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Pilgrimage to Mt Athos 2016. Fr Joseph Skinner

- Fr. Joseph, was this trip in any way different from your previous ones?
-  Every visit to Athos is different. It's very difficult to express in words. This one was very calm, we walked absolutely everywhere, from one end of the Holy Mountain to the other, it was a total immersion into the atmosphere of the place, very peaceful. We travelled from monastery to monastery, staying a night in each one. We arranged it so that we didn't use taxis, but walked from one place to the next. We covered 124 km in just 4 days.

- Do the monasteries differ in any way?
- Each monastery has its own character. We started our journey at the great Russian monastery of St Panteleimon. This time we could not stay there because they were preparing for the visits of Patriarch Kirill and President Putin for the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Russian monastic presence on Mt Athos. We got off the boat there and went to venerate the holy relics, including the head of St Silouan, after which we went to the mill where he worked, which was very inspiring. We read the Akathist to St Silouan there. Walking along the coast via the monasteries of Xenofontos and Dochiariou and then turning inland, we arrived at Zographou. This is a Bulgarian monastery. We had a contact there, a novice who used to be a parishioner at Ennismore Gardens, and we were very warmly welcomed. It happened to be my birthday, so we were treated to a glass or two of surprisingly good home-made brandy in the garden after the evening meal.

The next day we walked over the ridge and down to Vatopedi on the other side of the peninsula. This is one of the oldest monasteries and also one of the first to come back to life after the prolonged decline  of monastic life on Athos during the first half of the 20th century. It is now the biggest monastery in terms of numbers, very dynamic, very open, they have very many visitors. There they have not one, not two, but seven wonder-working irons of  the Mother of God, including some very famous ones, like Paramythia (Consolation) and Pantanassa (Ruler of All). And again, as everywhere on Athos, absolutely amazing holy relics – the belt of the Mother of God, the head of St John Chrysostom and many others.

-  Did you have to pre-book your stays, or could just turn up?
-  If you want to stay a night it is generally necessary to pre -book, though it was not easy, as there are many visitors at this time of the year, and I left it too late, so until the last minute there was uncertainty, but thanks to the Mother of God and St Silouan it all went well. We stayed the next night in Karyes, which the capital of Mt Athos, at St Andrew’s skete. It is connected to the history of Russian monasticism on the Mountain.  Although it is a skete of Vatopedi, in the late 19th century it became a great centre of Russian monastic life. The main church is the largest on Athos and distinctively Russian in its architecture. Sadly St Andrew’s fell into ruin in the 20th century, but now is gradually coming back to life.
-  Are there All-Night Vigils, which really go though the whole night?

-  On the big feasts the Vigil lasts from about 8 pm to about 2 am. The normal schedule, however, is like this: they ring a bell at 3.30 am, you get up in the middle of the night, you go to the church, wg#hich is almost completely dark, the service starts at 4 am with the midnight office and then all the offices follow one after another - Matins (in full, reading all the kathismas), the Hours and the Holy Liturgy. By 8 o'clock in the morning the service is over, it has been four hours, but you don't feel the time somehow, because the prayer carries you. When they get to the point in Matins, where the priest says, ‘Glory to Thee, who has shown us the light’, it is indeed just getting light. Everything is how it should be, centred on prayer, this constant prayer. The monastic day is divided in 3 parts: 8 hours for prayer, 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest.

- Did you live according to that schedule?
- Yes, we accommodated ourselves to it, each as he could. The monks work, it is not an idle life. They try to be self-sufficient, they grow vegetables, etc. There is a lot of building work going on, because the Holy Mountain is reviving. In the middle of the 20th century it seemed the end had come; in St Panteleimon’s monastery, for instance, there were only seven monks left, whereas before there were a thousand or more. But against all expectations a great miracle happened, young men started to come, elders appeared.

- Did you meet any?
•    Well, it is not spiritual tourism. However, we did meet and get a blessing from Elder Grigorios, the abbot of Dochiariou, a beautiful monastery on the coast. There is a lot of work going on there, mountains of brick and cement, and he supervises it all, usually with several dogs running around and barking (he is fond of dogs). I heard a story about him. One Russian man came there, a military man, not a churchgoer or believer, just to see what it is like, and afterwards he was planning on going to Prague to see his lady friend. And he had the misfortune to encounter this Elder Grigorios, who straightaway said to him: ‘Hmm, what's the point of coming to the Holy Mountain if you are going to see your lover afterwards?’
Everyone knows that women are not allowed on Athos. There are good reasons for that, of course, and it is interesting how quickly one adapts to that. What is very apparent when you are there, however, is the very strong brotherly love between the monks.

- What is it like when you come back to the world?
- It’s an interesting and rather disturbing experience. After my first visit I had a very powerful feeling, as if I was entering a lunatic asylum: so much noise, so much running around, so many advertisements to buy this and that - madness! The specific feature of the Holy Mountain is that everything there is organised with one aim in mind, as it says in the Gospel, the ‘one thing needful’. This gives a coherence, a harmony, and a very clear purpose to life.

- Do they allow children (boys) there?
- In theory until a man can grow his beard, he should not be allowed on the Holy Mountain, but in practice they allow even quite small boys to visit, accompanied by their fathers.

- It must be amazing for children to experience the difference between the world we live in now and the world of the past...
- Well, it is a world where past, present, future do not have such a great significance. When you go to the night prayer in the dimly-lit church you have no way of knowing what century you are living in. Is it the 10th century, is it the 14th century, the 21st or perhaps the 25th century?  Because essentially nothing has changed and, God willing, nothing will change till the end of the world. This is something almost unique in today's world - this sense of continuity. To some extent this is one of the characteristics of Orthodox Church as a whole. When we look at the icons of Saints, we do not think of them as people who lived hundreds of years ago, they are alive and present today, as they were then. They are in eternity. Athos is a living manifestation of this spiritual continuity.

When we speak about spiritual things we cannot always express it fully in language. Pilgrimage is of course an external journey, which you can easily describe - where we went, what our route was, how far we walked etc. But there is also an internal journey. For me it is somehow a journey back to oneself, and through oneself to the Reality beyond oneself. Our life in the world is so busy, even if we are busy with good things - raising children, working in the church, being good members of our society and so on, that it is very hard to keep contact with one's inner reality, we can easily forget about this. In this case the purpose of a pilgrimage is to make contact with one’s real self. It sounds almost egotistic, but in the words of the Lord, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you’, and so we have to attempt the journey to this inner Kingdom.

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