Meditations on Mount Athos

I was very moved on Easter Sunday 2011 to see the 60 Minutes story on CBS TV about the monasteries of Mount Athos in northern Greece. As the 60 Minutes narrator said, this peninsula has probably seen less change over the past 500 years than any other inhabited place on earth.

I led small groups of men on pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain in 1998 and 1999, and was welcomed by the monks into buildings that go back up to 1000 years, celebrating a man who inspired their faith by his words and deeds 2000 years ago. My visit there was my personal millennial experience. Following is a magazine article I wrote about the experience.

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My Millennial Moment

While much of the world was carefully planning where they would be at midnight on December 31, 1999, my millennial moment occurred at sunset on a warm September evening, three months earlier.

The theocratic republic of Mount Athos is home to 20 Orthodox monasteries, spread across a peninsula in northeastern Greece. All affairs of The Holy Mountain are governed by the 20 abbots of this autonomous republic within Greece. The oldest monasteries were built 1000 years ago, and from the earliest days, all female beings, both human and animal, have been forbidden. (One legend has it that there were too many dalliances between young monks and the daughters of nearby farmers.)

Twice I have been privileged to be one of the ten non-Orthodox men granted a four-day permit to visit Mount Athos, staying at a different monastery each night, and hiking or taking a small boat between the medieval fortress-like buildings by day.

My very personal millennial moment came the first night on Mount Athos just after sunset. We had just stepped back into the Xenophontos Monastery from watching the sun set into the Aegean Sea from the belvedere, outside the monastery walls. After the massive wooden gate closed behind us and was locked for the night, I sat down in the courtyard to observe the scene in the fading light.

In front of me was the “old” church, 1000 years old and much too small for any purpose other than individual meditation. As I sat under a fig tree, I could envision the workers 1000 years ago seeking shade under a long-ago ancestor of this tree. As the sky darkened, a light breeze brought the smell of incense over my shoulder, accompanied by the chanting in two-part harmony as the monks began an overnight vigil to the Virgin Mary, led by their 70-year-old abbot, a man with a remarkable tenor voice.

The monks were in the “new” church, only 600 years old, honoring a woman of 2000 years ago who had a son whose influence on the world included the calendar which was about to begin its third millennium.

That night, as I lay in my bed in the guest quarters and looked out the window at the kaleidoscope reflection of the full moon in the sea, my communion across the millennia was complete, and it would not matter where I was when the clock passed midnight on December 31, 1999 heralding the start of the new millenium.

Philip Sheldon is President of Hanns Ebensten Travel, Inc., the first company to offer tours for gay men in 1972, and Alyson Adventures, Inc., which offers active hiking, biking, kayaking and other vacations for gay men, lesbians and their friends.

Published in Courier Magazine (National Tour Association) 2004

About philsheldon

Owner of Hanns Ebensten Travel and Alyson Adventures.
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3 Responses to Meditations on Mount Athos

  1. Pingback: Meditations on Mount Athos » Greece on WEB

  2. I loved reading your Mount Athos experience , Phil. It is the only time I regret having too much female DNA because I’ll never get to visit . Thanks for mentioning about the woman honored 2000 years ago . I can imagine the gender transendence in the experience . Happy travels till we meet again .

    • philsheldon says:

      Thank you for your comments Kristin. I would love to welcome women on my groups to Mount Athos, but it’s hard to fight 1000 years of tradition! The closest women can get to Mount Athos nowadays is to pass by on a boat a few hundred meters offshore – I guess they want the women far enough away that they can’t see the monks on the rare occasions that they remove enough of their habits to take a swim in the waters of the Aegean. When I first led this tour in 1999, my group adopted a young Canadian man whose grandmother was one of the few women to ever “pass” and make it onto the Holy Mountain – but even she was quickly found out and escorted back to the “real world”.

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