This is an account of the author’s first pilgrimage, in the summer of 2013, to Mount Athos in northern Greece, the mountain dedicated to the Mother of God, where there are twenty Orthodox monasteries (seventeen Greek, one Bulgarian, one Russian and one Serbian) and various sketes, cells and hermitages. The author travelled to Athos from Sofia in Bulgaria, where he lives, in the company of three Bulgarians: Emilian, Spas and Suni. To visit Athos, you have to be male and to receive a permit, which is usually for three nights. The date on Athos is thirteen days behind the date elsewhere, in accordance with the old-style Julian calendar.
This account is dedicated to the memory of Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian, who died in Corfu on 10 November 1924, forty days after leaving Turkey for Greece.
We are leaving Sofia, four of us in the car: Spas, the driver, an engineer; Suni, an economist; Emilian, a judge; and myself. The radio is on – news (which seems somehow irrelevant), classical music, pop. Outside, summer temperatures have arrived. Yesterday it reached 47°C in the sun. After fifteen minutes, we stop for petrol. Life goes on. You realize that for people your pilgrimage is of no consequence, or rather that every movement of our daily routine is a pilgrimage. My son has gone to school. My wife has a blood test. They will do these things without me today. I am so used to watching over them, maybe even controlling their movements to make sure everything is all right, I will now have to get used to the absence of that control, as on Sunday, after Gabriel and I had gone to the cinema, he wanted to visit a protected playground and I left him there for an hour. A feeling of emptiness, lightness, panic. A hundred, a thousand people going about their business, crossing at the lights, cycling on cycle paths, waiting for a bus or a tram. The mountain next to Sofia, Vitosha, is clear, watching over us. It always watches over us. We watch it in the late afternoon and at night. The other night, a flare (a plane? a paraglider?) detached itself from the mountainside and floated off into the darkness. A stronger light, this one definitely a plane, banked and made the approach to Sofia Airport. Routine, my life, every movement precious.
The journey from Sofia to Ouranoupoli was a long one, ten hours in the car to travel four hundred kilometres, we took a slightly longer route and drove slowly. Ouranoupoli is the Greek town from where the ferryboat leaves for Athos in the morning. It will take us to the main harbour on Athos, Dafni, and from there we will either walk or take a smaller ferryboat to Simonopetra, the monastery where we plan to stay the first night. Simonopetra is considered the most impressive monastery on Athos, being built on rock, and is the first of the monasteries in the southwest of the peninsula. The hotel owner in Ouranoupoli quickly dispelled any romantic notions I may have had about catching the ferry, predicting four or five hundred people in the morning, monks and pilgrims, Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians, Serbians, Romanians and others. We have arranged to meet at 7:15 to collect our permits (access to Athos is limited, men only). It will be strange to find oneself in a male-only environment. Here, in Ouranoupoli, a kind of resort, families parade up and down the street, there is a relaxed atmosphere, the Greeks are friendly and hospitable as always. In the bar next to the harbour, they are watching a match of Greek football. We had dinner next to the beach. I could make out the lights of the nearby island of Ammouliani, a solitary car’s headlamps on the central peninsula of Sithonia, behind us a few lights, and then darkness where Athos begins. We caught a glimpse of some hills on Athos as we descended into the valley, and then of the mountain proper at 2,030 metres, a jagged tooth, an arrowhead jutting out of the ground, waiting for an archaeological dig, a rocket waiting for lift-off, a hut one is not sure whether to enter. The others are friendly and encourage me on, even as I turn and my soul, a white slither of light, takes flight into the darkness, becoming one.
Emotion this morning. We went to the Pilgrims’ Bureau to pick up our visas for entry to Athos, and our names were not on the list. We had to wait until 9 a.m. to ring the office in Thessaloniki, with the ferryboat due to leave at 9:45. A nervous breakfast. A nervous walkabout. Emilian remained optimistic – everything would be OK, we had to do what was humanly possible, and the rest was in God’s hands. I wasn’t so sure. This didn’t fit my Western rational way of thinking, but the Balkans among us remained calm. I rang at 9. Apparently I hadn’t reconfirmed our application. Could I ring back in five minutes? 9:09. Please hold the line. Yes, you can go and take your permits. A sense of joy, though I realized how skin-deep my faith was. For me, it was a question of (human) organization, not God’s will, but I think I still have rather a lot to learn. About blame, also. And not apportioning it, as no one did in my case. Balkan people are much more relaxed about these things, responsibility and so on. I continue to talk about taking responsibility because it seems important to me. Thinking before you do things. Balkan people do things and then think about them. There is perhaps greater freedom in this. Like not counting the money in your purse. We slide along the coast of the peninsula, but this time, having gone on a cruise last year, I know I am due to land, to set foot on Athos. The seagulls stay remarkably close to the boat, a metre or so from the passengers. Running alongside. The landscape appears uninhabited. Soon we will see the monasteries or their boatyards. There is a good atmosphere on the boat. A mixture of people, several monks, crew members, pilgrims, young and old. There was a father with his two sons, the younger perhaps five, with his older brother, the mother boarded the boat with them and then left. Here we have a Mother in common, who intercedes for us. The ferry is slow. And we are much closer to the shore. A seagull moans. I can make out the rocks. This time, I am going to land. Emotion this morning.
Today was a long and heavy day. We arrived in Dafni, where I felt like smiling at everybody, walked in the blistering heat of midday to Simonopetra, only to find that they were not receiving guests since it is the Feast of Mary Magdalene on Saturday. The monk was very polite and gave us the most delicious glass of cold water I can remember, but we had to carry on to Grigoriou, a monastery I had wanted to visit. I went ahead, afraid we were running out of time and would not arrive for the evening service and meal, but ended up missing the turning and going all the way down to Simonopetra’s boatyard. On the way back up, I met Emilian, who had also missed the turning. He said that our going from Simonopetra to Grigoriou was all for the good, but by this time I was tired, on the final ascent I almost couldn’t walk, I don’t remember being so weak, I began to feel that the Holy Mountain was too much for me, I wasn’t prepared for it. I felt it was our own fault for not arranging things better before we left Sofia. In Grigoriou, we were shown to the guesthouse. We had missed the evening service and meal, but I wandered over to the church, where people were waiting to go in and kiss the relics. I joined them. Where are you from? England. Your religion? Orthodox. So I was allowed to enter the inner church and venerate the relics. This was followed by some chanting, an exquisite icon of Christ on the iconostasis (the partition in Orthodox churches that separates the nave from the altar), a tragic expression on the face of Saint Nicholas, and outside a monk asked me if I had eaten, took me into the kitchen, sat me down, gave me bread, water, beans, tomato, watermelon, and I recalled the chanting, the icons, the relics, and stared out over the sea in the kitchen of my second Athonite monastery. I sweated so much today my trousers and belt were soaked through. I learned that on the Holy Mountain things don’t always turn out the way you planned them.
Grigoriou Monastery-Zograf Monastery
Why do I have the impression that Grigoriou is going to be one of my favourite monasteries? Perhaps because I spent my first night on Athos there. Perhaps because I was already drawn to it. We rose early, in time for morning prayer and the liturgy, which lasted from 4 to 7 or 7:30. The early hours, I know from staying at English monasteries, are magical, still dark, silhouettes of monks, faces looming out of the frescos, out of the shadows cast by oil lamps. The polished stone doorways from the outer to the inner part of the church resembled upright coffins through which we walked again and again, dying and rising to new life. At one point, I felt flushed and began to sweat – a reaction to the lack of sleep and the heat yesterday, but also to my inexperience, I think I had come to Athos unprepared for the challenge it supposed – and had to go outside, sit on the bench in the open, gaze at the moon, a few pinpricks of stars, a cross in the clouds projected by the moonlight. Little by little, I began to feel well again. To recover. Orthodoxy has this – an almost insane amount of time spent in church (a three-and-a-half-hour service) – and yet, as the Bulgarian elder Nazariy would say, faith is to be taken in little bites. I returned to the church, sat a while longer, even closed my eyes, being rocked by the service, the importance of spoken words (which a senior monk would correct from time to time), getting up to kiss an icon. After the service, a breakfast of beans, fish, cheese pastry and nectarines. Refreshment. The amiable abbot bringing breakfast to a close with prayers he recited by heart, almost jokingly, and the monks filed out. We followed them – day had come and there was work to be done – but, as we passed through the doorway of the refectory, the abbot was waiting on one side, hand raised in a blessing, while on the other side three monks bowed deeply before the departing pilgrims.
The Bulgarian monastery, Zograf, lies inland, surrounded by forest that is interspersed with candlestick-like cypress trees. I am on familiar ground, able to converse in the language and to follow the liturgy better. The monastery from the road looks huge, like a castle. In the courtyard, there is a lot of building work going on, with more to be done. The yard is populated by cats that interlace tails and seek caresses. It has been a long, full day, not much sleep last night, one manages to keep going on sheer willpower, encouraging the flesh to follow where the spirit would lead. Sin is deviation, a monk told me this morning. One is aware of having sinned, of having deviated from the likeness of God in which we were made. Another monk told me there is a finite number of souls to be saved and, when that number is reached, there will be the Second Coming, this is why the devil does not want people to follow the path of salvation. Weighty matters indeed. I always think the truth never changes. Whatever we may say or believe, the truth will remain who he is. I write “who he is” in contrast to Pilate’s almost fateful question “What is truth?” which he asked when the truth was standing in front of him. Another conversation: Saint Stephen, the first martyr, on being stoned to death, interceded for his murderers, a response that is either prayerful or mad, but certainly not normal. In my experience (for me Orthodoxy is all about experience, Balkan people do and then think, while we in the West generally have to be persuaded first), the need for endurance increases as one gets older, but it is always possible to detach oneself from the pain and to see it for what it is, as an epileptic is meant to do. I was struck by how much our life in the city can be a distraction, a deviation from the true path. The only people without a conscience are those who don’t require one anymore – saints and demons.
Zograf Monastery-Hilandar Monastery
Zograf Monastery is the only monastery on Athos that not only uses the old, Julian calendar (which runs thirteen days behind the more recent Gregorian calendar now used worldwide), but also doesn’t change its clocks in summertime, so it is 7:30 instead of 8:30 as I write. Yesterday, after evening prayer and the evening meal (tarator, salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, white cheese, boiled egg and sweetcorn, watermelon and wine for those who wish), there was a service for the Feast of Saint Elijah. It began at 9, after a restful sitting outside in the courtyard. The church again subsumed in darkness, monks’ faces indiscernible, from the outer church to the inner church, chanting from one side of the choir to the other, taking it in turns, censing the icons and people, lighting candles. At one stage, the monks set the vast chandeliers holding the candles into motion, and they swayed as I did on my feet. I was so tired after a short sleep the night before and no sleep during the day (it is good to rest, if you can, in the early afternoon) that objects seemed to come to life, a large candlestick resembled a crouching monk, the central circle on the tiled floor became three-dimensional, like an envelope, and the church seemed to tower above me. A monk next to me hummed along, emitting murmurs of approval and occasional sighs. At one point, a bird flew into the church, a house martin no doubt. There are lots of them nesting in the eaves, chicks squabbling above the entrance to the refectory, matched only by the whining of the cats when it is time for the monks to eat. At 1:30 in the morning, I couldn’t take any more, I was dead on my feet. Sitting down, I found it difficult not to sleep. And so I left the church. I wanted to stay until the end, another forty-five minutes, but such is the rhythm of monastic life, not everybody is in church all the time, some are preparing meals, others are in their cells, the important thing is that the rhythm of prayer continues uninterrupted, whether or not you are there.
Hilandar is the Serbian monastery on Mount Athos. There are twenty monasteries in total (with their dependent sketes, cells and hermitages), seventeen of them Greek and three Slavonic: Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian. There is a large skete associated with Romania, and I understand that Iviron Monastery at least has strong Georgian connections. These are the countries you would expect in connection with Orthodoxy. The Serbian monastery is welcoming. The Serbians themselves are warm and friendly. They pat each other on the back or head, they put their arms around one another, they look at you with childish eagerness and wave easily. As we left the church, after kissing the icons and relics, we were given a blessing by the softly-spoken priest, who squeezed your hand as you took his. A simple touch of affirmation, recognition, for a moment you felt valued, important in the general scheme of things. A passing gesture if you like, but how much our world needs these gestures of affirmation, blessings in place of curses. The monks are exactly as in the photos one may have seen before travelling to Athos. They are remarkable people who manage to combine deep spirituality with simple conversation. Sometimes, however, they seem to look at you, and you don’t know what they are thinking – or rather seeing – of you, only that they are on the front line of the battle between good and evil, which is of limited duration. It is their prayers that keep the world from imploding. They raise their voices in praise and plead for mercy. Two essential components of a human life – praise for the Creator whose light they have glimpsed, which is reflected in their eyes (I have never seen so many clear pairs of eyes in such a short space of time, they are good-looking men, how I would like to look in twenty years’ time, though for this you have to humble yourself, to subtract the ego), and a petition for mercy: Kyrie eleison, Gospodi pomiluj, Lord have mercy. There is not much more to life than this.
Hilandar Monastery-Xenofontos Monastery
The dormitory this morning was like a marsh full of frogs during the spawning season. Emilian came to wake me up, though the buzzer on the person next to me’s phone had already gone off a couple of times. I felt in the dark for my clothes, eventually found both socks, walked blindly to the bathroom, sure that the lights there would work and I could use the toilet, but no, there was no electricity. I felt my way back, getting more used to the darkness by now, dodged the obstacle of one pilgrim’s sandals on the floor, found my torch and returned to the bathroom. I could gradually make out more contours, as in the church when I arrived for morning prayer; once you’ve been there for a while, you see how other people come in blind. The service, followed seamlessly by the liturgy, was again long, about four hours, again I had great difficulty staying awake, but, whenever I came to, the prayer continued, the candles flickered in front of the icons. After a couple of hours, daylight appeared, first in the dome of the church, then in the open doorways, which allowed a fresh breeze to circulate. I desperately wanted at this stage to lie down and to sleep off the tiredness, to sleep anywhere. There wasn’t much movement, and this can be one of the difficulties of Orthodoxy: you take part in the service through prayerfulness, through crossing yourself and kissing the icons, but there is little or no movement for much of the time, just shuffling from foot to foot, trying to alleviate the soreness. There is no comfort zone, even the individual pews against the wall begin to feel uncomfortable, but you become aware of a deep symbolism in the actions of the priests and monks in the choir, a symbolism I am no doubt only touching the surface of, the priest standing in the doorway that leads to the altar, making the sign of the Cross or sharing the peace, the young monk standing outside the refectory as we leave, his hand contorted in an impossible blessing, the altar curtain drawn to nullify our vision of heaven.
Our final monastery is again Greek, Xenofontos, on the west coast of the peninsula between Ouranoupoli and Dafni. Like Grigoriou, it is situated right next to the sea, not inland. When we arrived, a monk was working in a boat, mending nets, preparing to fish, like the first apostles. The monastery is built like a fortress, it even has battlements, with an inner courtyard where there are several churches, a bell tower and rooms. It is always interesting how for services and meals so many people appear: monks, guests, and men who help run the monastery, help with the building work, with the husbandry. It occurred to me that for three or four days I hadn’t seen a single advertisement, no billboards, no shops (except for the monastery shop selling icons, prayer ropes, monastery products and so on). There are barely even roads, only dirt tracks, though I haven’t been to the capital, Karyes, yet. Each monastery owns an area of land and, where others would put a swimming pool (recreation for the body), they put a church (salvation for the soul). This reminds me of the Church Father who said to look after your body as if it was going to live for a hundred years, your soul as if it was eternal. The rhythm of the day is the following: arrive at the monastery, shower, rest, evening prayer, meal in the refectory (today aubergine, potato, salad, watermelon and bread), return to the church to kiss the relics, time spent talking outside, sleep, morning prayer and liturgy, meal in the refectory, shop for icons, leave. I will miss this routine. Ever since I visited my first monasteries in England, I have always been aware of the monks who rise in the dark of night, at 3 or 4, before the day has become certain, and guide the day in with prayer, repentance and celebration, repeating ever more quickly: Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.
My final day on Mount Athos is the Feast of Mary Magdalene by the old calendar. Morning prayer and liturgy this morning lasted five hours, from 4:30 to 9:30. A kind of endurance test, but this is one of the aspects of Orthodoxy I begin to love: it seems impossible, it is impossible, and then you see that, by letting go, it becomes easy – or, if not easy, at least possible. The long services, the constant censing of the icons, the bowing and making the sign of the Cross, all contribute to breaking down your defences. There is nowhere left to hide. It is OK to close your eyes, to rest, but the constant prayer, like a wave, eats away at your stubbornness, any angry thought is incapable of lasting, it isn’t really worth holding anything against your neighbour, who didn’t really do anything anyway, you are too exhausted to continue to protest and you just set down the weight, suddenly lift your eyes and see that daylight has come, the beams of the ceiling are painted with a floral design, the candles that were lit before have again been put out, and everything has its rhythm. Sin is deviation, and I’m afraid it’s painted on our faces. In the end, it will become irksome, bothersome, and, whatever our mistakes, we will learn to shut it out of our minds, to clamp it down, like an unwelcome thought that must go away. It isn’t easy, or sometimes it doesn’t seem easy, but the taste of the watermelon the other day was exquisite, and the cup of water in church after the holy bread at the end of the service (not Holy Communion, for which you must fast and confess) was like drops of sunlight. You become more grateful for simple things, you are more humble, which is the way to God, and, despite the hawking and the stench of urine in the toilet in the morning, you rejoice in human life.
Life is a shared, onward journey. As soon as we set foot on the ferryboat to leave the Holy Mountain and return to Ouranoupoli, and from there to our homes (a long journey that will take until tomorrow evening), the atmosphere changed. There was more noise, a buzz of expectation. Some people looked as if they had been on an excursion and just returned from the shops. Others stood still, silent. A Greek pilgrim tried to speak to me in German, I tried English and Bulgarian. In the end, we smiled. A father guided his son to the back of the boat, where there was still a little space, and gradually the outline of Mount Athos got more distant, Dafni, the port, and in reverse order, as we sailed away, Saint Panteleimon, the Russian monastery, Xenofontos, where we slept last night, Dochiariou, the landing stages for Konstamonitou, Zograf and Hilandar, all got more distant. Soon we had passed the police post, and the houses became more regular, with the town of Ouranoupoli in the background, the pilgrims’ entry point. I remember from travelling to India as a teenager how the culture shock is often when you come back. So it was. A lot more noise. Open-backed trucks offering nectarines. Buses in the small square. A family of Bulgarian tourists. A family! Of course, there were women here. Half the population was women, whom we hadn’t seen for five days. I went up to the hotel room, showered, ate two nectarines, sat on the balcony, looking west towards the island of Ammouliani and the central peninsula of Sithonia, then slept. When I came to, I thought I still had two hours before my arranged meeting with Emilian, Spas and Suni, but, when I went downstairs, they were waiting for me in front of the hotel. I had lost all track of time. Life is a shared, onward journey.