Listening to Mount Athos voices

hildr2This weblog has received a fine comment from Neil Averitt, author of the Washington Post travel piece about his visit to Mount Athos that I mentioned last Thursday. Since this is precisely the kind of dialogue with journalists that this blog welcomes, I thought I would pull his letter out of the comments pages to share with more readers.

As you may recall, I thought that his piece was very enjoyable, especially all of its references to the spiritually interesting people — monks, in other words — that he encountered. I was interested in knowing more about them and what they had to say.

Thus, Averitt writes:

I am sorry that there wasn’t more information about religious issues and in direct quotes. In part that was just an oversight, and it part it’s because the conventions of travel writing do call for a first-person focus, as you mentioned. Anyway, here are a few more details:

1. The monks at the Danieleon chanted beautifully, but they weren’t quite as open to visitors as the monasteries were, perhaps because they weren’t set up to receive them. When it came time for dinner, I was sent outside with the command “exo, exo,” or “out, out,” and ate by myself at a table on the terrace. This was presumably because I was non-Orthodox. The non-Orthodox are sometimes sent to secondary places on Athos, particularly during church services. However, the monks at the Danieleon did invite me into their chapel for the primary service the next morning, which was the main thing. (The monasteries varied widely in their approach to this issue, with some involving the non-Orthodox on equal terms, some seating them in the outside hall, and some keeping them farther back on the porch; in all cases where it happened, however, this was done with kindness and with the explanation that there was some injunction against praying with people who were not members of the church.)

2. Father Damian had originally stopped by Grigorieu for the normal one-day visit. He enjoyed that and felt at home, so he got permission from the abbott to extend the stay a day at a time, and then by a week at a time. After some interval (I think about two months, but am not sure) he went back to England to talk with his family and check on his feelings, and then returned to Athos. The abbott’s reaction to this unplanned entry into the monastery was that “perhaps it was meant to be.”

3. That attitude — that the workings of Providence show themselves in everyday life — seems relatively common on Athos. When the monks are talking about the comparisons between eastern and western Christianity, that is a point they frequently mention — that Catholicism has an intellectual tradition, as exemplified by the Jesuits, but that Orthodoxy is more a “religion of the heart,” with its rituals set to encourage a sense of spirituality through more directly aesthetic means. These include the nighttime services, candles, scents, and so on.

I hope these additional details help.

They do indeed. So here is another question for Neil, if he has the time to respond. Would a kind of spiritual feature story about the Holy Mountain fly in the Post? A kind of collection of mini-interviews, a journey based on the lives and stories of the people one meets in such a place? Is that news, in the context of a postmodern and evolving Europe?

Take, for example, that reference to “some injunction” against praying with the non-Orthodox (or, in this case, the non-Orthodox being allowed to pray with the Orthodox). This is a point of dispute between different churches and, frankly, it’s an interesting story in the context of North America. There is “spiritual” content there, in other words, and both sides can be reported.

We hear a lot today about trends in “spirituality” replacing much of the hard-news content on the old denominational “religion beat.” I thought this Post feature gave us a hint of what might be possible, with the color left intact and the voices of the believers put back in. But would the newspaper allow that? Or, what the heck, just tell us what the pilgrim Prince Charles is up to, with his future role as “defender of the faiths” (plural) colliding with some of the messages he is sure to hear during all of those visits to Athos. Go for it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jon

    I know that at our (Coptic Orthodox) monastery, monks only eat with other monks, so everyone else eats elsewhere, Orthodox or not. Perhaps that’s what was happening here.

  • Mr.Rehab

    In order to reduce sexual temptation, women are completely barred from the peninsula, a fact which has earned a certain amount of fame; even female domestic animals (with the exception, some say, of cats, as well as chickens which lay eggs that provide the fresh egg yolk needed for the paint used in iconography) are forbidden. :)

  • Jim Calamas

    Only a few years ago, RCs were not allowed to attend non RC church services. Most strict Orthodox and especially monastics, will not allow non Orthodox into the Divine Liturgy but must remain in the narthex. Praying with people of different doctrine is debasing for the individual and to God which is not acceptable. This practice has eased in the USA.

  • Maureen

    “…Catholicism has an intellectual tradition, as exemplified by the Jesuits, but that Orthodoxy is more a ‘religion of the heart,’ with its rituals set to encourage a sense of spirituality through more directly aesthetic means…”

    There speak monks who’ve never even looked at the the Spiritual Exercises. Honest to goodness, how could anyone think that Jesuit spirituality is entirely intellectual, not connected to the heart, or not connected to the senses?

    Primary sources are a wonderful thing, if you don’t want to be constantly repeating other peoples’ misstatements.

  • Neil Averitt

    I don’t think that the monks were drawing an absolute distinction between intellectual Roman Catholicism and spiritual Orthodoxy. They would acknowledge that both elements were present in each religion. I think they were just saying that the centers of gravity of the two approaches were in slightly different places.

  • Charles

    Actually, I think the reporter was likely quoting the monks correctly. Our modernist ecumenicism doesn’t fly in many Orthodox circles, and Athos (along with places like Valaam in Russia) is an epicenter of Orthodox exceptionalism. The Athonites don’t play.

    Most Western Christians don’t get Orthodoxy, frankly. It is diffrent, and their theology and praxis are so qualitatively distinct as to be different kind, I think. Let’s just put it this way: modern jesuitical praxis is quite unlike what you’ll encounter at Athos, or your local Orthodox parish, for that matter.

    You might think them intolerant bigots, but you could never accuse them of insincerity or disregard of tradition. More than you can say of 90% of Catholic bishops stateside, or the clowns running the Episcopal church.

    Know I write this as a practicing Catholic still quite fixated on the idea that the Petrine charism is a decisive ontological reality.