St Andrew’s Skete
Rushing into the gate, we bumped into a monk holding a set of keys. He was busy talking with the pilgrims and, perhaps, if not for this circumstance, our knuckles would now be knocking on the wrought-iron gates… Apparently, our accommodation had been approved ‘at the highest level’, and we made it in time. I remembered condemning the smiling guest master of the beautiful Stavronikita monastery and felt very ashamed. Forgive me Lord!
The monk did not try to hide his disappointment, caused by our sudden appearance, but had no other choice than showing us the way to the arkhondarik.
Walking past the giant cathedral and a few church bells, standing on the ground for some reason, we made our way into the dormitory building. After the usual registration in a thick “Book of Life” and sharing our professions, we followed a long corridor into separate rooms. I found myself in a small ancient cell with a wood stove, a table and a bed. The guys were assigned to a large room, where there were already several Albanian construction workers, loudly celebrating something.
It was our second day on Athos, but due to the high density of new impressions and events it felt as if we had already spent a long time here.
The tradition of leaving shoes outside the door, which I first noticed at the Vatopedi monastery, had practical importance. Besides keeping the air clean inside the cell, it was possible to see if there was life on the other side of the door. Parting with my sneakers, I analyzed the footwear, trying to determine how many of us were there. According to my calculations, there were about eight people, disturbing the monastic solitude. There was also a water cooler on the floor, with three nipples, three buttons, and some plastic cups. It was humming quietly, ready to dispense water, the most delicious delicacy on Athos .
Like a snail, I pulled my head back into the small room, where my tired body was already resting after a busy day. I changed my clothes and sat down on a hard bed, waiting for my companions. I had no doubt that this small space had witnessed fervent prayer, and that many tears had been shed before the ancient reproductions of icons on these whitewashed walls. What is time? Many centuries ago our ancestors were sanctifying this place with their sighs before God, and it seemed to me that stretching out my hand through the dust of centuries, I could reach the past, so distant and yet so near.
The skete became Russian after 1849. It was then rebuilt and renovated. Its main cathedral in honor of St Andrew the Apostle is one of the largest churches in the Balkans. This granite building with 150 windows is 60 meters in length and 29 meters in width. We could not see the cathedral in the dark, but I had memorized some information about it from the books. It has a gilded iconostasis carved on wood. Near the iconostasis there is a reliquary with relics of 70 saints, including the head of St Andrew the Apostle (or rather, its frontal part). The Monastery’s bell tower is 37 meters high and has 25 bells, the largest of which weighs 5 tons. The church is made in Byzantine and Gothic style. It was erected in 1881-1900 upon the project of the architect M.A. Shchurupov from St Petersburg.
Before the Revolution, the skete had a printing house, a pharmacy and a smithery. The entire Holy Mountain enjoyed the fruits of the monastic labors of this Russian skete.
The Russian October Revolution in 1917 became the turning point in life of the monastery. The influx of Russian monks stopped. There was no one to support the skete financially, and the buildings were gradually destroyed. In 1958, a terrible fire destroyed the entire western wing, housing a unique library. Twenty thousand books and manuscripts with the skete’s unique archive were burnt. In 1972, the last monk of the Russian community, Father Sampson, died, leaving the skete empty for twenty years.
In the early nineties of the twentieth century, Greek monks began to come here.
My reflections were interrupted by the arriving brethren, led by Igor. In the blink of an eye the table standing at the wall was moved closer to the bed and piled with food, which we had taken with us “just in case”. Everyone wanted to lighten their backpack as much as possible, and soon a miniature Mount Athos was formed on the table. There was enough food there to feed a platoon of young conscripts. Installing an improvised barbecue on the cast-iron stove surface, we lit tablets of dry alcohol in it and warmed up an army pot with water. It is hard to imagine a warmer atmosphere. It felt like a student dorm.
Overcoming difficulties together always brings people closer, making relationships more sincere. The workload of the day was quite decent, and we had already become like brothers.
Our long supper wasn’t long enough to exhaust all the topics of the passing eventful day.
Valera was smiling as he watched Kirill pulling prickly pear needles out of his lips.
– Sweet, wasn’t it? And free too! – A second later he began to look for the same needles in the folds of his own palm, reminding a palmist exploring the lines of fate.
– No pains, no gains… – Vladimir Georgievich took out his camera and began to review his footage of the day.
– So, what are our plans for tomorrow? – Igor’s question was addressed to me, but I was no longer the same as the day before.
– God will provide. Let’s live till tomorrow and see.
And you, Kirill, what are your plans?
– I’d like to spend tomorrow with you, and the day after tomorrow I have to go to Ouranoupoli, and then to Thessaloniki.
– Don’t forget to send us pictures!
– I will e-mail them to you as soon as I arrive home, just give me your addresses.
In turn, we wrote our contacts on a checkered sheet of paper torn from someone’s notebook. Then we made tea. The meal was unhurried. It wasn’t so much the food, but rather the unique day on Athos that we were savoring. At some point, everyone fell silent, each thinking about his own experience. Slightly swaying the white curtain of the open window, the quiet coolness gently touched my face. “A sound of sheer silence…” God was present among us in that moment. We didn’t talk about it, but everyone felt the same way.
Reading the impressions of various authors about Mount Athos, I really liked stories about meetings with ascetics, spiritual conversations with elders and miracles happening in the Domain of the Most Pure Mother. Nothing of the kind happened to us during these two days. What was happening around was the “sheer silence” in which the Creator was clearly present. The changes in my soul were subtle.
My church sermons are often about faith, not needing proof or affirmation. I try to warn my parishioners against over-indulgence in miracles, turning faith into some kind of a sport. Sometimes I see people who begin their Christian life with reading much Orthodox “fiction”, trying to imitate some very advanced practices of the ascetics and ending up in psychiatric clinics. Some children of the Church lead a spiritual life resembling a constant hunt for shrines and miracles. This leads them to the loss of discernment and causes many mistakes (to put it mildly).
A priest, who told me this story, was once a member of some diocesan commission. Visiting a village church, he saw an icon standing on a special stand in the middle of the nave. The icon was covered with spots of oil. When asked what it was about, the village priest said, “Well, it started exuding myrrh, so we put it in the center of the church for worship”.
– Father, when this phenomenon took place, what did you do?
The rural priest was surprised. It was a real discovery for him that in such a case it was necessary to wipe the icon dry and serve a prayer service in front of it, sprinkling it with holy water. Then, if the phenomenon occurred again (which did not happen by the way), he would have to inform the ruling Bishop and leave it to the episcopal discretion.
It’s not that I “oppose” miracles in the life of an Orthodox Christian. Quite the opposite, in the words of one of my acquaintances, “We, priests, encounter miracles in a working order”. In my life I have constantly come across amazing phenomena and continue to face them. But then there are always the “guys” with tails and hooves trying to catch a person on his desire to be “chosen” or God-like. And therefore, all kinds of miraculous manifestations must be treated not only vigilantly, but also correctly.
The water in the pot boiled again, and we made more tea. We drank without much desire, most likely, we needed a reason not to go to our cells yet. Grabbing the passing day by the thin muslin coattails of its evening dress, we could feel it flowing through our fingers with water of slippery silk, leaving us the scent of the southern night.
Time is relentless. We cleaned up quietly, returned the things of the monastic dwelling to their usual places and began to pray. We read the evening prayer rule in turn. I started and Kirill continued. Valera tried to read, imitating the church readers, Vladimir Georgievich pronounced the words diligently and quietly, while Igor read sensually and with expression. We were very different, but we felt good together.
– God bless during the coming night!
– Sweet dreams!
I closed the door behind the guys and noted also latching it and fixing the latch by turning it in the groove. I had been warned that “if in the middle of the night someone enters the room that you have previously locked, do not forget to cross yourself and pray”. Although I had experienced demonic attacks more than once, I did not feel like an “old dodger” and preferred not to “trouble trouble”. I got up and closed the window. Crossing the walls and the bed, I put Father Mitrofan’s prayer rope around my neck and turned off the light. “Arming” myself for the night in such a fashion, I was finally ready to rest. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my soul and my body. Do bless me, do have mercy on me, and grant me eternal life. Amen”.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds