2008 - Vol. 20
Sunset over the Aegean Sea
looking from Mount Athos
you up to a high mountain …say to the cities of Judah,
your God!’ – Isaiah 40:9
By John Karagoulis
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.
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
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