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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A pilgrim to Mount Athos....

The Russians have a saying: “even a stick fires once a year”. That means anything might happen quite unexpectedly although not without a reason. In my case, the second visit to Mount Athos in September 2016 resulted from the firing of a woollen prayer rope bought in the Holy Monastery Iviron a few years earlier. When buying I thought of it more like a special souvenir, almost like a mug from a gift shop displaying a picture of a museum or a historic town.

But what began as a kind of curious tourist’s visit turned out to be more like a pilgrim’s journey in the second round, for, it seems to me, that the prayer rope was indeed a “fishing line” on the Lord’s reel. Firstly, querying the way the rope was made, I learned to knit the knots myself and now not only all of my friends, but my whole house is full of prayer ropes of different sorts. Secondly (and more importantly), I have tried to pray the Jesus Prayer… It was then I realised what a treasure I was missing in my spiritual journey. It brought such joy, focus and enrichment to my prayer life! In a much broader way The Prayer also touched other aspects of my life influencing me to review the way I see myself, my ministry, my relationships with God and the way I discern how the Christian community should function in the contemporary world.]

Because of time constraints I’m afraid it would not be possible to elaborate on all aspects of the inner transformation that has taken place within my soul, but after reading the Philokalia and several other books on Orthodox spirituality the decision was made to visit Mount Athos once again. To my joy an old friend of mine, Rupert, joined me and we started to plan the visit.

With the help of our good spiritual orthodox friends Fr. Anastasios and Dr. Dimitris Salapatas with Mr. Christos Orthodoxou who are also members of the AECA (Anglican and Eastern Churches Association), of which I have the honour to be the Pilgrimage Secretary; the permission was obtained for the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi. It has to be said (in my limited experience) Greece is always full of surprises, so when Rupert asked me for a plan of our retreat, my response was, “please be assured of the gracious hospitality, but forget about the plan.” You see, the monks’ priority is prayer, not administration. I then added: “They might not even be aware of our arrival.” I was joking, but surely enough, this was the case. So, after a warm welcome by the local Fathers we settled in Vatopedi for three days. The day we arrived Vatopedi celebrated its own special Feast of the Holy Cincture of Theotokos. The great opportunity to immerse oneself into the life of prayer and celebration. The feast continued through the night until almost lunch the following day.
 Alongside Abbot Ephraim was serving Russian Mitropolit of Voronez and Liski Sergiy. The visit of the important hierarch no doubt added to the grandeur and magnificence of the celebration, but what was important for us, who can be easily classified as outsiders, is the experience of the intensity of prayer, genuine commitment and humility of the members of this worshipping community. Their beards are untidy; their way of prayer is very different, ancient and looks very archaic. Thoughts of accommodating anything or anyone, making the place “relevant” or “inclusive” do not seem to cross the minds of the people of prayer. Their motivation is union with God and godly relationships with each other. The church is a place of worship, not a social club. Provision for the flesh in terms of comfort is also restricted. You just stand during the long hours of prayer, for the prayer, if it doesn't cost you anything, doesn't really count. The serene atmosphere of the holy place might therefore easily appear strict and severe to the person used to live in the worldly culture of carnal pleasures, yet, looking intently, one can discern the abundance of inner joy and unshakable faith.

“It looks like the monks are the only people I know who can smile with their eyes” said Rupert. I agreed. Even the physical touch is quite an experience. In the crowded church, filled by sweaty pilgrims stepping on each other’s toes, monks make their way by moving among or even physically moving awkwardly standing pilgrims in a surprisingly gentle way. You feel the touch, but you wonder if it was even physical or not. Then, of course, the food! We eat twice a day and had a lovely diet with an abundance of olives, wine, grapes and olives. All grown locally. By the way, the natural environment at Mount Athos is almost untouched. It is really a nature reserve. At Vatopedi I was struck to my heart to see the monks standing in a bowing position as we finished the meal. They have offered us a place to stay, fed us and humbly bowed as we were leaving the refectory. Unbelievable!

During our stay in Athos we visited two other Monasteries (St. Anna and Great Lavra) and climbed the Holy Mountain. Quite an experience! All this would take a lot of time to describe, so to finish I want to mention one instance that, I believe, was quite significant for us. It was a conversation with one of the young Fathers who we met near the top of the Holy Mountain at the place called Panagea. The Father said: “Welcome home”. Those words now stay with me and make me think.
Thank you to Fr. Anastasios, Dr. Dimitris Salapatas and Mr. C. Orthodoxou for their help in making this retreat possible. And thank you to my friend Rupert Miles for his patience and forbearance with me.

In Christ
Fr. Andrei Petrine
Priest in Charge of St. Nicholas Laindon.
AECA Pilgrimage Secretary
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