Orthodox America

  An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos

Melvin Mansur 

A trip to Mount Athos in 1933 by two American graduate students provides them with a wonderful introduction lo the treasure of Orthodoxy. 

Part V 

July 22. We are much pleased with the archontares here at the Skete of St. Andrew or the "Serai" as it is frequently called. Father Stratonik is good humored and wide awake. He knows enough Greek for us to get along and wants to teach us Russian names for things. He gave us supper at once and then took us to church for the all-night vigil. They have an all night vigil always on Saturday evening from 7 to 2 and then Liturgy from 6 to 8:30. We arrived about 9, when it was almost dark. It was the same strange experience as at Russiko, walking along the verandah toward the church and hearing the chanting, then going inside and seeing the great vaults and the faint reflection of the light from the lamps on the gold of the iconostas. For most of the vigil there were so few lights that you couldn't see what the church was like. We were in stalls at the very front so could follow easily. The choir was divided in two parts on either side and chanted antiphonally. When it came time for a lesson or for the litany in the back of the church a few more lamps were lit. The Hospodee pomeelouis ("Lord, have mercy") were lovely. Much of the rest of the chanting I guessed was in the tone for the week. It was beautiful and plaintive. It was surprising how they got high notes without having young boys. The archimandrite officiated during vespers but after that remained in his throne.

I made myself comfortable by sitting all the way down as time went on and as the readings grew longer. During one of the kathismas I went outside. That whole service one could get only in a monastery. 

July 23. Got to church just in time for the beginning of the Liturgy proper. The Liturgy is the grandest of the services because the chants are more varied. This morning there was almost the most magnificent service I have ever seen. There was the archlmandrite Mitrophan in mitre and red vestments, then fourteen priests, and four deacons. For the Little Entrance they lined up on either side of the Holy Doors while the deacon took the Gospel to the altar. Since there were so many priests their chanting was like one of the choirs. A moleben followed the Liturgy.

      We ate with the monks in the trapeza as at Dionysiou. Had soup, bread, fish, cucumbers, and wine. At the end of each course the archimandrite rang a bell so that one wouldn't get behind. I was slow on the fish because it was tough like God. On the dais was a crescent shaped table in the middle of which sat the archimandrite with the chalice in front of him and the epitropoi and priests on either side. A wing went out from the middle of the table like this    . Then below the dais were the long tables for the monks and a lectern for the reader. After the meal we stood up and while grace was being chanted the deacons passed around loaves of bread from which everybody pulled off a little piece and put it in the smoke of the incense before eating it. Another deacon carried the incense pot behind the one who had the bread.

      It took longer than we expected for Stacy to pack and when he had finished the muleteer wasn't outside so we went to Karyes and got another. I saw Stacy fixed comfortably on his mule and came back for a sleep. One of the epitropoi has taken us in hand along with the archontares so we get every thing we want.

       Our supplies of food lasted well and we have been pleased with our choice. We took two big bars of chocolate, raisins, almonds, walnuts, a can of Ovaltine, and Gruyere cheese. The only thing I hesitated about was the cheese but now wish there had been more. Even Professor Blake puts six weeks as a limit for a stay on the Mountain. We think raincoats and much heavy clothing beyond a sweater are unnecessary.

                         The Serai is even more Russian and less Greek in appearance than Russiko. The living quarters are built around a big courtyard with box and other shrubbery around it. In the middle is the great white cathedral with green domes. The cathedral has its main altar at the end of the nave and an altar at either side at the end of side aisles. On weekdays the Liturgy takes place at one of the side aisles. The chief relic here is the head of St. Andrew. On Sunday afternoon Fr Stratonik      after vespers there was a special service for St. Andrew and the relic was put on a table before the bema. On weekdays the order of affairs is this according to our time: 12 midnight - 4:45 midnight office; matins, Liturgy; 4:45 - sleep; 6 - 10 work; 10 - 10:30 dinner; 10:30 - 1 work; 1 - 4 siesta; 4-5:30 vespers; 5:30 - 6 supper; 6 - 6:30 compline; 6:30 12 rest and sleep.

     The monastery is poor now and depends mostly on the sale of wood for its money, in addition to hard times the Greek government has made a ruling that only Greeks may join monasteries on the Mountain. So as the old men die the numbers in the Russian and other foreign monasteries decrease. They say that the Greek monasteries here approve the policy of the government.

      Whenever the monks go to church or to trapeza they wear their black gown and veil but when out working they wear a light, bluish-grey smock and  usually their hat.       Sometimes they fasten a paper  sunshade onto it. 

July 24. The morning I spent wandering around the streets and shops of Karyes. You can get good carved crosses for 55 drachmas, although some places ask 75. I bought two bread stamps and spent a long time in one monk's shop looking at various things. He showed me a stamp with which he prints antimins. He had a Russian epitaphlos priced at 8000 dr. which could probably be bought for less. While I was there a man offered him a string of good amber beads for which he would give only 15 dr. Give nothing and ask a lot is their policy. No wonder the Jews can't live in Greece. He had a Russian icon covered with silver thread which I liked and for which he asked 1000 dr.

      Towards 5 o'clock I wandered back to Karyes and came upon the Russian skete of Agias Trias, which belongs to Chilandar. I was most hospitably received by a monk whose Greek I could understand well. We went up to the top balcony and had a good view of the town. Could see Iveron from there. At their skete they have one of the three magnolia trees which grow on the Mountain. He picked a blossom and gave it to me. When we came down he introduced me to the hegoumen and three or four of the others and we had some delicious wine. On my way back I met the priest from Aegina with whom we walked up from Xeropotamou the 'first day. He walked back to the Serai with me. We found the archimandrite Mitrophan sitting outside and talked couple of apples and a pear which he had. I wish I had given him the magnolia blossom but I wanted to keep it for the archontares. 

July 25. The archontares called me in time for the Liturgy this morning and after it I went back to bed till 10. When I got up it was time to eat in the trapeza. Today we had only cabbage soup, black bread, rice and poor white wine. After the meal an old man came back with the archontares and me and we all had wine and coffee together. He turned out to be the archimandrite Sophronius, who was formerly in Constantinople but is now living here in retirement. Like all the people at the Serai he is very kindly and earnest and really pious. They never say anything unkind, even about the Bolsheviks.

      A little later in the afternoon the archimandrite Sophronius came back and invited me to come to his room for tea. On the way he showed me his winter room, which was even smaller than an alcove and all covered with pictures, photographs and icons. Even the ceiling was covered, His summer room was larger and fairly comfortably furnished. There was a bed, two chairs, a table, reading stand on which was a Gospel in a bronze case, and again quantities of pictures all over the walls and ceiling. Another man brought in the pot and gave me good tea in a glass, the first time I've ever had it that way after reading of it so often. We even had condensed milk. When I asked him about the service books he brought out several beautiful copies which he owns. In the church he doesn't wear a mitre because he is not the hegoumen of the monastery, but he has a throne on the left side of the nave and when monks pass him outside they usually stop to kiss his hand. He is a very simple and saintly man. After tea he showed me the book bindery and the church of St. Andrew which was the original church of the skete. Now Liturgy is celebrated there every Saturday. Out in the courtyard we saw a Lebanon cedar which came originally from Palestine. Many of the monks have been there like the archontares, After vespers the archimandrite Sophronius brought me several pictures, all of which he wanted me to keep, 

July 26. Walked to Karyes and inspected the catholicon. It has fine icons in the iconostasis. The one of Christ I liked very much and another by St. Panselinos. The colors were bright and the style like Italian primitives. The screen was of carved and gilded wood. Above the first row of icons it curved forward and above was a row of small icons. The ideal combination here would be Russian services in old Greek churches.

      I forgot to mention earlier Stacy's narrow escape on the way back from Kerasia. We stopped at a spring below which was a low stone trough for mules to drink from and at the left end about three feet above the trough a spout came out of the masonry. Above this was a little recess in the masonry. As Stacy stooped down to take a drink at the spout he happened to notice a snake in the recess with its neck raised as if to strike. It apparently had crawled up there to get the sun. It was a good three feet long. Daniel pronounced it poisonous and proceeded to hit it with a stick and beat it until it was dead.

      For a change I decided to move on to Russiko today, especially since I hear Fr. Vassily has come back from Athens. I went to say good-bye to the archimandrite Sophronius and found him having his morning tea. He insisted that I stay long enough to have another glass with him. He showed me some photographs of the church in a convent (I think) in Paris whose icons he had sent from Constantinople. The Serai has been extremely pleasant, even more cordial than Russiko. Here everybody always bows when they pass each other. When I left, the porter gave me an apple and called me back to give me a walking stick.

      In Karyes I found Fr. Onouphrius, the shopkeeper, was at his house so I walked that way and found him. We came back to the shop together and arranged a bargain, 100 dr. for the icon and the horologion. The big icon would have been hard to carry and he said that perhaps they would not let it leave the Mountain. He recommended that I stop at Xeropotamou and get some of their snake bite remedy, which is made the same way as at the Lavra. He is quite a doctor himself, He showed me a plant from which he makes a potion to remove gall stones. He says he has an old book which tells what plants are good for what maladies. He is much pleasanter than any of the other monks who are shopkeepers. 

(To be continued)