While still sitting in the wardroom, I instructed my companions “with competence”.
– Everyone will have their own Athos. It may happen so that the Mother of God will lead us in different paths. If one of us feels a strong desire to stay behind at some point or to take a different route, that’s okay. This is normal, and we shouldn’t interfere with that. There may also be temptations. Even if you are upset or feel any other unusual emotion towards one another, you need to drive away bad thoughts with prayer, be patient and avoid getting irritated. Everything can happen here on Athos… Before advancing into any action, it is advisable to ask for a blessing from anyone nearby with spiritual authority and accept it as obedience to the Most Pure Lady.
The guys listened to me very attentively. They did not know my inner infirmities and relied with confidence on everything that I had previously read about this holy place and was now repeating to them.
Soon it turned out that everyone really did end up having their own Athos, and the tension between my companions also settled in at some point and has been hanging in the air for a decent part of our pilgrimage. But more on that later.
Having finished photographing the landscape, I approached a passenger wearing a worn-out cassock and a faded Greek-style skufia. At first glance he seemed to be about 45 years old. His thin, sharp face had lively dark eyes and a thin reddish beard. The “siromakha” (as I christened this man) was standing at the portside telling something to my fellow Russian speakers whose numbers on the ferry seemed to be quite high. (Siromakhi are “unattached” rasophors or “laymen in monks’ clothing” living on Mount Athos. Their spiritual life cannot be studied or defined. Among them there are real ascetics as well as real vagabonds). When he learned of our intention to make Vatopedi the first point of our pilgrimage, he said:
– It’s not going to work. If you have no invitation from this monastery, you will not get there. – I had no reason not to trust him, and I must admit that I was worried. – On the road there is a checkpoint with a barrier and an unbribable Greek who does not let anyone pass, not for any money.
– But what should we do? – Apparently, my dejected countenance aroused sympathy in him, and he decided to console me.
– Tell him that you are heading to Xilurgu. This is an old Russian skete, and he will let you through. The locals call it the hermitage of the Mother of God, or Panagia, and Xilurgu is an ancient historical name that our ancestors received when they began to use wood as building material on Mount Athos. Their buildings soon fell into disrepair due to insect infestation. Our fellow countrymen were then ironically nicknamed “wood-makers” (Xilurgu in Greek).
It looks like everything is going “as planned”, I thought to myself and made a mental note with that useful information.
– Excuse me, you look like one of the siromakhi – I wasn’t going to say that, but it finally slipped out.
– This is what I am. – The siromakha then told me about the holy relics resting on Mount Athos, mentioning among other things some relics (!) that I should be careful not to venerate. He told me a story of a monk who had an acolyte’s obedience in Vatopedi. His duties included preparing the church for the service and also cleaning it. He filled the lamps with oil and lit the incense burners. Because of his obedience, he was often late for meals, aggravating the refectorian who one day left the monk without breakfast. In anger the acolyte stabbed an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos with a knife, saying, “I have been serving You for so long, and here it is gratitude!..” Blood flowed from the slashed board. The monk went mad and blind. Three years later, through the care and prayers of the brethren, he came back to his senses and spent the rest of his life in repentance. The Mother of God forgave him, which She told him in a vision, but She did not forgive his hand, with which he struck the image on the icon.
After this monk’s death, his body decayed completely, except for his hand. The blackened hand, untouched by the natural process of corruption, is still kept in the monastery for the edification of the brethren. For some time, it was just lying about behind stasidias (sic). The stunned pilgrims often venerated this hand, mistaking it for another Athonite shrine. Eventually they decided to put it out of sight. The icon is called “Esphagmeni” (meaning “the immolated”).
The siromakha, (I did not ask his name) also said that the situation in the St Pantaleon Monastery was rather complicated. “They accept pilgrims very unwillingly, and most of the goods are expensive and brought from Russia. It is ruled by the Ukes (sic) now…” Clearly, such stories should be treated with caution and adjusted for subjectivity. But, like any other “insider” information, they possess a certain magnetism.
I was interested in hearing more Athonite stories, but my eyes began to distinguish the contours of the Pantaleon monastery that I had seen in photographs. We began to prepare to go ashore. The next stop after the Russian monastery was Daphne. Behind that name, which reminded me of biology lessons, is the main Athos port, more precisely – a pier with customs, shops, a tavern and some other buildings. It was time to step on the holy shore.