This pilgrimage report needs to end! The Athos sojourn itself was completed right around this time of year, forty years ago, so it is high time to complete my recounting of the adventure. Thank you for your patience for the final installment of the pilgrimage.
A very common feature in the hands of the monks of Mount Athos is what is often called a prayer rope, used for repeating the Jesus Prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”. Orthodox Christians in general and monks and nuns in particular use the prayer rope for a point of focus for repeated recitation of the Jesus Prayer, though usually not prayed in common, but in private, in one’s prayer corner or monastic cell (bedroom). Nonetheless, praying of the Jesus Prayer is a vital part of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics. Many from outside these traditions too, even of various faith communities, pray the Jesus Prayer as well.
Here is what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about the Jesus Prayer: “The custom of reciting prayers upon a string with knots or beads thereon at regular intervals has come down from the early days of Christianity. . . It seems to have originated among the early monks and hermits, who used a piece of heavy cord with knots tied at intervals, upon which they recited their shorter prayers” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vo. XIII, p. 185).
Greek Orthodox call the prayer rope a “komvoskini,” which literally means “a knotted cord.” In fact, the ropes are usually crafted from black wool, composed of intricate knots and made by the monks themselves on Mount Athos. Prayer ropes often consist of fifty knots, one hundred knots and sometimes more. Brother Xavier and I were able to purchase and bring home some Athos-made black-woolen prayer ropes as gifts to our brothers and others. At the time, Brother Xavier was learning the process of making prayer ropes, and received some assistance in this work during our Mount Athos sojourn. He continued making prayer ropes of various lengths, until his death on November 15, 2011. Requiescat in pace.
While at Simonos-Petra monastery, Brother Xavier and I helped in work projects, including washing dishes most days, either in the monks’ or the guesthouse kitchens, as well as sometimes assisting with laundry, especially washing and folding Guesthouse linens, as well as moving chopped wood from the entrance of the monastery to a storage place closer to where it would be used for winter fires. We were happy to lend a hand in the various projects, and like monasteries everywhere, work is an essential part of the daily routine. I see in my journal from our time on Mount Athos, “We are both happy to work.” I must say I continue to find work an enjoyable endeavor, though not so much office work, but cleaning rooms, making goats’ milk soap, tending our sheep and donkeys. Ora et labora, prayer and work, is the unofficial Benedictine motto. I am at home doing both.
One of the highlights on Mount Athos for me personally, and toward the end of our time there, was a lengthy visit with the eminent Orthodox monk, author and theologian, the English Father Kallistos Ware, on pilgrimage to Mount Athos as was Brother Xavier and I. Though on our first visit to the Holy Mountain, Father Kallistos told us he had been to Athos nearly a dozen times! We spoke with him about his books, especially his translation of the multi-volumed “Philokalia,” as well as monastic life in general, mutual friends, and the life of prayer. Father Kallistos later became a bishop in the Orthodox Church and today is eight-five years old, residing in England, though technically a monk of the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian on the Island of Patmos, Greece.
On October 11, 1979, Brother Xavier and I left the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos, immensely enriched, but anxious to be back home. We left the peninsula of Mount Athos on boat, then by bus to Thessalonica, then to the west coast of Greece, where we took a thirteen hour overnight ferry boat to Bari, Italy. From Bari we went to Rome by train. We spent some weeks visiting Benedictine monasteries in Italy, Switzerland, France and England, then boarded a plane in London for the United States on November 21st, 1977.
The Athos pilgrimage was a real blessing, unforgettable and not likely to ever be repeated in this life! As the French proverb puts it: “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” That sums up well what transpired in my life forty years ago, for which I am ever-grateful and which continues to be carried in my heart to this day. “Glory be to God for all things,” as Church Father Saint John Chrysostom so wisely taught. That is my prayer as well!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB