What time is it?
One of the curious features about life on Mt Athos is that, in addition to keeping the Old Calendar, they keep Byzantine time as well. In Byzantine time, the day begins at sunset. Now, depending on which side of the mountain you’re on, “sunset” can mean “when the sun dips below the horizon on the sea,” or “when the sun dips below the crest of the mountain behind the monastery.” So the sun sets, the day begins, and services begin, at different times at different monasteries.
Also, as you know, the length of the day waxes and wanes throughout the year. Some monasteries reset their clocks daily at actual sunset; some monasteries reset the clocks once a week; others, once a month. Currently, at both Xeropotamou and St Panteleimon, sunset is being reckoned at 9 pm Greek/world time. That means when your clock says 9 pm, the Athonite clocks say “midnight.” Actually, they don’t say “midnight.” It’s easier to think of it in terms of military time. At sunset, it’s 00:00 hours and you begin counting from there. Depending on the time of the year and the length of the day, the services will begin earlier or later to accommodate actual sunset and dawn.
Currently, Midnight office begins at 07:00 hours from sunset, which, at present, is at 4:00 am world time. (I might add that 4 am is still “night” around here. The morning birds don’t sing during Midnight office, but they do begin to sing part way through Matins, as dawn approaches.) Matins begins about half an hour later, at 7:30 Byzantine time (4:30 world time), and dawn occurs sometime during the latter part of the service, as it should. Liturgy follows, then, in the early morning.
Vespers currently takes place at 20:00 or 21:00 hours Byzantine time, which is 5 or 6 pm world time. Dinner follows. Compline takes place after dinner: at 22:15 Byzantine time (7:15 pm) at Xeropotamou, and at 00:00/sunset Byzantine time (9 pm) at St Panteleimon’s.
It seems confusing at first, and frankly it stays that way. I never got used to it.
By adjusting service times to the length of the day, you avoid that problem we have, say, of serving Vespers always at 6 pm world time, which is after dark in December, and in the heat of the afternoon in June. Of course, Americans live by the clock now and don’t pay attention to the seasons anymore, but on Athos, where they live close to the rhythms of the year, it works for them, and the rest of us pilgrims have to learn to adjust.