To the Holy Mountain

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

When you first arrive at a monastery on Mount Athos, the traditional center of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the first thing you do is knock back a shot. You drop your backpack on the floor, find a spot on the long wooden bench in the guesthouse hallway, and then you’re welcomed by a young bearded monk with a tray filled with shot glasses brimming with rakí, a strong Greek version of grappa (flavored with anise). He also offers a bowl of powdered sweets. I don’t know what’s happening at this point, or if this is a monkish joke, but the other pilgrims nod me on and it’s bottoms-up. It is only a small glass, of course, but I’m jet lagged and tired from the journey. I finish it with a gulp. Afterwards I sip from a glass of water next to the rakí and chomp down the loukoumi, the powdered sugar treat the monk serves in a small ornate bowl; elsewhere this is known as Turkish Delight.

I had heard many stories about Mount Athos, so I knew something about the welcome-shot, but this still feels strange. Here I am, on an ancient peninsula of monasteries, thousands of miles from my home in California, and my first ten minutes could have taken place in any Irish pub. Who, I wondered, in the thousand-year history of this place, decided to welcome pilgrims with booze? The word tradition was what brought me here, and I already felt baffled by it.

In the guesthouse hallway, I look around to see I’m the only American in the arriving group of pilgrims. After a quick hello, I learn I’m the only Protestant as well. The others are Greek, mainly, or Russian; all Orthodox. For reasons unknown to me, the black-bearded guestmaster monk, Father Stephanos, is glaring at me from behind his ...

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Also in this Issue

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

    Issue 24: A long-form special issue.

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

    To the Holy Mountain, chapter two. /

  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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