Faraway Athos, I will never see you: your mysterious mountains and austere monasteries, secluded kellias 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.
Obedience from God
The main obedience of Athonite monks is prayer. It is characteristic of Mt. Athos that the majority of the prayers ascend to Heaven at night, when everyone else is sleeping peacefully.
Athonite monks sleep, as a rule, five, five and a half hours. Of course, there are the ascetics who sleep less, but overall, Athonite monks get five hours of sleep. After the evening cell rule, they lie down to rest for a bit, to get up at 1:30 AM for the Midnight Office. It’s a true podvig, difficult to bear. It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible.
Imagine you are fast asleep; the second hour of the night, the deepest sleep, and you have to get up and go to the Church service, to pray all night: Midnight Office, Matins, then Liturgy, which ends around seven in the morning. There’s an hour of rest and then you have to go work at your obedience. And so goes every day, year after year, for your whole life.
On my first visit I stayed on Athos for about a month, and I could barely endure this regime. It was very difficult to get up, I was constantly tired, sleep deprived, and I would go to church completely sleepy. I was surprised to note that even though the flesh was suffering (my feet were sore and swollen, and my back and waist were aching), the spirit was alert; after nighttime services, the mind acquires a special sensitivity. During prayer, the consciousness is briefly disconnected, but the soul is watching and praying. And you perceive prayer brighter, clearer, and deeper.
I noticed that the Midnight Office is not easy even for the Athonite brothers who have been living on Athos for many years. It gets easier at Matins, and during Liturgy the soul sings and glorifies God.
I was very inspired by the example of the Athonite fathers standing near me: Many stood without sitting down, giving their entire souls over to prayer.
I thought about the Athonite monks: I will return to my native monastery and rest from exhaustion. Of course, we also have nighttime services, but not often. But for them, nighttime prayer is the main obedience, sacrifice to God, and lifelong podvig. They serve the Lord with their entire lives, with all their strength, fulfilling the first commandment of Moses, overcoming sleep, infirmity, bodily woes, and pain.
It’s hard to understand without experiencing it: We wake up at the wrong time, an hour early, not getting enough sleep for a day, two, three; we get irritated and angry, and fly off the handle on those close to us.
But they live this way their whole lives. They pray with love for the entire world at night—this obedience is given them by God.
Once I was staying and working at the Russian St. Panteleimon’s Monastery. They gave me and four other Athonite pilgrims the obedience of working in the gardens. The gardens were located on terraces, arranged on the slopes of the mountain, and you could often find rocks the size of an apple, or of a small melon. A monk was plowing the garden on a mini tractor, and the five of us were following after, picking up the rocks and throwing them over the edge of the field, onto a wide abutting plot.
The tractor would go to the end of the field, turn around, and we would again walk behind it, or rather, nearly run. We had to move quickly, and quickly gather and throw out the rocks, and all this under the scorching sun.
We could hardly keep up with the tractor and the monk driving it made us hurry. Over the course of five hours we cleared several gardens, resting a couple of times for a few minutes in the sun, since there was no shade nearby.
And I suddenly felt so terribly tired that it seemed I couldn’t move from my spot, let alone run behind the tractor. My hands, feet, back—everything hurt; my heart was racing and my breath was short. I simply physically could not continue working anymore in such unaccustomed heat at such a fast pace.
Everyone was already getting up after a five-minute rest, but I lingered. It felt like my legs had very heavy weights. I was very ashamed: Everyone was continuing to work, so how could I stay sitting on the sidelines? The brothers were also tired, and if I stopped working, then they would have to work even harder…
I prayed to the Most Holy Theotokos: “Mother of God! Here I am toiling in your garden among your children. They are Athonite monks and your dear children, and I have come to serve them. Accept my labor as that of your most unworthy servant, and my fatigue and pain as a sacrifice!! Help me! If only I could throw every rock as a sacrifice for my innumerable sins! Have mercy, O Mother of God! Grant me to yet labor in your garden!”
And then a miracle occurred, a small, personal miracle… I felt my fatigue instantly vanish and strength pour into my muscles. I was so inspired that I jumped up to my feet and rushed to work. I ran faster than everyone and flung the rocks farther than anyone—such a rush of energy I felt. A lightness reigned in my entire body and in my soul. I worked until the end of the obedience with joy.
Then the tractor driver looked at his watch and stopped the tractor: It was time for prayer, and we went to get changed for the service. As in ancient times: The elder would call the novice working on copying spiritual books, and he would jump up from his seat, without finishing the letter he was on. So it was here—it came time for prayer, and everyone stopped and went to pray.
Once I went to Athos to pray and work for a month. They gave me the obedience of hanging all the washed linen from all the guesthouses to dry—a whole heap of damp sheets—and then to gather, iron, and deliver them. It was a lot of work, and life flowed as usual for a monastery: prayer, services, obediences. Only the services were at night, the prayer was longer, and the obedience took an unusual amount of time and energy.
I adapted throughout the first week, and it gradually became easier and I got into it. But on the second week there came a deadly agony. I began to feel very bad, like I was being driven from Athos. It was both mentally and physically bad, and I felt such despondency that I started to think about leaving earlier than planned. If it’s so hard, maybe I should change my ticket? No one will suffer if I leave early, and I had absolutely no strength to endure this terrible despondency.
I decided to exchange my ticket the next day; I felt some relief and decided to read a little. I had Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov’s) book about Elder Silouan with me. I opened the book to the first page it fell to and read some lines that were very suitable for my condition, only from these lines it was clear that I shouldn’t go anywhere.
I thought: Elder Silouan has responded to my serious spiritual condition, which means I have to stay. An hour passed and I got worried again. I understood with my mind that it was a temptation, but my soul was still agitated, and I couldn’t cope with the temptation. Again I felt such torment and anguish. The elder’s words just coincided with my feelings, and coincided completely by accident—he said these words in a completely different situation, and they had absolutely nothing to do with me. No, I need to leave early; I had no strength to endure this agony.
Trying to escape from the despondency, I got out the Holy Epistles, opened them and began to read, and there, in different words, was one and the same meaning—that I couldn’t leave now; it was extremely dangerous, and the consequences would be terrible. I was being attacked by a mystical fear.
I opened the Gospel with prayer: “Lord, what should I do? It’s so hard right now!” And I read an answer in the same vein in the Gospel. I realized that the Lord Himself was giving me an answer like Doubting Thomas, and I had to endure to the end of this strange, heavy temptation that I had never faced before at home: I had experienced despondency and melancholy, but they never were never so strong before, they were never so painful.
And having received an inner answer, I prepared myself to endure to the end. It was so difficult that, apparently, even my appearance betrayed my spiritual agony. I walked around the monastery yard and Fr. Philosoph approached me. He looked carefully and asked directly: “What, Father, are you suffering?”
“Well, God help you! We will pray for you…”
And, obviously, the fathers prayed, because a short time later, the temptation departed. My soul became calm and peaceful and I myself wondered: How could I suffer so; how could I plan to leave early and interrupt such a long-awaited trip to Athos?
Then one of the fathers, who seemed to just be walking by, told me a story:
“There is a red-headed demon who drives monks out of Mt. Athos, drags them onto a ship and takes them into the world, casting a terrible despondency upon them. One day an Athonite monk was walking along a path praying and met this red-headed demon. He looked, and on his shoulder and neck he was red from the fur being rubbed off.
“The monk asked: ‘Who are you?’
“’Me? I’m a demon.’
“’And why do you have these red spots?’
“’I haul monks into the world on my shoulder. It’s hard work! But if I carry them off, then in the world I ride on them.’”
Thus, Athonite monks are well acquainted with this temptation, this unusual despondency, this abuse at the limit of human strength. They helped me by their prayers. And now I know what abuse is. Perhaps the Lord allowed me to experience it for the spiritual experience.
And I remember the spiritual experience well: With one half of my soul I was in hell, and with the other half—in Paradise. A terrible vexation—and bliss—and all of this was within me. This was my first trip to the Holy Mountain, when I realized that Athos is not yet Heaven, but it’s no longer Earth. Athos is a step, an intermediate link between Heaven and Earth. And the temptations there are not simple. It’s a spiritual school—that’s what Athos is.
Sometimes people ask me about my happiest memory from Athos. I don’t have to delve into the storerooms of my memory for long: I remember that day well. I just don’t know if I can convey to you the joy I felt then. Externally—nothing, no special colors, no spectacular events or remarkable encounters…
The Meeting of the Lord. The festive service in the Holy Protection Church of the Russian Monastery. As usual, The Midnight Office, Matins, the festive Liturgy. I communed at the Liturgy; at the end of the service we all went up to the cross, and then in complete silence we starting leaving the church and going down the stone steps to the trapeza.
And I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of Paschal joy, unusually bright and light in the soul. Of course, I had experienced moments of spiritual joy before, but such spiritual ascent, peace, silence of thoughts, blessedness—Taboric blessedness—is rare. The mercy of God—such an inner meeting with the Lord.
I partly, only partly of course, understood the state of the apostles, who exclaimed: “Lord, how good it is for us here—how good for us to be here! Let’s build three huts and let us live here!”
Next to me, Hieromonk Isidore was going down the stairs. Looking at me, he softly said: “What grace! Do you feel what grace there is now?”
I quietly answered: “Yes… How good it is!”
And he kept going down the stairs so I wouldn’t start talking to him, and so we both wouldn’t spill this spiritual joy.
And I was so happy I cried, that I didn’t feel this way alone, that we were experiencing the same feelings—the Lord came and blessed us. But you can only partly feel how people live in Paradise—no envy, no malice, only happiness and God in everything. I couldn’t forget these experiences; I couldn’t exchange them for vain worldly pleasures. The soul is drawn to this Paradise, seeks for it, and cannot be satisfied with anything earthly.
Sacred objects of Mt. Athos
Wonderworking Zographou Icon of St. George There are very many sacred objects on Athos. The Bulgarian Monastery of Zographou has three ancient icons of St. George the Victorious, painted at different times, but all three have wound up at this monastery. According to tradition, one of them appeared by itself on a blank icon board. This is where the name of the monastery later came from—“Zograph,” which means “painted” or “painter.”
The icon bears a sign about the punishment of those who do not venerate the holy icons: When one suspicious bishop irreverently poked a finger in the face of the saint, doubting the antiquity and miraculousness of the holy image, his finger went into the icon as if into soft wax up to the knuckle. It pinched his finger, and he had to cut it off. A monk of Zographou took a candle up to the icon, and I could clearly see the dried skin of this finger.
We are accustomed to icons of St. George the Victorious on a white horse with a spear, striking the serpent. But on this miraculous icon, the saint stands in the form of a beautiful young warrior in armor with spear in hand. His face is completely calm, as in the execution that the Great Martyr fearlessly accepted. He wasn’t even thirty years old… I always venerated St. George the Victorious, and when I saw this wonderworking icon, I started praying to him often. And he quickly answers prayer.
One day the fathers of St. Panteleimon Monastery went to Iveron Monastery and took me with them. First we went to the Skete of St. Andrew the First-Called.
Russian monks bought this land from Vatopedi in 1841, the skete flourished, and at the best of times, they had as many as 800 brothers. By 1965, there were only five, whose median age was seventy-eight. They all gradually died, and the influx of brethren from Russia ceased. In 1971, the last Russian inhabitant of the skete reposed, Monk Sampson, and the skete again came into the possession of Vatopedi Monastery.
The skete has a wonderworking icon of the Mother of God, “Consolation in Grief and Sorrows.” They have the largest cathedral in Athos, in honor of the Apostle Andrew; it can hold 5,000 people. Imagine a granite church of more than 21,500 square feet, with 150 windows.
We went into the cathedral and they had just brought out the skete’s main relic for veneration—a precious reliquary with the head of the Apostle Andrew the First-Called. There was a sweet fragrance throughout the entire gigantic church! In every corner, in every spot there spread a wondrous, sweet fragrance. And we froze in place, feeling the grace of God and the mercy of the apostle as spiritual comfort.
Then we went to Iveron Monastery. There the main sacred object is the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God. The face of the Most Pure one preserves the traces of a strike with a spear by an iconoclast. Blood gushed from the stricken spot, and the pious widow who had the icon at her house lowered the icon into the sea in order to save it.
The wonderworking icon floated in a pillar of fiery light to the shores of Mt. Athos, and a monk of Iveron Monastery, St. Gabriel the Georgian, walked upon the water and took the icon. First the icon was placed in the church, but the next day it miraculously appeared over the gates of the monastery, and she showed her will to Monk Gabriel in a dream: She didn’t want to be kept by the monks, but she herself would be the keeper of the monastery. Therefore, the holy icon is called Portaitissa, and in the Akathist we glorify her: “Rejoice, blessed Gatekeeper, opening the portal of Paradise to the faithful!”
According to tradition, before the end of the world the icon will leave the monastery just as mysteriously as it came. But as long as the icon is with us, there is still time for repentance.
When we arrived at Iveron, we went to the paraklis, the small church to the left of the gates, where the holy icon is now kept. In the paraklis, a bit to the side of the icon, stood a Greek monk, quietly telling two pilgrims about the icon. We went up to the icon; all five of us knelt down and started reading the Akathist to the Mother of God, taking turns reading the ikoi and kontakia.
We knelt before the icon, and such tenderness appeared in our hearts that it became hard to breathe and our eyes welled up with tears. The first monk began to read; he read a pair of lines and was unable to read further—he began to weep. The second monk continued the prayer, and within a few words he too started weeping. Then the third started weeping, and within a few minutes, all five of us, big, tall, bearded Russian monks, were sobbing before the icon of the Most Pure one like children.
We—so weak, sinful, and vile—felt her maternity. Each of us understood: You are her son—sinful, but her son. And she has accepted you, not rejected you; and this is a miracle of God. It was a special state, difficult to convey with words. You can’t just stand before her: You get exhausted from the light, from the mercy and grace of God; you melt from the grace.
The Greek stopped telling the pilgrims about the icon, and on tippy-toe, with reverence, carefully looking at us, they left the paraklis so as not to bother us. And we simply knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos for some time and wept, powerless to hold back the tears from the surging grace abundantly pouring forth from the holy icon.
Then we wiped away our tears, reverently venerated the holy icon, and silently left the church with tender emotion. We silently got into the car and in complete silence drove back to their monastery. The spiritual experience was so sharp, so strong, that we didn’t say a word to one another until the end of the trip.
Esphigmenou Monastery, known for its schismatic spirit, met us coolly. The monastery flag has a skull and bones, and the motto is “Orthodoxy or Death.” They do not recognize Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople there, ignoring the decision of the Sacred Community of Mt. Athos.
We stopped by the monastery to venerate the sacred objects. We explained that we are Orthodox, clergy, but their attitude towards us was still wary, and the monks looked suspiciously and spoke with us roughly and disparagingly.
Instead of the usual fragrance of incense in the church, I smelled a sharp smell resembling mothballs; it took my breath away, it was difficult to breathe. We left the monastery quickly.
On the other hand, the Serbian brothers at Hilandar received us very warmly and gave us the chance to participate in the service. They blessed me to read the Six Psalms. We sang one troparion during the service together—we in Russian, they in Serbian, and it was very joyous: We glorified God together. We felt love and warmth in meeting the monks of Hilandar.
A lesson from Fr. Jonah
Once I was staying at St. Panteleimon’s Monastery and decided to go to the Old Russikon. It’s not far—a distance of two and a half miles, but since the road leads up the mountain (to a height of more than 1,300 feet above sea level), the walk takes about an hour. At the end of the nineteenth century about twenty monks lived here. With the repose of the last monk, the Old Russikon was empty for a long time, so its churches and brothers’ cells gradually fell into decline, and some even collapsed.
I didn’t yet know why I had the desire to go there. I knew that only one monk, Fr. Jonah, was living there, as the guardian; I had met him earlier—he came down to the monastery for the feast, communed, and went back to his place at the Old Russikon. He had an obedience from the abbot of St. Panteleimon’s to constantly read the Psalter. All the monks were in the monastery and he was there, completely alone, old, thin, and short.
I got there and saw a four-story empty building of unused cells with empty windows. On the floors, at the ends of the corridors were tiny churches, paraklisi. St. Sava the Serbian lived at the Old Russikon at one time.
I went up to the door and knocked. I knocked for a long time. I heard footsteps and I realized Fr. Jonah was there, inside, but he wasn’t coming to the door and wasn’t opening. I knocked, walked away, walked along the building, approached again, knocked—he didn’t open. I thought Fr. Jonah must be busy.
Suddenly, I finally heard: “Say the prayer.”
I said the prayer and only then did he open to me. He opened the door and himself said a prayer and crossed himself. He calmly explained to me: “I don’t open without the prayer. Demons come and knock, but I don’t open to them…”
“Forgive me, Father. I thought: The building is huge, there won’t be anyone at the door—who will hear the prayer? I didn’t think you would hear it…”
“I hear everything… Some Orthodox Romanians came, knelt down and quietly read an akathist. They didn’t even knock… But I heard their singing—a powerful choir! I went out and saw how they quietly and humbly prayed…”
“Father, forgive me…”
“Yes… See, they didn’t knock, but only quietly prayed—and I heard. And I was on the fourth floor…”
He spoke with me a bit, and from his story I understood and felt his fidelity to the monastic vows, his obedience to his spiritual father—he lived by the blessings of his spiritual father, cutting off his own will. To some of the learned monks, his obedience could seem naïve, childlike, but it was his life—not cunning, but sincere obedience, which attracts the grace of God and turns a dry branch into a flowering tree.
He didn’t yell at me, didn’t reproach me, but just told me, explained, and I felt self-reproach. I felt how far I was from him. He is a simple monk, and I am an igumen, and I received edification from him. I felt my spiritual poverty just from seeing and hearing him. And I realized—that was the main reason why the Lord sent me there—so my arrogance would be broken on his childlike simplicity.
When you see people like Fr. Jonah, you get a lot from them, and a spiritual connection is established. You begin to imitate them as much as you can. There are people who are like stars in the Church sky, and they can be imitated.
You can read in the Patericon: “The fathers decided to gather and share their spiritual experiences. They sat and looked at one another, and dispersed, and they received great spiritual benefit.” You read and think: How can that be? But a spiritual man understands it well…
And the Lord granted me, a sinner, to receive spiritual benefit from my meeting with Fr. Jonah.