Evening at St Paul’s Monastery
Just outside the monastery’s gates, there was a spacious gazebo, surrounded by winding paved pathways, looking like a sunbathing snake. It was occupied by Greek pilgrims, who were sitting, talking and even smoking cigarettes there. In Greece, the attitude towards tobacco is different from ours. I did not get to meet any smoking monastics there, but they say that it also happens.
I found myself a spot in the resting area surrounding the gazebo and opened the notebook. Not having written anything for two days, I tried to fill that gap and started writing. I wrote something like, “The setting sun of Hellas shed a yellow light on us. The heat subsided, but there was still no perceptible freshness. A touch of a light breeze was slightly stirring the mountain heather, and…” And then I stopped, not knowing what to write next. My subsequent attempts to continue writing bore no fruit. I became immersed into a silent and thoughtful state. From a height of at least 100 meters above the sea level one could spend hours observing the expanse of the sea, as from a ship’s tail, or simply enjoying oneself, leaning against the marble slopes of Mount Athos and bathing one’s feet in the warm waters of the Aegean Sea.
Soon the semantron invited everyone to the evening service. This time the compline took place in the narthex. When the prayer was over, the swift southern twilight was already descending on the monastery. Rising to our cell, we read the evening prayers and went to bed. I opened my notebook again. Thoughts ran swiftly over the events of the past two days, while the hand was tracing them on paper.
– Valera did not respond, did he? – Vladimir Georgievich’s voice sounded in silence. I was not the only one worried.
– Not a word. There seems to be phone coverage, but my messages are still undelivered.
– He is probably near the top of the summit now, – Igor answered from under the sheet (it was very warm, and we were using our sheets as blankets) – Isn’t it great that we stayed here for the night?
That was agreed on all hands. After a few more phrases, sounding in the darkness, the silence closed in on us. I was ready to fall asleep.
My closing eyelids bridged the circuit of my internal video projector, starting a visual sequence reproducing the events of the past few days in the smallest detail and with excellent quality of color, light and sound. Awesome!
Day 4 and My Monastic Belt
The Athos trail was taking us higher and higher. Strange thing, my legs almost did not hurt and there was no shortness of breath. The ascent seemed like an easy walk. The trail dove into a tunnel of thick thorns, and I started to hear that there was someone ahead of us. I could not see anyone yet, but I could feel someone’s presence nearby. I thought I could even hear the tapping of someone’s walking stick. There could be no mistake… A man ahead of me was moving quickly, tapping on the stones with his stick. Yet, there was no one in sight, only the sound of the stick, getting louder and louder.
Suddenly the feeling of reality came, turning the sound of the unknown walking stick into the “monastic alarm clock” knocking in the courtyard. Paradoxically, the sound of a semantron was like a gentle pat on the shoulder, compared to a mechanical monster exploding the morning silence with ringing. Waking up to this wooden knocking sound was actually very easy on the nerves.
The morning preparations erased the last traces of my night visions. One by one, we went down the steep stairs. Crossing the courtyard diagonally, we entered under the vaults of the church that was now looking like a starship. It was still dark, as we took our places in the anatomical stasidia chairs, and the priest’s exclamation sounded like the historical Gagarin’s “Off we go!” In the dark blue scope, among the endless megaparsecs of the universe, we were hurrying to meet the Creator of everything visible and invisible. There was no time in the dimension of prayer. I could feel neither its duration, nor course. Subsequently, reflecting on this phenomenon, I tried to explain everything to myself. I concluded that an expectation of a significant event in the future often distorts the present moment, stretching it or making it “stuck” in one spot. During our pilgrimage to Mount Athos, especially while praying in churches, I had no expectations and lived “here and now,” being fully satisfied with the process. Maybe that was why the service did not tire me at all. It might also have been God’s presence, felt in a special way on the Holy Mountain. In the monastery of St Paul the service began at 2 o’clock in the morning. Odd as it may seem, despite the absence of time, the church service was full of events, such as lighting the choros (a church chandelier in the shape of a large-diameter rim with double-headed Byzantine eagles and candles); censing the church or reading the Six Psalms. The latter made me shudder in surprise, when the abbot, who was standing right next to me, suddenly began reading. Father Parthenios also read the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed during the liturgy. The service ended at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Our “spaceship” landed successfully, and we all went to the festive meal. As I was leaving the church after venerating the icons, it suddenly dawned on me what I was going to do with my monastic belt.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds