Day 50, Xeropotamou to St Panteleimon’s

[Monday, 4 July 2011] Its Independence Day at home, and I think I am the furthest from home that I’ve ever been in my life. No, I’m wrong; it was when I was in Moldavia & Bukovina in 1999; they’re further East.

Just as I was lying down to sleep last night, it rained for a while. At 2:30 the wind woke me up howling around the building; alas, I didn’t get back to sleep before the bells rang at 3:15 for services. During that time, I imagined all kinds of horrible weather waiting for me in the morning, when I was to walk to St Panteleimon’s: heavy rain to soak me, gusts of wind to turn my umbrella inside out and blow me off the foot path into a gorge, that sort of thing. But, when I stepped out of the guest house under the night sky and saw the Milky Way overhead, as I did every morning I have been here, and the gusts of wind gone, and the temperature down several degrees from what it had been; it was, in short, perfect hiking weather. Thank God for His mercy.

I committed another gaffe at Liturgy this morning: I tried to go into the altar for Communion and was refused. It seems nobody but the celebrating Priest receives Communion on weekdays (unless it’s a feast?), even though they serve the Liturgy daily.

In other matters, note to self: be sure to ask for everything you need and you won’t have to improvise in the future. Case in point: while I was washing my hair in the sink this morning, the only other guest in the house pointed out that the last toilet stall up in the third floor restroom was, in fact, a shower. And, behold, it was so. And it had hot water, and soap, and shampoo, and lots of lather, and I stepped out it feeling human again.

I suppose all the monks had gone back to bed, because the place was all locked up again after my shower, but one of the workmen pointed me to the back gate, which was unlocked, so I went out a different way than I came it. I left a little after 8 am, in order to avoid the heat of the day catching up with me.

At the end of the road that leads to the monastery, where it joins the main road the buses use, I found a small bus stop. Near it was a footpath (England does not have a monopoly on them), and a few yards down the path, half hidden by shrubs, was the sign I was looking for: St Panteleimon’s, Xenophontos, and most points west, this-a-way, so off I went. The path was, for the most part, paved with rocks, very much like the trails in our national parks are, so you have to watch where you step, but the way is clear and fairly easy to travel. It took me a little longer than 30 minutes to get to St Panteleimon’s because I stopped to admire the view of the sea and to take pictures.

I arrived at St Panteleimon’s around 9, and the Archontaris (Guest master) told me that the office for receiving pilgrims would not open until noon, so I sat on the back porch, read my Bible, worked my prayer rope, and talked, in broken Greek, with Methodios of Bulgaria, an old man who is suffering from poorly treated heart trouble, and asks your prayers (that’s your cue to Cross yourself and say a prayer for him). On registration, there was no problem with me staying three days (two days beyond what my diamonitirion/permit allowed). The Archontaris got me a key, a stack of linens, and took me to my room.

The guest house here is simply huge. It is 5 storeys high, and  only two of the wings are in use; the other two have been gutted for renovation; there’s only the outer, stone walls left standing (drawback: I am very close to the construction and it is noisy). Thankfully, you enter it on the 3rd floor, and even more thankfully, I have been given a room on this floor. The guest master speaks enough English for us to get along just fine…

… sorry. That was the bell for lunch, and I had to go. Lunch was more of what I had been expecting from a monastic trapeza, but bigger, like everything else around here. (At its height in the 19th century, there were 2,000 monks at this monastery.) There are about 60 monks at St Panteleimon’s now, and a great many construction workers (there are vast building and renovation projects going on everywhere), so there were many mouths to feed. The hall itself is huge, with very high ceilings, all of it completely frescoed with saints and murals (including really big ones of the Last Judgment and another of a soul passing through the “toll-houses” [if you don’t know, don’t ask]). The Abbot, or a visiting Archbishop, sat at the head table, and the rest of us on four long tables with benches on either side. Being a priest, I was put near the head table. Maybe I sat with other priests; it’s hard to tell around here because Athonite tradition has it that only the Abbot of the monastery wears a Cross, so priests, deacons and monks pretty much look the same . Mostly the monks sat together, and mostly the laymen sat together, but there is an easy mingling. There is good humor among the monks before the meal; lots of pleasant, quiet chatter; and very great respect, deference and care for the elderly monks.

(We usually think of nursing as a feminine quality, but there is a masculine way of tenderness and caring that is also beautiful to see. There is one ancient monk here that still gets around. He is tiny, very stooped, and blind, and a young monk leads him around by the hand while he shuffles along. The other monks preserve his dignity and don’t fawn over him, but everyone is aware when he’s around and you can see the quiet respect and deference they have for him.)

Lunch consisted of good potato soup, white and (good Russian) black bread, raw scallions, stewed veggies, and kashka (I don’t like kashka; it tastes like sweat), lemonade to drink, and fresh apricots for dessert. A monk read from the lives of the Saints while we ate.

I looked in their monastery store and, if you know Fr Alexander’s shop in Hiram, even Fr Alexander would gasp in amazement at what’s here. Pity the exchange rate is so lousy for the dollar right now, because it nearly doubles the price of everything in the euro-zone. I shall have to be very selective in what I buy.

I’ll draw up some comparisons between the two monasteries, based on my brief experience at both. (X) is Xeropotamou; (SP) St Panteleimon’s.

Both are under repair/renovation. There is money coming from somewhere; lots of it. I suspect that, in the case of SP, the Church of Russia is presenting something of a showcase or making a political statement here. I was told later that a lot of the money comes from the European Union, from some preservation of historical monuments fund.

Tale is that the second largest bell in the world is here at SP, and that it is rung once a day.

Both monasteries have a good mix of both old and young monks, so adequate vocations don’t seem to be an issue.

I have often thought Russian piety is warmer than Greek piety, and I’m discovering it to be so, both among the monks and the laity.

(X) refused Pavel the Slovenian alcoholic-turned-pilgrim a night’s stay; (SP) allowed him to stay the night.

(X) My impression is that the rules here are rather strict. My few contacts with any of the monks, including Fr Petros the guest-master, were very brief and I got the impression that they’d like to be done with me as soon as possible, not that I was disliked, but rather that interaction is best kept to a minimum. I never saw most of the brotherhood except in church. In that context, the monks spoke to one another only at immediate need and rarely even made eye contact. They were engaged in constant mental prayer and respected everyone else’s freedom and silence and left them alone; knowing what their life is about, I can respect that.
(SP) So far I have seen the kind of casual interaction between monks and visitors that I’ve seen in some monasteries in America, as well as in Essex: yes, the monks have their work to do, but they’ll talk to you if you happen by. The monks greet one another casually in church, ask blessings from this priest or that, and are warm with pilgrims they know. The choir members snicker among themselves over their own mistakes and exchange knowing glances when the other choir gaffes. Also, the monks are working cheek to jowl with the lay construction workers on several projects so many of them are outside and they all interact freely.

(X) Guest house: very new renovation, like a resort in the quality of the construction and the materials used: slate floors, decorative tile everywhere, lattice-work in most of the ceilings, high quality doors and windows, good color schemes and decoration, quality furniture in the public rooms, new stainless steel kitchen in the guest house, etc. Only one shower in the whole place.
(SP) Guest house: probably 19th century construction, painted wooden floors, ad hoc renovations in the past (e.g., there used to be coal furnace heat for each room, now there is a radiator; also, the restrooms & showers (yes, there are showers here, and even mirrors!) are at the end of the building, and you have to go out onto the porch to get to them; must be awful in the wintertime. The renovation will doubtless make everything modern.

(X) had only one icon on the wall for decoration, an inadequate wall light, and a desk lamp plugged into the one electrical outlet.
(SP) has a big wooden reading stand in front of 10 icons on the wall, clearly meant for devotional use, an inadequate wall light, one badly placed electrical outlet, and a small kerosene lamp and box of matches(!) for additional light at night. I also discovered that the electricity is turned off after Compline, when it’s dark, just when you need light the most (thankfully, I took advice and brought a flashlight so that I could find, and light, my kerosene lamp).

(X) Schedule. 3:30 am Midnight office, Matins, 1st Hour, Liturgy; breakfast for pilgrims.
1:30 pm lunch.
5:00 pm, Vespers; dinner.
7:15 pm Compline.

(SP) Schedule: 4:00 am Midnight office, Matins, 1st, 3rd, 6th Hour, Liturgy; lunch.
2:00 dinner.
6:00 pm Vespers; late dinner for pilgrims.
9:00 pm Compline & Akathist.

(X) good Greek fasting food.
(SP) good Russian fasting food. All the monks seem to eat well.

(SP) seems to have gotten around or ignored the Athonite rule about “beardless youths” being on the Mountain. The rule is that you have to be at least 18 years old to be on the Mountain, but there are boys as young as 12 or 13 here with their fathers.

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Posted on July 10, 2011, in Travelogue and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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