Brother Xavier McGough and I spent most of our Mount Athos Pilgrimage of 1979 at the monastery of Simonos-Petra, a thriving community at that time, numbering about fifty monks, most of them young. I understand that today, forty years later, there are even more monks. And I am not surprised. Recently the retired abbot of Simonos-Petra, Archimandrite (or Abbot) Aemilianos, reposed in the Lord. That is the usual Orthodox and Eastern Catholic phrase when someone has died, whether monk or not, “to repose in the Lord.” A beautiful sentiment.
Abbot Aemilianos of Simonos-Petra was an inspiring Athonite monk, well-known for his leadership, teaching and writings. He arrived on Mount Athos in the early 1970s, already a monk and abbot, with a group of his young monks from a monastery at Meteora (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteora) in central Greece. The move to Mount Athos from Meteora was precipitated by the influx of tourists, far surpassing actual pilgrims, to the famous monasteries of the “flying rocks” in the Plain of Thessaly, which lies between Mount Othrys and Mount Olympus in Greece. Our word “meteor,” of course, derives from the Greek word for “rocks that fly.”
Six monasteries are still functioning today at Meteora, but at one time there were twenty-four monasteries. They formed a very important center of monastic life in the Orthodox world over many centuries, second only to Mount Athos in terms of numbers and influence. All of the monasteries of Meteora were (and still are) perched on enormous rock pillars rising from the valley, and access to the monasteries in centuries past was only by large baskets made of rope, that would carry humans, animals, supplies, you name it, up and down the rock pillars, using a pulley system of ropes that monks would man in order to bring huge baskets up or down. When asked how often the ropes would be changed, the monks would wryly reply, “only when a rope breaks.” Think about it!
Most of the monasteries at Meteroa gradually died out and one of the few remaining ones, dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Lord, was inhabited by Father Aemilianos and his monks who had started out there in the 1960s. Aemilianos had been a leader of the lay-led Orthodox youth movement called “Zoe,” the Greek work for “life,” and a number of the young people ended up becoming monks and nuns, including Aemilianos.
The monks’ decision to move to Mount Athos was mainly due to the diminishment of silence and solitude at Meteroa, mostly through tourism, but also because monasteries such as Simonos-Petra on Mount Athos were experiencing serious decline, so the few remaining elderly monks were more than happy to welcome a band of younger monks. Today the Meteroa monasteries are mostly open to tourists and not too many monks or nuns live there, some fifty in number.
The 1970s move to Athos by Abbot Aemilianos and his monks was the beginning of a resurgence of life at Simonos-Petra, which has continued unabated to the present. The current leader of Simons-Petra, Abbot Eliseus, was a young monk forty years ago, in his 30s, very friendly and helpful to me and Brother Xavier during our weeks in his monastery. A faithful disciple of his spiritual father, the late Archimandrite Aemilianos, Eliseus carries on the noble tradition of his monastery with ease and humor, but serious Orthodox spirituality as well.
Since Brother Xavier and I were at Simonos-Petra monastery just six years after the arrival of Abbot Aemilianos and his monks, there was still a real sense of “newness,” marked by good zeal, exuberant chanting of the Divine Office and Holy Liturgy, and a general ambiance of genuine love and hospitality shown to us who came there as guests.
One monk in particular struck us as very warm and welcoming, whose name was Father Athanasios (Athanasius), a bit older that myself, then 26, so I would guess Athanasios would have been about thirty years old in 1979. Father Athanasios had a close relative of his who was also a monk and priest of Simonos-Petra, in fact his own father, whose name was Father Galaction. But that is not all. Athanasios’ mother was a professed nun of the Orthodox women’s monastery of Ormillia, near Thessalonica (Soloniki). Furthermore, her daughter (Father Athanasios’ blood sister), named Mother Nicodeme, was at that time the young abbess of the thriving monastery of nuns at Ormellia. An incredible story that might seem more out of the Middle Ages than the later twentieth century. My notes of the 1979 pilgrimage record that Fathers Galaction and Athanasios (remember, father and son), had been “the most smiling of all the monks” we met at Simonos-Petra.
Initially I had not known that the two monks, Galaction and Athanasios, were related, but it all made sense once I knew, calling to mind the saying: “the apple falls not far from the tree.” At the time, both father and son had reddish beards (the hair of one’s head normally covered by the black monastic headgear of Orthodox monks), so the beard similarity might have tipped me off to their being related, but that was not immediately apparent to me.
To be continued.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB