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

To the Holy Mountain, chapter two. /

Back to chapter one.

Day One.

Arrival, shot of ouzo. The guestmaster, Father Stephanos, assigns me a room on the fourth floor. He says I’ll meet Father Matthew, my monk-of-contact, tonight after Vespers. On the guesthouse wall, snapshots of monks. My room on the fourth floor is small but cozy. Five beds in the room, three in use. I’ll share the room with a Russian named Nikolai and a teenage novice named George. I slide my backpack under the bed and catch a nap before heading down to Vespers.

To get to Vespers, I stroll down the hill and cross the uneven stone courtyard. The enclosure has the feel of an imperial castle, and the monks live in cells along the walls. In the center of the courtyard is the katholikon (main chapel), and across from it is the refectory, where the monks take their meals.

Inside the chapel, Vespers is a swirl. I had attended Orthodox services before, but nothing like this. The monks float around the room in their long black cassocks. (The black of which, I learn, is meant to remind them of their death.) There are no less than a hundred monks in the room, and it seems like they’re all in motion: bowing, chanting, kissing icons, crossing themselves, ringing bells, touching foreheads on the floor. The sanctuary is a prism of incense and light.

As the service ends it’s dark outside, and all the monks and pilgrims file out into the courtyard. There I meet Father Matthew, one of three Americans at Vatopaidi. Father Matthew is my main monk-of-contact. He came to Vatopaidi twenty years ago.

In the late ’80s, Vatopaidi was in decline, with only a few aging monks. Many worried it would shut for good. So the monks asked for help from a younger brother in Nea Skiti—a ...

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Also in this Issue

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

    Issue 24: A long-form special issue.

  2. To the Holy Mountain

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

  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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