Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sunday at Vatopaidi

Orthros started at 3:00 AM on Sunday morning. Liturgy began around 6:45 and we concluded around 8:45. After Liturgy, we walked across the courtyard to the refectory. The abbot of the monastery, Ephraim, is well known as a homilist, so he frequently would be inspired by the readings during the meal to stop the reader and explain some aspect of the reading.

After the meal, we ran into a French monk named Fr. Columba, and spoke to him for quite awhile, giving us more of a tour of the monastery. As it turns out, he was Catholic until he discovered Orthodoxy about 20 years ago (at the age of 45). He then become a monk at a monastery in France. On a visit to the Holy Mountain, he went to visit Elder Gavreel, the same saintly monk I met two years ago on my first visit to the Holy Mountain. As soon as Elder Gavreel saw him, he told him (without ever having seen or met him before): "It's not good for you to be around all those nuns. But don't worry, you'll become a monk at one of the big monasteries here on the Holy Mountain." As it turns out, Fr. Columba was at a small monastery in France that had the men's and women's monasteries side by side and, in fact, he became a monk at Vatopaidi (one of the two largest monasteries on the Holy Mountain) two years later.

Around 12:00, we set out for a walk. (The photo above is of the entrance to the monastery as we were leaving.) We had the idea to visit the Romanian skete, where its elder, Fr. Dionysios, had recently reposed. According to the monks at Vatopaidi, many considered him a saint, and his body gave off a strong aroma at the time of his death. Unfortunately, we were getting varying reports on how far away the skete was. According to some, it was 45 minutes. Others said 1.5 hours. The directions we got were also less than clear. We were somewhat worried about making it back in time for Vespers and trapeza (the meal) at 3:00, but we finally decided to just start walking and let God decide what would happen.

There were no signs, but from the directions we got, we were able to make some guesses about which way to proceed. Soon enough, a car came rumbling down the dirt road, kicking up a huge cloud of dust, and we asked the driver if we were going the right away. He basically told us that we were crazy, that the skete was "VERY far" away, all uphill, at least 2 hours. Now thoroughly confused, we decided to keep walking anyway.

The photo above is of the ruins of the Athonite school, taken from the dirt road we were walking up. According to one Greek site: "In the middle of the 18th century, the Athonite School was established in a building near Vatopedi Monastery, its purpose being to teach theology, philosophy, and logic to the monks and to those wishing to become monks. In the early years, when the Greek enlightener Evyenios Voulgaris was director, the school attracted large numbers of students and gained a considerable reputation. But when Voulgaris left, it fell into a decline, and closed down in 1799. Several moves were made in the 19th century to reopen the school, and in 1832 it began to operate again as a kind of seminary. The Athonite School was officially reestablished in 1953. Now named the ‘Athonite Ecclesiastical Academy’, it occupies a wing of the Skete of St Andrew in Karyes and follows the Greek secondary school curriculum combined with ecclesiastical education. There are six teachers and about 100 students." The school is also famous for its role in the Kollyvades movement.

Despite the dire warnings from the driver, we kept walking up the dirt road. Just a few minutes later, one of the taxi vans drove by, empty. We stopped the driver to ask if we were going the right way and how long it would take, and he offered to give us a ride halfway there, as he was going that way anyway. Grateful, we hopped in. At the top of the hill, he dropped us off at the crossroads for the Romanian skete, which we may have missed if it weren't for him.

So we headed off down the new road, but still no signs. Finally, just when we were starting to think we must have made a wrong turn somewhere, we ran into this old monk that we had seen that morning at Liturgy at Vatopaidi. We stopped to talk to him, or at least try to talk to him. He was a Romanian monk, and didn't speak hardly any Greek. He was a cute old monk who just seemed to be wandering around outside. We guessed that he lived in an old tiny cell we saw hidden somewhere back off the road. Anyway, we managed to exchange enough information to learn his name, Fr. Gerasimos, and tell him our names and ask him to pray for us. He also pointed us in the right direction.

So we kept going, and a few minutes later, we came upon the scene in the photo above. We walked down to the building and cautiously approached to see if anyone was there. From the icon above the door, it seemed to be a cell dedicated to St. John the Forerunner. After a couple minutes, a young monk answered the door and was very happy to receive us. Again, he was Romanian, Fr. Ioannis, and didn't speak any Greek or English. But in spite of this, we managed to gather that the place we wanted was actually another few minutes down the road. We tried to leave, but he insisted, with a big smile, on sitting us down and giving us water, homemade raki, apples they grew, and some Romanian donuts they made. We sat and ate and drank with him and tried to communicate. My friend Michael happens to know a few words in Romanian, so that gave us something to go on. We learned that his cell had three Romanian monks--himself, a novice named Dimitrios, and the elder, Elias.

Soon enough, this Fr. Dimitrios came by and was very happy to meet a couple Americans and a Greek wandering through the woods. He made quite an impression on us, as he was all smiles. As Paris put it, he was like a small child. He took us to the church to venerate the icons and we were floored by the beautiful new iconography thatcovered the entire small church. It was an absolutely gorgeous style. Apparently, a Romanian monk, a real master, had just recently completed the project. He then took us to the small trapeza (refectory), where he himself was working on the icons (see photo above). He also had a hobby of taking objects he found along the coast and making little pieces of art with them. He insisted on giving us one, but we declined because we had no way of carrying it back without ruining it.

For all the photos from the trip, click here.

More tomorrow...


Anonymous said...

My questions concern “modern conveniences” available on the mountain. I see construction underway, but they can use portable generators for electricity. You mention “dirt” roads, which I would assume the be the case. Automobiles? of course! They’re not prohibited. The monks are not like the Amish who claim to live separately from modern conveniences (but cheat all the time). Still, from a practical sense, getting electricity to such isolated places seems almost prohibitive. Yet I see electrical wires in the hallways in some of these pictures.

Is electricity generally available? What about modern plumbing and associated “conveniences”? If electricity is available, does this mean there are computers?

What about such "kitchen conveniences" as a range or refrigerator?

Just curious.

Dn. Gregory said...

Good questions! A lot of people are curious about this. Well, first off, I'm not an expert, but I can tell you what I've seen.

I'd say most, if not all, places have some sort of generator to produce electricity, and then basic, minimal wiring throughout the buildings--to provide, for example, one light bulb in every room. Some places which have been recently rebuilt (due to fires, etc) are more up-to-date. Some of the smaller monasteries (and cells), such as Konstaminitou, are much more primitive. The guest rooms are not wired for electricity and use oil lamps, but some places, such as the kitchen, have electricity.

As for plumbing, there's been normal indoor plumbing in every place I've been. They usually don't have showers, but this is because of monastic/ascetic practice. (Of course, as in all of Greece and much of the Balkans, you're not supposed to flush toilet paper. In a modern city such as Athens or Thessaloniki, this is utter nonsense. On Mt Athos, the plumbing might be such that it really would mess something up -- I don't know.)

Kitchens are pretty modern, as far as I know. At Vatopaidi, for example, they host 100,000 pilgrims each year!! Some poor monk has to cook for all of them, and it would be just crazy to do it without at least basic kitchen equipment.

An interesting note on technology, that I may have mentioned before, is the use of cell phones. It seems like many of the monks, at least the older ones who have more outside obligations, have cell phones. There's even a Vodafone tower up on a hill, disguised as an old Byzantine tower!

As for computers, I think each monastery has one in their office. Some even have internet--but this is probably not just for fun and curiosity, but only if they have some business that they need it for. One monk we met who is a rather famous speaker and writer, Monk Moses, has a computer and internet in his cell. But this is because he has written some 45 books on spiritual topics and lives of saints. He had some solar panels at his cell that helped provide the electricity.

I remember asking him about this very topic, and he relayed on old parable from the Fathers: There is a knife. One man uses it to cut bread to feed his family, and another man uses it to kill someone else. Is the knife good or bad?

In the same way, he told me, technology is not good or bad in and of itself, but it depends on how we use it.

Anyway, I thought it was a good answer!