Orthodox America

  An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos

by M. W. Mansur 

With a growing interest in the Orthodox Church, our father returned a second time to Mt. Athos in 1936. His journal provides us with the following account.

August 25.  Tuesday.   As we approached, the mountain was surrounded by clouds and didn't stand out in sharp outline as before.  At Daphne I breakfasted on the remains of my bread and grapes before setting out for Karyes with three Greeks, this time on a horse.  Mine was one of the slowest animals I've ever seen; a slow, conservative, orthodox-like animal, which started out leading the procession but dropped to last place before we reached the divide. The road to Karyes makes a fine introduction.  Many oak and chestnut trees on all sides. At the Iera Koinotis I presented my letter with two Greeks from Cavalla and had a few minutes' conversation with the four epistates.

Towards 3:30 I set out on foot for the Skete of the Prophet Elias by a hard path which would have been difficult to follow if I hadn't been with a man who works at Stavronikita and whose way coincided most of the distance. The skete is situated in a ravine above Pantocrator on which it depends. Buildings surround the church on three sides, while on the fourth you get a fine view down to the sea. Arrived as Vespers ended.  After being shown to my room, I walked about till time for supper, looking into the church particularly.  It has a spacious interior and magnificent gilded iconastasis from Moscow. For supper they gave me more than I could eat, including delicious plums.  The archontares sat with me during the meal and an equally cordial Fr. Raphael came in too.  It was all I could do to make them take some grapes.  After Compline they both returned to my room and talked in Greek for half an hour.  It certainly was an example of Athonite hospitality.

August 26. Wednesday.   After the Liturgy I went to trapeza with the monks and had some delicious bean soup, bread and wine, after which I followed the hegoumenos to the parlor for coffee.  The Hegoumen Ioann was one of the most charming people I have ever met and certainly one of the most hospitable.  He was interested to hear about the Russian church in America and showed me a photo of the bishops which he had.  The priest who conducted the Liturgy and the archontaris were also there. Fortunately I took photographs of all of them. They were so hospitable that it wasn't possible to get away till nearly 10.  You would not realize that they are pitifully poor there.

Reached Vatopedi by 1:30 after seeing it from above for some time.  Had lunch at once and lay down for a while before beginning a tour.  During Vespers I had a good chance to examine the interior of the church.  The iconastasis was remarkable for its gilt wood carving.  A fine corona in the middle of the church and mosaic of Christ over the door of the narthex. After Vespers a priest took myself and a Greek into the sanctuary where he showed us the relics, the Virgin's girdle and a piece of the Cross. He wiped the glass over each with cotton batten which he then wrapped in paper and gave to the Greek. Behind the altar was an old icon of the Virgin.  The catholicon was red and joined to the buildings on the north side by an arcade.  On the south was a ramp leading up to the monks' quarters. For all this is the richest monastery, where monks wear silk robes and have electricity, it had the usual slightly untidy Greek aspect.  Enjoyed a swim until sunset when I returned and sat on the balcony of the courtyard with two visitors from Cavalla, one a priest. After a while I went to the reception room where the proedeos was talking with four other visitors. He was a big, jolly fellow full of questions about politics and war prospects. Dinner consisted of three courses, the middle one being peppers.  In my first mouthful I got hold of something which gave me violent hiccups. The proedeos told me to smell the crust of my bread which did help and they stopped in a few minutes. Even water and wine could not take away the hot taste and I suffered till the watermelon arrived.  Vatopedi is the most modern of the monasteries but I wonder if it has quite the same religious atmosphere as some of the others.

August 27.  Thursday.   At first I was disappointed not to leave at 5:30 with the others but was fully repaid by a conversation with one of the epitropoi to whom one of the men at the hotel had given me a letter. He was well educated and recited lines of Homer.  After jam and coffee, the librarian took us to the library where we saw beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a geography of Strabo full of quaint maps.

Reached Karyes by 11 on a mule given by the monastery and had to wait till 1 before the muleteer was ready.  Followed a steep path over the ridge and down to Russiko [St. Panteleimon's Monastery-ed] on the same old nag I rode from Daphni.  Passed the original monastery of Russiko built quite a distance above the present one and mostly deserted now.  At Russiko I found Fr. Haralampi still archontaris.  Gave me some jam and tea before I retired.  Ate at 6:15 to be ready for the agrypnia (All-night Vigil) which was to begin at 7 (12 Byzantine) as soon as the sun set.  Found later that it really began with small Vespers in the late afternoon before the trapeza.

When the sun set they began ringing the bells, little ones, then big ones, then both together. The little bells raced up and down until they ceased and left only the booms of the biggest bell at the end.  The agrypnia was an extraordinary service which was certainly worth coming for. It went on from 7 till 3:30, arriving at a climax, subsiding, beginning again, and so on over and over with amazing variety.  I remember particularly a chant sung by the choir in the middle of the church near the beginning which started Dostoino yest ("Meet it is . . ."), the Little Entrance, the prayers before the icon at the rear of the church.  After that came a special service in which the icon of the Dormition was set on a stand in the middle of the church surrounded on three sides by candles and sprays of a grayish green color with a pink flower.  The abbot stood in front waving the censer while three deacons stood behind, three priests on his right, and two on his left.  All the time the choir sang a burial chant.  At intervals the abbot, accompanied by the deacons, censed the whole church three times and had three of the other priests in the order of seniority do the same.  Soon after came the blessing of the loaves at the front of the church, reading the gospel, singing the Magnificat and the Doxology. At the very end, when nearly all lights were out, the abbot read some prayers standing in front of the Holy Doors while all the monks bowed down to the floor.  When he finished they passed by to kiss his hand.  I seem to remember three kathismata.  The gospel was not brought out to be kissed and the blessed bread and wine were not distributed as I expected.

Corresponding to important moments, more candles were lit and these put out.  Except for Holy Week, this was the last word in night services. Slept till 7 (12) when I went up for the Liturgy which was done in magnificent style.  Vestments of white watered silk decorated with red and green flowers at the top.  Everything went smoothly at such moments as the Great Entrance when all the clergy were in line before the doors when the prokimens ended.  Having good deacons makes almost more difference than anything else.

August 28.  Friday.   Waited with Vassily in the courtyard until the priests came out of the catholicon when I went with them into the trapeza for a meal of rice soup, stewed fish, grapes, and wine.  At the end kolyva was passed around, made of sugar and pomegranate seeds.  Then everybody stood up while bread was passed.  You broke off a morsel and held it in front of the censer before eating it.  All adjourned to the catholicon for a short service, at the beginning of which I was introduced to the abbot. Misail had a stroke two years ago so his place is taken by the acting abbot, Gabriel.  Misail was wheeled into the church for part of the Liturgy.

August 29.  Saturday.   The order of the day is Vespers 4:30 - 5:30, trapeza, Compline 7 - 7:45, sleep, Midnight Office 1 - 2, Matins 2 - 3, Liturgy 3 - 4:30, sleep, trapeza, work.   On Sundays, Midnight Office and Matins last from 12 - 4 when there is a break until liturgy at 7. In some of the churches, Liturgy follows immediately and is attended by monks who have work to do.  On Sunday there are two trapezas. Since I may not get here again, I make the most of the opportunity to hear the services and am a regular attendant except for the Midnight Office. Have nothing to do but sleep and read during the day. The monks therefore spend about 6 hours a day in services. Once one is accustomed to sleeping a few hours at a stretch it is not such an arduous routine as it seems at first. Nevertheless, these two or three days will be enough for a layman.

August 30. Sunday.    Had a fine view of the monastery by moonlight while the bells were ringing as I walked up at 1 for Matins.  Trapeza at 9 was simple: bean soup, cabbage stewed with remains of fish, bread, apple, wine. Such diet is healthy but must be monotonous day after day.  Coming out of the monastery I bought a yoghurt for one of the priests who sat opposite me and couldn't refuse an apple from him.  They insist on giving anything they have.

Now there are two meals a day and tea in the afternoon except on Mon., Wed. and Fri, when morning tea replaces a meal. During Lent there is only one meal and evening tea except on Saturday and Sunday when one more tea is added.

Was glad to see at the end of Vespers the Akathistos which Riley attended when he was here. The icon of the Virgin* above the Holy Doors was slowly lowered while two deacons and three priests stood on either side and the abbot in front.  A long series of petitions was made interrupted by occasional responses from the choir.  The priests took turns reading. Finally the icon was lowered a little more and all the monks went up to kiss it while the chief deacon, then in black, kept saying, "Presvetaya Bogoroditsa spasii nas" [Most Holy Mother of God, save us] over and over again.  Fr. Haralampi said this icon had said that it wished to be sent to this monastery from Russia fifty years ago.