June 2008 - Vol. 20

Sunset over the Aegean Sea looking from  Mount Athos

The Holy Mountain

Get you up to a high mountain …say to the cities of Judah, 
‘Behold your God!’  – Isaiah 40:9 

By John Karagoulis

Center of Orthodox monasticism for over 1000 years
Last summer I decided to take some of my vacation time in Greece – not so much to see the beautiful beaches, islands, towns, and ancient artifacts – but rather to spend time connecting with my spiritual and cultural roots. A highlight of my trip was spending four days with the monks on Mount Athos. Why would anybody want to take a vacation in a monastery in one of the most beautiful countries in the world when I could be sightseeing there, instead?  Well, it seemed like a cool idea to me – simply to have some time away with God in a place rich in spirituality and warm hospitality. 

A pilgrim’s view of the Holy Monastery of St. Panteléimon, Mt. Athos

Few people in the world, Christian or otherwise, have ever heard of Mount Athos, a key center of Orthodox monasticism for over 1,000 years. Mount Athos is a rocky peninsula jutting off of northern Greece into the Aegean sea. Currently there are twenty main monasteries, a number of smaller monastic communities called “sketes,” and many small hermitages scattered throughout the land. All of the monks are Orthodox Christians of diverse ethnic backgrounds, under the spiritual authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. 

The idea of spending a few days in an Orthodox monastic community nestled on a mountain top, thousands of miles away from home, is rather uncommon for an Orthodox Christian in his mid-twenties. However, wandering this strange land for four days was a wonderful experience for me. I enjoyed the opportunity to rub shoulders with these men who have devoted their lives to prayer and meditation on the scriptures throughout each day. Their example fired my desire to grow closer to the Lord, to try to see his hand at work in my life, and to better understand his will for me. 

Prayer at the heart of daily life
The monks of Mount Athos are famous for their vigilant practice of “prayer of the heart,” also known as the Jesus Prayer. This simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is recited silently by the monks throughout the day, while thumbing through the knots on their “komboschinia” or prayer ropes. This prayer, while very simple in form, is regarded by the monks as a perfect prayer because it contains a summary of the entire Gospel of Christ: we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, he is the Son of God, and we recognize that we are sinners and in need of his mercy.  It is through this prayer that the monks try to live out the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:1). While the practice of this short, repetitive prayer is  somewhat foreign to our charismatic spirituality, I found a sense of peace and closeness with the Lord as I journeyed from monastery to monastery silently reflecting on the name of Jesus in this way.  

The Holy Monastery of Símonos Pétras, as seen from the sea

Life on Mount Athos is pretty simple. It begins at about four in the morning with the service of the Hours, concluding with a Divine Liturgy (Holy Eucharist), which finishes at about seven. After the church service, everyone goes to the dining hall for a simple meal, during which a monk reads from the Lives of the Saints while the pilgrims and other monks eat in silence, except for the natural clinking of dishes. The monks spend the remainder of the day doing chores such as gardening, or counseling pilgrims, and praying.  In the evening a bell rings calling everyone back to the church for Vespers, followed by another meal before heading to bed.  In the morning, it starts all over again.  

Reading the stories of some of the monks’ experiences during prayer, Mt. Athos seemed to me like a truly fantastical place, where heavenly visions and spiritual battles occur on every footpath or prayer cell.  Before I arrived, I read a story about a monk who received physical beatings from demons almost every night as he prayed.  Some monks have prophetic visions and are able to advise visitors about concerns in their lives that the monks couldn’t have naturally known before meeting the visitors. 

A rocky footpath at the Holy Monastery of Ivíron

Warm hospitality
I have no doubt that miraculous things do happen here. However, my time on Mt. Athos did not include any visitations from saints, beatings from demons, or prophetic words.  That does not mean that my trip was for naught. I was constantly amazed at the warm hospitality I was shown at each monastery. And the fellowship I experienced with the other pilgrims made the journey well worthwhile. One of my best friends on the voyage was a Baptist pastor from Germany named Harald who I met on the second night of my outing. We stayed up late that night talking about ecumenism and the importance of having a genuine relationship with Christ. I found it very refreshing to be able to share my faith with a good Protestant brother in an environment that had been for a long time off limits to non-Orthodox Christians. Harald was just one of many other solid Christians the Lord placed in my life on this trip, and I am very thankful for everyone I met along the way. 

Is it worth the time, distance, and expense to visit Mt. Athos? It was certainly worth it for me. One of the priests I was staying with in Thessaloniki gave me this advice before I left for Mt. Athos, “God has something to show everyone who visits Athos. We just need to be on the lookout to make sure we don’t miss it.”  In my case God gave me a renewed vision for ecumenism – for building Christian unity so that the world can see how Christians love one another. The Lord also allowed me to experience the kind hospitality – and love of perfect strangers – which the monks of Mount Athos showed me in abundance. 

If anyone would like to learn more about life on Mount Athos, and Orthodox spirituality in general, I would suggest the book The Mountain of Silence by Kyriakos Markides.  


John Karagoulis is the administrator for Kairos in North America. Kairos is an international federation of outreaches to high school, university and post university aged people.

all photos of Mount Athos taken by John Karagoulis


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