Greece’s Simonos Petras monastery
From below, the Simonos Petras monastery looks to have been chiselled from the rock on which it rests. It’s as if the cliffs have been sheared away to reveal the smooth, stark foundation walls. Weightlessness washes through me at the sight of the earth-coloured buildings rising from the ashen bedrock. A smile refuses to leave my face. I have been hiking a steep and hot hour to reach this point and it is as if I have stumbled across a divine outpost beneath the clouds.
Simonos Petras is one of the 20 monasteries scattered on the finger of land known as Mount Athos or Agion Oros, which translates to “Holy Mountain”. The mountain is only accessible by boat because of the rocky terrain between it and mainland Greece.
To enter Mount Athos, one must have a visitor’s permit applied for six months in advance. Some 100 permits are given for any day to those baptised Orthodox; 10 further permits are offered to others. Women are forbidden on the monastic land, home to male Orthodox monks.
Although I do not follow the faith into which I was born, my journey here is a spiritual one provoked by heartbreak. The idea of hiking to a remote and holy place seemed like the perfect way to escape the everyday reminders of my ex back in Melbourne.
I continue my journey that is part hike, part boat ride, to reach the final monastery on my three-day pilgrimage. Unlike Simonos Petras, the Docheiariou monastery hugs the shore. Accompanied by three other pilgrims, I pass through a gateway of two classical Greek columns that do not match the rest of the monastery’s cobblestone buildings.
We are silenced by an eeriness that permeates the pathways weaving through Docheiariou. The few monks I catch exchanging short bursts of conversation keep their voices hushed and their faces impassive. Small tabby cats laze in the summer heat and turn their heads away, utterly uninterested. We find our way towards the visitor’s hall where a black-robed monk with a traditional uncut beard greets us in Greek.
He offers each of us a shot of tsipouro (a local brandy) and a plate of Turkish delight. He retrieves a jug of water from a fridge, and the sudden knowledge that there is even electricity here surprises me.
After signing the guest book, I am invited into the monastery’s workshop by another monk, whom I shall call Arthur; we share notes on a Greek’s life far from home. We pass a monk who has stolen away to speak on a mobile phone and Arthur explains that generally all monks try to keep minimal contact with the outside world. He admits to accessing the internet sporadically to keep up with world events.
Mustiness fills the workshop lined with bookcases and I lean against a table scattered with volumes of Byzantium art to be closer to the desk fan barely cutting through the heat.
Arthur listens intently to the story of my grandparents’ migration to Australia while he coats an unfinished wooden altar in thin layers of liquid wax. His hair is hidden by a damp headscarf tied like a bandana. Judging from his beard and the lustre lacking in his eyes, I place him in his late 30s. I am surprised when he reveals he is 27, a year older than me. He has been here two years. “My friend and I decided to become monks while we trained at the army together.”
Speaking slowly, but with gentle conviction, he reminds me that my window for marriage is closing. “It’s the Orthodox way. You either marry or you become a monk. God has given all of us the gift of life, and marriage is our way to show our respect and thanks to Him.”
Arthur wipes a layer of sweat from his forehead as he retrieves a container from a bar fridge. He prepares a “submarine”, which consists of a spoonful of a sugary white substance containing mastika (a tree sap liqueur), dipped in a glass of chilled water. The initial taste is sweet, but the organic remnants have an aniseed quality that my palate does not take to.
“It is important you marry another Greek,” Arthur says, returning to the conversation. “Cross-cultural marriages are the reason why less and less people follow our religion today.”
The pressure to find an all-too-elusive significant other does not relieve my heartache, so I quickly slip into a new topic. Having heard of the bone of saints said to cure terminal illnesses, I inquire about the secret treasures locked deep inside the local abbey.
Docheiariou was raided by Turkish soldiers during the Greek revolution, says Arthur, where monks were tortured and many of the monastery’s treasures stolen. One such remaining relic is a piece of the “True Cross”, believed to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Later that evening, our path to the refectory provides a clear view of the deep cobalt blue waters. The rhythmic sound of water lapping against the rocky coast beckons like a siren song. I voice my disappointment at the rule forbidding anyone from enjoying a swim in the water, for the same reason that pants must be worn at all times. Arthur gives me a smile. “It is okay if you walk far enough that no one sees you,” he says.
Although Arthur denies feeling lonely, I cannot help but wonder if the ascetics immerse themselves in the water just to feel the sensation of being held by something.
Inside the refectory, I part with Arthur to sit at the visitors’ table. A monk reads from the Bible, as stuffed eggplant is eaten in respectful silence. In addition to two daily mass services, it is apparent that these deeply pious men are in constant reflection on God and their faith.
At 3.30am on my final day, I awake to the clanging of wood against a metal bell that marks the start of the daily 4am service.
Inside the abbey, the walls are adorned with Byzantium-style iconography of saints, their gold leaf highlights shimmering in the gloomy candlelight. The mood is dark, similar to a wake as the monks chant. The saints look down at me with sombre, almost elfish faces, their fingers unnaturally long and slender, and poised in symbolic gestures the significance of which I cannot grasp.
The monk leading the procession swings a censer that clinks and jingles with tiny bells. The censer leaves a trail of smoke from the livani (incense) inside, which blankets the abbey with a sweet wooden smell that reminds me of mastika.
The atmosphere feels no different to the churches I grew up with, and the discomfort and disconnect I felt in them as a child remains present. My heart calls out for an escape, to relive the initial hike when Holy Mountain was cloaked in a shroud of arcana.
After breakfast I climb a narrow wooden staircase to reach my dorm room, passing the guest shower that consists of a grimy floor basin and communal towel, both of which I have avoided. The previous monastery offered the simple pleasures of a fresh towel, clean bedsheets and access to a clean shower, none of which I had taken for granted. The monks had seemed happier there, their faces warmer, their steps lighter, or perhaps that was my projection.
From my window I savour the view of the sea stretching out behind the abbey like a plain canvas. Although it is just out of earshot, I imagine the soft sound of breaking waves that had called to me the previous night as I drifted off to sleep. I wonder if the monks find it as calming, or if they are tormented by the sounds of the waters in which they cannot bathe.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "A pilgrim's process". Subscribe here.