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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:

On Elder Sophrony:

On St John the Baptist Monastery:

On Xeropotamou Monastery:

On St Panteleimon’s Monastery:


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…

Day 47, Xeropotamou

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jun 30, 2011

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[Friday, 1 July 2011] Woke up before the alarm, ca. 5:30, probably in anticipation of the day. Breakfast at the hotel was a good buffet, but it was spoiled somewhat by late coffee service and a child that was scalded by hot tea. Got my diamonitirion at the office, found the sales desk for the boat to Mt Athos, sat at an outdoor café and drank coffee until it was time to board.

The “Axion Estin” is a large boat, and carried several vans and trucks to Athos, as well as the group of pilgrims and a dozen or so monks. I met a Romanian monk who went to school with Bishop Ireneu, the auxiliary bishop of our Romanian diocese; talked with a pilgrim from Arlington, TX, and one from Florida. Met some Cypriots who were professional photographers (one took 800 pictures in the 2 hours it took us to get to the port of Daphne.) Members of a biker gang, Arkhangeli Srpski, got on the boat, too, leather vests, tattoos and all; attitude they seem to have left on shore.

Stopped at the docks of several monasteries along the way until we got to Daphne. Athos is very beautiful. The monks have allowed nothing more than a few dirt roads for buses and trucks, and while there are many vegetable patches, orchards, and vineyards, it doesn’t spoil the untouched naturalness of the place. It is a very green and very beautiful peninsula. No wonder they call it the Garden of the Mother of God.

As we passed by Xeropotamou Monastery on the boat, I saw it, high and lifted up, several hundred feet above sea level. I was thinking twice about walking up to it. Thankfully, on asking directions, I was instead put on a bus and put off along the dirt road several minutes later, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, because I couldn’t see the monastery or anything else from where I was standing. A Greek man got off with me—he spoke no English, but thank God, he knew what he was doing—and together we went to the monastery.

There is much that is renovated at Xeropotamou: new walkways, newly stuccoed walls, new doors and windows everywhere. The front and entrance way to the monastery seems to be new construction. The guesthouse is completely refurbished, as are all the rooms and restrooms in it. I have found the toilets, sinks and a place to hand-wash clothes. I have not found the showers yet (I’m suspecting there aren’t any). The rooms all have three beds, a dim wall light, a table lamp, and one electrical outlet. Plain, but comfortable. The architecture would make any resort proud.

The guest-master looks like Saruman the Wise.

Niko (the man I came in with) & I were given the usual Athonite hospitality: a shot of ouzo, a glass of cold water, and a sweet (we had little bowls of cherries in very thick syrup), then we were given the schedule and shown to our rooms.

Niko and I decided to go exploring. Even though it wasn’t formally open, we managed to get into the catholicon, the main church of the Monastery, which is dedicated to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. The iconography is mid-18th century, somewhat in need of cleaning, but breath-taking nevertheless. Every square inch in frescoed, and there are many square inches. Regrettably, there is renovation going on in the main part of the church, and scaffolding is set up. Three Greek men with very good English explained that they were scanning the Iconostasis for restoration work; they had two computers there, with large screens, and 3-dimensional graphical views of parts of the Iconostasis that they were preparing.

We, the only two guests at the monastery, were given lunch at 1:30: stewed veggies (squash, okra, onion, tomato, and much garlic), bread, and fresh apricots for dessert. Oddly, at my place, I had two whole tomatoes and a whole cucumber instead of a salad. The guest-house refectory is very modern, with air conditioning and a kitchen at one end that any American woman would lust after, with new, stainless steel appliances, hardwood cabinetry, and tiled countertops.

After lunch, I took a nap, since it had turned warm and muggy and had even rained a little, and besides, I’ve figured out that nothing goes on in Greece in the heat of the day anyway, except some of the work of day laborers, and there seem to be several around here.

Vespers was at 5 pm, and, due to the construction in the main nave, it was served in the narthex, which, by the way, has two side altars complete with iconostases. A few minutes before Vespers, the Priest brought out one of the treasures of the monastery: a large relic of the True Cross (with a nail hole, even) and relics from some of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, which we were allowed to venerate. After Vespers, the guest master herded Niko and me back to the guest-house, where dinner was waiting: a rice dish with carrots, mushrooms and a thick sauce, over which we poured lemon juice; a very tasty kind of sauerkraut; and halvah for dessert.

It was after dinner that Niko discovered he had cell phone reception outside the buildings…

Apodeipnon/compline was at 7:15, and is a short service. Once the monks had gone out of the church, the guest master herded me and Niko back to the guest house. Apart from these two, I’ve had next to no contact with any of the other monks. Niko knew one of the monks, and the two of them sat outside by the agiasterion (big basin for blessing Holy Water) and talked it up.

I am reconsidering my plan to stay here for three days. Niko is going off to visit another monastery tomorrow, and I don’t relish the thought of being here all by myself with no one to talk to. It would be one thing if I/we were with the community, but it seems we’re not, and aren’t likely to be. If I want to pray, I can do that during the services, which, if Xeropotamou is a typical example, are served so rapidly I can barely follow them. I might just decide to follow Niko off to Vatopedi tomorrow, on the other side of the peninsula, and then go on to one of the other monasteries the day after, ending up at St Panteleimon’s on Monday like I’m supposed to.

By the way, it seems that my information on Athos is out of date. Athos has modernized rather completely. There are busses and shuttle-busses that run every day from the port of Daphne and from Karyes, the capitol of Athos, to all of the monasteries and back. You don’t have to hike to any of them if you don’t want to; it seems, in the height of summer, nobody does. I know I don’t.

Day 47, On the way to Mt Athos

A set of pictures of the ferry boat trip to Mt Athos.

Again, click on a picture to go to the Picasa album where the picture is stored for Google maps showing locations, and other features. (If you go to the Picasa album page and click on the blue “Upload way to Mt Athos” link at the top of the page, you can see the whole album of pictures, and the Google map is more fun there. I’m a fan of this feature, so if you use it, on the Google map, be sure to change the view of the map from “map” to “satellite”.)

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jun 30, 2011

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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?

Sabbatical destinations

For those not familiar with Google maps: click and hold your mouse button to move the map around in its frame.

Use the plus (+) and minus (-) buttons on the left to zoom in and out. Or just double-click on the map itself, near the spot you want to zoom in on, and you’ll zoom in there. You can zoom in really, really close and see some interesting details.

Double click on the blue place markers for a brief description of the location.

If you click on the “View larger map” link that’s directly underneath the map, it will take you to the Google map page, where you’ll get a really big map to play around with, and use some really cool features. E.g., switching between satellite and map views (and Google Earth views, if you have Google Earth installed), and clicking on the “photos” option in the upper right corner, which will call up any pictures people have taken at that location; click on them to get a ground-level picture taken at that spot (the pictures taken at St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Mt Athos are really spectacular; check ’em out!)