Athos, the Holy Mountain:
(1) As the ship moved eastwards, the Holy Mount came into sight on the port side--a six thousand foot pyramidal peak jutting straight out of the blue water into the blue sky.
(2) The path passed through dark-green leafy forest and occasional tumbled boulders.
(3) The sea which washes Athos' shores can get exceedingly rough (an invading Persian fleet was once largely smashed to pieces on its rocks).
(4) Most of the three thousand monks are housed in the large monasteries and have to conform to the fixed strict rules and obey the abbots. But of the remaining monks, some live in little huts, retreats, or cells centering around a point where once, occasionally even now, there lived an anchorite whose sanctity drew disciples or followers around him. These come into contact from time to time, as often or as little as they wish, such is the flexibility of this system. Others live away from their fellows altogether, in wilder, more deserted parts of the peninsula where they can find the full independence and solitude they desire. Thus the three types exist side by side, whether sharing the common life of a large monastery, the semi-common life of small houses and cottages grouped around a church, or the complete solitude of hut and cave. I found much the same arrangement in India at the foot of the Himalayas, in the communities of holy men at Hardwar and at Rishikesh, where even the total population was about the same as at Mount Athos. There is even a fourth type, peculiar to Athos itself and not likely to be matched easily anywhere else in the Asiatic or Western worlds. Such monks seek to combine the advantages of organized communal life with those of private life, the benefits of large buildings with those of independent quarters.
(5) Athos is a working community. The monks are active enough getting their food and attending to other chores to be in no peril of becoming torpid and lazy. Everyone contributes with the labour of his hands to satisfying the body's inescapable needs of food, clothing, fuel, and shelter, or supplements the monastery's slender income by making religious souvenirs for selling to the mainland.
(6) Philip Sherrard's story is simple. "I was walking in a village on a Greek island away from the tourist track and saw a simple peasant sitting by the roadside reading. He looked up at me and exclaimed: `This is a wonderful book!' I examined it and found it to be a volume of writings by one of the Orthodox Church mystics. I discovered that here, in Christianity, were the teachings, the mode of life, the practices of contemplation, the theology, which had attracted me towards India and its Vedanta. Eventually I became a member of the Church."
(7) I began to feel the aura of peace which surrounded and held Athos whenever a boat brought me to a monastery's landing stage or a mule carried me along steep tracks from one settlement to another.
(8) The Monastery of Dionysiou appears high up on a cliffside, looking just like a Tibetan one except that it overlooks a bit of beach and a lot of sea.
(9) Perhaps the oldest and largest of all the monasteries is the Lavra--really an entire group of several picturesque buildings set within a walled fort. A reminder of the grim old days when pirates or raiders--European, African, or Asiatic--made descents on Athos in search of plunder or intent on murder is the pair of great double doors, thick enough already but still covered with sheets of iron. The monks sit in their little cells, which branch off from long well-trodden wooden galleries, or in the plain unornamented wooden balconies jutting from the outside wall and overlooking the courtyard.
(10) It is when eventide comes that the tranquillity of Athos comes to its own fullness, covering everyone and everything with the presence of God.
(11) These icons are venerated here in a way that the science-minded realists of America and the rest of Europe may not appreciate and are unlikely to understand. For they are regarded not merely as decorations and inspirations, but also as sources of holy power, links connecting the worshipper with the long-departed saints they depict. They are used in prayer, and particularly in intercessory prayer.
(12) The bits of bone, the skulls, and the other relics of long-dead holy men are not so attractive or so well appreciated by the modern Western mind--although their jewelled cases may be--but the colourful, illuminated manuscripts, the boxes of fine, rare, and ancient books would provide the religious scholar and the devotee of mysticism with many weeks of fascinating study could he but read them.
(13) Many years ago I gave, in the thirteenth chapter of The Quest of the Overself, an exercise for centering attention in the heart as a means of spiritual awakening. It had been taught to me first in Europe by Brother M., the adept who died forty years ago, and later in India by Ramana Maharshi. I learn that the exercise has been known and practised by Eastern Church mystics for many centuries. In the fourth century that best known of the Fathers, Chrysostom of Constantinople, taught the method of "praying truly which finally leads to a state in which the mind is always in the heart." And in a later century, Gregory the Sinaite wrote: "Lead your mind down from your head into your heart, and hold it there."
It is even more significant that the practice of contemplating the navel, known in India for thousands of years, had its adherents in Athos too, where they were long ago called "belly-watchers." Were these exercises brought back by some soldiers returning home from Alexander the Great's Indian adventure? There are some interesting differences between the Indian and the Athonite practice of this exercise, but both in the end seek the same goal. Where the Indian begins with a physical act--fixing the gaze but with the head erect--the Greek begins with a mental act--bringing the mind down into the heart. Since his attention is thus directed toward the heart, the Greek lets his head bend naturally down in the same direction, his physical movement being a secondary accompaniment. When the monk in Athos has succeeded in his first aim, he then begins working on his second one, and here makes a physical move to achieve it. He holds the breath so as to hold the mind in the heart. The Indian, too, when his navel-watching gaze is fixed, transfers his attention from body to spirit. Thus both seek and find a spiritual centralized union.
(14) More seems to be made of purification here than of meditation: the two are always coupled together, but the principal emphasis is put on the first need. This was the view of all those interviewed. It seems also to have been the view of the Russian Orthodox mystics whose sixteenth-century Nile Sorsky warned monks against doing the exercise of centering the mind in the heart and seeking the union with God before they had undergone penance and crushed passion. The Syrian mystic Isaac of Nineveh went even farther and threatened the punishment of God's anger on those who sought Him prematurely by contemplation while "still stained by reprehensible passions."
(15) The warning against rushing too fast with breathing exercises, or using them wrongly, or using them at all when one's health is unsuited to them, has been set down in some of my books. The most dangerous one of them all is that which attempts to hold the breath completely. Those warnings were derived from Indian sources and observations, as well as from Euramerican experiences. Among the Orthodox Church mystics I found further confirmation. The Russian Elder Paissy Velitchkovsky, writing about the turn of the eighteenth century, stated that a number of monks of the period had injured themselves by misusing physical aids to meditation, mostly breathing exercises.
(16) Their lives here on this promontory are so simple, so uncomplicated.
(17) In this golden light, the colours of the buildings gleamed brightly.
(18) The old structure, blackened by time, smelling of stale incense.
(19) A thin old monk in a faded grey robe appeared. He answered questions in a frail voice.
(20) A fishing boat, with orange-coloured sail, passed us.
(21) No railway lines run through Athos, no automobile traverses its length or breadth, so the monks must move about on foot, donkey, or mule. Here the eyes see a medieval world. Here is none of the noise, the complications, the pressures, and the care of modern civilization. This is good, but the comforts and conveniences, the pleasures and the luxuries are not here either. "Take what thou wilt, but pay the price." exclaimed Emerson.
(22) The precipitous face of Athos descends sheer into the water.
(23) The peninsula thrusts itself forward into the heaving sea like a pointing finger. It is there, at the more inaccessible steep tip, that most of the hermits who desire more solitude live.
(24) There is no traffic to make a person nervously take more care lest he fall beneath the wheels of the modern juggernaut's car!
(25) This forty mile long, self-governing peninsula once harboured 40,000 monks collected from the several Balkan nationalities as well as the Russian. Wars changed and reduced the population.
(26) The questions which come to our voluble intellectuals do not come to these simple monks. Their minds are untroubled by doubts, for the faith which was powerful enough to bring them and keep them there is powerful enough to disdain the intellect and discount its values.
(27) The Indian technique of mantram yoga is practised here under the name of "Jesus-prayer." Sitting in the solitude of his little room, repeating constantly the text "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me," counting the number of times upon a rosary until a specified figure is reached, the monk is doing here in a Christian monastery what the sadhu is doing there in a Hindu monastery. The invocation in both cases may be used anywhere, in any surroundings, and amid any practical activities; it is not restricted to the monastic cell. This pious duty is to be practised deliberately by effort, until one day the miracle happens and it thenceforth continues to repeat itself without his effort entirely of its own accord. This may happen within a few weeks; in other cases within a few months; in still others even longer periods may be necessary.
(28) It was the judgement of the Russian Staretz--that is, guru--Silouan that the ancient forms of monasticism were less and less suitable in view of conditions in the modern world, but that since the need and aspiration for the withdrawn existence would never vanish, more and more people among those who remained in society would practise monastic disciplines even while doing so. This, he believed, would be even more true in the case of those with some education.
(29) The steamer's engines ceased throbbing; we were at the shoreline of this enormous cliff, this "Holy Athos" as tradition called it, topped with a white pyramid.
(30) The Holy Synod which governs Athos has always tried to keep up tradition and to keep out innovation. But can it continue to do so in an age of such terrific change as ours?
(31) Too many of the monks are ignorant and superstitious, unrefined and uncultured.
(32) Those who have attained the highest grade of spirituality are total vegetarians; the others are expected to keep their meat consumption down to a minimum.
(33) These hermits look out at their little world from mountain retreats.
(34) The services in Orthodox churches have no accompaniment from musical instruments, only from chanted song.
(35) There are wide differences in character and development among these monks, just as there are in Indian ashrams. Father X, who is famous in Greece because of his numerous published articles and books, spoke fluently but fanatically. He was excitable, narrow-minded, and intolerant. But Father Ephraim made a most favourable impression on me. He was mild, kindly, gentle, and a very advanced meditator. Both men are leaders in the Athos community.
(36) Father Avakum, of Lavra Monastery, a rough untutored eccentric but unselfish monk, says: "I am all joy!" He despises intellect, saying, "I am empty save for Christ and joy!"
(37) The notorious Rasputin came to Athos and stayed for a while in the Monastery of Russiko.
(38) Whereas Catholic saints like Saint Francis Xavier and Hindu yogis like Sri Aurobindo whose dead bodies remain undecayed and uncrumbled are held in high esteem and made objects of pilgrimage, the Russian Orthodox Church has very different ideas on the matter. At their Monastery of Russiko on Athos, dead monks whose bodies are supernaturally preserved are treated as possessed by evil spirits. A stake is driven through the heart and the rite of exorcism performed.
(39) The cells have little household furniture.
(40) The devout songs and the prayer-chants, the rituals and the text readings make up the full life for many monks, the essentially pious ones. Their capacity is sufficient only for this, and their desire is satisfied by it. But others are the ascetic ones, whose presence here, and absence from the world, is caused by the repellent state of the world and by disgust with their own or others' animal lower nature.
(41) High up the cliffs were eagles' eyries.
(42) The monks said that winter is a trying time--thundering seas dash against the peninsula, screaming winds blow fiercely along it, and bitterly cold snow falls. It is then that their hard lives in ill-heated buildings are even harder.
-- Notebooks Category 15: The Orient > Chapter 7: Related Entries > # 19