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December 9, 2014

A Pilgrimage to the Skete of Saint Anna in Mount Athos

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

The Skete of Saint Anna is a dependency of the Monastery of the Greatest Lavra on the Holy Mountain of Athos. It is the oldest and largest skete on the Holy Mountain, having been organized into a community around the middle of the seventeenth century and comprising fifty-eight houses. In the nineteen fifties these were inhabited by a hundred and ten monks. Today they are inhabited by a smaller number. The monks support themselves by painting panel icons, making fragrant incense and prayer ropes, or by other handicrafts.

I have visited this skete several times, and have written about two of my visits, one which took place in 1958, the other in 1965. The account of my first pilgrimage appears in my book Anchored in God; that of my second one, in The Holy Mountain. What follows consists of pertinent selections from these books. In Anchored in God I wrote:

"I had the opportunity of talking with the dikaios (prior) of the Skete, Father Panteleimon, his assistant, Father Maximos, and a number of other monks, as well as of visiting several houses, called kalyves.

The presence of Maximos in the guesthouse, where there were about half a dozen guests, greatly enlivened it. Maximos is young and alert. He was eager to help the guests in every possible way, and at the table his contagious cheerfulness and wit made everyone eat with relish.

In the morning, I attended the Divine Liturgy in the cemetery chapel, which is near the main church. A Liturgy is regularly performed here on Saturdays, as part of a memorial service for the souls of the departed. After the Liturgy, I visited a monk named John, whom my friend Photios Kontoglou - the great iconographer - knew personally and had urged me to see. Father John lives with two other monks. All three are simple, humble, kindly men; but John, who is about seventy and is the elder of the house, is an especially sympathetic type of person. He is an icon painter.

The house of these monks is built of rubble that has been plastered over. On the side that faces the sea it has a wooden porch which overlooks a terraced garden. I was invited to have dinner with them on this porch. After dinner, we all retired for a nap. I lay down on a divan in the central room of the first floor, which serves as a guest room and living room, while the monks went to rest to their rooms upstairs. I might explain that the practice of an afternoon nap is observed elsewhere on Athos, too, and is necessitated by the long early morning church services and the frequent all-night vigils (about fifty a year).

Although extremely poor John would not let me go without my accepting some humble gifts. He gave me two prayer-ropes, made by his disciples, one for myself and one for Kontoglou, and a pocket-size Tetraevangelion containing the four Gospels and the Apocalypse. This work was published on Mount Athos in 1933, and is a faithful reprint of the Venice editions. Father John wrote orthographically in Greek the following dedication:

I present this Tetraevangelion as a small gift and souvenir to Mr. Konstantinos Kavarnos. The Monk John, icon painter, Kalyva of the Holy Forerunner (Timios Prodromos), Skete of Saint Anna, Holy Mountain.

The name of the kalyva is derived from its chapel, which is dedicated to Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist. Each kalyva has its own chapel, in which services are held daily.

When I left these benevolent monks, I went to the principal church of the skete, which is dedicated to Saint Anna, mother of the Holy Theotokos. This church is decorated with frescoes that were painted in 1757. Although not among the best on the Mountain, they show good craftsmanship, real understanding of the principles of true art, and genuine piety. In the center of the dome is depicted Christ as Pantocrator. In the circular strip immediately below is represented the 'great entrance' of the liturgy, with Christ officiating, and a host of angels. Below this, between the windows of the dome-drum, are depicted the prophets, and further down on the pendentives, the four gospel-writers. The background in all these paintings is blue.

Among the other wall paintings, I found the Nativity, which is painted on the east side of the south vault, adjacent to the apse of the south choir, especially interesting. The colors and forms are beautiful, the postures, gestures and facial expressions full of religious feeling. The swaddled babe in the manger is at the center of the composition. Above, at the upper part of the big dark opening of the cave, is a star. The heads of a cow and a horse, facing one another, are visible just behind the manger. In front, Joseph is kneeling to the left and Mary to the right of the manger in relation to the beholder. Approaching the entrance of the cave at the left are depicted the three Magi bearing gifts, while at the right side are an angel and a shepherd. In the sky above the cave are other angels, while in the foreground are depicted three shepherds, a dog, a flock of sheep, and a tree. One of the shepherds, a boy, is seated at the lower left hand corner, playing a pipe. In front of him is a dog, with its head turned around, looking at him. At the opposite corner, a young shepherd announces the Nativity making gesture towards the cave with his right hand, to an old shepherd who is stooped and leans against his walking stick. White sheep are under and behind the tree at the middle of the foreground.

The artist who painted this icon had little regard for natural proportions and perspective. Thus, a tree is rather small and schematic; the sheep are little and inconspicuous; the shepherds in the foreground are smaller than Joseph and the Theotokos, who are farther away, near the center of the composition; while the Child Christ is large compared to the figures in the foreground. It is clear that the icon painter deliberately altered the natural proportions and reversed perspective, in order to emphasize what is more important and to play down what is less important."

In The Holy Mountain I speak particularly about my attending the all-night vigil service in honor of Saint Anna, the mother of the Theotokos on August 6 (July 24 O.S.) the eve of the annual feast. There I say:

"I went by motorboat to the arsanas (landing place) of the Skete of Saint Anna, on the southern side of the Athos peninsula, in order to go up to the Skete and attend the feast in commemoration of the Dormition of Saint Anna, to whom this settlement of hermits is dedicated. This Skete is built on an abrupt slope a good distance from the sea. To reach its main church (known as the kyriakon, because the monks of the settlement gather in it on Sundays (Kyriake) for corporate worship), I had to walk uphill a for about half an hour.

The all-night vigil service, which constituted the heart of the celebration, was one of the most memorable experiences I have had on the Holy Mountain. It began at 8 o'clock in the evening of the feast and continued until 8:30 in the morning, when the Divine Liturgy, which followed the great vespers and matins, ended. This service had a spiritual magnificence that moved one profoundly, evoking contrition and a strong feeling of the presence of God. The chanting was done by two choirs, each consisting of three monks, all of them having beautiful voices and well-trained in the execution of Byzantine music. They stood in stalls along the east wall of the nave that is in line with the iconostasis, and faced west towards the congregation. At the beginning of the service the church was dark, illumination being provided only by the small sacred oil-lamps in front of the icons of the iconostasis. When the right choir began to chant Psalm 140 (Septuagint): 'Lord, I have cried unto Thee; hear me: attend to the voice of my supplication ...' one of the monks lit the candles of the great chandelier (under the dome) known as the 'corona,' those of the three other chandeliers in the nave, and those before the icons of the iconostasis, in front of the Beautiful Gate, and elsewhere. Thus the intensity of the illumination gradually increased until the whole nave became well illuminated. It was a warm, pulsating light, unlike the lifeless light provided by electricity. The sacred figures depicted on the panels and walls now became visible, increasing the feeling of holiness and contact with the divine. This feeling was further strengthened by the frequent censing with the famed Athonite frankincense.

When the priest said in a loud intoned voice: 'With fear of God, with faith and with love draw near,' many of the monks and lay guests moved forward to the Beautiful Gate to partake of Divine Communion.

After the Liturgy, food was offered in the refectory to all who had attended the services.

When the meal was over, one of the monks of the Skete, a retired Metropolitan named Anthimos, delivered a moving speech, in which he related the celebration to the goals of monasticism. The chief purpose of this event, he asserted, is to lift us to God and His saints, and to arouse our zeal to imitate Saints Anna and Joachim, to strive to acquire their virtues, to rid ourselves of 'passions' (negative emotions) and evil thoughts, to cleanse our soul of everything impure, so that we might attain happiness in the other, endless life, and so far as possible in the present life also."

Source: Taken from the book, Agape & Diakonia: Essays in Memory of Bidhop Gerasimos of Abydos.