Agion Oros 1930-2013: A Monk’s Story…

The interview was given on May 10, 2013 by a Greek Orthodox Monk from Agion Oros. A site tour of the soul and spirit of Agion Oros, lacking touristic interest, it addresses him who is intrigued into a heavenly climb up to the Garden of Virgin Mary, Holy Mother of Jesus.

“1930. I went to Agion Oros. My first impression there, being just a kid, I saw men in black, lots of them, waiting for the boat. The other monks who had boarded at Thessaloniki got out of the boat. We reached the Agion Oros hermitages after three and a half hours of boat rowing. When we reached a jetty, we started climbing the mountain. The monasteries by the sea were nice. You looked at them, admiring them, one after the other, on the south side.
I kept asking over and over again:
“What’s this? What’s going on here? Which one is that?”
The Elders answered, but my childish curiosity and fantasy were endless, and sometimes the Elders kept quiet, as I pestered them, going on all the time:
“Why is this like that? What’s that over there?”

Finally, we reached our destination, and took our way uphill for an hour. The monks carried things on their backs. It was July. We could see the bushy rocks from afar. The place was burning hot. And I was little and soaking wet in sweat. My whole body was burning hot, and I kept asking:
“Are we here yet?”
And the Elders said, “Well, just a little higher up.”
A little higher up, and a little higher up still, we reached the top after an hour. And then we had to climb down. And I kept asking:
“Now, are we going to go down all this way?”
The Elder monk was smiling.

Finally, we reached the cave, Little St. Anne’s Skete, The Dormition of Theotokos. In front there was a hut, and then, in the back there was the cave of the Fathers. There were four Fathers, the Elder Father was the fifth, and I was to be the sixth of them. When we got there, I was led to a little cell with space just for a small bed. There was also a window (cave opening). That’s all there was to it. They left me there, and I dropped dead tired on the bed, and immediately fell asleep.The next morning, I got out, finding myself among cliffs, rocks, and huge mountains, looking even bigger at my age. And then the experiments started. My Elder took me to a chapel of Holy Mother of Christ (Dormition of Theotokos), and said to me:
“This is our little church, this is our prayer book. Do a ‘metania’ (ground prostration) on Christ.”I did a repentance on Christ. Then, all of a sudden, he says:
“Your father who gave birth to you died. Christ is your Father now, and I am Christ’s mouth to you.”We went to the Holy Mother of Christ, and he goes again:
“From this moment your mother is dead. Virgin Mary is your Mother.”
At this point I was a little shaken. A cloud of sorrow went through me. Then he goes to the monks and says:
“As of today these are your brothers. The other brothers you knew are dead.”And that was how I was presented to the brothers, starting my new everyday life.
In the evening, the Elder says:
“From now on you’ll do six repentances each night.” [the great metanie, bowing all the way to the ground].
Six repentances. Not one more, not one less. That was an order.What came as a surprise was that I expected to have something to eat for lunch. Well, a glass of water and a rusk was all there was. I was given two, just because I was little. I ate them. There wasn’t anything else to eat. All the Fathers had was just a rusk and a glass of water. There was no supper. In the beginning, they gave me one rusk, because I was little, but I was to eat it in my cell.Then they started telling me:
“You’ll do this chore, as we all work here.”
The Fathers were icon painters. They painted their icons. Little by little, the broom was assigned to me. And what was there to sweep? Some old wooden boards and a dirt floor.  Then he showed me how to clean the tin glasses. We had a tap. We carried water from Saint Anna. We carried it in metal containers. As I was little, my pot was half full. But that was tough. On the way up, the water moved backwards. On the way down, it fell down on my head. It was very tiresome. Five okas; it was okas then [1 oka = 1.2829 kilograms]. It took us 45 minutes to Saint Anna. Up and down, up and down. There was this narrow path, and a steep edge below. Just looking, I was afraid we could all fall as we were carrying the tin containers on our backs. We had this small tank, and we emptied it inside. We used it to wash our hands. Not faces, nor feet. Just hands. The head on Holy Saturday. The brothers never smelled bad. Sweat cleaned it all. No one had smelled a bad odor on a brother.

Time went by. The 6 repentances became 30, 50… At fourteen, I became a monk, and the repentances were increased to 100. Then we went on, and at seventeen years of age, I became a perfect monk. Perfection is what we call “Great Schema”. Then we started our 300 repentances for life, until old age. Of course, now it’s different. Now I can’t drag my feet.

That was a monk’s life then. Very ascetic. All the Fathers were all skin and bone. But we never saw anyone die young there. All had reached a hundred, ninety five… The Fathers passed away over their nineties. Agion Oros (Holy Mountain) was indeed Holy then, because there were no laymen there. Laymen came rarely, in the summer or sometimes there came some pious laymen at Easter from Chalkidiki. They stayed over through the Holy Week, celebrated Easter and, after a couple of days, they went back home. All was in deep piety. All the Fathers chimed. We had some melodious Fathers. Vigils lasted fifteen hours. From St Lazarus Saturday till Easter, each night there was a vigil.

On Easter Day there was the big feast. Fish came out on the table. Whoever ate fish good for him. I didn’t eat fish so I slept on my plate. I was elbowed. I was all skin and bones. Our weekend dishes were bean soup, chickpeas, fava beans. They spilled a few drops of oil, and that was our consolation. On the first week of the Great Lent, the Clean Week, as it’s called, we had nothing Monday through Friday, not even water. Just holy water on Wednesday and a piece of holy bread. Nothing else. Prayer. Prayer was more intense then. In solitude and together in church. Prayer. And confessions. Each night we told our thoughts to our Elders.

And the years went by, war came, and more hardship. On the Holy Mountain we had nothing, not even bread. The ascetics were going to the monasteries and took some rusks in their bags to sustain themselves in the desert. The Desert starts from St Paul’s New Skete all through Lavra, the greatest monastery and the first founded on Mount Athos, by Saint Athanasios.

The northern part is great consolation, as you can see a cell here, another in 15 minutes time, another one in a half-hour walk, all scattered here and there. They had lots of trees, too, chestnut trees. Other monks formed terraces where there was soil and cultivated some onions, some garlic, no more.

The greatest feast was the Holy Week and Easter. At Easter, despite all the fatigue from the Holy Week, I remember we were having the Ceremony of Love at 2 pm, Vespers, and then uphill and downhill we went to visit all the cells, and Fathers would chime Christ is Risen ‒ the young ones, naturally; how could the Elders go up and down hill? At night we dropped dead. The Elder woke us up, as we were beat.  Going to bed at nine, and waking up at 1 a.m. was very tiring. But thank God for all that.

I was sorry things came out that way and I had to leave Agion Oros, but God wished it so. I left Agion Oros in ’49 for good. At those times it was truly a Holy Mountain. The present situation has nothing to do comparing not to the ‘30s, not to the ‘50s, but not even to the ‘70s. Things have changed. Hermitages still exist, but even those are modernized. As I hear, they have phones, electricity, lights… Agion Oros has developed into a touristic version leaving out its ‘holy’ part. This year I was told 2000 Russians visited Agion Oros. You get the picture with 2000 laymen up there.”

‒ Would one benefit visiting Agion Oros today?

“Definitely. Neither Satan’s servant nor God’s servant shall vanish. There are monks both in the monasteries and the sketes. If one goes as a Christian, on condition he goes to find some Saint, he will benefit a great deal. But if he goes as a traveler, he will most probably be scandalized. Scandals are everywhere, especially when you see so many people over there, each with their own opinion. Some see Agion Oros for its natural beauty, others see it from a monk’s life perspective. Where there are people there are scandals.”

‒ Do you remember any miracle that you yourself experienced on Agion Oros?

“Today (May 10, 2013) I talked to a [spiritual] child of mine, one of the same name as mine that I have sent over there many years ago. I asked him because I heard that the great vigil lamp at St. Anne’s Skete, weighing three kilos, was moving. This happens for the first time ever, to the Fathers surprise. They took shifts to watch it, closed all windows in the Great Church, where the Fathers meet for celebrations, and the vigil lamp was moving. No air was coming in from anywhere. They kept watching it all through the night. It was moving. They are expecting something to happen. Something good, something bad? God knows. The monks gathered there and keep
praying. They ask God, and St Anne, our Virgin Mary’s Mother, to show them.

In the old days, during the Turkish Occupation, the Commander was passing by on his boat, and went up on St. Anne’s Skete, stepped into the church, saw it, and lit a candle. And when he was told that St Anne performs miracles for child bearing, he said:
“If she gives me a child, I will get her a big vigil lamp.”
Indeed, when he went to Chania, his wife conceived and delivered a boy. A year later, he brought this big vigil lamp that is now moving of its own, and hanged it there.

A decade ago, I had gone to the Desert, and found someone who was famed as a great ascetic. As we talked, I asked him:
“Have you ever seen a miracle here?”
He says: “A little further from up here there is a holy man. One night he was sitting outside his cave. It was a full moon and the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, was shining from the top down. As he was looking up, he sees tongues of fire rising up the sky. He was terrified. He thought Agion Oros was on fire. He says:
“My Holy Mother, your Garden is on fire!”
And he hears a voice saying:
“It is not my Garden on fire, but the monks’ prayers rising up to Heaven.