Mount Athos, “kingdom of monks” — part 2

Find below the second part of a 1990 travelogue about Mount Athos. If you’re just dropping in now, here’s the backstory.

Mount Athos is the famed monastic republic in northern Greece. I count Mount Athos as one of the foundations for Melleray Farmstead and Piedmont Pine Coffins. Since I like to talk about monastic inspirations for our place, here’s a peak into the old file cabinets and into the archives — into the past that forms us in the present. Thinking back, I realize that these monks — the hermits, at least — lived in tiny, off-grid farmsteads where self-sustenance was prized. When I was casting around for ideas for our gravity-fed water system at Melleray Farmstead, my thoughts went back to Father Kosmas and his water pipes. I bet the coffins on Athos are simple pine, too.

Mount AthosIn 1990 yours truly, founder of Piedmont Pine Coffins, visited the Mount Athos, the “kingdom of the monks,” for Easter.

It was quite a trip. Here below find part 2 of an essay about that visit that in 1997 was published in The Riverfront Times of St. Louis under the title Mount Athos, Peak of Ecstasy. You can find part 1 here. For more details on Athos, you can find a great article by Robert Draper, with photos by Travis Dove, in National Geographic.


Part 2:

Our first night we spent with a hermit, Father Kosmas, who met us in Karyes and led us further inland, picking watercress for our dinner salad on the way to his house, which was propped on stilts above a steep valley. We ate at dusk, by the light of a beeswax candle: the gathered greens, cistern water, pan-fried potatoes and eggs. Hot oil smoked up the kitchen, but it was another smell — the rose incense from the chapel in the back of the house — that you noticed first, here and in many other houses on Athos. That same incense sweetened the air in another hermitage I visited, where, in a basement chapel, the monks brought out saints’ bones, set in red velvet and covered with silver filigree, for pilgrims to kneel before and kiss.

Father Kosmas seemed to have guests often, for a hermit. In the morning, he guided us to the closest monastery on the eastern coast. As we descended a forest footpath and my Greek companions walked out of sight around the bend, Father Kosmas stopped and faced me, hand on my shoulder. “Kalo pethi,” he said, and repeated it: “Kalo pethi.” This means something like, “You are a good boy.” Then he leaned forward to kiss me on the lips. His breath and his beard smelled earthy, like tobacco. I suddenly didn’t know how to comport myself. He leaned forward again. The only Greek word I could remember was “Efcharisto” — thank you — and I backed off mumbling it. This seemed like more than simple hospitality, and in hindsight I think that Father Kosmas may have been lonely. It is no surprise, really, in a nation of celibates, to find the quality of affection a hard one to express right.

Even more confounding events lay ahead at the monastery of Stavronikita on our last night on Athos. After dinner, a vegetarian casserole taken in silence with the rest of the community in the refectory, we relaxed in the living room of the guesthouse, an airy parlor with large windows on two sides overlooking a bay. I split my attention between the Greek conversation, too fast for me, and the dolphins I could see playing below.

Just after dusk, a commotion in the bedroom next door interrupted our leisure. Another guest, a man who had arrived the same day, was shouting at one of the monks. He wouldn’t be pacified. We couldn’t hear very well, but it sounded serious. The brother stepped into the hall, called another monk, and sent him to get help. While the door was open, one of our number, Eli, peered in and then rushed back to tell us: The man was on the sill, he said in Greek, then in English for me, with the window partway up! We all crowded into the doorway. There he was, crouched by the open window. He didn’t seem to notice us. His shirt was wrinkled from the bed covers and open to his chest, which was sweaty.

More monks arrived, one carrying a tape recorder. They bid us go back to the parlor, where we could hear the shouting continue for another 15 minutes, then drop off. He’s not going to jump; they’ve coaxed him into the bed, scout Eli told us. The man was now holding forth in a babble, under the covers, his eyes closed. The tape recorder was on. They were trying to get him to drink a glass of water between utterances. After a time he calmed down even further, then fell asleep. One of the monks stayed with him a long time.

The next morning we were lucky enough to hitch a ride on the bed of an old supply truck heading back toward the port. As it pulled out, a voice from behind hailed the driver. It was the man from the sill. I looked again; he was the same, but with hair combed and shirt tucked in. Back in possession of himself. He jumped up and took a seat beside us. Eli said hello. I kept stealing glances from under my brows, or wanted to, the way you want to stare at a person seized by epilepsy. What had he seen? We were bound for Daphni, so I was puzzled when the ecstatic pilgrim hopped off at the next monastery up the coast. They were letting him stay on?

On the outbound ferry, I asked Eli about the babbling man. Eli had grown up in Australia; his English was good. “The man was crazy, or on drugs,” he said. “Sometimes you get people like that here.” And about the tape recorder we saw? “The man was claiming to be possessed,” Eli said. “A saint from the 3rd century, Nikolaos, one of the icons, was using him to speak through him.” The monasteries of Athos are famed for their collections of icons, the Byzantine sacred art of saints’ portraits used as objects of devotion. I myself was allowed to kiss some of them even though I was “Catholikos” — not a member of the truest branch of the faith. The icons were indeed beautiful, and some you might even call haunting, but I had no idea of their reputation for inspiring ecstasies.

I still have my doubts. The man at Stavronikita possessed by St. Nikolaos could easily have been a case of the Jerusalem syndrome. Or cocaine. But the monks, the one with the tape recorder, at least, came prepared for a miracle, just in case.

Athens, after Athos, was too much concrete. There, on the slopes of Mount Lykavittos, the posh district where my exchange program housed its students, a different spirit prevailed. There, the many Range Rovers parked outside doctors’ and politicians’ apartments didn’t look out of place at all. I had trouble explaining to the others why I chose to visit Athos. Many had spent the holiday in Egypt or on the beaches of the Cyclades. I didn’t want to tell my women friends that Athos was only for men. And I didn’t want to tell anyone that Father Kosmas had tried to kiss me.

But now it seems my pilgrimage was like a hard pear picked for later. And now, much later, I think I got exactly what I went for, jealous guardian or no. It is something all pilgrims approaching a god are after: a place to feel ecstasy. Never mind that it didn’t happen to me, in my case, and that I’m not interested in the kind I saw there. Athos — with its dead cow and its dolphins, its smell of roses and its shouts in the night, its clay-footed monks and its monasteries so far up on the heights as to seem like birdhouses for the kingfishers — has softened in my memory so that it seems as if my time there were so blissful as to be stricken with divinity.