Do pixels eventually fade in cyberspace?
Wednesday, May 20th, 2009
I have just returned from a monastic retreat on Mount Athos. Two weeks of living in a monastery with 120 Greek Orthodox Monks. Eating supper in silence along with 200 hundred Monks and pilgrims while the New Testament was read to you in Byzantine Greek was the perfect antidote to our wired world. True, there was a fax machine that was switched on for one hour a day, but that was about it. The monasteries were busy scanning their priceless collections of 11th century illuminated manuscripts into digital documents. I wonder how the scanned documents will be read, in another 900 years?
A Pilgrim’s Progress
Switching on my headlamp I crawled on my hands and knees into dense thorny undergrowth and brushed away the thick carpet of dead leaves, to reveal the cobbled stones of an ancient footpath – the Kaldarini. As I cleared the leaves I listened for two distinct rustlings – the lightning quick movements of the lizards as they scurried from the path and the slower ones of venomous snakes. The shrubs above me had long thorns which continually pierced my headgear. The dust covered my shirt and trousers. Easing the long-handled loppers into the base of the shrub I cut and dragged out the brittle thorny branches. ‘By the way‘ said John Arnell, our inspired leader, ‘We’ve been asked to keep an eye out for the body of a Hungarian Professor who got lost somewhere on this path last year and never arrived at our Monastery‘. Now he tells us I thought, rather uncharitably, as I burrowed head first back into the dense black undergrowth.
I was one of a party of eighteen pilgrims who had committed to clearing some of the footpaths between the twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos in Northern Greece to enable pilgrims and monks to walk over the hills to neighbouring monasteries. I had no idea that in the process I’d become completely immersed in a monastic way of life.
Mount Athos has twenty monasteries – Greek, Serbian and Russian Orthodox, dozens of sketes (private self-sufficient retreats) and in the more remote corners of the mountain, hermits living in total seclusion in caves facing out to sea. We were based at Vattapedi Monastery, the second largest on the mountain, with a community of one hundred Monks.
Each Mount Athos pilgrim has to obtain a Diamonitirion in advance – a passport without which you cannot visit the Holy Mountain. It has your name and faith written on it. As there is no Greek Orthodox translation for the word Quaker I became Kevin Redpath, Orthodox Christian, much to the amusement of the group and some of the monks – who quickly realised that I wasn’t Orthodox and quizzed me about my Quaker faith.
Our day began at 5.50am, with breakfast at 6.30. Breakfast was often freshly baked fish, rye bread, cooked spinach and a small beaker of red monastic wine. It seemed a little strange drinking wine at that time in the morning, but it was very fortifying. By 7.00am we’d collected our cutting tools (loppers and hand saws), filled our water bottles with cold spring water, and were driven up into the hills to start work on clearing the footpaths.
It is hard to describe just how beautiful Mount Athos is, but much of Europe must have looked like this before the arrival of agriculture and industrialisation. Fold after fold of vigorous oak, ash, olive, beech and chestnut trees, stretching down to a turquoise sea. The shades of green were electric in their intensity and everywhere we heard the liquid song of nightingales and constant drone of bees. The land has been loved and tended for so long; you start to grasp what we have lost in Western Europe.
By midday we would break off from our work and stretch out under a tree to share lunch – slices of nutty rye bread, crumbling feta cheese and salty kalamata olives. After a few days I began to fantasise about having a few thin slices of onion and tomatoes in my sandwiches to lessen the saltiness of the olives and feta. The following morning, at breakfast, a silver bowl mysteriously appeared on our breakfast table with two small purple onions in. No one had said anything to the Monks. As we left for work that morning one of the Monks rushed out of the kitchen carrying a handful of plump freshly washed beef tomatoes ‘We thought you might like these for your lunch‘ Their generosity was overwhelming. Lunch that day was particularly memorable. The tomatoes and onions were blessed and then carefully sliced and shared out to add to our sandwiches. By 3pm it became too hot to work and we walked back to the monastery, finishing our day with a small cup of sweet Greek coffee in the cool darkness of monastery reception before we showered off all the dust and bright yellow pollen and got ready for the afternoon prayer service.
Services took place in the large Church (The Katholikon) and our monastery had thirty seven churches within its walls. The services were unlike anything I had ever experienced – Monks continually walking back and forwards with prayer beads, timeless liturgies, the sweet pungent scent of burning incense, the beeswax candles reflecting off walls of glittering gold and silver icons of the Virgin Mary and the echoes of melodic chanting. One Sunday morning the service began at 4.30am and lasted for almost five hours. I began to truly appreciate the simplicity of our quiet hour of Quaker worship.
After the service we crossed the courtyard and sat down in silence in the ancient refectory (the Trapeza), while the New Testament was read to us in Byzantine Greek. Every inch of the peeling walls was covered with hand-painted frescos of biblical scenes. One hundred pilgrims from Armenia, Russia, Turkey, Georgia joined us – grandfathers, fathers and sons sitting together sharing a simple supper of pasta, rye bread and spring water. Occasionally there would be a carafe of red wine to share from the monastery’s own vineyards. Some days were fast days (no dairy, olive oil, fish or wine) and supper would then consist of bean soup and maybe half a tinned peach for pudding. It was incredibly moving to think that monks had eating from the carved marble tables we were sitting at for more than eight hundred years. Towards the end of the meal the Abbot would deliver a commentary on the biblical text and then bang his staff on the floor, which was a sign that the meal was over. We would all stand immediately leaving whatever happened to be left on our plates. I remember looking down wistfully at a particularly delicious bowl of sweet Greek Yoghurt that I’d just begun, before I had to stand with all the other pilgrims.
Time slowed, values changed – our lives became simpler and the bonds of deep brotherhood formed as we slipped into monastery time. I tried to get up around four for the early morning service, climb back up the 93 steps to my dormitory around 5 for another precious hour of sleep before rising again at 6. I had a bed with a single blanket, a chair and half a small bedside table which I shared with my neighbour. Technology that had seemed so essential to me at the beginning of the pilgrimage fell into insignificance. My mobile phone fell out of my jacket pocket and was crushed by the wheels of a Land Rover driven by a Monk. It made for an interesting insurance claim when I returned home. ‘You were where?’ ‘Was this a business trip or pleasure?’ How did you know he was a Monk? ‘Why was a Landrover involved?’ ‘Did the Monk stop?’ ‘Did you report it to monastic authorities?’
Although the Monks were very busy with their worship and common tasks: cooking, offering hospitality to pilgrim serving in the monastery’s shop, they were often available to talk to after Vespers. I met one of them to seek some spiritual counsel. He listened and then shared a short prayer with me. Asking how often I should say it, he permitted himself a brief smile – ‘Just say it for the next twenty years and then we can meet again and discuss how it has helped you on your path‘.
After a fortnight’s hard work, we were invited to meet the Abbot of the Monastery. His quarters overlooked the sea with tubs of vibrant pink rosebushes on a balcony. After living on a monastic diet for a fortnight we were all taken aback to be handed a plate with a large slice of Black Forest Gateau and a small glass goblet of cold sweet almond wine. Ambrosia! We were invited into the Abbot’s study where he sat behind a vast desk attending to papers and taking telephone calls. ‘Please be seated’ he said speaking through an Interpreter. A magisterial man with a great spiritual presence and twinkling eyes, he resembled a particularly benevolent Father Christmas. ‘I want to thank you for coming to Mount Athos and for all the work you have done here. It is really valued‘. And with that he got up and handed each one of us a CD of monastic chanting at Vattapedi and a large folder containing some beautiful photographs of the monastery.
And then he said something quite startling: ‘Please don’t think you come to Mount Athos for our benefit. You come here for your own benefit. And when you are cutting away those thorns on the path, what you are really doing is cutting away the thorns that surround your own hearts‘. I thought back over our fortnight’s work, how many kilometres of paths we’d cleared, mapped, logged, marked and recorded as a group and how the thorny bushes had scratched us all. At that moment I truly understood that great insight of Brother Lawrence – ‘The time of business does not for me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament‘.
My pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain became a profound spiritual adventure. I was encouraged to completely surrender my will and ego to the needs of the monastery and to trust, in turn, that my needs would be taken care of. And they were. The Abbot’s comment was a pearl of great price that taught me I should seek God everywhere – whether I’m cutting thorn bushes, sitting round a table sharing a meal with friends, walking in the countryside, or attending my local Quaker meeting. As the playwright Christopher Fry once wrote, so memorably, ‘Affairs are now soul sized. The enterprise is exploration into God‘