Mt. Athos

Whenever you arrive at a monastery on Mt. Athos, to reside at or for only a day trip, the monks have a standard regiment of hospitality. They invite you to sit down, then fetch a plate of loukouma (Turkish delight), a glass of water, and a shot of ouzo. Most of them offer a tiny cup of Turkish coffee as well, a stout brew with a thick layer of caffeinated silt at the bottom.

Although I was ecstatic the first time monks handed me a shot of liquor, they do not conceptualize it the same we we do. I thought, “Hey! Free booze!” and glanced around to see if any of my fellow pilgrims had neglected to finish theirs. To monks, one shot of ouzo is just something refreshing to enjoy after sweating and walking a long time. (It is.) I’m told that most Greeks approach alcohol in this manner and that there is consequently no alcoholism problem to speak of.

Philotheo is one of the twenty different monasteries on the Holy Mountain. There are also a number of sketes and kellions, which are basically vassal monasteries. A skete is like a monastery in every capacity except that it is subordinate to whatever mother monastery is in charge of it. Some sketes are larger than their parent monasteries, but are still subordinate to them. The cynical side of me suspects this is part of the complicated nature of monastic politics.

Greeks control most monasteries, so they don’t need to worry about Slavs taking over, no matter how many sketes they populate or erect. Kellions are miniature monasteries of at least three or four monks living in a house with a chapel. They’re kind of like monk suburbs.

I stayed at Philotheo because of my connection to it via Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendali, Texas. Some years ago Elder Ephraim, abbot of Philotheo, took up and left for America to plant a number of monasteries on our soil. The man is still alive, living at the principal monastery he founded in the Arizona desert, and is widely regarded as a living saint. Philotheo and all of the American monasteries have their own abbots, but Elder Ephraim remains “spiritual father” to them. In other words, each monastery has its own Mace Windu, but Ephraim is the Yoda for all.

Philotheo was founded somewhere around the end of the tenth century or the beginning of the eleventh. Its katholicon (main church) dates from 1746. Like the other monasteries on Mt. Athos, Philotheo is built like big fortress. The guest rooms, dining hall, and monks’ cells are arranged in the shape of a large citadel, with no windows starting until two floors up. (Several times during my stay I reflected on how ideally situated Philotheo is in the event of a zombie outbreak.) A large iron door is the only entry to the monastery, and is locked every evening. Inside of the citadel-like structure is a vast lawn with the katholicon at its center. Beyond the walls of the monastery are tomato gardens, vineyards, and assorted stacks of timber for nearby construction projects.

Every night we would do Vespers, have dinner, then do the Compline. At the conclusion of the services the monks would bring out the various relics the monastery has acquired over the years. The two most notable ones at Philotheo are the left hand of St. John Chrysostrum and a bone from St. Kosmas.

In the eighteenth century Kosmas did more than anyone else to keep the Greeks from being absorbed into Turkish culture and religion. He left Philotheo monastery and travelled the country, exhorting people to hold onto their religion and cultural identity up until the Turks had him killed. Had Kosmas not come along, “Greece” as we know it might not exist.

Needless to say, modern Greeks love St. Kosmas. Greeks are the most self-obsessed race on the planet, so protecting Hellenism from Turkish absorption ranks somewhere near averting intergalactic nuclear warfare. Greeks are more friendly and warm than the French, but in their own way they’re also more culturally narcissistic than a Gaul could ever aspire to.

I think St. Kosmas is interesting for a different reason. Before he died, he left a number of prophecies behind about the upcoming nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here are a few: “The time will come when people will speak from one far place to another, for example, from Constantinople to Russia, as though they were in adjoining rooms.” And, “You will see in the plain a carriage without horses which will run faster than a rabbit.” And, “Men will ride through the sky like starlings, and throw fire at the earth below.” My my personal favorite (though possibly apocryphal), is that in the future the devil will sit inside of a little box within peoples homes, with his horns perched on their roofs. 

 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.

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