Mt. Athos is the Holy Mountain, revered by Orthodox Christians as the Garden of the Virgin Mary. It’s a unique place where video cameras are seldomly allowed (see this great segment from 60 Minutes last year), and even more rarely women. And the Monks don’t bathe.
And you’re not allowed to go swimming in the sea. I was one of 10 non-orthodox allowed in on October 11, along with 100 Orthodox Christian pilgrims and numerous monks and workers.
After a few days of walking, and learning some rudimentary Greek and Russian, I was able to make some Pilgrim friends. Transport on the Mountain is logistically challenging. One is supposed to reserve beds at each monastery for a specific night, but can only do so by fax or phone during the hours of 11-1 on Byzantine Standard Time where midnight begins at sunset.
I had a tremendous amount of help from Nodas at City Circus Hostel in Athens, who I’m sure would love to help others out as it only took him 6 hours to help me.
The first group of Cypriots invited me to use their extra reservation at the monastery of Simonopetra where I met Fr. Yakov, the monk who gained some fame in the 60 Minutes documentary above. We spent a good bit of time talking about the religion, beliefs and tenets and some of the characteristics that differ from my background of Roman Catholicism.
The Monasteries offer free lodging and food, and most invite non-believers to religious services in the Byzantine-era churches.
The standard procedure was to walk 4 hours to the next Monastery, be greeted by a glass of water, shot of Ouzo, and some Turkish Delight, a sweet candy. Vespers were at 4 pm, then a 10 minute meal eaten in silence, and return to the church. Morning services generally began at 3:30 am, and concluded around sunrise.
The frescoes and icons in the churches were beautiful and mystical, though I got busted by one monk for making the sign of the cross in the Catholic manner (Up, Down, Left to Right) rather than the Orthodox (Up, Down, Right to Left, with thumb and first two fingers, then palm to the heart) and asked to leave the church.
I also sat on a little old monk my first night at services – it was dark and he was wearing black. I hope I didn’t hurt him.
I had one experience with a monk as I walked into the Dionysio monastery. I had walked in the heat over a tough path during the midday sun, and my elation of arriving (and the awaiting Ouzo) had me excited. This monk began yelling at me in Greek and pointing towards the ground. Thinking this was a demand, I dropped to my knee in front of him as reverence is often shown. Only later did I find out that he was yelling at me for wearing shorts.