Walking out of St Andrew’s Cathedral, we joined the group going to the refectory, located in the basement of the dormitory building. Perhaps, this “virtual tour” of a monastic meal may interest those readers who have never been to a monastery before. Just like in the Vatopedi monastery, a traffic controller was directing the priests and monastics to the dining room on the left side of the aisle, and the pilgrims to the right. The dining rooms looked like two classrooms, only with long tables instead of student desks. We prayed, and the meal began. There was no reading, and we dined in silence. I felt like a novice all the time and kept glancing around so as not to do something inappropriate. An old monk sat down beside me and poured himself some soup with pasta from a white enamel pot. I did the same and scooped up a comparable amount with a ladle. What had seemed like milk soup, turned out to be cheese diluted in water with long noodles. Let’s just say, it was not to everyone’s taste.
Noticing that my neighbor put a fried fish on his plate, I followed his example after a slight delay. The fish was a little larger than my palm. It had a large head and smelled like frozen fish. It had just the right amount of bones to still be considered edible. There were also olives, stewed vegetables, potatoes and a red tomato. In case you may wonder, I mentioned the tomato because it was naturally red, sweet and delicious, very much unlike the pseudo-Azerbaijani tomatoes from our market. Then we drank tea (or rather tisane of some fragrant unfamiliar herb) and ate bread and cheese. Remembering our recent experience eating buns near the Iveron Monastery, I wrapped a piece of bread in a napkin and slipped it into my pocket just in case.
Having eaten enough, I began to wait for the general end of the meal. Looking furtively around, I examined the faces of the monks, present at the table. None of them were looking at others. Each was deep in himself, eating the “daily bread” with concentration and without stopping their inner work. What brought these people to Mount Athos? What was their worldly life like? Apparently, I will never find out. I mentally wished them all to find here the meaning of their lives and live it to the fullest.
Back in Karyes
Returning to my cell, I packed my backpack and sat down on the edge of the made bed. The walls of St Andrew’s Cathedral were hiding my cell window from the sun, illuminating the world and coloring the air in gold. With a slight sadness, I looked around the room, narrowing towards the window, and tried to capture it in my memory. Whitewashed walls, a lonely low-power light bulb with no lampshade, hanging from the ceiling, a wobbly table with a Bible in Greek, paper icons above the table, and a narrow cast-iron stove with its pipe sticking out of the window.
It was time to go. Tightening a monastic leather belt on my waist (I liked it very much), I took my backpack and headed towards the exit. The stone steps of the cathedral served as a meeting point for us. Almost all of us were present. Finally, Vladimir Georgievich managed to ‘tame’ his oversized backpack and joined us. We bought some souvenirs in the icon shop and bowed to the Russian bells, standing guard at the walls of the cathedral and biding their time. Soon our walking sticks were knocking on the Athos stones again.
The view from the road where we parted with our yesterday’s benefactors made us freeze and grab our cameras. The bright sun rays behind the low clouds were reflecting from the sea and pouring out a dazzling unreal radiance in all directions. Without taking our eyes off the bluish-platinum horizon and trying not to “spill out”our delight, we walked, clicking our cameras, down the concrete road to Karyes Square, already familiar and almost dear. Unfortunately, photographs cannot convey that unearthly beauty.
Joining the “Brownian movement” in the crowded square, we started gazing around, watching the people sitting on the stones, buying coffee and souvenirs, in other words, doing nothing. We were no exception. Finally, we saw the brave guys from Mouzenidis, who originally took us to the holy places of Thessaloniki. We were delighted to see them as if they were our relatives.
– What are you doing here? – Valera asked, shaking the hand of one of them and not letting go.
– We are taking a group to the top of Athos.
– Great! Have you ever been there? – I asked.
– No, not yet!
Our meaningful dialogue was interrupted by the arriving bus, spitting out a lively crowd of pilgrims from Daphne. Joining those who wished to leave for a short assault, we found ourselves in the womb of this comfortable vehicle. As a priest, I was seated in the front and by the window. The doors closed, and we sailed along the already familiar road past the skete of St Andrew the First-Called, past the helipad and to the other side of the Athos peninsula. With my forehead pressed against the cold glass, I peered into the green of the forest, trying in vain to see more than the rest of the passengers. The rich, luscious vegetation, flickering behind the glass, merged into a motley green ribbon. This was the third day of our pilgrimage. We didn’t make any plans that day. We simply got on the bus to Daphne, and there we were riding in it. We did not know where we were going yet, but we knew that the Mother of God would direct us.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds