March 20, 2018

Concerning the Diet of the Fathers

By Archimandrite Gabriel Dionysiates (+ 1983)

When the grace of God moved my heart to come to this blessed place of quietude and prayer it was February in the year of our Lord 1910. My desire was to go to the Skete of Kavsokalyva, where the Blessed Akakios, who came from the same place as I did, was living the ascetic life and where two brothers after the flesh, both hieromonks and from my hometown, were also living. One of these, the spiritual guide Panteleimon [1], a most blessed and extremely virtuous man is perhaps the oldest of the surviving Athonites, being now 103 years old.

I had taken the decision that after my arrival on the Holy Mountain I would go and live as an ascetic, so I set off on land from Daphni to go to Kavsokalyva. But as I passed through the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou, I saw the orderliness of the fathers at the funeral of an elderly deacon, which happened to be taking place on that day. I was impressed by the ascetic nature of the monastery and by the natural environment, so I remained there, casting my hope of salvation onto our All-Holy God and the Honorable Forerunner.

It was Great Wednesday when I was received into the monastery and I was appointed to assist in the guest quarters. At that time, the holy sketes and hermitages were full to overflowing with monks, and the holy monasteries, which still had their dependencies then, provided lavish alms. Every Saturday, ascetics and hermits would come, stay for the vigil and receive the customary alms.

I had a natural sympathy and was piously disposed towards them, but also shy of asking questions, out of respect. I would try, sometimes by eavesdropping, sometimes by sitting with them, to listen in to their talks and discussions so that I could gauge their spiritual condition.

It was night and we were waiting for the simantra to strike for the vigil. The customary coffee and sweets for the brethren and guests was over and I was sitting relaxing in the “Kafetzaria” [2] before the vigil for the Fifth Sunday in Lent began.

It would seem that the good Lord wanted to inform me concerning the diet of the ascetic fathers, and, even more, to free me of the inner complaint I had against black bryony, which I castigated for two reasons: the first was that being among the youngest monks, I and others of my age would be sent to pick it, and so we would miss services; and secondly because I couldn’t eat it once it had been cooked because it was so bitter. God therefore arranged things so that two hermits came and sat on the bench outside and the first question that one of them had of the other was “How has Lent been for you so far?” The other answered: “By your prayers and the grace of Christ, good. Nearby we have the holy spiritual guide Papa-Matthaios and he serves the liturgy for us and we take communion on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So the Elder sent me to come and get altar bread and a few candles and wine before I go back.” “How are things going in the body?” “Glory to our holy God”, answered the other, “this year God’s mercy has taken pity on us and the place is full of black bryony, so we’ve hardly felt Lent passing at all. Every day we boil some with a little rice and at the weekends we add oil and we’re well off as regards food, the Lord’s name be praised.”

When I heard this I rebuked myself and was cured of the passion of complaining, because we in the monastery ate this food only once or twice a week, and, in any case, the refectory also provided figs or olives, whereas, they, in the arid desert probably had neither of these. The black bryony we cooked were the tips of the climbing plants which grows near water in the underwood, has a bitter taste and is, according to botanists, cathartic and a blood cleanser. It grows in all the damp places on the Holy Mountain and its tender shoots burst through the earth from the beginning to the end of March and are reckoned to be a blessing from God for this period of the fast. To anyone eating them for the first time, especially without olive oil, as is the case on the Holy Mountain during the Fast, they really do seem harmful and poisonous, but the fathers become used to them in time and find them edible and beneficial.


[1] The Elder of the late Elder Porphyrios.

[2] The place is the guest quarters where coffee and tisanes are brewed.

From the Lausaikon of the Holy Mountain.