The Monks Of Mt. Athos

The Christian Holy Days have come and gone, as they do.  Easter Sunday was yesterday, and for the first time in years, I was home to celebrate it.  Today, back in Madison, a friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall a segment 60 Minutes presented in accordance with the holiday.  It is on the community of monks on Mt. Athos, a remote Greek peninsula that has been the center of Orthodox Monasticism for over a thousand years.

As the monastic embassador for a small community of geeky twenty-somethings, I feel it my duty to suggest you check this out:

And part 2:

If you didn’t know anything about Mt. Athos before these videos came streaming into your life, I don’t blame you.  It’s considered by many to be one of the–-if not the-–holiest places on Earth, but most outside the Orthodox Christian religion don’t know much about it.  Monasticism is, after all, rather a foreign idea to most of us.

(Note, however, that many of the monks interviewed were from English-speaking countries, and one was, in fact, from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  That is, about two hours from where I’m writing this blog!)

Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra (Peter the Rock)

I had never heard of Mt. Athos either, not until about two years ago.  A collection of icons and vestments from the monasteries at Mt. Athos made their way, via an unprescedented traveling exhibition, to Paris, where I had the immense privilege of seeing them at the Petit Palais.  

I was one of the first women to see these highly sacred objects; in some cases they had been kept on the exclusively male peninsula for over a thousand years.

Christ, as depicted at the Templon of the Monastery of Stavroniketa, on Mt. Athos.

There is enough of an air of mystery surrounding Orthodox Christianity as it is, in a “through the looking-glass” sort of fashion, and for a pseudo-student of Western Monasticism such as myself, it is perhaps even intensified.  I see the substance of traditional monasticism with which I am familiar, eg. a cenobitical (communal), invariable, and self-sustaining lifestyle blanketed in silence and punctuated by a chanted liturgy.

But all the accidents are foreign to me–the bearded monks in their black hats, chanting unfamiliar sounds surrounded by icons whose iconography I cannot often decipher.  Still, the spirit is the same.  I find the moment when the American monk talks about “praying without ceasing” very moving.  Every second of every day is steered in the direction of divine contemplation.

I also cannot help but compare these liturgical clips to the Catholic mass I attended this Sunday, at St. Catherine of Alexandria in Oconomowoc, WI.  It is honestly difficult to discern any similarities between them.  Are we even worshiping the same deity?

Of course we are.  Just not in the same fashion.

Rotating Images of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish Church… strangely enough, a 4th century saint from the Eastern Empire.

Still, mass at St. Catherine’s was difficult for me.  Other than the couple of times we crossed ourselves, there was nothing to distinguish that mass from any religious service I had attended as a Lutheran.  No one blessed themselves with holy water when entering or exiting.   Few people knelt and crossed themselves when entering and exiting their pew.  And what was the most difficult for me: no one knelt during the consecration of the sacrament.

At no point was there a moment of silence.  Neither before nor after did anyone take time to pray silently.  The priest kept stumbling over the words of the mass, and he cracked little jokes throughout it.  Even the creed, when we recite what “we” believe, has been removed in the new liturgy.  No longer do we say all together, “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…”  Now the priest says it at mach three before asking asks us if we agree with him.

Um… yes?  It’s not that you need to believe every word of it in order to say it.  It’s that Catholics have been saying it together since the fourth century.  It’s not what you do when it comes to ritual, it’s the fact that you do it at all.  It’s that your cultural ancestors have been doing it for centuries.  There is power in repetitive action.

Christ among His Apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, early fourth century.

I joined the Catholic Church to get closer to my culture’s religious ritual tradition.  Catholicism seemed to be getting to the heart of the matter.  I don’t believe every detail of the doctrine.  I don’t take most of it at face value.  But I participate in order to get closer to both tradition and to the mystery that draws us to religion.

What it is above all, to me, is just a humbling of myself before the mysterious source of all Being.  And the way I do that is through crossing myself, chanting the same old prayers (sometimes in Latin), among other things.  Sometimes I listen to liturgical music in the car on the way home from work.  Sometimes I blog about things that move me at three in the morning.  It’s all for the same reason.

Of course, I know that ritual alone is empty and can be in fact harmful without charity.  But one need only watch these videos on Mt. Athos to see that it is also the vehicle by which we people, so easily distracted by a million little things, focus our attention on things beyond.   We Catholics don’t kneel and cross ourselves because God commanded it in some itemized list in an apocryphal book, and neither do the monks of Mt. Athos when they chant their daily eight hour liturgy.  We do it because the ritual focuses our attention on the holy mystery.

It brings us closer to God, you see.

Don’t be fooled.  He could be from your hometown.

Of course, many a good Christian would argue that ritual doesn’t matter, what matters is that we live upright lives and help our neighbors.  And of course I agree.  But I still wonder, how does one dedicate themselves to love and charity if they never journey inside themselves to the source of their actions?  I hate to see that interior journey, so intensely meaningful for every person, swept aside in favor of a simple sense of community, attained without effort, that barely scratches the surface of our spiritual capabilities.

Intense prayer and ritual aren’t the only ways to get to know “God”, yes.  Personally, I’ve found him/her/it by walking long distances, in loving a certain few, by reading a perfect novel, and so on.  But a little bit of chanting and some outward signs of respect don’t exactly hurt the process, either.

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~ by Rachael on April 26, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Monks Of Mt. Athos”

  1. Corny undertow… well said! I would like to attend one of these so-called holy hours. Got any more details on that? And I am honored that you would send such a religiously ambiguous blog post to your sister! I guess I’m still convinced if a die-hard Catholic finds out what I truly feel, they will revoke my membership :)

    Do you know of a place where a gurl can get some icon-y religion in Milwaukee?? If so, I might have to stop on down. The best thing I’ve found in the Madison-Milwaukee area thus far was a Taize prayer service on a Thursday night at Holy Hill that I quite accidentally fell in on a few years back. Holy Redeemer here in Madison is pretty nice as well.

    And seriously Felicia… Fond du Lac Wisconsin. That pretty much knocked my socks off.

  2. […] that inward journey, the one you can taste watching the videos of the monks of Mt. Athos in the previous entry.  If you want an even bigger taste of that world, I recommend you see Into Great Silence, a German […]

  3. Hi Rachael,
    as I googled through the picture web with the term “Athos” I found your blog here and would like to comment it shortly.
    When I visited Mount Athos in 1986 the first time this little part of the Chalkidiki, Greece, indeed had the appearance of a lost world.
    No infrastructure like taxis, cell-phones, PC´s, hardly streets and only a very limited number of pilgrims per day.
    Since 86 I visited this place about 15 times and regret to have accompanied a process with a very strong influence of money, as the European Union had discovered this “state in the state” with its ancient buildings of 1500 years and older as a remarkable place to be conserved at any price.
    Sure these cloisters are of a very unique atmosphere, but now, as you can see what money can effect, concrete walls, streets, taxis, IT- equipment etc. have brought this part of the world nearly on an up-to-date status with the rest.
    Thank god (here unimportant, which one) the monasteries now have found back to the real worth of their buildings and return from renovating by concrete to restauration by handcraft.
    But nevertheless, it was a very calm time ( no women at all :-) ) there with good talks, lovely food and in the meantime I met some nice guys I know for years now.
    Regards
    Michael

  4. Thanks.
    ;)
    Sean

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