Monks of Mount Athos…

January 3, 2010

Simonos Petras Monastery founded in 1257

In last month’s National Geographic (December 2009) is featured a fantastic photographic essay entitled “Called to the Holy Mountain,” written by Robert Draper and photographed by Travis Dove. The article can be found online here. The report accompanying the outstanding photos discusses men that have sought out an ascetic life in the self-governed Greek region known as Mount Athos. Reportedly reachable only by boat, twenty monasteries can be found on the peninsula, which has been inhabited by monks and their Eastern Orthodox orders since the ninth century.

To these men, for there are only men on Mount Athos, the site is a holy one. Legend tells that the Virgin blessed and converted the Mount’s pagan natives after a sailing voyage to Cyprus was misdirected by weather conditions. And it seems that she was the last woman to set foot there. Women are forbidden lest their temptation get the better of the monks: “If women were to come here, two-thirds of us would go off with them and get married.” Even male pilgrims and visitors must request a permit to visit for four days at a time.

I can imagine the lure this site holds. The views are breathtaking, if one can trust photographs. With seas this blue and the Aegean’s envy-inspiring climate, I find that I regret my loss of religion. Hell, I am planning a pilgrimage!

Putting that aside for a moment, the wonderful thing about this article is how it exposes the modern (and, I suppose, past) breakdown of denominational order. Petty differences of ages ago reemerge and divide the religious community of the Mount, which, as a reminder, is self-governed. The peninsula’s ruling body, the Holy Community, must address divergent questions, relations with the E.U. to store-front shop rentals. With no doubt more difficulty, they must also engage with issues of the public’s and modernity’s intrusion and work in unison as one body in spite of their individual monastery’s views. But in practice, each monastery can privately debate and treat these delicate issues and claim their place within eastern orthodoxy.

A particularly naughty group, the Esfigmenou monastery, has even been expelled (excommunicated?) from the Holy Community. Their refusal to accept the “Ecumenical Patriarchs’ policy of dialogue with other Christian denominations” partly explains this. The more in-your-face action they took of hanging a banner with the words “Orthodoxy or Death” fills any missing gap left by the simple refusal to conform. But these large religious issues have always existed and cannot be escaped.

The modernity issue is one that is perhaps newer. One monk speaks of the “pettiness” that consumes monastic life. But of course: that is expected when you are in a dormitory environment. No? Another, more pointedly, decries, “You cannot be ascetic with all these easy things.” He is referring both to modern conveniences that his order refuses (such as electricity!) and to funding that the European Union provides. Some fear this funding may soon entail the monasteries to allow female visitors. Hypocrisy is a silly little thing. Where once the sacred tread (with Wellingtons crusted in mud) over the secular body, now the world’s (reportedly) irreligious governments attempt to peek into the tabernacle-shaped cookie jar just to see what’s inside. Fair is fair, says the rule of tag, and it’s their turn.

But what of these modern conveniences? To me, enlisting yourself into an ascetic life does not imply gaining a bundle package of internet, cable and cell phone service. Self-denial is certainly a very personal mental state. But just how far can you tear at the seams of the ascetic with this self-projection Freudian bullshit?


One Response to “Monks of Mount Athos…”

  1. Guy Kananen said

    Dear Sir, You may or may not have seen the 60 minutes show:

    Do take a pilgrimage.

    Very Best Regerds,
    In Christ,

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