To the Holy Mountain

A Protestant’s journey among the monks of Mount Athos. /

When you first arrive at a monastery on Mount Athos, the traditional center of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the first thing you do is knock back a shot. You drop your backpack on the floor, find a spot on the long wooden bench in the guesthouse hallway, and then you’re welcomed by a young bearded monk with a tray filled with shot glasses brimming with rakí, a strong Greek version of grappa (flavored with anise). He also offers a bowl of powdered sweets. I don’t know what’s happening at this point, or if this is a monkish joke, but the other pilgrims nod me on and it’s bottoms-up. It is only a small glass, of course, but I’m jet lagged and tired from the journey. I finish it with a gulp. Afterwards I sip from a glass of water next to the rakí and chomp down the loukoumi, the powdered sugar treat the monk serves in a small ornate bowl; elsewhere this is known as Turkish Delight.

I had heard many stories about Mount Athos, so I knew something about the welcome-shot, but this still feels strange. Here I am, on an ancient peninsula of monasteries, thousands of miles from my home in California, and my first ten minutes could have taken place in any Irish pub. Who, I wondered, in the thousand-year history of this place, decided to welcome pilgrims with booze? The word tradition was what brought me here, and I already felt baffled by it.

In the guesthouse hallway, I look around to see I’m the only American in the arriving group of pilgrims. After a quick hello, I learn I’m the only Protestant as well. The others are Greek, mainly, or Russian; all Orthodox. For reasons unknown to me, the black-bearded guestmaster monk, Father Stephanos, is glaring at me from behind his desk.

The guesthouse is full today, and the monks are working hard to accommodate everyone. While I wait for a room, a tall monk with a wood mop glides past me down the hall. Underneath his breath, I hear him whisper: Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me; Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me; Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me. (In English: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.) The monk blends the words Eleisonme back to Kyrie, so the prayer makes a loop. I smile at him as he strides down the hall, and he smiles back. The gesture feels like an island in a sea of the unknown.

For the last decade of my life, I have been searching for the presence of God. As long as I can remember, I have believed in the existence of God, but it was only recently that I discovered him to be close. The childhood statements of belief I made, it turns out, concealed a reality. I can’t say how this happened, or maybe it was just the normal growth of a Christian, but at some point there was a shift. I knew it only in fugitive instants, but when I did, the sense was unmistakable. These moments both filled me and created a different kind of longing; a longing both satisfied and increased at once. Of course, all words fail here, but I mention this because when it happened, I inevitably started paying more attention to traditions that gestured towards this mystery. What did other branches of Christianity have to say about the immanence of God in the world? And what human words had been wrapped around this mystery?

With time, it became clear to me that I had grown up with a suspicion of anything “too spiritual.” Perhaps this was a reaction to the charismatic excess of the ’80s and ’90s (which is to say, the televangelists). Whatever the cause, in my heart I didn’t really believe that God was close. I would never have said this in my community, but now I suspect I was something close to a “moral therapeutic deist,” to use the words of Christian Smith. In other words, I sought Christ sincerely—but inwardly, I saw him as distant. I prayed with little sense of expectation, with little sense that God cared or would involve himself in my details. All of this was the result of my own heart—no doubt—and no fault of anyone else, but at the denominational level it seemed like I had a choice between the charismatics and Pentecostals on one hand, and the cessationist Baptists and buttoned-up Presbyterians on the other. I knew almost nothing about anything between.

I didn’t know the Quakers, the Methodists, the charismatic Anglicans or Catholics, or even the spiritual experiences of Reformed types such as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards (recently highlighted by Tim Keller). I knew these traditions varied in major ways, but they all shared a powerful sense of God in their midst, an awareness of the immanent God. And for whatever reason, this awareness was foreign to me during my early years in the church. The Orthodox posture, I knew, was something else. And I wanted to know more.

Home to twenty ancient monasteries and many more hermits, Mount Athos is a 130-square-mile peninsula that juts southward from the Greek mainland into the Aegean Sea. On Athos, my residence is Vatopaidi, the second oldest monastery on Athos and the largest in all of Greece. Built by aristocrats, Vatopaidi has been in operation for more than a millennium, though some date it back even further, all the way to the reign of the Emperor Arcadius (circa A.D. 408). By anyone’s count, Vatopaidi is older than almost every nation on the planet. The monks see themselves as the remnant of an ancient tradition, one that has witnessed the rise and fall of a dizzying swarm of human empires—the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Bolsheviks, even a brief occupation by Hitler and the Third Reich. To put it mildly, the monks’ dogged persistence in spite of these waxing and waning earthly powers suggest they know a thing or two about sticking around. The empires of man rise and fall, but the inner life persists. The centuries bend onward, but the soul is drawn endlessly to God; eternity endures in the heart.

Every monk on Mount Athos takes three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. These are the same vows that monks take in Italy or Scotland or India, although the flavor is different in the Eastern Church. For the monks, the vows are just the beginning, an outward commitment to a posture they hope to achieve in the heart. In a way, it’s like Babe Ruth pointing at the fence. As several monks told me during my visit, it is one thing to commit to obedience, to say, “Thy will be done.” But it’s quite another to become obedient in the heart. To mean it. The vows, in this sense, serve as a sort of scaffolding for the long-term aim of loving God with ever more of the heart.

In this regard, monasticism is a sort of signpost for God’s presence in the world. The vows, one might say, are predicated on God’s availability to us, on the availability of his grace, presence, and help. Without the immanence of God, his nearness, the draw to monasticism makes much less sense. That is to say, if you cannot find God in the quiet—as Christ suggests in the Sermon on the Mount—there is little point in taking such onerous vows. The choice to become a monk, in this sense, is a wager on immanence. If God isn’t immanent—through Christ, through Scripture, through prayer, through solitude—then the life of a monk is one of the great absurdities on the planet, a rejection of ordinary life without any higher end. Without the nearness of God, the life of a monk is a monstrosity.

On the other hand, if God is immanent in the world, if he is present, Emmanuel, “God with us,” then the monk’s wager will see some returns. Therefore Christ’s saying that “the kingdom of God is within you” plays a large role in Orthodox monasticism. An important text for Eastern monks, from a seventh century Syrian monk, is the following: The ladder that leads to the kingdom of God is hidden within you … and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. And for the monks at least, this inner movement is a critical part of how one begins to perceive the immanent God. “If your eye is healthy,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “your whole body will be full of light.”

But this isn’t the only reason I came to Athos. If understanding more about the presence of God was one reason, a sense of my own narcissism was another. Most of the people in my life would describe me as a passionate person. But this trait, I was learning, had a dark side. At its best, it was a sort of conscience or compass for me. At its worst, it was a wearying self-concern, an urgency or moral imperative through which I harmed the people around me. As a result of this, I found myself wondering if maybe what I needed was not more fuel for my passions—more millennial do what you love!—but rather a humility that would hem it in. And what, I wondered, was less millennial than a lifelong vow of obedience?

Of course, one long visit to a monastery wouldn’t straighten this out for me, but it was clear to me that among the branches of Christianity, the Orthodox esteemed humility the most. I had seen this most notably in The Philokalia, the dazzling Orthodox text on prayer. Humility was a central aim of every Athonite monk, and in my own journey, I figured the contact could only help.

One of the most baffling things about Mount Athos is how hospitable and forbidding it can be in the same instant. It is no secret on Athos that many Greek monks do not admire the influence of American culture here. On my first day, one monk told me: “In the history and culture of the world, the main contribution of America is the mini-mall.” Another said, “If I were an American today, the first thing I would do is learn Greek.” The monks are adamant about the fact that Athos was never intended to be a monastic Disneyland. “We don’t do spiritual tourism here,” one monk said.

As a Christian downstream from Luther and the Pope, I expected (via advice from Orthodox friends) to be received with many questions. Indeed, many monks see the entire Protestant faith as inescapably linked to Roman Catholicism—or, as they call it, “Papism”—and therefore a huge and terrible mistake. The Protestant tradition, in their eyes, is the individualistic counter-heresy to the original heresy of the pope. The Orthodox, meanwhile, have no pope, but exercise authority in councils of patriarchs—although rarely without a mess. In the Orthodox view, the Protestants heaved off all authority rather than simply tossing out the heretical parts, and the result is something like the Wild West: a wide open landscape of cowboys and their frontier churches; a place without rules, order, or law. In the Orthodox view, authority and tradition must play a critical role in helping us understand and follow Christ. Without it, they say, churches become captive to any slick tongue with a microphone, or to any manager that can produce results.

By “tradition,” then, they usually mean the Orthodox Church and the Holy Fathers, the so-called “Patristic” writers who penned a set of influential texts between A.D. 100 and 500: Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and others. For the Orthodox, these are some of the voices that keep the church from drifting with the winds of culture. Another key anchor is their service, the Chrysostom Divine Liturgy—a celebration of the Eucharist—which has remained largely unchanged since the fifth century.

In the Orthodox view, one big Protestant misstep is the idea that we can choose and assemble faith for ourselves. Or that it can be adapted and changed, in individual settings, when and how we see fit. In their eyes, the fragmentation of the Western church provides a marker of this problem, and this is something the monks happily point out to a visiting Protestant. One question I’ve heard many times: “How do you feel about the fact that your faith is centered on protest?” Another: “Do you know that the original Greek word for ‘heresy’ means ‘choice’?”

Many of the monks love these questions. And a generous Protestant will take them in stride, as expressions of fidelity to a different tradition. The sagely Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware once said: “Mount Athos has never been at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue.”

Indeed, much like an evangelical might ask a coworker to come to church, the average Athonite urges conversion to Orthodoxy as the first and best way to love a Protestant. For the monks, a Protestant represents change, and Athos stands for a decision not to change, no matter how loud the outside clamor.

From what I’ve seen so far, this tendency has occasionally produced almost absurd or comic results. For example, a monk tells me that a change in the church calendar in the 1970s provoked one group of monks to outright schism. The monks who rejected the change—you might call them rebel monks—now fly a banner outside their monastery that reads “Orthodoxy or Death.” One monk said the dispute is really more about church authority, and not just the calendar. Still, I have a hard time picturing Christ in line with the protesting monks. “Judge with right judgment,” he said, and I can’t imagine him getting worked up over something so small.

Despite this fierce resistance to change, however, the modern world continues to creep into the Holy Mountain. Cell phones are widespread now, especially outside the monasteries, and many monasteries use email to keep track of guests. As much of Mount Athos confirms for me, it can be harder than we think to leave the world.

To get to Mount Athos, I flew into Thessaloniki via Istanbul, where I made a quick stop at the Hagia Sophia. From Thessaloniki, I boarded a bus for the three-hour trip down to the small town of Ouranoupolis, the main port of entry for Athos. I made reservations four months in advance (by email). A towering wall blocks the full northern border, so visitors are required to enter by boat. The monks allow ten non-Orthodox visitors each day, along with roughly ninety Orthodox. The monks didn’t always count heads, but a wave of hippies took advantage of the free housing in the ’70s, so the monks designed a system to discourage the casual guest. To visit Athos today, you have to want to get there.

On the morning of my departure, as I remember it, the sky is clear and blue. As I stroll down the main drag of Ouranoupolis with my pack, I duck into a small cafe. The man behind the counter asks me in Greek how I take my coffee. Meaning to say “black,” I say “purple.” The owner tries again, this time in English: “With milk?”

The winds on Athos are fierce that day, so there is a glut of pilgrims trying to enter from the south side. After some confusion, I manage to secure a seat on one of the waiting speed boats, the Mikra Agia Anna. Within thirty bumpy minutes, I’m at Daphni, the entryway to Athos.

As I arrive, the landscape gives me a shudder. The scene is like the Big Sur I know from childhood—wild and rugged cliffs—only the hills of Athos appear even taller from the boat. A carpet of greenery enfolds the steep ascent, and granite outcroppings jut out from the treeline. The port of Daphni is a tiny dot before the looming hills behind it. And though I’ve seen photos of all this before, the real thing is of a different order.

I take a deep breath. I had wondered if I would feel Something different here. But the main impression is one of sheer natural beauty. Sadly, I can’t stay long to enjoy it. I need to get to Vatopaidi, on the north side of Athos, which is about an hour away by van.

After some additional awkward haggling in Greek, I secure a seat with three elderly Cypriot pilgrims on a mini-van over to Karyes, then Vatopaidi.

The road up from Daphni is a serious white-knuckler; a slender ribbon of dirt which twists lengthwise along the cliff. The driver, like most of the drivers, is a monk. His hands look weathered, and I hope he knows what he’s doing. This is a very narrow road. I glance over at the Cypriots, and they also look worried. This road needs a barrier, or this monk some self-control. Does the vow of obedience apply to the speed limit? The monk spins into the curves like a man with no fear of death.

Beneath the rear-view mirror hangs a rectangular icon of Christ. The icon swings back and forth with each switchback, left to right in a gentle glide, oblivious to our peril. Christ extends himself to each of us in peace. In his right hand, the sign of blessing: three fingers extended, thumb touching the ring finger. And I need this blessing right now, maybe today more than ever. I am fragile in a great and wild unknown.

Continue to chapter two.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 24 / June 11, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 24: A long-form special issue.

  2. ‘We Don’t Really Do the Retreat Thing Here’

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter two. /

  3. Hermit Hospitality

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter three. /

  4. Overflowing with Love

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter four. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 24: Links to amazing stuff /

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