Heaven amid political storm

MOUNT ATHOS – A dozen black-robed monks chant in the gloom of a candle-lit chapel as sunset brings a new day to Greece’s 1,000-year-old monastic community of Mount Athos. «Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison,» sing the deep voices of the monks beneath the gaze of frescoed saints in the fortress-like Vatopedi monastery, one of 20 on the Holy Mountain where life’s routine has changed little since Medieval times. A bearded monk carries out the monastery’s relics – the Holy Girdle of the Virgin Mary, the preserved ear of Saint John Chrysostom, a piece of Saint Gregory’s skull – and a handful of pilgrims file past to kiss their silver reliquaries. «These relics have performed countless miracles,» said Michael Savko, whose eyes redden as the 62-year-old from Los Angeles told how oil from one of the chapel’s lamps helped cure his colon cancer. «For a Western mind, it’s hard to believe.» Mount Athos is like nowhere on earth. Despite protests from the European Parliament, women are still banned from the rugged 300 square kilometer (115.8 square mile) peninsula, dedicated to the Virgin Mary since 1060. Even female livestock are forbidden. Only cats are allowed, preening themselves in the sun in the quiet courtyards of the monasteries. Hens are kept for their eggs, which monks use for cooking and to mix paint for their icons. Athos still uses the Medieval Julian calendar, running 13 days behind the modern Gregorian one. Days begin at sunset with vespers and after a few hours sleep, prayers restart at 3 a.m. Side-by-side, clocks show what time it is both on Athos and the outside world. «Are you Orthodox?» is often the first question a monk will ask a non-Greek visitor. Confessing that you’re a Roman Catholic can be met with everything from smiles to stony silence. Memories are long here. Monks still talk heatedly of the «Great Schism» when Pope Leo excommunicated the head of the Orthodox church in 1056, leaving Constantinople prey to plundering Crusaders and Ottoman invaders. Only a few thousand pilgrims may enter each year and a maximum of 10 non-Orthodox are permitted daily – Britain’s Prince Charles is a regular visitor. Border controls are strict. Access is by boat for those with a special visa, known as a diamoneterion. Old meets new The second most holy site for the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians after Jerusalem, Mount Athos is in the eye of a political storm threatening to topple Greece’s government. Vatopedi monastery is alleged to have made millions of euros (dollars) from a land deal with the state that has prompted two ministers to resign. Having survived earthquakes, pirates, and 400 years of Muslim rule, the monks have been unperturbed by the scandal and vowed to go to the European court if the deal is overturned. «In modern Greece, there is a lack of understanding of the value of the monastic way of life,» said Brother Matthew, an American monk at Vatopedi. «The aim of our lives here is prayer and to remove everything that separates us from God.» Over the centuries, the monks have gathered a trove of priceless objects that rank among the world’s outstanding collections, including an estimated 20,000 icons and 15,000 manuscripts, jewelled chalices, crucifixes, and embroidery. Work in cataloguing them is expected to take decades. Once, monasteries thrived across Europe and the Middle East but the rise of materialism in the West and Islam across the swathes of the Levant has brought the tradition to its knees. On Athos, however, monasticism is thriving: most of the monasteries are undertaking major renovations and there are many young monks from around the world. Having dwindled to around 1,000 in the 1970s, its population has since doubled. «Once you have come to this place, you can never forget it,» said Brother Paul, a young Australian who recited prayers as he cleaned a staircase. «I have only been here seven years, nothing really. I never want to leave.» There are some trappings of modernity on Mount Athos. Pilgrim’s mobile phones ring in services and monasteries now have electricity, e-mail and the Internet. Black-robed monks fish in powerboats off the coast and ride four-by-fours across the few rocky roads cut through the Mediterranean oak forests. «If you want to preserve the spirituality of this place, don’t tell people how to get here!» said Brother Stephanos. Culinary pilgrimage Despite the absence of a hospital, studies show life expectancy for Athonite monks is among the highest in the world. The incidence of illnesses like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s is practically zero. While some monks attribute this to divine grace, doctors credit the peaceful lifestyle and healthy diet, which features no red meat and plenty of fresh fruit and homegrown vegetables. Mount Athos is certainly a culinary pilgrimage and many books have been written about the monks’ tasty recipes. Arriving after a five-hour walk at the cliff-top monastery of Grigoriou overlooking a tranquil bay, monks hand out bowls of Turkish Delight and glasses of aniseed firewater known as tsipouro – their way of reviving exhausted travellers. «Are you hungry?» one smiling monk asked before serving up delicious vegetarian pasta, tomatoes, apples, and homemade wine – which flowed again at «lunch» at 8 a.m. the next morning. But some monks abandon even these simple comforts. «People live up there,» said Brother Stephanos, gesturing to hermits’ shacks high on a sheer cliff-face overlooking the dark waters of the Aegean. «The only problem is they can’t get the phone company to install telephone lines.»