Hermit Hospitality

To the Holy Mountain, chapter three. /

Back to chapter one.

Day Five.

Something one notices almost immediately about Athos is the way the monks revere holiness. On Athos, the holy monk is an object of great respect. During my trip, I hear countless stories about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the grandfather of Vatopaidi, and about Fathers Paisios and Porphyrios. For the monks, holiness is less a debate about sanctification than something one is meant to achieve. The story of the road to Emmaus—where Jesus appeared to two disciples after the Resurrection—is important for many Athonites, because it reminds them that contact with God through holiness is a warmed heart, a fire which can be lit and transmitted in living contact. Technically, the monks don’t seek this holiness, but they see it as the result of what they do seek—the obedience and humility of Christ. Holiness, in this sense, is the fragrance of a Christ-oriented heart; the outflow of a life in tune with God. Therefore, when the Athonites honor saints, they see it as honoring the reality of Christ, as his work has been made manifest in particular lives. The saints, in this respect, are like shards of glass before the sun: little fragments which—in the obedience and humility of Christ—became reflective of his greater light.

Yet the monks don’t see this as something that happens on its own. Where Protestants tend to emphasize the point of conversion, the Orthodox tend to see a more gradual, lifelong process (which only begins upon conversion). A friend once explained to me that, rather than a courtroom or a judicial metaphor (think penal substitution), the primary metaphor for the Orthodox is one of a hospital. Every patient is welcomed in, without condition. But then, through grace, the soul becomes more and more healthy with time.

In other words, the monks agree with Protestants about the free nature of grace: the unmerited forgiveness which welcomes the prodigal before he does anything to deserve it. However, in the Orthodox view, after the prodigal is received, he comes to know and experience that grace more deeply as he learns to seek God’s kingdom first, and as he learns to love God with more and more of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. (And for many Orthodox Christians, this is where the ascetic practices enter in.) In this sense, the Orthodox see grace and human effort as more deeply—though mysteriously—intertwined. Grace and human effort don’t oppose each other, as some Protestants articulations imply, but rather love and obedience together produce a deepening experience of God. The saints provide the exemplars of this process, of what a heart can become through grace. And the truly holy lives are those who become radiant in the grace of God.

Day Six.

The monks fast every Wednesday and Friday, and today is a fast day. For breakfast, olives and a few slices of bread. The monks have wine for breakfast—because they only take two meals a day—but today there is no wine or cheese. My Serbian tablemates devour all the bread, and I have a long day of work ahead. I begin to consider the precise functional difference between a monastery and a prison.

Later that day, in Vespers, the choir sounds more warbly than normal. The voices blend unevenly, and for a moment, the whole place seems human. I chuckle at the thought of switching to a different monastery with better chanters, but the next service is a three hour hike up the coast.

After Vespers, in the courtyard, I meet a Protestant pastor from Brazil. He is the only Protestant I’ve met on Athos so far. The pastor says he’s having a hard time here, which doesn’t surprise me. He came to Athos with a friend who wanted to study New Testament manuscripts. But he struggles with the reverence for the saints and relics, and for Mary (both common hangups for Protestants). He said the icon-kissing is making him grateful for Luther, although he finds the monks themselves compelling. “You don’t have to talk to them long to see how much they love God,” he says.

I ask him how he feels about the state of Protestant practice back home. For example, what does he think of the rise of celebrity pastors? He says, “Oh, I’m very concerned about that, and we have loads of it in Brazil. Very troubling. Pastors are turning into brands, and I wonder where it will end.” He laments the fact that just a few days before he left, another pastoral empire in America had imploded. He said he knew all of us are human, but wondered if we were creating conditions for our pastors to fail. In contrast to that, the pastor said, the Athonites take a rather different approach. Humility is considered essential for growth in Christlikeness, and the monks live remarkably quiet lives. By custom you couldn’t even write about a saintly monk until after he was dead, because the praise was seen as so dangerous to a monk’s humility. (From the Philokalia, the de facto handbook of Athos: “To speak humbly is one thing, to act humbly is another, and to be inwardly humble is something else again.”) In essence, if you were prominent in Protestant circles, you probably had a big church and followers on social media. Whereas if you were well known in Orthodox circles, there’s a fair chance you were dead, after spending your life in a cave. The pastor didn’t think we needed to become monks, and he wasn’t planning to convert—“the reverence for Mary is a problem for me”—yet there was something interesting about the contrast. “We could stand to be a bit more courageous about humility,” he said.

I couldn’t help but agree with him. “True humility creates an opening in the heart for God,” one monk told me. “And this is why we need to follow Christ in his humility. Nothing nourishes humility like the perception of God, yet humility itself provides a deeper form of sight. Humility is both the foundation and the result of a closer sense of God.”

Day Seven.

I wake up sicker than a dog. I sleep through the morning services, take a long shower, then curl up in bed to read. After the pummeling of services, and the hours of standing in the stalls, my soft Protestant bones need a break. How in the world do the monks do this every day?

While I rest, I flip through a book from the guesthouse library. “When I measure myself against the commandments of Christ,” a monk writes, “to love God with all one’s being, and one’s neighbor as oneself—I do not possess the means to judge how far distant I am from my purpose.” Likewise, I feel distant. The monk writing this, I learn later, is Sophrony, a well-regarded monk from Athos who moved to England in the ’50s to establish a co-ed community for men and women. Many on Athos expect him to be canonized a saint.

Later in the day, Father Matthew offers to take me over to the pharmacy. The monks at Vatopaidi have dental facilities, an x-ray machine, and an ultrasound. A circuit of dentists and doctors visit from mainland Greece to donate services to the monks. Father Matthew had braces a decade ago, but “not for cosmetics,” he says. “I said to myself, why braces now? I’ve already got one foot in the grave. But the doctor said my teeth would fall out if I didn’t.”

An Australian monk runs the pharmacy. He’s young, maybe 30, with a scraggly beard. He cuts quickly to my diagnosis with a few questions, then hands me a box of Comtex and cough syrup. For my prescription, I pay $0. As I walk out of the pharmacy, I realize I haven’t spent a single dollar since I arrived.

Day Eight.

After Vespers, a young Greek named Alexandros pulls me aside. He’s an excitable pilgrim with long stringy hair. I’ve seen him around the last few days. He picked me out as a non-Greek, and wanted to help translate. “Orthodoxy is not just a matter of the mind,” he tells me, “but of the heart.” As he says this, he makes a fist over his chest and pats it.

This afternoon, Alexandros is telling me about a hermit who lives out in the woods a few miles beyond Vatopaidi. Alexandros and the hermit are friends. Alexandros was taking a nap in a meadow one day, on one of his fifty(!) visits to Athos, and the hermit just appeared. They’ve been friends ever since.

If I want, Alexandros tells me, I can visit and stay at the hermit’s place tonight. I’ll be back the next morning before Liturgy. This all sounds a bit odd and portentous to me, but Alexandros seems like a good guy and I’ve never met a hermit before, so I think, why not? After Vespers I grab a small daypack from my room.

Along with Alexandros are two other Greek pilgrims: Haralambo and another Alexandros (whom I call Alexandros II in my mind). Alexandros II is reserved, but Haralambo is the opposite: gregarious, outgoing. It pains me to say it, but Haralambo resembles a dark-haired Fabio. He has obscenely large shoulders, with long flowing hair. He doesn’t walk so much as strut, and his partial, broken English only adds to the effect.

As Vatopaidi vanishes into the distance, I feel this is not the most prudent decision I’ve made. Here I am, on a walled-off peninsula, hiking out into the woods with three strangers, with the primary goal of meeting a hermit who has chosen to live his entire life in silence. I know nothing about these pilgrims, nothing about this hermit, and I don’t even know if hermits are safe as a category. Does it even make sense that a hermit would host guests?

As I enter the woods, Haralambo begins telling me his story. He grew up in the church, he says, but didn’t take it seriously. After two messy divorces, he began his journey in earnest. He knew he needed God, and he needed to do something different than what he’d been doing. Within a year of this turn, Haralambo said, God made it clear to him that he needed to live a more pure life. Haralambo was reluctant about this, but felt that the call was clear. So Haralambo gave up going to his favorite clubs, started drinking less alcohol, and has been single now for the last few years. This last bit hasn’t come easy, he says, because he “really likes the woman.” But he says his prayer life is better now, and he’s happier than he’s ever been. He thinks he’ll probably marry again when the time is right.

Haralambo first learned English from an old girlfriend many years ago. He was head over heels for this girl, but she didn’t speak Greek. He wanted to sweep her off her feet so he began studying English on his own. The first phrase he learned was also his opening line to her: “I want you my girlfriend,” he told her. And the rest, apparently, was history. Haralambo laughs out loud at this part. It’s almost dark on the trail now, but he says we’re almost there.

Without pausing, Haralambo begins another story. A few years back, Haralambo and Alexandros took Prince Charles out to visit this hermit.

“Prince Charles, as in England Prince Charles?” I ask.

“That is him,” Haralambo says. And somehow, I feel safer knowing this. The Prince was touring Athos with a group of poets. They met Alexandros at Vatopaidi, just like I did, where Alexandros offered to take the prince out to meet the hermit. (The hermit’s name is Father Georges.) Somehow, Charles agreed to the trip. So they took him out on the same path we’re walking now, along with his group of poet friends. When Prince Charles arrived at the hermit’s house, Father Georges wanted to show hospitality to his distinguished guest. He had lived alone for the last forty years, but had never received a visit from royalty. Wanting to honor Prince Charles with a special gift, Father Georges left his guests and went rummaging in his back room. When he returned, he had a large wild boar’s leg in his hands. According to Haralambo, the leg was literally raw and dripping with blood.

With reverence, and as if he was conferring knighthood, Father Georges presented the leg bone to Prince Charles. Solemnly, the prince accepted it. He thanked Georges, bowed his head, then handed the dripping leg to one of the fellow poets. A few minutes later, Charles told Father Georges it was the best gift he had ever received.

By the time we arrive at Father Georges’ hut, the sky is completely dark. Alexandros knocks on the door, and a five-foot-tall man with a ponytail emerges. He wears the same cassock as the other monks, though his is dirtier than the ones at Vatopaidi. He strikes me as a grizzled, almost wild figure. He has three teeth, like a jigsaw puzzle.

Father Georges came to Athos when he was 16. He turned 80 last week. The hut is simple. A few spaces to the left, a chapel to the right, a guest room; no electricity, no plumbing. The walls slant and crook from a bad plaster job, and Alexandros says that Georges gets his drinking water from a nearby river.

The hermit hands me a hurricane candle before showing me to the guest room. I drop off my pack on an old steel bed and Georges motions for me to come out to the patio, where the two Alexandri are waiting with Haralambo.

Georges pours me a glass of wine from an old two liter soda bottle. On the table are cookies and several tins of tuna. The wine is sour and a bit pungent. Georges made it himself. The conversation is in Greek, but Haralambo and Alexandros translate the important parts. Georges tells me I’d “make a good Orthodox,” but he doesn’t push it. It is not my usual feast, but under the stars and with the company, I can hardly imagine anything better.

I get the sense that the solitude has done Father Georges well. He grins madly through the evening, and seems effortlessly warm. He laughs freely and with vigor. It is only an impression, of course, but it is a very good one: simplicity, gentleness, joy. As Haralambo describes it to me later, Georges “literally overflows with love,” and I can only agree with the assessment.

After a few more sips of wine, and an evening service in the little chapel, I crawl into my rickety bed amazed at the wonders of Athos.

Concluded in chapter four.

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

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter two. /

  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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