deeper into the dark mountain, where my supper had been laid out on a long refectory table in a cavernous room illuminated by a single kerosene lamp with an enormous circular shade. I then realized that I shared the light and the table with a feeble, very old man. His shaky hands could was hardly hold his soup spoon. At first I broke the bread for him, then cut his melon, and in the end I fed him spoon by spoon.

 


Aghias Dionysiou


The night at Aghias Annis had been a bad one It was oppressively hot, a thunderstorm was brewing to the south over the sea which never broke. The flies were biting and for the first time I felt my sleeping bag was invaded by flees or bedbugs. For a long time I squatted on the bare cement floor of my little balcony watching the fizzling lightening on the horizon.
As usual there was no breakfast. So the walk into the early, cool morning, across yet another mountain ridge to Nea Skiti as a relieve. Behind Aghios Pavlou I lost my path. It had become hot again by that time, and I finally decided to take a rest by the sea and have a swim, although the prospect of cooling off was tempered by the knowledge that for the rest of the day I would have to live with the itching salt incrustation the sea would leave behind. Wading around a rocky promontory to get out of sight of the monks one does not take off one's cloths on the Mountain, not even for swimming - I discovered my path, climbing precipitously up the mountain side, directly out of the water. I put my clothes back on again and continued my pilgrimage.
For the first time this stretch turned out to be truly exposed, fifty vertical meters above the sea, a narrow ledge with nothing to hold on to except dry grass and an occasional bush. The heat of noon, and the exertion of the steep climb made me dizzy. Several times I considered to return, but retracing my steps was, of course, even more dangerous. After an hour I reached Dionysiou, completely exhausted.
Dionysiou hangs like a swallows nests, suspended on beams, to the side of a mountain ledge, high above the sea. In this restricted site its interior is an architectural jumble of stairs, narrow corridors, arcades, corners, doors , chapels, rooms. and surprises, all painted in dark red and black and white.
Deep inside these old walls I came upon the great "trapetsa", the refectory. Since the monastery converted from a koinovion to an idiorhythmic community in the seventeenth century it has been used only on high holidays. Peeling murals cover the walls, apocalyptic scenes, the last judgement, a long row of church fathers looking down on a table stacked with bright, red tomatoes. In a dark niche a single oil lamp cast ist sparse light equally on a mural of the Deesis and a pile of watermelons. A narrow window opens into a wooden workroom of Japanese austerity.



 Later in the Afternoon the boat from, Daphni arrived. It delivered two Greek students from the University of Paris and a strange pair, a well-dressed, graying,
middle-class father with his twenty-years old son. The two immediately created an atmosphere of tension around themselves. The young man, apparently badly spastically disturbed ran aimlessly around rowing his long arms and talking incoherently to himself, his thin pants barely hiding an enormous, faunish erection. During vesper service the two, not daring to enter the inner sanctum, stood demurely in their pews in the proscenium. Once or twice the high voice of the possessed pierced the service.
After a supper eaten in deep silence, I joined the two students from Paris and a monk on the balcony of the guest dormitory. Watching the sun set into another thunderstorm over the sea, I listened to the highly agitated conversation of the monk. I understood little, but the dramatic gestures of the old man conveyed his excitement. Every now and then one of the students translated a few sentences for me. and piece by piece an astounding story evolved. The strange pair had come seeking admission of the young man into the monastery, partly in the hope of finding a cure for his possession, partly to give his "kharisma", his divine gift an appropriate setting. For hundreds of years Dionysiou and Simonas Petras supported asylums for the insane, where the monks practiced various methods of healing on the possessed. But the comparison with modern medical institutions for mentally disturbed is only superficial. The monks were primari1y seeing themselves as the retainers of people with the gift of "divine madness." Apparently the young man had come with a recommendation from his parish priest attesting to this gift. The problem turned out to be the Greek government, which very recently had put a stop to this age-old practice as incompatible with an enlightened medical treatment of the mentally ill.
And the New Testament's many stories of Christ's encounters with the insane and their strange ambiguity came to my mind: And "He went into Capernaum and on the Sabbath He straightway went into the synagogue and taught. And there was a man with an unclean spirit in their synagogue, and he cried out: Leave us alone! What have we to do with thee, Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know who thou art, the Holy One, the Son of God. And He drives out the 'Legion' of this man's unclean spirits." But have you ever noticed that it is only the possessed who address Christ with his full titles, only the mad fully recognize his divine origin in the New Testament? Others have faith in Him but they do not "know" Him.
And I realized that this is one, maybe the most important secret of the Greek spirit1 there at Dionysiou I understood that probably no other culture nourished such an ambivalence towards the demonic, Dionysos, Eleusis, Delphi. Elsewhere madness instills fears. Only Greece dared to explore man's limits beyond the edge of sanity and to raise insanity to the level of a divine creative principle. . . .

 


Simonos Petras


Afraid of an even more precipitous path, I took the boat around the corner to Grigoriou next morning, a ride of five minutes. Together with me three tourists jumped off the boat there, a German theology student, who told me at once about the girl-friend he had to leave behind on the mainland, a young Englishman from Athens, whose sole concern appeared to be to get back to Daphni to have a good drink, and an Italian in a green T-shirt who had three cameras and a plastic shopping bag slung around his neck. With this incongruous trio I climbed the steep path to Simonos Petras, three-hundred-and-forty meters up a nearly vertical mountain side. When we arrived I found the monks loading a small pick-up truck, ready to drive to Daphni. The trio eagerly boarded the truck and soon was carried away, leaving me once again to my cherished solitude.
Simonos Petras is an almost Tibetan arrangement of balconies, six levels high, overhanging the blue Mediterranean. The highest balcony, some four-hundred meters above the abyss belongs to the guest dormitory. There I spent one of the most blissful afternoons reading bothered by nobody. A monk had welcomed me and brought me a coffee, water, and an ouzo Later a second cup arrived.



Walking along the gallery-like balcony I suddenly realized that it was only the flimsiest construction of rusting nails and rotten boards that separated me from the sea below. Suspended on and held together by pure faith. Walking on water, nay, on thin air.
Later the monk with the semantra appeared, first several levels under me then climbing higher and higher, calling for the vesper service. Another young monk invited me in English to join their service. He had a most confusing semblance with an long lost love, Anita.
Simonos Petras is known as the strictest and most fundamentalist monastery of the mountain, needless to say, it is a koinovion It is populated by young people - hardly a monk over thirty. They were all there at the service taking part in a moving antiphony The day before had been the Day of the Transfiguration of Christ, which we know as Mount Tabor, and the word Metamorphosis in ever changing musical color wound itself through the liturgy. The wonderful magic of a word, Christ as the chrysolla, the soul a butterfly.
A kind of "Johannitische Freude", a truly mystical ecstasy overcame the community after the service, people hugged and kissed each other, three monks distributed a sweet cereal to everyone. Two monks comp1ete1y oblivious to their surroundings stood embraced at the border between darkness and the glaring sun outside1 hovering at the edge of the world. Agape. . . .

 


 Panteleimonos


The following morning was gray. The nightly thunderstorm still hung around the Mountain when I got on my way again. When I left, the monks were still singing in church. This time it was easy walking on the new road to Daphni. It lead across a long open ridge to finally sink down to the harbor.
Halfway the thunderstorm returned, not a tree or other shelter in sight. I took my anorak out and partly hid under a low bush. The rain became stronger, lightning all around. Soon my jacket was soaked through. To save my shoes I took them off and buried them under the backpack. Then my only pair of pants came off and my shirt too. It was not really cold. The rain went on, the lightning became most frightening. I stood stark naked with shattering teeth in the downpour, a strange hoping that the Panaghia the mother of God would take pity of. The rain and lightening became still worse before it finally stopped after an hour. I found a last dry sweater at the bottom, of my backpack. I wandered on in swimming trunks and the sweater for another hour before I reached Daphni. A plate of reheated beans I ordered in the dirty restaurant there restored some life back into me. A ray of sun lured me back onto my way in the afternoon.
The first sign of life I met behind the great burnt out ruin of Panteleimon, the Russian monastery, was a brand new Soviet army truck. So the rumor that the Soviet government occasionally supports the monastery is after all true. Later I learned from one of the two Greek monks there that during the past ten years twenty-two young monks had arrived from Moscow, the largest Russian population at Panteleimon since the thirties. During the early part of the century some two-thousand Russian monks lived there and in two other skitis nearby. Today only the shells of the huge nineteenth century four-story barracks remain, a gloomy sight under the gray sky of this day.
Wandering around among the ruins, bushes and a palm tree growing in the burnt out shells, blue grapes hanging from an old arbor, I met the first Russian soul. A handkerchief with knots in its four corners covered his shaggy head. He wore the traditional long hair-shirt of the Russian penitent a tattered jacket over it. On his bare feet - I could not believe my eyes - a pair of worn, typical Muscovite house slippers. He was very young with only a short blond beard. Assuming from experience that nobody could understand him, he smiled at me and wordlessly walked over to a pear tree, picked five pears, ate one and still chewing, offered me the other four.



 I slept in a high and narrow cell with a small window over the door, a shaft like window to the outside world and two spartan beds. A new series of thunderstorms were howling outside lightening the pitch black sky. Every quarter-hour the Glockenspiel of the church could be heard reciting the tune of the Spasski Gate of the Moscow Kremlin. . . . As the night wore on I receded deeper and deeper into the world of the Tolstoy's novel Vozhkreschenie, the Resurrection. Shortly before I was woken by the strokes of the big bell. I sat up in my bed counting the twelve plus four strokes. An then a thin high voice began to sing in the corridor outside . . . the ghosts!



With a slight shiver I peered through the door, and there he was standing with folded hands, a shriveled Greek peasant in his Sunday best singing and praying to the Panaghia. The soft light from a row of kerosene lamps cast semi-circular patterns down the long hall.
I sat with my little lamp for two hours writing letters and listening to the driving rain and the beating surf.
Later in the small hours I woke up again with a start and the very clear sensation that my old father had died.

 


 Xenophontes


The wind had blown the clouds away and the cobwebs of the night and the last gloomy memories of the Russian monastery were soon burnt by the sun. A long walk through silver grey olive groves, always in sight of the blue sea on my left, put me back into Greece.
Xenophontes is one of the poorer koinovions that had been in slow decay for a generation, only during the past few years has it come back to life with the arrival of a number of young monks. They are very young indeed, a flock of children barely out of school, running through the corridors, laughing and giggling and playing hide and seek after service. They are, however, carting the centuries old debris out of the buildings, mending the roofs, reinforcing the crumbling walls, and most importantly putting new whitewash on everything in reach. And so it was that I found a completely new bathroom, sittable water toilets, porcelain washbasins, and the luxury of luxuries a shower in the guest quarters. I decided on the spot to stay for the night although it was not even noon time.
This turned out to be more difficult than expected. The intelligent, very young monk responsible for the guests made it quite clear that he would like to see me go to the next monastery where there were more monks to take care of tourists, here he was all by himself. I begged and pleaded with him, of course, without telling him that it was his shower that attracted me, and finally he conceded. Overjoyed took a swim in the clear sea, drying its salt on my skin in the sun on the rocky beach.
The monk had given me a couple of pieces of bread in replacement for my rain-soaked completely molded German bread, which I had to throw away in Panteleimon. This, a few grapes I found and: the four plums I had received, were the my food for the day. The strange thing was that I did not feel hungry any longer. After noon it became so hot that I retreated onto a bench in the entrance gate of the monastery there to continue reading.
Being quite absorbed in my book - a psychological investigation of Zen. . . I had not paid any attention to a group of people coming down from the monastery until a voice asked me in Greek, "Are you German?"
"Yes, I am," and the voice changed to fluent German: "Dann kann man ja Gruess Gott sagen." I looked up and found myself at the feet of a most imposing monk, towering over me, very slender, in his sixties, his head framed by an electric halo of white hair. He was accompanied by another monk and a civilian with the gray suit and belly of a learned Greek bureaucrat, the speaker. They passed without another word. I was dumb-struck by this apparition.
The trio was waiting for the boat at the landing. Curious, I took my camera and slowly moved after them. Thy had to notice me, and the two monks immediately hid behind a wall. I felt like an intruder, too embarrassed to take a fast picture. On my retreat I suddenly found myself face to face with the mysterious monk. With his back to a whitewashed wall he eyed me with weariness and distaste.



 This meeting pursued me for the next weeks. Only on return to Ouranoupolis did I learn that this man was the Archimandrite of Athens on an inspection tour of his monasteries. The highest dignitary of the. Greek Church on foot with an entourage of two men and a couple of peasants carrying their briefcases, sleeping in the same little cell that I slept in, nearly incognito, how better could the difference between the Greek and the Roman traditions be demonstrated as by comparing this man with the Latin Pope.

 


 Dokheiarion


I had finished my book. The day had brought the first clear, dry signs of autumn, a veil of melancholy hung in the low, silken light. I had made up my mind to leave next morning, driven in part by the forboding vision of my father's death. A ligament in my right foot had been strained and made walking with the full load of my backpack painful. My time had come to an end.



There was one last thing to do , to walk the half-hour over to Dokheiarion. I left my belongings behind and limped slowly along the path above the sea .- Dokheiarion turned out to be one of the marvel of the mountain. The buildings climb directly from the sea1 like a vineyard, up the flank of a steep hillside. It may not be as daring as Dionysiou in its location, but if possible more picturesque and full of equally beautiful murals in excellent preservation, especially in the katholicon. Standing on the highest tier of its many levels one overlooks a landscape of mounting roof ranges crowned with a confusing jumble of chimneys, one for each for the many monkish cells of this idiorhythmikon, each chimney different from the next1 white-before the blue foil of the shimmering sea.



The last evening brought yet one more unforgettable experience, supper at Xenophontes among the monks in the cavernous refectory of the monastery. Twenty-five black-clad figures along the long tables eating in deep concentration. One monk read with a melodiously expressive voice a long story from the lives of the saints. Every once in a while the prior, who presided sitting at a separate table, rang a bell and everybody crossed himself. For the last time I ate the Mountain's fare vegetables cooked in oil, a piece or two of dry white bread, a small bowl of shriveled black olives, a tin beaker of retsinated wine, water, and a huge slice of watermelon for desert. And the darkened old murals on the walls, Jacob's dream, the monster with the seven heads from the Apocalypse, o tartaros, the Virgin and the Baptist flanking Christ, looked down upon this age-old ritual of the koine. Silently I bade farewell to the Mountain.







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