Orthodox America

   An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos

by Mr. M. W. Mansur

A trip to Mount Athos in 1933 by two American graduate students provides them with a wonderful introduction to the treasure of Orthodoxy.

Part VI (conclusion)

July 26. On the way from Karyes to Russiko I tried a short cut and got into rough terrain.  I must have lost considerable time but got here in two and a quarter hours which is good.  Found the same archontares and we greeted each other with his pet phrase, kala.  He gave me one of the best meals I've had on Athos: sardines, soup, fried potatoes, cucumber and tomato salad, with excellent wine. Spent the afternoon in the usual Athos fashion and at 5:30 went to vespers in the upper church. Had no luck following in my new book.

July 27.  Not long after the morning tea the archontares took me up to the monastery to find Father Vassily. We went onto one of the balconies and talked for over an hour until it was time for him to go to dinner. He is a brilliant and educated man, knows several languages well, and expresses his ideas clearly.  He said that Gerard Shelley, author of Speckled Domes, was one of his teachers. He certainly knows everything about the Orthodox Church.  At first he explained about the tones, how each week the tone changes until there have been eight and then the rotation begins again. Some parts of the service are in the tone for the week and some have always the same tone.  Much of the music in the Liturgy is traditional and does not change. The Horologion contains the invariable parts of the services and is very important.  This is supplemented by the Ochtoechos, which contains the versicles of the eight tones for each day of the week.  Next comes the Menaion, which contains additional versicles arranged according to the day of the month. This question seems complicated but I imagine that once understood one would see the reason for keeping the present arrangement.

The schedule for the day at Russiko is like this: 4:30-6 Liturgy; 6-8 rest; 8-10:30 work; 10:30-11 trapeza; 11-1:30 work; 1:30-3 rest; 3-5:30 work; 5:30-7 vespers; 7-7:30 trapeza; 7:30-8 compline. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday there is only one trapeza and that comes at noon.

This monastery is governed wholly by the hegoumenos. Sometimes he consults a council of leading monks whom he appoints. The hegoumenos is elected by everybody. In the Greek monasteries there is usually a board of epitropoi, who advise the hegoumenos and who elect a successor to any member who dies.

Nearly all monks go to the church for the Liturgy but sometimes they say some of the other services by themselves. There seems to be no special set of rules but everything goes by tradition. The tradition starts with St. Anthony in Egypt. The first to write about the monastic life was St. Pachomius, then St. Basil, then St. Sabbas, and St. Theodore of the Studium.

The Liturgy was probably well developed in Apostolic times but during the succeeding centuries the other services were written, changed and elaborated. St. Sabbas was important in developing the services. By the twelfth century they were almost as they are now. Some minor changes were made as late as the nineteenth century. The order of services begins with vespers.

Tradition is an important part of Orthodox belief and a little difficult to understand.  It goes back to the earliest time, when the Apostles taught by writings and by word of mouth.  Tradition was what selected the four Gospels out of many accounts. The correct tradition is decided by ecumenical councils but their decisions have to be accepted by the whole Church before they can be considered as binding. No decision once accepted can be changed by a later council. The way in which decisions of councils are accepted seemed vague.

Father Vassily's attitude toward the English church [i.e., Anglican] was very sane.   He says that it is hard to recognize the English church because it has no unity in itself.  The most opposite beliefs are allowed.  Until there is some formulation of belief, the work of reunion cannot go far.

When it was time to leave, the archontares got his stick and walked part of the way with me.  He has been a little more communicative than he was the first time I was here.  The path followed the coast around the bay of Daphni.  Stopped an hour for a last swim in the delicious water of Athos so didn't reach Daphni till 5:30.  After getting my passport from the police and coming to the cafe, whom should I see but the Greek whom I had taken for an artist at the Lavra. We got into conversation and had a pleasant time because he knew I was leaving and therefore did not want a guide. He did however try to persuade me to buy the map of Athos which he said he had drawn.

On the boat I met a member of the Alpine Club of Saloniki, Mr. Papazoglou, and another older man. We talked and had a very pleasant time together. Mr. Papazoglou had spent a month on the Mountain. He took a small hammock with him so that if the monastery's quarters were not satisfactory he could hang it up outside.  The other Greek very kindly got me a deck chair so that I was all set for the night.  It was warmer than it had been going out. We reached Saloniki before 7.

Note: I learned subsequently that Fr. Vassily was the son of A. B. Krivoshein, the very capable Minister of Agriculture in Stolypin's cabinet. After WW II Fr. Vassily with several other of the younger Russian monks was forced by the Greeks to leave Athos. He eventually became Archbishop Vassily, Exarch of Western Europe of the Moscow Patriarchate. We met again in Brussels exactly forty years since our first meeting and immediately recognized each other.