Wisdom from Mt Athos
Wisdom from Mt Athos
Mt Athos is one place on earth where one will see a very much alive Orthodox spiritual faith and where through this spirituality reach to the level of Theosis, that is deification and becoming united with the Almighty God by grace. From the very early Church hermits would go and live in isolation in the desert to dedicate and worship God and from there arose the monastic community. One such place is Mt Athos.
Founded in 963, Mt Athos is the centre of Orthodox spirituality and monasticism. Often referred to by the Orthodox as the’ Holy Mountain’, the mountain is dedicated to the Theotokos (the garden of the Virgin Mary). Mt Athos is isolated from the rest of Greece, being situated on the north east peninsular of Greece and the only means of reaching it is by boat and it is restricted to males only. Females are even forbidden from visiting. There are twenty established Orthodox monasteries and several outlying sketes, where monks will live in isolation from others.
The life of the monk is one of sacrificing everything for God. The monk lives a life of obedience, fasting and above all, is dedicated to worship and prayer, as in the words of St Paul, the monk will ‘pray without ceasing’. The monk will attend several services during the day starting from pre dawn (around 4.00am) and finishing with the Compline (Απὀδιεπνον) after dinner and then the monk will retire to his cell, where he will continue his prayers. The monk’s cell becomes like an altar, adopting the practice of hesychasm which is ‘the quiet prayer in solitude’ and in a repetitive manner says the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner” using a prayer rope (κουμβοσκίνι) with the prayer. This is the prayer of the mind in the heart. Many of the Saints reach the final step of St John Climacus’ ‘Divine Ascent”, where they ‘rise to visions’.
Mt Athos is a living testimony to Orthodox spirituality and the ascetic way of life. The ascetic life allows us in the world to see, to taste and to understand what spiritual life is all about. It is not something that just happened in the past, it is a living reality; it is the ‘spiritual tradition’. It also shows us how we too can reach a beautiful spiritual experience by practicing the ‘Jesus Prayer’ in our own quiet time. To the monk, real prayer is to pray with the mind in the heart, that is the prayer must reach the heart, and then the prayer will become part of the whole person, body, soul and spirit. The essence of prayer is the spiritual lifting of the heart toward God.
Although Mt Athos gives us a ‘glimpse’ of heaven, it is not heaven on earth; heaven on earth is within us. One does not need to live in the monastic community to experience a spiritual life. Mt Athos shows us what we must do to live a spiritual life, but that does not mean one needs us to live in a monastic community. Mt Athos shows us that by dedicating our life to God, we can experience this spiritualty. To do this first and foremost we need to have a Spiritual Father to guide us and with his guidance, follow the fasts of the Church, attend the services as much as our commitments allow us to, and dedicate part of our every day to pray. But above all, practice our faith with humility and love. As an a monk once said, “love and faith are two oars of a boat, if have one without the other, the boat just keeps on going round and round. We need both to go forward”. This spiritual path forward ultimately leads us to find peace with the Almighty God.
To encapsulate this spirituality, there is a collection of writings compiled by St Nikodemos focusing on the virtues of living a spiritual life on the Holy Mountain and contains many saying of the Spiritual Fathers.
Mr. Angelo Karantonis
Graduate of St. Andrew’s Theological College