‘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 settlement in southern Athos—and the monks agreed to move in and help restore the place. The turnaround worked. Just 20 years later, Vatopaidi is one of the most vibrant communities on Athos, with over 120 monks today.

Father Matthew introduces me to Father Paisios, who will be giving a tour of the main chapel. Paisios is a dark-haired Australian, in his late thirties. He’s been at Vatopaidi seventeen years. “Feels just like yesterday,” he says with a smile.

Paisios waves at the pilgrims to follow him into the chapel. Now that the sanctuary is empty, he says, you can see the walls and icons in detail. All the way to the roof, the walls are adorned with a dense patchwork of icons, many of which date to the thirteenth century. This particular room is over a thousand years old. Sadly, the old monks didn’t have the manpower to keep it up, so the new monks hired experts to come in and help clean off centuries of beeswax and smoke. Many of these icons are priceless, but had been entirely covered in smoke.

Paisios directs our attention up to the ceiling. “Look in the dome,” he says, “that icon there is Christ Pantokrator, or Christ the All-Powerful.” Beneath him, Paisios says, streaming down from the sides are the gospel-writers, the apostles, and the many holy disciples. “You can see the people as they’re being cleaned,” Paisios says, “veiled and smoke-covered, before restoration.” He points to an icon on the northern wall. “That one shows you how they looked before the restoration.” And then to another, “This one is what comes after.”

As the tour ends, the bells of the chapel ring overhead. “Do you hear that?” Father Paisios asks, pointing up to the bell tower. He pauses for a moment, looks around. “Any time you hear those bells, you must remember for yourself. The clang of the hours is the sound of your death. And your death approaches each and every hour.” And with that, he smiles and walks away.

Day Two.


It’s 3:45 a.m., and a monk with a hammer and a large wood stick (a “talanton”) is calling me to church. I stumble out of bed, zip on a hoodie, and brush my teeth.

Inside, the chapel is flooded with darkness. In the narthex, four lone candles provide the only light in the room, each casting a glow across the upper half of an icon. Shuffling steps, the swish of athletic pants. I watch the entering pilgrims make a procession around the icons. Three fingers in a point to the forehead, then the breast bone, then the right shoulder and then the left; the shape of the cross over each pilgrim, and a small, reverent kiss for the icon. This is how you venerate. The icons are a window into the spiritual world, and a source of great historical controversy.

As I observe the pilgrims venerate, I see a clear order to the process. First, you venerate the icons in the outer entryway, then the side chapel, then the hallway, then the inner hall, and finally in the sanctuary. The full round takes about five minutes. Once you’ve kissed your last icon, you settle into a stall in the main chapel, a sort of hybrid standing/sitting chair built for the long services. In the sanctuary, the space is hushed with reverence. As the clock nears 4—and I’m still amazed at how early it is—more monks file in. More shuffling feet, more rustling cassocks. Each monk makes his round of venerations before bowing to the altar, the abbot, and his fellow monks. Soft, puckering kisses make little echoes across the room.

The chapel is a swirl of motion now, though no one in the chapel has said a word. Pilgrims fiddle with prayer bracelets, repeating the Jesus Prayer under their breath. I can’t exactly describe it, but there is an obvious sense of awe in the room. As the movement inside the chapel crescendos, the monk with the large wooden stick whirls back his hammer outside the chapel doors for three final hits, each separated by a long, drawn out pause. THWACK… THWACK… THWACK…. And with that, the service begins.

At the end of the morning services, four hours later, the monks and pilgrims file across the courtyard for trapeza, or mealtime. We’ve been in church for some time now, so everyone has worked up a pretty good appetite. The walls of the refectory, like everything else, are lined with icons. Scenes of saints cover the walls, further reminders of the holy in human life. The monks sit in clusters at the end of the hall, the pilgrims near the front by the doors. In silence, each group of pilgrims or monks gathers around a stone table. The tables themselves are ancient. (Literally—one monk says they’re a thousand years old.) On the tables are fruits and vegetables: apples, pears, something like a bell pepper. After a prayer for the meal, everyone sits down to eat in silence. This morning we’re having pasta with olive oil and some tasty Greek feta. I’ve been consistently surprised by the food so far, and this morning’s meal is no exception. Along with it is a healthy portion of red wine, which feels somewhat startling at 8:30 a.m.

Overhead, a young monk at a lectern reads stories of famous saints. We are meant to take in and ingest these lives, I am told, like the food we are eating. A holy life raises our vision for what is possible, through grace. Next to me, a pair of Russians begin to whisper, only to be shushed by a stern Greek at the end of the table. One can feel a bit stifled by all the rules. As if to underscore this, at precisely this moment Father Stephanos, the guestmaster, walks all the way across the room to ask that I uncross my legs underneath the table. There are apparently no crossed legs at mealtime, and I wonder how he saw me from all the way over there.

“We don’t really do the ‘retreat’ thing here,” another monk tells me after breakfast. This, it turns out, is the understatement of the century. The morning cycle begins at 4 and lasts more than four hours. In the evening, the services are shorter, but still substantial: Vespers before dinner, Compline after. Over the course of the day, you are in church upwards of six or seven hours, during most of which you are standing. After only one day of this, I have never felt so sore. I can’t imagine how the monks do this every day. Sure enough, on day two, my first free afternoon, I collapse into bed for a four-hour nap. Compared to the monks, I am soft: an abuser of Lutheran freedom. That night, there’s even more church: a once-a-week vigil service that runs from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., though I hear it sometimes runs as late as 4 a.m. Mercifully, tonight it is just four hours. In effect, the service is the length of Gandhi, only it’s in Greek, and I have to stand for almost all of it. Can the monks bring around more shots?

When the service finally concludes after midnight, I hobble back to the guesthouse and slump into bed with a whimper.

Day Three.

At 4 a.m., it all begins again. In the chapel I look over at my fellow pilgrims and they look exhausted, slumped over in their stalls and hanging on for dear life. Somehow, the sight comforts me. Strangely, there are lots of uniforms in the chapel this morning: Greek police, Greek coast guard, Serbian military. And, most oddly, two dudes in what seem to be hot cop uniforms. My mind wanders—is there a police retreat of some sort? A pairing of church and state power?

After the services, I take a long stroll through the gardens with Father Matthew. He takes me into the fields where the monks grow plants and vegetables. For the monks, the love of God is related to their care for the earth, and the monks have grown their own food for centuries. “In the early days,” one monk said, “if you didn’t grow your own food, you didn’t eat.” So the monks produce their own wine, olive oil, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Father Matthew himself grows hot peppers. I ask him if he has tried the ghost pepper before. “Of course,” he says. “But that’s ancient history now. The Carolina Reaper is much spicier—up to 1.4 mil on the Scoville.” His knowledge of the pepper landscape is surprising. He drops a bright red pepper into a little plastic baggie, then hands it to me. “If this gets on your hands, you need to be careful what you touch.”

That evening, during Vespers, I notice a younger monk with an uneven, scraggly beard. He leads the chanters from the left kliros, and his voice physically startles me. The timbre of an Orthodox chanter is generally low and somewhat droning, but this monk’s singing voice is primal in richness and power. When he sings, he turns his forehead up into the dome and arches his back, as if to create a larger cavern for air. The voice is the most stunning I’ve ever heard. After the service, I track him down in the courtyard. He speaks English well. He could be Australian, but won’t say. He seems about 25. I tell him he has an incredible voice and he says, “Thank you, but it’s not mine.”

Where are you from? “Vatopaidi.” And he smiles.

What is your name? “Parthenios.”

How long have you been here? “Five years.”

How’d you get here? “Let me put this in the simplest terms for you. Say you received a call from the President, asking you to come to the White House. What would you tell him?”

After dinner, I meet another Australian, a tall twentysomething monk named Father Efstáthios (eff-STAH-tee-ohs). There are about a dozen Australians here, he says, including one set of three blood brothers. Before he came to Vatopaidi, Efstáthios was a folk musician, playing in a band that “sounded sorta like Simon & Garfunkel.” He handles the A/V duties at Vatopaidi, and makes recordings when the abbot gives a talk. His A/V work makes it possible for old or sick monks to get the services piped into their cells. It’s a good job, he says, and he likes it. How did he get here? “Everyone here has a crazy story.”

Day Four.

The morning service begins at 4 a.m. again, and continues until 8:15 a.m. By the time I’m done with breakfast, it’s almost 9. I feel slightly less exhausted today, which I take as a good sign. Maybe I’m not as soft as I thought.

If you stick around Vatopaidi for more than a day or two, the monks will find work for you. The timing varies by the job, which they call a diakonia, or “ministry,” but most shifts last from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Today my task is to help the meals crew. I’ll refill bottles of olive oil in the storeroom. Father Elias, a monk with large eyes, shows me the ropes. You unscrew the cap, he says, aftó aftó, then you pop off the slow-pour with a knife and refill the bottle with oil from the big drum. “Easy, easy,” Elias says, as the oil nears the top. He pops the cap back on, then swipes the outside of the bottle with Windex. “No problem,” he says. Now he points to the rest of the bottles. Repeat that 74 times.

This takes me about an hour. When I am done, Elias brings me to the kitchen for a slice of halva, a Greek sweet, with some lemon juice. After I finish the halva, the monks send me to my next assignment: Father Makarius in the abbot’s wing. With me is a young Romanian pilgrim named Gabriel. He’s about nineteen, with what could only generously be called a beard. Gabriel says he’d stay at Vatopaidi forever if he could, but the abbot said he needed to finish his schoolwork first.

We find Father Makarius in the kitchen. Makarius is English, and makes an immediate impression much like a dignified English butler. He speaks high, meticulous English, and he has a long and stately beard. He exudes restraint and quiet dignity.

My work under Makarius is to wipe down and straighten a hall full of chairs. It’s a simple task, which contributes to a growing sense of offense. As I wipe down the chairs, several unhelpful thoughts start swirling in my head: Are the monks just using the pilgrims for labor? Didn’t I come here to learn something about prayer? I am a trained lawyer; surely there is a better way the monks could use my time. I wipe down the chairs with a rag, and straighten each chair in its row.

Perhaps sensing my angst, Makarius comes back down the hallway to tell me to sit down and take a break. “Try this,” he says, holding out a silver tray. On the tray is a cup of Greek coffee and a piece of homemade chocolate. Both excellent, as I’ve come to expect. As I sip the coffee, I begin to breathe easier. Then I start feeling embarrassed by my attitude.

“Where did you get this chocolate?” I ask.

“Oh, I try and keep a little stash in the refrigerator down the hall,” he says. “But I have to keep it locked, because you can’t trust anyone around here.” He smiles. “Have you had a chance to meet the abbot yet?”

“No, not yet.” I reply.

“You must,” he says.

Makarius then asks if I’ve read any Charles Colson before. I’m a bit surprised by this. How does he know Colson? Yes, I tell him, I do know Colson; I remember reading Loving God many years ago.

Makarius hasn’t read it, but knows something about Colson’s life. In crisp English, Makarius notes that “when Colson was in office, he was Nixon’s hatchet man. He was extremely ruthless.”

And so the two of us discuss Colson’s role in the Nixon scandal, his time in jail, his work with inmates.

“Colson had integrity,” Makarius tells me. “He was a good man.” And this might be the first positive thing I’ve heard about a Protestant.

Later that night, before Vespers, I meet a wacky, memorable monk named Father Nikiforos. A young fellow with a long spindly beard and dark hair, Nikiforos talks incredibly fast. He asks a question, then answers it himself. (One monk says to me: “He reminds me of Woody Allen.”) As he talks, he checks his phone, an old Nokia, occasionally pausing to send a text in the middle of a sentence.

Apparently, Nikiforos is a kind of “mobile monk.” Another monk tells me that Nikiforos “can’t decide where he wants to stay.” After coming to Athos, Nikiforos lived in a monastery for a year, but he didn’t get along with the other monks there, so he left. Now he travels in and out of Athos, catching feast days around Greece.

A group of monks offered him a home on Nea Skiti, but he “can’t decide what he wants.” So he drops in for quick visits, and keeps on the move. The monks clearly enjoy Nikiforos, but they also say his situation is precarious. A monk needs to stay in one place to grow. One of the monks shares a story to illustrate. In the ears of monks who live in monasteries, he says, the devil whispers: “You need to go out to the cells, to the forest, because it’s better out there. You have no time to pray around all these people.” To the monks in the forest, however, he says: “To be healthy, you need to leave and go back to the monastery, because you need the support. Do you really think you can grow out here?” The monk smiles: “And the devil continues this, forever.”

Continue to chapter three.

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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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