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Sermons on the mount

For a millennium, Athos has been home to monks, hermits and icons. Women are banned and ethics can be murky

Tom Whipple | March/April 2014

The first to see the light are the demons. As the dawn creeps in from the quadrangle outside, pitchforked imps and terrible dragons, writhing heretics and grinning ghouls resume their centuries-old torments. But the light does not stop here. Like a monk late for service it glides through the church doorway, slowly illuminating the rest of the fresco from Hell towards Heaven. It climbs the paintings, inching up walls built when Constantinople ruled from here in the west to Persia in the east.

Beside me, in front of arguably the finest Byzantine art in the world, an elderly monk shuffles, snuffles and resumes his gentle snoring. It is the third hour of the morning service.

Two hundred and fifty miles to the east, in what was Constantinople, the Church of Hagia Sophia will already be ablaze in the August sun. But any true Greek Orthodox will tell you that darkness descended there in 1453, when the Turks took over. Here alone, on this 30-mile-long Greek peninsula, the faint echoes of Emperor Constantine’s Eastern Roman Empire still reverberate, Byzantium lives on.

To describe Mount Athos as merely an historical oddity would be to underplay it. Like the Vatican, this thin finger of land poking into the Aegean is effectively an independent country, ruled by clergy and inhabited entirely by males. Unlike the Vatican, it is not a city state, but an agrarian one. From 20 monasteries set into the foothills of a 2,000-metre-high mountain the residents have tilled the soil, tended vines and maintained a network of forest paths for at least 1,200 years.

Over four visits here, I have never quite established why and how it decided to ban women. The official line is that the Virgin ordained it — to shield the monks from temptation and ease their route to heaven. A more secular explanation is that, some time in the 11th century, the Patriarch of Constantinople discovered that the shepherds employed on the mountain to supply the monks were selling them not just wool, but also their daughters. Females, of both the human and ovine variety, were banned forthwith.

There are no shepherds here anymore. Neither is there a dairy industry: cows were also banned. It was only after a desperate appeal from the increasingly rat-infested monasteries that female cats were given special dispensation. What has resulted is a parallel land, impossible to place in the world’s timeline. Like Philip Pullman’s Oxford, where airships ply the skies but the lives of the dons remain stuck in the middle ages, this is a glimpse of a different mode of development: Europe, under theocracy.

Athos is a place where a bearded octogenarian who has not seen a woman in 60 years can venerate the bones of a two-millennia-dead saint, then pull out a mobile phone to speak to his abbot. Where a pilgrim with a wooden staff in one hand can have a digital camera in the other. And where, in the dim light of dawn matins, I can look on a church interior that would be instantly recognisable to a pilgrim from five centuries ago. Maybe this is part of the reason I come: to play the time-traveller? Somehow, though, that does not seem enough to explain why, throughout my 20s and with no spiritual interest in Orthodoxy, I found myself making repeat visits.

The rhythm of the days is familiar now. Towards the fourth hour, the light will rise further and saints will emerge, to gaze on the sinners below. Eventually, looking down from beneath the domed roof of Megistis Lavra, the greatest of all Orthodox monasteries, Jesus himself will appear, his arms raised to the heavens. But I eschew His blessing. The sun is already far enough above the old cobbled forest paths for me to see the way to the next monastery. On these pilgrim paths I can be immersed in the majesty of ancient woodland, amid the best coastal walking in the Mediterranean. It is time to leave — quietly, so the monk can sleep on.

Elsewhere too, others are stirring, the fellow travellers I will meet on my way. Setting off on a long climb from his cave by the sea is a 30-something hermit, who used to sing in a grunge band until he found a different sort of nirvana. Coming in the other direction, fresh from venerating a shrivelled foot, a group of pilgrims with staffs and sunhats are setting off. Beyond, a team of mules are grumpily roused and saddled for another day of pack-animal penance.

Athos is many things to many people. To the 1,400 monks who live here, it is a glorious theocracy, in which only the writ of God reigns. To the Orthodox church it is the vestal fire of their religion —  flame that has kept flickering from the early church through the indignities of the Ottoman occupation to the persecution of communism. Orthodoxy can fall everywhere else, but so long as there are Russians here in the Russian monastery, Serbians in the Serbian, Romanians in the Romanian, its blaze will some day catch once more in the world beyond.

To the Greek people, it is both the wellspring of their spirituality and the source of their spiritual fall. In the Greek narrative, the 2008 crash began not with the financial deceit of Lehman’s but the financial deceit — allegedly — of one of the monasteries.

To women, Athos is, simply, forbidden.

Each day cruise ships laden with men and women, binoculars slung around their necks, cast off from the coastline of north-east Greece to peer at Athos. They circumnavigate the cliffs, where monasteries hang precipitously from the crags, their walls facing a sea that for most of the past millennium was more likely to bring pirates or Turks than sightseers. The closest any vessel carrying women can get is 500 metres.

Even for men-only boats, it is not easy to gain permission for passengers to step onto the Holy Mountain. Requiring an application to the Patriarch of Constantinople, success involves negotiating a Byzantine bureaucracy. My permit this time was eventually granted after applying four months earlier for a Catholic entry (ten non-Orthodox visitors are allowed a day) and then being assigned an arrival date.

Calling Athos medieval risks demeaning it as a museum, or a curiosity. And yet, it is the closest to the medieval world I have ever come, an institution with an unbroken link stretching back 1,000 years, that has seen little need to change. Indeed, its religious importance probably goes back further. There are remains of Greek temples, their stones and carvings recycled — like civilisation itself — into churches. After the pagans came the hermits, who lived here probably for centuries until, as the writer Robert Byron put it after visiting in 1927, “history opens in the ninth century”, with the first written records. It was then, in 881, that an official decree from Emperor Basil I of Macedon made the mountain a protectorate of the monks.

For those who visit, even the most pious, the pervasive sense of history is part of the attraction. While waiting for a small rickety minibus, I meet Norris Chumley, an American academic who used to be a Quaker until he found the “completeness” of Orthodoxy. For him, Athos is “a beacon, transmitting prayer and love to the cosmos. It is a nuclear reactor of prayer.” That should be enough. “And yet,” he admits, “the eye candy! We’re in a parking lot and it’s divine. It’s blessed. It’s a divine parking lot.”

This, he half-acknowledges, is a weakness — either of his, or of Athos. He tells me about a monk he has just met, called Joseph. “He walked out of this beautiful cottage. There was a beautiful sunset, over the sea. He saw it, and he said, ‘It’s all vanity. All vanity.’ Then he went back in to pray.”

Vanity is just one of the vices that are threatening to topple Athos’s status in Orthodoxy as the world’s holiest place. The monks may lead a life of simplicity but one monastery, Vatopedi, has also managed to engage in land deals of such complexity that they brought down a government.

In the early 1990s, Vatopedi was a mess. Once one of the jewels of Athos, its walls were crumbling, its library and archives in disrepair. A new abbot decided that if its spiritual health was to survive, there would have to be more worldly wealth to support it. An audit of the monastery’s holdings revealed scattered tracts of land across Greece, unloved and untended. A 20th-century response to this would have been to develop them. Vatopedi leveraged them.

Like the cautionary tales of Irish builders who became billionaires constructing estates no one would ever live in, what followed is a familiar story of the property boom. The monks lobbied government, and traded astutely. There were land swaps with the state. In the space of two decades, a moribund institution holding a worthless portfolio became a major player in the Greek property market. As Michael Lewis wrote in “The Big Short”, his book about the financial crash, a bunch of monks had wound up as “Greece’s best shot at a Harvard Business School case study”.

Then in September 2008, at the same time that the financial miracle of the preceding decade was shown to have been underpinned by murky credit swaps, the parallel financial miracle of Vatopedi monastery was found to have less than divine foundations. Parliament began to investigate those land swaps, amid claims that the monastery had done so well out of them at the expense of the taxpayer. At the holiest site in Orthodoxy, there was an unholy whiff of sharp practice.

To date there has been a full-scale enquiry, one toppled government, several resignations and indictments and one arrest — of Father Ephraim, Abbot of Vatopedi, briefly inmate of Korydallos prison, now out on €300,000 bail pending charges of money laundering. The investigations continue.

Even given the scandal, Vatopedi may still be the richest of the monasteries. But on Athos that is irrelevant. There is a rigid hierarchy here, and at the top lies Megistis Lavra, the Great Lavra. Founded in 963, it was the first monastery to be built on Athos, using a bequest from the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who had promised to become a monk but never quite got round to leaving his position ruling one of the world’s great powers. On my first evening, I go straight into the trapeza, the monastery dining room.

As I sit down Bogdan, a fellow pilgrim, introduces himself. Talking is not exactly forbidden over dinner, but this is not the sort of meal one relaxes into. From a pulpit, a monk reads the gospels. When he has finished — and none of us, especially those who do not understand Greek, know when that will be — so is the meal.

In 1677 Dr John Covel, one of the first Western visitors to the peninsula, wrote of Lavra’s dinners, “the best monkish fare that could be gotten was provided, excellent fish (several ways), oyl, salet, beans, horte-chokes, beets…and we always drank most plentifully…He is no Greek that cannot drink twenty or thirty plump glasses at a sitting.” Those days are gone. Amid the austere clatter of metal bowl on marble table, 200 men rush in silence through a plate of beans and rice — there are no dairy products if there are no female animals. So Bogdan’s conversation is a surprise. “These have been here for 1,000 years,” he whispers, leaning over the vinegar to tap the marble table — a single slab, one of dozens in the room, each seating 12 pilgrims. “It was made by the emperor in Constantinople.”

Bogdan only says one other thing to me all dinner, but even through these few sentences it seems we have been deliciously transgressive. His next comment reminds me why it might be better to stick to life’s rules. He points to the ceiling; beneath the outstretched arms of loving saints, the fresco depicts some rather less holy souls being subjected to the most innovative torments a group of 16th-century monks stuck on a peninsula without women were able to devise. There are pitchforks and hell fires. “Those”, says Bogdan, “are sinners.” Then he returns to his wine.

As we file out into the evening sun, Bogdan introduces me to an old school friend from Romania, Father Silvius who, in his early 30s, has become a priest. Clergy come to Athos too — especially in August, for the Feast of the Assumption. In the Gregorian calendar, the Assumption came a fortnight earlier, but while it has the advantage of being astronomically correct, the Gregory in question was a pope. So Athos keeps Julian time for its feast days preferring, it seems, to follow a pagan emperor than a papish heretic.

Bogdan has the air of a man who might have been happier had it not been the Assumption. “The service last night went from 11 until 7,” he says. “I tricked them and left for four hours in the middle...‘Gab, gab, gab.’ There was no point.”

We go outside the monastery gate to the smoking area, the fortifications rising above us like the walls of Constantinople. Why would any monk come to settle here? The Orthodox church allows its clergy to marry. Why forgo not just that, but also female company entirely? I ask Father Silvius if he would ever consider settling permanently on Athos.

“Ah,” says Bogdan. “I want to hear this.”

Father Silvius rubs his considerable beard. “On Athos there is easy redemption. Outside there are young women, old women…"

Bogdan interrupts. “Nice women.” Father Silvius ploughs on. “The Virgin Mary created Athos, for easy redemption.”

To understand Athos you have to accept it is magic. Not in the sense that the supernatural actually occurs: at least, not so far as I am concerned. But here people really believe in magic. Every monastery, even the lowliest, has its “miracle icons”. In one there is an ancient painting of the Virgin, saved from the iconoclasm of early Orthodoxy, that reputedly screamed out in pain when the monastery was set on fire. Still blackened from the ordeal, she receives medallions and offerings from people who want her help.

Of course, all Christians believe in miracles — from a distance. Good Anglicans accept that Jesus turned water into wine — but the Archbishop of Canterbury would not claim to cure a leper or drive out a demon; it would feel like a breach in the social contract forged by the church between jam and Jerusalem.

Here, though, magic is present and modern. On the extreme tip of the peninsula there is an abbot who telephones people to offer guidance — having correctly guessed their mobile number, or so I’m assured. And along the old woodland paths that were hewn from the hillside and cobbled 1,000 years ago, I meet the hermit who had started out from his cave at sunrise. He is carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary, to guide him safely to the top of the mountain. Given the heat and the black clothing the monks all have to wear, there must be a delicate calculus between the assistance the Virgin can give, the assistance that a water bottle can give, and the fact that, in this case, the icon fills most of his rucksack.

We find our paths joining for part of the way and as we walk he tells the story of how as a young man he abandoned the modern world entirely to live alone on the very tip of a Greek peninsula. “I saw people working, sleeping, working,” he says of his pre-Athos life. “They were machines.” At the time, in the early 1990s, he was into the grunge music of Seattle. “I was searching. I wanted music that echoed in eternity. I thought of going to Tibet, to be in the mountains.” But one day he heard singing, chanting that struck an eternal chord. It came, to his great surprise, from Athos.

We walk in silence for a bit. And then he resumes, in the same easy tone of voice. “The Jews,” he says, “they have a mutation. It all went wrong in 1789, when they started the French revolution.” I look for a way to escape, but there are no handy forks in the path.

There are Athonite monks who believe an even more dramatic revolution is coming. The monastery of Esphigmenou is closer, geographically, to the secular world than almost all others on the peninsula — just a few miles from the border. It is also the hardest to reach: Esphigmenou is under siege.

Forty years ago its abbot saw signs that, he believed, foreshadowed the end. The European Union was in the process of creating a global government — a prerequisite for the Last Judgment. Worse, in order to live in the world you had to accept the ubiquity of barcodes — in every one of which the numbers 6, 6 and 6 are embedded as place-markers. Then, the final sign: the patriarch of Constantinople made overtures to the pope. This, by some biblical interpretations, was the heresy that precedes the end of the world. “The coincidences are so many that you cannot turn a blind eye,” Father Savvas, a senior monk, told me. Esphigmenou’s monks felt they had no choice but to cease to pray for the patriarch; the patriarch felt he had no choice but to have them evicted. The Greek government, pledged to uphold his will on the peninsula, set up blockades.

The last time I visited, in 2008, I spent a week in Esphigmenou. On my final day, sitting in his stone cell overlooking the central courtyard — where 100 monks lived on smuggled supplies budgeted at less than €1 a head a day — Father Savvas told me about an event that had happened that summer. “One of our monks had a serious dermatological condition,” he said. “We called the police and said, ‘We must take a father to the boat, he is ill.’ They said, ‘All right, fathers, you are permitted.’” They said nothing about the driver’s return journey though.

“He faced a police road block, and they arrested him.” Not before he got a call through to the abbot. A 4x4, manned by Esphigmenou’s toughest monks, was dispatched. It did not reach the arrested monk in time — but did find another policeman. “They kept the policeman and said, ‘Give us our monk, we will give you your policeman.’” The tale of the great Esphigmenou prisoner exchange was probably the longest conversation I had had with an Athonite monk, certainly the longest not about theology. The rules for pilgrims here are clear: you leave at dawn, you walk until dusk. There is little room for talking before you next head out into the forest trails.

So my meeting with the hermit is unusual. Back on our trail, we walk in silence once more. It is a blazing hot day, but the forest is barely penetrable, even to the sun. Unlike the managed woodlands in Britain, it is a forest where every leaf fights to prevent any photosynthesis on the layer below. On a previous trip, I had wandered into the Athos forest seeking a short cut. An hour and a half later, I emerged covered in scratches. Afterwards a monk told me that pilgrims die that way. So I am grateful for a guide.

“What is the point of your life?” I ask the hermit. “What good do you do on your own, in a forest?”

“Time and space is different on Athos,” he says. “You must notice it when you leave, that the world outside is different. Monks give love to the world, from a distance. You feel close to everyone, to those in heaven and those in hell.” Not, it seems, to Jews.

Our paths diverge at last. He is to leave the tree line — heading up in the August sun to the summit of Athos, 2,000 metres above the sea. I am going to descend farther into the woods, to Agia Anna — the church of Anna, grandmother of Jesus, whose shrivelled foot lies inside, encased in silver with just a small window to allow the lips of pilgrims to touch it.

Awaiting pilgrim visitors is a traditional Athos welcome: water, ouzo, Turkish delight (here called loukoumi) and an invitation to venerate the relics. We leave the small terrace overlooking the sea, bathed in the evening sun, and step inside, where a foot of hazy provenance awaits my lips. Once again, I find myself wondering why I come here. Of one thing I am sure: my motives have nothing to do with spirituality, except in the very loosest sense.

Why, then, do the monks let me come? They are not stupid; they know that not all pilgrims are as pious as they pretend to be. But providing hospitality to guests is their calling. Besides, they would say that God knows why I am here better than I do. Other places are pretty, other places are unusual, yet like many I keep returning.

On my last night, I go to the shower. I drop my towel on the way to the cubicle. I bend to pick it up, and when I return there is a monk standing in front of me. “Do think”, he says, “about the true religion.”

Maybe I will, someday. But at the time I remember what a pilgrim called Marcellus told me the last time I was here, over the dregs of a bottle of ouzo. He too was a regular, but not especially holy, visitor. He, however, knew why he came: “We have lion reserves, elephant reserves, monkey reserves,” he said. “Why not monk reserves? Why not let monks live in their natural habitat, an endangered species preserved for the world?” He smiled, pleased with the analogy, and poured another glass.

As I prepare to leave, I know that one day, not so far off, I will be back in an Athonite church. I will sit in a hard wooden pew, trying desperately to keep awake. And in the soft blue light I will watch as the shadows dance, the ghouls prance, the monks shuffle and dawn once more surmounts the thick stone walls.

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