Dear Friends in Christ,
Just two days into our Mount Athos pilgrimage, on September 5, 1979, Brother Xavier and I visited the Skete of Saint Daniel (“Danieleon” in Greek), a skete being a small establishment of monks. The Saint Daniel group of five monks were all icon painters, usually called icon “writers.” When we arrived, Brother Xavier and I were offered a tour of the skete, then given a meal consisting of soup, bread, olives and tomatoes. At the encouragement of the monks there, Brother Xavier and I then walked to a cluster of hermitages, called Katounakia. We had been told to ask for the hermit monk Stephanos, which we did and found him most welcoming and we were offered an invitation to pass the night at his hermitage. Father prepared us a delicious meal of spaghetti, tomatoes and bread. The hermitage of Father Stephanos, perched on a hillside overlooking the Aegean Sea, was surrounded by gardens of vegetables and fruit, which the hermit cultivated. He encouraged us to pick whatever we wished, as everything was in full bloom.
A happy, gregarious and generous man, Father Stephanos was around sixty years old at the time of our visit in 1979. While Father Stephanos was preparing supper for us, we went down to hill to see another hermit, a neighbor and friend of Father Stephanos, named Father Seraphim, an older man than Stephanos, who spoke more English than our host, Father Stephanos. Like our host, Father Seraphim exuded kindness and love to his two American visitors. After a short visit with Father Seraphim, we returned to the hermitage of Father Stephanos for supper and then to sleep.
Many years after the pilgrimage to Mount Athos, I learned that Father Stephanos has died, and not long after that, I saw a photograph in a book on Mount Athos, showing the hillside where Father Stephanos had lived. The roof had collapsed and the hermitage was no more than a ruin. It made me sad, of course, but dear Father Stephanos was and is presumably enjoying the rewards of a good and holy life. “Memory eternal,” as the monks of Athos would say of the faithful departed.
Our plan for the next day was to go to Kafsokalivia, another monastic settlement at the very southern tip of the Athonite peninusla. We had been told at the monastery of Simonopetra to try to meet Father Antonius at Kafsokalivia, as a particularly impressive monk. Monks dwelling at Kafsokalivia were then and still are known for their particular zeal for the ascetical life, since there are few modern conveniences or easy contact with the rest of the Holy Mountain. Of course, ascetical is not to be equated with dour or destitute. The monks we met were truly joyful and hospitable.
Passing the night at Father Stephanos’ hermitage, early the next morning, on September 6th, we took an early boat, at about 5:30 am, for the Kafsokalivia settlement of hermitages, where we found Father Antonius busily making wine with grapes from his hermitage vineyard. He suggested we go and see a neighbor of his, the hermit monk Ananias whom we discovered was likewise occupied with his grape harvest and wine making. After about an hour, Father Ananias was free and offered us a meal of fish, bread and tomatoes. We had certainly come to Mount Athos at the right time that year for fresh vegetables and fruit.
The afternoon of September 6th we took a boat at the port of Kafsokalivia and disembarked just under an hour later at the extensive monastic settlement called “Saint Anne,” on the western side of Mount Athos. The ride was certainly rough, as the sea was pretty choppy and the boat not very large. The fare was the equivalent of about $1.25 each, so who could legitimately complain? The walk from the port to the Skete of Saint Anne took about forty-five minutes, up a fairly steep hill. There were several guests already there and we felt welcome. Needless to say, the monasteries and sketes in those days did not know precisely when and how many pilgrims might arrive on a given day. Perhaps things are very different today, with the advent of cell phones and other devises for communicating.
The evening at Saint Anne included a meal at about 8:00 pm. By then there were about twenty-five guests, being served cooked vegetables, bread and water. We guests dined in a small refectory separate from the monks, and a young monk was there to cook and serve us. He struck me as a hard worker and probably much appreciated by his brothers. He also spoke English fairly well. We had seen him earlier in the day mixing plaster for repairs on their church. It seemed no grass grew under his feet!
Spending the night at the Skete of Saint Anne, Brother Xavier and I planned to take a 7:30 am boat the next morning to visit other Athonite monasteries. During the night before our departure, though, there was a severe lightening storm and rain. We didn’t sleep well and woke at 6:30, concluding that it was too muddy to make it to the port for the boat, so we went back to sleep! We re-awoke at 7:00, quickly dressed and decided to attempt the walk to the port since the rain had stopped, and in fact ran to the port, made it in twenty-five minutes and jumped onto the small boat just as it was about to leave.
I should mention that the boats, at least in the late 1970s, if I understood correctly, were privately owned and operated by licensed skippers, who made their living by transporting monks and pilgrims to the various monasteries and sketes that are on the peninsula of Mount Athos. I think by now they have larger and probably “safer” vessels than forty years ago. At least I hope so. Some of the rides we took made me ponder if we would reach the shore safely. The boats did go far into the Aegean Sea, keeping pretty close to shore, but some days we traveled the sea was really rough and threw the small vessels hither and yon.
Something I noticed in many of the monastic churches we visited on Mount Athos were the enormous eggs suspended on chains, hanging from chandeliers and the eggs about seven feet above the floor. We were told that the symbolism of the ostrich eggs in churches was this: legend has it that the ostrich, both males and females, sit on the eggs until they hatch and watch the eggs very attentively for the emergence of the chick. The monk is to be likewise attentive, fixing his gaze on the Lord, trusting in God’s mercy. Some of the eggs, we were told, were hundreds of years old.
The larger monasteries on Mount Athos, some of them holding fifty or more monks at that time, and presumably many more today, are truly built as fortresses. It is easy to lock one or two enormous doors and the buildings are then impenetrable. In centuries past, it was very important to protect the monasteries against invading pirates and vandals who roamed the area. We pilgrims had been told that some of the monasteries still close their gates around 7:30 pm or so, so we made extra effort to reach the monasteries well before the gate closed.
To be continued.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB