29 May 2007

Mount Athos - Our Lady's Garden

The legend of Mount Athos is that the Blessed Virgin Mary, accompanied by St. John, were sailing in the Mediterranean on their way to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. They were blown off course and they landed on Mount Athos. The Blessed Mother walked ashore and was struck by the beauty of the mountain and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice from Heaven said, "Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved." From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women.

(Note: Women are completely barred from the peninsula. Reportedly, even female domestic animals, with the exception of cats, as well as chickens which lay eggs that provide the fresh egg yolk needed for the paint used in iconography, are forbidden. If you're caught breaking this rule, you can spend two years in jail.)

The peninsula's rugged landscape is dotted with Eastern Orthodox monasteries. The island, its monasteries, and its location are all beautiful and breathtaking.

From Wikipedia:
Mount Athos is a mountain and a peninsula in Macedonia, northern Greece, called in Greek Ayion Oros or Agion Oros, transliterated often as Hagion Oros, or in English, "Holy Mountain." Politically it is known in Greece as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain. This World Heritage Site is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and forms a self-governed monastic state within the sovereignty of the Republic of Greece. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The peninsula, the easternmost "leg" of the larger Chalcidice peninsula, protrudes into the Aegean Sea for some 60 km at a width between 7 to 12 km and covers an area of about 390 km², with the actual Mount Athos and its steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 m. The seas around the end of the peninsula can be dangerous.

Though land-linked, it is accessible only by boat. The number of visitors is restricted and all are required to get a special entrance permit before entering Mount Athos. Only males are allowed entrance into Mount Athos and Orthodox Christians take precedence in the permit issuance procedure. Only males over the age of 18, who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church are allowed to live on Athos. There are religious guards, who are not monks, that assist the monks, and any other people not monks are required to live on the peninsula's capital, Karyes. The current population numbers around 2,250.

On the island, which contains some of the oldest surviving monastic communities in the world, there are 20 monasteries of which 17 are Greek, one Russian, one Serbian, and one Bulgarian. In addition to the monasteries, there are twelve Skites (similar to monasteries but much smaller), a large number of Kellia (large farm houses), Kalyves (smaller houses), Kathismata (small houses for a single monk) and Hesychasteria (hermitages or caves in desolate cliff faces, for the most austere hermits).

During the centuries, three forms of monastic life evolved: coenobitic, idiorrhythmic, and solitary.

"The coenobitic rule is characterised by discipline, and the monks come together for worship and meals. In the coenobitic monasteries, the monks rise an hour after midnight to pray, alone in their cells at first and then all together in the main church, the katholikon, where they remain until daybreak. They then eat together in the refectory. The meal is followed by prayers, and the monks withdraw to occupy themselves with the tasks assigned to them by the monastery. No-one is exempt from work, not even the hegumen (abbot). After midday, the monks sleep or rest. In the late afternoon, they gather in the church again for the evening liturgy (esperinos), and they then go to the refectory, if it is not a fast day. The last liturgy of the day follows (apodeipnon). The monastery gates are closed, and the monks retire to their cells, where they read, pray, and sleep.

The idiorrhythmic way of life came about as a result of the Ottoman conquest and the attendant imposition of harsh taxes on the monks, as also the establishment of the sketae. In the sketae and the idiorrhythmic monasteries, the monks organise their own time, dividing it between prayer and work in accordance with their personal needs. They come together for the Divine Liturgy only on Sundays and feast days; on ordinary days, each fulfils his religious obligations in the chapel in his own kalyva, or hut.

The solitary life is the most difficult of all. The monks who have chosen to be hermits live in complete solitude in caves or rudimentary dwellings on precipitous slopes or cliff sides. They eat as much as they need to stay alive, work to keep their minds alert, and devote all their time to prayer. Occasionally, they go to the nearby monasteries to receive communion."

The island is steep, beautiful, secluded, and filled with thousands of relics and much-treasured icons.

"The architectural structure of the monasteries and the coenobitic cloisters consists of a cluster of sequential high buildings, which enclose an inner courtyard. These buildings were also a defensive shield and give the monasteries of Athos peninsula their characteristic castle-like appearance. There are also towers with embrasures. The portal is usually tunnel-shaped for defence purposes, and is closed by heavy iron-sheeted wooden gates. Outside and near the main entrance, there is usually a roomy kiosk with a great view. Near the centre of the paved interior courtyard is the most important part of the monastery, the central church that is called "katholikon", and opposite, to the west, there is the refectory, called "trapeza". Other basic parts of a monastery are the Assembly room and the administration offices, the guesthouse, the monks' quarters, the library, the sacristy. In front of the west entrance of the main church, there exists "Fiali", an ornate marble washstand containing holy water. Within the courtyard, there is a fountain with fresh water. Little chapels are interspersed at various points of the monastery.

The "katholikon" of the Holy Mountain is a cross-shaped building, which, besides the niche of the sanctum, possesses two additional wide niches to the north and south for the choristers. Four pillars support the high central dome. To the west side of the church, between the narthex and the outer peristyle, another room has been added, called "liti", where the "liti" service is performed.

Each monastery or cloister has a small harbour so as to receive supplies by sea. It is called "arsanas" (actually coming from the Latin word "arsenal") and is often fortified by a strong, high tower.

Inside the churches, icon-stands, sacristies and libraries of the monasteries and cloisters, relics and treasures of inestimable value are kept, of devotional, artistic, historical or national importance and for the pilgrims most of them are difficult to access for security purposes."

For an article on the response of the monks of Mount Athos to B16's wish for Greek Orthodox and RC Ecumenism.

For a virtual visit to the island and its monasteries, go here.

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