To my shame, I was sure that the Monastery of St Paul was named in honor of the “Apostle of the Nations”. Preparing for my trip to Mount Athos, I even thought that it would be nice to buy analogion icons of the apostles Peter and Paul in Simonopetra and St Paul’s monasteries. As soon as I had a chance, I ran to the monastery’s icon shop. To my surprise, I made several circles around the shop without finding the familiar image of the supreme apostle. Instead, I kept coming across the face of a young martyr (depicted with a cross in his hand) also named Paul, but not an apostle … It wasn’t until after some time that I realized that, apparently, the monastery was named not in honor of the Apostle, but in honor of that other Paul, whom I knew nothing about. But more on that later.
The bus ride from the pier to the Monastery only took a few minutes. I thought that saved time would be handy if we were not received anywhere, and that there was still hope of getting a hotel room in Daphne in that case. But I didn’t want to think about it.
We climbed a narrow staircase in the inner courtyard, passed through a wide corridor on the second floor and found ourselves in the arkhondarik, a spacious living room overlooking the sea. Bright light, streaming through large windows, was illuminating the cozy sofas and armchairs, lined against the walls. The room also had a balcony, hanging over a precipice.
To our delight, each of us was served a shot of ouzo and a glass of water on a tray. More trays soon appeared, and we were offered aromatic coffee and delicate lokum, leaving us wondering if we were in heaven or paradise. Everyone began to enroll in the “Book of Life”, and so did we. The Russian-speaking guest master was another pleasant surprise.
– Father Nikolai, maybe we can stay here until tomorrow? – The plea in Igor’s eyes left no doubt that if he knew a state secret, he wouldn’t think twice before tattling it for a night in the monastery of St Paul. I got out of my chair and went up to the monk, in whose person the monastery greeted us so cordially.
– Excuse me, would you put us up overnight or should we move on?
– You can stay if you like. Let me settle this delegation and I will be with you. Get your diamontiria ready.
Igor was watching our dialogue very closely from a distance. I could not help messing with him a little. Lowering my eyes, wrinkling my forehead and simmering with laughter, I returned to my seat. Igor’s face turned into a question mark. I sighed heavily, watching the question mark transform into a bitter expression.
– Well, as you can imagine, the situation is tough here in terms of vacancies… – I could not see the despair on my comrade’s face any longer, and added, “But it’s okay, they got us”.
The joy was boundless. Igor’s eyes started glowing with anticipation of a longed-for shower, a cozy cell with measured spiritual life and a monastic meal. That was enough for us to fall into delight.
We submitted our diamontiria and were soon assigned to a four-bed room, two windows of which were facing the Catholicon in honor of the Presentation of the Lord.
Athonite Tea Ceremony
Leaving my comrades to get settled in the cell, I returned to the reception hall. The guest master was tidying up the empty glasses and plates left after our Turkish delight. I thanked him for the treats and began to help arrange everything on trays. It was clear as daylight that my help was unnecessary, since doing that was his saving obedience, which he fulfilled with joy. Besides, he was embarrassed to see a priest cleaning dirty dishes. The awkwardness was soon overcome when he invited me to drink some tea in a spacious room with a stove and a kitchen sink. Apparently it was the kitchen serving the arkhondarik. To the left of the entrance there was a table. An old monk with a thick black beard and an oriental appearance was drinking tea. We met. His name was Hierodeacon David, originally from Abkhazia. At one time he studied at the Moscow Theological Academy, and we even found mutual acquaintances. The atmosphere was soulful and reminded me of a soldier’s cabin when all the officers are gone to their families, leaving the old servicemen drinking tea and reminiscing about their homes and fellow countrymen. Father David asked me about the Belarusian exarchate, its clergy and our ‘community spirit’, while I asked him about his life in the monastery. The tea was not tea in the usual sense, but rather a fragrant tisane of mountain herbs. The lokum with nuts, offered by the hospitable hosts, turned out to be exquisite. Perhaps the reader would expect me to go on describing our subsequent theological conversations and touching upon the secrets of hesychasm, but we just chatted casually, slurping the tea and savoring the Turkish delight. The occasional moments of silence caused us no inconvenience, because everything was clear to us, and our conversation was focused on insignificant and personal things. The clock rang, drawing our attention to the “impermanence” of what was happening and the vanity of many things in life that appear very serious.
– What time is the service?
– Vespers at 16.00, Compline at 19.00.
– And what about the morning?
– The Midnight Service is at 2.00, followed by the Matins, Hours and Liturgy.
Finishing the conversation, Father David stood up and crossed himself.
– Take some rest, Father Nikolay, you still have time.
I wandered back to my cell, feeling like a schoolboy leaving school on the day before holidays. All the great things were only beginning.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds