The time of the evening service flew, and soon a monk came up to me, showing that it was time to venerate the icons. In my village, old ladies call it “saying hello to Jesus, Mary and the saints”. Arriving at the church before the service, they slowly approach each icon, crossing themselves with dignity and sighing, as they offer their prayers to God. After kissing the cross, they approach the holy images once again, apparently “saying goodbye” to them. In the monasteries that we visited here, on the Holy Mountain, they sometimes “say hello” to icons several times during the service. The queue to the shrines is formed in the order determined by rank and seniority. Each time it was embarrassing for me to follow this order, because even the youngest of these warriors of the Spirit, was undoubtedly more worthy than me. However, in the spiritual hierarchy, one must know his place and avoid instructing others.
We walked out of the church. It was quiet in the refectory and no one was going there. There were seven “untethered” pilgrims like us. Four impressively abdominous Greeks, Andrey and our team. We were lounging about, right between the catholicon and the kitchen. When Andrei appeared, we were already expecting him and were not surprised. Every day brought us new interesting acquaintances. Looking at the people whom the Lord was sending our way, I tried to understand the meaning of these encounters sent from above, but it was never completely clear. The story with Andrey was also unique.
He looked about thirty years old. He was of medium height and athletic build, which made him look younger than his age. Blue jeans, a clean, slightly worn shirt, and a camera, thrown over his shoulder like a soldier’s rifle. A pair of kind grayish-green eyes on a thin, tanned face. In a brief conversation, we found out that Andrey was from St Petersburg, had served as a Special Forces officer, and then lived for several years in a mission of the Valaam Monastery. He was divorced, and it was not his first time on Mount Athos. We told him that we were on our way to Simonopetra, but had to stop there. Our new companion advised us to sail to Daphne on the following day.
– It’s a long hard climb to Simonopetra, and when you get there, it is still uncertain whether you will be accepted.
Well, that was quite reasonable. We have two nights ahead of us. We were going to spend the first night in St Gregory, and the other one we were planning to spend in the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon. If we went to Simonopetra, there would probably be a short stop and an excursion there. However, “satiating with grace” was more important for us than sightseeing, and we were short of time. Besides, where would we go from Simonopetra? Knowing our travel speed, we would make it somewhere near the main port of Athos by the evening at the earliest. Andrei was right. We would be better off sailing to Daphne, and from there, God willing, through Xeropotamou to St Panteleimon monastery.
“When you are in St Panteleimon, do not be surprised if you are received unfriendly,” Andrey instructed us. “They don’t like being the last on people’s visiting lists, especially when the diamonitirion is issued to their monastery. They may yell at you if they see you taking pictures on the monastery grounds. – We have already heard something like that about our fellow Athos monastery. – Don’t pay too much attention to this. Life on Athos has its own particularities.
Our conversation was interrupted. The refectory door opened, and a semantron sounded, calling us for dinner. We followed the brethren (at least thirty people suddenly appeared out of nowhere) and went inside. Perpendicular to the abbot’s, there was another table. A monk without any special insignia was sitting at it. Peering short-sightedly (as it seemed to me), he cautiously pointed towards the place opposite. This Athonite Monk looked like a kind old woodsman from Russian folk tales. Finally, everyone was in and the prayer began. Apparently, at the head of the table was Hegumen himself. He was not gray-bearded or elderly, but an intelligent-looking man, looking sort of like a senior researcher. He blessed the meal, and the long-established mechanism began to work. Somebody started reading lives of the saints (in Greek), while everyone else began to eat.
I cannot say that I was hungry, but as soon as I looked at the food, my reflexes worked properly. There were bowls of porridge on the table in front of each of us. They looked very appetizing and the portions were just right. The tomatoes were served right on the table, next to green olives in small salad bowls, bottles of olive oil, a cucumber and a pear next to it. Fruits have always supplemented the monastic diet. Each of us had a jar of unsweetened yogurt.
I took my large spoon and began with the bowl of delicious porridge. I think I closed my eyes in anticipation when someone called me. I opened my eyes. The “woodsman monk”, sitting opposite, smiled apologetically and gave me a deep bowl, showing that I should give him part of my portion. Hiding a slight regret, I halved the porridge on my plate. The bowl went in a circle, and I remembered having read about this Athonite custom to give up part of the portion. A great way to lose weight was as simple as simply giving up half of your meal. Glancing around stealthily, I tried to observe the measure and manners adopted by the local brethren. The father across the table took a knife, peeled a pear, cut it into pieces and put them in his jar of yogurt. It seemed to me that he did it in a somewhat demonstrative manner, so I followed his example. Yummy!
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds