In search of the spiritual side of Greece – and perhaps himself – Marc Perry discovers the trials and tranquility of the lives of Mount Athos’s monks.
The ferry to Mount Athos is a serene, sedate affair. Women are left behind, as black-clad, bearded monks and priests finger rosary beads and contemplate the steep rise of pine-covered foothills to the jagged mountain pinnacle. Peppered amongst the black gowns, pilgrims chatter on mobile phones. Here the 21st century meets ancient tradition head on. Although Athos is a peninsula, there is a feeling of cutting away from the modern world to an island set back in time.
Fortuitously unplanned, my arrival comes at an auspicious time. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration. I meet a new friend on the boat, and at the administrative centre Karyes, we are guided to our first overnight stay: Koutloumousiou monastery, where a kindly German monk takes us to our clean and simple twin room. After prayers we are sat at long tables laden with silver-edged plates and bountiful supplies of fish, pasta, fruit, water and wine. Chanting reverberates around the room, incense swirls into my nostrils and the seated congregation signs the cross to readings from the gospels. This is not a place for the rowdy, but one that welcomes everyone – sinners and saints. “We get them all here,” says one monk, including murderers, drug addicts, millionaires, and princes.
A trip to stay with the monks of Athos is not one to be taken lightly. Visitors must adhere to a dignified dress code and rules that include not smoking or playing music. The only forms of music allowed are Byzantine chants and the ringing calls to prayer.
On one glorious evening I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a performance. As golden light filled the western room of the Dionysius monastery, the melodious sound of a flute floated over chanting bass and tenor voices. Along a wall five Patriarchs (fathers of the church) sat on thrones – one wept. In Orthodox Christianity sensitivity is exalted; “the gift of tears” is believed to signify both closeness to god and separation from him. As the sun turned from gold to red, one of the priests discerned I was English and shouted: “Beautiful! Celtico!”
The serenity of life on Athos is an otherworldly experience. One night I woke around 5am. The monks were still in prayer, so I went to the bathroom to wash. As I looked into the mirror on the wall, the porcelain sink below me crashed to the floor and smashed into a thousand pieces. A Greek standing by solemnly continued shaving; another signed the cross. When I told one of the brothers the tale, he said “Don’t worry, you are happy!”
The following day, as I sat in a garden cemetery beneath cypress trees swaying in the breeze, I spoke with Father Modestos, an Englishman who became a monk sixteen years ago. He showed me the skulls of his forefathers, which had just been dug up to make space for the next monk who “falls asleep with the Lord”. Strangely, there seemed nothing macabre in this uprooting of resting souls. If the monks turn out to be saints, their skulls might one day make their way into a silver box to be venerated (kissed and crossed) by thousands of Athos pilgrims.
The highlight of any visit to Athos is to climb the mountain itself. I was unprepared and had little food for the day-long climb, but took to the foothills anyway. My journey was supported by random acts of kindness fitting for this holy place. At a base camp a Russian man came down the opposite way and silently dropped a bag of nuts into my hands. Later a Greek man pulled bread, cheese and tomatoes from his sack and offered to share the feast.
Towards the top of the mountain – Greece’s second highest at 2033m – spectacular views begin to unfold. Theo, the man who shared his food with me, started to chant as we hit the summit. Slowly the sun began to set, and as we sat outside a little bunkhouse, squealing swallows dive-bombed into the merging blue of sea and sky.
As the stars came out, I pondered my experiences of the last few days. No matter how relaxing and serene life was in this truly beautiful place, I realised the path of a celibate monk was not the one for me.