Come with Me to Mount Athos. Part 21

Part 20

Service in the Vatopedi Monastery

My first night (or rather a few hours of sleep) on Athos was dreamless. At about three in the morning I heard the Athonite “alarm clock” that I already knew about from stories about Mount Athos. It sounded like “To-talantos!” Getting up was easy. I jumped out of bed and immediately woke up. My morning toilette mainly consisted of straightening out and putting on my outer rhason. Priests coming to church wearing only cassocks are looked at with pity on Athos. I took my rosary and soon reached the familiar staircase leading down. Going down the stairs unexpectedly turned out to be a super-task. I was groaning with every step and resembled a chair that suddenly decided to go down the steps emitting some inarticulate sounds. The lactic acid in my muscles was reminding me of yesterday’s hike.

Finally we went out into the fresh air. The stars overhead were staring in astonishment at the people flocking from different directions into the ancient gates of the church.

I caught myself experiencing a completely forgotten state, the feeling of being inexperienced. I suddenly became a beginner both in spiritual matters and everyday life. However, that did not depress me a bit. I began to carefully look around and “do as the Romans did” in the place that I was visiting. Entering the church, scantily lit by a small number of burning candles, I could hardly distinguish its internal structure. The narthex where I found myself upon entering seemed to me the only space for worshipers. I venerated the icons and I stood in a stasidia, glancing at a monk praying nearby. If I had gone further into the church, I would have found myself in a place where unique shrines of the Orthodox world were kept, such as the Cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos, the icon of the Mother of God, called the “Most-Holy Queen of All”, the relics of saints, a particle of the Life-giving Cross of the Lord and many others.  In this place St Gregory Palamas lived in the 14th century, and St Maximus the Greek took his monastic vows here in the 16th century. Apparently, my sins did not allow me to enter the church nave until after dinner, keeping me in the narthex throughout  the whole service. On the other hand, narthex is a perfect place for a repentant sinner.

I was still feeling like a newcomer. I was afraid to do something wrong. Noticing that the monk next to me took off his outlined skufia, crossed himself and sat down in his stasidia, I did the same. Despite being in an Orthodox monastery, I felt like a black sheep and tried to fit in as much as I could. Eventually I got used to this feeling and felt at ease. My eyesight is not so sharp, and I could hardly see anything. I took my rosary and tried to listen attentively to the reading coming from the dark nave.

The rosary that I was holding was special to me. It was a gift from Schema-Archimandrite Mitrofan of the Holy Dormition Zhirovichi monastery, an elder revered by many believers. At one time, my wife received healing through his prayers. All the deeds that I accomplished with his blessing always turned out for the best. Often he read my thoughts. I remember walking around the monastery with him during one of my visits. We climbed the hill with the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross and began to walk around it. Passing by a barred door under the back wall of that ancient church, I was wondering what was behind it. It could well be an underground passage or something mysterious like that. The moment before we reached the mysterious embrasure, Father Mitrofan who was walking just in front  of me turned and said, “Oh, that… We store cabbage there”.  He turned and continued to walk. Then we went to the elder’s cell and sat down on a bench. Father Mitrofan asked me if I had any questions.  I started asking him my questions and suddenly felt an amazing fragrance emanating from him. It was almost the same as from the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, which at that moment was streaming myrrh in the monastery’s Dormition Cathedral. Now this icon is covered with glass. I knew for certain that the elder was not in the church that day. That extraordinary heavenly scent made me light-headed. I kept sniffing the air and barely heard what the elder was saying. When our conversation ended, Father Mitrofan called me to his cell for a blessing. We entered a large room filled with offerings of his spiritual children. Suddenly Fr Mitrofan began to irrigate himself abundantly with some cheap cologne saying, “See how it smells?! This fragrance is medicine for my soul!”  I am sure that he was hiding his clairvoyance behind this foolishness. He gave me his rosary in exchange for a brand new one that a friend brought me from Athos. I could feel this odor coming from it long after the elder’s death. Sure enough, I took it with me on my trip to Athos.

To me the Greek language was a set of sounds almost devoid of meaning, so I went deep into myself and began to pray the rosary, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And after a hundred prayers, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by the prayers of Your Most Holy Mother have mercy on me, a sinner!” After a hundred more (I knew it was a hundred when I felt the cross in my hand) “Hail Mary full of grace”.  Then I remembered the names of all my relatives, friends and parishioners. Quietly and almost insensibly I was entering the spiritual realm of prayer, while physically standing in stasidia within an arm’s reach from this world. It was a forgotten feeling. I wasn’t realizing my spiritual state then.  I was under a bit of strain but it was not hard for me at all. “Remember, o Lord, your servant Vasily and heal his hand; he is the only breadwinner in his family. Galina is losing her sight and is depressed, remember her, Lord… ” There were many such names with human fates and sorrows behind them.

 From time to time a monk passed by, whose job was to wake up those pilgrims who were taking a nap during the service. I didn’t feel sleepy at all. “Lord, give Tatyana the joy of becoming a mother!” The rosary was making circle after circle in my hand. I stood in place, and now my standing was filled with meaning. Something real and worthwhile was being accomplished by me at that point in space. No one would ever evaluate this work as “good” or “bad” but the absence of visible self-interest filled everything with a different, higher meaning.

It was getting lighter in the church. The openings of the windows appeared in the darkness. Dawn was breaking. The course of the service was already understandable. Matins was coming to an end. The hierodeacon passed by with the censer veiling the worshipers with a cloud of incense. “The Theotokos and mother of the Light, let us honor and magnify in song!” Suddenly everyone began to leave the temple. Outside the threshold of the church, a monk touched my sleeve and showed me where I should go. He was a kind of a traffic controller, sending some to the left and others straight or to the right. Following his instructions, I went around the walls of the cathedral where we had just prayed, crossed the courtyard, climbed an old wooden stairs and found myself in a small church in honor of the Holy Great Martyr Pantaleon.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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