A Protestant’s Journey Among the Monks of Mount Athos

To the Holy Mountain

When you first arrive at a monastery on Mount Athos, the traditional center of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the first thing you do is knock back a shot. You drop your backpack on the floor, find a spot on the long wooden bench in the guesthouse hallway, and then you’re welcomed by a young bearded monk with a tray filled with shot glasses brimming with rakí, a strong Greek version of grappa (flavored with anise). He also offers a bowl of powdered sweets. I don’t know what’s happening at this point, or if this is a monkish joke, but the other pilgrims nod me on and it’s bottoms-up. It is only a small glass, of course, but I’m jet lagged and tired from the journey. I finish it with a gulp. Afterwards I sip from a glass of water next to the rakí and chomp down the loukoumi, the powdered sugar treat the monk serves in a small ornate bowl; elsewhere this is known as Turkish Delight.

I had heard many stories about Mount Athos, so I knew something about the welcome-shot, but this still feels strange. Here I am, on an ancient peninsula of monasteries, thousands of miles from my home in California, and my first ten minutes could have taken place in any Irish pub. Who, I wondered, in the thousand-year history of this place, decided to welcome pilgrims with booze? The word tradition was what brought me here, and I already felt baffled by it.

In the guesthouse hallway, I look around to see I’m the only American in the arriving group of pilgrims. After a quick hello, I learn I’m the only Protestant as well. The others are Greek, mainly, or Russian; all Orthodox. For reasons unknown to me, the black-bearded guestmaster monk, Father Stephanos, is glaring at me from behind his desk.

The guesthouse is full today, and the monks are working hard to accommodate everyone. While I wait for a room, a tall monk with a wood mop glides past me down the hall. Underneath his breath, I hear him whisper: Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me; Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me; Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me. (In English: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.) The monk blends the words Eleisonme back to Kyrie, so the prayer makes a loop. I smile at him as he strides down the hall, and he smiles back. The gesture feels like an island in a sea of the unknown.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Josh Jeter

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