The Friends of Mount Athos
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Views from Mount Athos. By Robin Amis. Chicago and Bristol: Praxis Institute Press, 2014. Pp. 232. $24.95 paperback. ISBN 978-187-2292-32-8.
Setting out on this review I began, with pencil in hand, to mark the text to highlight particular observations either on the landscape of Mount Athos or on matters of theology, and the teachings of the elders. After no more than a few pages I had put down my pencil and had begun to read, just that, to read the story that Robert Amis tells, the adventures of mind and heart. Wonderful stories. Wonderful encounters. For this is a personal narrative, the story of a pilgrim who visited the Holy Mountain sixty times in thirty years, returning again and again to deepen the experience of what it is to live a holy life.
At the heart of this story is the acceptance of difficulty, of sorrow and suffering (thlipsis), as a pathway to a change of heart, a path to understanding and, perhaps, transformation. Sometimes this was the physical difficulty of travel, with all the to-ing and fro-ing that is required to have the right papers, travelling by bus from Daphne to Karyes and then back again to pick up the boat to set off round the coast to Simonopetra or Grigoriou. Sometimes the bus was there and sometimes it was not. Sometimes it was there, but was having a new engine fitted. Sometimes it was very hot and dusty and sometimes it was raining so hard that all travel came to a stop. Sometimes it was the difficulty of setting aside a Western impatience and waiting for a meeting with the Elder Paisios, who might be chopping wood just when Robin had arrived to speak with him.
Sleeping in simple beds or having to share with other pilgrims may not be easy to those of us who are accustomed to the comfort of hotels and the certainty of a holiday schedule:
…to discover the Athos of the historian, the scholar, the back-packer, is difficult enough. To discover the religious heart of Athos is more difficult. One has to overcome preconceptions as well as physical problems, cross communication gaps, as well as climb mountains, and to uncover the secrets of one’s own heart can be most difficult of all, for the roots of all difficulties live there. But on this path of pilgrimage, thlipsis, difficulty, has a positive value.
On one occasion, finding himself in great discomfort in a shared hotel room in Karyes, Robin writes of his experience of ‘the “bitter waters”’:
It was during this long day, with no monastic spirituality to compensate for the barren environment that I met in full-strength the ‘bitter waters’ of separation from the distractions of the outside world, and so learned something about how, in our Western world, we use comforts, our distractions, to hide from ourselves. At the same time I learned to value more fully the unique riches of the monastic world which had been so kindly opened to me.
As I read Robin’s story, I did pick up my pencil again, as there are some interesting theological matters discussed in the narrative, shared as if you are just talking to Robin about his adventures: the nature of pilgrimage, the meaning of recognition and knowledge, the awareness of koinonia or belonging, the way of the householder, the Dikaioi, the way of hospitality, philoxenia, and what it means to become more like God, synergia. And, most particularly, there is discussion of prosevchi, directed or attentive prayer, and of the Jesus Prayer and the way in which this is said on the Holy Mountain with an unceasing stillness or hesychia.
For anyone who has been to Mount Athos, the remembrances will be delightful; for anyone who has not, this will encourage them to do so – descriptions of the pathways and of perilous balconies, of being welcomed with water, strong Greek coffee, raki, and loukoumi, and of the mesmeric chanting and incense and the swinging corona and chandeliers. There are also examples of Athonite coincidence or miracle-working:
Then just when you give up, when you say it is impossible, I can do nothing, coincidence taps on the door and says: it is all arranged. Go now! So the very nature of Greece conspires with truth, with God perhaps, to make one a little more humble. Is it coincidence? Around Athos, nobody is sure.
Many delights. The book is presented in short chapters, with photographs of the places that Robin visited. For those not so familiar with the configuration of the Mountain, it would benefit from a map, but I recommend this book to you. I would like to have met Robin and heard him telling his stories first hand. But perhaps I have. And I am buying another copy of his book to give to a friend who loves the Holy Mountain. It will bring him back there again.