Sunday, July 09, 2006

Athos Journal Part II

A journey to Athos deserve the sort of considered and meditative reflections that two brief blog posts are unable provide. For more lingering descriptions may I therefore refer you to journalist Christopher Merrill's Things of the Hidden God, which provide well informed and beautifully penned personal reflections on his recent pilgrimage. In the meantime, here's a quick jaunt through the rest of mine.

Day 3 - Karyes: I awoke to a beautiful sunrise (the first I'd seen as the other monasteries I'd been at face West). Not exactly unhappy to leave the less hospitable place, I took a bus to the central "town" of Kyries, shopped around and observed the art of the Protaton, including the Axion Esti icon decorated with the watches of anonymous but grateful men. I then hiked up to the Skete of St. Andrew, a massive Russian monument hurriedly erected in the nineteenth century and just as quickly abandoned thanks to the Russian Revolution - but is now experiencing a revival. Because the place needs serious restoration, I thought perhaps an item or two purchased in the gift shop would help in the effort. After picking out a well-sized icon of St. Christopher and a print, I handed the monk at the register a 20 euro bill, only to have him shoo it away and (despite my persistent refusals) make me take the things I'd chosen while refusing, with a smile, to let me pay.

Day 3.5 - Iveron: I then took a bus to the #3 monastery in Athos' hierarchy. I should have walked, but paid for it the next morning by a return hike on the same unispiring route uphill. After checking into a private room at Iveron's massive guesthouse, I proceeded downstairs where the Australian monk Father Jeremiah both offered me lunch and took me up on my offer to converse (to my enormous relief) in English. Here finally was a chance for some theological discussion, so out came my objections to Orthodoxy, and back came winsome replies, understated but satisfying, from under the cover of a coy smile and unruly beard. Some monks on Athos were rude, he explained, simply because monks are people too. It is an obvious but often forgotten point. While mysticism is a branch of Catholic theology (and, I should add, a Protestant twig) all of Orthodox theology according to Father Jeremiah is mystical, refusing any and all concession to human logic. It's a debatable point, but I can at least see it. My most serious objection to Orthodoxy is what seems to me its decidedly ethnic composition. Father Jeremiah's reply to this was particularly astute: Athough nationalism is regrettable, the only truly "Orthodox" are not Greeks, Russians or Serbs, but those who are divinized, i.e. the Saints.

I suspect in fact that some of the monks at Iveron may be well along with their respective divinizations. After liturgy they informally processed around the courtyard in joyful conversation, embracing all newcoming guests with the same enchanting hospitality as they did me. The splendor of the liturgy effortlessly translated itself into the gentle kindness of everday interaction.

At night I found myself in the bookstore with two more English speaking monks, one who must have been about thirty, the second about seventy. They had a rapport like college roommates, and were eager to inivite anyone into their circle of comradery that was willing to join, even if it meant the exhausting task of keeping up conversations in English and Greek at the same time. After pouring us all a (single) shot of vodka, they laughed and joked with the other customers until well past closing time. The elder monk saw my interest in icons, and literally forced me, again despite repeated objections, to plunder the print section of the gift shop without paying, taking a copy of every icon print they had, which were quite a few. I felt at this point it was my duty to not go into any more gift shops lest I be considered to be taking advantage of a situation.

Though the extraordinary grace of Iveron hadn't convinced me to become Orthodox, for the first time I felt the tug that leads so many to so decide. Still, because as one British writer dryly put it, "Athos has never been at the forefront of ecumenical dialougue," I am to the Athonites formally a heretic (albeit a very kindly hosted one). If Western Christianity has anything going for it, at least neither Protestants nor Catholics return that particular favor, as there will always more more to learn from the East than there ever will be to criticize. As explained one western Christian in an extraordinary document,

"The men and women of the East are a symbol of the Lord who comes again. We cannot forget them, not only because we love them as brothers and sisters redeemed by the same Lord, but also because a holy nostalgia for the centuries lived in the full communion of faith and charity urges us and reproaches us for our sins and our mutual misunderstandings: we have deprived the world of a joint witness that could, perhaps, have avoided so many tragedies and even changed the course of history."
Day 4 - Xenophontos: The joy in Iveron was contagious, and I left in the morning for Kyries not exactly happy to leave. Though I had planned to depart that day, unanimous advice of the monks was that staying one or two days past your permit was acceptable. Because the purpose of my visit was art historical research, I was told that the capitol of icon painting on Athos was Xenophontos monastery. After a quick stop at Panteleimon (the Russian monastery which saw 600 of its monks forcably deported by warship to Siberia in 1913), I spent the better portion of a long hike trying to secure a Xenophonatos reservation beforehand. But phones it seems aren't picked up on Sunday. No matter however, because after arriving (and waiting 4 hourse!) it turned out a reservation was unnecessary. The food of rice and clams was delicious, and the elaborately painted refectory overlooked the sparkling sea. That night a few of us made a rewarding short hike to Docheiariou, from where the above picture was taken.

Day 5 - Departure: In the morning after liturgy and breakfast I was given the chance to interview (with rare permission for pictures!) Father Lukas, one of the head iconographers on Athos. Thanks to my having recruited a translator the night before, our conversation about icons could venture well beyond "This is pretty," and "I like this one" (too far beyond which this pilgrim's Greek has yet to go).

On the boat back I met up with Hussein, a Muslim student studying in Thessalonki who I had met at one of the less hospitable foundations. I learned that after being politely asked to leave another monastery, he tried his luck, without having called ahead, at the famous (and consequently overbooked) Simonopetra, where he was treated to the same kind of extraordinary graciousness I had experienced at Iveron. One monk, on learning that he was a Muslim, kindly gave him a prayer bracelet and instructed him to say "Allah, Allah" during the service. It struck me as a gesture that would make many Orthodox deeply uncomfortable, as I should admit it makes me. But what was the effect of this instruction? Said Hussein, "I was so struck by their kindness that I am considering changing my religion."

There's a little bit in it story to offend everyone. Perhaps that's why I like it.

From two weeks at a convent and one on Athos, I've learned above all that monks and nuns are often much, much shrewder than one might orignially suppose. And though the "Orthdoxy or Death" flag flies still over Esphigemenou because the current Patriarch of Constantinople dared merely speak with the Pope, still I'll bet their are a good many Athonite monks who secretly joined the last one in praying,

"May God shorten the time and distance. May Christ, the Orientale Lumen, soon, very soon, grant us to discover that in fact, despite so many centuries of distance, we were very close, because together - perhaps without knowing it - we were walking towards the one Lord, and thus towards one another" (5/2/95).
They're way too holy to not have.