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Remembering Athos One Year Later
It hardly seems like a year has passed since I was on Mt Athos but indeed one year ago today I was on the Holy Mountain. How memorable was our first 24 hours with the all night services of Theophany. As I mentioned elsewhere the services at Xeropotamou Monastery were our induction into the rhythm of monastic life that has existed there for some 1000 years. Of course, who can forget the amazing holy relics housed at the monasteries. Where most of us are use to seeing tiny pieces of cloth or bone fragments of the saints in our own churches, on Athos relics are life-size. Venerating the hand of St. John Chrysostom, the Skull of the Apostle Andrew, the largest piece of the True Cross of Christ to name just a few was an everyday occurrence. When I touch the small cross I wear around my neck I recall how that day at Xeropotamou the priest took it and touched it to the relic of the True Cross. How easy it is to forget such blessings! God bless and preserve the Holy Mountain of Athos, its monastics, and the many pilgrims like me blessed to have tasted of its heavenly fruits.
Dreaming of Athos
Almost from the moment I returned from MtAthos I have been trying to figure out a way to get back. Spending an extended period of time on the Holy Mountain measured in months rather than days is my dream. Make no mistake, I’m not interested in the monastic life, I’m not cut out for that, besides I’m happily married to a wonderful woman and have three terrific kids but, I long to immerse myself in the rhythm of the monastic life for a period. The taste I got on my trip left me wanting more. While I’m sure this is somewhat of a romantic fantasy I do have a fairly good idea of the demands it entails. Many impediments lie in the way to say nothing of getting the permission to stay that long on the Holy Mountain. Of course, one could argue that the spiritual life is not subject to the notions of time and place. One need not journey all the way toAthos in a quest for spiritual growth, all that work can and should be done right here at home, the Church provides everything that is required. Yet, there is something powerful and unique in those surroundings that nurtures the spirit, that focuses one’s energies on the mission at hand… I long for that focus, if just for awhile.
Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you willhonour your patience.
St. John of the Ladder
The Making of A Saint
The history of the Church is replete with stories of saints who spent some point in their “formation” on Mt Athos. During the long nights of services on my trip to Mt Athos I couldn’t help but look around at the young monks (good news, there were many monks in their 20s and 30s) wondering how they made it to this incredible place. What brings someone to leave the world behind and devote themselves to the “angelic life” of prayer, fasting, obedience and labors? As history has shown, the regime and structure of the monastic life can transform the soul to the degree that one is sanctified and immersed in the light of God.
We had the occasion to meet a young American monk at Xeropotamou Monastery, Fr Theodocius. He is the brother of Fr Luke, a priest in Dalles, OR where my traveling companion Patrick will soon be a parishioner. Now 24 years old, Fr Theodocius apparently showed up at the monastery four years earlier after the gate was closed and pounded on the gate until the monks let him in; he has been there ever since. To leave the relative comfort of American life to journey to Mt Athos is a huge leap of faith even for the most devout Orthodox Christian. With such zeal and devotion perhaps he, like others before him, will be transformed in the crucible of monastic life on Mt Athos to one day be numbered among the saints.
During my recent trip to Greece and Mt Athos in particular, I was reintroduced to the marvelous taste of feta cheese. I’ve always liked the strong distinctive taste of feta but like most people only had it on occasion as a garnish on salad. A sprinkle of the salty curds can transform a ordinary salad into something of real substance.
While on Mt Athos I had feta not simply as a garnish but as a side dish, thickly sliced often served at both morning and evening meals. Each monastery had a slightly different version probably homemade, some quite mild, hardly salted. Eating feta in such large bites is vastly different than eating salad style, overwhelming the taste buds, lingering and satisfying in ways that few other cheeses can.
Ever since I’ve been back hardly a day goes by without a bit of feta. My current favorite is scrambled eggs with feta.. fabulous! Yet, beyond taste is the memory it evokes of my time on Mt Athos. For me it will always be associated with the trip. As we embark on Great Lent next week (Orthodox Easter is not until May 1st this year) it will be seven weeks of fasting from dairy, meat, eggs, and fish. Guess what I’ll be having for breakfast May 2nd?
Another Roadside Attraction
Drive threw any American city or town and you are sure to find churches of every size and denomination. America is not only an ethnic melting pot but a religious one as well. In Greece it is an entirely different story. Orthodoxy is the official "state religion" of Greece. The Orthodox Church enjoys governmental status on par with defense, agriculture and the like. Orthodox clergy are employed by the "State Church’ and paid by the government. You would be hard pressed to find churches from any other denomination in all but the largest cities. While most Greeks are baptized in the Orthodox faith, not all are church goers or could be considered pious Orthodox. Yet, Orthodoxy still has a big impact on modern Greek culture and day to day life.
A common sight everywhere are chapels. Ranging from the size of a large phone booth to ones that can fit several people, chapels seem almost as pervasive in Greece as latte stands are in Seattle; there seems to be one on just about on every corner. Each chapel is outfitted with one or more icons, small candle tapers and a sand box tray in which to place a burning taper. It is even common to see chapels in the parking lots of factories and other commercial establishments. There is no risk of offending the atheist in the next cubicle or provoking a freedom of religion lawsuit by the ACLU in Greece. Having a bad day at work? Girlfriend run out on you again? Just head down to the corner chapel, it is that easy!
There actually seems to be a significant chapel construction industry sprung up to meet the demand for "modular chapels", the ones you often see in parking lots. Much like the business we see here in the US that sell pre-made sheds and small storage buildings, there is a similar industry in Greece that also carries a line of chapels in addition to the usual structures. I can just imagine TV commercials like the tacky huckster ones we see here: “our chapels are so tough you can drive a truck over them!”... “we will not be undersold”.
There is also big demand for tiny chapels of the garden ornament type used as roadside shrines. The shrines mark places where people have died in accidents. Many of the shrines have burning votive candles and are obviously tended by the families. The Greeks are such terrible drivers that shrines unfortunately dot the roadsides. It was a bit unnerving in our travels to see so many along the road.
I’m publicly announcing it here: if , God forbid, I’m in a fatal car accident, no puny garden ornament shrine please, give one of the “modular chapels”.. you know the kind you can drive over with a truck!