Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mt. Athos: Xenophontos

Here are Justin and Dimitri outside Docheiariou as we headed out to go to Xenophontos. As you can see from the background, the monastery is--and has been for quite some time, like most of the monasteries on Athos--in the process of renovating. For this reason, I've heard they don't host too many pilgrims there for the night.

The first signpost pointing the way to the path the Xenophontos. The hike was about 40 minutes on a rustic path. Unfortunately, it was then about 12:30 PM, and it had to be one of the hottest days of the year. Despite the fact that it's a mountain, Mt. Athos can be extremely hot and humid during the summer. For that reason (and the fact that it's "tourist season"), regulars tend to avoid going during this time.

Justin is leading the way around the massive wall of Xenophontos as we tried to find the entrance.

Once inside, we were greeted by the guestmaster, Fr. Theonas, who, it turns out, knows our parish here in Panorama quite well. He gave us something to eat and then we went to our rooms to rest. The rooms, however, were like ovens at this time and, of course, there aren't any fans or air conditioning. Justin and Dimitri wisely decided to forego the rest and sit outside in the shade and enjoy a bit of the breeze off the water.

During the summer, this monastery begins Vespers at 6:00. Around 5:30, I was well-done, so I pulled myself out of my oven and found Justin and Dimitri. The photos above and below are from the courtyard. Justin and Dimitri are in the one below.

Another shot of the courtyard. Behind me is the old katholikon (main church), dating the founding of the monastery in the 10th-11th centuries, which is quite small. That's why the new katholikon, straight ahead, was built around 1800.

Monastery tradition holds that a chapel dedicated to St. Dimitrios was built on this site in 520 by St. Xenophon, a wealthy senator, whose feast the monastery celebrates on January 26. The first extant historical reference to the monastery comes from 1083, in which it is mentioned tht the famous admiral of Emperor Nicephoros II, a man named Stephanos, became a monk at this monastery with the name Symeon. He later became the monastery's abbot and, through his imperial connections, helped build up the monastery.

A photo from the inside of the courtyard.

The exo-narthex of the new katholikon. At 6:00, we did the Ninth Hour and Vespers, and then headed to the refectory to eat. After eating, we headed back to the church for Small Compline and the veneration of the relics, which included a very large relic of St. George the Great Martyr, the Apostles Barnabus and Philip, St. Stephen, St. Theodore of Tyre, St. John Chrysostom, and a large relic of St. Marina.

After Compline, the monk gave us a short tour inside the church, showing us the wonder-working icons of the Panagia Odigitria (Who Leads the Way) and St. George. The icon of the Panagia miraculously appeared at the monastery in 1730 from the monastery of Vatopedi. It was returned to Vatopedi, only to return again to Xenophontos. It was then determined by both monasteries that the Panagia wanted her icon to remain at Xenophontos, where it has since worked many miracles.

An oil lamp and stained glass covering hanging over the entrance to the katholikon in the exo-narthex.

After Small Compline, it had started to cool down a bit, so we sat in the courtyard outside the church. The monastery's abbot, Alexios, came out of the church and we went to take his blessing. We had a very nice talk with him, and then he pointed us to one of the monastery's three Americans, Fr. Jeremias, a convert from Texas. Fr. Jeremias was talking with two young men visiting from Holy Cross in Brookline, MA. Fr. Jeremias converted to Orthodoxy, went to study at Holy Cross, and then became a monk at Xenophontos about 14 years ago. He said it was not originally his plan to be a monk on the Holy Mountain, but he was drawn to it when he came for a visit. He was helped in this by the fact that another American convert, Fr. Zosimas, had come to this monastery 2 or 3 years before him.

Abbot Alexios was an impressive figure. He and Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra are spiritual brothers, spiritual children of the renowned elder, Bishop Dionysios of Trikala. They were both at the Monastery of the Great Meteora. In 1976, Abbot Alexios was asked to revive Xenophontos; in 1983, Aimilianos was asked to go to Simonopetra.

Fr. Jeremias told us that Xenophontos hosted about 15,000 people last year; it is estimated that there were 120,000 visitors to Mt. Athos as a whole during the previous year. It is interesting to note here Abbot Alexios and the brotherhood were inspired by Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, who told them that a new form of asceticism for this age was the offering of hospitality, which they have taken to heart.

On Sunday, Orthros began at 4:30. In the middle of Orthros, Abbot Alexios paid me the great honor of asking me to liturgize with him and two other hieromonks from the monastery. They gave me a wonderfully cool silk set of vestments to wear. After Liturgy, we went immediately to the refectory, which is considered part of and a continuation of every service. There we had another good meal, finished off with, simply put, the BEST kolyva I have ever had.

After the meal, we returned to the church to sing the apolytikions, thus concluding the service. As we filed out of the church, I met the other American monk, Fr. Zosimas, who invited me to come have an iced tea with him. The pilgrims checked out the monastery's new, small museum, while Fr. Zosimas went to find a cool and shady place for us to talk. I also ran into Fr. Ezekiel, whom I had met just a month or so ago at St. George's Monastery on the Princes' Islands off Constantinople. He is a monk of the Cell of St. Tryphon, which belongs to Xenophontos. We lost Justin and Dimitri at the museum, so the three of us went by ourselves to a very cool spot to have an iced tea. Fr. Zosimas showed me his small kitchen, where, it turns out, he is responsible for making the kolyva. I exclaimed that it was the best kolyva I had ever had, so he gave me "the Xenophontos recipe" (every monastery has their own recipe or recipes). I am tempted to post it here, but I don't know if I have the monastery's blessing for that. I'll ask next time I go.

The three of us had a very interesting conversation. One thing I remember in particular was a discussion we had about the fate of some of the old books of the monasteries on Mt. Athos. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many old books ended up in the hands of British Hellenophiles. Fr. Zosimas was explaining that this likely happened for several reasons. For one, the monasteries were in a very bad shape at the time, being, as it was, near the end of the Ottoman occupation. Additionally, the monks, he said, did not appreciate the value of such old objects. It was here that Fr. Ezekiel, a Greek, interjected with an interesting point. It's one thing to appreciate the value of these old objects, but it's another thing to "museumify" (a Greek word coined, I believe, by Photios Kontoglou) such things. Their value, he said, is not in the fact that they are old, but the LIVING tradition and spirit that they contain. When they get old and can no longer be practically used in the services, etc., the monks have always simply made new ones. What's important is the living tradition that they help facilitate, not the things themselves. He pointed out that the traditional formula for making Holy Chrism at the Ecumenical Patriarchate included the grinding up of old icons.

For Western converts like me, this is a very different perspective, although undoubtedly the authentic Greek one. Frequently, when you ask Greeks, "How old is this church/icon/etc.?", they don't have any idea. It could be 100 years old or 2000 years old. For them, it's the same, because it's part of the LIVING tradition, which belongs not to the past, but which leads to the future, the Kingdom. Greeks, even on Mt. Athos, aren't recreating the past and trying to live inside a museum, but living TODAY the tradition handed to them. Thus, in the new katholikon and the renovated refectory, you can see brand new iconography alongside older iconography, which itself is divided into various time periods of the monastery's history -- it's beginnings in the 10th century, renovations in the 18th century, etc. -- all in accordance with the needs of the monastery for the living out of the tradition, through the Holy Spirit, today.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with our spiritual father last week. I was asking him if he remembered when St. Theodora of Thessaloniki lived (whose feast was recently celebrated). He said he didn't remember, but that also it didn't matter -- the point is that there are and can be saints in every time period, in every place, including here and now.

For more photos, click here.

1 comment:

aaronandbrighid said...

Even though it doesn't matter, I thought you might be interested to know that St Theodora lived from 812 to 892. ;-)