Arts, Culture & Media

Visiting the 'Holy Mountain' Athos in Greece

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Xenophontos monastery (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)

There's an autonomous region in Greece that's home to the "Holy Mountain." It's one of the holiest sites for Orthodox Christians. About 2,000 monks live there. But anyone can visit, as long as they're male. Reporter Matthew Brunwasser spent four days in Mount Athos, among the monks and the pilgrims there.

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The only way to reach the Holy Mountain is by ship. That's to help keep out what the residents of Mount Athos call "the world."

Orthodox Christian believers say that to pray on Mt Athos means your prayers are closer to God. And as we head over on the boat, Dimitri Christoforidis, says he's been told that things haven't changed much on Mt Athos for a thousand years.

"A lot of people feel that miracles can happen here, if I can say it in layman's words," says Christoforidis. "And they believe that miracles do happen here."

Christoforidis, who's visiting for the first time, says he expects the holy mountain to be a place that gives pilgrims perspective — as they spin around the hamster wheel of life.

"It's not so much that they get away from problems, it's to get a break and see what's real and what's not," Christoforidis says. "You know this, in America you get involved so much in your work, in your microcosm, you feel like this is what its all about, and then once in awhile someone needs to grab you and say 'hey, come let me show you something,' and you go to a place like this."

As the boat's heavy metal gangway touches down at one of Mount Athos' 20 monasteries, there's a rush of monks, pilgrims and cargo.

At the Xenophontos monastery, visitors are greeted with water, coffee and lokum, or Turkish delight, and shown their simple rooms. After settling in, there's free time to think things over.

A lot of time.

Pilgrims are welcome to join the monks in their hours of daily prayers. They are also free to rest, admire the dramatic natural beauty and living byzantine architecture.

Pilgrims share the monks' two daily meals. There's not much chit-chat, as meals last exactly 10 minutes. Some people spend entire days walking from one monastery to another. For orthodox believers, a visit here means spiritual reinforcement. Efthimis Tsoutsias, a software engineer from Thessaloniki, is here on his fifth visit and says it's an incredible place.

"To find peace inside my heart," says Tsoutsias. "And reach a higher purpose. The churches and the monasteries make me feel closer to God, and they remind me that we are not just bodies, but we are eternal spirits."

Just a few yards away, the sapphire-colored Aegean is inviting. But swimming is forbidden, out of consideration for the monks who are not allowed earthly pleasures.

Life on Athos is demanding, physically and spiritually, with long hours of hard labor and intensive worship. But Father Jeremiah, who came from San Angelo, Texas, 15 years ago, says serving God with prayer makes for a happy life.

"And the fathers even speak of the ability to pray even while we are sleeping," says Jeremiah. "Whether it's cooking, whether it's hoeing the garden, or whether it's taking part in the communal worship, so everything, every aspect of our life is a prayer."

Visitors are usually given "visas" for four days. Food and accommodation are free. But the different monasteries do run businesses to help cover expenses, including the enormous cost of maintaining the ancient facilities.

Father Jeremiah works at the Xenophontos gift shop. He sells icons, books, CDs — and wine made at the monastery. These German visitors in the shop are clearly sensitive about disturbing the spiritual ambiance.

"This is wine," says a German visitor.
"This is wine, yes," says Father Jeremiah.
"Can we drink it here?" the German asks.
"Of course," says Father Jeremiah.
"One of us has a birthday today," says the German visitor.
"Oh yeah, a birthday," says Father Jeremiah. "Okay, just don't get drunk."

A monk announces vespers, or the evening service, by hammering on a wooden plank. Mt Athos preserves the ancient call to prayer, known as the semantron, which some say dates back to the time of Noah calling the animals into the ark.

For many Greek pilgrims, the ancient traditions offer a welcome respite from the economic chaos wracking their country. Vasilis Miliopoulos, an unemployed electrical engineer, says he feels inspired by the monks' spiritual example.

"I admire these monks because it's no easy to leave everything and come here and pray eight hours, and work hard for another eight hours and sleep little or not at all," Miliopoulos says. "This is a heroic thing to do. And so that's why I admire these monks and I'm happy to be here for a few days with them."

For visitors who aren't Orthodox, the intense spiritual devotion can be strange at first and hard to relate to. Eckhart Schleifenbaum, a finance lawyer from Munich, says he expected the monks to be withdrawn and isolated from the world. Instead he found some great conversationalists.

"And all the time you speak to these people, they are fully informed of the whole world, highly educated, very interesting people," says Schleifenbaum. "With full knowledge of history, of course, religion no wonders, medicine, its interesting, more than interesting, it's fascinating and you wonder what makes people live here and stay in this kind of life."

Admiring the bones of his predecessors stacked neatly in the ossuary, Father Jeremiah reflects on his earthly remains waiting here for Judgement Day. Since the cemetery has space for only 12 graves, whenever a monk dies, the oldest remains are removed, the bones washed with wine and then placed here.

"When we become a monk we vow, we make promises to God, just like in a marriage, two people dedicate their lives to each other, then those two become one flesh, as the holy scriptures say," says Father Jeremiah. "The same with the monk. The monk is united to Christ. We make a promise to stay in the monastery until our last breath."

Despite traditions that date back a thousand years, change is slowly creeping in. A road here was paved in the 90s. There are now a few cars and some cell phone coverage. A few monasteries are online. Millenia later, the Holy Mountain is still finding its place both as part of the world and the one beyond.