Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain
This year's Lenten period was extra special for me. First, I was a newly converted Orthodox Christian preparing for the Holy Pascha. And secondly, I was blessed to visit Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, for a week-long pilgrimage in March. This spiritual experience practically defies words, but I'll do my best to convey it.
Mount Athos, considered one of the most holy places in Christianity, is a 50-kilometer-long peninsula in a remote part of northeastern Greece. An autonomous, monastic republic, this sacred land is accessible only to men - and controlled entry is only with a special Byzantine visa issued by monastic authorities in conjunction with Constantinople. The beautiful, rugged territory also is known as the "Garden of the Mother of God" because the Holy Theotokos herself once graced it with her presence and declared, "Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved." For more than 1,000 years no woman has walked on Mount Athos, nor is this likely to ever change.
There are 20 monasteries, 17 of which are Greek (plus one each that is Bulgarian, Russian and Serbian), as well as numerous sketes such as the Romanian ones Prodromu and Lacu, both of which I was blessed to visit and stay overnight. A true highlight for me was to be able to see and venerate the original "Prodromiţa" icon inside the main church at Prodromu. While I was not allowed to take photos of her, the experience will live on inside me and especially each time I see the beautiful copy of the holy icon at our church in Sacramento.
I joined four other men, all from Romania, including one of my best friends, on this incredible pilgrimage. We were also fortunate to have with us a theologian from Timişoara whose knowledge of Orthodoxy was invaluable as we backpacked our way on foot across the peninsula, visiting several monasteries and sketes including Dionysiou, St. Paul, St. Anna, Iveron, Vatopedi, St. Andrew and Zografou. The sheer scale of the monasteries, some of which are built into the mountain or precariously overlooking the sea, is mind-boggling and can be attributed only to miracles and devotion by Orthodox monks over hundreds of years. Near Prodromu, we walked down a stone staircase that hugs a seaside cliff to the cell of St. Athanasius of Athos. Father Arsenie Boca, the renowned Romanian, helped build the stairs and walked them many times, staying in a nearby cave. Tracing his footsteps was another memorable experience.
Visiting during Lent was special and a time for quiet reflection and fasting, though I must say the food and accommodation was quite comfortable and generous in most cases. We never tired of homemade bread and Greek olives grown and cured by the monks. Only our legs and backs were tired after many kilometers of hiking, much of it uphill on difficult trails and across creeks, even through snow, mountain fog, driving rain and intense sun. We experienced four seasons in one week in the Garden of the Virgin Mary! Each day, however, we faced challenges, whether it was inclement weather and impassable trails or other logistical woes, or even one near-tragic fall from one member of our group. Through it all, though, the Holy Theotokos took care and watched over us. I have visited many countries in this world and never did I feel so safe, secure and at peace as I did on the Mount Athos.
The holy relics, icons, frescoes and historic treasures on Mount Athos are seemingly endless - and frankly, quite stunning and breathtaking. Fortunately, at each monastery or skete we were blessed to meet at least one welcoming monk or priest who guided us to these holy objects, or brought them out from the altar, allowing us to learn about them and venerate in private moments of prayer. The list is long but among the most important relics I venerated include the Gifts of the Three Kings; the hand of St. John the Baptist, the very one that baptized our Lord Jesus Christ; the Cincture of the Theotokos, the belt of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the forehead of St. Andrew the Apostle; pieces of the Holy Cross; and relics of St. Demetrius (I also venerated his tomb separately at his cathedral in Thessaloniki on my way home). Seeing these relics with my own eyes, and being blessed to venerate them in person, was moving and deeply emotional.
We spoke or interacted with only a few monks and priests at each monastery or skete - most pay no attention to pilgrims and are engrossed in constant prayer and busy with their obedience, or daily duties. Still, some encounters were memorable, enjoyable and informative. Perhaps the most unforgettable was a visit to the home of Elder Gavril, who lives just outside Karyes, the "capital" or administrative center of Mount Athos. Had it not been for a chance meeting with a Romanian monk who directed us there, we would not have found him. We spent 30 minutes listening to Elder Gavril's wisdom while he prayed for us and others. He even had a delightful sense of humor (we were grateful to a Greek pilgrim who translated for us). On the serious side, Elder Gavril is revered throughout Mount Athos and known for his clairvoyant graces. After all, his spiritual father was Elder Joseph the Hesychast, whose tomb we also visited, and the two lived together in a cell for seven years, as I understood, allowing only seven words per day between them. Later, when I met an engaging young novice from Latvia, Brother Ioannis at the Zografou monastery, he told me that being blessed by Elder Gavril is special and to pray for him because he tells God to help those who pray for him 100 times more!
I also will never forget an intimate conversation about my Orthodox conversion with the wonderful French hieromonk at Vatopedi, Father Irinaeos. At St. Paul, we met Romanian monk Father Iachint, a gregarious man who shared his writings with us and warmly took us under his wing for several hours. There was a helpful Finnish monk at St. Andrew and a friendly Australian monk at Vatopedi. Meeting monks who were converts was particularly interesting for me. Also, Brother Nicolae, a Romanian novice at Prodromu who spent 10 years in Chicago, showed heartfelt kindness and shared special words with me. Lastly, it was also a true blessing to meet Father Hariton, a Romanian monk who has maintained contact with Father Rareş at our church. It was my honor to meet him and hear about his inspiring journey, including life in a small log cabin deep in the forest of the Holy Mountain. I came away impressed and in awe of the monks and their ascetic lifestyle - not wanting to trade places with them, but trying to be a better person after being around such humility and holiness. It was truly a blessing and, God willing, I will visit Mount Athos again.
Christ has Risen! Hristos a Inviat!
Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain
By Andy Trincia