Everyone lined up in a certain order and followed Archimandrite Ephraim out of the refectory. At the exit the abbot stopped and raised his right hand, blessing all who were passing by. Soon the monks hurried to their obediences leaving the pilgrims alone on the square in front of the cathedral church.
Valera, Igor and Georgievich appeared. Georgievich was dressed in khaki clothes and looked like a commando soldier. We parted at the beginning of the Matins and now we were finally together and tried to coordinate our further actions. Visiting the cathedral church of the monastery was clearly our main goal. I had a note in my pocket with names of people back home, “sentenced” by doctors with cancer. Perhaps it was this note that made me so eager to get to the Vatopedi monastery with its famous miraculous image of the Theotokos known as the Most-Holy Queen of All (Gr. Pantonassa). Thousands and thousands of people suffering from cancer have been healed through this icon. But the church was closed.
I was already beginning to understand that good hosts will always take care of their guests, and so I was not worried. On both sides of the entrance to the monastery’s cathedral there were long benches, designed for pilgrims’ rest. Just to the right from the door leading into the church there is a white marble seat for the abbot. Father Ephraim was already there, talking with one of the pilgrims. From time to time monks and guests of the monastery came up to him and took blessings. Valera folded his palms and bending his head came up and received a blessing too.
I was not worried about anything and sat down, enjoying my awareness of what was happening and watching the measured flow of life around me. I had no intention of bothering Hegumen Ephraim, since I had no spiritual issues requiring his advice. My view of spiritual eldership had been shaped by books of St Ignatius Brianchaninov and was not associated with old age or appearance. I have been blessed by personal acquaintance with some experienced priests, known among the Russian people as bearers of special apostolic gifts. Among them are the Schema-Archimandrite Mitrofan (Ilyin), Archpriest Vasily (Ermakov) and Archpriest Nikolai (Guryanov). May their memory be blessed. These holy fathers have shown me their endless love. Long before I was ordained, Father Vasily once invited me to his home in St Petersburg and put his epitrachelion around my neck. I was greatly embarrassed then, but many years later the meaning of what had happened was opened to me. The epitrachelion given to me by Father Vasily is still “working” today. A lot can be said about this topic, but let’s return to Mount Athos.
Once in a while Archimandrite Ephraim glanced in my direction. I did not know anything about him, except that he is a widely respected confessor. I did not want to bother him; besides, what could I ask him? Asking questions takes some spiritual uplift, while I was still idling. However, after thinking about it, I was surprised to notice that my bodily ailments were not bothering me so much, and my usual state of despondency had disappeared somewhere. Who would have thought! Since I got on the plane in Minsk, my interest in spiritual life has awakened, and my first long service here, on Athos, was not painful for me. Quite the opposite, it was meaningful, rich and joyful. I suddenly realized that something inside me started working again, and I froze, not wanting to scare away this new sensation. I looked at the father superior again. Our eyes met and, as it seemed to me, he smiled slightly. Having bowed to Father Ephraim, we followed the monk who had appeared suddenly and called us. Carrying a large bunch of keys in his hands, the monk led us to the side door, through which we entered the cathedral. Another small door led us into the gloomy space of the ancient church. We venerated the icons inside and approached the “Most Holy Queen”. The miraculous image was decorated with numerous offerings, and, surprisingly, turned out to be quite small, about forty by fifty centimeters. Despite me being inexperienced as a priest, when I visit glorified images of the Most Holy Theotokos, I feel as if a window to heaven is open in front of me, and my weak voice is heard there.
Then there was a long, kneeling prayer. It was very important not to forget about anyone. Thank you, Mother of God, for allowing us to visit Your holy relics! After some time, the same monk led us out of the church, giving us small cinctures consecrated on the venerable cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos. We went upstairs to the chapel of the miraculous image “Joy and Consolation”. The sacrament of prayer repeated. There is no need to talk about the treasures of the Vatopedi and the entire Holy Mountain. Many publications and films have done it much better than I possibly could. My words are mostly addressed to a narrow circle of friends. whom I invite to walk with me around Athos, to see it with my eyes and to share my joy about the festering wound of my soul beginning to be healed.
On the Second Day
Our stay at the Vatopedi monastery has come to an end. We went to the icon store and stocked up on souvenirs. As if warming up before a difficult journey, we climbed the steep stairs of the hotel building. We packed our backpacks and, casting a farewell glance at the portraits looking at us from the walls, hurried to the exit.
Leaving the walls of the monastery, we found ourselves on a spacious terrace with a picturesque sea view. People were crowding under the spreading walnut trees and waiting for transport to Karyes. A monk appeared with lists of those who had signed up for departure yesterday. For some reason, our surnames were not there, although we had signed ourselves up before going to the arkhondarik in the evening. Oh well. Minibuses took most of the people with them, leaving behind silence and the smell of gasoline. We sat on the stones under the olives, took pictures against the background of the sea, picked some walnuts and ate them with some delicious water. Then we ate more walnuts and sat under the olives again. And finally, our transport arrived. A Mercedes minibus took us into its womb and hummed with tension, overcoming the upward highway spiral and taking us to Karyes. The road was familiar. There was the place where we came out of the forest. And there was the fork to the skete of Xilurgu. And there was the barrier with the unbribable Greek. And finally, there was Karyes! We were there for a little less than a day, and were already filled with experiences and impressions! We drove past St Andrew’s skete again. In a few minutes we were in the center of the administrative center of Mount Athos. It was lively as always.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds