Overflowing with Love

To the Holy Mountain, chapter four. /

Back to chapter one.

Day Nine.

In the morning, before sunrise, the four of us wake up for the hike back down to Vatopaidi. Rather than the main road, Alexandros wants to take a monopati to save some time. A monopati is one of the ancient footpaths that monks have used for centuries. I don’t have a flashlight, so the path through the woods doesn’t seem like a great idea. I ask Alexandros if he knows the path and he says, “No problem.”

Naturally, I wonder if this means, “Yes, I’ve taken this path before and therefore no problem,” or “I’ve never seen this path before, but I’m sure we’ll be fine.” But now we are in the woods.

We lose all signs of the trail as we enter a dried up creek bed. It’s still dark, but the morning is near. The four of us fan out into the woods to find the trail. Thankfully, after about twenty minutes Alexandros finds it, and we’re again on our way. We arrive at Vatopaidi just in time for the end of Divine Liturgy.

I am drenched in sweat from the hike, so I skip liturgy to clean up before work. Today we’ll prepare for the feast of St. Evdokimos, which begins that night. Five hundred pilgrims are expected to attend. As normal, I mop, clean, wash dishes, straighten chairs, and whatever else Father Makarios needs in the abbot’s wing.

As I mop the hallway, my mind drifts back to the evening with Father Georges. Overflows with love, Haralambo said. I’ve heard this phrase several times on Athos now, and it seems to be shorthand for a monk who is doing well. The abbot of Vatopaidi, I am told, overflows with love. And when I meet him in the hallway that day, the description fits. He strikes me as a grandfather who has endless fondness for me, only he just met me a few minutes ago, and I find myself wondering if he’s like that with everyone. There is not the slightest hint of guile in him.

Father Georges overflows with love. He’s different from the abbot—less of a statesman, less sophisticated—but the warmth is the same. He’s joyful to an incredible degree, and the very act of being near him has a stabilizing effect on me. When I’m with him, I feel a different kind of peace.

Father Paisios, another new friend, overflows with love. Again the outward form is different. Paisios is more measured, and he has a snappy wit. But I sense true goodwill on my behalf. He cares about my visit, and he wants me to understand Vatopaidi at a non-surface level. As he tells me stories about Elder Porphyrios and Elder Paisios (his namesake monk), his face lights up with wonder. Each one of these lives, he says, “arose only through the grace of God.”

Day Ten.

After a long day of work for the feast, I slip out of the vigil, another seven hours in church, and catch only part of the morning cycle.

I am especially worn out from the services today, so I take a long walk up the coast. There’s an iron cross just north of the monastery, within sight of the outer walls. The cross marks where 12 Orthodox monks were killed by a group of invading Catholics in the year 1285. Leaders of the two churches had tried to paper over the great schism (of 1054) with a quick deal, but the monks of Vatopaidi rejected it. For the monks, the iron cross represents fidelity and commitment to truth; for me, the sadness of a fractured church. And so I sit under the cross in silence, trying to re-assemble all that has taken place.

As a Protestant on Athos, so many of the details of Orthodox life, monastic and otherwise, still feel foreign to me. I admire the profound reverence for God here, and the deliberate pursuit of Christlikeness. But I struggle with many of the other details, and I still feel like I’m only skimming the surface.

In a journal entry written in 1980, Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, described what he saw as “the danger of Romantic Orthodoxy.” The signs of such romanticism were the following: “a blind liturgical conservatism, a cult of the past, a theological preoccupation almost exclusively with the Fathers . . . a cult of externals (beard, cassocks, prayer ropes, style).” And one can’t help but notice all these things on Athos. The danger of this kind of Orthodoxy, in Schmemann’s view, is that it makes the greater truth of Christianity “weak,” because it “obscures Christ, pushes him into the background.” Rather than Christ in fullness, the details became a nostalgia for the past, rather than “an appeal, a fight, a life.” When this happens, Schmemann argued, the deeper strengths of the tradition become a form of foggy romanticism.

It’s easy to romanticize other traditions, and so Schmemann’s warning rang like a bell for me. There is a difference between Orthodoxy in fullness and Orthodoxy as a vessel for personal discontent. And which one did I come here to find? Back home, many of the people I knew were looking for something new. A climb back to the ecclesiastical beginning was in motion, and many of my friends had become Anglicans, Reformed, or Neo-Reformed. Others founded emerging churches or pursued social reform. Others still made the full leap back to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. How could I know the difference between a stab of nostalgia and the deeper search for truth?

I knew I couldn’t assess the overall Orthodox tradition, and I knew the traditions were not interchangeable. They parted on significant disagreements, many of which continued today. Still, the reality of human brokenness is evident in both traditions. I had seen many friends make quick leaps from their churches, only to be saddened by new forms of brokenness where they landed. It is a tale as old as time, repeated in the fractures of Christianity: As long as we’ve had neighbors, we’ve sought different neighbors to love.

All the same, however, it seems obvious that Athos clearly has treasures to offer: a sense of God’s closeness; a healthy disinterest in money; a thoughtful cultivation of Christlikeness—in his humility, obedience, and love. These are fires in Christian practice which go cold far too quickly, and I suspect that Athos might provide some helpful kindling.

But the monks hardly make these treasures easy to access, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. There is little visitor-sensitivity on the Holy Mountain: no coffee bars, no welcome centers, no choruses that are easily sung. Pilgrims can’t even decide when they get to eat. At times, the monks seem almost oddly happy about this difficulty, as if difficulty were always a credit to holiness. I can’t help but feel Protestant on this point: I admire the generous Christ, who reaches out to people precisely where they are.

Still, I believe, there is a balance to keep. In the Protestant hurry to reach out and achieve results, one wonders if we miss some of the foundational role of humility (Phil. 2:1–13). And with it, an important part of our depth and strength in Christ. “Every good tree bears good fruit,” he said, and it often seems like we value our empire-building before it, the institutions built in Christ’s name outpacing our inner fastening to him. On this point, then, I feel in sympathy with my Orthodox friends. The way of the cross is the way of obedience, and the way of obedience is the way of humility. The grace of God welcomes each of us freely, before anything we do to deserve it. And yet—if the Orthodox view is correct—the world unfolds to his immanence the more we humble ourselves and obey (John 14:21).

Days Eleven and Twelve.

A busy day at Vatopaidi, my last before I leave for the southern edge of Athos, where I’ll hike between monasteries for the next week. I work a long last shift for Makarios, picking olives outside the gate. The sun is high in the sky, which is speckled with clouds, and I’m dropping small oval olives into a wicker basket. Today’s work has an elegiac feel to it, and Makarius is as generous as always. He promises he’ll pray for my mother, who is ill, and he gives me a bracelet she can use to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Afterwards, I work a shift with the meals crew, then have one last chat with Father Grigor, a Fulbright monk from Cyprus, via Stanford. He tells me, “I first went to UMass, then Stanford, before realizing that Vatopaidi is better than both of them.” I’ve had several extensive chats with Grigor this week, and I admire his passion and vigor. The night before, I saw him repeatedly ask a non-religious pilgrim: “Are you wasting your life?” He’s an Orthodox John Piper.

The two of us agree on almost nothing: ecclesiology, baptism, the meaning of repentance. And yet it’s clear there’s something shared between us. Separated by differences in dogma and practice, we admire the luminous Christ.

In Vespers that night, Parthenios, the monk with the scraggly beard, blasts the roof off the chapel with his song. It’s one last demonstration of virtuosity, and I can barely believe my ears. In a cloud of incense, he stands with his half-circle of chanters, and he tilts his head back and burns his voice up into the dome. Christ the All-Powerful watches from above. It is a fitting end for my last evening at Vatopaidi.

The next morning, I say goodbye to my new friends in the courtyard: Father Matthew who took me in; Paisios who clutches his heart as I wave to him; Elias who says, “God blessings you”; Efstáthios who tells me to come back soon. Even a reluctant smile from Father Stephanos, the grumbly guestmaster. What a lovely set of people. As I wait for the bus to Daphni, I see Alexandros, and tell him to pass along my thanks to the hermit Georges. At the port, I run into others: Nikolai from Russia, Philippe from Switzerland, Gabriel from Romania, Sanday and Miliano from Serbia, each somehow drawn into the great swirl of Athos.

Despite the different countries and traditions, and despite my acute sense of Protestant otherness, I am more convinced than ever that I reside in a patchwork that is larger than me. The love of God is a strange and mysterious force that binds all sorts of unlikeness together.

Josh Jeter is a lawyer based in California.

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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. Hermit Hospitality

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter three. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 24: Links to amazing stuff /

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