After venerating the icons I asked one of the singers where I could stand. I’m not sure how I did that. Apparently, in Russian, since I don’t speak Greek. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it dawned on me then. I was directed to the stasidia to the left of the abbot’s seat. Soon, Archimandrite Ephraim himself entered the small church and stood next to me.
The Liturgy was flowing at a remarkably dynamic pace. Paschal joy cannot be stretched or shortened since it is the jubilation of Eternal Life! The service was completely recognizable, so I was no longer distracted by my private prayer needs. I was reading the petitions together with the deacon, singing “Kirie, Eleison!” together with the choir and pronouncing the exclamations together with the priest. “Our Father” and the Symbol of Faith were read by the abbot. I understood that these honorable readings are done by the most respected elder. The dismissal came in no time. Wow! I felt childish and pure joy, as if I went down the hill on a sled. We were coming up to the priest for a blessing and received pieces of antidoron, bread cut from the Lamb prosphoron. Then we drank holy water, drawing off its silvery freshness from a silver chalice. Perhaps if I was an expert wordsmith, I would be able to describe the effect of grace in a person, but I will leave it at that.
Apparently, the Liturgy in all the churches ended at the same time. Human streams were flowing to the refectory from different sides of the monastery. Having joined the general stream, I entered the ancient premises, painted with frescoes. Large tables were arranged in a particular order, forming a cross. It was undoubtedly a majestic place to eat.
Meanwhile, my spiritual lessons continued. What happened next made me laugh every time I ever thought about it. In my life I have never dined like I did in the Vatopedi Monastery. The ‘traffic officer’ at the intersection of the tables and aisles pointed with his finger, directing me to my place at the end of the well-laden table, full of dishes and plates. The table was to my right, and there were already monks sitting there. I asked if I could sit next to one of them, stepped like a heron over the bench, picked up my cassock and sat down, looking at the dishes, still looking exotic to me. I want to admit that after my military service in the Soviet Army, my attitude towards food was characterized by trying not to miss any of the three daily meals. Failing at that made me feel a little uneasy. I ate quickly, loved treats and often overate. Generally speaking, this passion is called gluttony. Although it worried me, I never had the strength, determination, or serious motivation to really fight it.
Before I had time to examine the dishes properly, my neighbor turned to me and gestured, showing that I should move to the nearby table on a dais, set for several people. I obeyed meekly, again stepping over the long bench and taking, as it seemed to me, a more honorable place (the latter circumstance confused me a little). I sat there alone, in everyone’s full view, like a tree in a vacant lot. Noticing me there, one of the monks said to me in Russian that I was sitting at the Georgian (?) table and asked me to move to the opposite side of the hall. I got up and walked across the refectory. But as soon as I sat down on an empty seat there, someone asked me to move again. I felt like I was chosen to be the ball in a game that I did not understand. Finally I was able to find a spot where I could sit for a while without anyone asking me to leave. But there was no food in front of me, not even bread; and by the looks of it no one was going to bring any. After the prayer, everyone began to eat. I sat and looked perplexedly at the empty space on the table in front of me. Some time passed. Everyone was still eating. Then a Russian pilgrim priest noticed me. We had already seen him back in Ouranoupoli. He was of a heavy build, with an open, handsome face, gray hair (beyond his age) and a wide beard. This priest never parted with his expensive photo equipment and a tripod. We ran into him several times, and every time he was constantly taking pictures. I didn’t get to meet him, but he noticed my struggle and fetched me a plate of salted olives, some bread and a jug of water. “Slim pickings” I thought and began to chew the large and tasty olives that went unexpectedly well with the monastic bread. Then I chased them down with fresh water. Another kind-hearted pilgrim handed me a bunch of grapes. And then a miracle happened. I was fed! I listened to my inner self, not noticing any hunger or discontent. Then a thought came to me with particular clarity, consoling me completely: “Do you really think that anything is happening here without the blessing of the Most Holy Theotokos?” I took it as a wonderful lesson in faith and humility. I hope that I will learn it forever. And finally I realized that I had a unique chance to eat like one of the ascetics, satisfying their hunger with olives, bread and water.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds