Let me introduce you to the Holy Mountain briefly. Home to hundreds of Eastern Orthodox monks, the rugged terrain of Mt. Athos, a small peninsula in Northern Greece, has acted as a spiritual training ground and workshop for the spiritual athletes of the Christian faith since as early as the tenth century. For equally as long, pilgrims have made their way to the Holy Mountain to recharge their "spiritual batteries" and seek advice from those men wise (and humble) enough to give it. Interestingly enough, there are an increased number of unsuspecting tourists, who come to "get away from women" or climb the mountain. My father, a friend and I decided to make the journey. I did not know what I was seeking. Answers of some sort were certainly desirable, but my young, naïve mind was attracted to the romantic serenity and mysticism that, I soon discovered, did not capture the essence of the Mountain. I stepped foot onto the holy ground, and got dirty. Sweat was not included in my dreams of Mt. Athos; it was included in reality. I soon found my mind and heart scrambling to keep up with my moving body and fallen instincts. Our guides, one of whom was a hermit, silently beckoned us to enter a week's worth of spiritual exercise, following in the footsteps of the saints who walked the paths before us.
There was a mix of folks on board. In one glance I saw priests, returning monks, old Greek men and a Dutch man with his two sons, on a "men's only" vacation to a place that they had only briefly heard about. It seemed as though they all bore the same look of somber anticipation. The old men seemed to have shed their romantic excitement after many years of this holy pilgrimate. All they stepped out on a journey pregnant with the pangs of life's most metaphysical questions.
This was the ferry that took us to Mt. Athos. There is no way of articulating the moment where the routine crashes into the mystical. A ferry ride was just the place for this to happen.
The pilgrimage consisted of my father, Fr. Patrick, and my friend Kamen. Here we are with Mt. Athos as our backdrop, rounding the peninsula on the ferry.
The ocean blue--leaving a trail in the pristine drink.
A shot of the beautiful Mountain.
An Athonite monastery, tucked into the hillside. This was a typical site as the ferry hugged the peninsula. Can you imagine?
A monastic habitation, or kellia, where rugged ascetics live out their spiritual lives. In past centuries, and even sometimes today, hermits living in cliff-side caves and dwellings would hoist up food, provisions and pilgrims using a basket and rope. While this is not as common in modern times, it was often the only means of transportation from the water to the cell. One hermit who lived on the side of one such cliff was asked how they knew when to change the rope. He replied, "When it breaks." Talk about the need for faith!
A closer shot of the kellia.
Here I am standing in front of Agia Anna (St. Anne's) Skete. Sketes generally have fewer monks than a regular monastery, and are often under the auspices (and within range) of a larger monastery. Monks from the sketes will sometimes gather in the katholikon (chapel) of the larger monastery on Sundays to participate in the service of the Eucharist, and then disperse to their respective sketes and cells for the week, until they meet up again the following Sunday. They are truly a Eucharistic community. This skete, located on the Southwestern tip of the peninsula, is not so easy to get to. We hiked up to it on our way to the top of Mt. Athos. It consists of a cluster of small cells and chapels, spanning the large expanse of rugged hillside. They have even built a helicopter pad so that, in case of emergency, a chopper can land. Other forms of transportation: donkey and walking.
A chapel jutting out of the hillside in St. Anne's Skete.
This picture speaks for itself. We were making our climb to the top, which turned out to last from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. This is literally and figuratively a brief snapshot of the glorious view we experienced the entire way up. The make-shift cross served as a wonderful subject for this shot. At this point our spirits were still high, and our water-bottles still full. The peak: 2,000m above sea-level. Meters hiked: approximately 300. Meters to go: approximately 1,700. Hours to go until we reached the peak before dark: approximately 10. Naiveté in thinking we would make it pain-free: 100%.
The trip was long. I do not put this lightly. Every few hours I would think that our hike was truly coming to an end. I was wrong. It took us over 20 hours of hiking over a 2 day span to reach the peak. Once we began to near the peak, however, everything changed. The color green disappeared. We had entered "the desert." This was the name given to this region of the Mountain by monks throughout the centuries. It harkens back to the ancient Egyptian desert where monasticism was born. The desert was not for posers. Pure white marble rock slowly overpowered any lingering shrubs or scraggly trees. Soon we were faced with a massive hill of jagged switchbacks, treading slowly on the powdery white of unadulterated marble. I kept my eyes out for hermits dodging behind trees, but couldn't find any. The others thought I was weird.
This is where the lesson kicked in. Fr. Athanathios, our monastic guide, had told us: the most important rule of hiking is to never look up for the peak (because you will despair), never look back at how far you've come (because you will grow proud), always look ahead of you and pray; soon, little by little, you will arrive. As is typically the case with prayerful monks, a simple everyday lesson has much greater value than one might think.
I followed the slow, intentional footsteps of the two monks in front of me. One foot in front of the other, step by step, I began to climb the last leg. Finally we had reached the top. The last 2 hours seemed like time had skipped a beat momentarily; we had arrived at the Chapel of The Transfiguration.
Seeing the cross at the top and the tiny chapel perched atop massive boulders of marble (and only marble), was a joyous moment for sure. We spent some time recovering, gathering our spirits, and praying in the tiny, but serene chapel. In the early morning we made our slow descent down the mountain and continued on our journey.
This is a view of the top with the tiny chapel dedicated to the Transfiguration of Our Lord, and the beautiful iron cross beside it. What a surreal site!
It was exquisitely beautiful. The actual event puts this picture to shame.
This is a shot of the magnificently built hand-made roads on the way down. We marveled at the craftsmanship and loving labors of monks from past years and generations who built these small luxuries for weary pilgrims along the way.
A picture from inside my room in Karyes. Karyes is the capitol of Mt. Athos. Because Athos is a self-governed republic, it needs a place for representatives from each major monastery to meet and discuss important decisions (such as construction, etc.) on the Holy Mountain. The town has a few shops and offices--nothing too big. We stayed in the Zographou Bulgarian Monastery's "embassy."
St. Andrew's Skete
This was more like a large monastery, but it is called a skete. It was in the town of Karyes and was breathtakingly beautiful. It seemed as though it was a major touristy monastery, although it still retained a sense of peace and prayerfulness.
This is the chapel inside of the "embassy" of the Bulgarian monastery where we stayed. Its frescoes were painted by a famous seventeenth or eighteenth century iconographer.
This is a shot of Zographou monastery from afar. Although this monastery was more secluded and not as visibly active as some of the others, we all felt very welcomed and comfortable. It had an enormous chapel and fortress-like walls. This is where we found respite from our journey up the mountain.
This is some stained-glass at the entry-way to the monastery.
The courtyard in the monastery, and also a memorial built to the monk-martyrs of Zographou who were slain by invaders. There are many miraculous events surrounding this invasion.
This is the one picture I was allowed to take during Liturgy at the cell of a hermit who we stayed with. It was incredible.
On our way back from the cell, we walked through a plush forest on a cobblestone path. This particular picture reminds me of something right out of the Lord of the Rings. It was so peaceful.
You may have noticed that, despite our time in many monasteries, there are no monks in any of the pictures; it is intentional. The monks asked not to be photographed. There are many reasons for their request, but they told us that they had not received permission from their spiritual father. An example of monastic obedience on the Holy Mountain.
I look back on my week spent on the Holy Mountain with fond, heart-warming memories. Sometimes, when you visit memorable places, you recall the distinct smell, the taste, the touch. For me, Mt. Athos was about sight. I remember, however, in the midst of my fluffy feelings, how hard the trip was. How can I forget my inner turmoil, frustration and anger as we climbed through the sweltering heat and up the steep terrain to the very peak? I was at my wits end. How is it that I bear a special place in my heart toward Mt. Athos now when I abhorred so many hours of it then? I came with assumptions; they were quickly stripped away and replaced with reality, and although I have left the mountain, and the fog of the world has darkened my focus and clarity, I still attempt to cling to moments on the Holy Mountain--eternal moments that bear a deeply significant place in my heart.