Mount Athos is truly a magical mountain, not in the Thomas Mann sense of the term but rather as a blessed, holy place that speaks volumes to Greeks.
I don’t believe I have ever felt the way I did in the early morning hours, listening to hymns, watching the elderly monks on the benches, observing the younger monks artfully and patiently lighting candles in the chandeliers, in an incense-scented scene of absolute and disciplined beauty. Leaving aside the natural beauty and the few unique interlocutors who leave an indelible mark on visitors, the mountain is a source of inspiration offering an opportunity for recollection.
Mount Athos is various worlds in one. One part, rightly or wrongly, is identified with all the backward elements of modern Greek thinking, ranging from conspiracy theories to the most primitive perceptions of the modern world. But while backward-looking people look and listen to all that matches their bias and theories, those in search of their own balance vis-a-vis a complicated world will find solace in the landscape, the early dawn services and the discussions.
Athos also demonstrates the art of survival. The Church is the oldest political organization in the country and Mount Athos is living proof of how it has managed to overcome historical adversity, catastrophes as well as more ephemeral situations such as government and regime changes. A friend visited one of the barest, most primitive monasteries and saw a photograph of dictator Ioannis Metaxas there. He asked the abbot, “How come you still have a portrait of Metaxas hanging on the wall?” “He was a benefactor to our monastery,” the monk replied. “Sometimes we take longer to hang portraits of rulers, but, more importantly, we take even longer to bring them down.”
Stories of survival and the tactics of those in charge are passed on by word of mouth, from one generation of monks to the next as they continue to support and maintain their traditions. I remember an elderly monk explaining that his monastery had been able to expand thanks to the good will of the Byzantine emperor’s high-ranking secretary. “What today’s young politicians fail to understand is that they will disappear in a few years, but the monastery will still be here long after they’ve gone.” The self-assurance rendered by tradition and survival in the face of adversity is invincible and clearly Mount Athos teaches this unique art.
Athos is a unique heritage which we must protect and safeguard for centuries to come. In the meantime, its current representatives are walking a tightrope as they are called on to distinguish between what is necessary for survival from business and traditions of obscurantism.