A trip to Mount Athos in 1936 by two American graduate students provides them with a wonderful introduction to the treasure of Orthodoxy.
By Mr. M. W. Mansur
What follows are excerpts from a journal which I kept during a three-week visit to Mt. Athos with a college friend in 1933. I had become interested in Orthodoxy and was anxious to learn more about it. The faith and kindliness of people whom I met there contributed to my embracing the Faith several years later.
July 10. It was quite a rush for us in Saloniki to get to the boat by 6:30 but we might have taken our time because like all Greek boats it didn't leave for yet another half hour. All evening we had a fine view of Mt. Olympus across the bay. This boat, the Psarra, was even less shipshape than one would expect. The hatch wasn't closed and the way the cargo was stowed made the vessel list badly to port. Stacy leant me some golf stockings to put over my trousers to keep fleas from crawling up. We put on extra shirts and sweaters mostly as precaution against the cold, but we hoped it would help more than it did against the fleas. Stacy started the idea of squirting flea powder inside our clothes and that was really efficient. Later in the night we moved below to be warm.
July 11. When I first looked out in the morning I saw the outline of Mt. Athos. It looked exactly like the old prints. The peak was as sharp as a needle and the whole mass rose right up from the sea. As the sun rose it cast a pink light on the summit and gradually we could make out the ravines and wooded areas. Here and there we distinguishd monasteries nestled on the slopes or near the shore. The tranquility was such that we felt we had entered another world. We reached Daphni about six and were taken off in a big rowboat. As soon as we landed we arranged about breakfast and then showed our documents to the police. They were good-natured and let us leave our knapsacks in their quarters. The monk who runs the shop had prepared a table for us in the garden behind the house. It was a lovely spot under the slopes of the ridge. We fared well on tea, two boiled eggs, and bread. Right after breakfast we left for Karyes in hopes of avoiding the heat but found it already hot. For a distance the trail followed the shore and then began circling and turning up to Xeropotamou. The trail itself was about five feet wide and paved with stones, some flat, some not. The whole trip up to Karyes was perfectly lovely. It passed through olive orchards and chestnut woods and through some open spaces. Almost all the way we caught glimpses of the great white peak of Athos. Down below we could always see the blue sea. We passed various kinds of people, monks walking or on mules and men who work for the monasteries.
When we reached Xeropotamou we were so hot that we thought we would inquire about hiring mules. In the courtyard we found a monk who insisted on our going inside and having a cup of coffee. He took us up to one of the most enchanting views I have ever seen. Below was a garden bordered by cypresses and then the slope dropped off steeply into the sapphire sea. Some distance off we could see the peninsula of Longos. Near the window was a table and along each wall was a low settle with a white cloth over it. Everything was spick and span. In a few minutes a boy came in carrying a tray on which were two glasses of water, of ouzo, two cups of Turkish coffee and two plates of red cherry preserve. I didn't expect to care for the coffee and ouzo but they both were delicious. At the same time another monk came in who was the archontaris or host to visitors. We had a jolly time with him. After he found out who we were and where we came from we began talking about the Depression. He was quite dramatic in explaining how now everything was made by machines and that left no work. When we finished he insisted on showing us one or two things in the courtyard. On our walk we met a priest from Piraeus who is spending his vacation here. He told us he was once a watchmaker and wanted to see our watches and know how much they cost.
On top of the divide we could see the water on both sides. Before long we caught sight of the white houses of Karyes with their red tiled roofs all built on a hillside. Beyond the town we saw the Serai [the Russian skete of St. Andrew] which was an imposing mass of white buildings with green domes. Karyes itself had narrow, winding streets with shops run by monks and laymen. We found that the Hiera Koinotes [Holy Synod] would not assemble until four, so we wandered over to the Serai hoping to be invited to lunch. An old man at the gate greeted us by saying, "Do you speak English?" which cheered us up until we found that was all he knew. We gathered from him that everyone was asleep because of the coming vigil. A well dressed, dapper beggar to whom we gave two drachmas told us that the Samara was the best restaurant but that was none too good.
At four we went to the office of the Hiera Koinotes. One of the guards took our letter from the Metropolitan and told us to sit down in the hall. While we waited he brought us water and coffee. The guards wear tight fitting caps, white stockings, Greek shoes, breeches, a sash, and braided waistcoat. While we waited we saw the members come in one at a time. As each arrived one of the three guards took coffee to him. It took an hour for us to get our document. It was stamped with the seal in four parts which was sprinkled with sand to dry it.
When we reached Daphni again we hired a boat to take us to Russiko [the Monastery of St. Panteleimon] for seventy-five drachmas. The cool ride was refreshing. The large white stone buildings of Russiko looked imposing from the water, though not so picturesque as Xeropotamou. When we landed a Greek policeman brought us to the archontaris, Fr. Haralambi. He unlocked a room for us in a long corridor in one of the buildings which was once used to lodge the many pilgrims from Russia. It was twilight when we arrived and hard to see the exact arrangement of the buildings. The ramps leading up to the courtyard were bordered with flowering oleanders which overhung the balustrades. Farther up the hillside we could see the green domes of the churches. The place was charming and quiet and dignified in that atmosphere. By the time our supper was ready the bells were ringing for the vigil of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which was to begin at nine.
As soon as we finished supper Fr. Haralambi put on his cloak and veil and led us up to the church. As we crossed the courtyard we could hear the chanting coming down from the windows. We went up at least five flights of stairs in the dark and at last came to the church. It was so dark inside that we could only see that we were going past monks standing in their stasidia [compartments along the walls containing arm rests and a seat that can be lowered]. He took us to a position where we could see the doors of the iconostasis and follow the service. The choir seemed to be ahead of us and to the right. Big columns in the center of the church made it hard to see, especially when only a few candles were burning, what was the plan of the church. The service began at nine and we arrived about half past. The first part was Vespers with a good many things which are omitted in parish churches. We heard some litanies, then some readings which were done first from one side of the church and then from the other. The service was conducted by a deacon and a priest in gold vestments. They both did things in a very dignified, slow manner. The chanting was deep and impressive.
We left at 11:15 and they had only finished the Little Entrance. Some monks went out for a little air onto the balcony once or twice but the service was never interrupted. When we left the church we made our way down the staircases which were so dimly lighted that we had to grope our way. Outside we could hear the chanting as we went through the courtyard.
July 12. The next morning we got up at seven and Fr. Haralambi brought us bread and tea-black bread, which was rather bitter but good. Then the bells began ringing for the Liturgy at eight. As I crossed the court I saw a monk carrying a long semantron [wooden bar] over his shoulder which he was beating with a mallet. Now that it was light in the church I could see how it was arranged. Outside the doors proper were two rows of stasidia and inside were stasidia around the walls and against the columns. This morning Archimandrite Misail was at the altar in light gold vestments ornamented with red rings. Seven priests, one archdeacon, and two deacons served with him. At the Little Entrance they all came out and stood facing each other in front of the Holy Doors. The archdeacon had a good deep voice and read the Gospel well. The whole service was most impressive. When it came time for communion the monks went up front and kissed the icons. Then they bowed to each side of the church and to the others. What surprised me was that the form should be so dignified and careful when they go through it so much. They all seemed engrossed in what they were doing.
After the Liturgy they went to the dining room. Fr. Haralambi took me in to see them at dinner. They sat on benches. At the farther end of the hall was a table and special seat for the hegoumenos.
Our meals were about the same. We usually had hot vegetable or rice soup, large sardines, fish swimming in cut up vegetables and oil, bread, and cucumber. One time we had a dish of beans in the pod. We eked out breakfast with our nuts and raisins.
The main buildings at Russiko are built around a courtyard with the catholicon [main church] in the middle. Since there are always a few Greek monks part of the service in the catholicon is in Greek. The main Russian church is on the top floor at the north or upper side of the courtyard. On the west side is the bell tower and dining hall. To the south is the entrance through a portico. Outside the portico a ramp goes down to the water and is bordered on each side by pink oleanders. Below the monastery proper is a stone building for pilgrims where we stayed. The monastery has a quiet atmosphere; it is hard to believe there are about 350 monks here.
In the afternoon I went to Vespers in the catholicon. At first I was in a stall where I couldn't see so an old man took me up front. It was strange to hear some of the chanting in the Byzantine style along with the Slavonic. It seemed to cause some confusion even to the monks. The interior of the catholicon, like the cathedral, almost shone with gold. The icons were usually covered with gold or silver.
July 13. After Liturgy this morning Fr. Haralambi gave us dinner and then brought down an extremely nice monk who spoke French. He showed us around and answered all our questions. Before the Revolution there would sometimes be one thousand pilgrims a week around Easter. Now the capital of the monastery has been lost and they all have to work hard to keep going. He said that the singing was better when there were more younger monks to take the soprano parts. All of them work, some in the gardens, some in the offices, some cutting wood. Those who are too old or feeble take turns reading the Psalter for two hours apiece. We saw one old man doing that in a little chapel. In some ways the monastery is like an old man's home where they are all busy and contented.
He took us to the library and introduced us to the librarian who also spoke French. When he told us that most of the books were on religion, he explained that Orthodox monks made that their specialty and didn't pay much attention to science and learning like the Roman Catholic monks. He showed us some leaves from a Gospel in Greek uncials and a work of Gregory the Theologian which had some gorgeous full-page illustrations. The gold and blue and red were as bright as if they had been applied yesterday. He had Hasluck and Byron but not Riley.
When I mentioned Archbishop Benjamin to the librarian he told me that his secretary who went to the United States with him had once been a Roman Catholic monk who came to Russiko and was so impressed that he became Orthodox. We were told how to distinguish icons of St. Nicholas and St. Sergius. St. Nicholas is always shown wearing vestments.
At about six we packed our things and left. The archontaris showed us the path for fifteen minutes and then said Good bye. It was hard to get a great deal from him because he wasn't naturally talkative and spoke only a little Greek.