Shopping for souvenirs
The bus departed, and the Daphne pier was empty again. Silouan, an elderly monk, returned with his face glowing. He laid out the fruits of his monastic labours – the prayer beads of different shapes and colours – and began to wait for his customers like a fisherman for his catch, squinting in the bright sunlight. The prayer beads, much like a calculator, tell an Athonite monk the exact number of repetitions of Jesus’ prayer. As he fingers through the beads and knots on a string, a monk detaches himself from the vanity of the world and concentrates on his ascetic life and contemplation of God. The prayer beads are perhaps the best souvenir from Mount Athos. I knew that the beads from Monk Silouan were genuine because they were made by the monks who knew how to pray for the world. Any other beads could have come from anywhere and brought to Mount Athos to maximise sales.
I came to Monk Siluan to inspect the beads. I sifted through a large pile on an old piece of rough cloth. I was looking for the ones that I would want to give to my people from my close circle. Finally, settled for the black woollen ones, with a cross at the end. They had nothing superfluous, nothing that would keep their owner from seeking the true gems of the spirit through prayer.
At home, I distributed these souvenirs among my friends but told them nothing about clever doing unless they were monastics. Clever doing could be dangerous for immature souls who might fall into deception or even put their mental health at risk if they engaged in it without preparation. Instead, I counselled them to hold the beads in their hand and say the prayer rule of the Theotokos or the prayer of the publican if they felt they were having a bad day. I suggested that it could be more effective than soothing pills because the makers of these beads were the ascetics from Mount Athos.
My friends disappeared inside another souvenir shop. With six prayer beads from Father Silouan, I joined them hoping to find some good gifts for all the people waiting for my return.
“Father Nicholas, look, is this a good icon to give to my boss?
“Father Nikolas, do you think this one would be good to put in my wife’s room?”
My companions ganged up on me and were shelling me with questions. By that time, they had fully grown into the role of the humble Athonites who would do nothing without a blessing. I went along with their wishes, advising them what to do – buy or look somewhere else. I was not pretending to know better; I was helping them because they had nobody else to ask, and also because asking for advice was a good way of learning good spiritual habits. By not acting on one’s desires but thinking and asking others for advice, one exercises living according to the Gospel and protects oneself from the enemy’s multiple traps.
Let me take some time to tell you more about the souvenir shops. I am conscious that I am writing this mainly for those who have not been to Mount Athos or cannot visit for personal reasons. The workshop takes a space of 3.5×5 meters. It is divided into halves by double-sided shelves with liturgical or church-related items on them. There is a wide choice of icons on display, ranging from laminated pocket-size ones to expensive painted icons adorned with jewellery. A short distance away is a display of gold and silver under a glass cover. In a tall case nearby is a large collection of Greek skullcaps, or Skufias of different colours and sizes, and from different materials. The lighter ones are from cotton, there are also some woollen and knitted Kufias resembling a Jewish kippah. Unlike their Russian counterparts, the Greek skullcaps are round and cylindrical, selling at 20 Euro apiece.
On the hangers nearby is a collection of T-shirts. Most are black, short-sleeved, with the cross of Athos at the front with the words “Agion Oros” underneath. On closer inspection, one finds that they come from Thailand. Also available are waistcoats and cassocks. Magnets with the symbols of Mount Athos are 1.5 to 3 euros each. At the exit is a large stack of books in different languages and an array of maps of the peninsula.
I roamed around amid the colours and fragrances of the stalls, and I finally realised what I wanted. It was something that would remind me of the smell and flavour of Mount Athos, its air and its other-worldly atmosphere. I noticed a display of dried herbs packed in plastic bags. The trader explained to me in Russian that it was authentic herbal tea from Mount Athos, made from dozens of different plants. Every bag came with instructions in Greek. The trader could not tell me any details about the ingredients. Instead, he grimaced intensely as he repeated over and over again, “Oh, this is real tea from Mount Athos.” I random-picked several bags.
I paid up, and the trader took me to a stack with a variety of bottles of locally brewed alcohol. Picking every bottle one by one, he told me which monastery had made it and from what ingredients, grimacing each time to underline its virtues. I bought a bottle with the same inscription as on the T-shirt. I had chosen the tallest and the thinnest, imagining myself giving a pep talk to my friends about the exotic features of this place.
In the meantime, my friends had lost all track of their expenses but still could not get themselves to stop. After a rough estimate of the cost of our shopping spree, I suggested calling it a day, as we might end up with no money for even a small snack at the airport if we continued.
“Vladimir, Igor, it is time to go,” I said. “The ferry will leave soon. Let us have something at Yanis’ bar instead.
“Wait a minute, Father, where did you get this bottle?”
And so the shopping spree resumed with new energy.