My son visited Mount Athos—the most significant collection of monasteries in Greece. Women are not allowed on Mount Athos. To visit there, you must go through an application process that has to be approved. He and his friend from the U.S. were traveling through Greece together during the summer and Mount Athos was the final destination on their trip. I asked him to keep a journal while he was there. His journal exceeded my expectations! I’m so happy he will have these memories and details recorded for posterity. Their adventure started when they had to take several forms of transportation just to arrive to this most holy place! It was planes, trains, automobiles, and ferries! They had just enjoyed three weeks at a co-ed youth camp in Greece and another 8 days of freedom, adventure and a Greek wedding celebration in the coastal town of Nafpaktos. Now they were ending their 5 week trip at Mount Athos for six days. I urged my son to keep a travel journal about this special experience he was about to embark upon. I had taught him, when he was in elementary school, how to do this on our family trips. His older brother urged him to keep a journal as well, because he had not done it on his solo trip to Greece, and he regretted it. My son took our advice and diligently wrote daily in his journal. I’ll always save that little black journal for him.
Here is the typed version written by my 18 year old son:
Mount Athos : Day One 7-20-2015
I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. Only one week left, yet July 28th seems so far away. Here I am, laying in my cot at Philotheo, with bats flying overhead throughout the hallways and no air-conditioning system to ease me into a much desired sleep. This is my first impression of the Holy Mountain, a site in which thousands of pilgrims travel to and from all around the world each year.
Just nine hours in, and yet there’s nothing quite like the experience. A 9:45 a.m. ferry ride turned into a 2.5 hour mind trip. As expected, there was no means of accessing wi-fi aboard the boat, so I had the duration of the trip to keep to my thoughts and ponder how exactly the week would unfold! (Mom had watched a documentary on Mt. Athos years ago and told me the monks pick peaches, make wine and pray all day. She said it was a fascinating documentary but she was concerned about what two 18 year olds would do there.)
Upon arrival in Dafne, it was made abundantly clear that I’d be continuing my self-reflection for an indefinite period of time. No wifi, no English-speakers, and no girls anywhere. We boarded the bus to Kerya, the capital of Athos, and arrived around 45 minutes later. From Kerya, we located the shuttle to Philotheo, one of the many monasteries in which we’ll be staying during our trip. On the way to the monastery, our shuttle hit a rough patch of gravel, which led to an emergency tire change as the air-conditioning system was beginning to give out. Sweaty, tired, and curious, we finally arrived at Philotheo around 2:00ish pm.
After checking in our names and information, we were directed to our room by a young, Greek monk. We were given three hours of free time, which was used for sleeping and reading, and we headed towards the chapel for 5:00 evening vespers. By this time, I was so overwhelmed by homesickness and a change of culture that I began a repetition of Jesus Prayers in my head. By the end of the service, I had probably reached 1500+repetitions. I struggled greatly with the language barrier. I read and write Greek but do not speak it fluently.
After vespers, the group of pilgrims and visitors—around 25– headed into the dining hall. Here, I was served lentils, garbanzo beans, bread, and you guessed it—peaches! Naturally, I ate three peaches as the group feasted in silence. Here, during meals, it is customary to eat in a quiet manner, for a monk is chanting the epistle all throughout the meal. After dinner, the group was directed back into the church for a second prayer service. Upon dismissal, we were led into the inner sanctum, where, spread out upon a table, lay five different relics: a piece of Christ’s cross, part of the skull of St. Mammas, and various body parts from Sts. John Chrysostom, Marina, and another one I can’t remember.
After venerating these relics, as well as the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, we were allowed free time for the remainder of the evening. So, here I am, writing the first of many journal entries during this extended period of time at Mount Athos. It has been a humbling and intimidating experience thus far, but I am interested to see where this trip takes me over the next five days. I’ve never missed home so much in my life, but I know that I’ll most likely never get this experience again, so I just have to make the most of my time upon the mountain.- End of Day One
Mount Athos: Day Two 7-21-2015
It has been exactly one month since I left Tulsa to embark on my journey in Greece. Although I can’t say that I missed home too much while I was at (Ionian Village) camp, it is now one full week until I’m back in the U.S., and I couldn’t be more anxious to return home. The past two days at Athos have seemed like an eternity. This morning, we woke up at 4:00 a.m for a four-hour church service. Between the snores of monks and my own little naps, I found myself praying more thoroughly than I have ever before in my life. During this time, I prayed for as many individuals I could think of. The prayer helped me reflect on my life and relationships with these individuals, as well as making the service seem shorter than it actually was.
After the service, we headed towards the dining hall for breakfast, where we were served pasta, bread, salad and, once again, peaches. After another silent breakfast came and went, we were allowed to return to our rooms for mid-morning siesta. After napping for four hours, we packed our backpacks, filled up our water bottles, and headed for the monastery, Karakalo. Originally, planned to be a thirty minute hike, we got sidetracked and thrown off course, thanks to a bit of off roading. Upon arrival in Karakalo, we were greeted by a pair of monks who offered us coffee, ouzo, water and Turkish Delight. We lounged in the monastery grounds for 2-3 hours before evening vespers began. Vespers lasted around 1.5 hours, and afterwards, we were fed a meal of rice and zuchini, bread, feta, wine and water.
After the meal, we headed back into the chapel for another small compline service and the opportunity to venerate several more relics. Here, we were allowed to look upon another fragment of the Holy Cross, the right hand of Saint John the Baptist, the skulls of Sts. Christopher and Bartholomew, pieces of the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul, the right arm of St. Theodoro, and parts of newer, non-Orthodox saints’ bodies, as well as a bone from the martyr Gideon, who was a 17th century monk of Karakalo. After venerating these relics, we exited the monastery and headed back towards Philotheo.
By this time of the day, my clothes had all been soiled by dirt and sweat, but we fortunately made it back to the monastery before the gates closed for the night. So, here I am once again, spilling my thoughts and reflections into this little book from Oklahoma. Not a lot of conversing is done on the mountain; even my conversations with Ian are kept to a brief minimum words. I find myself most at peace with my surrounding when I have a book in my hand. Already, I have finished Game of Thrones, and I am about to begin Crime and Punishment.
As beautiful and interesting as this journey has been, I can definitely see why very few are called to live the monastic life. As a teenager living in the 21st century, so much of my life and everyday routine involves instant gratification on top of an always busy schedule. Here, you pray, sleep and eat peaches; it’s not exactly for the faint-hearted, such as myself. Although I am not quite as homesick as I was yesterday, I still find myself fretting about my return on a regular basis. I am very curious to see where the next three days take me, and I am excited for my return in only one week from the day.–End of Day Two
Mount Athos: Day Three 7-22-2015
Today was my birthday. By far and large, it was definitely the most unique of the 18 birthdays I have celebrated throughout my life. Unlike the previous 17 “celebrations” that I have experienced, there was no such party or festivities to honor the day. Similar to the previous morning, I was woken up to the continued pounding of metal, which, in my opinion, serves as a highly effective alarm clock. An additional hour-and-a-half’s rest led to a 5:30 a.m. Entrance into the Monastery’s chapel for morning services. After a long 2.5 hours came and went, we were ushered into the dining hall where we ate a meal of bread, marmalade, more peaches, and water. If hunger truly bares its teeth at you upon Mount Athos, then Wednesdays and Fridays are a challenge unlike no other. I have trained my stomach to allow my body to get by on only a few portions of food per day.
Going to bed hungry and waking up in the same fashion is no longer a foreign feeling to me. After pocketing a peach, I headed back to my room to pack and get ready for the travel to Dafne, where we would be boarding a ferry to St. Anna’s monastery. After an hour’s travel, we arrived in Dafne to the comforting sight of civilization (in this case, more than 20 individuals). With the absence of outside communication greatly affecting my well-being over the previous two days, I began a frantic search for wifi or any means to contact any family from back home. After drawing much ridicule on my first attempts to ask for wifi/telephone usage, I finally met a store owner who allowed me to purchase a phone card that was valid for five minutes.
Although I knew the time difference was too great to expect a response, I nonetheless placed a call for my home. I wanted to leave a message for my parents so they knew I was doing well on my birthday, but the lack of response only prompted me to believe that maybe my call didn’t go through. After five more calls later that day, I was finally able to briefly speak to my grandmother, Yiayia Artemis. It was very comforting to hear a familiar voice, especially on a day where I’ve grown accustomed to a mass influx of notifications wishing me a happy birthday. As mentioned greatly throughout this journal, being in a situation like mine—not knowing much of the language, being cut off from communication, having a complete change in culture—it all makes you realize how comforting home is, wherever that may be.
I can only recall another incident where I truly missed home to the point of near-sickness, and that was five years ago at Camp Hale, which is, in fact, in Oklahoma. Back then, as a small 12 year old, I was lucky enough to have my dad come drive in for the rescue and my mom to talk to over the phone every night. Here, I have nobody, and although I may now be an official “adult”, I wish I had my parents to come fly in for another glorious rescue. Regardless, I still have another two days without communication so I will have to make due with the few conversations I share with Ian.
After placing the initial phone call, I was tasked with the issue of having to find a storage unit for my mammoth of a suitcase. This proved to be a real challenge, considering how limited my Greek is. It’s not like I was ready and willing to just drop my bag off with some stranger at the port, either. Our itinerary called for an hour and a half’s walk from St. Anna’s monastery to St. Paul’s. This hike would take place on Friday, and between today (Wednesday) and then, Ian would be summiting the actual Mt. Athos. One look at that mountain told me that there was no possible way that I’d make it to the peak and back in a 24 hour period, so now I was facing the issue of having to separate from Ian for nearly a day and a half.
Reluctantly, I agreed to the proposition, and fortunately, found a store owner who would hold my bag for me. However, five minutes after leaving my bag, I knew that there was no way that I’d be willing to make that big of a risk. Ian and I decided on a sudden change in the itinerary, one that wouldn’t require many transportations of my suitcase, and one that didn’t involve Ian making the hike to the peak and back. We boarded a small ferry and made our way towards St. Dionysios monastery, which is built into the side of the mountain. If you google search “Mount Athos”, you will most likely come up with a picture of this particular monastery. It’s a massive structure, split into four quadrants, and at all times of the day, you can hear/feel massive waves of wind flooding the grounds of the monastery.
We made our way up to the gates, found our room, and took a three-hour nap before evening services began. After the service, we were treated to a meal of an unknown bean soup, a watermelon rind, baby pears and bread. A man gave me a slice of watermelon, and I almost reached across the table to hug him. After dinner, we headed back to the room, prepared for bed and stayed up for a couple of hours talking about random topics. Now, as an end to one of the most interesting birthdays I’ve ever experienced, I’m here in my small, creaky bed getting ready for another short night’s sleep; it’s quite the far cry from a typical hometown birthday, but hey, not many people can say they celebrated their birthday by living as a monastic for a day. 🙂 – End of Day Three
P.S. Compline this evening introduced us to several new relics, including body parts from St. John the Baptist, St. George, St. Nymphon, the Theotokos as well as another piece of the Holy Cross, along with an icon made from beeswax that is said to have floated all the way back to the monastery after being stolen by the Turks. (it’s myrrh streaming too, so that’s pretty unique)
Mt. Athos: Day Four 7-23-2015
“CLANG! CLANG!” “KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK”. My fourth morning on Mount Athos began in a fashion much similar to the previous days spent at Philotheo. The homemade alarm system seems to be a popular fix amongst all of the monasteries here on the mountain. Instead of jumping out of bed and trudging over towards the chapel, however, we decided to take an additional few minutes to nap and get some extra rest in. Well, five minutes turned into seven hours, and by 11:00 am., we were finally well-rested for the first time in nearly a week. After gathering our bags and eating what little snacks we had left over (we missed breakfast), we made our way down the monastery (St. Dionysios) and waited for the ferry for two hours.
A ten minute ferry ride took us to the St. Paul’s monastery, which too is built into the side of the mountain. After a monk’s greetings and a complimentary tray of water, tsiporo ouzo and Turkish Delight, we settled into our room at around 2:00 pm where we napped for four hours until evening services come around. Upon arriving at the chapel, which was far larger than the previous three I had entered during my time on the mountain, I realized how architecturally different each monastery had been. Philotheo was modest and plain, much like it’s monks, Karakalo was characterized by it’s tall, white tower. St. Dionysios was a behemoth of a mountainside structure and heavily reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and St. Paul’s was a lavish, built-up structure with massive walls and a grand church.
An hour-long service led to dinner at 7:00 pm which consisted of wine, squash and fish, bread, water and wait for it– MORE PEACHES! After only eating a few bites of the meal (my stomach has shrunk significantly) I exited the dining hall with my hands behind my back. A monk corrected me and told me not to walk with my hands behind my back.
After venerating the relics, which I wasn’t quite able to make out (regarding names), we headed back towards our room to check in for the night. Today was a short day compared to the previous days spent here, and it was also the first day where I haven’t felt extremely homesick. I think getting closer and closer to returning to Ouranoupoli has wiped away all of my worries about missing home and outside communication, and I’m sure tomorrow—my last day on the mountain- will be the most enjoyable day that I’ll have during this pilgrimage. Until then, I’m hopping in bed, popping in my headphones, and going to sleep. Peace out, reader. – End of Day Four
Mount Athos: Day Five 7-24-2015
Today was my last full day on Mount Athos. As I stated way back on day one, there’s really nothing that can compare to the experience. Though I started out my journey as a scared, homesick traveler, I’ve grown accustomed to the complete change in culture. A few nibbles on a peach can tide me over for nearly a full day, a four-hour prayer service is a walk in the park, and cold showers are as common as breathing or blinking your eyes. Still, as ordinary as my surroundings may seem, I will never come to embrace the nightly struggle of falling asleep in a furnace. My sleeping schedule is completely out of whack, and with as few hours of sleep I may get per day, I can never ease my way into slumber on the mountain. That being said, I am extremely excited to make the ferry back to Ouranoupoli in a few short hours. Solitude and deep contemplation really allow you to embrace the small things in life, such as talking to your family, eating a full meal, or sleeping in your own bed.
The excitement began this morning after another four-hour morning Orthros and Liturgy, followed by a feast of bread and marmalade. A 45-minute nap session quickly turned into a full blown sprint to the ferry, which we very nearly missed. A ten minute boat ride took us from St. Paul’s monastery to St. Gregory’s, where we currently are right at this moment. After napping for a few hours (this time, in a room with one fellow American from Maine), we headed up a very steep hill for evening services, a dinner of fruits and more unknown soup, and veneration of the relics, which included body parts from St. Gregory, St. Anastasia, St. Damian, the Samaritan Woman’s cranium, St. Dionysios of Athen’s cranium, and another piece of the Holy Cross.
After this collection of events ended, we met up with our roommate (whose name I don’t quite remember) and headed back towards our quarters. I had the most entertaining conversation over the past week or so with this random stranger. No shock, it was all about professional basketball. So finally, for the last time, I’m recording the final words into this journal, which I hope will inform whoever is reading this about the overall experience that Mount Athos has been for me over the past week. I’ll try to add some closing remarks on the ferry tomorrow, but if I don’t get around to doing so, I hope you enjoyed hearing my tale on the Holy Mountain, and I can’t wait to be back home.– End of Day Five
© Mark Constantine Kingsley