Dear Friends in Christ,
The last “Abbot’s Notebook” entry found Brother Xavier McGough and myself in London, England, en route to Mount Athos in Greece. This was taking place at the end of July and the beginning of August,1977, when I was 26 years old. Besides staying at the Cowley Fathers near Westminster Abbey, described in the previous Notebook, Brother Xavier and I made short stays with the Benedictine monks of Ealing Abbey and with the Olivetan Congregation monks and nuns at their respective monasteries in and around greater London. This was my first oversees trip, so I was soaking it all in with enthusiasm.
After those fraternal visits, on August 6th we two pilgrims took a bus from London to Brussels, Belgium, and then on to the Benedictine monastery of Chevtogne near Namur, where we stayed for two weeks, praying and working with the monks. One of the Chevtogne monks, Father Theodore Strattman, had been a guest at Christ in the Desert a year or so earlier, when he was giving lectures to some religious communities in the United States. Father Theodore was then Guestmaster at Chevtogne when we visited and was very welcoming to Brother Xavier and me.
After our stay with the monks of Chevtogne abbey, on Saturday, August 17th, Brother Xavier and I set out by train for Paris, staying with the Benedictine monks of the Solesmes Congregation, a couple of blocks from the “Jasmine” subway stop. We were also able to attend Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral on Sunday, August 19th. As I recently watched the news of the cathedral fire, memories of my visit there vividly came to mind.
On Tuesday, August 21st, 1977, the intrepid pilgrims left Paris by bus for the long journey to Thessalonica (called “Soloniki” in modern Greek), where we would obtain the needed documents to enter and stay on the monastic Republic of Mount Athos, a semi-autonomous entity of the country of Greece. On the way to Greece, we would be passing through Switzerland, Italy and what was then known as Yugoslavia.
Unfortunately, an hour out of Paris our bus for Thessalonica had a flat tire and as the spare was discovered to be unusable, we were delayed some five hours while a spare tire was brought to our bus. It was a dreadful experience, to say the least. We fifty-five passengers had to leave the bus, lounge on the edge of the highway, and generally be miserable in the blistering August sun. We finally got rolling again at about 4:30 pm. Trying to make up time, the two rotating bus drivers would only stop every six or seven hours, intending to put us in Thessalonica on Thursday, August 23rd, around midday. As there was no bathroom on the bus, this fact only added to the tension during the unpleasant journey.
Once in Thessalonica and very thankful to be off the bus, Brother Xavier and I booked two rooms in a hotel near the center of town, adequate and inexpensive, but with noise from the traffic outside. Next day we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thessalonica to apply for entrance permits to visit Mount Athos. We had to make a visit to the police headquarters in town as well.
Because of the strictly regulated and limited number of men who can arrive on the Athonite peninsula each day, today being 120 Orthodox per day and 10 non-Orthodox, we learned that the earliest we would be permitted to go to the Holy Mountain would be September 3rd, more than a week away. We arranged to stay on at the hotel during those days of waiting and were able to visit churches in Thessalonica and take some day tours to sites outside of town, including Neopolis (now called Kavala) and the ruins of Philippi not far away, both places made famous by the contacts of Saint Paul the Apostle. We also saw a place where Saint Paul was imprisoned. In Thessalonica were able to attend daily Mass at the only Roman Catholic church in town, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. All the other churches were Greek Orthodox.
The final visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and police was on Saturday, September 1st. After about three and a half hours, we had in hand the needed permits, and would leave Thessalonica by bus on Monday, September 3rd. The bus for reaching Ouranoupolis, the small village where we would then take a boat to Mount Athos itself, left Thessalonica at 6:00 am and arrived in Ouranoupolis at 9:30 am. The small beach town is the “jump off point” for the only access for pilgrims to reach Mount Athos, and only by boat.
Several private companies run the boats, though I can see by recent photos, that the boats are much larger than forty years ago. Then and now the boats are busy every day transporting monks and pilgrims as well as supplies for the monasteries and even cars, trucks and tractors to Mount Athos. Though a peninsula and not an island, water transportation is crucial for arriving on the Holy Mountain. Some days the seas are too rough, so transporting is delayed or cancelled until the Aegean Sea grows relatively calm once again.
Two hours after arriving in Ouranouplis, the boat left for the approximately two-hour ride to Daphni, a small “monastic town” on the seashore, where all pilgrims must disembark, then scramble to take the (at that time) rickety school bus to Kayres, the capitol of the monastic Republic of Athos. Those who don’t get on the bus must wait until it returns from Karyres in an hour or more. We were fortunate to get on the “first bus” and proceeded to visit the police at Karyres where our four-day permit (issued in Thessalonica) to be on Mount Athos was extended to eight days. The policeman who did us that favor explained that he had family in Houston, Texas, and was sympathetic to Americans.
I suppose by now you have gathered that the admittance to Mount Athos is not a simple matter. I believe the process has been streamlined somewhat, forty years later, but still not as easy as going to most other places in the world. And in the case of Mount Athos, only men are permitted to visit there. I’m not sure I would now have the stamina to go through the ordeal of visiting Mount Athos again. Memories are wonderful and sufficient at this point!
With official permissions finally acquired, Brother Xavier and I began a long trek on foot from Karyes to visit some of the twenty monasteries and some of the smaller monastic settlements on Mount Athos. The peninsula of Athos is approximately thirty miles long and seven wide. A beautiful “Garden of the Blessed Virgin,” as the monks and Orthodox Christians around the world call it, is a spectacular landscape of tree-covered forests, a snow-capped mountain peak and the Aegean Sea surrounding it on three sides. One can get lost there, so you have to be careful about timing walks, trying to reach a monastery by nightfall, though I presume today a GPS makes navigating around on the Holy Mountain much easier.
The three and a half hour hike that first day took us to the monastery of Philotheu, where we spent the night in their Guesthouse. Next day we visited a monk who was an icon painter, who lived alone near his monastery of Philotheu, but in a hermitage. He was very hospitable to us and showed us his fine icon work. He struck me as humble and modest and a man of God. From his hermitage Brother Xavier and I proceeded to the monastery of Simonopetra (Simon Peter), about a four-hour hike. On Mount Athos the custom is to visit as many monasteries as possible, venerate the icons and relics that are housed there, and not stay too many days in any one place. The concept of “being on pilgrimage” is very much promoted there, so by foot and boat one is almost expected to cover a lot of territory in a relatively short time. As such, a stay on the Holy Mountain is not some much about going to a particular monastery and spending several days on retreat, as we might do in the west.
After the night at Simonopetra, we walked to the skete (a small monastery) of Saint Daniel, whose brotherhood of five monks are all skilled icon writers. I should say here that icon painters (as we might typically call them) are not traditionally called “painters,” but “writers,” of icons. It is considered a sacred work, comparable to writing sacred melodies to the glory of God. Icon writers do likewise with wood, egg tempera in their depictions of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as the angels and saints, whom the faithful venerate in public places like churches, or in private oratories and homes. The most ancient extent icons, sacred images, are to be found in the catacombs of Rome. While living there from 1985-88 and again from 2017-2018, I tried to regularly visit the catacombs to admire these often simple but profound depictions of scenes from the Old and New Testaments. A visit to Rome should always include seeing the catacombs.
This pilgrimage to Mount Athos report will continue as I find time to record my memories of forty years ago. Sometimes that is easier said than done (finding the time, that is!). Recalling the memories is easy.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB