Monks of Mount Athos – is there something we should learn from them?

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By Sitalatma das

January 7 is the date of Orthodox Christmas but most of our devotees are not familiar with that tradition though there are quite a few useful things we can learn from it.

Srila Rupa Goswami wrote in both Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and in Upadesamrita about importance of living in holy places like Vrindavana. Orthodox equivalent of it would be Mt. Athos, which is located at the tip of Mt. Athos peninsula in Northern Greece. They say that Virgin Mary took shelter there during a big storm and then Jesus Christ personally allocated that place to her as her personal garden. They say it’s particularly suited for cultivating love and devotion.

Currently there are twenty monasteries around the mountain and worship has been going on there for well over a thousand years. It’s a self governed community and, while it suffered some raids and looting, all the rulers for the past thousand years, including Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany, respected local laws which closely follow laws of the first monasteries established there in the 8th and 9th centuries. It’s not that the monks argued that they were the rightful rulers but that they were humble servants of this Holy Land and outsiders accepted it.

Even as located in Greece, the Mt Athos issues its own visas and unless one is a legitimate Orthodox pilgrim with proper references obtaining visas is difficult. Tourism or sightseeing are considered invalid reasons for entry and they try to weed out people with such attitudes. According to thousand year laws no wheeled vehicle can enter the peninsula and up to this day it accessible only by boat (there’s technically a walkway but the peninsula is 50 km long).

All the monks living there, about 2,000, are celibates and no women are allowed to step foot on Mt. Athos, although when western females discovered this rule there were a few cases when they sneaked in in disguise and then wrote books or newspaper articles about it. Female presence is considered undesirable for two reasons – since it’s a garden of Virgin Mary no other females are welcome, similar not no males rule for Mt. Kailash, and because it causes distraction in the service to the Lord, which is the main and only occupation of the monks.

While speaking of externals and preliminaries – monks grow olives and nuts and trade them for grains and beans and some other items. They do their own tailoring. They also make their own wine and a glass of it is served with every meal. However, judging by the fact that they drink it 9 in the morning, getting intoxicated is not their objective. Their clocks keep Byzantine time – their days starts at sunset and that’s when their clocks point to 12. This makes translating their schedule into ours rather complicated, considering that the time of sunset varies significantly there.

What we should really take notice of is that their sadhana consists mostly of chanting Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). There are variations of it and they chant it in their own language (there are monks from all over the world there but mainly from Greece, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania). All their liturgical services, however, are in the language they claim was used in the times of Christ, kind of like our Bengali songs sang during guru-puja and gaura-arati. When they are not doing communal worship, however, they chant to themselves. Non-stop, all day long, and with practice they chant it even while they sleep. Monks, therefore, hardly talk to each other, not unless it’s absolutely necessary, and they learn to keep chanting even while talking to others.

With over a thousand year of history and thousands and thousands of monks going through this practice they got an elaborate system of stages they go through while chanting. It starts like we do – audible chanting, then proceeds to chanting happening in the mind and, eventually, chanting done in the heart. Somewhere at the intermediate stage chanting overtakes the consciousness and continues independently no matter what the person does.

There’s a big and important stage where the practitioner attains “goodness” or “grace” which looks like what we call brahma-bhuta platform where the person experiences freedom from all suffering and overwhelming joy. There’s a lot of literature about this stage and how to distinguish it from what they call “prelest” – spiritual delusions and hallucinations of various kinds. When monks die their bodies are exhumed after a few years and their bones are kept in special ossuaries. Bones of monks who are known to have achieved the goodness stage are visibly distinct, which shows that this transformation into goodness is as much real as anything in modern science. It’s a good thing they keep scientists out of Mt. Athos, though.

At the highest stage of chanting the practitioner attains direct vision of God’s Kingdom but they don’t disclose any details in public literature, except that they see confirmations of Christian version of creation. False visions of God’s kingdom are also possible but they must be rejected at the stage of battling “prelest” – a few steps earlier.

At this point it’s probably time to re-examine our assertions that chanting like Haridas Thakur or Six Goswamis is impossible. We routinely praise “Namacarya” Haridas Thakur but we do not consider actually following him so the title becomes meaningless. Why is that thousands of these Orthodox monks can chant day and night non-stop but we can’t? Now that many of our devotees are retired from active duties and call themselves vanaprasthas perhaps it’s time for our society to start talking about increasing the number of our daily rounds. Not compulsory, of course, but for those who can it could be encouraged. As it is, we don’t have any good examples of just sitting and chanting to follow, only bad ones. Chanting more rounds also looks easier to implement than getting old people out in the streets to preach as if they were still twenty. There’s a lot for us to consider here.

Back to the monks of Mt. Athos. They go to sleep shortly after sunset and get up before midnight. Then they spend a few hours praying alone and they value this time because light diffuses concentration, as they say. They even recommend drinking coffee if one is sleepy, or standing up and stretching or waving hands to keep themselves awake. Sometimes in the middle of the night they also have a few hours of communal liturgies and so it continues until breakfast. They are not vegetarian but they don’t eat any meat ever, only fish, and they abstain from fish during their various lents several times a year, each lasting for weeks. Usually they have two meals per day but twice a week they eat only once. During the meals, for which only 10 minutes is allotted, one of the monks keep chanting from the scriptures and there’s no talking otherwise. This schedule varies between monasteries, private cells, and communal “sketes” outside the monasteries. During the day they are engaged in various maintenance and agricultural services but their lips always keep moving as they chant their prayer. There are more liturgies in the evenings.

Visitors are usually blown away by their collection of artifacts and monasteries themselves look very opulent and even more elaborately decorated inside but the monks insist that this is not art but expression of devotion and monasteries are not museums but places of worship. Theirs is a completely different view of the world from, sad to say, ours. We are a preaching movement, though, so we hope that gawking will lead to devotion while for them it’s understandably distracting.

Another important aspect is that in Orthodox Christianity following preceptors is the only way of spiritual progress. There’s no democracy on Mt. Athos, you can’t just show up and claim the right to be taught – one must be selected and accepted by a known teacher. Likewise, one can’t practice on his own – guidance must always be there. One can’t approach Jesus Christ on his own either – only through what we’d call a parampara. This is very different from Protestant Christians we are familiar with. The “grace” I mentioned earlier cannot be earned by one’s own efforts either. Sometimes it overlooks those who perform “better” and is bestowed on those who offered humble service to fellow practitioners. There’s quite a lot there that we have in common.

I don’t know if any of our devotees ever been there but I imagine it would have been a very valuable visit. As it happens, most reports from there (there are about a thousand visitors allowed per day, if I remember correctly) are done through the eyes of materialists – how they live, what they eat, how opulent their surroundings are, how secluded some of their cells and monasteries are etc. As devotees, however, we should be more interested in how absorbed they are in their chanting, how they relate to their external duties, how they preserve their concentration, and, generally, all the things that go on inside.

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