When TV's "60 Minutes" visited the legendary Greek monastic island Mount Athos the other night I watched with rapt interest because I found myself so personally involved. Fifty-five years ago as a young Episcopalian deacon I spent an unforgettable month on the island prior to my ordination to the priesthood.What an opportunity. Did I make the best of it and learn important new things about life including my own?
For me this wasn't any kind of singular foray into monastic life and spiritual retreats. I'd become rather accostomed to them over a period of time. In 1953 I stayed three months at the Mt. Calvary retreat house of the monastic Order of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara, California. Afterwards I made a similar and prolonged visit to the Taize Community in rural France. From 1951-54 I lived and studied at the Church Divinity Schooll of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. Shortly afterward I spent two years at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This meant intense participation in these particular religious communities. This combined worship and study and and service is life changing.
The mentors and teachers involved in this process influenced my life immeasurably. Perhaps needless to say, their sheer examples were more productive than anything they taught. For these were role models who imparted a sense of passion about their spiritual vocation. One of my mentors was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr whose celebrated "Serenity Prayer" has been a godsend to us: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
My spiritual pilgrimage to Mount Athos came about as a result of my meeting the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constaninople. He invited me to lunch at his table in Istanbul. An old man, his eyes burned in his parchment dry face. He presented me with his personal invitation to the Mount Athos monasteries of Vatopedi, Coutloumous, Iviron, Great Lavra and Gregorion.
My trip to the island commenced on a bus ride from the city of Salonika to the fishing village of Ierissos. I boarded a small open boat. Sheep, their feet tied together, were carried aboard and placed in the hold. A donkey, forcibly dragged on, stood precariously alongside us. Early morning mists closed in tightly around the island. They slowly lifted to reveal surroulnlding hills as a backdrop for the blue Aegean Sea. Soon the peak of Mount Athos, often called "le petit Everest," appeared. A knapsack over my shoulder was my sole luggage. For the next few weeks I'd travel by donkey and boat around the island.
Visiting the monastery of Vatopedi I saw the sea sweep right up to its gates. I wandered along the beach with its millions of sea-washed and sun-bleached stones. I could see the walled monastery where chimes were now pealing. I looked out upon the open sea. I'll never forget standing there in a rare moment following sunset just when darkness is about to fall.
Later, in the monastery of Gregorion, my last stop, I stood one night on a wooden balcony looking straight down hundreds of feet at waves hurling themselves in unabated fury against the rock and stone base. A few hours later at 5 a.m. a young Orthodox deacon awakened me from sleep. "To church! " he cried. After worship I engaged in a last breakfast consisting of a small loaf of wheat bread, two pieces of goat cheese, a hard-boiled egg, ouzo and a cup of Turkish coffee.
Next I stood in pouring rain waiting for a boat to carry me to the port of Daphni where I'd conclude my visit to Mount Athos. Daphni neatly contrasted hints of intrigue with a cultivated appearance of plainness. Seated in Daphni's country store, which held all the mystery of a diplomatic center, I talked with a former Czarist priest and aristocrat who was now a hermit on Mount Athos. He had friends in the great capitol cities of the world and was an extremely old man who said he'd experienced deep tragedies.
My visit to Mount Athos was a youthful one. It required all my energy and spirit. I met wonderful people who were exceptionally kind to me, a young American on a stalwart pilgrimage. How did I appear to them? Perhaps as the zealous young man I was engaged on a starkly spiritual trek. I hope I didn't appear overly serious without a sense of humor or too stereotyped an "American" in a decidedly sophisticated global setting. Maybe I was exactly whom they expected and welcomed. Maybe I was not. Yet, perhaps best of all, I was able to take a really closer look at the mystery of life. At its heart I found a pervasive simplicity.