A short stay on Mt. Athos

As you would expect, quite a few readers have sent emails requesting my opinion of that “60 Minutes” Easter piece the other night about the monks of Mt. Athos. Here’s one from Bob Koch that was delivered with a bit of wit:

Concerning the CBS report on Mt. Athos that aired on Easter Sunday evening: I think they get religion. It almost looked like Bob Simon GOT religion.


It has taken me a few days to get to this piece, in large part because of have been under the weather for several days, to say the least. Insert your favorite kidney-stone joke right here. I am delaying a pain-killer for an hour or so just to clear my eyes and write this. So there.

The problem I have evaluating the piece is that it really isn’t a news story. It’s more of a spiritual travelogue. Period.

In fact, it almost seems that the crew went out of its way to avoid recent controversies involving the Holy Mountain, including a much-reported land swap deal involving troubled Greek officials. I would have appreciated some coverage of tensions between the leaders of the 20 or so monastic communities and the leadership of the European Union, as well.

In one of the online extras, producer Michael Karzis talks about the differences between doing this spirituality piece and a “regular story.” It appears that the goal here was simply to describe the details of the daily lives of the monks and their spiritual goals and traditions. A sample:

Father Iakovos is one of a few Americans on the mountain; he’s been there more than half his life. “You have to understand, the words that we’re saying in today’s liturgy, are the same words that Christ was saying, are the same words that saints from the first century, the second century, the third century, the fourth century,” he told “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon.

And nothing has changed in orthodoxy since then — it’s the only branch of Christianity that can make that claim.

That’s fine, although I am sure some non-Orthodox viewers will be frustrated that some of their claims (Nothing has changed in Orthodoxy, ever?) go completely unchallenged.

At the same time, the Orthodox may be frustrated that there are glimpses of huge theological questions that going flying past and then vanish. We are given brief looks at the worship rites, but are never really told what is being said, beyond, “Lord have mercy.” It’s all Greek, so to speak. We are introduced to this “blast furnace of prayer,” but we know little about what they are saying.

We see pilgrims from around the world. What are they doing there? That monk who used to teach at Harvard Divinity School? What’s up with him? How did he get to the mountain?

The total package is beautiful. The history is amazing. But I am sure many viewers were left wanting more.

Oh, and one more thing. The biggest mystery of all, for me? Who, at CBS, thought it was a good fit to have this entire online package sponsored by Viagra?

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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.

  • Dev Thakur

    The claim that Orthodoxy has not changed went unchallenged, but so did the claim that it is the only branch of Christianity that can say this!

    Traditional Catholics would also claim that in substance, the traditional practices of the Roman Rite (as distinguished from the forms we see since the 1960s) are unchanged from the first few centuries.

  • http://mediumt.wordpress.com Peter S. S.

    Terry, did you catch the part about a “thousand Divine Liturgies” each day? Am I missing something here…? I couldn’t tell if that was a mistranslation or a figure of speech or what.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Yes. I thought they confused litugies with Divine Liturgies. Rites vs.the Divine Liturgy itself.

  • Pat

    @Dev – other branches of Christianity may claim that nothing has changed,but that is easily confirmed historically. The Orthodox church can prove that nothing has changed! As you yourself note, the 1960′s held tremendous change for the Roman Catholic Church, however, changes date back to the schism where the Roman Catholic church left the “one true church of Jesus Christ” close to 1000 years ago.

    As for knowing more about what was taking place at Mount Athos and what all the pilgrims were doing, that can be understood by those that are interested and seek more in depth details easily found online these days.

    This was a great piece, that demonstrated both the purpose and the mystery of this Holy place. Well done!

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    It was nice, but it seemed kind of fluffy to me.

  • Julia

    OK What was “the most miraculous thing about Mt Athos” revealed after 60 Minutes returned from its commercial break?

  • Dave

    Terry, I hope you recover and soon will not need to choose between serious pain and the ability to function. Been there, done that, hope you’re over it soon!

  • bob

    A thousand liturgies a day isn’t too hard to imagine if every ordained monk celebrates. There’s lots of chapels besides the main one daily. Yes, it was taking a few liberties to say *nothing* has changed — all that Byzantine court dress, all those wonderful liturgics didn’t happen overnight. It was blissfully free of controversy. It still surprises me that people wonder why women can’t visit. Men can’t visit women’s monasteries!

    The stone. Where to begin? This too shall pass….You should be able to drive in the HOV lane and use the editorial “we” for a while. Been there, felt that. Quite miserable. I hope you’re soon relieved.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    In the Eastern tradition the Divine Liturgy cannot be celebrated alone. Also, thousands of these monks are, well, monks, not priests.

  • Katie

    To Bob: Actually men can visit some women’s monasteries. First of all, women’s monasteries have to have a Priest who is a man. And there will be a Bishop who visits at times. It really depends on the monastery. The women’s monastery I have visited on occasion does welcome families (which of course includes men). The point about a men’s monastery and Mt. Athos in particular is that their purpose is to draw closer to Christ and women can be a distraction to men which would make it difficult for them (albeit in varying degrees) to retain their purity.