Pilgrimage on Mount Athos

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage on Mount Athos
(Thessalonika, Mount Athos)
10-17 November, 2007


As so often happens with a pilgrimage, one must be ready for all sorts of obstacles and changes of plans. This is not only because we are sinners (although this is true, and our sinfulness sometimes does impede blessings). However, it is also because of our intention to try to do what is right and pleasing to the Lord, that the Adversary sends obstacles. Often, especially in the midst of the events, it is not at all easy to discern which is which. Therefore, it is important that we always call to the Lord, and ask for the blessing, and that we not just assume that the blessing is there. Then, doors may open in an expected manner, or there may be significant changes. Always giving thanks to the Lord, we must be ready to accept whatever comes to us, and to glorify Him, regardless, as we live under His protection and that of the Theotokos. One hears frequently of this sort of situation with regard to Spruce Island in Alaska — that one cannot get there from Kodiak (or even on and off Kodiak Island itself) unless the weather permits. This is often understood to be involved with the blessing, or not, of Saint Herman. This is so elsewhere, not just in maritime environments. Also, regardless of attempts to express the experience of a pilgrimage, no-one can manage, really, to put this into words. One can only give a summary suggestion of the experience.

Our flight took us first to Athens, then to Thessalonika (named for the sister of Alexander the Great), where we arrived on mid-Sunday afternoon, 11 November. We would have only the “inside” of a week to make this pilgrimage. Upon arrival, there was just time to find supper, because the eating-places were soon closing. We also discovered that Thessalonika, obviously still a Christian city, has its shops closed on Sundays (and likely on major holy days, also).

For many years, I had hoped to be able to have the blessing to go to the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. In our days, when we think that everything should happen automatically and according to our plans, still, the Lord has ways of showing us the correct perspective. Before we had begun our voyage, we thought we had made sufficient provision for the fact that our pilgrim-group of eight was larger than the usual maximum size of five. So it was that, although we had arranged according to the correct manner for approaching the Holy Mountain, we began on our first morning to encounter the application of the saying : “Man proposes ; God disposes”.

We arose very early on Monday, 12 November, as expected. However, on arriving at the bus-station, we found that the bus we had expected to take us to Ouranopolis was cancelled. When we finally did arrive in this little village, we found (after some searching) the Pilgrimage Office. There, they had no record of our group, although they eventually did issue the travel documents for the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos is an autonomous Monastic Republic within Greece). Having received these, we were told that the weather was too poor for any boats to travel that day. The wind was very strong, and the waves were too high for safe navigation and, in particular, safe docking. Therefore, we had time to walk about in the village, to eat, to talk, to rest. In the course of this walking and eating, to our surprise, we encountered many Russian-speakers and a bus of pilgrims from Moscow. Thanks to these Russians, we were able to find an available hotel and to spend the night there, because there is no place available to help pilgrims in this situation. There, we met Russian and Moldovan pilgrims, also. We were given all sorts of advice on how to maximise our experience of the monasteries during our short time on the Holy Mountain. Even before we embarked, instead of a simple two-monastery visit, we were beginning a multi-monastery visit.

Then we were driven to Karyes, to the Skete of Saint Andrew, which is very much under reconstruction. Its buildings are nevertheless beautiful. This, and other monastic buildings are often quite large, reflecting past very large populations. Father Ephrem, who greeted us there, reminded us that living in larger communities does not often work very well with western, modern man, because we are so used to living to and for ourselves. We cannot easily live with many persons and easily get along with them, and at the same time only see the spiritual father infrequently because of these numbers. He expressed the hope that future pilgrims from Canada would go to visit Saint Andrew’s. He expressed the readiness of this community also to pray for people if requests are sent.

We then visited the Protaton (the first, or main monastery), and the Icon Aksios estin (it is truly meet). The Protaton has all sorts of scaffolding, inside and out, because of renovation. Karyes is a sort of “centre” for the Holy Mountain, often called its “capital”, and there are some monastically-operated shops there. Then we proceeded to Pantocrator Monastery. When I write like this, it seems to make it seem to be a rather easy operation. Not so. Historically, until recently, people went to the monasteries by foot, by boat, or by donkey. Now, with roads, vehicles of various sizes are used more often. However, the roads are very difficult and some require special vehicles. In the Temples of the monasteries, we always met a monk who had enough English ability to tell us something about the monastery and its wonder-working icons and its relics. Sometimes, if the priests were available, we were able to venerate the holy relics that were not generally available to persons arriving. Because of the long history of some monasteries and their “proximity” to Constantinople and to Thessalonika, there are many relics of well-known saints from early times. After Pantokrator, we went to the Prophet Elias Skete nearby, and then we went to Stavronikita and finally to Iveron.

At Iveron, we joined in with Vespers, Paraklesis (in the chapel of the Portaitissa Icon of the Theotokos), supper and Compline (with Akathist). As we progressed, we were informed about the inter-connected histories of these monasteries. This is so, even in these days. The renewal of the life of these communities has been enabled by the movement of groups of monks from one community to another. In this case, Iveron was revived by the arrival of monks from Stavronikita. The communities are all repairing their buildings, and the spiritual life is now strong and the monks are again becoming very numerous. Some communities, like Vatopedi, now number about 100 in the main community. Besides this, there are many more living in dependent communities nearby. Iveron Monastery, which was founded by Georgians, is one of the three oldest monasteries. Its wonderworking icon, the Portaitissa, is a well-known wonder-working icon which is considered to be the protectress of the whole Holy Mountain. The Portaitissa Icon is represented in Moscow in Red Square in the Ivirsakaya Chapel. As was noted by one monk, although women do not enter the Holy Mountain, it is a woman, the Mother of God, who is its Protectress, and who is the most significant personality of the whole peninsula. It must be understood that the Mother of God is considered to be the abbess of each monastery. This monastery is also the home of the now-retired Archimandrite Vasilios, the writer, whose works are being published by our Dr. John Hadjinicolaou and Alexander Press of Montréal.

The next day, Wednesday, 14 November, after 0230 hrs, we could join the services of Midnight Hour, Matins, Hours, and Divine Liturgy. It was the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian and of Saints James, James, and Dionysius of Iveron. At the end of Matins, we were able to venerate the relics of each of these saints. On ordinary days and lesser feasts, Divine Liturgies are in the chapels, not the main Temple. Everything is served fully, in order and peacefully. Nevertheless, we were told that as many as 200 persons per day visit this monastery and ask to venerate the Icon of the Portaitissa. It was now raining significantly, and later in the morning we were helped to get to Karyes, where we had to take the large bus to Daphne, whence we had to take the boat to the Monastery of Saint Panteleimon. Once we arrived, the father in charge of guests gave us a short tour of the older main Temple, built after 1812. After this, he took us to the Reception Room for a cup of coffee, and he showed us to our rooms. Then we went to the upper, larger Temple, built at the turn of the 20th century, which could accommodate the 2,000 monks then living in this monastery. We venerated their many precious relics, which included those of the Forerunner, several apostles, many other well-known saints, including relics of most of the Unmercenary Healers, Saint Panteleimon, some more recent saints glorified in Russia, and of course, the Head of Saint Silouan. The present history of Saint Panteleimon is dated from the 19th century. Going back 900 years, however, it has very old roots in other small communities on the same site.

The clock of the monastery reminded us that the Holy Mountain operates on the old Christian time scheme, which followed that of the Scriptures : the day begins with sunset. There are twelve hours of the night, and twelve of the day, which are governed by the sunset. As a result, we were serving the Ninth Hour and Vespers at what appeared to be 1400 hrs, and Compline with Akathist at what appeared to be 1700 hrs. At 0800 hrs Old Time (0100 hrs civil time), we were beginning the Midnight Hour, followed by Matins, the three Hours, and the Divine Liturgy. All this was two hours later at Iveron. Nevertheless, the whole schedule is the same, and the general physical effect on us was one of an extra seven hours’ time-difference from Montréal, and much more “jet-lag”.

On Thursday, 15 November, after the end of the Divine Liturgy, there was a short rest, and we then went to the trapeza (refectory). After this, we were informed that the winds were too strong and the waves too high, and that our boat to Ouranopolis would therefore not arrive at the dock. Therefore, we had time to visit the Vicar-Abbot, and to discuss how better to encourage visits from abroad.

We were guided to the cemetery, which we visited, and then to the charnel-house Temple of All Saints, where more than 2,000 heads and other bones of departed monks are resting. We had it explained to us, also, that the colour of the bones is one indication of sanctity (or not). We were also told that the three-year exhumation custom on the Holy Mountain is primarily because of the very poor and limited soil on the peninsula. Nevertheless, this same custom is followed in very many places throughout Greece. (Greeks who have reposed relatives in Greece often are required to travel there for the exhumation of some relative.)

After this, there was time for rest, before beginning again the schedule of services. We had already had the blessing of participating in two complete monastic cycles of worship, one in Greek, the second in Slavonic. None of us was, of course, used to such long periods in church, even if we have plenty of experience otherwise. In the end, the winds did not subside, and so we were blessed with a third cycle of services.

Early on the final morning, Friday, 16 November, with the pooling of money, it was arranged that a small, fast boat come from Ouranopolis to collect us specially, since the sea was moderate, but in danger of increasing activity. Autumn is a windy time of the year, with fast changes in weather. That we were able to accomplish this, we take to be thanks to the help and protection of the Mother of God and the prayers of Saint Nicholas. We arrived in Ouranopolis via Daphne quite quickly, and then we went by mini-bus to Thessalonika (a cheaper option for many people travelling together, with several stops required — however there is nothing inexpensive about travelling in Greece on the Euro). Near Thessalonika, we stopped in at the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s Monastery of Saint Anastasia (fourth-century Great Virgin Martyr), and we venerated her relics there. In the 4th century, these relics rested in a Temple in Thessalonika. We also were able to venerate the relics of Saint Theonas, the sixteenth-century Archbishop of Thessalonika, whose uncorrupt body rests there. It was moving to see two women approaching the relics of Saint Theonas. They ascended the stairs to the Temple on their hands-and-knees, and then they moved on their knees the whole way through the Temple to the iconostasis, at the south side of which is the reliquary.

We got to Thessalonika in mid-afternoon, and we were greeted by heavy traffic. Construction of a subway contributed to this congestion. After arriving at our hotel and taking a brief rest, we were collected again and taken to venerate the aromatic relics of Saint Demetrios, the Great Martyr (†306), in the basilica dedicated to his memory. There, we venerated also the relics of the Martyr Anysia of Thessalonika (†298). We also venerated the relics of the Archbishop of Thessalonika, Saint Gregory Palamas (†1359), in the Temple named for him. Then we visited the historic Temple of Hagia Sophia, named for the Martyr Sophia and her three children (†137). In this Temple, also, are the relics of the tenth-century Archbishop of Thessalonika, Saint Basil Homologites. There were official visits that we intended to have made, but they were impossible because of our late arrival. Nevertheless, it was a very blessed day, blessed in ways we could not have expected — even though it was not according to plan. I have always found that any plan made regarding a pilgrimage in particular, has to be very flexible because things are always changing. In this case (through our own Russian-speaking participants’ simple conversations with people), the changes had also to do with the unexpected encounter with various Russian-speakers in every place, who seemed to be sent to help us at difficult moments : they were on the spot at the needed moments, even if the change in plan often cost extra money. The Lord always knows how to care for us. The Mother of God is always taking care of us. The prayers of various saints are supporting us. In the end, we have to say “God is with us...”.

Early on Saturday, 17 November, despite trepidation about possible strikes, we embarked for Canada, and we arrived in the late afternoon (including the time required for a transfer), in time for being able to serve on Sunday.

Everywhere we visited, we were told that not very many pilgrims arrive from North America, and very few, indeed, from Canada. Instead, very many come from former Soviet countries and from Australia, Germany, Austria, and Britain. It is true that it is not an easy thing to make such a pilgrimage, and it is true that we have now many more monasteries close by in North America. It is true that it is an expensive undertaking to travel in territory governed by the Euro. It is nevertheless worth trying to gather the resources, to make the connexions as possible (even by computer now), and to go. We have the resources in Canada to give suggestions as to how to go about this, and there is computer information on the internet, as well. In our Archdiocese of Canada, Dr. John Hadjinicolaou can give a person some suggestions, as can Fathers Luke (Majoros), and Pierre (Vachon), and perhaps Father Cyprian Hutcheon. There are others. If one is a clergyman, the travel requires getting specific permission from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it requires a letter both from the diocesan bishop, and the bishop of the Greek Orthodox Diocese (in this case, Metropolitan Sotirios, the Patriarchal Exarch for Canada). Lay-persons can go for three nights (as a beginning), and perhaps then acquire an extension through the office in Karyes. There are many other monasteries in the areas of Chalkidiki and Macedonia, which can be visited in addition to the Holy Mountain. Most important, it is better not to travel as we did, with a short time available and with tight schedules ; but rather, to travel with enough time on either side of the projected arrival and departure times, so that one can allow for weather, or possible extended stays.

Again, the blessing is worth the expenditure. It is time for us in North America to start again to visit these places of refreshment and examples of the Christian way-of-life. Over fifty years ago, when travel was more difficult, Canadian believers did take the trouble to make such pilgrimages and to maintain contact with these monasteries. I remember myself encountering persons who did this. These communities are ready and willing to have correspondence with us and to pray for us. It is a spiritual struggle to make a pilgrimage, but the blessings that come are important, and the experience can help us to grow in Christ, to whom be glory unto the ages.