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Journey To Mount Athos
Written by Fr. Michael Shanbour
“The Balance Beam of Righteousness”
Reflections of a Journey to the Holy Mountain of Athos
The Journey Begins
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for one born in the heartland of America, never having traversed across an ocean or set foot on another continent. Yet upon the invitation of an Orthodox friend originally from Thessaloniki, with the blessing of our Metropolitan PHILIP, and by God’s inscrutable grace and providence, the journey began from the heartland of the new world to the “spiritual heart” of the whole world and the heart-beat of Orthodox Christianity -- the Holy Mountain of Athos.
This most beautiful of three peninsulas jutting out from the region of Chalkidiki in southeastern Greece is renown for both the breathtaking beauty of its flowering desert landscape and endless blue sea, and as a heavenly “garden” which has produced some of the most fragrant flowers of Orthodox spirituality throughout the centuries. Saints Athanasios and Peter of Athos, St. Gregory Palamas, and innumerable others, known and unknown, have been glorified by the Most Holy Trinity upon this isolated mountain.
According to the oral tradition associated with the life of the Theotokos, and the living tradition of Athos, the mountain was consecrated for future generations by her physical presence and prayers in the years after the Resurrection of Christ (around 52 AD). As our Lady and the Apostle John sailed from Jerusalem to Cypress with the intention of visiting St. Lazarus (the friend of Christ and then Bishop of Cypress), their craft was forced off course by a violent storm from the Mediterranean to the Aegean Sea, and washed ashore at that future site of Orthodox monasticism. The Theotokos, overwhelmed by its beauty, asked her Son and Lord to consecrate it and place it under her protection. For this reason the monks of Athos consider their agion oros (Holy Mountain) “the garden of the Theotokos.”
Ancient geographers mention six towns on the peninsula in the centuries before Christ, and it is explicitly named for the first time in relation to the Persian expedition against the Greeks in 493 BC. (It is worth noting that the Persian fleet met with terrible disaster from bad weather and were forced to call off the invasion). It is said that by the 4th century the area was completely Christianized. Despite the good intentions of scholars who have insisted that the monastic life on Athos could have began only as early as the 9th century, recent archeological digs near existing monasteries have revealed the buried foundations of large churches or monastic structures dating from at least the 5th century.
Our personal pilgrimage began in Thessaloniki with the visiting of some of the many glorious churches of that city, both ancient and modern. Among the oldest and most awe-inspiring is the Church of St. Demetrios, the resting place of the Great Martyr himself. The current structure erected in the 5th century was built upon an older church dedicated to the martyr which itself was built partially upon the ruins of ancient Roman baths. The remnants of both are clearly seen in the underground portion of the Temple. Within these catacombs, hiding places of the early Christians, is built a small shrine on the very spot that St. Demetrius gave the ultimate sacrifice and witness to the Resurrection of the Savior. In a small chapel within the larger Temple lies his tomb, where we knelt in joy and prayed for his holy intercessions, and in another place his head is encased for veneration.
Another 5th century Church Temple in the heart of Thessoloniki is the Acheiropoietos or Great Church of the Theotokos, also built on the ruins of a Roman baths complex. This church holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first in Thessaloniki to be converted into a mosque when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1430. It is adorned by beautiful ancient mosaics and intricately designed colonnades. A fresco of the Forty Martyrs dates from the 13th century.
In contrast, the current “Rotunda of St. George” was built by Galerius Caesar in 306 AD as a pagan temple. It was converted into a Christian Church in the 5th century dedicated to the archangels. Only very small remnants of icons and mosaics exist today in the massive open space of the Rotunda which is crowned by a brick dome 30 meters in height, due to its conversion into a mosque in 1590 as well as the earthquake which struck the city in 1978. This beautiful, cosmically spacious Temple is currently under reconstruction.
The city of Thessaloniki was liberated from the Ottomans in 1912, and since that time a great deal of restorative work has taken place, with many churches being re-opened for Orthodox worship and the construction of new church temples and monasteries as well. While centuries of Turkish occupation as well as modern secularism has taken its toll, the streets of Thessoloniki are sprinkled with tangible reminders of the Apostolic Faith which act as a “leaven” raising the heart to God and to eternal life. As one walks along the busy streets of the city lined with cafe’s and dress shops, it is not uncommon to find a small church tucked away inconspicuously as a prayerful refuge from the noise and bustling of modern life. Along the sidewalks outside of every Orthodox Church stands one or more “parakleses,” a small, covered icon shrine, where passers-by may duck in at any time during the day or night to light a candle and pray on their way to work or school. How incredibly refreshing to leave the confusion of “this world” behind and enter into the realm of the Kingdom of God, even if for a few minutes, to “sanctify the time” and remember that all of life is to become a continual “sacrifice of praise” to God. How would our American culture be changed by such simple incarnations of the love of God for mankind and the sacramental nature of life?
Despite the secularization which has effected all of Europe, we found evidence of a relentlessly unshakable foundation of Orthodox Faith with deep roots planted long ago. It was our blessing to attend Vespers at the Church of St. Charalambos, a parish church owned by the Athonite monastery of Simonopetra. Speaking casually with the priest’s 18 year old son after the service, we were struck by this authentic continuity of living faith deeply-woven in the fabric of his family. The young man’s grandfather, late in life, had retired to a monastery on Mount Athos, with his grandmother living in prayer at a monastery in Thessaloniki; an Uncle also lives the life of prayer on Athos; one of his sisters entered the monastic life at age 14; he himself desired to follow his father into the Holy Priesthood; and his family line also contained martyrs for the Orthodox Faith.
Traveling just outside Thessaloniki we visited a new holy site, established by a saint of our times, the Elder Paisios from Cappadocia and of Mount Athos (+1994). This wonderworking man of God, who’s life was forseen by St. Arsenios of Cappadocia who baptized him, founded the women’s monastery of St. John the Theologian here. Speaking with one of the original nuns, we found out that Elder Paisios took great pains to establish the monastery at the request of a small group of young women who came to him for help and guidance in the 1960’s. Revered as a Saint in his lifetime, he has come to be known and venerated by thousands all over the world.
The Holy Mountain of Athos
Soon it was time to prepare for our journey on the Holy Mountain. A few necessary items frugally chosen were placed into our backpacks, and we departed for Ouranopolis on the northeast side of the peninsula of Athos. From there we journeyed southward along the coast by boat on the Aegean Sea, catching our first distant glimpses of the breathtaking beauty which two of us had only read about. The pages of a book, however, cannot contain the spiritual light and anticipation, and the majestic, almost surreal sight of large, ancient monasteries cloistered awkwardly and yet somehow naturally within the rocky landscape, each with its own history, its own story, its own treasure of holy relics, and its own venerable list of holy ones.
Complimenting the large, jutting monastic structures were many smaller enclosures and dwellings inconveniently tucked into rocky crevices high up and swallowed up immediately by the surrounding green brush and above by unending blue sky. In such a place where one should feel uncomfortable, a visitor, a foreigner, the atmosphere was congenial and “earthy,” simple and unpretentious. The mountain seemed to welcome and humbly embrace all those who were coming to her, whether in prayerful reflection or with the curiosity, skepticism, or pride of a novice. All of us on the boat seemed to share in a quiet kinship and comrodery. We who perhaps did not “belong” there were received without a hint of condescension or spirit of judgment by the sea, or the terrain, or more especially by the inhabitants of this place.
Upon docking at our point of departure, we strapped on our backpacks and began a thirty-minute climb up a steep, twisting rocky path toward our first destination -- the Kalyve of Danielioi in the desert region of Katounakia. This little “brotherhood,” resting 300 meters above sea level, had been founded and built by the blessed Elder Daniel from Smyrna, with its church completed in 1903. The elder had founded the brotherhood after many years of toil and prayer in the larger monasteries, and having his love for God tried by the fire of many trials, for which God poured upon him many gifts of grace. It is reported that he knew the entire Philokalia by heart. (See Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos, Vol. One, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood). He was supported and encouraged by his contemporary and friend, St. Nectarios, Bishop of Pentopolis, whom he had met on Athos and with whom he maintained a close bond. Since St. Nectarios visited the brotherhood several times, and contributed both financially and spiritually to the brotherhood from its initial stages, he is considered the “first abbot” and patron Saint.
We were awe-struck to discover that we were walking on the same ground that the highly revered and God-bearing Nectarios had walked, and we were moved greatly upon venerating a precious and fragrant relic and skufia (cap) of the same. The chapel of Danielioi is dedicated to All Saints of the Holy Mountain, and so it possesses the largest collection of officially glorified Saints of Mount Athos. Among other relics we venerated were those of St. Peter of Athos, St. Gregory Palamas, and St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. The current abbot (also the cook and iconographer) and the priests of the brotherhood tended to us with great warmth and hospitality. We were treated as ones with an equal share in the Faith. We ate together, prayed together each day, and spoke at some length (to the extent that the schedule of the monks allowed) on practical and theological topics.
Each day began at 4am with Orthros and Divine Liturgy, and lasting 4-5 hours. Despite struggling with an occasional flood of fatigue, we emerged from services refreshed and strengthened, with the sweet Byzantine melodies resonating in our spirits.
The monks spoke of the importance of unity and charity within the Church, above all else, while always desirous to maintain the Tradition which leads us to communion with the living God. “Everyone can fight, but not everyone can love,” said one hieromonk with a profound simplicity that seemed to pierce into the heart. Here there was no dichotomy or superficial separation between the “external” and “internal” life of Orthodoxy. There was not the incessant questioning about “rules” and “exceptions,” but rather a commonsensical and personalized understanding of the way that leads to Life. On the Holy Mountain fasting was not something talked about, but done, whereas with many of us it is too often the other way around. “Fasting is not the goal,” said one monk, “nor is asceticism the goal; nor is even our prayer rule the goal, but the goal is communion with God.”
Yet looking into his eyes, and hearing his words, it was clear that the love and grace of God which characterized his gestures, his countenance, and his being had been forged in humility and obedience through fasting, asceticism, and prayer. He who lived out the Orthodox Tradition most strictly himself, was the first to meet others with understanding and flexibility wherever possible. Whereas we often approach Orthodox life by imposing a “formula” upon an “imaginary person” without regard to his or her understanding, ability, or experience, in contrast we observed a primary concern for the individual without disregard or compromise for the means of spiritual ascent. This approach is consonant with the quintessential question of the Gospel that each of us must ask: “What must I do to be saved?” This is the way of balance and spiritual progress, the way of the Cross -- “the balance beam of righteousness.”
After a bitter-sweet farewell, more gracious hospitality, and being showered with gifts of icons and books (more weight for our backpacks!) we continued our pilgrimage. Making brief stops at St. Anne’s Skete, where we were blessed to venerate a relic of the mother of the Theotokos, and at Dionysiou Monastery where we viewed incredible 14th century frescos of scenes from the Book of Revelation, we continued on to Agios Pavlos. The Monastery of St. Paul is mentioned in documents as early as 972 AD. Here we met novices and monks from many backgrounds. A former traveling lay preacher of the Greek Church showed us to our room and spoke enthusiastically of his upcoming tonsure to the monastic life. After Vespers we were unexpectedly greeted with a smile and welcomed with words in both English and Arabic by a novice from Homs, Syria. The man, who was clearly happy to have made his way to the Holy Mountain, was named after the early martyr from his own town, Elian (Julian) of Homs. The same day we met a Russian Priest who had resided at St. Katherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai for many years, and who spoke five languages, including Greek, Arabic, and English. Earlier in our pilgrimage we had been fortunate to meet a Russian Priest who serves at the Diveyevo Monastery, founded by St. Seraphom of Sarov.
At St. Paul’s we were given a tour of the monastery library by the groundskeeper (the librarian was on official business outside the monastery) which held several very ancient and interesting books and artifacts. We were joined by a group of German site-seers as well as two Orthodox Christians from Poland (representing, as they said, only 4% of their countrymen). Again we received blessing upon blessing by venerating the Gifts of the Magi, the relics of the Apostles Andrew and Bartholomew, the hand of St. Damian the Unmercenary Healer, and the foot of St. Gregory the Theologian. The monastery also had in its possession the icon which was venerated secretly by the Empress Saint Theodora during the time of the reign of her iconoclastic husband, Theophilus. One of the largest existing pieces of the Precious Cross of the Lord is brought out for veneration only once each year on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
After services the next morning we continued on to our final destination, Gregoriou Monastery. Following the hike of all hikes, we arrived and settled into the monastery established in the middle of the 14th century. Gregoriou is known as one of the best organized of those on Athos. Services and chanting were prayerful and orderly within the walls of a (relatively) small katholikon (main church) beautifully adorned almost completely with frescos dating from the latter part of the 18th century (the originally 14th century icons were tragically destroyed by fire). These icons were written around the time the Brittish colonies were becoming the United States of America!
We were attended to primarily by a monk of ten years from England, a second generation Greek, who had at one time sought to distance himself from the Church of his parents. It was to my great surprise when, on the feast day of Ss. Constantine and Helen (old calendar) I was escorted into the holy altar to concelebrate Divine Liturgy at that holy place! Still in the Paschal season, I was asked several times to sing Christ is Risen in English, and later was asked by one hieromonk to write the Paschal Troparion for him in our language. It seemed that it brought the monks great joy to know that the Faith of the Apostles was alive and well in America.
Among the great treasures there were the head of St. Photini, the Samaritan woman at the well and equal-to-the-Apostles, the forehead of St. Panteleimon, St. Anastasia of Rome, and the hand of St. Makrina, the sister of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Now there was only the task of going down from the mountain, a more formidable task than ascending it. To go back into the world, to remain detached from the snares of the devil and the flesh, and to be attached ever-increasingly to the Holy Trinity, this is the “impossible” task (“with God all things are possible”) that is given to most of us. May Christ our true God, who said, “Without Me you can do nothing,” equip us for such a task. To Him be glory, thanksgiving, and worship, with His Unoriginate Father, and His All-Holy, Good, and Lifegiving Spirit. Amen.