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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


The Holy Mountain: My Pilgrimage to Moni Vatopedi on Mt. Athos (Part One)

Paul Kiritsis - Saturday, March 08, 2014

Three words spring to mind when I remember Mt. Athos in Greece: belief, beauty, and paradox. The hermits, monks, and priests who take up residence on the Holy Mountain and the pilgrims who sojourn there to escape the supersonic pace of the world often find themselves possessed by a conviction in higher causes, the idea that an omniscient eye of cerulean blue is watchful of planet Earth. In their eyes the power of belief is the single most authoritative weapon against inner and outer war and uncertainty. Then there’s the palpable beauty of the peninsula on which the Athonite monasteries are rooted–the brimming with chestnut trees, towering peaks, and aquamarine beaches–and the ethereal beauty and idealized harmony of pastoral living. And finally there’s the paradoxical emotions any such visit is bound to stir, the notion of finding oneself caught in a perpetual state of vacillation between the potent experience of piety and prejudice, sanctuary and purgatory, kindness and callousness, the familiar and foreign, melancholy and joyfulness, and faith and fanaticism. Most of us instinctively understand that life cannot be cognized without the experience of duality, and that this experience remains unconscious. On Athos it seems as though these polarities–the constant back and forth, the coming and going, the up and down, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and the heavens and hells–through which we transform and evolve enter consciousness in ways that prompt the revaluation of what is meaningful, purposeful, and directional in our lives. To become familiar with our paradoxes is to peer upon the actual mental landscapes on which our autobiographical histories are carved.

Naturally we must always allow for perceptual differences based on prior conditioning. A liberated knowledge-seeking hedonist who has been conditioned by the idea of free speech and the expression of individuality like myself is bound to endure a heightened sense of paradox and pessimism in a solemn and systematic place like Athos. Certainly this is not how the long-term residents of Athonite communities would perceive a lifestyle which is monastic to the core, in the truest sense of the word. Proof is in the pudding, the three gold-laden tenets of Orthodox monasticism. The vast majority in the developed countries, for instance, see the principle of minimalistic living as a permanent regression to the rudimentary lifestyle of our primitive ancestors; the Athonites imbue this minimalistic living or poverty (aktimosyni) with special significance by implying that it diverts attention away from shallow materialism to what is truly important, the cultivation of providence and the spiritual life. For the outside world the second law of chastity or parthenia may be an unhealthy suppression of our sexual instincts as Freud would have righteously stipulated; for the Athonite mink or hermit it is a symbolic expression of the victory of spirit over matter, of good over evil; and of God over Satan. Finally, for the outside world the concept of ypakoui or obedience may equate to intellectual emasculation, giving up one’s autonomy to think and decide for oneself by assigning it over to another force, human or otherworldly; for the Athonite this same concept, the surrender of willpower and subordination to a collective will, connotes the higher principles of sacrifice and nobility so central to the practice of Christianity. Our white is their black, our hell their heaven and vice-versa. It appears that the all-seeing eye of cerulean blue is made up of innumerable other mortal eyes that see in one or two particular shades and sometimes in no colour at all!

I remember being gripped by insecurity and ambivalence before my pilgrimage out to the Vatopedi, one of the oldest, largest, and wealthiest monasteries on Athos; would the methodical and disciplined monastic lifestyle be too drastic a change for somebody who hadn’t sufficient time to acquiesce psychospiritually? Would my thirst for mystical experience be overwhelmed and crushed by monastic prerequisites like the enforcement of austerity on personal freedom? All the people who had served as my Athonite advisors in Athens and Thessaloniki warned me of the potential hazards. “You’re really just another fish in the pond so don’t expect much pampering or smothering,” one advised. “Their food is quite bland and they don’t eat much,” another cautioned. “They do an awful lot of praying and meditative work and they don’t eat meat or chicken like you,” said another. “Be prepared to resist drowsiness, to awake for morning church service at some ungodly hour of the night, to help out with daily tasks like cooking and cleaning, and to run some errands,” said another still. In the end, the perceived truth didn’t fall too left of the middle.

Barring Sundays, festival seasons, and public holidays where the pulse and heartbeat of the Athonite body is adjusted, monks will generally be up and scuffling about before sunrise. The first thing on the list of holy things to do is an early liturgy followed by morning coffee and engagement in diakonimata, in other words individual tasks like the preparation of food, the transport of building and horticultural supplies to and from the port, and the preparation of holy manuscripts and their accompanying implements for use in ritualistic activities. Diakonimata may be described as the imperceptible backbone or central pillar of the Athonite lifestyle because they facilitate synergistic harmony and autonomous governance of each of the twenty monasteries within the greater Athonite community. Later in the morning some monks will welcome new visitors and pilgrims onto the grounds while others withdraw to their very humble quarters for study, religious prayer, and contemplation. Lunch, usually a modest (and by our Western standards bland) assortment of native produce like potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and olives; homemade bread; wine; and fruit grown in the fields is taken immediately after noon, followed by a brief cessation in physical activity. The remainder of the day is filled by an apodeipnon or vesper, additional diakonimata, an evening meal and study period, private prayer, and nocturnal retirement at about 9pm. In retrospection there’s simply no time left for idleness and boredom; the way to God is through obstinate application to set tasks which renders one useful in a collective sense, as the Athonite monks demonstrate.     

The trip from my residence in the suburb of Kato Toumba in Thessaloniki to Vatopedi mimicked a train ride through Dante’s purgatory. Dazed by only three hours of sleep, I proceeded to take a cab down to the intrastate buses serving the route out to the easternmost leg of the three-pronged Chalkidiki peninsula on which the Athonite monasteries are built. Roughly two hours elapsed before I arrived at Ouranoupolis, a picturesque seaside town which serves as the nearest official gateway to the Holy Mountain. There I paid twenty-five Euros for a diamonitirio, an obligatory four-day pass that allows pilgrims provisional entrance into the acclaimed World Heritage Site, before boarding a carrier that transferred me to Daphne, the port of Athos. I remember being overawed by the spectacle of innumerable monasteries jutting out from precipices, many of which had been abandoned and compromised by the incessant action of wind and water. My personal favourite was the Russian Saint Panteleimon Monastery with its aesthetic deep green onion-shaped domes so reminiscent of the splendid Kremlin in Moscow.  

The ship docked at four monastic communities so that mainland pilgrims could disembark and inbound others could continue their spiritual and religious quests elsewhere. This extended my travelling time exponentially. I finally arrived into Daphne at about twelve noon, boarded a tourist bus bound for the inland Athonite capital of Karies, and then continued northwards onto the famous Vatopedi monastery from Karies in a white minibus with seven other people. From the little reading I had done on the monastic communities on Athos I knew that the construction of Vatopedi dated back to the Early Middle Ages, roughly between 972 and 980ce. I also knew that it had spawned a progressive undercurrent within the collective traditional values of Hagion Oros itself by being the first to part with unspoken values of austerity and simplicity as well as the first to abandon the Julian calendar. At Vatopedi the monks and pilgrims had access to amenities like showers, mattresses, and electricity supplies to charge mobile phones, computers, and other electrical gadgets, meaning that living conditions here weren’t nearly as Neolithic as what they were at the Skete of St. Anne, for instance.

Two things attracted my attention as I emerged from the minibus: the censorship and refuge provided by the gargantuan walls surrounding the monastery, and the paintings and inscriptions worked into the vestibule directly outside the courtyard gate. The first was impressive because of its sheer scope and size, while the second tapped into my fascination with and love of classical philosophy. Stopping below the oculus of the dome-shaped vestibule to scrutinize the decorative artwork, I noticed that the thinkers like Plato and Aristotle who connoted the pinnacle of intellectual life in classical Greece were depicted alongside Christian angels, saints, and divinities. Plato, for one, is conferred the honour of holding a scroll which reads: “The old is new and the new is ancient. The father is in the offspring and the offspring is in the father. The one is divided into three, and the three constitute the one.” His student, the mighty Stagirite, expands upon this divine theme with an obscure inscription stating that: “The begetting of God is by nature inexhaustible, for the Logos derives His substance from Him.” Surrounding them are Christianized forms of other classical figures like Apollo, Sophocles, and the Sibylle.

Obviously nothing of the sort ever left the mouths of either Plato or Aristotle and the artist attributing the adages to them was merely reflecting the tendency of early medieval thought to subordinate the scientific intelligibility of the classical period to a theology that considered the external and visible agency of nature as revelation of God’s cogitation and divine plan.[1] After the Renaissance rediscovery of a circle of ancient texts that included the Corpus Hermeticum, the Platonic dialogues, the Orphic hymns, and the Chaldean Oracles, the more progressive Christian philosophers (i.e. Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, etc.) decreed that the static theological worldview advanced by Aristotelian Scholasticism needed to be modified. At some point the answer to the intellectual impasse represented by two conflicting authorities on absolute knowledge became apparent; it was deduced that the ancient layer of documentation just discovered was an unrefined proto-sample of God’s truth, a prelude later clarified through the teachings of Christ the Logos of the True God. Collectively, the Renaissance theologians ascribed ancient knowledge to extrapolations deduced from revealed nature, in other words from only a partial access to reality. Having lived before the time of Christ, the ancients lacked the comprehensive knowledge of the transcendent which would have allowed for optimum intelligibility in assessing the creation of the universe. Hence for a practicing Christian even the highest virtues cognized by the crème-de-la-crème of the ancient world are cerebrally and ontologically inferior to the theological expositions of reality informed by the New Testament and endorsed by the institutionalized body known as the ecclesia, the self-appointed representative of God on earth. All these sentiments are epitomized on the oculus of the dome.

Intercepting all outsiders at the gate was a monk who led the way to the monastery’s synodikon, a room reserved for the reception, management, and consignment of visiting pilgrims to sleeping quarters. There, the administrative superiors, known as the proistamenoi, extended their compassionate gesture of welcome with alcoholic beverages and dry biscuits known as rusk (paximadia). The preferred poison here on was Vatopedi ouzo, ouzo, and more ouzo! I accepted a shot in a small glass and scoffed it down, allowing the familiar wet heat to diffuse through my insides and synchronize with the voluntary relaxation of my muscles. In setting the glass back onto the wooden tray I noticed that the small room was embellished with a collage of black and white portraits of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (1924-1994), a monk who acquired distinction in the Eastern Orthodox Church for the authenticity of his earnest spiritual teachings. The virginity of his smile suggested a cogitation and reflection that eludes most. It’s actually quite difficult to look photographs of this grey bearded man with his trademark black hood and wooden staff without being overcome by profound humility and deference. Most practicing Orthodox Christians would know that this was somebody who conquered the machinations of ego identity, invested in and disseminated the principles of universal love, and communed with nature on a day to day basis. He wielded humility and selflessness, led by example, and functioned on transcendent levels of reality. It would be more than accurate to say that Paisios is the yardstick by which all spiritual teachers should be measured, period.    

At some point my busy mind shifted gears from the immense significance of Paisios’s life to all the wonderful treasures in the custody of the Vatopedi monastery. To my knowledge the three-tiered library in the tower of defence accommodated an astounding 35,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts within glass-sheathed bookcases, making this particular monastery one of the most desirable anchor points for scholars of religion, history, culture, art, and anthropology. The library was also the current home of the Iaspis, a jasper chalice with gilded base and handles gifted to the Vatopedian monks by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos Palaiologos (1391-1425) as well as an exquisite fourteenth century Byzantine fresco portraying the heads of Apostles Paul and Peter. Numerous artefacts and seven icons of the Virgin Mary credited with miraculous healings are also part of the religious furniture here, as is the Cincture of the Theotokos, a celebrated girdle alleged to have been bequeathed to Apostle Thomas by the Virgin Mary before her heavenly ascent. Fascinating, right? With such a rich, multidimensional, and interlacing tapestry of historical and mythological detail to its name, we could probably say that the autobiography of Vatopedi is one of the most enigmatic and colourful on the Holy Mountain.

Having arrived during the mid-afternoon respite there was ample time to explore the monastery in solitude. My initial plan was to unburden myself of luggage by dumping it in the dormitory-like room to which I was assigned and then spend about an hour or so exploring the shadowy hallways, crouch spaces, and low-ceiling rooms of the communal buildings, at least until about 4pm when the metal clanging of the semantron would summon all monks and pilgrims to afternoon church service. Fuelled by childlike curiosity and adrenalin, my first explorations tuned me into the graveyard silence to which monastic life was accustomed, a silence violated only by distant whispering, the howling of the wind, a set of footfalls, or a door slamming forcefully in some remote part of the building. For a while I scampered about the main courtyard and its nest of staircases as furtively as a black cat, sticking my meddlesome head into obscure and private little spaces that were none of my business. Secretly I was wishing to create contingencies through which perfect photo opportunities might be realized.

[1] Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (London, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2005), pp. 51.  

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