The RAVENS and the VIRGIN
[Published in 2000, the events in this story took place in September 1997.]
In the northern Greek province of Macedonia, protruding like a bone spur from the last finger of Chalkidiki, Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain, rises above the Aegean in the primrose mist of a September evening. According to Christian legend, this narrow peninsula was sanctified by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who took refuge here one dark and stormy night. As a result, all females—human or animal—are prohibited from approaching within 500 meters of the rugged shoreline, ostensibly in deference to the Virgin’s legacy. Were I a woman, this absurd irony would really piss me off. But since I was born into the “privileged” gender, I feel compelled to follow in the shimmering wake of the Virgin’s veil, and act as Her excluded sisters’ eyes.
Might this be called gynaecomorphism, I wonder?
“Look, look, there is Saint Athos.” Kostas, my effusive Salonican cab driver, nudges me out of a groggy half-sleep. The lavender wedge of granite seems to levitate above the smooth obsidian sea, an icon from another eon—a time when Zeus and his brother Poseidon ruled the land and water in this corner of the world, oblivious to the imminent Christos who would eventually displace their kind forever.
I was never to learn why Kostas insisted on referring to the sanctuary of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity as “Saint”  As far as I know, Athos has always been a mountain, and an impressive one at that. It rises to a sharp peak 2,033 meters above the Singitic Gulf, perilously steep on its northern face, more forgiving on the southern exposure, according to the Austrian topo map I’ve been studying. Then again, Athos seems very much like the Orthodox Christian God, Himself: lofty, imposing, and stern—yet approachable, if one is willing to follow the designated course.
Earlier that morning, I stood on the 2,917-meter summit of Myticas, highest peak of the Olympus massif, from whence a legendary cohort of brooding, squabbling deity once determined the fate of humankind. But I found no trace of the old gods’ splendor or excess remaining on the peak Homer had called Pantheon—only a book [courtesy of the Greek Alpine Club] recording the hubris of men who climb holy mountains, and the garbage they leave behind to mark their brief moment of rarefied glory.
But I have no intention of climbing Mount Athos. I approach it with head bowed, as a pilgrim—all the more odd because I am neither Orthodox nor Christian, rather something of a heretic. And that I’ve gotten this far in my attempt to penetrate the final bastion of Byzantine conservatism seems…well, “miraculous" is the word that comes to mind.
Mount Athos is not a tourist destination. For the past millennium, it has been the most important place of pilgrimage for all sects of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where male Greeks, Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Rumanians, have found monastic refuge from the Ottoman fire of Islam, Balkan belligerence, and the post-war geo-political volatility of Eastern Europe.
The mountain is situated at the southern tip of Aktí, a long, narrow peninsula to the east of Thessaloniki—or “Salonica”, as the Greeks call it—approachable only by boat from the nearby resort town of Ouranopolis. A diamonetherion, special permission from the Greek Church, is needed to enter the semiautonomous republic of Orthodox monks, and that is obtainable only after one has presented a letter of recommendation from one’s own embassy to the Ministry of Political Affairs for Macedonia, and paid an entrance fee of 7,000 drachmas. Access is rigidly controlled, and once there, the peripatetic pilgrim is required to move from monastery to monastery, sleeping in dormitories, and eating the simple fare consistent with a monk’s Spartan lifestyle. Officially, visitors may stay for only four days, but during that time they are given the opportunity to participate in liturgical services largely unchanged for fifteen hundred years.
I decided I had to see this Byzantine relic for myself, but that turned out to be not so easily accomplished. After a series of late night calls to Greece, I finally tracked down the bureaucrat in charge of issuing permits to Mount Athos, and explained to her my interest in pilgrimage. “Are you Orthodox?” Ms. Plesa inquired. My negative response was met with icy finality. “It is impossible,” she replied.
But I was not easily put off. Through a friend, I contacted the head of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco. “I’ll fax your request to the Patriarch of Constantinople,” Bishop Antony assured me. Although I found it curious that he referred to Istanbul by its pre-Islamic name, I was elated to have penetrated the sectarian barrier. But when September came, and I had received no reply, the Bishop’s secretary set me straight. “The Patriarch has a lot on his agenda,” she admonished. “It could take months.”
Undaunted, I flew to Thessaloniki, arriving on the evening of September 11th, tired, unshaven, and ready to submit myself to a higher authority—even Ms. Plesa, if necessary. I knew only that I had been “called” here—by whatever internal beacon is responsible for such certainty in the face of an overwhelmingly discouraging reality.
When I noticed a man attired in the black raiment of an Orthodox priest directly behind me in the airport taxi queue, things got interesting. The monk was slender, almost delicate, beneath his austere robes; he wore a long, silver beard, round spectacles, and pillbox hat reminiscent of a medieval scholar. There was tranquillity to his demeanor, but a sparkle in his eyes that belied the sartorial solemnity.
“Father, do you speak English?”
His incisive eyes assessed my interest. “Yes.”
“I’m trying to get to Mount Athos,” I continued quickly. “Perhaps you know something about it?”
A pause, and then he replied, “I live there.”
“Mind if we share a cab?” I asked, trying not to sound overly anxious.
On the way into Salonica I made small talk with the priest. “So, what do you do on Mount Athos?”
“I’m a monk,” he replied, his soft voice measured and patient, but tinted with a hint of amusement. “I don’t do anything.”
“Of course, I meant besides your duties as a priest?”
“I write a little,” the monk admitted. “Mostly poetry.”
“I’ve been very interested in places considered ‘sacred’,” I told him. “I don’t know if they are sacred because people think they are, or whether there is something inherently powerful that exists in these places. But my personal experience has led me to believe that some palpable energy can be experienced at these sites.”
“What sort of energy would that be?” He went along with me.
“Well…,” I groped, “I guess you’d have to call it ‘divine nature’.”
The priest raised an eyebrow; his lips pursed into a restrained smile beneath the silver strands of his mustache. “In that case, all places are sacred.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I admitted, attempting nonetheless to salvage my theory. “But some places seem to be more sacred than others. I’ve been told Mount Athos is one of those places.”
The priest looked straight ahead—a penetrating stare that passed through the driver, the windscreen, the approaching city, all the way across the Palm of Chalkidiki to his monastic home that I had yet to see. “That may be so,” he said with an abbreviated nod, the lights of Thessaloniki reflecting in his glasses. “I think you must go there.”
He handed me an envelope bearing his name and address:
Hieromonk Symeon, Skelli Timiou Stavrou, Mt. Athos, Greece.
On the envelope he scrawled a telephone number. “If you have difficulty, I’ll be at this number in Salonica until Sunday morning.”
The cab turned a corner, and stopped in front of a town house. Father Symeon politely declined my offer to pay, told the driver something in Greek, and handed him 3,000 drachmas. “Good luck,” he said, then slipped out of the cab.
When we arrived at my hotel ten minutes later, the driver refused money. “It is all settled, ” he said flatly, without even a hint of curiosity. “The priest paid f or you.”
By eight thirty the next morning I was walking along the quay where fishermen were hauling in their morning catch from the Gulf of Thessalonikis. At nine, I rang the bell of the American consulate on Nikis Avenue, where I was given my rubber-stamped “letter of recommendation” by the U.S.A.’s official representative. Precisely at ten, I climbed the steps to the faux classical edifice of the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace at Platia Dioikitiriou.
I found Ms. Plesa’s office at the end of a long marble corridor on the second floor. A humorless woman with short dark hair and the naturally suspicious demeanor of a bureaucrat, Ms. Plesa held court behind a cluttered desk, back-lit by casement windows which didn’t quite open on to an 18-inch balcony. Just outside her door, an uncomfortable wooden bench kept her callers at bay until she was ready to hear their tedious requests. I waited while she took her time stamping permits for a couple of Greek nationals before entering her office with what I hoped was an ingratiating smile.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Plesa. We spoke on the phone several weeks ago… from San Francisco… perhaps you remember?” She didn’t, of course.
Reaching into my folder, I produced the letter written in Greek by Bishop Anthony, which for all I knew denounced me as a dangerous lunatic. The Patriarch, I assured her, would be faxing a response to her office. As Ms. Plesa scrutinized the letter through her bifocals, I mentioned offhandedly that my “dear friend”, Father Symeon, was expecting me at his hermitage on Mount Athos with all possible speed. To clinch the deal, I presented her with my letter of recommendation from the U.S. Consulate, then sat back and waited for her to stamp my permit as perfunctorily as she had the Greeks who preceded me.
“Have you a reservation?” Ms. Plesa asked, setting my documentation aside as if it were just another batch of wood pulp destined to take up space in her filing cabinets.
“A reservation for what?”
“To stay on Mount Athos, you must have a reservation. Please understand that I am only able to issue ten permits each day to foreign nationals, and all available permits have been issued through October the 29th. If you do not already have a reservation,” she paused momentarily to satisfy her sense of dramatic tension, “what am I to do?”
I must have looked pathetic, mouth open, dazed from hitting the bureaucratic wall. What a fool I had been to waste my time and money on such a long shot. Just as I was promising myself never again to listen to those stupid “inner voices”, an outer voice shattered the silence.
“Parakalo, Frau Plesa?” The gentleman in the doorway was dressed in expensive outdoor clothing, flanked by two strapping young men in shorts and hiking boots. “Perhaps I can be of some help,” he switched to perfect English for my benefit. “I have reservations for myself and my three sons to go to Mount Athos this Sunday.”
“And you are…?” Ms. Plesa asked, consulting her database.
“Gerhard Jaeger, from Wuppertal.”
Frowning, Ms. Plesa tapped her keyboard, scrolling through the list, and finally nodded. “Yes, you and your sons have reservations, Herr Jaeger. But how does this help the American?” she asked, inclining her head sideways toward me without making eye contact.
Herr Jaeger smiled. “Well, one of my sons was unable to make the journey, and so I have an extra reservation, you see, which I will be quite happy to transfer to this gentleman.”
Rather than jumping onto her desk and hooting like a Lakers fan, I managed to contain my reaction to stupidly grinning at Herr Jaeger as if he had materialized like a deus ex machina. Finally, I turned to see Ms. Plesa staring at me in disbelief over her bifocals, as if I were surrounded by an angelic glow.
“You are a very lucky man,” she remarked dryly.
Kostas drops me in front of Skites hotel at the far southern end of Ouranopolis, only a few hundred meters from the guarded border of the Mount Athos republic. At the front desk, Pola Bohn, the proprietor, squints up through the smoke from her Silk Cut cigarette and clucks a maternal reprimand. “Why didn’t you call? I would have picked you up at the bus terminal.” she reiterates, in a raspy voice. Ms. Bohn’s gray hair is pulled back to reveal the face of a world-weary artist, an avocation apparent in the elegantly appointed lobby of her hotel. She immediately begins to fuss with my dusty duffel bag.
“No problem,” I tell her, hoisting it away from her ministrations. “I took a cab from Salonica.”
“That must have cost you,” she remarks with a raised eyebrow.
“It was worth it. I’ve been on my feet all day.”
“Ah, well, have a shower and come to the terrace when you’re ready to eat.”
A brilliant moon pours luminescence over the wine dark Aegean, as Ms. Bohn escorts me to a charming blue and white cottage above a shingle beach terminated by a Twelfth century Venetian fortress. Alone at last, I strip naked behind the louvered verandah doors, and prepare to wash the dust of Olympus from my weary body.
“Guten morgen, Herr Jaeger.” I greet my surrogate father as he strides on to the wharf in Ouranopolis at precisely nine a.m. Gerhard stands with legs apart, hands on his hips, grinning his approval. “Ah, my new son speaks perfect German,” he says to me—in English nonetheless.
“You have already your diamonetherion?” Gerhard asks.
“I bought a ticket for the boat, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, no.” He pulls a white envelope from his pocket and unfolds a document written in Greek and stamped with the two-headed eagle, official seal of the Byzantine Empire and subsequently the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Your permit, man! Good god, you can’t board without it.” Herr Jaeger takes me by the arm and we walk briskly through a maze of alleys permeated by the omnipresent smells of elinikafes [Greek coffee], Turkish tobacco, and freshly caught fish. “They will arrest you if you attempt to board without a permit,” Gerhard admonishes. Why is it everyone seems to know about these small details except me?
Finally, we reach the Port Authority, and I stand in line with an odd assortment of mainly Greek pilgrims. When my turn comes, I give the officer in charge 7000 drachmas, and assure him I have no video camera—as unwelcome as women on Mount Athos. Satisfied, he presents me with a stamped diamonetherion, and I join Gerhard in a sprint to the waiting boat.
On the upper deck of the ferry, the Jaegers and I watch the final trucks on-loading, then settle into fiberglass seats beneath sun tarps.
The Northern European pilgrims are obvious in their sturdy hiking boots and rucksacks stuffed to the gunwales. They study maps, read books on Byzantine history, and take photos of everything. The Greeks, in exquisite contrast, rarely have cameras, are usually dressed in street clothing and shoes, and carry only a small athletic bag—more than likely filled with food and cigarettes.
And then there are the “Ravens”—the black-mantled monks, bearded, robed and hook-nosed—who pace the decks with disdainful expressions. I feel about them as I did those Sisters of Perpetual Corporeal Punishment to whom I was entrusted for an education. Will Christians never learn how ominous their spiritual representatives appear to children? Buddhist monks aren’t scary; they look like Mr. Clean in saffron pajamas.
Then I spot him by the railing, talking with a group of the Europeans, very un-raven-like despite the identical robes and silver cross, the antithesis of austerity when his intelligent face lights up in lively conversation.
“Father Symeon.” He recognizes me as I approach, and nods in approval.
“Congratulations,” he replies, sea breeze rippling his silver beard as the intense sunlight illuminates his eyes. “Apparently you are meant to go to Mount Athos.”
When I introduce him to the Jaegers, Father Symeon slips effortlessly into German. Later, I hear him speaking fluent Spanish with another group.
“What are your plans?” Father Symeon asks.
“The angels are in charge,” I reply with a shrug.
He smiles. “Well, if the angels decree it, come visit me at the hermitage near Stavronikita. I’ll be there all day tomorrow.”
We cruise south along a rugged coastline crowned by lush green foliage, tagging an occasional dock only long enough for a passenger to disembark, or for one to hop aboard. Past the Bay of Sográfou, the monasteries begin to appear off the port bow: Dochiariou and Xenofontos seem gray and medieval in contrast to the bright green cupolas and white walls of Panteleimonos. Say what you will about the Russians; their pre-Soviet architecture rocks.
Finally, our ferry lumbers into the port at Dáfni, and there is a mad rush to find the bus that will take us up the steep road to Karyai, administrative capitol of Mount Athos and seat of the Ierá Synaxis [Holy Council]. Dust wafts in through open windows as we are jostled along Aktí’s central ridge to Karyai.
Gerhard, Tilman, Philipp, and I sit down to Greek salad, lemon chicken, tsatsiki, and liters of Amstel beer in the raucous taverna. “Eat well,” Herr Jaeger admonishes. “We don’t know when we will see food again.”
Gerhard has been four times to Mount Athos, and seems to harbor a good-natured disdain for the austere regimentation of the Orthodox community. “They keep Byzantine time, you know. The daily cycle begins at sunset, which changes every day. They have evening vespers and compline , then, depending on where you are, the monks rise at perhaps one or two in the morning, pray in their cells for a few hours, then gather for a meal before the liturgy. This begins at four-thirty, maybe five o’clock, and lasts until seven-thirty or eight. Then they might have coffee, go off to do some chores, and return to eat their mid-day meal—often with wine—at nine or ten. The problem is that you must be there when the food is served, or you will miss out. There is no set schedule; everything revolves around the prayers.”
“Wine with breakfast,” quips Tilman. “They must be happy in their work.”
“Or asleep in their fields,” Philipp retorts.
After the meal, we hoist our rucksacks and hit the dusty road. On our way through Karyai, we pass the Protaton, probably the most important church on Mount Athos. Gerhard has a word with the gatekeeper and we are admitted to the dark sanctuary. “ This is great fortune,” Herr Jaeger informs me in a whisper. “The Protaton is rarely open to the public.”
As my eyes adjust to the dim light, they are greeted by a cosmological pantheon of saints and bishops, lovingly painted into the once-wet plaster of the dome and adjacent vaults above me. The anonymous frescoes, Gerhard explains with great reverence, are the oldest on Mount Athos, dating from the fourteenth century. A filigreed brass chandelier hangs from the center of the dome, and silver censers draped from its circular superstructure glitter in the scant mid-day light leaking through the stained glass windows. I move closer to inspect the hand-carved iconostasis, where the penumbrated faces of Jesus and Mary peek from their shimmering raiment of silver and gold. Bee’s wax candles dimly light our journey back in time, accompanied by an austere parade representing a heavenly hierarchy of the Christ-nature.
In the eighth and ninth century, any depiction of Jesus and the saints came under attack by iconoclasts of the period who decried the making and use of any religious images as “idolatry”, an idea exhumed from the ancient Mosaic Torah. It is somewhat ironic that the most vocal and effective champions of iconographic veneration were women—the Byzantine Empresses Irene and Theodora. But it was John of Damascus who upbraided the iconoclasts most eloquently: Nothing is to be despised that God has made.
The afternoon is spent burrowing beneath a green canopy, negotiating rocky goat paths through wormholes in the dense underbrush. Transported into a gnomic world of stone cottages and cambered bridges, we would emerge occasionally from the vaulted green trail into a breathtaking vista of blue-roofed chapels and sea-framed fortresses jutting from the upper lip of weathered promontories.
It is past six by the time we arrive at the imposing medieval fortress aptly called Pantokratoros—“The Almighty Christ.” With its crenellated siege tower and fortified stone walls, Pantokratoros seems to have been designed more for the purpose of repelling Ottoman Turkish invaders than bringing peace to its contemplative monastic residents. But to the Byzantine mind, these were not mutually exclusive endeavors.
By the ninth century, monasteries formed a formidable rampart of defense around medieval villages. While Loyola’s Jesuits positioned themselves as the “Army of Jesus” in Western Europe, they appeared wimps beside their brethren of the Eastern Church. The tough intransigence of Orthodoxy is most colorfully exemplified in the story from Crete. Rather than surrender his charge to an Ottoman assault in 1866, the Abbot of Arkadi blew up his monastery—along with all 943 inhabitants—as Turks stormed the walls.
“The word orthodox means ‘right-believing’,” Gerhard explains to us. “And some of the monasteries take this very seriously, allowing only Orthodox Christians to eat with the monks and participate in the liturgy. There is one…” he chuckles. “Esfigmenou—which has a sign posted at its entrance: ‘Orthodoxy or Death’.”
“I think we can skip that one,” Tilman replies.
We climb a steep path to the outer walls of Pantokratoros, entering into a cobblestone courtyard through massive wooden gates completely wrapped in iron straps and studded with spike heads as big as baseballs. Within, the walls rise in a series of open loggias surrounding the red-painted chapel. Eventually, we are met by a silver-bearded archontaris—the guest master—who dutifully bids us rest on a stone bench, and brings thin tumblers of water with the traditional loukoumi—cubes of gummy glucose dusted with powdered sugar, sometimes called “Turkish Delight” by those insensitive to the history of this region. I reckon it to be the Greek equivalent of a Power Bar.
We are shown to our room—a dormitory with steel-framed bunks, semi-clean linens, and casement windows so weathered that glass falls out when I attempt to open one. As the Jaegers rest, I explore beyond the gates. Below the walls, a sheltered inlet from the sea provides a wharf for contract fishermen to land their daily catch. The small, weathered boats are docked and tied in for the evening. A solitary caretaker totes bundles of wood into a stone cottage on the quay.
“Don’t stray too far,” Gerhard has warned me. “If you miss the meal, you will go hungry tonight. ”Mindful of his caution, I climb a sloping rock that overlooks the lapis sea. At its crest, an ornate iron cross has been implanted into the weathered stone, casting an oxidized blessing over the breakers below. To the south, the marble buttress of Mount Athos looms over the Aegean, glowing golden in the oblique western light, while its lush green flanks fall precipitously into eastern shadow. Between the mountain and myself, capping another coastal promontory, the battlements of Stavronikita monastery receive a final kiss from the retreating sun.
The Jaegers are waiting in the courtyard outside the chapel; within, antiphonal voices reverberate off the stained glass windows and stone walls.
“It goes on forever,” sighs Tilman, pacing back and forth over the rough cobbles. “This bowing and singing and kissing of icons and chanting. When will they get hungry?”
“They are hungry for something other than food,” Gerhard reminds his son, checking the time on his Tag Heuer chronometer. My surrogate father is a multi-dimensional Teuton, combining the punctilious precision of Albert Speer and the mystical musings of Thomas Mann. Although he finds the trappings of Orthodoxy positively rococo compared with the lean logic of Lutheranism, Gerhard seems to hold a very soft spot in his heart for the monks of Mount Athos. Not merely a goodwill ambassador for his own Protestant tradition, Herr Jaeger’s textile company in Wuppertal also donates material for candlewicks to the monastic hermits.
I wander into the outer chamber at the back of the church and stand stupidly for a few minutes, until a tall monk bids me join the assembly. Within the curtained nave, I find one of the creaking wooden chairs that surround the circular chapel vacant, and slip into its uncomfortably elongated frame, as Ravens in their flowing black veils circulate to pay homage to the icons. It is a very different pageant than the Latin mass, yet certain features exhume memories from my childhood—especially the one Greek invocation still used by the Roman Church: Kyrie eleison—“Lord, have mercy”.
When the evening vespers have ended, the Jaegers and I join the silent queue into a cavernous refectory for supper. We remain standing behind the long row of trestle tables as the abbot, accompanied by a group of well-heeled Athenian civilians, enters the hall, nods to the rabble, and proceeds to the head table. The prayers never cease; one monk stands at a lectern, reading swiftly as the assembly digs into the cold fish stew, coarse bread, and fragrant chunks of feta.
“Eat fast,” Gerhard whispers. Not more than fifteen minutes later, the abbot rises and the silent meal comes to an abrupt halt. The praying Raven at the lectern never misses a beat, continues his litany as the abbot’s VIP entourage files out of the refectory. Finished or not, dinner is over.
“You said they had wine with meals,” Philipp remarks when we have filed out beyond the walls to a wooden bench overlooking the sea.
“Sometimes not,” Herr Jaeger answers. “Life here is always an adventure, ja?” He reaches into the cargo pockets of his trousers, producing tiny bottles of ouzo, one for each of us. “To help you sleep.” Gerhard explains with a tight grin.
Sipping the clear anisette liqueur, I watch the last light of day paint the arrowhead of Athos a dusty rose. The deep hue of nightfall saturates the landscape like ink, until there are only variations of this rhapsody in blue. Gerhard gazes in peaceful satisfaction at the slowly blurring line between sea and deep space. He is at last reunited with his hirsute hierophants, unspoiled natural wonders, and incalculable artistic treasures of his sacred place, accompanied by his strapping sons, while his woman waits like Penelope on a distant shore. All is as it should be in Herr Jaeger’s world of precise delineation.
“Tomorrow we shall walk north to Vatopaidiou,” Gerhard glances toward me as if reading my thoughts. “And you?”
“South,” I reply with a nod toward the black keep of Stavronikita. As much as I enjoy their company, I feel compelled to proceed on this pilgrimage alone.
“Ah, yes,” Gerhard replies with understanding. “The hermit. Well, we must each go our own way, yes?”
I toast his wisdom with the best of my German and the last of my ouzo, “Das ist wahr, Herr Vater.”
At four a.m., we ignore the rhythmic clacking of the wooden simandron calling the monks to liturgical service, and when we finally roll out of our bunks at 6:30, there is no breakfast to be found. The Jaegers, somewhat disgruntled, decide to make an early start.
“Perhaps we will see you on the boat,” says Tilman. Gerhard offers his firm hand, and I bid my surrogate family farewell at the gates, then go back in search of sustenance.
In the kitchen, a Greek pilgrim is heating a fresh pot of coffee over a butane stove, and seems happy to share it with me. We find a few biscuits left over from the VIP breakfast to which we hadn’t been invited, then savor our scrounged feast in silence on a rickety balcony overlooking the blue Aegean. Accompanied by the taste of sweet coffee and smell of the sea, I greet the morning sun with rare pleasure.
Shortly before eleven, I walk along the aqueduct that has carried water since the 15th century to Stavronikita, last of the fortress monasteries to be built on Mount Athos. Dropping my rucksack by the ornate marble fountain from which pilgrims once drank, I eat the ritual loukoumi. The archontaris speaks no English, but seems to understand that I am ravenously hungry. He disappears and returns with a young Asian monk dressed in civilian clothing.
“I'm Gregory,” says the black bearded newcomer in a mellifluous accent, taking my hand warmly. “We’ll be having our meal in the workshop up the path.” The old refectory within the monastery walls is undergoing major renovation, he explains, motioning to the huge construction crane peering over the battlement walls like a mechanical dragon. Gregory is an Indonesian novitiate monk. He escorts me into a broad workshop where axes, picks, and plowshares are stacked against the fieldstone walls. But in the center of the long room sits a rough-hewn trestle table laden with a feast that brings tears to my eyes: hot lentil soup, fresh bread, feta, and olives—the most beautiful, marinated black olives on which I’ve ever laid eyes. We sit, give thanks to the Lord, the gardener, and the cook, then silently, reverently, stuff our faces.
With food in my belly and a bed in the castle keep for the night, I stow my rucksack and hike up the dusty road toward the peninsular crest. 1500 meters along, I approach the ruins of an old chapel, its tile roof caved in, broken walls overgrown with trees and strangled by vines. The wisp of a sensation draws me down into more of a rabbit’s warren than a path, descending through a maze of roots and underbrush to a hole in the base of the chapel wall.
Inside, sunlight streams through the cobwebs and splintered boards of the nave’s rotted floor. Turning around, the breath catches in my throat. Within a dark grotto beneath the chapel, a catacomb is filled with a stack of human skulls and bones—the remains of all the good abbots who cared for this little church throughout the centuries. Each was exhumed from his grave and stored here in eternal congress with his predecessors and successors. I pay my respects and leave quickly.
Further up the road I spot a tiny red marker nailed to a tree, hand-lettered in both Cyrillic and Greek characters: Timiou Stavrou—“The Glory of the Cross”. Descending once again into a verdant tunnel, I follow the goat path that drops into a gully, encounters a stream, then rises for a couple hundred meters, emerging into a clearing. There, I am greeted by a stone house, simple in form yet elegantly constructed, with tiled roof and Bougainvillea covered walnut beams forming a pergola over a flagstone patio.
The hieromonk walks out from under the dappled shade of his patio, wearing a lightweight black robe, open at the neck and belted around the waist. His long brown hair is drawn back into a ponytail; his silver beard ruffles sensuously in the afternoon breeze as he steps forward to take my hand.
Patra Symeon welcomes me into his home with characteristically restrained warmth. The small house is light, open and aesthetically planned, with built-in cabinetry, full glass doors opening onto a verandah with walnut decking, and a spectacular view of the holy mountain in the distance. His living room is filled with textiles and primitive sculpture, framed black and white photography, and gilded icons. His desk is artfully strewn with work in progress, poetry written in his own hand competing for space with volumes of Rilke, Garcia Lorca, and Li Po. He bids me sit on the shaded verandah, then brings coffee in fine china accompanied by a small blue glass on a silver tray.
“Ouzo?” I ask.
“Raki,” the priest corrects, referring to the clear alcohol distilled from the remains of the wine press. Far from being a renunciate, this is a hermit who has embraced as much of life as his arms can encircle.
“Some of your art and rugs looks Incan,” I venture.
“I’m Peruvian,” he replies with a deferential nod.
That explains his proficiency in Spanish. “Is there a large Greek Orthodox community in Peru?”
“No.” Symeon explain, “My family is Roman Catholic. Like many, I found its attempts at modernism spiritually unsatisfying. So, in my early twenties, I traveled to India to study Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana. Ironically, those traditions seemed so foreign to me. While I could embrace them intellectually, I never felt that they…” he grasps the phrase from somewhere in his past, “…belonged to me.
“Then, during the 1970s, I spent some time in New York, where I met a Greek monk with whom I deeply connected. After several months of discussion with him, I was surprised to find I had at last found a home in Orthodoxy. I studied the Greek language and eventually took vows as a priest. The choice to live as a monk—to remain celibate—was made after I came here to Mount Athos thirteen years ago.
“In the fifteenth century, many of the monasteries here abandoned strict community rule, allowing monks to possess personal property,” he explains, anticipating my curiosity. “So, when my father died and left an inheritance, I found myself in a position to build this place as my hermitage.”
This is a hermit after my own heart. As the afternoon lingers, Father Symeon serves fresh-baked bread, spanikopeta brought from Salonika, and Boutari wine from Crete. Any minute I’m expecting him to break out the Cuban cigars. Hospitality is regarded as an integral part of a monk’s vocation, selfless giving considered to be the soul of philanthropia—active love for humankind—and the very core of Christian tradition.
After lunch, Father Symeon escorts me to his chapel. A heavy wooden door opens into a cool white room with cove windows slit by vertical panes of glass. On a tiny altar, a covered chalice, silver censer, and incense urn are neatly arranged, accompanied by a Greek Bible on a sculpted wooden lectern. Aside from a single chair and a rug on the plank floor, the room is decorated only with icons of the Christ, the archangel Michael, the Virgin and Child, and my host’s tenth-century namesake, Saint Symeon.
Called the “New Theologian” of the Studium in Constantinople, Symeon dedicated his life to the pursuit of hesychia—a stillness, or silence of the heart—incorporating inner attentiveness, control of the breath, and the invocation “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. Through this discipline, the hesychasts of Mount Athos were reputed to have attained visions of divine light and union with God.
I spend some time alone in Father Symeon’s chapel, sitting in the cool white silence, digesting the sensory feast of the past forty-eight hours. When I return to the verandah, I ask him the question on which I've been chewing.
“You are obviously an educated man, Father. You’ve traveled extensively; you’ve studied various spiritual traditions first-hand, and yet you've embraced Orthodoxy—which seems to me so much more conservative than you. Why?”
Symeon looks thoughtfully up to the roof of the verandah, “I think it is closest to the source. It was not in Rome, but here, in the Greek-speaking world, that Christian communities of the first century flourished. It was the tradition common to both East and West for a thousand years. While the Latin Church placed more and more power in the hands of its pope and bishops, Orthodoxy affirmed that the guardian of truth is the entire people of God. So, while it may appear more conservative, the Eastern Church has a long tradition of democracy—in the Greek sense of the word.”
“What tipped the scales for you?”
Father Symeon looks puzzled, then amused, then thoughtful. “I think it was the ‘Contraries’,” he replies after some time. “It is a concept you will find in all religion, but there is something about the way this is articulated in Orthodoxy that enabled me to comprehend its significance for the first time in my life:
“We are born on Earth victims of the Contraries: life/death, pleasure/pain, heat/cold, desire/frustration, freedom/bondage, and so on. This is what Christians call ‘original sin’—the state of perfectly balanced dichotomy, a prison from which we cannot escape. We can only overcome this condition through the salvation of Christ, who ‘tips the scales’, as you say. Because, through the ‘Son’ we are able to return to the ‘Father’—to live with God; to become God.”
The mountain reflects the golden glow of afternoon sun, and Father Symeon turns into the light; his glasses seem to blaze like the polished shields of Constantine’s army at Melvin Bridge .
“When I finally grasped this truth,” Father Symeon concludes, “I knew I had at last come home. This is what belongs to me.”
In the tradition of Orthodox monasticism, the geron is a charismatic “elder,” a spiritual guide: Look below the surface and you will find that the substance of all things is identical, he admonishes. Beneath the veneer of your belief, truth is only and always truth. It is an astonishingly simple cognition that slaps one into wakefulness.
As I sit here with this mystical monk, in sight of the holy mountain, exhuming in reverie a long-forgotten history lesson, I finally understand why I’ve been compelled to come here. I arrived at this geron’s hermitage carrying the baggage of my childhood rebellion against my parents’ faith; I leave now with empty hands.
The morning sun never penetrates a gathering gloom. Ominous clouds billow in from the West—just the direction I’m heading—and my destination is eight hours by foot, across the mountainous spine of the peninsula.
Near the pump house by the main road, I encounter Nikos, a former Athenian policeman, with whom I spent some time talking the night before. More accurately, he talked; I listened.
Nikos is a man who punches the air when he speaks, fending off his personal demons with evangelical zeal. After relating the story of watching his partner die in his arms from gunshot wounds, Nikos concluded, “It all comes down to this: I understood I was only living to die. There was no hope. But here…” his intense blue eyes surveyed the medieval cloister around us and the muscles of his jaw relaxed. “Here, there is something more.”
Like myself, Nikos has avoided the morning liturgy. And, like so many who receive spiritual vocation, he struggles constantly with his convictions. The big man smokes a cigarette as he paces across the path like a panther, greeting me with a hungry grin that furrows his square jaw. “Yasou. Kali mera. You are going today?”
“To Simonos Petra.”
“A long walk, my friend. You may get wet.”
We both ponder the dark clouds gathering above the ridge and the wind sweeping leaves from the undulating walnut over our heads. “Are you staying?” I ask him.
Nikos shrugs and drags on his cigarette. “I must finish some business in Athens. Perhaps after, I will return for good.”
“Can you really spend your life here, Nikos? Without women?”
He grins painfully and shakes his long sandy hair. “Only if Christ gives me strength.”
Shouldering my rucksack, I extend a hand to him. “Then perhaps I’ll see you here on my next visit.”
Nikos takes my hand and nearly crushes it. “Remember, my friend, you never come to Mount Athos just to ‘visit’. There is a reason, eh? Adio.”
For the next hour I follow a rutted, overgrown path down the eastern coast, emerging onto the rock strewn shoreline, littered with the jettisoned debris from ferry traffic, and finally rounding a surf-beaten point to the harbor at Iviron, one of the first monasteries to be constructed on the peninsula. Its grim ochre walls house medieval manuscripts and artifacts from ten centuries of monastic life on Mount Athos.
I join a group of Greek Army officers escorted by an Australian monk through the eclectic chapel combining salvaged second century Corinthian columns with fourteenth century geometric Turkish frescoes. Our guide brings us reverently to the most important icon on Mount Athos—a Madonna and Child whose faces appear black amidst their glittering golden surround, until a flashlight illuminates their delicate Byzantine features. So precious is this icon, according to the Aussie Raven, it is believed that Iviron would be destroyed if the treasure were ever to leave Mount Athos. The ground beneath our feet, he explains, is the very location of the Virgin’s landfall.
According to legend, the Mother of Jesus was on route from Anatolia to Cyprus, where Lazarus had become bishop of the local community of disciples. But an unforeseen storm blew in from the south, carrying her craft northward to the mountainous Aktí peninsula. Finding a sheltered harbor, the crew put ashore near an old temple of Apollo. The captain bade Mary take refuge within the heathen structure, but as she entered, its columns shook and the temple fell into rubble around her. The storm suddenly subsided, and the sun god’s statue proclaimed itself false before the Mother of the true “Son of God”.
This typically Greek myth illustrates how the old gods of Olympus had been dramatically supplanted by the Christos, and that Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother,  had usurped the long-held mantle of Demeter, the Earth Mother.
But legends seldom tell the whole story. As Christianity spread throughout the Levant and Europe, the sacred sites and ancient temples built to honor the Goddess in her myriad forms—Isis, Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Astarte, Artemis, etc.—were obliterated, left to die a slow death of neglect, or replaced with chapels dedicated to Mary—by men. It was my privileged gender who made war on the Goddess, who desecrated Her holy ground, who enforced the rule of a stern patriarchal God with a foul temper and fiery sword, who paid obsequious homage to the Virgin with one breath and denounced her sisters as contemptuous harlots with the next. But why?
Because it was a woman who got us all evicted from Eden, was it not? A woman, and a serpent—ancient symbol of the Goddess—the same serpent we find pictured in Christian iconography beneath Saint Michael’s angelic boot.
The sky threatens, but delivers only sporadic drizzle as I ascend a broad trail toward the ridge. By 4:30 I am straddling Aktí’s pine forested spine. Agion Oros looms in the angry clouds to the south, while sun dappled green hills descends gently to Xerxes’ Canal  in the distant north. Wind blows fiercely from the West where the land drops away precipitously into the slate blue gulf. I drain the last drops from my water bottle, shoulder my rucksack, and begin the steep, single-track descent toward food and shelter for the night.
Like some vestige of Bram Stoker’s imagination, Simonos Petras squats on a sheer granite promontory a thousand feet above the sea, a nest more befitting raptors than ravens. The Monastery of St. Peter seems to grow organically from the surrounding up-thrust of rock, each of its seven stories surrounded by a narrow wooden balcony clinging precariously to the stone by claws of steel cable, its slate-roof towers breaking the monolithic profile of the surrounding quadrangle. Like most of the medieval structures on Mount Athos, scaffolding on the northern wall bears witness to the painstaking labor of EC-sponsored restoration.
Wind from the southwest blows so fiercely that I must lean forty-five degrees into it approaching the monastery. Already six o’clock, the evening vespers are under way. A stern, gray-bearded archontaris shows me to a wooden perch at the back of the chapel, and I wait patiently for the call to refectory.
When the bell tolls, I savor the cabbage stew and black bread as if it were an entrée from Lutece. A grizzled Englishman seated beside me stuffs an apple and wedges of bread into his pockets before the meal has ended. “Might fancy this later,” he whispers sideways. A few days of deprivation can really test a pilgrim’s mettle. I wonder how we would behave after forty days in the desert?
Following dinner, I join Nicholas, who turns out to be a grizzled Oxford don specializing in Byzantine art and history, and a collection of Euro-pilgrims in the newly constructed dormitory. Like college students, we sit up chatting about our respective adventures as pilgrims, but when the topic turns to an intellectual joust on the finer points of Orthodox sacred cannon, I find myself at a distinct loss.
When Nicholas breaks for a cigarette, I join him on the breezy wooden balcony leading to the loo. A west wind rattles the floorboards, and bullets of rain resound on the roof above our heads. Beyond the railing, a black abyss drops into the sea a thousand feet below us, where irresistible waves crash against immovable rocks.
“When I was young, and forced to be a church-going Catholic,” I tell the don, “I used to wonder why all these different people calling themselves ‘Christian’ held such great contempt for each other. My great aunt finally explained that the ‘dirty Protestants’ ruined the Lord’s Prayer with an extra line at the end, and refused to recognize Mary’s virginity, so I could understand why you’d want to burn them at the stake. But all she seemed to know about the Eastern Orthodox Church was that they’d once had some vague beef with the Pope.”
Nicholas emits a slow, rolling laugh, and his belly shakes over the top of his boxer shorts. “Needless to say, we ‘dirty Protestants’ got a slightly different story,” he replies in an exceedingly proper Oxfordian accent, “but I can give you the textbook explanation of how Rome and Constantinople came to blows, if you like.”
It seems that, in contrast to the itinerant Nazarene rabbi, the early church fathers had way too much time on their hands. They spent their days in endless argument over questions such as: Is God, the Father, identical in being to Christ, the Son? And how can the “Divine Triad” [Father, Son and Holy Spirit] have three distinct realities, yet only a single substance? Debate surrounding these questions was so intense that, in 325 CE, the Emperor Constantine convened a synod of bishops from the Greek provinces, Roman legates, and representatives from the ecclesia of Alexandria and Antioch at the seaside town of Nicaea.
This “ecumenical” council began by censuring Arius, a very popular Alexandrian priest whose alleged heresy was his belief that Christ proceeded from the sovereign will of the Father, rather than sharing His identity. Next, the bishops drafted a creed and cannon [declaring that the Holy Trinity is “one in essence”], exiled two of their colleagues who refused to sign it, and finally petitioned the Emperor for a church tax exemption—ostensibly to help the poor. Constantine, relieved that the august windbags had come to some agreement, happily granted their request, declared himself a “bishop of external things,” and eventually received baptism on his death bed—by one of the bishops who had agreed with Arius. A smart emperor always hedges his bets.
But the Nicene Council and Creed did not end theological controversy by a long shot. Not only was the semantic hair-splitting over the precise nature of Christ a major concern of six subsequent councils; the nature of the Virgin Mary became an issue as well. Cyril of Alexandria, at the Council of Ephesus in 421, declared her to be Theotokos, the “Godbearer”, precipitating a whole series of complicated outrages, denunciations and schisms. Oddly, throughout all of this, no one ever questioned Mary’s “virginity”.
In 863, Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, had a blowout with Nicolas I, Pope of Rome, severely damaging relations between East and West. Around 1054, Cardinal Humbert traveled east as a papal legate to patch things up with Patriarch Michael Cerularius. Instead of smoothing ruffled feathers, they succeeded in rubbing each other the wrong way, finally exchanging mutual anathema—excommunication not formally revoked for over 900 years.
The cause of these disagreements had both a theological and political component. The Latin Church had inserted Filioque into the original Nicene Creed, making it read that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”. The Eastern bishops felt this addition devalued the Holy Spirit by stressing unity over the diversity of divine essence. They also had major trouble with Rome’s prohibition against married men entering the priesthood, their use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, and, worst of all, their insistence on papal infallibility. Orthodox Christians saw the church as conciliar in nature, Roman Catholics as monarchical, and there was no room for compromise.
“Add to these tensions the European sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, in the early thirteenth century, and a final anti-papal breach at the Church of Antioch in 1724, when rival patriarchs were elected, and you have a nut-shell history of bad blood between Eastern and Western Christians.” Nicholas concluded.
“Who would have guessed?” I said. “But that said, what could Eastern Orthodoxy possibly offer to an intellectual English Protestant scholar?”
“Mystery, dear fellow,” the don replies with a supercilious cluck, and lights another Dunhill. “Since Luther nailed his theses to the door, Christians have been trying to intellectualize something which is, by its very nature, a mystery. The core of all Christian liturgy is the Eucharistic consecration: epiclesis—an invocation of the Holy Spirit, in the East, or transubstantiation—changing bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, in the West. This is an alchemical process; don’t you see? It transforms the act of having Passover supper with your fishing mates into a mystical communion. After the Protestant Reformation, this ritual was eroded over the centuries in a misguided attempt to make religion more ‘relevant’ to an increasingly educated populace. Even the Latin Church began to succumb to social pressure with the ecumenical movement of the 1960s. But the net result of this intellectual political correctness was a demystification of the very heart and soul of the religion.
“Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, never eviscerated the mystery of the Christos; they guarded it, and cherished the paradox of the Virgin Mother.” Nicholas coughs harshly, then crushes his cigarette on the wooden railing. “Just, look around you, lad.” He gestures to nothing in particular with myopic eyes, breathing in the humid sea air and smiling peacefully. “Here…the mystery still lives.”
At five a.m., it is a mystery to me why any sentient being should be awake. We dress in silence as hungry ghosts howl in the dark and rattle the dormitory windows. Outside, the clouds lurking in the shroud of night spit the threat of rain as we climb the cobbled ramp into Simonos Petras’ stone belly. Torches light our passage into the courtyard where a choral of resonant voices within the chapel invoke the dawn. Inside the church, I watch in somnambulent wonder as an ancient ritual unfolds in glittering, candle-lit austerity. An angry wind batters the dome above our heads like Satan seeking shelter, but the Prince of Darkness is held at bay by a black robed angelic army singing “Kyrie eleison.” Once more, as it has been done each day for fifteen centuries, the alchemical transformation of bread and wine into spiritual sustenance is celebrated as a reaffirmation of divine redemption through the personage of a Galilean carpenter.
On Mount Athos, the mystery is alive and well.
By eleven that morning, I await the boat at Dáfni, sipping elinikafes as Greek pilgrims purchase over-priced icons from the wharf-side trinket shop. It seems that even in austerity there is room for commercialism.
On the quay, I spot Nikos with his battered athletic bag, now apparently depleted of cigarettes. He bums one from another pilgrim then nods to me. “I must go back to arrange things with my girlfriend,” he explains, squinting into the sun that has finally broken through the cumulus. “Perhaps I will return here after Christmas. I don’t know. I am always fighting with the devil.”
“Why not surrender?” I suggest.
“We must fight,” Nikos maintains, his intense eyes flashing. “Always! The devil is strong in us. Drinking, drugs, sex—we are weak.” There is such pain in his face; the scars from Nikos’ personal war cut canyons through his tight jaw, but it is only in the deepest recesses of those blue eyes that his self-loathing can be detected. “To fight is the only way. Otherwise, we are like the dead.”
When the boat docks at noon, we ripe-and-rag-tag pilgrims board, but the Jaegers are nowhere in sight. The sun and wind have blown the threatening clouds somewhere in the direction of Turkey. Lapis sky melts into indigo sea as our prow cuts the water toward Ouranopolis. I stand alone at the white enameled railing, feeling the sun and wind caress my stubbled face, and cool my sweat-drenched clothes.
With great fondness, I recall that afternoon with the Peruvian hieromonk at Timiou Stavrou, the sharp afternoon light streaming into his pristine little chapel, somehow more beautiful, more honest, more sacred in its simple aesthetic austerity than all the frescoes in the dim, decorous recesses of the Protaton. Although I cannot count myself a believer, that afternoon with Patra Symeon brought me closer to the Christos than ever before. I suppose that is the real purpose of pilgrimage—the “becoming”—movement toward the promise of being. Otherwise, there is no reward you can display on your chest like a spiritual Medal of Honor. The process is all there is, any “realization” overshadowed by a compulsion to continue the journey.
My ruminations are interrupted when the boat docks at Konstamonitou to pick up some stragglers—my weary ‘family’ from Wuppertal.
“Yesterday was most difficult,” Tilman groans after they have dropped their gear on the sun deck. “We crossed the entire peninsula from Vatopaidiou. Somewhere at the crest, the road goes away and there is nothing but a…rabbit tunnel through the bush.”
Philipp, looking like an Armani model with his boyish beard and tousled black hair, laughs laconically. “You should have seen Father crawling on his hands and knees through the bush. He was a sorry sight.”
Herr Jaeger’s trousers are torn at the knees, and his beautiful hand-made leather boots are scarred with deep gouges from the brutal trail. But there is contentment in his sunburned face, and peace in his tired eyes. He drinks in the sight of his strapping sons with paternal pleasure. “Four days of honoring the Virgin Mary is enough,” he sighs. “Philipp is very anxious to see his girlfriend, and, oddly enough, I am feeling the same about my wife.”
When we break simultaneously into spasms of laughter, Gerhard comes close to blushing, but seamlessly segues from embarrassment into aphorism. “Time with men is good, ja? But we need the balance of women in life.” He closes his eyes, clasps my shoulder, and grins into the west wind. “This is all the wisdom your old father has to give you.”
I think of the woman I’ll be meeting at the airport in Athens tomorrow evening, and how much she would have loved to see this place. I find myself becoming angry on her behalf, and for all women who have been told they are not worthy to walk in the Virgin’s garden. It is nothing less than women’s punishment for being so desirable to men, for our unfathomable need to possess them, and inevitable guilt for having succumbed to those “baser instincts”—all the obsessive stuff from which great epics are made.
On the starboard deck, Nikos stands alone with his demons, perpetually torn between the prohibition of ravens and the temptation of serpents. He is staring out to sea like Odysseus caught between Scylla and Charybdis, fighting, like so many of us, that archetypal war of Contraries.
 Despite the objections of hermits who already inhabited the peninsula, St. Athanasios the Athonite imposed organized monasticism and founded Megistis Lavras, the first monastery on Mount Athos, in 963 CE with financial help from his Byzantine imperial patron, Nicephorus II Phocas.
 Compline: the last prayer at night, recited after sunset, which closes the service of the day.
 For a good historical overview of Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Christianity in general, see: McManners, John, Ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 143
 According to legend, Constantine the Great had a dream before his decisive battle: In Hoc Signo Vinces he saw inscribed on a great cross in the sky – “By this sign you will conquer.” Testing the vision, he had his men emblazon their battle shields with Chi Rho, the first letters of Christos, and Constantine’s subsequent victory over Maxentius eliminated any opposition to his claim on the Imperial throne. In that glow of visionary victory, Constantine transformed an obscure Jewish heresy, kept alive in small Hellenistic communities, into a universal Roman orthodoxy, and, the scales of history were tipped for all of Western civilization. Ironically, the Chi Rho monogram was found to have been inscribed on the tomb of Pompey, long before the birth of Jesus. The Emperor Constantine, as it turns out, was more involved with the Syrian cult of Sol Invictus [the Invincible Sun], whose festival of Natalis Invictus happened to be celebrated on December 25th, than with Christian compassion. He also favored the ancient Persian cult of Mithras, a tradition that stressed immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead. Paul of Tarsus' version of Christianity fit neatly into this package: Jesus, having risen from his tomb, became the embodiment of Sol Invictus, and his day of rest was moved from the Jewish Sabbath to the “venerable day of the Sun.” See: Beignet, Michael; Leigh, Richard; Lincoln, Henry; Holy Blood, Holy Grail, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982).
 While the Virgin Mary is venerated as “Mother of God” by the Eastern Church, the sixteenth century Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—which asserts that the mother of Jesus was conceived, and remained free from the stain of “Original Sin” —is foreign to Orthodoxy.
 The three “fingers” of Chalkidiki were once islands detached from the Macedonian mainland. Sedimentary accretion eventually formed them into penninsulas. In the fifth century bce, the Persian king Xerxes I dug a 2.4 kilometer canal through Aktí’s narrow neck of loose aggregate in order to avoid sailing his fleet around the treacherous cape of Agion Oros.