From September 21 through October 5, I journeyed with a group of ten on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. There are many published accounts by pilgrims, though nothing I’ve seen does full justice to the experience itself. This article is a reflection on one aspect of my journey – an aspect that was foremost in my mind. May God bless the reader.
“I felt like I was eating in the Gulag.” We had just completed day one on our Mt. Athos pilgrimage and my son (30 years old) had expressed my thoughts precisely. It is not an accident that in English, a place for a life of repentance would accurately be named a “penitentiary.” There is a story from the French Revolution of a mob that assaulted the gates of a Carthusian monastery, announcing to the monks, “You’re free! You’re free!” The monks blinked and closed the gates back. The difficulties and struggles of the monastic life are freely chosen. However, they can be rather daunting for someone who has chosen nothing more than to visit for a short time.
I am no longer a young man. I am also not a man in “good shape.” Though I walk a bit every week, I am guilty of too many hours in a chair and a lifestyle shaped more by heart medications than by exercise. I like to eat, and enjoy the variety of foods available in our culture. Though I keep the fasts, like most, I find ways to make a fasting day quite palatable. These are not good preparations for a monastic pilgrimage.
A common question prior to my trip was, “What do you hope to get from your pilgrimage?” I had no particular answer. I wanted to be open to whatever came my way. In the back of my mind was an unspoken prayer: I hoped to survive. I have shared previously about a lifetime of struggles with anxiety and panic. It is a condition that has been miraculously well-managed for the past six years. But the memory of the decades of torment and limitation have not disappeared. For me, the Holy Mountain represented some two weeks of hardship that threatened to be unmanageable and well beyond the boundaries of my normally regulated life. I was anxious.
Had I known ahead of time the difficulties that would come, I would have been yet more anxious. In general, there are two meals a day at a monastery. They are simple (I only saw a cooked vegetable at one meal). A bowl of rice, spaghetti, or soup with a bit of seasoning and additives are common. One morning I had octopus with spaghetti (my first culinary experience with that animal). Snacks are unknown. Some days, a quick travel connection made breakfast impossible. I was hungry for most of the pilgrimage.
Services are long. That, of course, is no surprise. However, services in Greek over three hours in length (often far longer) become a trial for someone with ADHD. It is a mild form of torture. I buckled down with my prayer rope and tried to pray.
Sleeping arrangements vary from comfortable to gulag-like (complete with bedbugs in two of the monasteries). The first night, bedtime meant “lights-out,” accomplished by shutting down all of the electricity (I was traveling with a CPAP machine for apnea – I snored a lot that night).
Our first full day began with a long hike. I had been preparing for this with extra-long walks at home. However, after about 300 yards with my back-pack, uphill, it became apparent that I was going nowhere. Volunteers in the group took turns carrying my pack (in addition to their own). I still lagged far behind.
But this article is not a tale of woe or a recitation of physical inconvenience. It is a story of providence. I had no idea what I should expect from my pilgrimage. Apparently, God had something in mind. At near mid-point, my mind was occupied with thoughts of quitting. Perhaps I would leave the others, return to Ouranopolis and wait for them to finish the pilgrimage without me. It is the kind of thought that can become the foundation of panic. Anxiety and panic are always composed of a string of negative thoughts and expectations. Many times, they become increasingly irrational.
God’s intervention was entirely unexpected. In the administrative town of Karyes, a place where coffee can actually be bought as well as snacks and more substantial fare, there is a Church known as the “Protaton,” the “First” Church. If there is a heart to Mount Athos, this is the place. It is the location of the miraculous icon of the Mother of God known as “Axion Esti” (“It is truly meet”). Our first approach to the Church was greeted by a refusal. The time for the afternoon siesta (whose Greek name I do not know) was approaching. Almost everything shuts down. The last group was being hurriedly ushered out of the Church and we stood outside – disappointed.
The monk caretaker looked at me and motioned for me to come inside. “Quickly!” he whispered. The Church was dark and I blinked my way in wondering where the famous icon was. The monk kept pushing me, shoving me through one of the angel doors into the altar area. “She is there!” he said. Sure enough, a silver-clad icon of some three or four feet was perched behind the altar. What took place was the sort of encounter that makes little sense to those who have not had one. I venerated the icon with a profound and growing sense that she had sent for me. My hardship was being transformed into the secret of promised help. I was not alone, nor were my experiences somehow an exclusion from the Kingdom.
The greatest torment of suffering, particularly in the form of anxiety, is to be alone. Anxiety creates a deep fissure in communion, alienating us from others and trapping us in the confines of self-talk. The intervention, positing the Mother of God into the midst of my awareness, dispersed the clouds that were threatening to swallow me.
The circumstances of the trip did not improve. The quality of the food, the wearing hours and the exhaustion remained. The head cold that seemed to blossom from the moment I got off the plane grew worse. A sneezing fit yielded a pulled muscle in my side that made coughing extremely painful. The weather took an unexpected turn to cold and rain. I was under-dressed.
But my patronness remained faithful. I found a small icon card of the Axion Esti and fixed it in the ID window on my passport/wallet that hung on my chest. She became my guardian and my guide. At one of the more difficult monasteries (accommodation-wise), she gave me a prayer that changed things. I had been offering the Jesus Prayer almost without ceasing. However, the Prayer seemed to depress my mood: “have mercy on me” can become the echo of anxiety itself.
The new prayer was different: “Lord Jesus Christ, glory to you for all things!” It was the invincible weapon of thanksgiving. It brought a quiet joy and confidence and even an occasional ecstasy of sorts. “For those who love God, all things work together for good.” That prayer began to unfold the purpose within the pilgrimage. It was a pilgrimage of providence. God sustains us even outside our zones of comfort.
All of this may sound rather minor to others. I admire the rugged individuals who seem to thrive in such conditions (a number of those within my group were good examples). Traveling with them can be disheartening – the inevitable comparisons to their heartiness become fertile ground for self-condemnation. But for some, my pilgrimage may sound not unlike their daily life. Many struggle in a wide-range of ways. The struggle can bring its own shame (we are not supposed to be weak). Providence and thanksgiving feel like strangers. My experience may reassure. I can only hope so.
Another takeaway from the pilgrimage was probably the quietest and most easily missed. It is not unusual to meet a monk who is a bit gruff and surly, less than welcoming to the intrusion of pilgrims. In hard circumstances, they make the struggle harder. But as the days wore on, I began to notice a quite common presence: the old men. White-haired, thin, quiet presences. Mostly, I only saw them in and around the services. But universally, they smiled. They were joyful and at peace. To live such a life over forty or more years seems to burn away everything but the joy.
Hardship need not break us. It can build, refine and reveal. That is the work of providence, God’s good will working in us a glory that is abundantly above all we could ask or think.
Glory to God.
There are no words to describe the reality of the Holy Mountain. Monasteries with a thousand years of prayer, icons that have their own feast days, relics of the saints in abundance, all in a setting that exists for the love of God. I have not begun to process the fullness of those two weeks. My tale of providence is only the most immediate impression. Remember those who live in mountains and caves and pray for us without ceasing.
Glory to God indeed!! As you so insightfully intoned those struggles you cited are the daily grist for most of us. As always your writing helps make one more reflective and thankful. Much more grateful for the small things we so take for granted. Father you are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, your words your thoughts are manifestations of what Christ was speaking. They are the true food they give us hope and reveal the meaning of our existence. Thank you for sharing your experiences on the Mountain, especially your encounters with the most holy theotokos. It’s great to have you home. Glory to God indeed!
Dearest Father Stephen,
Thank you for your words. What a blessing to read about your trip! All I can say right now is that it warmed my heart deeply, and I am so grateful to you for sharing. May your physical recovery be speedy and complete. And may the blessings from the trip continue.
I am with you in my own unstable little boat on the sea of anxiety and panic. Thanks for sharing this.
Love this article. May I humbly suggest a mouthpiece for the sleep apnea. I have severe apnea and a dentist who specializes in the mouthpiece fitted me and it is absolutely Wonderful.
thank you for this Father Stephen
“Lord Jesus Christ, glory to you for all things!” It was the invincible weapon of thanksgiving.
Thank you for this, Father! I struggle in my own life with a lack of struggle. As you mentioned, everything in our lives is so controlled, so very “quite palatable”. I am spiritually soft and fall easily. Thank you for your struggle and recalling the providence of God and the protection of His Mother. Glory to God!
I share your thoughts completely, most especially regarding that exact modification of the Jesus Prayer during times where what’s needed is escape from self, and a full-hearted plunge into Christ (our God that the self hides from us).
Thank you for your wonderful writing…Glory to God!
In over 30+ years of being Orthodox, I haven’t read anything about a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos that has seemed so “real” to me, and thus, spiritually helpful. Thank you so much, Fr. Stephen, for your openness and honesty!
Siesta in Greek = mesinerianós ypnos (afternoon sleep)
This is one time that I can honestly say I understand what you wrote, because I have experienced the biggest tachycardia of my life in front of the Âxion Estí.
It’s been 8 years, my memories of the food were better / especially the fish 🙂
Thank you for sharing your struggle and thoughts.
Dear Father Stephen! Once again your words are balm to the crevasses in my own heart. Your blog has truly blessed this reader. So very many of us give Glory to God for you and your work here. Many many blessings and strength to endure. Thank you thank you thank you! Rhonda Joy
I was captured by your honest and revealing descriptions of all aspects of your pilgrimage. It was like feeling each and every hardship and reading first hand the possibility that a person can endure this kind of lifestyle for many years. Beautifully touching was the moments you spent in the presence of our most Holy Mother of God. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts and actions as you experienced this life changing journey.
May it continue….
Oh, dear Father, thank you. There is hope for one who struggles daily as you describe. Too often I feel I’m the only one. Others speak so victoriously. Bless you for sharing. Your words are so encouraging to me. Blessings.
Dear Father Stephen,
Your experience does reassure at a particular time. Thank you, and for the “”new prayer”.
I can see why the Orthodox see the Rule of St. Benedict to be so–I should I put it?–lack, easy?
Thank you, Father! I felt I was beside you every step of the way.
To be greeted and loved by the Blessed Mother is a profound grace. She receives in a way I hope to someday and comforts without regard for who I ‘think’ I am. Thank you for not giving up and for getting back up when you did. This story was what I needed.
There are so many images on Google that come back when I searched Axion Esti (actually, I copied Thomas’ spelling Âxion Estí and the results have no icon at all). Could you please somehow share what your paper icon looks like?
Here’s a link to an article about the icon. The first picture is of the Icon as it appears today.
The paper icon I had looked like the one in this article.
The Theotokos is such a kind mother. Thank you again, Father, for your honesty, and what you will continue to share as the pilgrimage works itself in.
And now, may I ask for prayer? Although I and my loved ones are not in danger, the rural area about 5 miles north of me in Mendocino County, California, is ablaze. Dry Santa Ana-type winds caused electrical wires to snap overnight, igniting the tinder-dry foliage, and humidity is next to nil this time of year. Many people, along with their large animals, have been evacuated, in no small measure because those rural road have no outlet. In addition, a large part of Sonoma County, including in and around Santa Rosa, where I go to church, is also on fire, in a worse way. Everyone not evacuating is being urged to stay home. Two hospitals have been evacuated, and some of the families in my parish, St Seraphim/Protection of the Holy Virgin, have had to flee their homes. The Church building itself is not in danger, but thousands of people are, especially those living in the hills east of town.
Lord, have mercy; glory be to Thee. Most Holy Theotokos, save us.
I will indeed pray for protection for the people and property in your area. Your parish (and priest) are very dear to me.
“The wise children did not serve the golden image, but went themselves into the flame and reviled the pagan gods. They cried in the midst of the flame, and the angel bedewed them: Already the prayer of your lips was heard.”
It struck me once when praying this, that the angel doesn’t (nor does God, Jesus, the Theotokos, or the saints) keep them out of the flame…but bedews them in the midst of it. Your essay so perfectly captures this and deeply resonates with me. Glory to God for all things! Thank you.
Father, I had a similar experience when I visited St. Anne’s yesterday. I woke up with the feeling that I matter to people there. Even though the reason for my visit was completely sabotaged, God sustained me by the awareness of the love shown to me by so many. Also to see my son at church for the first time in awhile was a pure joy. Sometimes the only way to see God’s blessings, is you have to look for them.
“I venerated the icon with a profound and growing sense that she had sent for me.”
This is reality. Thank you for reminding us, Father.
Thank you. This meant so much to me.
All the years I have been reading your blog, I have always thought that you wrote and taught very well. But I think now you are getting even better. I realize that this is due to God’s work in and through you – and so we give Him the glory, as always.
What you write here is so beautifully human. While it is wonderful to read about the great monastic saints, for most of us, complete imitation of them is way beyond our reach. It is easy to build up a fantasy of living in profound holiness – but the reality is that this way life is often very harsh and uncomfortable.
I am reminded of how often I tell God that I give Him my entire self, how I (want to) value nothing more than Him. I imagine Him chuckling at these silly claims of mine. Allow me a bit of discomfort and I’m a total wimp. I begin complaining about how tired I am or what hurts. It is good that He is so very merciful.
I give you great credit for facing the panic monster. Though my panic disorder has been in remission for many years now, relapse is never that far away, especially if approaching situations where there is no way to escape (on a long flight over the ocean, on an island with no ready transportation off). I am so glad that Our Mother was with you, to bolster you as you journeyed.
Indeed, we never know what we will be given when we begin a pilgrimage or period of retreat. But we trust that God knows what we need and will give us that and more, as along as we allow it. Glory to Him.
Thank you Father!
You and St. Seraphim parish are in my prayers too. May the Lord and His Holy Mother protect you all and your beautiful church… And those in danger.
Thank you for, in a small but profound way, bringing me there today through sharing this piece. This love and remembrance of how thanksgiving transforms everything is a perfectly timed gift today. Thank you for being so honest about the hardships and the joy.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. <3
So, when are you going back?
‘Hardship need not break us. It can build, reveal and shape us. That is the work of providence, God’s good will working in us a glory that is abundantly above all we could ask or think.’
Thank you for sharing a piece of the struggles and communion God brought you to on Mount Athos Father Stephen, I look forward to your sharing more as God teaches you.
So very glad you are back. Looked forward to your first article upon returning and was not disappointed. You are a very transparent person. This transparency helps wimps like me know that God cares for and loves even the likes of me. Mary Benton mentions how we can build up a fantasy of what holiness may look like among monastics, or how it may be attained. It’s easy to construct the same sort of fantasy about ourselves, about our own holiness. Articles such as yours help demolish this kind of “spiritual ” house of cards. Thank you again, dear Father Freeman. Your life and blog have helped this pilgrim more than you’ll ever know.
Í hope you will write more about your pilgrimage to Mount Athos, please.
Thank you for this post. It is wonderful to read. I didn’t want it to end.
Dear Fr Stephen,
As a 56 year old Catechumen, I’m bit late to discovering Orthodoxy, but the richness is a continued blessing. If time permits, I hope you can share your itinerary, or perhaps make recommendations, as a pilgrimage to Mt Athos is something I would very much like to do.
I would, upon reflection, suggest that you not stay as long as I did. There are 20 “Monasteries” (the official “ruling” monasteries). There over a hundred sketes and kelli of varying sizes. The one place I did not visit that I would definitely put on a list is Vatopedi. Part of our group spent a night there – and their account made be somewhat jealous. It’s extremely well-run and accommodating to pilgrims, with excellent facilities. Simonopetra is also not to be missed. There is nowhere else on the mountain where the music rises to the level of presentation as Simonopetra. The Elder Amilianos who founded its present community placed the liturgical life at its center – and it shows. It is also, hands down, the most beautiful and striking of all the houses on the Mountain.
I would add one of the monasteries near Karyes, the administrative center. It can be something of an oasis for pilgrims, with the ability to get food, supplies and a bit of a break (also nice shops for icons and such). Monasteries nearby are Koutloumousiou (somewhat rougher accommodations, but quite serviceable) and St. Andrew’s Skete.
I would not do more than four.
If you’re the type who likes hiking – there are nice paths. Part of our group hiked from Karyes to Iveron, stopping at the kelli where St. Paisios lived. There are other hikes as well. If possible, hunt around for recommendations of a personal sort. I had such a recommendation for a kelli and an elder, but the recommendation came too late to be of use. It’s possible to write a get an invitation to stay more than a day. That allows for conversation and greater participation in the life.
There are good resources on the pages maintained by the Friends of Mt. Athos.
Welcome home, Father!
As I read this account, after a while it put me in mind of the experience I and many had doing my college’s equivalent of the “Outward Bound” wilderness course. All of us in one way or another came to the end of ourselves, physically and emotionally, during that trip! I certainly can relate to the lonely place created by anxiety (or despondency). Thank you for a most relatable post! I look forward to hearing more about your trip.
Inspiring post Father. Indeed, Glory to God for all things.
Thank you for the straight up, matter of fact reporting. Glad you’ve returned safely but hope you’ce taken away some lessons that will help you take better care of your self, moving forward. In other words, sounds like the walking you did before you left wasn’t nearly enough. So, don’t stop, now that you’re back — keep up the training regimen!
So glad you are back!
What a wonderful story…your truthfulness touches me deeply.
I had to stop and get a hankie after reading the part about our Mother calling for you. Now that beats all, Father. Our sovereign Mother remembered you! How humbling that must’ve been! I’m trying to picture you standing there with the group when this monk singles you out and urgently ushers you to the icon, saying “She is here”. Surely he did not know what you were going through. Yeah…She called for you…She gave you the strength to endure. You know, I prayed you’d be blessed and the blessing overflow to all you share your experience with. Well Father, glory to God, I believe that prayer was answered! May Gods blessings to you forever flow!
You must be talking to my daughter the nurse.
Fr Stephen, I’m grateful that your home, safe and sound after your pilgrimage. The Blessed Theotokos, does indeed call to us to help us on our path. I’m grateful for her intercession in your pilgrimage, perhaps to lighten the ‘load’ of the physical hardship ( and the physical burden we all feel as we age) and relieve the anxiety that you were experiencing. Moments like those continue to reveal, long after the immediate experience. Glory to God for this illumination, and thank you for sharing these experiences with us.
Physical activity is good to keep the brain sharp as well. Though I’m not so good at keeping up the aerobic walking as I should either.
Dana, I offer my prayers for you and your parish.
Thank-You father for your reflections.
“Lord Jesus Christ, glory to you for all things!”
I have not yet looked at the other comments, but in my mind your words make me think of the prayer that has sustained me many times. The prayer is said repeatedly in the life of the Church, and should sound familiar, as it is the last part of the trisagion prayer. For me it is the most common prayer in my life, and I say it repeatedly–
+ Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Living as a Protestant, I can only say that perhaps these words speak to me because I know I am outside the church. Unworthy as a dog (Matthew 15:37) to receive the blessings grated to those within the Church. Maybe its because, having taken the idea of the River of Fire to heart, I can see that whatever happens to me – God is always good. I don’t know. All I know is this, (and its possible there is some personal pride in this, since in almost every way, I am without sound direction), that particular prayer speaks to me.
(And yes, I do mentally cross myself, even if I can’t do so with my hands.)
“It was the invincible weapon of thanksgiving.”
I shall never forget this powerful phrase.
I think it is a synonym for another phrase in our prayer services – the Cross as “the weapon of peace, the invincible standard.” For what are we receiving at the Eucharist (the great Thanksgiving) but the Flesh and Blood of the Cross-ified Christ?
Thank you, Fr Stephen, for such a wonderful story. May God bless you!
It is worth a mention that staying for some time in Athos as a pilgrim, the sharing of accommodation, the moving from monastery to monastery every few nights, and principally, not having a constant daily schedule comprising: “cell (mystical life)-work (ministry)-service (sacramental life)-sleep-repeat”, will unquestionably yield a dysphoria of sorts, if prolonged beyond even two, three days.
However, actually living there –after a decision to live there and nowhere else (renunciation) – is utterly different, even when prolonged for many years. Even if such a person becomes confronted with feelings of dysphoria once again, (which could have a greater force for a while), these are qualitatively quite different, clearly part-and-parcel of the expected spiritual struggle of any believer, and one of the many confessable, healable and maturity-producing aspects of that life.
Yes. My pilgrimage rarely had time to breathe. A number of times, the pressing schedule of the bus eliminated one of the two meals. If I were planning another pilgrimage, it would go slower and do less. But I think this trip was as it was for God’s own purpose – or He certainly used it so. My experience was probably different than the other 9 pilgrims (I was the only “old man”).
Glory to God.
So happy your back. Thank you for you reflections.
I felt so comforted by your comments, especially, when you were talking about praying the Jesus prayer. So many times I get tripped up when praying it. I overly focus on myself, or keep expecting to sense something immediate . I sometimes just ask to humbly remember. The sinner that I am, I always forget.
Dear Fr. Freeman,
Glad to hear you’re back to your home safe.
Thank you! Your experience does reassure.
Happy to hear from You again. “Thank You for Everything”
Father, welcome back.
You should see the monasteries in Ethiopia. Uphill all the way there and back! And thin air. And one meal – the equivalent of bread and water – a day! But that’s what we’re used to – that’s normal for us.
You might as well have written about my experience, Father. As I’ve aged, I too have found myself thinking more and more of that aspect of pilgrimage. Last time, a few months ago, it took me ages to get up the few hundred steps from the Holy Water font back to the church. Perhaps not much faster than the elderly ladies who look just as tired after a ten minute hike as after a two hour one! But, it was another opportunity for empathy. Glory to God!
For those who have not come across it, this is a good short film on Elder ( now Saint ) Paisios and it has good footage of Mount Athos. In Greek with English subtitles.
Thank you for sharing your journey. A few years back, as I was praying the Jesus prayer I was minded to pray instead, “Lord Jesus, thank you for all your mercies.”
More from anyone on anxiety and panic would be welcome. Thank you for the “Lord Jesus Christ, glory to you for all things!” prayer.
Try some “tapping” for anxiety and panic… It really works, is free and effective. Just go to “the tapping solution dot com” and read on the basics… You can even pray as you are tapping… It’s the calming of the emotion and the memory “in the body” that this heals…
Agata: thanks for the reminder about this and for the webpage!
Lent is an uphill walk to Golgotha. It’s only day 2 and my experience so resembles what you describe here. Thank you for sharing these experiences and for the prayer the Theotokos gave to you. And thank you also for the vivid image of the ‘old men’ and their quiet smiles of joy from the long years in prayer. I sense they pray for me and all of us. Your words of encouragement are so helpful today.
Really excellent writing about the MT Athos Pilgrimage.
I went to IONA and let me just say, similar experience. Not only do I also have ADHD but motion sickness Bonine was with me at all times. I offered to be in the lengthy service 24 h after I arrived, and as you know with ADHD memorizing things is tough. I had to learn on the fly, and it was so exciting but also so anxiety provoking. Over the years having untreated ADHD left me with poor endurance- got worn out fast. Going to IONA was the first trip after working on treatment. I was actually able to hike a few miles. Praise God.
My experience on Mount Athos was similar. I would add that there was a quiet that could be felt.
I discussed you with 2 monks there, both read your articles regularly.
It was hard. Harder days than Marine Corps boot camp. I want to go again anyway.
I saw a picture you posted from the Holy Mountain. I’d love to hear more about your visit there.