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.