The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire (Part I)

A pilgrim tour from Norway to Mount Athos

Text by Øystein Silouan Lid, and pictures by Torbjørn Fink.
The majestic rocky Mount Athos, a natural outpost.

In this post I reproduce a beautiful article originally published in Norwegian, in the newspaper Dagen, from Bergen. It is about a tribute to Mount Athos, titled: ‘Mirakla i Romarrikets siste utpost‘ (‘The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire’), written by the journalist Øystein Silouan Lid, who happened to travel to the Holy Mountain, in May 2016. The English translation was prepared by the author on the occasion of its publication on the portal pemptousia.com, in August 2016. I am grateful to Øystein Silouan Lid for his permission to reproduce it here. The pictures I am using for this post are property of Torbjørn Fink, one of the members of the pilgrims group, to whom I am grateful as well.

The Church of Protaton, in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos (photo by Torbjørn Fink).

This summer [2016 -ed.] ten Norwegians were granted an audience at The Holy Mountain, the last remaining part of the Roman Empire. The monks who live here tell stories of miracles and wonders as a normal part of everyday life. Mount Athos has been called the one place on planet earth that has changed least over the centuries. The Orthodox monks who dwell here, live as they did during medieval times, praying and working. They come to dedicate their lives completely to God, and the last thing they want is for the hard-to-reach peninsula to become a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the monastic republic in northern Greece has a remarkable pull on people from all over the world.

When the famous CBS news magazine 60 minutes in 2009 asked permission to come do a story on The Holy Mountain, the request was categorically denied. It took two years of negotiating before one of the monasteries finally said yes. It was therefore not without trepidation that the Norwegian journalist set foot in Karyes, the administrative centre of Mount Athos, before setting off on foot towards the ancient monastery of Iviron.

East-north view of the Iviron Monastery.

The forest on each side of the footpath has a jungle-like appearance. Wild edible peas, dill and oregano grow in several places. Suddenly we notice the wonderful fragrance of incense – the smell is easily recognized from the Orthodox liturgy. Yet here we are, in the middle of the forest, and no one is swinging the censer. 

On the path from Karyes to Iviron Monastery.

Small signs and wonders such as these happen all the time here on Athos, says Panagiotis Pavlos. He is a scholar of philosophy at the University of Oslo, and presently our local guide. We are not far from the house of saint Paisios (1924-1994), regarded as one of the holiest men of the monastic peninsula. While he was alive people came by the thousands to visit him – on this very path. They were healed from all kinds of diseases, delivered from demons, and received spiritual counsel. It was said that his mere presence could change the hearts of the pilgrims who came to see him, and draw them towards Christ. Panagiotis was himself one of the many people who came to visit the saint’s kellion (monastic cell) in the forest, and is a friend of the monk who lives here today – father Arsenios.

– Christos anesti (Christ is risen)! Panagiotis cries out, and before long a man with a flowing beard is seen in the doorway.

Father Arsenios greets his old friend warmly and the Norwegians politely, before telling a few of the numerous stories of signs and wonders which took place right here in his cabin. A phenomenon father Arsenios tells us about, is the ability of saint Paisios to know what the guests would ask him, before even opening their mouths. 

– Once, a lawyer came to Mount Athos. He didn’t believe the stories about Paisios, and decided to put him to the test. He planned to present himself as a doctor, instead of a lawyer. When he arrived at the gate he found himself in a group of 50 people who all had come to see the saint. Elder Paisios opened his door, looked the lawyer straight in the eye, and said: “Go away, and take your lies with you to the court room”. The man never doubted again, says father Arsenios.

The kind of Christianity preserved on Athos has a rather unique history. After the capitol of the Roman Empire fell to the occupying Muslim army in 1453, Mount Athos became the last remaining outpost of Imperium Romanum. Already in the year 972 it had been established as a self-governing monastic state within the empire by the emperor John the First, Tzimiskes. 

Today the «Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain» is the only republic where the banner of the Eastern Roman Empire – the characteristic double eagle – still can be seen waiving in the wind on top of official flag poles.

Mount Athos is today considered to be the spiritual centre of the Orthodox Church. Over 2.000 monks reside in the 20 operative monasteries, having dedicated their lives to prayer for the entire world.

Aproaching the Holy Mountain.

 

–The monks find the reason behind their monastic calling in the words by Jesus Christ (Matthew 19) regarding a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God, about selling all belongings, giving to the poor, and following Christ, says father Johannes, the priest in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Norway, as well as the spiritual guide of the group.

Fr. Johannes, fr. Seraphim and Øystein Lid, at the south gate of Iviron Monastery.

To be continued…