The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire

A pilgrim tour from Norway to Mount Athos

Text by Øystein Silouan Lid, 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 in 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

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. 

Outside the cabin of Saint Paisios, in Panagouda

– 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. 

Aproaching Holy Mountain

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.

–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

During the stay we live in three-bed, four-bed and eight-bed rooms in different monasteries, and take part in the daily lives of the monks. The services often start at 3 o’clock in the morning, and there are only two daily meals. They are all vegetarian and last for a grand total of ten minutes. 

Peaceful evening in the Holy Monastery of Iviron, with its famous Phialê before the Katholikon Church.

The pilgrims thus have more time for conversation and getting to know one another. All of them have a Lutheran background. Two of them, Lars Karlsøen and Bjørn Skauen, have even been priests in The Lutheran state church of Norway. Several of them have sought refuge in the Orthodox Church from what they see as heresy, modernism and worldly influence in Protestantism.

– I experienced that the Norwegian state church no longer had room for me. When I am here on Athos and see the spiritual riches of the Orthodox tradition, I can’t help thinking that Martin Luther made a great mistake in doing away with monasticism. The monasteries are guarantors of right doctrine, and the monks are models for the laymen when it comes to worship and obedience, says Karlsøen.

View to the Aegean, from outside the walls of the Megisti (Greatest) Lavra Monastery

– The first time I visited an Orthodox church the liturgy was in a language I did not understand. Even so, I experienced it and tears started flowing, says Thorleif Grønnestad. He converted over 10 years ago, and is today in charge of typica services in his home town Sandnes. 

Still, they do not paint a rosy red picture of the situation in The Orthodox Church. In some places the organization is poor, in others there are issues of nationalism. One of the pilgrims, Dag Markeng, has a striking comment.

Father Johannes (right), the leader of the pilgrims with father Christoforos (left), the Secretary of Iviron Monastery, demonstrating an edition about the Saint Trifon hermitage and scêtê in Hurdal, Norway. In the middle, hierodeacon fr. Serafim with some of the pilgrims.

– When I became Orthodox in 1983, my sponsor said something that I have found to be true. It won’t be easy being Orthodox – but it will be worth it.

One of the richest and most beautiful monasteries we visit, is called Vatopedi, established in the 5th century. Golden coins, gilded chalices and spectacular church art is everywhere. But it is also the home of a great treasure not made from gold, but from camel hair – preserved from the earliest times of Christianity.

– This is the belt of the Virgin Mary, says the monk Evstathios.

The Holy Monastery of Vatopedion.

According to written sources the belt was preserved in Jerusalem until the year 400. After being in Constantinople for some years, it was given to the monastery of Vatopedi as a gift. 

– This belt didn’t only perform miracles at one point in history, but to this very day. Every 14th day or so we receive messages from all over the world from people who have been healed or helped after having been in contact with the belt, says father Evstathios.

The Orthodox claim that in the same way as God performed miracles through even the clothes of the apostle Peter (Acts 19, 12), the same thing happens through the belt of the Theotokos. Father Evstathios point to a series of strange stories related to the belt. Especially childless couples are helped, but many different diseases have also been cured. 

Monks discussing before the gates of Vatopedion Monastery

– An oncologist from Switzerland came to see us and was given a few bottles of oil. He himself did not believe the stories, but he wanted to conduct some experiments after having heard about the phenomenon. He gave it to all the patients who were close to the terminal phase. Some did not survive, but two of his patients were fully healed. He came back to us in the monastery and told us about it. We don’t know why some are healed and others are not, but we use the oil in faith, and see what God wants to do, says father Evstathios. 

Each of the Norwegian pilgrims are given a bottle, and father Johannes are given several – for use in the Orthodox Church in Norway.

Saint Panteleimon Holy Monastery, known as Rôssikon (the Russian).

Towards the end of the stay the Norwegians hear a rumour about a Scandinavian monk at one of the monasteries they were visiting – Karakallou. After having met mostly Greek monks on Athos it makes an impression to meet a monk with glittering blue eyes and a long read beard. Father Prothromos is from Finland, and speaks some Swedish. As it turns out that also he has a Lutheran background. 

– How did you become orthodox, father?

– I went into an Orthodox Church one, and was so struck by the liturgy that tears started flowing. I realized immediately that I had to belong here, the monk says, echoing the story many of the Norwegian converts carry with them. 

Soon after his conversion 20 years ago, father Prodromos travelled to the Holy Mountain. Now he is head of the guest house in the monastery, and has had to learn several languages. 

– How is life here in the monastery?

– It is very good. Since the monastery of Karakallou is not as large as the others (number 11 on the internal ranking among the 20 monasteries), it is not as busy as some of the rest. So I have plenty of time to focus on prayer, says father Prodromos, reminding us about what really matters in life.