The Ambitious Monk: My Week on the Holy Mount.
Sotiris was a new friend, 40 years our senior and an uncertain connection to the adventure ahead; our Greek gateway to the Holy Mount.
My flat-mate Matt and I joined him on a journey to see an old childhood friend of his on Mount Athos. Typically a pilgrimage to Orthodoxy's secluded sacred site takes years of planning and a bit of luck. For us it took one phone call and a 3 hour drive; the serendipitous sum of luck, ignorance. Athos is a private monastic peninsula and nearly impenetrable to the outside world. As infants to Orthodoxy what we didn't know became our advantage.
Lying at the northern shores of the Aegean Sea, it claims to have its earliest religious religious sites date back to the 8th Century AD. After centuries of seclusion, there are now 15 large, self-supported communities with various hermitages dotting the landscape. Save for the blessed Holy Mother, women are forbidden from entering these holy lands. Access is granted through a permitting office, a place that shares similarities to border customs control, if only the border guards were orthodox priests. Once through the gate your only transport was by foot or by boat. Of the 50 men with permission to enter that day, we were the only 3 that chose to walk. The ferry disembarked before us as the rest of the men sat back comfortably on the sunny top deck waiting for their scenic cruise. After climbing the dusty road to the top of the first hill it became evident why no one else joined in the walk. The midday sun was high overhead and we were still miles from our destination.
Rounding each coastal corner our eyes were drawn to the 13th Century holy dwellings perched above the crystal waters. We passed 3 large monasteries en route to our final destination, each one more ornate than the last. Front doors would open and men in cassocks and long beards would welcome us three weary walkers with glasses of water and trays of Turkish Delight. We were welcomed to stay as long as we'd like but the sun was dropping and we still had ground to cover.
Osiou Gregoriou (Saint Gregory) is the last monastery on the western facing peninsula; and one of the 12 official orthodox sketes, an organization of monks and hermits united for mutual support and protection in this region. Its earliest foundations date to the 15th century and has been accepting pilgrims since its formation. Sotiris, our guide, was raised under the spiritual leadership of the skete's current head priest. It had been 50 years since their last encounter and we'd be been told that this man, well into his eighties, was eagerly waiting our arrival.
We passed through the walls of the 700 year old property shortly before the old church bell rang signaling meal time. The small village was quiet save for distant chants rising from the chapel on the far side of the monastery grounds where the 70 resident monks were finishing their afternoon prayers. The cobble stone paths were swept clean despite the constant ocean breeze blowing dust off the arid and exposed hillside. For centuries men from the farthest reaches of the known world have sought out the solitude of those walls. Ornate paintings depicting the saints adorned the walls and ceilings of the ancient space. As we entered the structure we sensed the smells of wood, leather, and aging paper. Hand carved wood bordered the doorways. Wide planks of cypress led us from room to room.
We were not the only travelers seeking an ancient touch of the divine. We chose three open beds in a room overlooking the sea below. The life of a monk on Mount Athos is internal. Days were filled with reflection and meditation. It's no surprise that most of the noise was made by visitors not yet trained in the ways of solitude and silence. Meals in the dining hall were a chorus of utensils and plates playing off the hardwood table tops; the libraries, a hum of swishing pages and cleared throats. The courtyards echoed of shovels scuffing gravel and carts harvesting from the slope side gardens above.
Apart from basic provisions purchased on the mainland, the monks live a rather self-sustainable life. Their wells draw fresh, though slightly salty, water. Their fields produce crops year round. The vineyards grow grapes to make faintly fermented wine. Meat and desserts are left for holiday celebrations. Breads are baked on premises for both daily consumption and regular spiritual rituals.
For three days we were afforded an intimate look at the simple and disciplined life of these men. Before departing we felt the need to step further in their shoes and actively seek of the solitude that only Mount Athos can evoke. Trails from the monastery spider out into the hills leading to even more private and solitary dwelling places. We set out on our last afternoon to leave the hum of that small, secluded world. Climbing further up the rocky pathway the monks shrank away and the glittering sea stretched wide. The sun overhead pulled the sweat from our brows as the sounds of the Holy Mountain swelled. We came upon a small hermitage, unused and available for three travelers. We boiled a can of greek coffee on a small and rusty gas burner as we sat in silence to observe. With the holy mountain at our backs and the endless Aegean waters lying below, we sipped and received this moment as a gift. We could not offer a lifetime of ascetic sacrifice. We could only offer ourselves, humbly and willingly, in that moment.
The Holy mountain folded us into her silence and solitude.