The great adventure to the Most Holy Mount Athos has now come and gone. Here’s what happened. First of all, I learned that my (standard) visa only allowed me to stay for three nights and not the four that I thought it did. I spent the first night at the Vatopedi Monastery, the second oldest on the mountain (founded in 972) and the place where the second “60 Minutes” piece, shown at Easter of this year, was filmed. An unexpected blessing was an introduction to Father Matthew, a monk from Wisconsin, who took me under his wing. On my first night at The Mount, he and I talked for a long time about Orthodox monasticism and life on The Holy Mountain.
I spent the second night at the Dionysiou Monastery (founded in 1375) where I was introduced to Father Maurice, who was born and lived in England until his early thirties. He too was very approachable, and we had two long and wide-ranging conversations about Orthodox monasticism, The Mount and life in general. He had much to say about the struggles of living as a monk on The Holy Mountain.
I felt out of place on Mount Athos. Orthodox monasticism (at least the Mount Athos version) is not something we Catholics have much experience with. The monks wear black veils, much like the ones the sisters wore who taught me in grade school. They spend a lot of time by themselves (Father Maurice tried to explain to me the different understanding that the Orthodox monks have about what it means to live in community) and, apart from walking around the monastery grounds, they have no recreation. The liturgies were very different (some of them lasted four hours). I was the only American visitor at both monasteries and, from what Fathers Matthew and Maurice told me, it’s been some time since a Catholic priest from the United States has come to the monasteries. The other pilgrims were, with just a couple of exceptions, from Eastern Europe and Russia, and the English speakers were few and far between. One of those English speakers was Alex, a really neat young man from Moscow, who is considering a vocation as a Russian Orthodox monk. I wish I had had more time to talk with Alex and the three other young men from Moscow he was travelling with. He was shocked to learn that I am a Catholic priest.
The most interesting person, however, was Chris, who had been a disc jockey in Toronto for thirty-five years, decided to come to grips with some things and has now lived with the monks at Dionysiou as a lay associate for two and a half years. I really regret that my conversation with Chris was cut short by the arrival of the ferry that brought me back to the mainland.
I was supposed to stay a third night at the Xiropotamou Monastery, but a couple of the monks at Dionysiou told me that it is not a very friendly place and suggested that I ask the guestmaster at Dionysiou to see if he could set me up at another monastery. (Pilgrims can only stay one night at a monastery). At that point I just decided to come back to Thessaloniki a day early. Despite the hospitality at Vatopedi and Dionysiou (the monks tend to be distant, but kind and helpful), I just felt out of place. This was not my world. Maybe I wasn’t pilgrim so much as a tourist.
I spent Saturday at the archaeological site of ancient Philippi where St. Paul founded the first church in Europe (to which he addressed the Letter to the Philippians) in 49 and 50 A.D. In ancient times Philippi was an important commercial and administrative center and the ruins are quite extensive. I have to confess that I got some Christian goose bumps in the forum where Paul almost certainly preached and at the site of the prison where Paul and Silas were freed by an earthquake (Acts 16:25-26).
Sunday I took a bus over to Berea to see the shrine that is built over the speakers’ platform where Paul most likely preached (Acts 17:10-15), and later in the day I visited the Vlatadon Monastery here in Thessaloniki, which is built on the site where Paul is said to have preached to the Thessalonians (Acts 17:1-3).
Today I have just been picking up some loose ends. I spent this morning at the Church of St. David, which was built in the fifth century and is pretty much intact. In the afternoon I spent a couple of very pleasant hours wandering around the city market where I found a really cool souvenir: a magnet of St. Gregory Palamos. I don’t know much about Gregory, but I do know that in the Orthodox Church he is sort of the equivalent of St. Thomas. All for 1.60 euros!
So now tomorrow I head back. I have five flights and four connections (Athens, Rome, Amsterdam and Atlanta). From the time leave the hotel in Thessaloniki until I walk through the door of my house, it will have been about twenty-eight hours. It is not a day I am looking forward to.
I will start saying mass this Thursday, but I may not be in the office very much until next Monday. I have a lot of digging out to do. Among other things I will have three plus months of mail to sort through and I certainly have to get the store right away Wednesday. There is virtually nothing to eat in my house.
I am getting up at tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. Right now I need to get a little sleep.