It beckons you.
Perched high above a wild and untamed land. A fortress of God. A place of ritual, hardship, labor and simplicity. A place not for the uninitiated, yet still, thousands seek to enter this holy sanctuary every year. The seeker of truth and peace is willing. For this is the Holy Mount of Greece. The place where heaven meets earth. This is Mount Athos, one of the most secluded and inaccessible places in the world that has remained virtually unchanged for over a thousand years.
Mount Athos is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world that dates back to 800 AD. Although technically today a part of the European Union as is the rest of Greece, Athos is an Autonomous Monastic State with a total area of 335 km² that is governed by its own local administration and the free movement of goods and people is prohibited.
Perched high above the rugged, sea battered peninsula of Chalkidiki in Northern Greece, the 2000 Christian Orthodox monks, twenty monasteries and 12 monastic villages are veiled behind a lush Mediterranean forest of chestnut, oak and olive trees.
To enter the State of Athos you have to be a male and you have to obtain a special entrance permit which is valid for about four days.
“Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”.
According to Athonite tradition, when the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing to Cyprus to visit Lazarus accompanied by St. John the Evangelist, a storm blew them off course and they were forced to drop anchor at the port of Klement – near the present day Monastery of Ivrion. When the Holy Mother walked ashore she was overwhelmed by the wild natural beauty of the place. She blessed it and asked her Son that this place be forever known as her garden. The Garden of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Now, why the garden of the Holy Mother is permitted only to men and not to women is another story. The monks claim that it is from their own weaknesses and not from any spite that they harbor themselves towards the female species. I admit to having been against this before the writing of this article. But after my research I have come to the belief that this is how it should be. There is a divine harmony on Athos that has not been disturbed for a thousand years – and so it should remain.
Each monastery of Athos is unique. The Monastery of Vatopedi, founded between 972 and 985, and built on a hill overlooking the sea is rich with Byzantine treasures and ambitious monks while the more humble Monastery of Konstamonitou adheres to a more rustic lifestyle that shuns electricity and large donations.
The monasteries grew rich on frequent donations by emperors, kings and medieval noblemen that made frequent pilgrimages to its shores. It was also a prime target for crusaders, mercenaries and pirates who plundered the living daylights out of it.
The Athonite Monasteries resemble medieval cities, built as they are in precipitous locations, fortified with strong walls with one or two entrances and a spacious open area within the walls. In this area – the courtyard- are the Katholikon (the main church), the marble font for the blessing of the waters, the refectory, various chapels, the surrounding monk’s cells, the abbots’ quarters and all the auxiliary structures. Each monastery is a large complex consisting of many structures built during different periods & different styles that represent the particular historical influence of each period.
All of the monasteries as well as the surrounding land, flora, fauna and natural forest have been impeccably preserved through strict adherence to monastic rules which require the use of traditional and environmentally friendly materials as well as a harmonious interaction of farming and forestry practices.
For more than a thousand years the monks of Athos have kept their traditional character due to rules which have remained relatively unchanged so that the evolution of monastic life would not harm the environment.
Greenwich Mean Time is not recognized on Athos but centuries old Byzantine time. A day on Athos begins at sunset, not at sunrise.
THE MONKS OF ATHOS
Each individual monk is “apart from everything and everyone and united with everything and everyone”. Although they live in solitude and seclusion, they are not alone. They spend every day of their livers together, working, eating and praying in an environment that was created for the sole purpose to serve God and mankind, their unity enhances their emotional well-being and strengthens personal spirituality.
What leads them here? Most will say that they answer a calling. The monastic brotherhood consists of men who could not run away from who they were. Some were intellectuals, professionals, scholars. Others, simple men – some even small minded. But they all have one thing in common. They made a choice to leave the outside world of their own free will to be nearer to their God and serve humanity.
Father Maximos, a former professor of theology from Harvard University says: “There are 2000 stories here – everyone has their own spiritual walk”.
Monks here have become accomplished artists, writers, even vintners. Father Epiphanios took it upon himself to restore the ancient vineyards of Mylopotamos and today he not only produces excellent wine that is famous all over Greece, but exports it to four countries and has even published a cookbook of monks’ recipes.
Monk Epiphanios entered the Monastery of Mylopotamos in 1990 and quickly developed a passion for cooking. Within a few years, he became the “chef of the monastery”, planted a vineyard and constructed a winery.
The holy monks of Athos do not rely on external sources for food and drink. They meticulously tend to their gardens, wineries and olive groves working all day and into the night. And they never stop praying.
Father Epiphanios takes pride in the fact that the monks of Athos are in excellent health with incredibly few cases of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer or cardiovascular diseases.
His famous cookbook: “The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos” unlocks the mysteries that surround this remarkable healthy diet. It encompasses centuries of Greek Orthodox tradition and contains more than a hundred recipes. But best of all, each recipe is accompanied by a meaningful and relevant story and psalm.
I cannot hide that there is a very small part of me that envies these monks. It would be very tempting to get away from it all and devote my days to service, prayer and reverie. But I am not made for that. That is not my calling. I choose to remain of and in this world, however inhospitable it can become at times and serve mankind in other ways. It is comforting to know however that there is a place on this earth that is the closest thing to heaven that we will ever know in this lifetime. And that place is in Greece.
All pictures by Travis Dove