Saturday, July 26, 2008


The Calm Haven of Vatopedi Bay

Vatopedi Bay, an inlet of the Aegean, spreads out like the blue calm of pure contemplation.

For the past week, free of all cares except those of travel and attending the long hours of prayer, following the rule of sleep and fixed regimen of the trapeza, moments of talking with other pilgrims and moments of solitude, and I have arrived at this calm bay.

The lack of the presence of any women, also, I must admit, had an effect. It is not that I think of women primarily as a distraction, or according to any pre-conception at all. And yet I am a man, and the psychic and biological dynamic exists, and I would be foolish not to admit it. But it is not simply that there are no women. There is also no talk of women, no crude insinuations such as one often finds in male companionship, and frankly, not a thought at all. Not a thought at all. It never occurred to me what this would be like.

And this is only one factor in a state of relative passionlessness such as I have only tasted during times in Great Lent. There was no anger, no anxiousness. Slowly, unexpectedly, almost without notice, I have entered this quiet where the main thrust of desire is in prayer. I find myself praying more for other people, and with eagerness. Even the moments talking with my fellow pilgrims have become more prayerful.

This is the place where contemplation can begin.

The sun goes down, on this northeastern shoreline, not into the sea, but into the rocky spine of the Athonite ridge. The horizon is still and immense. Soon, the sea and the infinite northern sky will melt together into nightfall – there, where Jason sailed northward in quest of the golden fleece. It was found in the spiritual riches with which Byzantium clothed the sacrifice of the lamb.

“So long as the mind holds sway and is active and influential, the will remains constrained and subject to human desire. The will always remains fastened to the mind. But, when the mind begins to calm down and give way, the will is thereupon released and heads straightforwardly to God.” (from Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, by Matthew the Poor, p.62.)

I speak of contemplation in its literal sense, of simply prayerful awareness from a place with a wide view, not in the more exalted spiritual sense of theoria, Divine Vision.

This Bay of Vatopedi, wide, blue and calm under a high summer sun, attracts not only the eye, but also, from the first immediate sight of it, the soul.

Gray stone houses, shingled with stone slabs, line the incurving shore between tall, shady chestnuts, olives, feathery pines, figs, graceful cypresses. An ancient yellow-stuccoed basilica, the cemetery chapel, stands quietly in the sunlight, and other lead-roofed domes mark small chapels. Stone walks, walls, and stairs wind through the narrow shade between the buildings. A walled pool under the western wall, like an ancient moat emerging from a stone arch under the entry stairs, stores overflow from the springs for watering the gardens. A culvert out of this, now in its dry season, runs in a channel past buildings that once housed water-wheel driven mills and down to the cove.

Eastward a road winds up the hill into olive groves that overlook the developing sea cliffs. At the crown of that hill sits the ruin of the former school. To the west, on the rising peninsula ridge that reaches oceanward enveloping the bay, are two churches, surrounded by vast gardens and beehives. Near one of these St. Gregory Palamas was for a time in seclusion in the vastness of theophanic prayer. Rocks cut into that shore, dropping their massive anchors farther out.

All this is outside the walls.

I sit on a balcony high on a wall which is itself a monument of Byzantine fortress architecture. What is within is astonishing.

There have been more than six hundred commemorated saints here. Everything has been built and used by them. The church itself is over a thousand years old. The “pious legend” that the original church was built by Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century has been given weight by the archeological discovery of a very old and quite huge church foundation beneath the present church. The oldest chapel within the walls was built by St. Sabba of Serbia and his father, St. Symeon the Myrrh-Gusher. Miracle-working icons are everywhere. Here is the skull of St. John Chrysostom, with the incorrupt ear into which the Apostle Paul whispered his interpretations of his epistles.

We were able to give confession here. Since I had been thinking about this ever since I arrived on Mt. Athos, my confession was swift and to the point. I was able to take communion in the chapel built by St. Sabbas…!

We were able to stay in Vatopedi for three days. It is here that we truly relaxed into the monastic rhythm, and here that we found a spiritual home. Fr. Nicholas made the kind of contact he had been seeking – this is certain to be a benefit to our parish life. Scott could not stop reflecting on the beautiful and powerful prayerfulness with which the monks chanted – it seems to have completely overwhelmed him.

Varopedi was renewed by one of the disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, as were many of the monasteries on Mt. Athos. It was Joseph the younger who came here with his own disciples, including the present Abbot Ephrem. Fr. Theonis, the gate-keeper and office manager, who has been especially kind to Fr. Nicholas, was one of these who came here twenty-five years ago to re-establish the coenobitic rule. This means that there is a common life: no personal property, common worship services and meals, all work distributed and appointed under the guidance of the abbot. Meanwhile, it is primarily a training ground for the interior life. Only those most experienced in interior life are given a blessing to retire to a hermitage. The dangers are vividly illustrated by the life of St. Hilarion the Georgian (see The Orthodox Word), who encountered demons as tall as the mountain. This was one of the saints who lived in the cell now occupied by the elder we approached on the ridge above Dionysiou.

During the period of Turkish rule, which lasted half a millennium, the monasteries, plagued by taxes and pirate raids, suffered extremely. Some were destroyed; most entered a period of depopulation and decline. Monks were forced to abandon the order of the coenobitic rule and became idiorhythmic. That is, each monk followed his own rule and lived by his own means. Coenobitic rule has now been re-established in all the major monasteries, but only during the renewal of recent decades.

To see men that are this angelic in demeanor – to see what man is capable of becoming in the transformative loving hands of God – this alone is worth a pilgrimage. Actually, it is perhaps the whole point of it, in order to desire such transformation in one’s self.

To begin with, there was the monk whom Fr. Nicholas met at the administrative office at Karyes, the one who encouraged us to go to Vatopedi a day earlier than scheduled and who gave us the note that really got us past the gate. It turns out he was one of the original disciples of Elder Joseph the younger. When one first encounters these men, the passionlessness of their quiet gaze is difficult to read. The degree of their guarded interior concentration makes them appear almost angry; it is similar to the expression one sees in icons of hesychastic saints. But if one has the opportunity to speak with them more freely, it is as though they open their souls, and one begins to see in their interior vastness a glimpse of things that brings tears. The countenance is transformed into a smile of otherworldly sweetness.

Fr. Gregory, a young deacon, was such a one. I was brought into his office to view his plans, in the auto-cad computer program, for a power plant incorporating solar power. He went to Stanford and spoke warmly of Fr. Basil Rhodes in Palo Alto. This was one with a very angelic demeanor.

Also I was fortunate to encounter Fr. Gavriil, a Russian monk from Valaam. As the sun went down, he sat on the balcony with us and with Fr. Matthew, the American monk in Vatopedi who has been our principle guide here. Fr. Gavriil spoke of the youth of the present very large monastic renewal going on in Russia. He said that Russian monks often needed to come to Mt. Athos to find their way deeper into their calling. Fr. Matthew agreed that monasticism is a vocation with tremendous depth, that even on Mt. Athos there were brotherhoods that were relatively young; but there are also experienced elders. Fr. Gavriil mentioned the many very experienced elders in Simonapetra, about whom we have heard repeatedly in our journey. We never received permission to go there. But it was during this very sobering conversation that we gained a perspective on our own Orthodox life in America, which, though growing, is frankly infantile in its maturity. Simply put, the Christian life is an exceedingly deep well, and we have known only a few drops from it. We were here informed of our need to mature, under experienced guidance, in order to give Orthodoxy in America any real chance.

Here, I think, by the tremendous Grace of God, is where we encountered what it was we were searching for on the Holy Mountain.

We had encountered many perspectives. The elder from Grigoriou had been an example of maturity, patience and wisdom. Others, perhaps, were less so. We had encountered several monks – and pilgrims on Mt. Athos – with strong political opinions, both in sacred and secular matters. The strength of these opinions surprised me; perhaps it is part of the Greek character. Most seem relatively balanced, but one will certainly come across zealots, especially among the younger. Some of these made me uncomfortable in their condemnations of those who are not Orthodox enough, and, therefore in their implications, not really Orthodox at all. Fr. Nicholas reminded me that the Holy Mountain has always had a responsibility to maintain purity in the faith. Of course I accept this fact. May it be blessed. Nevertheless, one wonders about the maturity of some of these views when they are vented with a certain amount of heated intolerance and, especially, when they are thrust upon one in the form of unasked-for, and frankly unwanted, personal advice. It seems to me that the purity of the faith is something of a different quality than this.

In Vatopedi we encountered nothing of this sort. The general perspective seemed to be very mature, even while the monks who had been there since the beginning of the present renewal of coenobitic life admitted their own relative immaturity.

On Sunday, Fr. Matthew showed us the grounds outside the walls. Sunday evening, after Vespers and the meal, I slipped out of the gates to find a quiet place to pray. There in an English garden established by Prince Charles, outside a chapel he provided. This had been a smoke-house, which he had converted, by the labor of specialists in ancient building techniques, into a chapel for St. Evdokimos. This is a Vatopedi saint about whom nothing is known, except that his skeleton was discovered in the ossuary holding an icon and emitting a fragrance of myrrh. It is conjectured that he was a holy man who did not desire to be remembered, and so he crept off to hide among the bones of the deceased monks and die. The monks who found his skeleton, from who knows what century, named him “the one who lived well”, Evdokimos.

Here I sat on a bench looking out into the olive grove and prayed for what seemed more than an hour. Fr. Theonis had warned me when I went out that the gate would close early, but that it would open again after eight. When I returned to the gate, it had just closed. I really did not want to wait outside for another full hour.

So I started eyeing the scaffolding all around the east side of the walls.

By the time I climbed up to our fourth-floor balcony, Scott was sitting so quietly writing that I was afraid I would startle him. So I greeted him from underneath his elbows. It took him a few minutes to get any comprehension of what I could possibly be doing out there beyond the railing of the balcony.

I had climbed the walls of Vatopedi like one of the pirates, seeking to plunder its richness.
This journal reflects, perhaps, a glimpse of the value of my stolen treasures.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Iveron: Prayer

There is a kind of prayer in which we reach out and touch the overwhelming reality of God. That touch is wondrous, healing, freeing. There is further degree of prayer in which we invoke and invite God into the heart. This is the beginning of the All-Transformative, the Metamorphosis.

At last, at Iveron, I found a quiet balcony where no one could see me, no one disturbed me. In front of me was a wall of large chestnut trees bathed in full sunlight. Beyond it was the base of a hill of such trees; down below the balcony was a fruit orchard. There was nothing else but the sky, and, far to my left, a small corner fragment of the huge eastern expanse of the Aegean Sea.
I was fresh from a nap, fully awake, and as thirsty for solitude as I have ever been. I eagerly plunged into the exercise of interior prayer, and for the first time since speaking with the elder yesterday.

Since the last time that Fr. Mo’een had instructed me in this prayer three years ago and given me permission to try the breathing exercise in the heart with the prayer, there has been nothing to stop me from doing this. There has been nothing to stop me from advancing, with God’s help. What has distracted me for so long? What has been so important that I have essentially forgotten what I am to do? There have only been a few times when I put my attention to it, and every time was fruitful. The later poems of Mysteries of Silence are a sketchy chronicle of those few experiences.

How have I been so foolish? How can the wasted moments add up to years? At least there is another chance to begin.

Fr. Nicholas had assured us that in this particular monastery, the slow, quiet pace is ripe with such prayer, that it might creep up on us unawares. I sought it out; it found me.



It sits on a tall rock like the monasteries in Meteora. The climb was similarly arduous. We were installed in a room in the wall over the precipice and slept through the rest of the afternoon.

Fr. Nicholas did not nap. He went looking for Fr. Modestus from Kent, England, whom Fr. Damian from Grigoriou had recommended. He was standing outside the catholicon when a monk passed.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

With a British accent: “Certainly!”

Fr. Nicholas immediately opened his heart, he told me, concerning the difficulty of finding hesychia (“stillness”, “quietness”, but in the sense of intensely concentrated and, when possible, continuous prayer) in the modern world. Fr. Modestus, in turn, said that it is difficult to find even in the monasteries any more. He complained about the growing numbers of pilgrims – scores of them passing through every day – the construction equipment everywhere, and even the tour boats that pass several times a day with loudspeakers that are particularly disturbing. One can hear what they are saying, pointing out the monks and their life as though it were a quaint curiosity in a museum or even an exotic zoo.

The entire Holy Mountain is one giant construction zone. Heavy equipment and scaffolding is everywhere at the main monasteries. I heard rumors that the European Union is pouring large amounts of money into restoration of medieval sites, and this is one of the largest. The EU also is trying to apply pressure to open the monasteries to tourists.

Mount Athos is an independent self-governing monastic republic. Its influence, devoted to the purity of monastic life, has been essential in the history of Orthodoxy. The number of pilgrims, large as it seems, is limited. Women are not allowed at all. This may seem strange at first; it is the only such place I know of, even among Orthodox monasteries. This has been the case since the earliest centuries of the Christian era. One hears that the EU wants to change it.

Traditionally, the monasteries depended on Orthodox kings to support their upkeep. After the fall of Byzantium, the kings of Russia, Romania and Serbia were key benefactors. Today, Prince Charles has become an ardent supporter.

Much of the construction work is necessary. Many buildings are old and in poor repair, and there is no denying that they have tremendous historical significance. But some of the monks feel that the scale of construction is completely out of proportion to what is appropriate for the environment of the Holy Mountain.

However, Fr. Modestus said, there is a hesychastic elder who lives halfway up the ridge.

“You and I are going there in the morning,” I said when Fr. Nicholas informed me of this news.

“We may not have time to get back before the boat leaves for Daphne,” he said.

“If we miss the boat, we miss the boat,” I said. “We’ll have to stay here another night. But this is what we came to Mt. Athos for.”

After Vespers and trapeza (the meal), Fr. Modestus showed us the frescoes in the church. They were of Theophan the Cretan and his school, but had been plastered over and re-painted in the Western decadent style influenced by Romanticism, far inferior. So the newer plaster had been removed and the original damaged frescoes had been cleaned and painstakingly restored. It is a monumental task, almost unthinkable. The restorer has to study the technique and style and match it. The result has to be the work of Theophanes, not the work of the restorer. The results were stunning.

He also showed us particular portable icons. One was a Virgin of mastic and wax, exceedingly ancient, attributed to the hand of St. Luke himself. This was once stolen by the pirates that plagued Mt. Athos after the fall of Byzantium. Their boat, however, would not move on the water, and a voice from the icon said, “Take me home!” This so terrified the pirates that after returning it one of them became a monk.

I am sorry to say that I lost track of how many miracle-working icons we venerated.
Next he took us to the cemetery. This is beautifully perched on a terraced shelf cut from towers of rock above the sea and shaded by tall, slender cypresses. An old stone wall met the tumbled boulders of some ancient avalanche so seamlessly that one could hardly discern where the hand of man had been fitted into the hand of God.

Finally he took us up higher to the cave of St. Niphon.

St. Niphon, once a monk at Dionysiou, later became Patriarch of Constantinople. He returned to the monastery after retiring; but in his age, no one recognized or remembered him. He entered as a novice, never mentioning his former rank. He was assigned to shepherd’s duties, and also to watch the sea for pirates. He slept in the cave; but most of the night he was in prayer. Repeatedly the abbot saw a column of fire in the region of the cave at night, and did not understand until he was commanded by a voice to go receive the saintly Patriarch with honor. When the whole brotherhood came out to reverence him, he tried to run away, but they restrained him.

We climbed a set of precarious stairs and came to this cave by a cell, on a terrace of the cliff above the cemetery. Fr. Modestus began speaking of the Elder Porphyrius. He said that there were many holy elders in the twentieth century, but that Elder Porphyrius was perhaps the greatest mystic the church has seen since St. Seraphim of Sarov in the eighteenth century. I did not even realize that St. Seraphim was a saint of that stature.

The sun was going down. We were quiet; everything was quiet. We all prayed for a while as dusk pulled its drape over the Holy Mountain, leaving a glow upon the waves. It was dark by the time we climbed down, but we came to the gates in the wall just before they were shut.


Note: Chronologically, the post entitled "The Springs of the Holy Mountain" should follow this post, and then "The Ruined Monastery".

Holy Monastery of Grigoriou

On the boat again to the little port of Daphne, where we met the pilgrim Stratos. He was extremely excited about meeting Orthodox Christians from “the great prostitute of the apocalypse”: America. I admit being a little shocked that someone I had never met should say this to me. Athonite monks who came from Western cultures roll their eyes at this assessment of American culture, considering how secularized even Greece is becoming. But Stratos was generally excitable in all his descriptions. He told of the Holy Fire of Jerusalem in the tomb of the Savior at Pascha, and how it is flown by airplane to Greece then met by vans to be distributed to every village in the country. He spoke of the many holy elders in the monastery of Simonapetra.

We passed under the high walls of that fabled monastery, perched on its precipice on a steep incline far above the shore. I prayed as we drifted past it, begging for a few drops of the blossoms of its lofty blessings to fall on me.

The sun was high, near noon. I made another attempt to study the Mediterranean color of the waves. Deep blue ran along the crests, with luminous greens in the wave-runs. Other hues, many, ran across the undisturbed surface. But what poetry could really describe these colors? Do they come from the sky, or some mineral pigment brushed in from the island shores? I understand why one has to see the color of this sea for himself.

We docked at Grigoriou and were given a room right over the boat dock. The guest master was a quiet monk with extremely quiet, almost expressionless eyes under thick black bushy brows. How could one known that he was a priest, or that this was Nikos Vlachos’ spiritual father, Fr. Christophoros?

Our room for two nights faces the steep rocky cliffs at one angle, a corner of the towered monastery at another, and the sea wide between. A forest descends the slopes, with magnificent rocks and old ruins. I sat on the dock and tried to enter prayer. My three-hundred-knot prayer rope which I had purchased at the great basilica church of St. Demitrios in Thessalonica I said to the Theotokos, asking Her help again, as I did when I first attempted the practice of this prayer – more than ten years ago.

It occurred to me that I have not pursued prayer as single-mindedly as one must at least try to do since I moved away from my own spiritual father in the Bay Area. Actually, I was overwhelmed with this realization. It was a gift. Later that afternoon, when I talked with my parish priest and fellow pilgrim Fr. Nicholas about this, I knew that I had come to the Holy Mountain for this reason.

The Catholicon (Church) of St. Nicholas at Grigoriou was beautiful and inspiring, and I felt at home here. The antiphonal singing of the Vespers stichera was ornamented, according to the practice of the Holy Mountain, with interjected refrains, on an ison note, of short supplications by the canonarch, who walked back and forth from choir to choir on either side of the iconostas. Heart and mind soared in prayer. There is an immense throned Christ frescoed in front of the inner narthex, to whom I addressed my prayer. Then I moved into the nave at the Lord I Have Cried psalms to hear the splendor of Byzantine chant. There is also a beautiful icon of St. Gregory of Sinai, the monastery’s founder.

After the meal, we returned to the church for the Akathist hymn. Though I could not understand the Greek, I knew the hymn well enough to know what was being chanted – perhaps the most beautiful and inspired poetics ever written. The service began with the veneration of the relics of St. Gregory Palamas, St. John the Theologian, and others.

It was a beautiful and lofty experience of prayer. I stood in front of the narthex fresco of the Mother of God, companion icon of the throned Christ. I was aware of the tremendous power of Her presence, and I wept silently. This is where the heart finds its home, where the human creature tastes the sense of its purpose, while hardly even knowing it!

Afterward, we talked with young Miloch the Serbian, named for the hero of the medieval Battle of Kosovo. He is a theology student and son of a priest. There were also two young Romanian schoolteachers, very pleasant, extremely interested in Orthodox America, in Fr. Seraphim Rose, and in our own stories. Everywhere we went, the name of Seraphim Rose came up! We saw the book on his life in Greek. A monk from London, Fr. Damian, was also extremely attentive to us.

Fr. Nicholas went to speak with the abbot about the question of spiritual fatherhood in America. The abbot agreed with him, he told me, that the situation was particularly difficult in America, and he sympathized with that search and gave Fr. Nicholas a prayer rope. He was not, however, in good health, and the conversation went not much farther than that.

I was so inspired by the Vespers that I determined to rise early and be at the beginning of Matins next morning at 4 AM. I did not entirely succeed. By the time I got there at the end of the Six Psalms, the service had already been going on for three-quarters of an hour. I prayed eagerly through the early morning darkness, when the candles are extinguished for the Six Psalms and the kathisma. As it began to grow light, I paid the price for my zealousness, fighting sleep through the remaining hours of the long morning service. I was in the church for four hours. No complaints – I knew that is what they do, and I looked forward to it – but one keeps nodding off until the floor begins to move…


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grandma Coco's Memories

Shirley/Macrina's blog pretty much covers it all! Some of my most memorable moments, though , were:
  • our first taxi ride in Rome (driver's training is a waste of time!)
  • graffitti everywhere
  • the mis-leading building fronts - when you entered the building through an iron "door" and arrived at our room, it was really quite nice
  • our four hour walking tour the first full day in Rome, in the hot sun - and I didn't get heat stroke!
  • the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican, in general!
  • retrieving Emilia's backpack that was left at a restaurant, and was there the next day! (That was not the only time we had to retrieve it!)
  • the mosaics in Ravenna Italy
  • breaking my camera in the park next to the hostel!
  • carrying all our luggage and Shirley/Macrina leading the way pushing a stroller! Downstairs, walking a ways, and up stairs to catch a train or bus! (We were so glad to see "lifts" in Greece when we arrived there!)
  • the overnight boat trip to Greece, coming downstairs and the loudspeaker saying "Basil would like his parents to pick him up at the reception counter!" He has a mind of his own about what he wants to do - without asking!
  • the wonderful hospitality of the nuns in Zakinthos and Lavrio!
  • Katrina who took us to the ferry in Zakinthos from the monastary. They all made us feel so welcome!
  • Cracking nuts in Lavrio.
  • And of course the many roads (narrow and steep) leading to the beautiful monastaries and churches.
  • Shirley/Macrina's driving - 4 different cars, without a scratch! She did a great job.
  • Shopping, of course.
  • The phone call that Al had finished the half marathon with Diana (who came from CA with Alex and Lilly )to walk with him in spite of some setbacks (for Al) from probably too much sugar!
  • Meeting up with the men in Thesseloniki -
  • Father Nicholas so pleased with his new vestments recently purchased in Athens with the help of Niko and Meredith
  • Gabriel looking through his camera lens, (apparently) making sure he had gotten the best picture;
  • Scott and Ethan from eastern WA - such nice people
  • Christopher reading about the next monastery we would be visiting or a particular saint while we were riding in the car
  • riding in the back seat of that very small car with the kids, luggage and a stroller!
  • The wonderful hospitality of Niko and Meredith in Rafina (Niko's family summer home) and Athens (in Niko's apartment) and for taking us shopping before coming home and taking us to the airport last Thursday!

There are many more memories - and yes, I did keep a journal - but these are a few of the main ones!

I am so glad Shirley/Macrina allowed me to go on her spiritual journey with her and the kids. It was truly that for all of us. There are many gorgeous Orthodox monastaries and churches in Greece. And just the scenery while driving is gorgeous! But it is also wonderful to get back home. As is said so much - it's great to see new places, but there is no place like home!

Thank you all for your prayers and support for this trip! It for me was truly a trip of a lifetime!

Love and Blessing to you all!

The Ruined Monastery

The Ruined Monastery

Within the gate – huge wings of four-storied brick buildings with broken windows, roofs half fallen in. To the left, the entire middle section of one building has fallen to the foundation. Iron reinforcing bars lean out into space and droop groundward like the numerous branches of a weeping willow. On the top floor of the remaining structure are the ruins of a basilica-like structure running along the great width from front to back, of which only the front and rear facades remain, trimmed in decorative brickwork. It almost looks like a crumbling crypt, with low blind windows and one round corbelled window in the peak; and the setting sun behind it in a pavement of decorative cumulus clouds, shoots great rays across the sky from behind its high projections.

Beside this, another three-storied building, also with a sagging and partially demolished roof and eaves rotting into dark holes, appears, from its curtained windows, to be in use.

No one was in sight.

We tried a stair that led to locked doors. Returning to the ground floor, we tried another door that led into a long, long hall, lined with beds piled high with blankets. We passed room after room of eight to twelve beds, all made, but with no occupant. The floor was weak, ready in one place to give way.

We went back out into the heat and proceeded toward the rear buildings, looking for someone. In the central courtyard is the great catholicon of St. Andrei’s Skete, the largest church on the Holy Mountain, locked and entirely chained in scaffolding. At last a worker climbed down from behind a roof where a dome was being re-framed and sheathed. He directed us to the rear building in the three-acre-plus complex. This was accessed by a bridge – the basement level descended from the ground across what could have been a moat, were their not windows in the lower level. We passed under an overhanging shelf of exposed brick, held up by iron framing dissolving into rust and appearing ready to fall, and entered the building.

Down another long, long hallway, part of which was shored up with wooden beams. Here the rooms’ side walls had been stripped to the brick. These leaned dangerously both ways at once, as though intoxicated. The hall ended at last in a stair which we climbed. Here at last was the guest-master’s greeting room. There was a pitcher of water, empty glasses, and a half-empty plate of Turkish delight; but there was no one in the eerie quiet.

After perhaps three-quarters of an hour waiting here, another pilgrim came in and sat. Shortly after, a massive novice with unusually disheveled hair and appearance came in, stared around at us, and grunted that he would bring someone.

This was the last person we saw for two hours.

I needed to find a bathroom. Across the hall in the rear of the building I found one, filthy and in poor repair, but the plumbing functioned; and so did I. After I was done, I saw a door that led out onto a balcony. I have never seen a balcony off of a row of toilets, and I was not sure I should trust the under-support, but there was a breeze and fresh air out there – and a view of wide and stunning magnificence.

We were far above the Aegean that spreads north of the peninsula. A mountainous island floated dimly in the northern distance. Cells and churches were scattered across the forested hills around Karyes, halfway up the gently sloping ridge from the shore. Those nearest must have belonged to the skete, as they sat in advanced stages of ruin.

The last pilgrim who had come in got tired of waiting, and went out to find someone. We wondered if we would ever see him again; but he came back announcing that everyone was in the trapeza below the main church.

With a meal in us, our perceptions began to change. The stair we had tried earlier, as it turned out, led to a very elegant Russian Baroque church on the top floor of the front building. The Vespers and Akathist were prayerfully conducted. Afterwards we were assigned rooms, and we set off through the labyrinthine halls searching for a shower.

No shower was to be found. I did not give up. I looked in every connecting wing of every floor. Coincidentally, each time I passed a window and looked out, I saw Gabriel and Ethen exploring the grounds outside. The first time I passed a window and saw them, I pressed my face to the glass to distort it and drooled at them. They seemed a little taken aback. The second time, I limped heavily with a hunched back and pointed down at them. I was really beginning to feel the gothic impression made by the place. When I checked the first bathroom I had seen earlier, I went out on the balcony – and there they were, far below, down in back of the monastery. I pointed at them and grunted loudly, shaking my finger. By now they were laughing uncontrollably.

After performing what self-washing was possible, I went out into the courtyard to try to sketch descriptions of this monastery. The problem here, as I learned later from the fathers at Vatopedi who are responsible for the re-building, is not the age of the buildings. By Athonite time, they are new. Most are a little more than two centuries, with the exception of the old church in the courtyard opposite the great catholicon. But during the period that the monastery was abandoned, the roofs fell into disrepair. Water then traveled down into the iron webbing in the brick and rusted it out. This caused all the damage.

Fr. Ephraim, a younger British monk, talked with me for more than an hour.

As the sun was going down, the bats began to come out of the buildings.

No one could make up this place.


St. Panteleimon's

There is one fishing boat on the blue sea.

A small breeze comes in the curtains of the guest house window. The other pilgrims are asleep since early afternoon.

Gentle waves on the rocky shore insist that the secret of unceasing prayer is here.

Coming down offshore on the boat, the pilgrim is introduced to the beauty of the Athonite peninsula. He passes a few ruined stone structures. Then, how fittingly picturesque is the boat dock for Zographou – named for “the painter” because of the miraculously painted icon which determined its dedication. A portion of ruined wall towers over the dock and boat-house. This and the little church are the village outpost for the walled medieval city out of sight in a high ravine. The dock is in a cove flanked by natural rock slabs with water caves. This and the forested ridge above are like a landscape painter’s dream.

This is only the beginning of splendid sightings of medieval walled monasteries. It is the Feast of Peter and Paul, and the bell tower of Docheriou sings out with complex antiphonal explosions over the water. Xenophon is even larger with its watchtower and beautiful red church domes and high stone walls with wooden bump-outs high up, supported on angular beams and plastered green and red and blue.

Then one comes around the point and within sight of the immense spreading structure of St. Panteleimon’s.

Mt. Athos is an independent Greek republic existing since the Byzantine era; but tonight we will feast upon a vigil of Russian church chant.

My first sunset on the Holy Mountain left the sky the color of a great candle. A half-moon was hung over the sea. I was standing under the huge bell-tower when the largest of its bells was struck.

The largest bell on the Holy Mountain. The one they can hear in Ouronopolis.
It hurt.

The All-Night Vigil promised to live up to its name. Having slept only a few hours the night before, I did not make it even through the two-and-a-half-hour Vespers. And though I had been disappointed with the predominance of Obikhod chant, it was sung so well and prayerfully as to be impressive.