Journey to Mt Athos Part Two

An excerpt from "Spearfishing in Skatahori" by Matt Barrett
Continued from Mount Athos Part 1

We reached the monastery of Saint Pantokratoras around noon. It sat on a rocky hill overlooking the sea and there was a small gazebo-like structure that we hung out in before entering the monastery. We were met by a very old monk who asked us if we wanted to see the treasures. I don't think we cared whether we saw the treasures or not, but the old man seemed so proud of them that we agreed. He told us that the monk with the key was not there but we could wait in this room until he got back. We half-heartedly agreed and he led us into a room, turned around and locked the door behind us.

I for one did not mind that we were now prisoners. I could take this time to write in my journal (which I lost anyway) and reflect on our experiences. Godfrey on the other hand did not like being locked up and began pacing the floor and then voicing his displeasure. I was irritated by his inflexibility, yet I could see his point. There was no reason for us to be prisoners. All we wanted was to see the treasures and we only wanted to see them to be nice. It was very Kafkaesque.

Luckily for us there was a monk next door to us in the kitchen, fixing lunch and he heard us banging and let us out. I told him what had happened and he shrugged his shoulders. "Crazy old man", he said.

I talked to him while he cooked and he told me a few things about the history of the monastery. It was founded by two Byzantine nobles in the middle of the fourteenth century and at one time housed over two hundred monks, most of them Russian. We spoke about other things and I noticed a framed portrait of John F Kennedy. He saw me looking at it and said in English, "A great man". Once again I was caught off guard. "You speak English?"

"Sure I do. I've been to America many times. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York. I was a cook in the merchant marines."

I thought about it. I thought of myself as a spiritual seeker, but really what had I done besides read a few books and meditate here and there and do a little yoga before moving on to the next thing? I didn't have the hunger for God or understanding that these guys had. Perhaps there was some unseen force guiding me in the search for the spirit, but not with the commitment of this monk I was speaking to who, after traveling the world as a sailor, tasting life and deciding he wanted something more than the transitory pleasures of the flesh, had devoted himself to the pursuit of peace and inner truth. Who was I but some kid from the suburbs who saw religion as a new high with no apparent dangerous side effects and my relationship to God as proof that I really was a cool guy. In that brief shining moment I felt really stupid.

The old monk finally came back with the key and took us in to the church to see the treasures. We oohed and aahed at the gold inlayed crosses and the thousand year old painted wooden icons and the bones of deceased spiritual leaders and holy men, but it was kind of wasted on us. To tell you the truth, I can't remember what anything he showed us looked like.

We were told by the monk-cook that to find my cousin we would have to go to Karyes and ask. He was pretty sure that the Kellion he was living in was called Maroula and was close to the town. Someone would know.

We set out on the dirt road that connected the monastery to the town. It was pretty much uphill but we were feeling energetic and didn't stop until we met a young monk coming from the opposite direction. We told him we were on our way to Karyes to find my cousin, Father Theodore. "I know him. He lives in the hills above Karyes. You are very close". We asked where he was going. "I'm going for a swim. I do this everyday." I couldn't even imagine a monk swimming. What do they wear? Black bathing trunks? I would have asked him but he was already on his way downthe road.

In Karyes we were given instructions and in my usual manner I kept nodding my head long after I had stopped understanding, so it was not long before we were lost in the woods. Finally we came upon a little house with the most beautiful garden I had ever seen. We entered the gate and were met by a monk who could have gotten the job as Santa Claus at any department store in America. He showed us his garden, which he was very proud of, in fact devoted to. He gave us Tsipuro and we told him about America and he recommended we give up our worldly ways and stay on the mountain. After getting directions we said good-bye and set off down the road, still looking for the small path that would lead us through the forest to my cousin George at Kellion Maroula.

I should tell you about my cousin. His family name was George Econopouly and he was from Huntington Station, Long Island. He was my mom's favorite nephew and would come to our house to stay weekends. They would talk and listen to Bob Dylan and he would sneak out to the far corner of our yard for a cigarette. In 1967; during the May Day student strikes, George stood in front of his school with a sign telling the United States to get out of Vietnam. Under instructions from the coach, he was beaten up by the football team and then suspended from school. It was even in the papers. I remember reading it and feeling very proud of my cousin.

He never went back to school and a short while later he left home. He drifted around New York and out to California and back to the East coast. He joined a group headed by Timothy Leary and was the "Keeper of the Sacred Tablets." He broke contact with everyone and we just heard rumors. Someone had heard his name called over the loudspeakers at Woodstock. Someone said he was in a commune in New England and left because everyone just wanted to sit around and get high.

The story is that while he was in Boston, he saw my grandmother in a dream and she told him to go to an address in Brookline. It was the Greek-Orthodox Seminary, and since that day he has been a monk.

I had seen him once in New York. He was the cook for the Archbishop at a Russian Monastery on the upper East side. It was the center of the Russian Orthodox church because the church within Russia supposedly was under KGB control. I was visiting my ex-girlfriend Robin and sleeping on her couch a couple blocks away when I found out he was there. We spent the afternoon drinking vodka and eating canned sardines and oysters with a bunch of Russian monks. It was one of the greatest days of my life.

Ten years later we were together on a mountain top in one of the most sacred places on the planet. He spotted us as we walked out of the woods and over to where he was working in the fields. His first words were, "Hey, I know you."

Godfrey and I spent the next two days with my cousin George, now known as Father Theodore, and the other monk who lived in the house whose name was Father Nicholas. He was Russian but had lived most of his life in Chicago.

We sat in the kitchen and talked and drank their home made wine and ate fried potatoes and spaghetti. It was still early in the growing season so there were very few vegetables to eat and no money to buy them. But it didn't matter. We spent lots of time reminiscing about our childhood, which was pretty boring for Godfrey, but eventually got to some topics that we all could relate to, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Armageddon(not the band). He told us stories of the mountain, about why they keep the doors to the monasteries locked. He said there are demons and evil spirits that are there to tempt the monks. He told us of a monk who opened his door to find Satan standing before him, in disguise of course, and how the monk leaped upon Satan and started strangling him.

"Are you sure it wasn't a salesman?" I asked.

"No, because when he released him the flesh on his hands was seared."

He told us other more practical things like how wolves come down from Bulgaria when the winters get really cold. When a monk kills a wolf, they hang the carcass in the town and anyone who owns a mule gives the monk fifteen thousand drachma, the idea being it would cost them much more if this particular wolf had killed their mule. It seemed like a great idea and I considered becoming a wolf hunter, but then remembered it would go against my vegetarian philosophy.

He told us there were snakes as big as telephone poles.

He told us that the Greek Government wanted to take over the Holy Mountain and turn it into a big museum with hotels and a casino.

I asked his interpretation of the number 666. Purely from a monk's standpoint, of course. He believed it represented the bar codes that exist on almost every product in America. He thought that one day everyone would have one of those marks tattooed on them and that's how the anti-Christ would know where you are and what you are doing. That made sense.

But there was very little seriousness up there on the holy mountain those two days and nights. There we were, four guys, two of them monks, having a great time, drinking wine. Eating spagetti with cheese and french fried potatoes. And at no time did I ever think, "Golly this is great but I wish there were some women around". Mount Athos is the most elite boys club in the world.

I asked my cousin about staying healthy on the mountain. It seemed such an ideal setting for a natural lifestyle, but he admitted that his health was not good. He and many of the monks had ulcers, which I found hard to believe. What was there to worry about? No bills, no girlfriends. One's fate was entirely in the hands of God.

He explained it to me." Monastic life is not meant to be a vacation. We are not exchanging one set of earthly pleasures for another. We believe that there is a path to God through denial and suffering. The reason for the ulcers has to do with our eating habits. In the large monasteries we all sit down together while one monk stands at the head of the table with a book of scripture. When he starts reading we can start eating and when he stops, we have to stop. It's not what you would call leisurely. The faster he reads, the faster we eat.

But we are not eating to enjoy the taste. We are eating to sustain the body to render service to God."

"And you have the most beautiful water in the world and yet no monks swim, with the exception of the young guy we met on the road," I said.

"Yes." Said Father Theodore. "I know him. He's a little eccentric"

My favorite room was in the basement. Godfrey discovered it on a trip to the bathroom. In it were the skulls of every monk who has ever lived in the Kellion Maroula lined up row after row on shelves. Someday my cousin's would be there.

Finally it was time to go. I don't remember doing much besides sitting around that table talking. Godfrey and I discussed it. We could have hiked around the peninsula and taken in as many sights as we could in those four days, but we both agreed that the experience of hanging out with these two monks, high in the hills, away from the other monasteries, was the way to do it . It was a unique experience that would not be available to many other people. We also agreed that to do it right we would need more then 4 days.

My cousin told us to stay. "They're not going to do anything to you. The only time they know you've stayed too long is when you are leaving and they check your passport. What are they gonna do then? You're leaving anyway."

It made sense, but something in me wanted to go. Something in me wanted to spend my time on Sifnos, meeting Scandinavian girls getting drunk and making love on the beach, playing guitar, riding motorcycles and playing basketball. The spiritual life was pretty cool, from my perspective, but at that point in my life I was more interested in immediate rewards, not the hereafter.

So we left. We walked with my cousin back to Karyes where we caught the bus to Daphne. I remember waving good-bye and wondering if I would ever see him before he was one of those skulls in that basement room.

When we got to the boat we were greeted by the same mad scene as when we arrived. We noticed in the crowd a Greek-American guy around our age speaking to a young red haired monk. I made friends with them on the boat. The Greek-American's name was Nick and he turned out to be a friend of my friend Dino, from Boston college. The monk was named Tom. He was an Irish Catholic from Chicago who came up to Mount Athos to check it out and ended up staying for a year. He started telling us about his experiences in an exuberant way.

"Oh, man, some of these Holy Fathers are heavy. I mean they do miracles, you know, like some of those Eastern gurus".

I imagined my cousin many years before when he first arrived fresh from the sixties. Tom kept on talking and we listened and asked him questions about his life on Athos.

When we got to Ouranopoulos he confided in us, "I'm a little nervous. I haven't been off the mountain in over a year. I don't know what to expect."

Poor Father Thomas was in shock when we got off the boast in the real world. "Look at these women. They're trying to seduce us. Look at their clothes. Look at their lips." He was yelling and we had to quiet him down. I could see his point but somehow it didn't bother me the way it did him. Gradually he adjusted and we all took the bus to Thessaloniki for a real taste of Babylon.

Thomas had some bureaucratic nonsense to deal with but all the offices were closed by the time we arrived so he decided to hang with us. Godfrey and I had made up our minds to take the midnight train back to Athens after we found out all the flights were booked. We found a chicken restaurant and started eating, talking and drinking. It wasn't long before Father Tom was drunk. He kept talking about the mountain and his Holy Father's miracles and the women that walked by, and how drunk he was.

"I'm a shitty monk", he cried.

Finally it was time to go. "Don't leave!" said Father Tom. "I'm having such a good time."

"If we stay any longer, Father Thomas, you'll never go back to the monastery. I think we've corrupted you enough."

We left him waving a tearful good-bye to us on the platform of the Thessaloniki train station..

We were crammed into a compartment for six, with eight other people. Seven of them were soldiers on their way back to basic training in Larissa. In fact the train was completely full of soldiers. The one other non-military inhabitant of our compartment was a Greek kid who lived in Brussels. As the train started to leave the station he and Godfrey decided to make a mad dash to the concession stand for a bottle of ouzo. They made it back to the cheers of the soldiers as the train was beginning to pick up speed.

I felt anti-social and exhausted, so I climbed up into the luggage rack where I thought I would be left alone. I woke up to the sound of the gnashing of teeth, like a wild animal had gotten loose in the compartment. All hell was breaking loose but it was no demon. It was Godfrey. He had finished his bottle of ouzo and was crawling all over everybody, howling and laughing, completely out of control. There was nothing anybody could do but wait until he ran out of steam and passed out. When he spotted me up in the luggage rack it jarred something in his memory and he started trying to climb the walls to get up there with me, stepping on the young soldiers heads, causing cries of anguish that brought a crowd of people to the compartment door to see what was going on. I had to push him back to keep him out of my little nest. He fell back on top of the soldiers, who took it all good naturedly. When I woke up again he was fast asleep, his head on the shoulder of a young corporal.

The next morning came soon for me, but a lot sooner for poor Godfrey. He was still drunk. I had to tie his shoes. I had to put his knapsack on his back. I had to lead him off the train and through the crowd. Then I lost him. I had to double back, find him and wake him up. He had fallen asleep leaning against a trashcan. When we made it out to the street there were no taxis to be found. Every time I left Godfrey to try to hail one, he would crawl off somewhere and go to sleep. We finally found a cab and took it to Godfrey's hotel where I left him at the check-in counter while I went to my room at Andrea's house in the Plaka.

When I came to find him that night he was gone. Not only that, he had never checked in. I could not even imagine what had happened to him. Where could he have gone? It was a mystery that would go unsolved for when he turned up 3 days later, fully recuperated, he had absolutely no idea about what he had done that morning, or on the train, or even why he never got past the desk in the hotel lobby.

We didn't see each other again until we met up on the island of Sifnos. He was with a Swiss guy named Andy. They had met in Tinos and shared an interest in alternative music and had become friends. They were sitting in a cafe on the beach but were going into town to rent motorbikes so they could see the other side of the island.

An hour later they were sitting in the same place. But this time Godfrey was covered in orange mercurochrome and bandages.

"I had an accident", he said, pointing to his bandaged head.

"How did it happen?" I asked him.

"We went to the bike shop and left our deposit and our passports and the guy showed us how to start it up. I took the bike into the street and started it and the bike took off with me on it and drove right off a cliff".

"Was the guy mad?"

"Yeah, he was pretty mad. The bike was totaled."

"Of course we'll have to build a shrine. How long did you ride it?" I asked him.

Andy thought for a moment and answered very matter-of-factly. "It was less then seven seconds". Godfrey nodded in agreement.

I thought about Mount Athos, the serenity. No tourists racing around on motorbikes. No discos blaring music till three in the morning. I thought of myself tending my little garden and talking daily with God. Wandering through the quiet woods or sitting by the sea in total peace.

And then I looked at Godfrey, orange mercurochrome and bandages covering almost every inch of exposed skin, drinking a beer and laughing as the tourist girls walked by. I sat down next to my friend and ordered a beer. Mount Athos was great and the after-life is probably pretty good too. But I'll take my heaven now.
Matt Barrett

Thanks to James Econopouly for the photos. They don't really go with the text but they are of the Monasteries of Mt Athos and they look pretty good.
For more information on visiting Mount Athos see  

Greece Travel Guide Matt's Greece Stories Mount Athos pt1