Dear Friends in Christ,
This year marks the fortieth “anniversary” of the transformative pilgrimage I made with the late Brother Xavier McGough of our monastery, to the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos in Greece. I promised the monks we met and befriended there in 1979 that I would not publish the journal I kept, and I have kept the promise. The holy monks there were and are entitled to their privacy and I completely respect that. Now, many of the monks and even my traveling companion have completed this life’s journey and returned their Father’s House in heaven, and as I quickly approach my seventh decade of life, I wish to share some of the tales of my stay and the people I met on Agion Oros, Greek for “the Holy Mountain” of Mount Athos, in the fall of 1979, when I was 26 years old, and having been at Christ in the Desert for two and a half years.
Celebrities and other luminaries are often asked when interviewed, “what is your current bedside book?” Neither a celebrity nor luminary, so never asked, I can tell you that my present beside book is “Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II,” by Veronica della Dora (University of West Virginia Press, 2011), a serious volume of marvelous insights into the way that Mount Athos in Greece has played a significant, if small, part in world history.
The author of “Imagining Mount Athos,” as a woman is strictly prohibited by Greek law from setting foot on the peninsula that comprises the boundaries of Mount Athos. Nonetheless, della Dora had her life transformed by contact with the Holy Mountain, its history and the inhabitants thereof. Her book is a read only for the seriously devout student of Mount Athos, of whom I somewhat consider myself one. Therefore, I recommend the book highly with those parameters in mind.
Reading “Imagining Mount Athos,” of course, has conjured up my hands-on experience of four decades ago at the epicenter and stronghold of Greek Orthodox monasticism. The memories have fanned my decision to share some of the account from the later part of the twentieth century. By the time I visited in 1979, the renaissance on Mount Athos was already well under way. Many monasteries were being repopulated in those very years, just after a period, in the 1950 and 60s especially, when many wondered whether the Holy Mountain would continue to be populated by monks by the end of the twentieth century.
God had the last word (once again) and nothing could be farther from the prediction of extinction, as the many monasteries, sketes (small monastic groups) and hermitages on Mount Athos continue to thrive and welcome young, well-educated men to their ranks. The future of Agion Oros seems secure as a centuries-old place of monastic prayer, spirituality, publishing, scholarship, hospitality, craftsmanship, especially carving and Byzantine iconography, and so much more.
There even exists today an international organization, called “The Friends of Mount Athos,” who among its members is the Prince of Wales, Charles, and who maintain a keen and active interest in the life of the monks and monasteries of the Holy Mountain, with regular gatherings for presentations of papers, as well as assistance to the monasteries and the maintenance of the infrastructure of Mount Athos, especially by clearing the many walking paths that cover the peninsula. Prince Charles is especially keen on this work.
Last year I attended one of the meetings of “The Friends of Mount Athos” in Rome. It was a very worthwhile day-long conference which I enjoyed, except for being sick from (yet another) bad meal prepared by the terrible cook we had at the time at the Subiaco Cassinese curia where I lived. Not all Italians are fine chefs! We had what must have been one of their worst, but that is another story and probably not for the “Abbot’s Notebook” in any case!
Back to Mount Athos in any case. The pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain began on August 26th, 1977 when our Brother Xavier, then in his forties, and I, began by flying to London, England. They say a journey begins with a single step, and that was certainly the case for the two of us, not at all sure what the time and travel would bring, but “alls well that ends well,” as Shakespeare said, and we did make it there and back in once piece.
There will be various entries on the “Abbot’s Notebook” for the 1977 Mount Athos pilgrimage, this being an introduction and Part One. I will not go into a lot of facts and history of the Holy Mountain, in the hope that you might explore that on your own, and will focus on what transpired for the two Benedictine monks on a very serious journey, to know better the ancient traditions of Mount Athos and something for me of a personal study of iconography, something that I was pursuing at the time.
Why did we start in London? I had never been overseas, so it seemed like a logical point of entry. Brother Xavier had friends at the Benedictine Abbey of Worth in Sussex, some of whom had worked at their foundation in Peru at some point. Brother Xavier had also been assigned for a time, before he came to Christ in the Desert, to a small foundation in Peru of the Archabbey of Saint Meinrad in Indiana. That monastery kind of came to a crashing halt, literally, when a huge earthquake struck on May 31, 1970.
Sadly, the Prior at that time of Brother Xavier’s monastery died in the earthquake, as well as students at the seminary the monks were running and some of the religious Sisters who worked there. The tragedy was extensive, considered “the most catastrophic natural disaster in the history of Peru” (source for quote: Wikipedia), and most likely still haunts the minds of those still alive who went through it so many years ago. Other earthquakes have occurred in Peru since as well, but none as strong as the 1970 one.
We two monks on pilgrimage had our first lodging after landing in England with the Anglican Order of Saint John the Evangelist, also called the “Cowley Fathers,” at Saint Edward’s House, existing since 1905, near Westminster Abbey, a former Benedictine abbey, now and the great Anglican cathedral. The Cowley’s are a monastic Order, founded at Oxford in 1866, to provide the possibility of monastic life for men of the Church of England, the first of its kind to be established since the Protestant Reformation.
Sadly, the Cowley group died out in England in 2012, when their Westminster building was sold. C.S. Lewis was a regular visitor to their house in Oxford, which closed in 1980. The Cowley Fathers in England had a reputation of being erudite and excellent spiritual directors and retreat givers in the Anglican Church.
The Cowley’s have had a monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, near Harvard Square, since 1870, and today it is the headquarters of the Order. In fact, one of the Massachusetts monks had been a guest at Christ in the Desert, probably around 1976, just a year before Brother Xavier and I left for our pilgrimage. That same Cowley monk had put us in touch with their monks near Westminster Abbey. They were good hosts and I loved the fact that all the hours of the Divine Office began with the striking of Big Ben, very close by whose bells were music to my ears. Maybe the monks there got tired of the all-day long chiming of the most famous bells in Christendom.
Brother Xavier and I spent three days with the Cowley’s and enjoyed some sightseeing on our own in London town. While touring around, I believe it was at Westminster Abbey, a Catholic Sister recognized our distinctive habits (blue work shirts with hoods) and asked if we were from Christ in the Desert, something we never expected to be asked in Europe! This Sister had made a retreat at our monastery a few years before. Will wonders never cease, we thought at the time.
Please stay tuned for future installments of the 1979 Benedictine pilgrims to Mount Athos!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB