This past summer, I was blessed to spend four days on Mount Athos. The pilgrimage was organized by Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a national college student ministry. Mount Athos, often referred to as the Holy Mountain, is a peninsula in Northern Greece dedicated solely to monasteries. According to Athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary, sailing to Cyprus with St. John the Evangelist, was blown off course and landed on the peninsula. Overwhelmed by its natural beauty, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice replied saying, “let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”. The peninsula is known to have a Christian presence for the last 1,800 years and historical monastic traditions dating back to 800 A.D. It is currently home to twenty monasteries, twelve sketes, which are smaller monastic communities, and individual cells scattered among the wilderness, where monks live in isolation.
We stayed at Xenophontos monastery, dedicated to St. George the Trophy-bearer. It was founded in 998 A.D. The monastery sits on the coastline with mountains in the backdrop. Built with castle-like walls, it is a fortress of prayer and peace. Two churches stand in the center of the monastery, representing the heart, or center of life at the monastery. One church was so old that some icons on its stone walls had been defaced by invading Ottomans and pirates. Although rich with artifacts and history, Mount Athos is anything but a stagnant museum; it is a peninsula with a ceaseless mission, to pray constantly for all of humanity and to assist pilgrims on their spiritual journey.
Our day started with church services at 4:30 AM. Walking to church in the middle of the night, I felt like we had traveled back in time when Christians worshiped secretly at night to escape Roman persecution. Starting the full liturgical cycle with the Hours services, and then Orthros (Matins) and Divine Liturgy, morning services concluded around 9 AM. These long hours in church were anything but painful. They were moments of peace and serenity, captivated by melodious chanting. Before the sun rose, we could hardly see the icons on the iconostasis (icon screen in Orthodox Churches), but as dawn broke, the golden iconostasis was illuminated by beams of sunlight. It was a breath-taking moment.
I felt as if we were at the center of the universe; nothing outside of the church building mattered at that moment. This level of devotion and concentration emanated from the monks. Their entire way of life epitomizes the laying aside of earthly cares. Breakfast followed Divine Liturgy. We ate in silence while a monk read aloud a story on the life of a saint. After breakfast, the monks worked, gardening, cooking, painting icons, and we visited other monasteries. Finally, we returned to the monastery for evening services and dinner. Everything at the monastery was structured. From when to attend church, eat, work, and relax, it reminded me of the ironic truth that in structure and obedience to Christ we find freedom.
At the monastery we had a chance to visit the ossuary, a building used to house the bones of deceased monks. I felt a presence there, one of grace and peace. A monk explained this was the grace the deceased monks acquired while alive and left behind in their bones. It shows the very real connection between body and soul. He also pointed out how all the skulls looked the same. No matter who the monks were in life, they all looked the same now. This was a sobering reminder that the same fate, death, awaits us all, and that we shouldn’t focus on earthly things which pass away.
We were very fortunate to speak with the abbot, or head monk, of the monastery. He shared wisdom with us and answered our questions. I will relay some of his messages to you.
The abbot was keenly aware of our struggles as college students and the challenges of living in the twenty-first century. Technology gives us access to ample information and communication, but it has also created new challenges and dangers. The abbot pointed this out saying, “we think we can find happiness through technology, and it has its good uses, it requires self-control.” I can personally relate to this. My phone is an incredible distraction. I’ve caught myself scrolling endlessly on social media. Technology can distract us from our schoolwork, those around us, prayer, or even our relationship with God. Social media can make us feel horrible about ourselves, if we compare ourselves to the flawless pictures posted. I am not advocating the absence of technology, just to be more aware of how much we use it and in what way. Are we using it in search of happiness? Genuine “joy, peace, hope and love all come from Christ” said the abbot. It amazed me how calm, peaceful and joyful the monks were. Their traits certainly demonstrate the effect of prayer, fasting, and a Christ-centered life.
Rest is also difficult to find in our day and age. Through technology, we can work anywhere and at any time. Burn-out and feeling overwhelmed is common among students. The abbot reminded us that, “similar to how we seek relaxation when our body is tired, when you’re spiritually tired, seek relaxation through prayer and confession.” When stressed, we should seek spiritual relaxation. Attending OCF or Campus Ministry retreats have certainly helped me manage the semester workload. It feels counterintuitive to spend an entire weekend at a retreat instead of studying, but it’s always worth it. I come back spiritually renewed, and energized to take on schoolwork. In times of spiritual exhaustion, turn to the Lord. As the abbot continued, “put Christ ahead of your difficulties, because He’s always present. Through Christ the impossible is possible. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The abbot told this encouraging story about praying amidst busy schedules and everyday tasks.
One day a man was visited by an angel. The angel asked the man why he didn’t pray. The man replied, “because in the morning I am too busy. Before I go to work, I must make breakfast, get dressed, and brush my teeth. I have no time”. The angel told him to pray while doing these things.
Prayer does not have to be complicated. It can be a simple “Lord give me strength” or “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” while washing the dishes. Thinking of God in your daily life is prayer. The abbot also instructed us to “love God and love your neighbor. You love God by being obedient to His will, and you love your neighbor by understanding and forgiving.” Life is very complicated, but by focusing on these two things, we can start to simplify it and our relationships with others.
The abbot then shared some advice on the spiritual struggles with sin. He said, “there are two ways to ignore thoughts. First, do not open a dialogue with them, and second, participate in prayers to calm the thought coming up inside.” Temptations start as a thought. By calling on God and asking for His assistance, we can ignore our thoughts and resist temptation. He also stated, “our ego prevents progress in our spiritual life”, and “with sins we repeat, continue to confess and do not lose hope.”
Finally, I asked the abbot what to do if you feel like you’re just going through the motions of prayer, because sometimes while praying I am just not “into it” like I am other times. He said, “don’t be discouraged, because just like when eating food, you don’t have to be thinking about food for it to still nourish you.” This was very encouraging. While the abbot spoke to us, he continued to pray on a prayer rope. When one of us asked how he is able to talk and pray at the same time; he smiled and lightheartedly asked how we are able to talk and breathe. He explained that the condition of his heart – where there is remembrance that God is with us – allows him to pray constantly.
I cannot thank the monks and everyone that made the trip possible enough. Glory to God! It was an experience I’ll never forget. After visiting the monastery, I felt spiritually renewed, far more relaxed and refreshed than after a beach vacation. College is a great time to take advantage of trips through Seton Hall’s Campus Ministry or OCF. If you have never visited a monastery, I implore you to do so. There are many right here in the United States. We can even use this time of COVID-19 to contemplate the Abbot’s advice and cultivate our prayer life. We can all find the same spirit of peace and joy that is present at monasteries, in our own homes, “for indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).