The Pilgrimage

(Note: For the sake of time in my last few days in Greece, I will only be posting my thoughts and foregoing posting photos for a bit. I will add photos later when time allows. Thanks.)

Our pilgrimage to Mount Athos began early Wednesday morning.  Mount Athos, also called Agion Oros (the Holy Mountain), is a mountainous peninsula rising out of the Aegean that has been a haven of Christian monasticism for most of Christian history, mostly because of its extreme inaccessibility and unspoiled beauty. 

The Virgin Mary, sailing with the Apostle John, landed on the peninsula. She was so impressed by its wild beauty that she asked her Son for it as her garden. It has been her garden and a haven for salvation ever since.  All other women are forbidden to enter and she remains the abbess of the Holy Mountain to this day. 

There are 20 monasteries, the oldest and largest extant was founded in 958, although there is evidence of monasticism there for hundreds of years before. The newest monastery was consecrated in 1536, or for perspective, just as the Protestant Reformation was beginning in the west. Besides the 20 monasteries (which can be likened to cities), there are many "sketes" or monastic villages, and many hermitages. About 100 years ago, there were 7,000 monks on Athos. Communism in Russia, two world wars, and Nazi occupation took their toll and in 1970 there were only 1,000, mostly elderly monks. The past 40 years has seen a revival in monasticism. Many young and educated Christians have become monks, and now there are about 2,000 monks on the peninsula.

We awoke at 5:30 and walked in rain to the port, where we found a light green car as described. A man in the car took our passports and returned them with a visa to enter Mount Athos, which is self-ruling, but maybe not quite an independent nation. Maybe it is somewhere between a national park and an Indian reservation. Technically, the only way to get in is to be invited from someone inside.  Panagiotis worked out all these details.

We got on the ferry with many other pilgrims and monks and many supplies. The ferry was named "Agia Anna" (St. Anna), and was complete with two beautiful shrines with icons of the grandmother of Christ.

The ferry ride was long, but pleasant, because we stopped at almost every monastery along the west coast of Mount Athos. It was amazing to see in person the monasteries that I have read about: Simonopetra, St. Panteleimon, Dionysiou, Grigoriou, and others. We met a pilgrim who was excited to hear we came from (near) Chicago. "I'm from the Bronx!" he replied.  He told us that it is through the Grace of Christ and the prayers of the Theotokos that we could come to Agion Oros. When he disembarked at Simonopetra, he knelt and kissed the ground.

The Holy Mountain is extremely inaccessible. A three hour-bus ride from Thessaloniki brought us to Ouranopolis, a port on the edge of Athos.  It took us three hours on a powered ferry, plus another hour climbing 1,400 steps to reach St. Anna's Skete (passed several times by trains of mules hauling supplies up the mountain). This skete was established to protect the left foot of St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos. The skete is a village of about 100 monks who live in scattered houses clinging to the edge of the mountain. Stepping off the boat was like stepping out of time. Not necessarily back in time, but time stood still. I knew we were there for 24 hours, but it could have been a week.  The timelessness can't be described.  

We stayed in the house of the Forerunner (John the Baptist). We were warmly greeted with the customary hospitality given to pilgrims: water, Turkish delight, and ouzo.

The geronda (elder) showed us our rooms and told us the times of services and meals, and how to access the main church which houses the foot of St. Anna.  The geronda of course wore the traditional monastic garb: a black robe (cassock) with a belt, and a flat-topped hat. He may be the hairiest man I have met. His eyebrows fused with his beard, which in turn covered most of his cheeks. He had not a few hairs on the tip of his nose. Vanity is not a concern of monks.

We explored just a little and took a brief nap before lunch. At noon, the bell rang for lunch. We had chickpeas an couscous with mushrooms and carrots. Also available on the table were whole tomatoes (delicious), whole peppers, whole raw onions (I passed), and a delicious but unidentifiable green fruit that had whitish stringy seeds on the inside.

As soon as the prayer concluded lunch, we cleaned our place and stacked our dishes as everyone else, but we were sternly told by the Geronda, "Leave that and come with me." He sat us down outside and bluntly said, "What are you doing here?" I guess the obligatory hospitality had been shown, now was time to get down to business.  Adrian and I nervously fumbled for words, trying to explain our experiences at American monasteries, my journey to Greece, how we didn't think we'd make it to the Holy Mountain, and how God provided a way here.  At some point in the conversation, the Geronda stopped us and asked, "So are you Orthodox?"

"Yes, of course," we replied.  A visible wave of relief washed across his face.  The conversation became much more friendly and less suspicious. We conversed about our church in America and how we were chanters. We sang a hymn in English; it was the first time he heard Byzantine chant in English.

We walked up the trail from the house of the Forerunner to the main church of St. Anna's Skete.  When we reached the courtyard of the main church, a geronda was giving a lesson to about 20 pilgrims huddled around him. Adrian and I hung around the perimeter as to not distract the teaching.  It was to no avail. The elder asked three questions (in Greek of course): "Who are you? Where are you from?  Are you Orthodox?" I answered in Greek, "Yes, we are Greek Orthodox from near Chicago. We have come to venerate the foot of St. Anna." He simply continued his teaching. When he was done and the pilgrims received his blessing and entered the building, we followed and received the blessing. The elder motioned to another monk to take us to the church. 

The church was nearly pitch dark. We could barely follow the monk robed in black through rows of chairs. I almost missed him when he turned right into the nave which had few candles but beautiful natural light from the windows. He motioned us to the right to an elaborately decorated icon of St. Anna. As a barren elderly woman, she miraculously gave birth to the Mother of God, not unlike Sarah and Elizabeth. As such, she has helped barren Christians conceive for centuries. This icon was adorned with many votive offerings from pilgrims who have received her help in conception: rings, necklaces, embossed silver plates, photos of children, and even a few unburnt beeswax candles shaped like babies (I admit, the candles were a bit creepy). 

I was a bit confused as to the location of the relic; usually these have a shrine. 

After venerating the icon, I turned around to see the monk in priestly vestments, holding the reliquary, and whispering prayers. We approached with awe and fear. As Christ ascended, and took his mother into heaven after her repose, St. Anna is the closest tangible link to Christ's humanity.  This is the foot of his grandmother, whose blood ran through his veins.

The reliquary was a guilded box, with an embossed foot on the top.  Part of the foot was a screen through which the pilgrim may kiss the foot of the grandmother of God. I asked the priest to bless Adrian and my prayer ropes and an icon. He raised the relic in the sign of the cross to bless us before he returned to the sanctuary. He never stopped whispering prayers.

We exited to the narthex, and lit several candles. The priestmonk directed us to sit in the shade in the courtyard. We signed the official guestbook, which made me feel like the census in the days of Caesar with questions such as our hometown and name of our father. We were again given the customary hospitality of turkish delight, ouzo, and water. We spoke with some skeptical pilgrims.  Usually saying that we are Greek Orthodox from Chicago is enough; we were interrogated on which cities in Greece out grandparents were from.  He was satisified when I told him my mother's family is from Russia (but didn't explain the Mennonite part).

We returned in time for vespers, which lasted about an hour and a half.  It was held in a small chapel in the house. The monks were in the small nave (maybe 10x15 feet) and the pilgrims and more monks stood in the narthex. I couldn't see very much through the small door.  The chanting was antiphonal with no ison (drone). A monk (not vested) censed the church with a hand censer and left it on a table in the narthex. Vespers was longer because a canon to the Theotokos was inserted.

A pilgrim beside me was reading the psalms aloud during the service.  A monk approached him, slapped the book from his hands and scolded him saying, "You can't read out loud during the service.  It's distracting."

Immediately after vespers was the evening meal. Half the places were set than were at lunch. I think because it was a fast, the monks only eat one meal a day. The only monks who at dinner were elderly. They each ate only one apple with a knife and fork. The pilgrims were given leftovers from lunch.  After dinner, all the monks assembled for compline (evening prayers) with the Akathist hymn, which lasted maybe half an hour. 

There were four rooms in the guesthouse: one had three teenage brothers from Athens on pilgrimage, one was the cell of a monk, and one was a pilgrim named Nicholas.  The after-dinner conversation was mostly about differences between life in America and Greece. Nicholas was quite fond of Americans and was curious about us and our country.  He had a tattoo of an Indian, bear, and eagle.  He asked Adrian if he was a skinhead, and also asked if many Americans worshipped Satan. He told me I looked like a Greek-American, but Adrian just looked American. Nicholas had many other interesting things to say. He was the one who was distracting the service with his piety. 

The three brothers were hit hard by the economic crisis. Their family is leaving Athens later this summer to return to their ancestral family village. They were lamenting that they will probably never attend college due to lack of money. The monk who shared the house silenced our conversation. It was probably for the best because Orthros at 3:00am came very quickly. The starry sky on the way to church was unlike anything I have ever seen.  Every star was brilliant and the Milky way was the clearest I've ever seen.  Not a single artificial light or sound could be seen or heard.

Orthros was followed by the Divine Liturgy and concluded at dawn between 6:30 and 7:00am.  There was no breakfast for the monks, but the pilgrims were given coffee and some biscuits.  The geronda told us he was also leaving this morning and that he would accompany us to the pier.  The descent would begin at 9:00. His mule delayed his start, but he advised us to begin. The descent was easier to navigate (all the forks open uphill so that there is only one path at the pier), but at the same time, it was much harder on our legs. Sitting on the dock and waiting for the boat was a welcome break. The ferry took us to Daphni, a port on Athos. We were told that customs officers would search our bags to make sure nothing important left. The search was thorough: the officer grazed my backpack with one hand as he told us to hurry up. The ferry from Daphni to Ouranopoli was packed with only men since women are prohibited from visiting Athos. It was a different seeing two mens restrooms side by side.

Adrian and I knew there were more people on the boat than could fit on the bus. We were the first on the pier and quickly made our way to the square, where a bus was waiting.  Unfortunately, it was to Serbia and not Thessaloniki. We say down at a taverna for some lunch. Just as we were ordering, a bus pulled up. "Is that the bus to Thessaloniki?" After a nod, we explained how sorry we were and ran to get our place.  The bus was full between pilgrims and German tourists, who got off at the resorts several miles out of town.

The bus ride to Thessaloniki seemed shorter; there may have been fewer stops, or it may have been psychological.  However, there were no fewer bumps or turns. 

First in Thessaloniki, we went to the train station to check on our train to Athens.  We learned that there was no earlier train, or first class seats. In the train station, we used what is probably the scariest restroom I have ever visited. A photo would give you an idea, but doesn't capture the scope of the graffiti and filth on the walls.

Emerging from the depths, we encountered an incredible sight: a chapel in the middle of the train station.  This chapel was complete with iconography and vaulted ceilings. Travelers were kissing the icons and lighting candles before their journeys.  We wondered if liturgy was ever served here... there was an altar after all.

Since we would be waiting for the train for a while, we hailed a cab to St. Demetrios. He was a high ranking official in the Roman army who confessed Christ and was martyred on 26 October, 306, being run through with spears. Christians buried his relics on the site of his martyrdom in Thessaloniki, and soon built a church on the site. He is known as the "Myrrh-gusher" because his body has miraculously streamed a sweet smelling oil for 1700 years.

We arrived at the ancient five aisled basilica, which contains the relics of St. Demetrios, a St. Bishop Gregory, and a virgin martyr St. Anisia. St. Demetrios is in a silver reliquary in a marble edicule in the north aisle. When I set foot in the edicule, I was overcome with the potent fragrance of the holy myrrh, which filled the space. Flowers and notes with names were scattered around the silver reliquary. I set an icon and my prayer rope on top for the saint to bless.

After venerating the other saints, we waited a few minutes for vespers. After vespers, I boldy approached the priest. I explained I am Greek Orthodox from Chicago... and he finished my sentence, "And you are returning from Agion Oros and you want some of the myrrh. Please sit and wait a minute."  He returned after a few minutes with two cotton balls soaked in frangrant myrrh.  The honor of bringing this precious treasure back to Indiana is humbling.

Our pilgrimage concluded by returning to the train station at 10pm, an hour early for our train to Athens. We went to the chapel to light a candle. To our surprise, we found that indeed there are services in the chapel. To our greater amazement, this chapel in the train station was packed to capacity on a Thursday night. The people were singing along from memory, not unlike my experience at Panagia Rombes. This final memory of our pilgrimage, of a packed chapel in a train station, was most impressive.


  1. Thanks for taking the trouble to share all of this in such detail! I tried for three months to find a way to have John prayed for on Mt. Athos, and would have loved to have the myrrh for him. But the timing is God's, not mine. :)


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