Dear Friends in Christ,
Something that struck me while on Mount Athos in Greece from September 3 to October 11, 1979, was that the monks we met were there simply for monastic life and nothing else. That may seem like an obvious enough observation, but the focus on prayer and hospitality seemed so essential to these men, that there was no other reason to be on the Holy Mountain (Agion Oros in Greek), often called the “Garden of the Theotokos” (the Mother of God). The call of God and the response of the monks seemed to me to be producing something beautiful for God. I am confident that what I observed forty years ago continues into the twenty-first century.
It was also impressive to see the quantity of young monks in the monasteries and sketes (small monastic settlements) that Brother Xavier and I visited. This dramatic increase in young vocations to Mount Athos began in force in the early 1970s, after a general decline for many decades. As previously mentioned in this Notebook, there was speculation by the 1960s regarding the likelihood of the continuation of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with so few new arrivals in those days, but today that is far from the minds of those who know about or who live on Mount Athos in this first quarter of the 21st century.
In conversation with monks on Athos forty years ago, books they encouraged us to read, and all of them available in good English translations then and now, included, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” of Saint John Climacus, the writings of Saint Simeon, called “the New Theologian,” as well as the “Philokalia,” translated as “love of the beautiful, the good,” the famous collection of texts written between the 4th and the 15th centuries by important spiritual masters, many of them monks, of the Eastern Christian tradition.
I wish to say more about the Athonite hermit monk Stephanos whom Brother Xavier and I visited on September 5th and 6th, 1979. He is also discussed in the previous Notebook. The mostly wooden hermitage of Father Stephanos was built in front of a large natural cave. He could open a door on the ground floor center of his hermitage, which led right to the stone cave. Included in the cave was a small natural lake and a pure running stream, from which the hermit got his water supply. In another part of the naturally “climate controlled” cave, Stephanos stored vegetables and a one-man rubber raft, floating in the little lake, which he would take down the hill to the Aegean Sea for occasional fishing expeditions. Father Stephanos stored other odds and ends in the cave as well.
Inside the part of his hermitage for living, Stephanos had a shrine to the Theotokos (the Blessed Virgin Mary). He also had a separate tiny chapel for his daily prayers. It was about five feet by five feet. Rather cluttered and disorganized, nonetheless, it was clearly a place of prayer, commanding a central place in his house. Up a few stairs, Stephanos had three tiny rooms for guests, which was amazing to us, considering his remote location. Undoubtedly, though, other monks or pilgrims like our selves made their appearance now and then or maybe regularly. In each guest room there was a wooden bed and that was about all. Father Stephanos slept outside the night we were there, telling us it was too warm to be inside, which was true.
Tired as we were, we gladly took the indoor lodging offered us. The next morning the hermit Stephanos told us that he had slept about one hour. This was not because he could not sleep outside, but because he claimed he never slept more than an hour per night! True or not, we believed him. From what I recall, waking up throughout the night, Stephanos wandered around his hermitage singing and flashing his friction-powered flashlight on his melons, peaches and flowers. I actually slept pretty well that night, but would occasionally be awakened by the hermit’s singing and “crunching” his flashlight. In the morning he showed us the burned-out bulb of the flashlight and laughed out loud.
With all due respect, Father Stephanos looked like a wild man, with long blond hair and a scraggly beard. He explained to us, though, that he had degrees in theology and economics. He seemed to have totally transcended his background, and was a one-time professor in Yugoslavia, his home country.
Unlike other Athonite monks we had met, Stephanos did not wear a black cap on his head. The soft cap is normally standard wear for monks of Mount Athos. Stephanos seemed to be a “free agent,” and didn’t stand on formality. On the morning we left his hermitage, he walked down to the peer with us, where Brother Xavier and caught an early boat for our next port of call. While at the peer, Father Stephanos threw off his faded and tattered black tunic and jumped into the sea, still wearing a tee-shirt and cut-offs, with a fishing net in hand. The catch, which did not actually materialize, would have gone to his cats, he told us.
A beautiful custom that occurs on Mount Athos is the way the monks greet one another. It is very simple, but profound. Whenever monks meet, and it is not during the Great Silence, they do not resort to a “howdy” (in its Greek version), a high-five or even, “good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening,” “good night.” You will hear those latter greetings on occasion, but more often this is what takes place: when a junior monk (by age or by date of his profession of vows) meets a senior monk (by age or by date of profession), the junior monk will invariably say, “give the blessing” (in Greek, “evlogite”) to the senior monk, who always gave the reply, “Kyrios,” meaning, “it is the Lord who gives the blessing.” I find this spiritual salutation a wonderful reminder of the focus of the state of life embraced by monks of the Holy Mountain.
Nearly all the monasteries and sketes that Brother Xavier and I visited in 1979 seemed to have mules for transporting wood, baskets of grapes, as well as other goods and supplies, and the monks themselves (usually riding side-saddle), to and from the ports on the peninsula, and from one monastic site to another. For those who may not know, a mule is a cross between a male donkey, called a jack, and a mare, that is, a female horse. Mules are hardy, and yes, often stubborn, but with proper training, are reliable companions and hard workers. Because the paths on Mount Athos can be steep, rocky, muddy and winding, a mule is ideal for handling such terrain, better than donkeys or horses in fact. On Mount Athos, mules are often several in number when working, and generally not tied together in a line, but simply “follow the leader,” and appear to know well the paths they are treading. Single file is also the most practical mode for the narrow paths and the oncoming foot traffic. We saw some small horses on the Athonite peninsula, but they were few and far between compared to the mules.
To be continued
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB