For as long as humanity has possessed a connection to the spiritual, there have been those who have dedicated themselves to silent meditation and prayer. Christianity itself has a rich history of men and women who chose to give their lives to God through monastic life. Some live in large groups, while others, like the Desert Fathers, isolate themselves from all human interaction.
It can be hard to imagine someone living a monastic life in the modern world. The choice feels almost medieval and is mentally associated with “those quirky things ancient humans used to do.” However, in northeastern Greece, there is a sect of Orthodox monks who, in isolation, add to a chain of prayer that has remained unbroken for over 1,000 years.
What is Mount Athos?
Staring out over the Aegean Sea, like an ancient giant, mount Athos thoughtfully faces the horizon just as it has since the dawn of humanity. Located at the end of the peninsula in the Northeastern part of Greece, Athos has housed people from various tribes and creeds. However, it has been the exclusive home of Greek Orthodox Monks for the last thousand and a half years.
The Mythological Origins of Mount Athos
Mount Athos was named after the Gigantes Athos, who, according to legend, through a giant stone at Poseidon during a battle with the Olympians. The stone fell into the sea, giving birth to the mountain. Some stories go on to say that Athos was buried under the monumental stone by Poseidon.
According to Christian tradition, Mount Athos became the home of Orthodoxy after an accidental visit from Mary, the mother of Jesus. As the legend goes, Mary’s ship was blown off course during a voyage to Cyprus to visit the twice-alive Lazarus. One thing led to another, and the boat landed on the coast of the peninsula. She was captivated by the natural wonder and asked Jesus to give the land to her. Upon hearing this request, Christ declared from Heaven.
“Ἔστω ὁ τόπος οὗτος κλῆρος σὸς καὶ περιβόλαιον σὸν καὶ παράδεισος, ἔτι δὲ καὶ λιμὴν σωτήριος τῶν θελόντων σωθῆναι”
(“Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”)
The Monks of Mount Athos
Scattered amongst the cliffs and peaks of the mountain are 20 monasteries housing 2,000 monks who live the monastic life just like those who came before them. Many of these monasteries date back to the Middle Ages. For example, the Zograf Monastery (Μονή Ζωγράφου) was constructed in the late 9th to early 10th century by men from Bulgaria. Since that time, the lives of the monastery’s inhabitance have seen little change.
The monks greet the sun every morning with the clack… clack… clack… of two wooden boards slapping together. This is the call to wake up and greet the day with morning prayers. Later, the day’s chores begin; some tend to the gardens while others prepare meals. Those skilled in a craft do particular tasks. Some do handyman things, while others paint religious icons or copy ancient texts. Every moment of the day is filled with some activity. Yet, despite their busyness, the vast majority of their time is given to meditation, religious services, and prayer.
Most of the Monks live in the tranquility of monastery communities. However, for some, these houses of prayer are still too noisy. Consequently, they live independently in small shacks located all over Athos. Living in total isolation, they eat merely what they need to survive and often function on three hours of sleep a night. With no one else to talk to, these Monks can effortlessly dedicate themselves to prayer and reflection.
Living in Isolation
According to an article by CBS, most, if not all, of the Monks love being there and are happy to make the sacrifices Athos demands.
The monastery is almost entirely cut off from the outside world, and its residents have little interest in what’s happening outside. Father Iakovos, a lifelong resident, missed his father’s funeral in order to maintain his isolation. In an interview with a CBS reporter, he said.
“Prior to his death he [Father Iakovos’ father] was asking if I would go, so I could see him one last time,”
“I didn’t go because of the fact that monastics do not go to funerals of their relatives or their friends. They remain here at the monastery” ….
Upon hearing this answer, reporter Simon probed further.
“When your father asked you to come see him one last time, and you said, no, was there any feeling of, ‘I’m letting my father down?’”
“Not at all,” Father Iakovos said. “I know that we’re gonna see each other in paradise one day.”
Why Do People Live on Mount Athos?
Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves some alone time, and getting time away to pray is something we ALL could use more of. However, for the monks living on mount Athos, the isolation doesn’t end when work begins. They don’t finish their meditation when dinner starts or take a break from scripture when the latest episode of their favorite program comes on. Unlike most people of modernity for them, prayer time doesn’t end when they run out of things to say. Time with God is their life, every second of every day.
For too many people in the world, myself included, the life they choose to live seems both admirable and peculiar (if not extreme). As I was doing research for this article, I began to wonder what could drive a person to live such an isolated and repetitive life. What force is powerful enough to motivate someone to live in a remote monastery until death?
In an interview conducted by CBS, Father Serapion, a resident of mount Athos gave the reporter some insight into this question.
“The monks here have one goal, and that is how they can get closer to God.”
It’s as simple as that. The quiet men who live on the mountain stay there because, for them, it is the closest place to Heaven on earth. On the mountain, they can commune with God all day and all night, with no distraction and limited temptation.
In the article, the reporter said he witnessed monks quietly reciting the Lord’s Prayer to themselves all day long. The monks take Paul’s words to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17) very earnestly. One monk told the reporter that nothing could end his prayer, including a conversation with an inquisitive journalist.
My Impression of Monasticism
There is a quiet beauty to the choice the monks of mount Athos make every day. They are not being held captive by human, political, or economic forces. They’re there because they want to spend their day doing simple work and communing with the Lord. Reading their story has left me both inspired and perplexed. On the one hand, I wish I could know what it’s like to worship for a year or two continuedly. Personally, I have dedicated a week to spending time with God, and I found the experience transformative, to say the least. It boggles my mind to imagine the dramatic transformation those on the mountain undergo throughout their lives or the spiritual forces they encounter.
However, at the same time, the world and people surrounding Athos are God-given gifts. So, I can’t help but wonder if it would be a mistake to isolate myself from the rest of creation?