Adventures · Life in Greece

12 February: Christmas on Athos, Part 2: Simonopetra

It’s hard to take in the unspoiled beauty and silence of the Holy Mountain, and it’s difficult to write about it even now. It’s just something that you have to experience and something that reaches the depths of your heart. So, I’ll just leave it at that.

Once you get over the first crest, the path winds down, you descend all the way to a rocky beach and it feels like you’ve lost your way. But the path actually continues up the next ridge with a much steeper incline. I’d say this point is about forty minutes into the hike. The feeling of excitement grows as you see the towering fortress of Simonopetra and her grid of wooden balconies draw nearer.

Then you get a little covered “rest stop” with a water fountain and a signs pointing towards the port or towards Simonopetra. About a hundred yards from the entrance to the monastery there’s a fork, and if you take the path on the right, you wind up at the mule stables and if you go left, it takes you to the monastery.

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I waited in the reception room for a little while until they’d finished preparing the dorm. It’s customary to offer newly arrived guests: a glass of water for hydration, a plate of loukoumi (Turkish Delights) for nourishment, and a glass of tsipouro/raki (Greek moonshine) to stop the sweat. A few monks and guests who were waiting as well. Simonopetra is quite an international monastery with both monks and guests from all over the world so it isn’t hard to find someone who speaks your language, especially English!

The first day we prayed vespers, dinner, and then compline where I finally saw Vincent. The next day was Christmas Eve and we had the the divine liturgy, lunch, and then I went back to my dorm. Not long afterwards, Vincent came to fetch me and we both went to go speak with Fr. Iakovos, an American monk and his spiritual father. This was an unexpected blessing for me. I’d heard about him and seen him interviewed on 60 Minutes before, but as Simonopetra is quite busy especially during Christmas, I didn’t think I’d get the chance to actually meet him, much less sit and speak with him for an extended period of time (twice actually)!

The vigil went from 6pm to midnight. At a point after I’d stopped keeping track of the time, two monks came to the center of the dark church with long hooked staffs in hand, after lighting the candles in the main chandelier, hooked it and started swinging it. This was something I’d only heard about and hadn’t even seen on video. When the swinging slowed or stopped, they’d come out again and repeated the process, so it was in continuous motion for the last couple hours of the service. This spectacle combined with the legendary chanting of the monks, especially with the Christmas hymns, made the night all the more special.

Around the same time, we could hear powerful winds blowing outside and I wondered whether the storm had finally come. After the vigil we walked outside to see nearly a foot of snow on the path to the guest house and there were already monks shoveling the path.

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The snowfall only continued and doubled the snow on the ground the next day. After liturgy and lunch, Fr. Iakovos took me to Abbot Elisseos’ (Elisha’s) homily and we sat for coffee, sweets, and homemade fruit liquour.

Afterwards, I said goodbye to him, Vincent, and as many monks as I could before catching the van. Because of all the snow, we had to walk a little ways along the road to meet the van, which was okay because it gave us some opportunities to take photos. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to take pictures within the chapels in the monasteries, but I definitely plan on returning to both.

Growing up, I loved Christmas and eagerly anticipated it for weeks in advance. I still love Christmas, and probably more so and for different reasons. Never would I have thought that I’d celebrate Christmas twice (13 days apart), willingly becoming sleep-deprived (both times) at a thousand year old monastery in a forgotten land, nor that it would be a white Christmas (I grew up in California lowlands)!

Strange as it may seem, I love where God has taken my life.

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