In the beginning of May I have spent a few days in one of the most curious places of Europe, pictures cannot capture the experience of being there, full of nature, quietness and mysticism. Unfortunately, strict policies prohibit to take pictures of munks and many holy places, so I give it a try with my own words.

Mount Athos, a peninsula south east of Thessaloniki has been a monastic republic in Greece for more than a millennium. Virgin Mary would have liked the place so much, so she blessed it as her garden and does not allow any other women in her garden. At least, this is story the monks tell us. As a consequence, till date only men are admitted to this piece of earth. Getting in is not easy, especially if you are not an orthodox Christian. Six months beforehand we have arranged our visa for the Holy Mountain.

The first step on the holy soil is a deep dive into an oriental Christian world, a religious time machine full of tradition which mainly focuses on ascetic life full of repentance, prayer and solitude, be it monastic or in an isolated life somewhere else on the isle. Coming from Athens and Thessaloniki, where anarchism and right wing movements are on the rise and politics take place at each and every corner of the street, Mount Athos is maybe close by geographically, but yet in another dimension of reality.

“Virgin Mary’s Garden” attracts pilgrims from the Eastern Orthodox Christian world, the only place where orthodox faith from all countries is united and not divided, the only place where politics do not matter and spirituality and prayer unite all pilgrims. Greeks, Cypriots,

Bulgarians, Romanians, Russians, Moldavians, Albanians, Macedonians, Serbians, Georgians and more come together in fellowship, sharing jokes and prayer. Basically the only woman they kiss is Virgin Mary, her icon is widespread in all monasteries and churches.

Athos gave us permission to stay for three days, monastic communities provide hospitality by offering a bed, breakfast and dinner for a maximum of one night. It allows you to wake up at 4 or 5 am, to pray till about 7.30 and then leave. Many pilgrims continue their journey on foot through the hills and rocky pathways to the next monastery or skite (say: skee-teh), which is a smaller monastic community. Since officially only 100 orthodox Christians an 10 non orthodox men are admitted on a daily basis, one can hike for hours without coming across any other pilgrim.

The French Moldavian Theo, mentioned this visit would contribute to the purification of his soul and spirit. Physical challenge in nature and meditative challenge in church is refreshing his soul and faith and getting him out of the daily life of work, family and marriage. Yes, most of the pilgrims are conservative and solemnly religious, from plumbers to university professors, and some have had a rough life as well. For example one man, end of his thirties, who had two children with different women, Greek and Zambian, in Zambia. After a years of drugs, sex and rock and roll he uses faith ,and pilgrimage to find his inner peace.

Theo summarised his stay: “Repentance and physical challenge to find inner peace. You are one with nature, on the road for a next series of prayers”. Those prayers start at about 17h00, last for 1,5-2 hours, is continued by dinner (meanwhile everyone listens to Bible readings) and afterwards again some icons are used with prayer of another 30 to 60 minutes. The hike, which can be quite exhausting depending on the itinerary you choose, leads to forgotten small paths, to scattered cells and chapels, revealing astonishing panoramas, a landscape which hosts the 20 monasteries of Athos. Those twenty monasteries do naturally fit in the beautiful nature. A feeling of happiness flows through your vains when all of a sudden a huge and beautiful monastery arises in this magical landscape. It could be a place you call home for a night, or the opportunity to drink some water and get some Greek delight which helps you to continue your journey. Also spiritually pilgrims us

e their opportunities. One can choose to pay respect at any monastery and be exposed to the one of the miraculous relics this peninsula provides, be it the hand of St. Nicolas of Myra (Sinterklaas) or some bone of Mary Magdalene, and many more.

Coming from a Latin and Germanic tradition of Christianity, and even more if you are atheist, it is very hard to understand what orthodox faith is all about. You would say, it is clear they believe the same story and serve the same Holy Trinity. However, yet it seems to be so essentially identical and different at the same time. The result is that I still don’t get i

t, but let’s try to share what I have experienced. In 2008 an orthodox priest whom I met while travelling in a Thalys train between Paris and Rotterdam, explained to me that orthodox faith would be less cerebral than catholic and protestant faith, but more about accepting and celebrating the mysticism of Christian faith. Where doctrines and codifications of cerebral understanding dominate western faith, eastern faith is offers a variety of ways to “understand” the mystery. From a Latin perspectives orthodox faith seems to be mastered by doctrines about rituals and eternal repetition which allow orthodox Christians to meditate and endeavour God in their bodies rather than their brains. The sanctity of tradition keeps them close to the Divine. Having this in mind I have tried to observe the monastic life. But still, it is hard to understand. Some things seem to be so superficial. If you make a cross with three fingers (symbol of Holy Trinity) it is “correct”. However, making a cross with two fingers makes you go to hell, as one man from Montenegro has warned me and my friend. Furthermore, kissing icons and relics is a core physical act of orthodox faith, when attending a service in a church. Monks sing out loud psalms and bible texts, studies of church fathers and so on, no musical instruments involved. Although I disliked doing it, out of respect for fellow pilgrims I have kissed numerous icons and relics. Orthodox Christian believe that the saints can help them getting closer to God and heaven.
Whereas rituals are strictly followed, another character seems so shape orthodox faith. It is the lack of strict organisation, of course there is organisation, but not too strict. Monasteries are rather organic than based on a philosophy and or a “rule of life”, basically main rules of living together. They just do it. Services take place and monks walk in and out all the time and it is not never a static event. People kneel down, kiss icons, sit, stand, walk, talk, pray, fall asleep, etc. At the same time the atmosphere is very meditative and mystical. The only thing one should do is surrender, switch off your own thoughts and let the collective prayer your personal prayer, so you don’t use your brains, but simply feel and experience. People are like a little boat floating on an ocean of prayer and meditation, being moved in all kinds of directions by following its waves and streams. This is radically different from western services and traditions where sermons appeal to many individuals in church congregations. Our Greek friend Ioannis who came to the monastery of Iviron, on the east coast of the peninsula, explained how he managed to attend a four hour marathon service of prayer from 4 till 8 am: “You should simply switch off your thoughts and be part of the prayers done by the monks. If you don’t do this, it can be very hard, then it is like sitting in a restaurant for four hours, without eating.”
However, one question still stands, why do people come to Athos what is it about orthodox faith that appeals to them. A real answer has not come across. Regarding Athos, Ioannis explained it gives something special to him. He calls it “charis” (joyful mercy) which give him light and refreshment of his faith. Greek Styrious and Moldavian Theo were fond of the repentance from daily desires to focus on their inner peace. Since thoughts can be often troubling, is it then that inner peace – or God, of you call it like that – that is reached by switching of your brains? Thoughts are often worries, thoughts are often complicating matters. So could it possibly be that orthodox faith allows people to find harmony by being receptive in a different way, by freeing our soul and mind from thinking? I do not have an answer since I know too little about orthodox faith, but should this even be partly true it could teach us a lot. What can we learn from orthodox Christians to find inner peace in western religion, but also on a more societal and cultural level: how do these cultural convictions and characteristics shape democracies, politics and government in, for example, countries like Russia and Greece?
60 hours of Athos felt like a week in another universe. Coming back I have more questions than when arriving. So who knows, I could return one day. In case you are interested (and male) and willing to join in the future to go there, please let me know. A visit will reveal a world which has lasted for more than 1000 years, being unaffected by all political constellations of the past millennium.

Interested to know more about this peculair place? Watch this interesting documentary about Athos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mXl8C4-M_4