Faraway Athos, I will never see you: your mysterious mountains and austere monasteries, secluded kellis and kalyvias, rocky trails to Karoulia and the peaks of Katounakia; I will never descend to the blue waves of the Aegean Sea, will never awaken to the sound of the wooden tuaka in the pilgrim’s quarters—arxontariki. The monastic republic of Athos is inaccessible for women. But I can listen to stories about Athos from my first spiritual guide—Igumen Savvaty.
Trapeza has ended in the monastery, the thanksgiving prayers are read. The sisters sit again and wait with bated breath. Fr. Savvaty attentively examines his spiritual children and continues his story:
A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps
On Mt. Athos, spiritual causes and effects are very close in time, revealing the spiritual essence of what is happening. Athos is a place of prayer and spiritual battle, therefore the events and actions here are especially full; they have a special concentration. Here, the ancient wisdom of Solomon is experientially confirmed every day: A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps (Prov. 16:9).
I planned my next, seventh trop to Mt. Athos for a long time, anticipated it, although actually I had long known that you propose one thing, but the Queen of Heaven—the mistress of Mt. Athos—herself plans for you, and her will is the very best for you, the most true and salvific. You can plan your trip down to the smallest details, and the Most Holy one will completely change all your plans. Only sometime later do you understand that it was the most wonderful and providential thing in your life.
That’s what happened to me and my companions this time. We deviated from our planned path, got lost and were in danger, and experienced rather unpleasant moments of fear and extreme fatigue. But when we came to the end, we realized that it wasn’t in vain, but for us to receive some spiritual lessons. Let’s go step by step.
Awaiting the climb
We were sitting in Yannis’ tavern at the port of Daphne, eating spinach rolls and taking small sips of mineral ice water. Everyone was excited and elated: We were waiting for the St. Anne ferry and looking forward to going up to the summit of Mt. Athos. All of my companions were from the Urals: Hieromonk Simeon, our monastery benefactor Eugene Valentinovich from Perm, and Fr. Igor with four fellow pilgrims from Kungur.
The spiritual father of St. Panteleimon’s Monastery, Hieromonk Makary, blessed us not only to go up, but also to serve Liturgy in the Church of the Transfiguration on the top of Mt. Athos. The church has only an altar table; nothing can be kept there because of the great cold and constant dampness, so you have to take everything you need for the services with you. To serve the Liturgy, Fr. Makary gave us kagor, one large prosphora (in Russia we celebrate Liturgy with five prosphora, but the Greeks use one large prosphora with five seals), a chalice, and an antimens.
We were a good group and had a lively discussion about how to take the ferry to the St. Anne’s Skete, how we would climb up the mountain, at a height of 6,670 feet above sea level. It doesn’t seem so high, but on Mt. Athos everything has a slightly different look. There were cases where people in excellent physical shape couldn’t climb the mountain, suddenly feeling some unfounded fear, or rather terror, severe weakness, great fatigue, not allowing them to continue climbing, while those who were physically weak successfully reached the top with prayer.
Some pilgrims, according to their own stories, went up the mountain with any fear, as spiritual babes under the protection of the Most Holy Theotokos; or as careless tourists to whom the evil powers did not draw near because of the complete absence of any spiritual goals: They climbed up, admired the beautiful view, and quickly descended, not particularly thinking about why they did it.
I was worried for my companions, especially for the fathers: Those who have a special calling experience temptations and attacks to the extent of their calling. The evil one senses when someone’s faith can bear fruit and starts plotting against him. The Holy Fathers well knew that the higher someone’s spiritual potential, the stronger the opponent fights against him. Our spiritual powers are, of course, extremely small and insignificant in comparison with the ancient fathers or in comparison with Athonite elders. But the enemy hates pastors and well knows why every pilgrim climbs to the top of Mt. Athos. We went there to pray for our flock, for our spiritual children, and to serve Liturgy.
The Church of the Transfiguration is not a simple church. According to legend, there had been an idol of Apollo on the summit of Mt. Athos. It crumbled when the Most Holy Theotokos stepped foot on Athonite land. A church was built on the site of the pagan temple by St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos in 965. It was rebuilt and updated many times, including in 1895 by Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople.
The prayers of all of Athos ascend to Heaven, rising up to the summit of the mountain, to this tiny Church of the Transfiguration, which as if stands directly before the Lord’s throne.
This church is also unusual in that, according to tradition, it is precisely there that the very last Liturgy will be celebrated before the end of the world. When the abyss of the passions and human filth permeates our entire poor earth, this church at the top of the portion of the Mother of God will remain the last place where Athonite monks will elevate their prayers to God: Lord have mercy! And perhaps this last desperate prayer will be the prayer of the ten righteous that will leave us the hope of the Ninevites.
While we were discussing our upcoming climb, a man sitting at the next table, forty-five years old, was listening in on our conversation. Finally he approached us, introduced himself, and asked to join our group climb up to the summit of Athos. He was a Russian tourist, strong and athletic by appearance. He had a very lively and affable character; he didn’t care where he went, but having heard our conversation, he ignited and came to ask us.
I thought about how we were morally preparing ourselves for this climb; we had taken a blessing, prayed, but for him it was just by chance. But we decided not to refuse him, especially since you can’t go to the top alone. We agreed to take him with us, warning him that it wasn’t just exercise. He happily smiled in response and we thought that such a frivolous attitude towards climbing to the top of the Holy Mountain could be dangerous for him. Unfortunately, our intuition did not fail us.
The road to the top
We took the ferry to the marina at St. Anne’s Skete. Leading up to the skete were very convenient, concrete steps. As we made our way up, we prayed to St. Anne, asking her help to successfully ascend, then we drank some water and started going up the rocky dirt path.
When we’d already gone up a good bit, one of the Kungur guys started to have a fear of heights, which he had never experienced before. He was going up the path and felt his head spinning and his legs started to fail. We encouraged him and advised him to look only at us, not shifting his gaze to the terrain, and to stop when he started to feel bad.
We took a break. We had the simplest food: tomatoes and bread. We had a little bitter chocolate, as a high-calorie food. We drank a little water. We prayed, including for our companion. The guy took a rest from his tension and fear, adapted somewhat, and went up further normally, trying especially, however, to not look around.
St. Anne’s Skete
I was climbing up and saw before me the blue sky, the bright sun, and the distances stretching all around me. The rocky trail was very steep sometimes, such that you could slip, and very narrow sometimes, such that you could simply fall off of it. On one side of the path rose the mountain, and on the other—a steep, rocky drop. The path wasn’t as dangerous as the narrow ledge I had walked along in Karoulia, my hands and knees bleeding from scraping on the rocks, but you still had to go very carefully.
The rocks were different sizes, and your legs frequently twist on them, which made it difficult to move. Sometimes the rocks became smaller and it was easier to walk; sometimes the path became very steep, and it again slowed our process. From the heights, the climactic zones and view all around changed. Dwarf oaks appeared more like shrubs; you could recognize them from their characteristic light brown acorns. Sometimes such a majestic panoramic view of Athos would open up that it was simply breathtaking.
Then we went into a forest, like a sparse park. Darkness reigned there; shady trees, tiny shrubs, as if we were suddenly on a plain. It reminded us of Russia. We lay down on the ground, and the rest was very comforting. We went further, and thorny shrubs and acacia appeared again. We saw the cross and a fork in the road and were encouraged—it meant the summit was near.
We had gotten spread out on the way, and I couldn’t see my companions anymore, each going his own speed. How far had we gone? On Athos, distance isn’t measured in miles but in hours. If you ask an Athonite monk about the way somewhere, he’ll tell you how many hours it takes to get there.
The road became steeper and steeper and the vegetation less. We had been walking for four hours already when it began to drizzle and a cold wind rose up. Suddenly I had some fright; I became afraid. The fear penetrated deep inside, seemingly to my very bones; neither prayer nor force of will could diminish it. It wasn’t fear of the darkness or of people; it was a cold, inexplicable, tenacious fear, or rather, a terror enveloping my entire body, paralyzing my mind and will.
Gradually, the fear began to take shape—it became clear that it was fear of death. Haunting thoughts crept into my head about how I had a bad heart from childhood, and that this heart attack would be the last in my life. And now I’m going to die, as I was, without confession and Communion, alone and helpless on a narrow rocky Athonite trail. This demon began to approach me, and now I know well the fear that dying people experience, when the Lord allows the evil powers to approach the soul at the hour of death.
I fell, I lay down without any strength and waited for death. I heard a hammering in my ears, I didn’t have enough air, and my heart was as if clasped by an icy, clawed paw. My companions were either far ahead or far behind, and I was completely alone. I tried to pray, overcoming the fear, but the fear obstructed my prayer. Gradually, with barely smoldering prayer, the feeling came that I was carrying the weight of all my sins up the mountain and the weight of the sins of my spiritual children, for whom I was praying, for whose forgiveness I interceded before Lord as a pastor. I felt responsibility for them, and my prayer became hotter, slowly fighting its way through the tenacious, cold fog of fright.
I felt that if I could overcome this fog, this delusion, this demonic fear, If I could get up and finish the path, then perhaps the Lord would accept my labor, my resistance as a sacrifice, as a plea for forgiveness. This thought raised me to my feet and I continued climbing. I was walking purely mechanically, not thinking clearly, feeling a demonic swarm around me, as if they were a solid, invisible wall around me. I was moving, but felt like I was walking in place.
If I could break through this wall, if I could finish the climb, then I would become spiritually stronger. And I should be stronger: Behind my back, invisibly but spiritually tangible, stood all of those whom I pray for; those who have put their trust in me—my spiritual children. This thought made my prayer more fervent, and I called upon our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos with tenderness of heart; and I felt the wall crumbling. I felt better.
I saw Fr. Simeon coming back and walking towards me. He was walking silently, but it was obvious from his face that he wasn’t feeling well. I thought about Fr. Igor, about Eugene Valentinovich, who had suffered a heart attack, and I started praying for my companions. I felt that my prayer was strengthened, that the Most Holy one swept the demons from the path like a speck of dust. And then Panagia Skete opened before us. We were flooded with joy—we made it to Panagia!
When we all gathered, we shared our experiences. The fathers were hit the hardest, as I had expected. The path to the skete turned out to be easiest of all for our tourist; he reached the top first, experiencing no fear at all. He was very surprised seeing our exhausted faces. I saw how pride filled him and wanted to warn him: The Lord had protected him from fright as a spiritual youth, but if he ascribed the ease of the ascent to himself, then temptations could follow. But he didn’t listen to my warnings. It was in vain.
Because temptations did indeed follow. At night, while sleeping in the skete, he started to feel bad and he went into hysterics. He got up and started screaming and weeping: “I’m sick! Why did I come with you?! I’m not going anywhere anymore! I need to go down! I can’t, do you understand, I simply can’t stay here!” We tried to persuade and comfort him, but he wasn’t in a state to listen to us; he couldn’t lie or sit down and behaved like a man possessed.
At that time, at night, a group of pilgrims with a flashlight was coming down from the summit, hurrying to the ferry, and he ran off with them sobbing, not making the remaining yards to the top.
We stayed to spend the night. It’s what pilgrims usually do—spend the night there, and after having rested in the morning, they make the last dash up the remaining 700 yards to the top. The skete consists of a small building with a stove that can be kindled to dry off and spend the night in the warmth; and part of the building is a small church—a paraklis.
The skete was under repairs. The Albanian workers were concreting the floor, and some places had scattered gravel instead of concrete. We were glad for the shelter, and we brought a log and placed it in the stove, but the stove hadn’t been repaired and began to smoke. There were blankets and sleeping bags in the room, rather old, torn, dirty, but you could cover yourself with them, spreading them out under you: It was quite damp and chilly, fifty degrees, and we were all tired, wet from sweat and the rain. Some got a sleeping bag, some a blanket, and some tried to fall asleep sitting near the smoking stove.
I was freezing all night, shivering from the cold and dampness; I could barely fall asleep; I prayed. By morning I had lost all sense of self and fell asleep for a few hours. When I woke up, my whole body ached, my legs were asleep, but it was a pleasant fatigue. Forgive us for all our sins, O Mother of God!
At the top
We went outside and continued our ascent. It was foggy and cold. We went 300 feet from Panagia Skete and already couldn’t see it anymore. The winding path, slippery rocks, lack of vegetation—northern nature, all similar to the tundra. We climbed up for more than an hour; it wasn’t far, but we had to go slowly. The rocks under our feet were slippery, and it was easy to fall and hurt yourself, rolling downhill.
I got to the top at seven in the morning. On one side was an abyss. There were cases where careless pilgrims died here, having gone up without a blessing or without piety. There’s a cross standing on the summit, and Russian pilgrims gilded it with gold paint. There were puddles of ice; we cut through the ice and washed ourselves with the clean rain water.
The Church of the Transfiguration is small, without any domes. We went inside. It was very cold. We took out everything we needed and started to celebrate the Liturgy. Three of us served the proskomidia, took out particles for our children, asking the Lord to have mercy upon them and us. The Kungur pilgrims sang in place of a choir, out of tune, but unanimously—from the soul. They communed.
The Church of the Transfiguration at the summit of Mt. Athos We felt such spiritual joy that it’s impossible to convey it with words… We were literally drunk with joy! And I recalled what spiritual joy the apostles felt on the day of Pentecost, such that non-believers were amazed at this joy, and not understanding it, thought: “They have drunk new wine!” And we, feeble, small, and weak in comparison with the apostles, nevertheless felt the joy of the Holy Spirit just as strongly, and I really wanted to exclaim: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope (Ps. 15:9, Acts 2:26).
We left the church—the sun was peeking out, the clouds had dispersed—such beauty! The grandeur of the panorama, the blue sea, the view of the entire Holy Mountain—it filled my soul with joy. The very top is a small, uneven plateau. We stood on the summit—the rocks, the church, the Athonite saints, and us—the feeling that we were all one whole! We clearly felt the presence of God and the Most Holy Theotokos. It was a universal, cosmic feeling—one Church—Heaven and Earth!
It’s hard to put into words what I felt then—spiritual delight, joy! All fears melted away, and I felt like the happiest person in the world. Most Holy Theotokos, we thank you for your unspeakable mercy to us sinners! O Lord, hallowed be Thy name!
We went down to Panagia Skete. There we bade a heartfelt farewell and parted with our companions. They hurried to the ferry, and Fr. Simeon and Eugene Valentinovich and I got ready to walk around Athos some more.
We got lost
We decided to go down not to St. Anne’s Skete, but on the other side, to go around Athos and get to the Great Lavra, the most ancient Athonite monastery, founded by St. Athanasius the Athonite.
We walked slowly. We found an extraordinary lightness and spiritual joy. It was warm, even hot, and we warmed up after the cold night. We reached a fork with two roads going off to the right and to the left. The road to the left seemed neglected, as if no one had walked on it for a long time. Also, a little further up it was blocked by a fallen tree. And the road to the right seemed more taken care of, and we decided to go down it.
As it turned out later, we had made a serious mistake: If we had taken the path to the left, we would have gotten to the Great Lavra that day. But here, we’re walking and walking, three hours, four, and the road continued to loop, and obviously going downwards, although we well knew that the Great Lavra was not below. Tired from the previous day, my legs began to hurt very badly, especially my calves and feet: Going uphill, the calves tighten up, and going downhill, the strain is on the lower legs. My legs seemed completely broken, and I was walking with great trouble, with some kind of hobble.
In the distance there appeared small kellias, at a decent distance from one another, and we realized that we were lost. We later understood that it was providential and edifying for us. The kellias were the sketes of Katounakia. It was dark. We were comforted by the thought that at least we would be staying the night in a place inhabited by people, since sleeping under the open sky on Mt. Athos is dangerous because of snakes and other dangers.
Looking at the kellias from above, we chose the most put-together one, the most beautiful-looking one with a well-kempt garden, thinking that it would be easy to find a place for three pilgrims in such a kelli. We went down to it. From above, it seemed like all the kellis weren’t very far from one another, but when we walked down, we realized there was a rather large distance between them. For our wounded legs, such a distance seemed simply gigantic.
We knocked on the skete’s iron gate, but no one opened. We sank to the ground next to the gate in exhaustion: It was the second day of our walk, and we had drank only spring water and shared a bar of dark chocolate between the three of us all day. Then we started knocking again. A voice rang out, but they didn’t open the door to us. A little window swung open and an occupant of the skete started loudly speaking in Greek, refusing us shelter, sternly waving his hands to convince us: “No, no, we’re not accepting pilgrims.”
Where could we go? We couldn’t take another step. Suddenly some worker approached us. He took us to a small shed that served as his shelter. The shed was so small that he could barely fit in it. He couldn’t take us for the night, but he treated us with love and sympathy: He gave us an apple, bread, and an onion. He shared what little he had, from a pure heart. We had a bite to eat, sitting on the grass by the shed and felt some slight relief. We had to keep walking. We got up with some difficulty and started walking, having decided to sleep in the woods. In the morning we would try to reach the Lavra.
It was already quite dark and the rocky road led up and down, and it was already hard to see it in the thick twilight. We later learned that we were in great danger: Right next to us was a chasm, and we could have fallen into it in the dark. There were also frequent rockslides at that spot: All you had to do was inadvertently step on the wrong rock and you’d be hit by an entire avalanche.
Spending the night in the Kellia of St. John the Forerunner and a lesson in the love of Christ
We suddenly heard a yell, someone calling us. From out of the darkness there appeared the figure of a monk, then a second. They were running towards us, asking us to stop. It turns out the worker had run to another kelli and told the Greek monks living there about us, and they ran after us to offer us a place to sleep.
We joyfully followed after them. Soon there appeared before us, from out of the darkness, an old, very poor kellia. The two monks lived there. They had run out after us, afraid they wouldn’t make it in time, and we would go without shelter. We were fed with care. The food was very simple and poor: cold vegetables, bread, water—everything they ate themselves.
The older monk, very comely, thin, ascetically built, showed us the cots and soothed us: “Rest as much as you need. We won’t wake you in the morning; we’ll wake you only for Liturgy.” We were happy and fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning we prayed at the Liturgy in the tiny paraklis. We ate together after the service. It was obvious that these monks were very poor, but they willingly shared everything with us. The older monk asked me who I was. Having learned that I was an igumen, the spiritual father of a convent, he asked how many sisters labor in our monastery. And with great love, he gave me simple paper icons of St. John the Forerunner for them all. It turns out it was the Skete of St. John the Forerunner, and through these monks, the great saint showed us his mercy.
We offered them money, but they waved their hands in fright: “No, no!” They showed us hospitality not for the sake of money, but out of love, according to the commandments of Christ. They didn’t just receive us, but late at night these monks ran out of their kellia and hurried after us to invite us to their place and generously shared what little they had.
I groped around in my backpack, found a jar of caviar, and handed it to the monks. They took it with joy, and I realized that they see such a gift very rarely, or perhaps never.
We warmly bid farewell and headed for the Lavra. We reached the Lavra and understood that we had taken the wrong road, which took us on a path winding down the sea, to the sketes of Katounakia.
Having thought about it, we realized that this mistake didn’t happen by chance. After all, walking this roundabout path led us to meet the two monks of the poor skete, who turned out to be richer than all—rich in Gospel love, sincere, pure, unhypocritical, unselfish, and rich in love for the sake of Christ. We took away from this how important it is to receive pilgrims, to run after them to serve them, and then also to thank those whom you’ve shown mercy and hospitality for the opportunity to serve them for the sake of Christ. It was the hospitality of Abraham.
The love of these monks excused, in our eyes, the inhospitality of the rich skete, healed the wound of our souls, and kept us from condemnation.
We’ve already been home for a long time, but our climb to the summit of Mt. Athos has remained with us—in our souls, our hearts, transfigured by the grace of God there, in the tiny Athonite Church of the Transfiguration. Eugene Valentinovich keeps the clothes he climbed to the top in as something sacred. And Fr. Simeon and I keep this journey in our hearts, and share it with you, the readers of this story, with love.