ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Mount Athos: The Virgin’s Garden

A peninsula in Greece is home to more than 1,000 monks who follow ancient monastic rules.

Probably there is no place on earth where the Virgin Mary is more venerated than on Greece’s Holy Mountain of Athos. Mt. Athos is home to some 1,500 monks living in 20 monasteries on the eastern-most promontory of a three-prong peninsula in northern Greece. It is named after a pyramidlike peak that rises 6,760 feet. The promontory is 30 miles long and five miles broad.

Long centuries ago however, Athos was home to pagans as loyal to their graven images as the monks are to the Mother of God today.

According to ancient tradition, the Virgin and the Apostle John were on their way to Cyprus to visit the resurrected Lazarus when their ship was caught in a great tempest and blown all the way to Athos.

As the Virgin’s vessel approached, the colossus of Zeus surveying the world from the great peak of Athos, collapsed and so did all the lesser images of the Athonites. But not before they commanded the idolators to go down to the shore to welcome the Virgin and St. John.

Afterwards Mary asked her Son to bless Athos and a voice was heard promising, “Henceforth this place shall be your lot and your garden and paradise”. It has been just that ever since, according to legend.

The monastic world came into being about half way through the tenth century when St. Athanasios the Athonite founded the monastery known as the Great Lavra.

While Byzantine emperors and Patriarchs blessed the establishment of each subsequent monastery from their far away thrones in Constantinople, the lives of the monks were threatened by almost constant dangers.

Since they had chosen a life outside law and order, they were the natural prey of corsairs, soldiers of fortune and even Frankish knights. That is why the montasteries close and bar their single portal every night and have the look of impregnable castles.

Never more than 10,000 strong even in their golden age, the monks of Athos somehow persisted in their faithfulness and resisted the temptation to flee back to the protection and comfort of the world. The reward for the monks steadfastness in the face of so much peril was inner peace.

Today Mt. Athos exists under the Greek government as a republic, but it enjoys a certain amount of self-rule. Of the 20 monasteries on the promontory, nine of them are cenobitic. Monks in cenobitic ruled monasteries are obedient to an abbot who is chosen for life. They perform all liturgical services in common and follow a strict discipline in regard to property and food. The remaining 11 monasteries are idiorrhythmic. Idiorrhythmic monasteries allow the monk to set his own pace (literally, his own rhythm). In addition to the 20 monasteries, there are sketes affiliated with them. Sketes, some of which are larger than the main monasteries, are clusters of ascetics living together. Like monasteries, sketes are cenobitic and idiorrhythmic. Located throughout the Mount are kalyves which are indedent hermitages. Each hermitage is directly under one of the main monasteries. There are also separated houses, called kellias, which are ruled by an elder and dependent on the main monasteries. The ascetical rule in the kellias is not as austere as that practiced in the kalyves.

Travelling through the rugged countryside, human encounter is infrequent; a black-hatted monk astride a tiny mule afoot, a lay woodcutter leading his animal laden with branches. Peacefulness pervades the forests and one can come closer to the meaning of the Psalmist’s “Be still then and know that I am God.”

There is always the waiting monastery, often by the sea, with its fortress-gate yawning to admit wayfarer worker monks coming home from labors in the fields.

A pilgrim progresses from monastery to monastery, sometimes on foot, sometimes by caique, and tarries the night at the monastery of Iveron whose particular dedication is to the Dormition of the Virgin.

Stepping through the high, tunnel-like gateway of Iveron is to step across a threshold in time. No glaring lights blot out the splendor of constellations over the many-domed katholikon, or central church, silhouetted against the starry sky.

In the quietness of the night, the sudden rhythmic clatter of the semantron, a long, wooden “gong” sends monks hurrying to their devotions in the chapel of the Portaitissa, the Virgin of the Gate. Their images are vague, dark, bird-like shapes in the dimness.

Within the chapel, the light of ancient hanging lamps dapples the precious metal icon of the Virgin and the child that is said to have miraculously transported itself over the sea of Constantinople to Athos. It has been the Protectress of Iveron and the worker of uncountable miracles.

The voices of the monks in their ancient language echo the voices heard ten-hundred years ago under the dome of Haghia Sophia when Constantinople was a pillar of the Christian world.

Time is banished on Athos. In fact, the Byzantine monastic measure of time is still used with 12 o’clock being sunset. There are no machine sounds, electric lights, radios, newspapers or automobiles on Athos. The centuries old ban enacted by the Emperor Constantine Monomachus in 1045 excluding women still exists.

The Holy Mountain of Athos gives the world a glimpse of the powerful continuity of age-old faith. For a thousand years men have heeded Christ’s call to turn from the world and “come follow me”.

Charles Adelsen, an American journalist living in Istanbul, frequently writes about the Near East.

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