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Random thoughts

Young people are exactly the same everywhere.

Bulgarian beggars in Thessaloniki and Ouranoupolis give new meaning to the term “swarthy.”

For a peninsula inhabited entirely by several hundred bachelors with little regard for personal appearance or hygiene, Mt Athos is exceptionally clean and well-maintained.

If you ever find yourself squeezed in your monk’s stall between a fat Russian archimandrite on your right, and a fat Russian archpriest on your left during a long, hot vigil service, just wait a little while. You might be dripping sweat, but they’re melting, and will excuse themselves very early.

Athonite monks set their wristwatches to Byzantine time.

The difference between eating fish at a Greek monastery and eating it at a Russian monastery is that, in a Russian monastery, your dinner doesn’t watch you while you eat it.

Also, eating at a Russian monastery is kind of like having dinner with the Irish: you wonder just how many different ways they will serve you cabbage and potatoes at the same meal.

Also, Greek refectories smell like olive oil and garlic; Russian ones smell like cabbage. American refectories (the good ones) smell like incense and coffee.

Also, if there’s wine on the table at an Orthodox monastery, never touch it until the Abbot rings the bell and everybody else drinks theirs. Faux pas if you goof up. I had been warned ahead of time (thank you, Fr Daniel).

I can’t remember the name of the old actor who played Captain Bligh in “The Mutiny on the Bounty” and the hunchback of Notre Dame, but he must have retired from movies, grown a beard, and became a monk at St Panteleimon’s, because I’d swear he sat down with me at lunch one day.

Some Russian men have very fine, or delicate, features. Put them in a cassock and their hair in a bun and they look rather like school-marms.

The smallest monk in the monastery will be given the obedience of lighting the candles on the tallest candle stands.

Spiritual progress is fine, but it takes a serious toll on your feet. None of the Fathers tell you that.

You never think of people actually going to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Knowing that the Father Confessor is a clairvoyant Athonite Elder helps one to be scrupulously thorough in preparing for Confession.

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Day 53, the end of Athos

[Thursday, 7 July 2011] Despite getting to bed after 2 am, I sprung from bed when my alarm went off at 6. I had sweat through my pants, t-shirt and cassock while walking to and from Xenophontos yesterday and badly needed a bath, which I took. I was as clean as I could get and was already walking out of the guest house when the gaunt monk started to ring the bell to wake everybody up. “It is time to pray, it is the hour of prayer. O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us and save us.” Clang-clang-clang…

I went directly to the church and found the one monk, wooden semantron in hand, ready to start banging out the call to prayer. A few minutes later and the bells began their bone-rattling toll.

The relic of St John the Baptist was made available again for veneration. Full hierarchical Liturgy proceeded flawlessly, the singing was magnificent, I received Communion at the altar with the other Priests, and life was good.

Lunch was a formal affair, with the monks following the clergy in procession to the refectory. Having entered the altar at Liturgy, I was now indisputably and publicly kosher, and one of the monks grabbed me and pulled me into the ranks of the brotherhood walking in procession. I was accepted as one of their own, and it felt good to be “in”.

After lunch, procession back into the church for final blessing and dismissal, I was taken to Fr Asterik, who promised to allow me to venerate the relic of St Silouan the Athonite. I had been waiting in the church, but I found out the relics were not stored there. They were in their own separate chapel. What I saw there took my breath away: two long glass cases filled with reliquaries: large relics of St John the Theologian; the Three Holy Hierarchs; SS Seraphim of Sarov; the wonderworking Unmercenary Physicians Cyrus and John (their whole skulls); all the Apostles; the True Cross; several New Martyrs I didn’t know; St John the Baptist back in his usual place; many, many more that I can’t even remember; and in one corner, on a table by itself, in a large, round silver reliquary, the skull of St Silouan the Athonite. Fr Asterik graciously left me alone in the chapel for a few minutes to pay my respects to the Saints and to pray. A great big, final Amen to the whole visit to Mount Athos.

Since I had an hour or so before the ferry boat came around to St Panteleimon’s, I went back to the guest house to check out and found Fr Filadelf puttering around in his tea room. There was tea, to be sure, but it being the heat of the day, Russians don’t drink hot tea, but prefer kvass, which he makes from leftover tea that he sort of ferments in a big vat that has a large, stinking mass of some kind of yeast or fungus floating on the top of it. I got detailed lessons in the homemade production of kvass, the difference between the Russian and Jerusalem productions, and the generous offer of my very own jar of stinking yeast/fungus to bring home with me to start my own production (like I was going to get that through customs without charges of biological warfare). We sampled both the Russian- and Jerusalem-recipe kvass (it’s made from rice and lemon instead of tea and sugar), and I have to say, it grows on you (as well as in the vat). There was also a little rose-flavored loukoumi (Turkish Delight) to go with.

Finally, it was time to leave. The ferry boat made the return trip from the Port of Daphne, and we put in at all the same monasteries on the way back. I stood on the top deck again, this time with a pair of men I had met on the path while hiking to Xenophontos. Come to find out, they were both Polish Catholics (gasp!), one a Carmelite who had studied Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and the other, a newly-minted diocesan Priest who had just finished his Ph.D. at the Institute Biblique in Jerusalem. They had been tracing St Paul’s missionary journeys and undertook a side-trip to Athos while visiting the latter-day Thessalonians. We had fabulous conversation.

The bus ride back to Thessalonica was long, hot, and uneventful. In the city, I transferred buses and saw that the temperature was 43 C, which is somewhere over 100 degrees; no wonder it was sweltering in the bus. I made it back to the hotel, had dinner without incident, took a long, exquisite shower, posted a few blog posts to the blog site, and went to bed.

 

A few illustrative pics

I went on-line today and found a few good pictures of Xeropotamou and St Panteleimon, of things I did not get pictures of, and to illustrate some of the things I’ve talked about in recent posts. These are not pictures I took on my own trip, but they do supplement what I’ve posted.

First, here are a few pictures of the narthex of the Catholicon at Xeropotamou. The frescoes are of scenes from the Apocalypse/Book of Revelation.

Narthex of Catholicon at Xeropotamou.

Narthex, Catholicon, Xeropotamou

Frescoes of the Apocalypse, Narthex, Catholicon, Xeropotamou

The reliquary of the True Cross, which is kept at Xeropotamou, and which I venerated while I was there:

Reliquary of the True Cross, Xeropotamou

And then, at St Panteleimon’s Monastery, St Silouan of Mt Athos:

St Silouan

The Catholicon, or main church, of St Panteleimon’s:

St Panteleimon's Catholicon

A view of the Iconostasis, Altar and canopy inside the church:

Interior, Catholicon, St Panteleimon

The large bell:

The large bell

An example of a polyeleios candelabrum with a chandelier in the middle of it. The ones at St Panteleimon’s were much closer to the ground, and the nave of the church is smaller, so they really filled up the space:

Example of polyeleos and chandelier

I hope these help to flesh out a bit more the descriptions I gave previously.

Also, while I’m at it with the supplemental material, check out the OrthodoxWiki article on St Silouan: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Silouan

On Elder Sophrony: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Sophrony_(Sakharov).

On St John the Baptist Monastery: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Patriarchal_Stavropegic_Monastery_of_St._John_the_Baptist_%28Maldon%2C_Essex%29

On Xeropotamou Monastery: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Xeropotamou_Monastery_%28Athos%29

On St Panteleimon’s Monastery: http://orthodoxwiki.org/St._Panteleimon%27s_Monastery_%28Athos%29

Day 52, Confession & Vigil

Day 52. Confession & Vigil.

Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist on the Old Calendar. When I was at the Monastery in Essex, which is on the New Calendar, this was the first Liturgy I concelebrated with Igumen Kyrill. Now it will be the last Liturgy I attend on Mt Athos. Given my love for the Forerunner, somehow it seems an appropriate beginning and end of this trip abroad.

9th Hour and Little Vespers were served late today, at 7 pm. I asked after the service, when there was a break before Vigil, what would be necessary to receive Communion. I was told I needed the blessing of the Spiritual Father of the monastery, Fr Makary.

Fr Makary is a true Elder in the Athonite tradition, meaning that, not only is he a generally-recognized holy man, but he is also gifted with discernment and clairvoyance, meaning he can see right through you and tell you your sins without you having to open your mouth. Elder Sophrony in Essex was like that. Now if you stop to think about it, the prospect of meeting with someone who can do that is downright terrifying, but I had said I wanted Communion, so I was committed to seeing him. Fr Zadok received a blessing from Fr Makary to serve as a translator for me during my Confession, which he did.

I don’t know why I get all worked up over this sort of thing. Of course, my dread was unfounded. Fr Makary was the icon of meekness and love, and why should I have been afraid? But, I think, if you don’t approach a clairvoyant Athonite Elder with a little bit of fear, you probably don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

After the Confession and absolution, I asked a blessing to receive Communion at the Liturgy the next morning. He asked my jurisdiction. I told him, the Orthodox Church in America, with Metropolitan Jonah. At the mention of Vladyka Jonah’s name, Fr Makary smiled broadly and nodded his head. “Good. He is our friend,” he said.

To get an idea of what the Vigil was like, I have to describe the church, as best I can. (And the monastery is using only one of the three churches here.) I’ll leave aside the narthex, which is simply big, with four great square pillars holding up the dome, and everything covered in big, golden Icons, and the walls lined with monk’s stalls.

The Iconostasis is five levels high, soaring up near the ceiling of the church. The main Icons are probably 3’ x 4’, all with silver covers. The Royal Doors are solid, some 15’ tall. The altar is square; with a baldachin/canopy over it that reminds me strongly of Bernini’s canopy over the high altar of St Peter’s in Rome. This one also has twisty columns and is covered with gold leaf (in fact, most everything in the church is covered in gold leaf).

In front of the Iconostasis are two large shrines, on the right, St Panteleimon, the Greatmartyr, Wonderworker, and Unmercenary Physician, the patron of the monastery; on the left, the Mother of God. Both Icons are about 3’ x 4’, with silver covers, and the shrines are about 25’ high.

In the center of the nave, there is hung a polyeleios, a kind of candelabrum shaped like a giant circle or a bracelet. It is made up of ten flat panels and is suspended from the ceiling by several chains so that the panels hang straight down. I figure the circumference is somewhat over 50’ around. It is gold –plated and has double-headed eagles and Icons on it, it has forty candles along the top side, and there are ten ostrich eggs hung around the bottom of it. It is immense.

The only thing bigger than the polyeleios is the sterling silver chandelier that hangs in the middle of it. Just say it’s huge and be done with it. It would have made a fine accessory in the Grand Duke’s ballroom in old St Petersburg, but here it is.

The rest of the nave is cruciform, with wings on each side for the two choirs. As I said in an earlier post, I was placed in the left choir, where visiting clergy go.

Vigil was preceded, of course, by a monk walking around the church, beating on hand-held wooden semantron with a mallet. He then beat on the big wooden semantron that hangs outside the church with the same mallet. He then beat on the big metal semantron with a metal mallet.

And then the bells began to ring. You know Russians are famous for the bells, and rightly so. The first to ring was that big one I was telling you about. You heard it, yes, but you also felt it all the way to your marrow. Then all the other bells began to ring. Nearly deafening. And really swell, too. I had to laugh it was so delightful.

Now, if you’ve ever attended a Vigil in the Russian style, you’ll have an idea of what went on. It lasted only 5 ¼ hours. I was expecting something much longer, what with an Archbishop-Abbot, a couple of priests and deacons serving, two choirs, a medium-sized feast to celebrate, and nothing else to do but praise God.

I have never heard such singing before in my life. These men have voices like angels, except for the basses, who have the voices of archangels, and maybe even the archangels are jealous.

So we served Compline, then Vespers with Litya, and began Matins. The most spectacular thing happened during Matins. I have to tell you about it.

We came to sing the Polyelei. The choirs are belting it out, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy is forever, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” While they’re singing, one of the monks comes out with a long stick and begins to swing the polyeleion candelabrum. It oscillates back and forth, like the mainspring of a watch, until it’s going pretty well. Then the monk grabs the bottom of the silver chandelier and gets it to swinging around in a big circle, too. (Remember, these are the biggest things in the nave, and not that far overhead, so this is almost scary and a little disorienting, too.)

So the choirs are singing their hearts out, one side and then the other, the polyeleion is rotating back and forth, the chandelier is swinging round and round, and in the middle of all this delicious delirium of music, light and motion, the clergy come out from the altar bringing not an Icon of St John the Baptist, but a relic. I didn’t even know there were relics of St John the Baptist. It was in a reliquary of gold and enamel, like a little toy church; it even had a little onion dome on the lid.

Well, this about did me in right there. Sensory overload and astonishment over encountering my favorite Saint of all time: open-mouthed stupefaction. Unlike St Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople, there was no question as to whether I was in heaven or on earth.

Of course we got to venerate the relic. It was a piece of bone about the size of the middle joint of your index finger. I had but a moment, since the church was packed with monks and pilgrims waiting to do the same, and the Abbot was waiting to anointing everyone with oil. (Note to the faithful: when you get too much oil on your forehead, rub it into your hands, face and hair; it’s what the monks do.)

When we got to the canon of Matins, the clergy went back into the altar, but, God bless ‘em all, every one, they left the relic in the middle of the church, so everyone that wanted to—and there were many of us—went back and venerated it again, taking more time, praying, making prostrations, all the usual stuff. Such warmth of piety I saw: men pressing their lips and their foreheads fervently to the relic, laying the side of their heads on it and praying, prostrating for minutes at a time, some so humble they barely dared to approach.

When the service ended at 2 am, I didn’t know how the night could get any better, but it actually did. There is no light pollution on Athos, so the stars blaze out overhead and are breathtaking. Just before I went into the guest house, a green meteorite streaked brightly through the sky: a final, cosmic doxology to the Maker of all.

Glory be to God for all things!

Day 52, St Panteleimon’s

[Wednesday, 6 July 2011] Today is my 26th anniversary, and it is the first time Annette and I have not been together for it.

The bell ringer in the guest house seemed to ring his bell with extra zeal this morning. He is a tall, thin Russian monk, with long black beard and hollow cheeks.  “It is time to pray, it is the hour of prayer. O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us,” he would cry intermittently. I couldn’t move. Standing in church several hours a day and walking around the side of the mountain have made my feet and ankles swollen, and they hurt. The night had been warm and muggy; I don’t think I slept well, either. I didn’t look forward to going to church.

The services were a blur; I spent all my time trying to stay awake and focus. I noted that, here and there, a few of the monks had nodded off to sleep. It is the tail end of the Apostle’s Fast on the Old Calendar. I think between the heat and the fasting, everyone is about done in. It being a Wednesday in a fast, there is only one meal in the refectory today, and that is at 5 pm. However, the monks are compassionate on the poor palomniki (pilgrims), and the tea room in the guest house was open, with two large pots of strong tea, a samovar full of hot water to dilute the tea, bread and jam waiting for us. God bless Fr Filadelf. I ate and went back to bed and slept for two hours.

Everybody here must sleep in snatches of a few hours. I’m probably ruined for life: eight straight hours of sleep seems like a distant dream. I don’t think I’ve had one since I left home.

Random notes: Different customs in different villages lead to misunderstandings. At the end of Liturgy yesterday morning, two trays of antidoron bread had been set out for us. After venerating the Cross which the Abbot, Archbishop Sergei, held, I went and took a small piece from one of the trays and went back to my stall to see if, in fact, the services were over and it was time to go out. It was, and I went out. Later, Fr Zadok told me that some of the monks had noted I had not taken any antidoron and were wondering if the reason was because I was Catholic or something else. Come to find out, the first tray held the actual antidoron, the second tray held extra bread that had been cut up. I had taken a piece from the second tray only. I remembered seeing some of the monks take from both trays but thought nothing of it. This morning I very deliberately took bread from both trays and thus confirmed, to the eagle eyes of the monks that watched for that sort of thing, that I am, indeed, an Orthodox Christian.

It wasn’t lemonade they poured into my cup at lunchtime; it was kvass. I wouldn’t go out of my way for it, but it ain’t bad.

There were boys as young as six or seven with their fathers at lunch today.

I want to describe the rest of today in a separate post.

Day 51, miracles and mills

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jul 4, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

[Tuesday, 5 July 2011] With morning service starting at 4 instead of at 3:30 am, I got to sleep in this morning. Had I known how cushy it was at St Panteleimon’s, I might have come here sooner…

The choirs are stupendous. I’ve always loved male choruses, but these men are outstanding, and it’s clear that the singers take pride in their work and satisfaction in praising God well.

At Xeropotamou it was possible to fall asleep during Matins because they chanted solo and so quietly in the dark that it could put you to sleep. At St P’s, I have been put in a stall in the left choir, near the left reader’s stand, and with the reader reading loudly (the church is very big), and two 8-voice male choruses singing hymns, sleep is simply impossible. I’m pleased to note that they sing many of the same settings that we sing at St Innocent’s and that I’ve heard in other churches in America. They didn’t seem to mind that I sang along quietly.

Fr Zadok, the right choir master, was American before coming to St Panteleimon’s to become a monk, so he speaks English. He’s been a great help.

After breakfast/lunch, I discovered that the electricity had been turned back on. I need to recharge my cell phone and my netbook. Also, I plan to walk over to Xenophontos Monastery, which is a 30-minute walk along the coast from St Panteleimon’s, just to say “hey” and look around. I’m also hoping to find that they have a store and that some things are cheaper than at St P’s…

The walk to Xenophontos was a bust. The “30-minute walk” turned into the better part of an hour, and the day is very hot; I wouldn’t be surprised if it topped 100. It was well that I brought water with me. There was a store, but it wouldn’t be open again until the evening, and Fr Ieremias, to whom I had brought greetings from Fr Andrew in Essex, was nowhere to be found. I took a few picture of the place—it’s a lovely enclosure, more compact that Xeropotamou—and headed back.

Along the way, near a part of the road where there were many curves, I received a blessing (miracle?). I suddenly caught the fragrance of incense in the air, like frankincense only sweeter, three or four full breaths of it, and then a very cool breeze blew down on me for a few seconds, and I was completely refreshed and bore the heat of the trip back to St Panteleimon’s without any discomfort at all. I asked the Archondaris, Fr Vitaly, if there were any sketes (small brotherhoods) or hermitages near there, and he said there were none between the two monasteries, so I can’t account for the incense except by God’s grace. I should thank someone, but I’m not sure whom to thank. Panagia? St Panteleimon? St Silouan? I’ll just thank everybody the next time I’m in church.

Since my clothes were drenched with sweat when I got back, I peeled out of them and took a shower.  The ferry boat had just deposited several pilgrims, so the Archondaris had opened the tea room and Fr Filadelf, who tends it, made tea. I sat with the group of Russians (none spoke of lick of English, and me without a Berlitz phrase book), ate rose-flavored loukoumi (Turkish Delight), and drank my tea.

I also asked Fr Vitaly about St Silouan. His English didn’t extend to a good enough description, so he handed me off to Fr Filadelf, whose English is better. After dinner tonight he said he would find me and will take me to the mill, where St Silouan worked and where he had his revelation/vision of the risen Christ that transformed his life. I also learned that the monastery has his skull as a great relic, but that I must ask Fr Asterik in the church about venerating it, because it and the other relics are not always made available for veneration.

If it all comes to pass, I will have received three extraordinary blessings in one day. I don’t think I could stand many more…

After Vespers, a young seminarian from St Petersburg and I went with Fr Filadelf up to a few old buildings to the west of the monastery, where in years gone by, the monastery ground its wheat with a water-powered mill. St Silouan worked in the mill as his obedience, and there is a small chapel dedicated to Prophet Elijah there. It was in this chapel that the living Christ appeared out of the Icon in the Iconostasis and changed St Silouan’s life. The chapel was opened for us and we were allowed to venerate the very Icon and to pray. A storage room opposite this chapel has since been turned into a new chapel dedicated to St Silouan, so we also went in there, the two Russians sang his Troparion in Slavonic, and we talked a bit about his life before heading back.

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.

Day 50, The path to St Panteleimon

Here are a series of pictures I took on the footpath from Xeropotamou to St Panteleimon’s. From reading accounts of monks walking from monastery to monastery on the Holy Mountain, I had an idea of what it was like there. I was wrong. One of the pilgrims on the boat to Athos told me that the Athonite peninsula is exceptionally green, given the surrounding country of the Chalkidiki part of Greece, and that there are a lot of natural springs and creeks to be found.

At any rate, if you like nature scenery, look over the pictures. If you don’t, you can probably skip this post.

 

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jul 3, 2011

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Day 49, Xeropotamou

[Sunday, 3 July 2011] Because it was Sunday, both at Vespers last night and at Matins & Liturgy this morning, the monks showed how well they could sing. I caught myself wondering about men who love God so much they will get up at 3 in the morning every single day and give the best that they have in His service. It gave me more respect for the dedication of the monks.

There was a particular highlight this morning. Near the end of Matins, one of the two priests went to the other side altar (the narthex has two) and came out with a tray with two silver objects on them. They were shaped like little astronomical observatories, round with a domed top, about 10 inches high, and made of silver. All the monks took to prostrating themselves fervently and then went up to venerate the objects. Come to find out they were the relics, skulls to be exact, of two local Saints: a Nicholas (not the Wonderworker) and Auxentios. Each reliquary had a round lid on top, which was open, and we were able to venerate the holy pates of the Saints.

A couple of dozen men showed up for the Liturgy; I’m not sure where they came from, unless they’re simply between here and there and stopped in the for service. But they stayed for brunch, too, and then left. After that, the monks locked all the doors and everybody went back to bed, myself included.

The day turned very hot, and the breeze died out and didn’t come back until after Vespers.

In the afternoon, I went to sit out on the pavilion that overlooks the sea, to read a bit and catch what little breeze there was. I didn’t read long before Pavel the Palomnik (“Pilgrim”) came up. Now this was quite a surprise to me. When I was in Ouranoupolis, the evening before I came to Athos, I found the parish church and attended Vespers. The only other man there besides me and the priest was this street person in the place next to me. Overdressed for the weather, wild hair and beard, dark tan, and more than a few days since his last bath, he prayed very piously and didn’t say a word to anyone. I saw him again on the boat to Athos; again, he passed by without a word to anyone. Now he shows up at the gate of Xeropotamou, sits down next to me, and we talk for over an hour. He is Slovenian, the son and grandson of academicians, with an advanced degree in art history, and he speaks several languages, English being one of them. He had done well in life until alcohol destroyed his health and left him with a mild dementia. Now he spends as much time as he can wandering as a pilgrim to holy places. He’s still mad at God for the alcoholism, but he’s trying to come to terms with his life, such as it is now, and he’s looking for Christ’s healing.

It wasn’t my place to speak for the monastery, as to whether or not they would take him. It turns out they wouldn’t give him a room. Maybe it was because they know the type, or maybe it was because his diamonitirion (visitor’s permit) indicated that he was Catholic, I don’t know, but they packed him a nice sack lunch and suggested he go to St Andrew’s Skete near the capital at Karyes, a two-hour walk from here. Maybe they’re more accommodating at St Andrew’s, since that is where the famous Elder Paisios lived (he recently reposed, but St Andrew’s is still high on many people’s list of places to visit). I gave him what hospitality I could by listening to his rather rambling accounts of things and sent him off with a blessing. I wish him well, and perhaps as you read this, you might Cross yourself and say a brief prayer for Pavel, the broken man from Slovenia.

After Vespers, I had dinner with only one companion, a Greek man with a sister in New York, who spoke some English. He is here to work as a cook for a few days, and tomorrow he will be moving to the workers’ quarters. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that there are a few laymen working here. He told me that the reason we were not eating with the brethren is because the century-old frescoes in the refectory have suffered damage from moisture in the walls, and are under restoration, and the monks are forced to eat in a small room that’s barely big enough for them.

Tomorrow, immediately after breakfast, I’m packing off to St Panteleimon’s, called by the Greeks “Rossikon.” I have some vague directions about where to find the path just outside the road into Xeropotamou. I’m to look for a sign with an arrow that says “Rossikon that-a-way” and follow the path. The length of time it’s supposed to take me to get there on foot gets shorter every time I ask someone. It started at 30 minutes and is now down to 20. I hope Greeks don’t estimate time like Texans do and discover it’s actually an hour long hike through rough terrain. With a heavy backpack. In my cassock. In the heat of the summer.

Day 48, Xeropotamou

[Saturday, 2 July 2011] Set my alarm for 3:10 am, but I didn’t need to. At 3:15 a god-awful clanging rang out of the stairwell; there would be no sleeping through that. Washed my face, brushed my teeth, threw on my cassock and went to church. Midnight Office, Matins, 1st Hour, and Liturgy followed one another. The lingering question over whether or not I would be allowed to commune was answered positively when I was invited into the tiny side altar to commune with the other two priests.

I thought it would be possible to pray on my own during the morning service, since it was all chanted or sung quietly and quickly. Alas, I spent most of my time fighting sleep and just attempting to focus. I’m sure I’ll get better at it as I adjust to the schedule. With regard to the quiet, quick chanting, there is a reason for it: many of the monks came to the church already deep in prayer. The services are conducted in such a way as to minimize distraction for those who are already praying. I noticed, too, that all the monks move very quietly around the church when they need to, again in order not to disturb their brethren.

After a modest breakfast alone with Niko, I wandered outside to look at the world before it got too hot. I wandered down into the groves of olives, apricots, and peaches, then up the road behind the monastery, where I found a little waterfall and a good, high view of the back of the monastery.

Alas, a better grasp of Greek would have been helpful, because all of the monks are busy with something this morning and the place is shut down. The young man who works for the guest-master said something to me about locked doors and lunch, but I didn’t catch his meaning until two hours later, when I tried to get back into the monastery. It couldn’t be done; every door was locked and I was on the wrong side of them. Oh, well. I sat down in a shaded pavilion overlooking the sea and Daphne, took off my sweaty cassock, and worked my prayer rope until (thankfully) a couple of new pilgrims came panting up the path. I followed them into the entrance of the monastery and pointed out the buzzer for the guest-master. A few minutes after they rang, the young man came out of the guest-house to talk to them and he kindly let me back inside.

Niko went off to Vatopedi at noon. Five new pilgrims have arrived. Lunch consisted of a whole fried fish (which watched me as I ate it), a beet salad, bread, pomegranate juice, and fresh apricots, which are in season. I took a nap, figured out a make-shift way to bathe in the sink, called Annette, and transcribed a bit of my conversation with Fr Zacharias, all before Vespers. Dinner was a fine bowl of beans, some white paste with garlic that I sopped up with bread, stewed mushrooms, dry white wine to drink, and an apple for dessert. After Compline, I found out the youngish priest who is serving this week is, indeed, American, which I suspected from his accent, and is called Fr Ephrem. The guest-master, likewise, has a name, Fr Petros; he seemed surprised that I should have asked.

Also, the fact that I went into the altar this morning for Communion seems to have made me kosher in the eyes of the monks. At Vespers this evening, an elderly monk patted me on the arm when we were colliding while venerating an Icon, and another monk, out of the blue, handed me as a blessing a fresh sprig of mint. It’s nice to be able to interact with the rest of the community, even if it’s only by small gestures.

That’s enough. Despite the nap, I’m still beat and want to go to bed. I hope the fact that it’s still light outside and the five Greek pilgrims are chatting away under my window won’t keep me up too late…