Orthodox America


An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos  


By Mr. M.W. Mansur
(continued)

A trip to Mount Athos in 1936 by two American graduate students provides them with a wonderful introduction to the treasure of Orthodoxy.

Part II

We were anxious to reach the skete of St. Anne because we had a letter of introduction from a Greek priest in Boston to Fr. Joachim, who was living there.

July 16. We were glad to be able to push on in the late afternoon and avoid another night in Dionysiou. The rule is that each monastery will furnish conveyance to the next but not beyond so it looked as if we would have to stop at Agiou Pavlou, but we persuaded the boatman to row us on to Agia Anna, a total distance of an hour. From the water we could see how impossible it would have been to walk over the pass from Agiou Pavlou to Agia Anna. Down at the end of the peninsula the sides of the mountain are very steep and the path has to wind high up. Agiou Pavlou set back from the water on one side of a steep ravine. Its tower and battlements made it look like a castle.

In one place an arm of rock ran out from the cliffs and formed an arch like a flying buttress. We rowed under it and could see a cave farther underneath the cliff. As soon as we landed we took our packs a little way back along the shore and went in for a swim. Here the bottom sloped off gently and made an ideal place. The water was just cool enough. The houses of the skete were perched high up on the sides of a ravine and the path up to them was rocky and poorly maintained. By the time we reached the lowest house the sun had set. We stopped at one house to inquire the way and man insisted that we stay a few minutes. He stopped irrigating his garden and gave us a glyko (a sweet) and some delicious loquat preserve. We ate it on his parch and admired the sunset. Then he showed us the way to Fr. Joachim's. The path was like a flight of stairs.

We arrived at nine and were most hospitably received. Fr. Joachim turned out to be thirty-seven years old and had been a priest in the United States till two years ago when he was threatened with tuberculosis and advised to come here. He has decided to stay permanently.

We had a most interesting conversation with him on the porch while Fr. Paisios scrambled some eggs for us American-style. A skete is a collection of small houses in which are from one to five or six monks. Nearly every house has a chapel and a priest. Monks who are in houses where there is no priest go to the main church for service. In each house there is an elder, the senior monk who has charge of the house and has absolute authority. He tells the others how many services there will be, how long they can read, whether they can answer letters. The elder is not necessarily a priest. The whole skete is presided over by a dikaios who is elected each year. If any one wants to join a house he must be taken in by the leader, who tries to find people who will be congenial and persuade them to come. There are four monks in this house, all of whom have been in America. They have fixed up the place with a sun porch, comfortable sitting room, and a new cistern so that their neighbors refer to it as the American consulate and tell them that they must get a car soon.

There are several classes of monks on the Mountain. First come those in monasteries who are considered the lowest because their life is easiest. Then come those in sketes, then those in kellia, then those in detached kalyvai (huts), and finally the hermits, who live in caves. There is a small class of monks who count as the very lowest, those who have business of their own, like the man who runs the motorboat at Daphni. Sometimes a man changes to a stricter class but it is not considered right to change to an easier class. The hermits live an incredibly vigorous life. There are two Russians, one of whom was a prince, who live on bread and water. Once the Russians tried to persuade him to go back and be a metropolitan but he wouldn't. One of these hermits, St. Maximus, is said to have flown down from the top of Mt. Athos. The hermits keep wholly to themselves and people know little about them. Sometimes they won't come out when called. Monks who live in sketes cannot raise all they need and have to buy supplies for the winter. For this reason, each one has to have an income of about 4000 drachmas ($32) if he is to support himself adequately. Most of them get by with 2000 or 3000. Goods are cheaper for the monks because they don't have to pay duties or taxes. The monasteries vary in wealth. Vatopedi is very rich and the monks live like princes. The Lavra and Iveron also are well off.

Before long our supper was ready, and it was delicious. We had eggs scrambled with cheese, boiled eggs, cheese, and apricots. It was the best meal we have had on the Mountain. When visitors come or on a feast day they have more things to eat. During the winter they live on stored food because for much of the time the snow makes it impossible for them to get out.

July 17. Slept late and had a fine breakfast of more scrambled eggs and hot cakes with sugar syrup. Fr. Joachim apologized that they had run out of honey two weeks ago. Then we looked over the estate. They have some land to one side and below the house, which is all turned into garden. It is on a slope of fifty degrees or so and divided into terraces. The soil is so stony that I don't see how things grow, but there is almost everything conceivable there and all flourishing. The garden gets lots of sun and can be well irrigated. We saw cucumbers, beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, onions, olive trees, figs, apricots and things I have forgotten. The house has a wonderful lookout. The slope is so steep that from my chair I can't see the foot of it, only the water. The houses are perched on the side as in an Alpine village.

In the afternoon we slept as usual to avoid the heat and towards six went down to the main church. On our way we passed a little cemetery with only a few crosses on it. Near the railing on the wall was a basket with the skull and bones of a monk who had died three years ago and had been dug up. His name and the place where he lived and the date of his death were written on the skull. The monks are dug up after three years and their bones exposed that way for a week. Then they are put in a chamber nearby. We looked in and saw quantities of skulls and bones.

Fr. Joachim wants to join us and visit all the other monasteries but the elder doesn't want him to be away so long. They are expecting a young fellow whom he knows who will come here for three years and then if the elder wants to take him he can stay permanently. It will be all right, however, for Fr. Joachim to come to the Lavra with us. He says that the elder wants him to stay here and doesn't want him to be attracted elsewhere. Whenever one of the family leaves the house or comes back he kisses the elder's feet and his right hand.

At the main church we were received in the guest room of the dikaios and given water and masticha. Then he took us to the church and brought out its principal relic, the foot of St. Anna, in a silver case. The relics are usually kept on or near the altar and are brought out by the priest to be shown to visitors. Unless you have some one well known with you they are rather hard to see. In the church was a large icon of St. Anna. Fr. Joachim and the others said she didn't allow her face to be photographed and wanted us to try. Although the face was dark and in the shadow we made a try but doubt if it will come out. On the way back we stopped at a friend of Fr. Joachim's who is a deacon and paints icons. He gave us water and a sweet paste made from masticha. When we got back to the house we photographed it and all the people thoroughly. We got Fr. Paisios, whom we call the gardener in chief, in his garden and hope we caught Fr. Grigorious, the elder, with his smile.

July 18. We had a good sleep after lunch and started down with our packs around four. We hope this is our last portage. Two monks, a father and son, joined us for the trip to the Lavra. Fr. Joachim had arranged for a boat to take us all for two hundred drachmas. As we went around the end of the peninsula we saw kalyvai (huts) perched on the cliffs like nests. Some of them could get supplies from boats by letting down ropes and the only other communication was by ladders up the face of the cliff. Further on we saw the mouths of caves where hermits lived. All the way along there was hardly a spot where a boat could land, the cliffs were so steep. At Kapsokalyvia we stopped to leave a few newspapers and took on two men who had had themselves put ashore there in the morning because they were afraid of the heavy sea. We couldn't beach the boat but anchored a few yards out and monks who had turned up their trousers carried the passengers to the boat on their backs. The scenery was magnificent all the way around.

(To be continued)

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