Friday, August 13, 2010

Mt. Athos: The Skete of the Prophet Elijah

After the Divine Liturgy and visit with Fr. Zosimas on Sunday morning, Dimitri and I headed down to the port to take the boat on to the Holy Mountain's port of Dafni. Justin, meanwhile, had to be at work on Monday morning, so he waited for the boat back to Ouranoupoli. Above is a photo of Xenophontos from the boat as we headed southeast to Dafni.

Here's Dimitri as we passed the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon. There were quite a few pilgrims making their way there, as the feast of St. Panteleimon was Monday. We got off at Dafni and headed directly for the nearby bus going up to the Holy Mountain's capital, Karyes. Amazingly, the bus was lightly air conditioned, and I happened to get a seat just under a vent, which was a great relief. About 45 minutes later, we were in Karyes. We had a few minutes before our minivan headed out to our next destination, Pantocrator, so we went to venerate the famous Axion Estin icon inside the Protaton before heading out.

We actually ended up getting off a little before Pantocrator in order to stop first at the Skete of the Prophet Elijah, which Dimitri really wanted to visit. The bus let us off at the end of a road to the skete, which took us about 20 minutes or so to walk. The photo above was our first view of the skete and its impressive church, the largest on Mt. Athos, capable of holding 3000 people. The monastery currently has about 12 monks.

A view of Pantocrator monastery from the skete.

From inside the courtyard, looking back at the entrance.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Fr. Philemon, whom I vividly remember from my first visit to this skete four years ago because he is so full of joy. He was busy in the gift shop with some pilgrims, so he gave me the enormous iron key to the proportionally enormous church, and Dimitri and I went in and began to venerate the icons and the two boxes of relics. He then came in and told us some things about the skete, including the interesting note that the Russians formerly at the skete had actually built 3 floors underground, complete with an underground road to the sea, which is several kilometers away. What this was for is anyone's guess, although I could tell he had his suspicions about the Russians' motives. Of course, national politics are always a part of life in this region of the world, the Holy Mountain included.

The skete's history is interesting. Although equal in size to many of the Holy Mountain's 20 monasteries, it (or any other) cannot have the title of a monastery, because this number has been fixed at 20. These 20 ruling monasteries each have specific land boundaries on Mt. Athos, covering the whole of the Holy Mountain. Anything within one monastery's geographical boundaries comes under its supervision. In this case, the skete is under the jurisdiction of Pantocrator, even though it may actually be bigger than Pantocrator, which is one of the smaller Athonite monasteries.

Originally, the site was the location of a cell, which was given to St. Paisius Velichkovsky in 1575. Having gathered many Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldavian disciples around him at his previous cell dedicated to St. Constantine, St. Paisius decided to change the new cell into a coenibitic skete (which is basically the same as a coenibitic monastery, except for the name). The number of disciples continued to grow, and eventually he was given Simonopetra monastery. However, he soon found that the taxes demanded by the Ottomans for a full-fledged monastery were too overbearing, and he returned to the skete. After establishing the rhythm of life at the skete, St. Paisius left for Romanian Moldavia, where he continued renovating monasteries.

In the 19th century, the Russian Imperial family lavished money on the Holy Mountain, especially sites that were Russian. This was when the incredible, enormous church was built, the iconostasis of which is covered from top to bottom in gold, of course.

More recently, about 30 years ago, the skete was in decline and was taken over by some American monks from upstate NY that belonged to the ROCOR. It was during this time that my friend Dimitri became acquainted with the skete. Dimitri is of Russian descent, and somehow he began a spiritual correspondence with one of the elders and spiritual fathers of the skete, Fr. John. Fr. John must have reposed around 1990, i.e. before the American monks were kicked off Mt. Athos. It seems they, along with Esphigmenou, had stopped commemorating the Patriarch of Constantinople, and when, around 1992, the Patriarch demanded reform, they were asked to leave. It was then taken over by a Greek brotherhood.

Since Fr. John had reposed at the skete before the brotherhood was asked to leave, his bones are still kept there. Dimitri has great respect for the man, and asked if he could venerate his skull. Fr. Philemon gladly agreed and led us to a small house that contains all the bones of the skete's monks. In a room lined with skulls, he quickly located a basket with Fr. John's earthly remains. Fr. Philemon noted, as he picked up the basket, "This is man." He noted that the bones had a yellow hue, which is considered a sign of sanctity. In the photo above, Dimitri holds his elder's skull.

Fr. Philemon treated us to a cold coffee and some cold water, as well as the traditional loukoumi (Turkish delight), before we set out around 2:15 for Pantocrator. The walk was all downhill, fortunately, but it was a typical rustic path, winding along here, in the photo above, a small stream. The red sign on the tree points the way to Pantocrator.

The final part of the path, with Pantocrator straight ahead.

For all the photos of the trip, click here.

1 comment:

Larry said...

The photography is breathtaking. Is there any possibility that you could add to the collection of photos from the Holy Mountain that you already have on display?