On Mount Athos the Julian Calendar is followed, rather than the Gregorian Calendar, which most of the world uses. What does the difference in calendars mean in practice? First a little history. The familiar Gregorian calendar was promulgated in October of 1582, by the pope at that time, Gregory XIII, making the normal year lasting 365 days, fairly closely approximating the earth’s revolution around the sun. Every four years, though, an extra day had and has to be added to the calendar, what we call a “Leap Year,” creating February 29th. This was and is a sort of corrective measure, since the earth’s orbit around the sun is not precisely 365 days. This is a bare-bones explanation of the Gregorian calendar, now in use in the Western world (as it’s known, but what is east and west in a world that is round?), over these past five hundred thirty-seven years.
The 1582 calendar of Pope Gregory XIII supplanted the earlier Julian calendar, which the emperor Julius Caesar had established around the year 45 B.C., a reform of an earlier Roman calendar. The Julian calendar remains in use to this day in a few places in the world, among them the semi-autonomous Monastic Republic of Mount Athos in Grecce, but also in many other Orthodox Churches of the Christian East as well.
What this means in practice is that Mount Athos is 13 days “behind” the calendar that we use. This is not a “big deal,” as we say today, but one has to keep in mind on Mount Athos that when they say, for example, “August 21st,” the day that Brother Xavier McGough and I stepped foot on Mount Athos in 1979, was actually September 3rd according to the Gregorian calendar, which, as already noted most of the world uses today.
Many today, especially Americans, I’m guessing, are at least mildly miffed by the fact that only men are permitted to visit the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos and its many monasteries and hermitages. The reason for the prohibition is an ancient tradition, stating that in the year 49 AD, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist were on a sea voyage from the Holy Land to visit Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and who was eventually appointed Bishop of the island of Cyprus. When the ship carrying the Virgin Mary and Saint John was blown off course, the ship’s captain mistook the southern tip of Mount Athos for the Island of Cyprus. The holy passengers disembarked on Athos, and at the sight of the Panagia (the Greek name for the Blessed Virgin Mary, meaning “The All-Holy), huge pagan idols fell from their pedestals and were shattered to pieces.
With the visit of the Panagia and Saint John, the residents of Athos, realizing that their pagan gods were powerless, converted to the Christian faith and begged Mary and John to remain on the peninsula and protect them from marauding pirates. Holy Mary and Saint John explained that they had to continue their journey to Cyprus and the visit with Lazarus. Nonetheless, much taken by the beauty of the peninsula of Athos, with its many and beautiful wild flowers, forests and shoreline, the Blessed Mother asked that the place be kept in her honor, and today is often known as “The Garden of the Mother of God.” No other women since that time have been allowed to land on the peninsula of Mount Athos. The custom is rigidly upheld to this day.
On mainland Greece there are many Orthodox monasteries of nuns of the Athonite tradition and well worth visiting, where both women and men are received as guests, most notably the Monastery of the Annunciation in the village of Ormylia, with well over a hundred nuns from all over the world. I understand the waiting list for Guesthouse accommodations is six months or more!
The highest point of the peninsula of Mount Athos is the dramatic mountain top, soaring some 6,000 feet above sea level. It is an impressive rock formation, visible from many of the paths, roads, balconies and boats on and around the Holy Mountain. Mount Athos peak is often bald in the summer, but otherwise snow-covered much of the year. Most of the Athonite monasteries and hermitages are at sea level, quite literally at the seashore, or just a little above sea level. The peak of Mount Athos itself stands in stark contrast and soars up to the heavens like a mighty wave.
Monks and pilgrims often climb to the top, especially on the Feast of the Transfiguration each year on August 6th, recounting Christ on Mount Tabor, and special prayers and liturgy are prayed in the little chapel on the mountaintop. There is a very large metal cross atop the mountain also, occasionally having to be replaced after a lightning strike. I confess that neither Brother Xavier nor I made the climb to the top of Mount Athos when on pilgrimage to the peninsula in 1979, but we certainly enjoyed wonderful views of the mountain from far below.
I understand that today there are more roads on Mount Athos, though still unpaved, but easily passable with vehicles, that link the larger monasteries of the Holy Mountain. In 1979, this was much less the case. It was possible in the 1970s to drive from Daphni, the tiny port of entry for Athos, to the monastery of Simonos-Petra, where Brother Xavier and I spent most of our time while on Mount Athos. The very bumpy and hilly track occasionally was used by Simonos-Petra monks, who had a Land Rover, to reach Daphni.
During Brother Xavier’s and my hike to Simonos-Petra, after spending the night at a monastery along the way, we hitched a ride for a mile or two with a logging-truck driver, a Greek lay worker, who was bringing a load of huge logs from the forest land above Simonos-Petra. The driver was on his way to Daphni, where the logs would be loaded onto a boat. Harvesting of timber was and presumably still is a source of income for the monks of Simonos-Petra and other monasteries that have forest land.
Nearly all the monasteries we pilgrims visited on the Holy Mountain of Athos have mules for transporting wood, produce, such as grapes and olives, as well as crafts for sale, from one monastery to another or to the port of Daphni for transport to other parts of Greece or other countries. The mules we saw along the trails were not tied together, but simply following the leader, normally a monk astride a mule, “side-saddle” as it is often called, since the monks are always clad in their monastic tunic and riding side-saddle is more convenient. The narrow, rocky and uneven paths seemed to present no obstacle to the mules, who were sure-footed and confident along the way. As a reminder, a mule is a cross between a male donkey (jack) and a mare (a female horse). Why the preponderance of mules on Mount Athos? I presume because mules are easier to keep than a horse, and mules have smaller hooves than horses, so are better at traversing rough terrain. Mount Athos is a land of rough terrain!
A quote to conclude, from Saint Symeon the New Theologian, a Byzantine Christian monk and poet, who lived from 949 to 1022 AD:
“God is Light, and those whom God makes worthy to see Him, see Him as Light; those who receive God, Receive Him as Light.”
To be continued
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB