to Mt Athos Part Two
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
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
"Sure I do. I've been to
America many times. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New
York. I was a cook in the merchant
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Finally it was time to go.
"Don't leave!" said Father Tom. "I'm having such a
"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
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
An hour later they were sitting
in the same place. But this time Godfrey was
covered in orange mercurochrome and
"I had an accident", he said,
pointing to his bandaged head.
"How did it happen?" I asked
"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
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
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.