The Path of Self-will
The sun was cauterizing us, and there was no place to hide. My heart was beating in long bursts. The rosary in my hands was soaking wet, just like the rest of my apparel. We made halts every thirty minutes, during which we remained silent, trying to catch our breath. Sweat was flooding my eyes. We drank our water sparingly, trying to save it for the rest of the journey. After a short break we rose and continued to walk. It seemed like our ascent was never going to end. We were passing one of the small horizontal sections of the path and saw a strange construction of stones in a small cleft. In the niche of this “stele” we saw an ugly (by the Athonite standards) black-and-white human skull. A twig-like scorpion was hiding on its top. If we weren’t so exhausted, the scene would surely stir a long spiritual conversation. But without a word, we walked on. Judging by the watch, our ascent was already lasting for more than two hours, but our destination was still not even in sight, and neither was the sea with its saving breeze. Another hour passed. My legs began to fail. The muscles in my thighs were cramping, and it was impossible to take a step. I could not believe that in my youth I used to run marathon distances.
– That’s it, let’s halt, – I commanded with a hoarse exhalation and fell on my back. I was in a state when snakes did not bother me anymore. I perched my legs as high as I could to ensure the blood outflow.
– Father Nikolai! – Igor was calling me. – Maybe we’ll have a Snickers?
That was a saving thought for our muscles, begging for energy. – Eureka!
– God bless you, Igor!
Georgievich gave each of us a Snickers bar, and we chewed with pleasure this foreign delicacy, turned by the heat into sweet shapeless nutty lumps. The effect was not long in coming: my legs soon felt much better. One more sip of water and we were back on trail! We were in the fourth hour of our hike, but the Vatopedi monastery was still not visible. The setting sun was looking at us through the treetops, wondering what made us leave the Pantocrator and Xilurgu monasteries and set on our risky journey. I thought of the Old Testament Hezekiah prayer making the sun shadow go back ten steps on the stairs of Ahaz and was beginning to secretly dream of a similar miracle. “Sunshine, don’t go yet!” Spending the night in the open air outside a monastery, is not blessed on Athos because of the snakes. With the coming of darkness, all the monasteries close their gates and do not let anyone in until morning, no matter how hard you knock.
The daylight did not linger for a moment. Like a fabulous golden ball, it was rolling in the same direction as us. We could feel our goal being somewhere near. The trails began to descend, and in some places, in spite of the fatigue, we were able to walk very quickly. When we broke out of the bushes onto a dusty dirt road, our joy turned out to be short-lived, because the tower of the Vatopedi Monastery, already visible among the branches, was still far enough. Our weary legs switched to automatic mode and were now functioning independently. It was getting dark. The monastery gate was not more than a hundred meters from the road, but we turned in the opposite direction and had to walk an additional six hundred meters around the entire monastery before we found it.
Once inside, we collapsed onto a board serving as a bench for pilgrims like us. A Greek monk in a glazed gatehouse was trying to learn from us some information that he found important. Smiling stupidly, we told him that we would not go anywhere from there. Clearly, he did not understand what we were saying and frowned for some reason, causing us some anxiety. Suddenly I had a thought that they did not have to receive us. The Vatopedi Monastery is one of the most famous on Athos and has no shortage of pilgrims. Of course, my companions were humble pilgrims but at that moment I felt like a particularly unpleasant and unworthy person. I would be quite happy if they blessed me to spend the night in a corner of the stone floor under the canopy.
These sobering thoughts were followed by some progress in our accommodation. Valera phoned Minsk, and we were able to find out the name of the monk who “knew that we were coming and would help”. The doorkeeper took our diamontiria and began to write something in his hefty ledger. He asked us about our professions. I pointed at myself and said that I was a priest. Georgievich called himself a lawyer and so did Igor. The fact that Valera also turned out to be a lawyer was a discovery for me.
We rejoiced watching the heavy monastery gates close, because we were clearly staying inside. Then the doorkeeper, leaving our diamontiria with him, wrote our names down in the “Book of Life”, as we jokingly called his guest-book with a list of pilgrims. He pointed his finger towards the monastery courtyard, pronouncing the familiar word “archontariki” sounding like music to our ears. We dragged our backpacks in the indicated direction, pacified and still slightly shell-shocked after just barely making it to Vatopedi 5 minutes before they closed their gates.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds