Trip 2, to England & the Holy Mountain
(T minus13 days, but who’s counting?)
The second trip on my sabbatical is the one I had wanted to do first: visit St John the Baptist Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, in Essex, England, and then on to Mount Athos.
The main reason for going to St John’s was to visit with Fr Zacharias (Zachariou), who is the spiritual father of the monastery, and who is fairly well-known in the states for his three books on spiritual life. Fr Zacharias was a disciple of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), of blessed memory, who was, in turn, the disciple of St Silouan of Mt Athos. (A few of the books by Elder Sophrony, including his biography and edition of the writings of St Silouan, can be found here.) I had written to the monastery last November, and Fr Zacharias has agreed to receive me, but he was out of the country until June, so I rearranged my schedule to be sure we would have time together. I will be 8 days at the monastery.
This monastery has some unique features. In the first place, it is a mixed monastery having both men and women monastics in it, some forty monks, all told, I understand. Some of the nuns have good reputations their spiritual maturity, and I hope to have some conversations with them, as well.
In addition, because of the peculiar circumstances of Elder Sophrony’s life (he lived in a nursing home in France as an invalid for several years and began his monastic community there), St John’s does not keep the usual monastic typikon of the daily cycle of services. Instead, they gather every morning and evening for 2-hour sessions of saying the Jesus Prayer in common, and they celebrate the Divine Liturgy several days a week. While I look forward to the Liturgy, frankly the thought of sitting still for four hours a day in contemplative prayer strikes me as, well, probably beyond my means. We shall see. I didn’t plan these trips with ease in mind, and this is certainly going to be a challenge. By your prayers, I’ll be up to it.
After 8 days at St John’s, I will be flying to Thessaloniki, then making my way to Ouranoupolis, which is the port from which one embarks to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain. The trip to Mt Athos is the fuzziest part of my sabbatical. As of this date, I have not yet heard back from the Pilgrim’s Office saying that I can actually have a pass onto the Holy Mountain on the dates I have to travel there, nor have I received word from the two monasteries I want to visit, saying they have reserved a place for me to lay my head. I suppose I’m going to have to break down and call, hoping (against hope) that somebody on the other end will speak English or French, ’cause my demotic Greek is pretty lame.
On the recommendation of a friend, I have been planning to visit Xeropotamou, a Greek monastery. “Xeropotamou” means, literally “dry gulch,” which appeals to me as a Texan. It also has, among its relics, the right hand of St Maximus the Confessor, which was cut off when he was tried for defending Orthodoxy against the Monothelites. (I wrote my dissertation on the Confessor, and he remains one of my favorite Fathers.)
Also, because St Panteleimon’s is near Xeropotamou, I thought I might visit there, too, for variety’s sake. St Panteleimon’s is the Russian monastery on Mt Athos, it also happens to be the monastery where St Silouan lived and where Elder Sophrony began his monastic life. (Ah, you see, it all comes together, and you pick up the common thread.)
But, alas, as I say, I have not yet finalized the plans to visit anyplace on Mt Athos. This bums me, as I like to have all my plans place well ahead of time so that I only have to deal with the spontaneous issues and grief that will no doubt arise, and not worry over things like reservations. But I’m hopeful. One day this week I suspect I’ll have to get on the phone at 6 am and make phone calls to Greece and hope we are able to communicate about my plans. If only they had answered letters and faxes none of this would be necessary. But who said pilgrimage was easy?